Read in 2015

 

Winds of Fate55. Winds of Fate, The Mage Winds Trilogy # 1

Mercedes Lackey

Dates Read:  December 5 – December 22

Awww… returning to Valdemar.  Returning to telepathic warriors, talking white horses, magicians, mind-magic, and powerful energies flowing through an intricate web that some can touch and control.  Yes, returning to Mercedes Lackey’s incredible universe is a lot like coming home.

Following right on the heels of the Queen’s Own trilogy, Winds of Fate kicks off the story of Elspeth, heir to the throne of Valdemar and a skilled Herald fighting on the front lines of the war started against Hardorn at the end of Arrow’s Fall.  Elspeth’s time in combat has highlighted one horrible truth: Valdemar is not equipped to win a war against the magic-practicing kingdom ruled by the vicious king, Ancar.  Fearing her home’s downfall, Elspeth starts digging into Valdemar’s past, discovering her very own kingdom once used magic as freely as their aggressive enemy, but it was lost with the death of the last Herald-Mage, Vanyel Askhevron, almost 500 years ago…

Now, Elspeth is determined to bring magic back.  With best friend and fellow Herald, Skif, at her side, and their respective Companions, Gwena and Cymry, the four set off on a journey to find a Mage in a nearby kingdom willing to teach the Valdemarans how to use magic again.  As their quest takes ­them farther into the wild lands of the north, it slowly becomes apparent: the Mage they needed may have been in their midst all along.

Darkwind is a Hawkbrother Adept – one of the most powerful magicians of his people – but he has sworn off magic since his attempt to pull power from the Hawkbrothers’ Heartstone backfired, killing several of his fellows, and leaving the Heartstone itself unstable and dangerous.  Now he works as a scout along his lands’ borders, fighting off those who would intrude and use the magic there for their own personal benefit.  On patrol one day, Darkwind rescues a strange half human / half cat creature who was herself attempting to rescue a herd of magical beasts.  Darkwind learns the “Changechild,” Nyara is the creation of a very powerful, very dark Adept, who has his sights set on the Hawkbrothers and their broken Heartstone.

Now, Darkwind faces the dilemma any true hero will face: to protect his fellows, will he start practicing magic again? How can he not when their faceless enemy is the most powerful Mage the Hawkbrothers have ever seen?

Two interweaving stories that come together in a powerful conclusion, Winds of Fate is the start of my second favorite Valdemar trilogy (after The Last Herald-Mage series) thus far.  Elspeth and Darkwind’s stories are far more intricate and layered than say Talia’s (from the Queen’s Own trilogy), with more lore on the magic of this universe (which I love and makes me think more about energy flows in our own), and connections to Goddess worship thanks to the introduction of “outland” peoples like the Shin’a’in and Kaled’a’sin.

Furthermore, Winds of Fate addresses some, what I considered, plot holes from the Queen’s Own trilogy, and only strengthens those books.  Makes me want to rethink my reviews of them, anyway.

 

Luminaries54. The Luminaries

Eleanor Catton

Dates Read:  November 18 – December 5

Long.  Complex.  Intricate.  Layered.  Slow.

And ultimately, beautiful.

On a cold and rainy night in January 1866, Walter Moody comes ashore from the barque Godspeed to a small town on the New Zealand coast, running away from a past he wants to forget and an apparition he can’t trust he really saw.  He walks into the town’s main hotel, and interrupts a conference of 12 men, each of whom has a role in the possible abduction of the town’s wealthiest gold prospector and the possible murder of a local hermit.

There is Thomas Balfour – the shipping agent.  Charles Frost – the banker.  Aubert Gascoigne – the court clerk.  Ben Lowenthal – the newspaper editor.  Edgar Clinch – a hotelier.  Dick Mannering – the tycoon.  Cowell Devlin – the clergyman.  Ah Quee and Ah Sook – indentured Chinese gold diggers.  Joseph Pritchard – a pharmacist.  Te Rau Tauwhare – a Maori stone digger.  And Harald Nilssen – a merchant.

With Moody they are 13, and together they plait the string of events leading to Emery Staines’ sudden disappearance and Crosbie Wells’ mysterious death.  Events that include the arrest of the opium-addicted town prostitute, Anna Wetherell; the discovery of £4.000 worth of solid gold bars in Crosbie’s cottage; the building of a new prison, supervised by the town’s gaol master, George Shepard; the blackmail of the newly elected politician, Alistair Lauderback; the sudden arrival of Crosbie’s estranged wife, Lydia; and the wreck of the Godspeed, whose salvage is overseen by the barque’s distasteful captain, Francis Carver.

Like planets in orbit around the sun, this diverse cast of characters circle around each other keeping secrets, breaking promises, and pursuing their own ends, sometimes and often to the detriment of their fellows.  But they also rally together, protect each other, support each other, and try to find justice for their fellows’ wrongs, leaving us to wonder: what does it mean to be good? And to be bad?

The Luminaries is a tome – at 870 pages no less – and it moves quite slow, but the writing is so rich and beautiful, and the interplay of these characters is so incredible, the book is definitely worth the time it will take to read from beginning to end.  There are layers upon layers in the structure, with each of the 12 characters Moody meets representing a zodiac sign, and Emery and Anna’s associations with the sun and moon respectively, that multiple readings are needed before the full extent of this masterpiece is appreciated.

And, to me, that makes The Luminaries pure genius.  Like David Mitchell, Catton uses the format of a book to tell a story, not just the words on the page, and Catton tells a story that resonates on many levels.  The symbolism present when Emery and Anna meet for the first time aboard a ship bound for New Zealand, and they talk about the albatross, is a moment of true magic – and that is one of the shorter chapters in the book.

Imagine what happens in some of those 20+ page segments…

 

Slade House53. Slade House

David Mitchell

Dates Read:  November 16 – November 17

Yep, I read a David Mitchell book in one day.  Shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise since I worship this man.  And since Slade House is as incredible as any of his other works, well…

Slade Alley is so inconspicuous; you can walk right past it every day and not know it is even there.  In fact, most Londoners living in Slade Alley’s working class neighborhood do just that.  But every 9 years, someone is looking for Slade Alley, and specifically for Slade House, a sprawling and decidedly spooky Gothic estate accessed by a nondescript iron door in Slade Alley.

In 1979, it is aspiring pianist Rita Bishop and her autistic teenaged son, Nathan, who have been invited to perform in front of virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin.  In 1988, it is police inspector Gordon Edmonds, newly divorced and halfheartedly following up on a missing persons cold case: a piano teacher named Rita Bishop and her weird son, Nathan.  In 1997, it is painfully shy Sally Timms, a college student and amateur paranormal investigator, who along with five fellow ghost hunters, seek the mysterious house where a mom and her kid disappeared some years ago, and then some washed up policeman too.  In 2006, it is Freya Timms, an investigative journalist searching for her younger sister, Sally, and five fellow students that went missing in 1997…

Most Londoners pass by Slade Alley every day and don’t even know it is there.  But every 9 years, someone is looking for Slade Alley and the decidedly spooky estate, Slade House.  What happens when you find that nondescript iron door is a sprawling estate that lets you come in, but doesn’t let you leave…

I have heard Slade House referred to as a haunted house, and the book as a ghost story, but applying those labels severely undersells it.  Mitchell’s psycho-telekinetic universe is one where the paranormal or supernatural powers are in the mind, and in the soul, and more terrifying than any spectre or poltergeist.  Mitchell also creates a world of feeling through the structure of his books – it’s not just the words on the page, but the way the pages are put together.  Each of the Slade House seekers are their own individual story, told from the character’s POV, and as each one enters the horror of the eponymous estate, one more thread connecting the entire book is established.

And as the book draws to its fascinating conclusion, yet another thread is laid down – one I am sure will connect to a future Mitchell work since the author himself has claimed all of his books are interweaved.  And I can’t wait for that future work.  If it is anything like Slade House, I’m sure I’ll read it in a day…

 

Book of Life52. The Book of Life, All Souls Trilogy #3

 Deborah Harkness

Dates Read:  November 3 – November 13

It all comes to a (somewhat) thrilling conclusion in this third installment of the All Souls Trilogy!  And let me emphasize the “somewhat” here.  I ploughed through this novel with the same zeal and relish as Books 1 and 2, but this one fell in to that all-too-familiar trap:  the build-up so big, the chance to top itself becomes a mark increasingly difficult to hit…and thus, when all is said and done, it missed.

Diana and Matthew have returned from the 16th century after Ashmole 782 once again slipped through their fingers in the palace of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague.  And they have come back to a present much changed from the one they left – Diana’s beloved Aunt Emily is dead, victim of the machinations of the loathed Congregation witches, and Matthew’s vampire family is divided on their loyalties.  Do they stand behind Matthew, his wife Diana, and their unborn twins, and risk their very lives when the family faces the Congregation?  Or do they stand behind Matthew’s vampire brother, Baldwin, and maintain the ancient covenant forbidding vampires, daemons, and witches from mingling?

While Matthew fords his way through the family drama, Diana resumes her search for Ashmole 782 hoping to piece the broken book back together and discover its secrets once and for all.  But obstacles crop up everywhere: first, the return of a beloved friend from Matthew and Diana’s time in Elizabethan England, who has changed in more ways than they could imagine; and then, the approaching birth of the twins and questions about their nature that remain unanswered; and most terrifying of all: a dark enemy, hidden deep in Matthew’s past, bent on destroying Matthew and everything he holds dear.  Threads born from the beginning of their journey weave together to bring Matthew and Diana to a final show down against their enemies, and only one question ultimately remains: who will succeed?

And hence the build-up that misses the mark.  When you bring your readers on a journey steadily rising to a pinnacle, there better be something worth seeing up there. Unfortunately, Book of Life didn’t quite make the view worth it. The shifting enemies felt a little trite to me.  For two books, Matthew and Diana have been fighting the Congregation, this mysterious governing body of creatures that dictate the rules by which their subjects can live. Book of Life keeps the Congregation in the picture, but the fight shifts to the psychotic Benjamin – the hidden enemy from Matthew’s past – and when the final showdown comes, it’s Matthew and allies against Benjamin.

A bit of a letdown when a confrontation with the Congregation could have been much more thrilling and suspenseful.  An army of vampires and witches against one psycho?  What about an army of vampires and witches against another army of vampires, witches, and daemons?  Yes, that easily could have devolved into a clichéd bloodbath, but Harkness had done such a fantastic job thus far staying away from the clichés, I have no doubt she could have crafted a showdown that would have kept me up all night to read.

Ultimately though, the trilogy is a fantastic journey, and as I have mentioned in reviews for the first two books, exactly what this genre needs to regain some of the respect it lost…

 

Shadow of Night51. Shadow of Night, All Souls Trilogy #2

Deborah Harkness

Dates Read:  October 23 – November 2

Adventures take a blast to the past in this second volume of the amazing All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness.  I am reunited with characters I fell in love with in A Discovery of Witches including Diana Bishop’s caffeine-addled, brilliant-spell-casting aunt Sarah, Sarah’s lover and the yin to her yang, fellow witch Aunt Emily, and Matthew’s icy but kind vampire mother, Ysabeau.  Plus we meet a whole new cast of characters, both creature and non-creature alike, when Diana and Matthew land in London, England in the year of our Lord, 1591.

The lovers had tried – and failed – to recover the mysterious manuscript, Ashmole 782, in the present-day, sparking increased pursuit by other creatures seeking the book. Then, the Congregation had closed in on all sides, bent on tearing the two of them apart, and their interference almost got Matthew killed.  Diana, struggling to understand and manage her powers, is vulnerable and needs more time to learn, so Matthew decides to take her to the only place he feels will be safe: Elizabethan England.  Luckily, Diana has learned she is a timewalker, so the two can make the incredible journey, but if they arrive, will they survive?

For though they can escape the dangers of the present, neither of them contended on the dangers of the past.  After all, Matthew and Diana have landed in a world where violence is the law and order of the day, where keeping the queen happy can mean the difference between life and death, and where a misplaced glance can lead to an accusation of witchcraft, and a gruesome execution.  As Diana navigates the treacherous waters of her new environment, she also seeks powerful witches to school her on her magic, and together with Matthew, tries to locate the ever elusive Ashmole 782.

Not an easy undertaking in a culture of fear, and one where your vampire husband is a member of the enigmatic School of Night – a consortia of the era’s most brilliant minds, including Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Harriot, and Walter Raleigh – and a spy for Queen Elizabeth herself.  But when Diana finds out she is pregnant, the search for the manuscript becomes more desperate than ever.  For Ashmole 782 may not just be the key to the survival of witches, vampires, and daemons, but it may also be the only text to contain the new answers Matthew and Diana seek: what will a child of a vampire and a witch be?

As engrossing, if not more so, than A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night also introduces a new element to the trilogy: humor.  Some of the best one-liners appear in this book, especially when any member of the School of Night is in the scene.  I’m sure I scared more than a few fellow public transit users when I laughed out loud as I read on the commute to and from work…

But even more than the humor, Shadow of Night does what most sequels fail to do:  develop and deepen the characters.  Yes, spoiler alert, Matthew and Diana are married by the opening pages of this second volume, but theirs is no happily ever after fairy tale.  They both struggle to cope with being part of a couple and being an individual, and in Diana’s case, she is fighting to find her place as a witch, a wife, a mother, and a respected scholar… while living in a time and place where women were wives and mothers only.  The characters become even more real in Shadow of Night, making it a perfect follow-up to an already perfect starter.

I am also, admittedly, partial to time travel fiction, and I am mightily impressed by how Harkness handled the complexities of plunking yourself down in a past era, and the consequent ripples across time.  They are ripples I am sure continue into the third and final book, The Book of Life.

 

Discovery of Witches50. A Discovery of Witches, All Souls Trilogy #1

Deborah Harkness

Dates Read:  October 13 – October 22

Sometimes, in the world of books and reading, the best thing that can happen to you is to re-read.  When I first tackled A Discovery of Witches a few years back, I remember enjoying the book, but not loving it.  I remember feeling like I was a spectator in a new world, but not feeling like that world and its characters had nestled into my soul.

I must have been drunk.

Because, after my second read, I am head over heels in love with this book.  How could I have felt like it was anything less than perfect?!?!  This alternative world where witches, vampires, and daemons are as real as cats and dogs, has left its lasting mark on my soul in the way only the best books can.  And the amazing cast of characters – Diana, Matthew, Sarah, Emily, Ysabeau, Marcus, Gallowglass, Miriam, Philippe – will always have a place in my circle of literary friends.

A Discovery of Witches introduces us to Diana Bishop, a tenured professor, historian, and… a witch.  Although Diana doesn’t really like to admit the last part.  Not since her parents were murdered by witches when she was 7-years-old.  So Diana keeps the magic that simmers under her skin locked away as tightly as possible, and focuses her energy on her scholarship: the history of alchemy and its associated imagery.

But when Diana’s research leads her to a mysterious manuscript known as Ashmole 782, the power she has always kept buried breaks free and sets her life on a dangerous new course.  First, there is the sudden appearance of Matthew Clairmont, a fellow professor, genetics scientist, and 1500-year-old vampire, who starts worming his way into Diana’s heart.  Unfortunately, there is an ancient covenant brokered between vampires, witches, and daemons that prohibits the species to intermingle, so it isn’t long before the forbidden lovers find themselves on the run from the covenant’s enforcing body: the Congregation.

And it’s hard to hide when the shield you erected to keep your powers locked away has shattered, causing Diana’s magic to make sudden and uncontrollable appearances… but the greatest danger Diana faces is from her fellow creatures.  Every witch, daemon, and vampire this side of creation has been seeking Ashmole 782, and Diana is the only one of them to access the ancient manuscript in centuries.  How?  Why?  If Diana and Matthew don’t find the answers, then it may not just be the end of their lives, but the end of witches, daemons, and vampires around the world.

I know, I know: this sounds like another Twilight or The Vampire Diaries, but let me put this out there: the vampires in A Discovery of Witches don’t sparkle.  And as hard as it may be to take any books involving supernatural characters seriously following the travesty that was the Twilight series, the All Souls trilogy is exactly what this genre needs to regain its self-respect.

These are grown-up characters in a grown-up world facing grown-up dangers.  Diana has spent her entire life running from her true identity, hiding in the fear her parents’ gruesome murders engendered, and directing the energy always bubbling in her system to academic research.  Then she meets a guy who starts pulling down these walls she has built around herself, and helping her discover hidden aspects of her life, her past, and her destiny.  Matthew has been an empty shell for centuries, living with the reality that his predatory nature has brought death to those he loves, and he buries himself in his genetics research, determined to find a biological reason for the differences between vampires, witches, daemons, and humans.  Suddenly he sees Diana in the library at Oxford, and parts of himself he thought long-dead stir and awaken.

Layered over the romance is the mythology of this alternate reality.  Witches, vampires, daemons, and humans co-existing with only 3 of the 4 knowing the others exist, and a complex, detailed, and ultimately iron strong infrastructure in place to make sure it stays that way.  Problem is, 3 out of those 4 species are going extinct, and answers to the creatures’ continued survival are rumored to be in Ashmole 782.

So A Discovery of Witches isn’t just teen angst and forbidden love.  It’s an intricate interplay of romance, history, mythology, and science.  That happens to feature some magic, ghosts, a few vampires, a couple of insane daemons, and a house that hides things in the walls.

I’m telling you: grown up.

 

Complete Jack the Ripper49. The Complete Jack the Ripper

Donald Rumbelow

Dates Read:  September 26 – October 13

Pinpointing exactly why I couldn’t finish this book is difficult because I have read Jack the Ripper histories twice the length of this one, and been as absorbed as if I was reading an action-packed, edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting, hair-yanking thriller.

Somehow, Donald Rumbelow here managed to remove that sense of suspense and horror I have encountered in other Jack the Ripper works. It felt like I was reading a technical manual, actually. I kept trying to soldier through it since I am fascinated by the mysterious 19th century serial killer famous for his brutal murders of 5 Whitechapel prostitutes in the fall of 1888. But in the end, I just couldn’t do it. Rumbelow managed to do the opposite of absorbing me…

 

Judge Sewalls Apology48. Judge Sewall’s Apology: The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of an American Conscience

Richard Francis

Dates Read: September 12 – September 25

Yeahhh… I should know better than to be surprised that a writer can take something as interesting as the 1692 Salem witch trials and render it as exciting as reading a grocery list.

Although the content of this poorly written work is excellent – I was very happy to read the context around the witch trials, such as the history of Salem and the political climate of the 1600s – it was constructed as a series of individual sentences with no flow or feeling. How can you write about the senseless murder of 20 people, and not infuse some sort of emotion into it??? It doesn’t have to be flowery or overwrought, but you can make these people come to life so we feel some sentiment at their grossly unwarranted deaths.

Bad. Bad. Bad.

 

VOTB cover47. The Voyage of the Basilisk, Memoirs of Lady Trent # 3 [audiobook] 

Marie Brennan [read by Kate Reading]

Dates Listened:  August 18  – September 16

Oh my gloriously snarky, sharp-tongued, sharp-witted, and utterly lovable Isabella, how I have missed you!  It took me way too long to get myself together and read [listen to] the latest in the Lady Trent memoir series, The Voyage of the Basilisk.  But better late than never is a clichéd phrase for a reason:  getting to this delightfully fun volume is a better thing to happen later rather than to never happen at all.

It has been 6 years since Isabella’s adventures in the swampy forests of Eriga, known quite appropriately as the Green Hell, and the dragon naturalist hasn’t slowed down much.  Back home in Scirland, her townhouse has become a pseudo-university – a meeting place for women scholars to dialogue freely about their academic interests – and Isabella’s young son, Jake, a toddler when she left for Eriga, is now an active and precocious 9-year-old.  None of that is stopping Isabella, though, from continuing to make preparations for a round-the-world research trip on the sailing ship, Basilisk, where she hopes to study every kind of dragon and gain a better understanding of their biological taxonomy.

Any voyage can come with associated difficulties, but with Isabella on board, “difficulty” is a rather understated word.  No sooner does the Basilisk sail and it is beset by challenges including attacks by sea serpents, a near sinking in a hurricane, and a wreck on a tropical island.  But through it all, Isabella remains stalwart and true, pursuing her passion doggedly, even if some of the ways she chases her pursuits may cost her her life, and even if the Basilisk picks up a wandering archaeologist who happens to set the lady naturalist’s heart a flutter.  There are dragons to study, and Isabella will study them no matter what mess she lands herself in.

It’s one of the things I love most about the Lady Trent series – Isabella is sheer girl power.  I love books with strong female leads who want to do more with their lives than fall in love and get married.  And female leads who don’t need a man to live their lives and pursue their dreams.  Give me strong, sassy, and confident any day of the week, and I’ll down it like fine wine.

But the Lady Trent books are more than a strong female lead; they also include great storytelling, exciting imagination, and boundless creativity.  Though I still believe you can swap out all the country and continent names (Scirland = England) and switch dragons as an object of study for any other exotic beast, and you’ll have a series easily falling into historical fiction realms, there is still something to be said for the creative genius in the books’ minute details.  And in the character of Isabella, who is “writing” these books as a series of memoirs.  To always stay on that tone, to keep Isabella as the elderly woman looking back on her adventures, is a feat of creativity in and of itself.

 

Arrows Fall46. Arrow’s Fall, Heralds of Valdemar # 3 

Mercedes Lackey

Dates Read:  September 8 – September 11 

Though I love the Valdemar books with a passion akin to a child’s love for new toys, I often find myself falling into the “trap” of thinking they are young adult novels.  Maybe it’s because the protagonists are young (or start out young at least), or maybe it’s because Lackey has such a straightforward writing style and these books can be quick reads.  Either way, I will find myself thinking of them as works intended for those young audiences and then something very adult happens.  VERY adult.

Lackey keeps me on my toes to say the least.

In this, the third installment in the Heralds of Valdemar trilogy, we catch up to Heralds Talia and Kris, safely back in the capital city of Haven after their adventures along Valdemar’s northern borders, and reunited with Kris’ best friend, Herald Dirk.  Though Talia found comfort in Kris’ bed the previous 18 months, it is Dirk she longs for.  And Dirk feels the same, but he’s not sure how Talia feels about Kris, and Dirk doesn’t want to ruin his best friend’s happiness.

Not that these guys have a lot of time to worry about personal happiness anyway. Talia is trying to take her rightful place as the Queen’s Own – the herald assigned as the queen’s personal advisor and bodyguard – but rumors that she has misused her Gift to influence the queen have preceded her arrival, and there are many who don’t trust her.  Then there is that distasteful Lord Orthallen, Kris’ uncle and one of the queen’s top advisors.  Talia is sure Orthallen is up to no good but she needs proof…  and before she can find it, she is sent with Kris on a diplomatic mission to the neighboring country of Hardorn, where the two will scope out the young Prince Ancar as a potential husband for Valdemar’s princess Elspeth.

But shadows falling over Valdemar follow the pair to Hardorn and magic thought long gone from the world is returning.  After everything Kris and Talia have faced, will this mission be their last?

It all comes full circle in Arrow’s Fall with dangers encountered in Arrows of the Queen resurfacing here and questions left unanswered in both Arrows of the Queen and Arrow’s Flight finding their solutions.  And in the midst of it all, a tangled love story that proves even with telepathic abilities people are stupid when it comes to their emotions.  I will admit I was surprised by Talia’s decision to sleep with Kris in Arrow’s Flight since the stirrings of her feelings for Dirk started in Book 1.  But I can see how Lackey wants to make her characters complex and flawed, and honestly, what are two people trapped in a log cabin for months to do??

I am also impressed by Lackey’s handling of adult themes, including gang rape and torture, and conversely, the elements that can bring peace to a soul destroyed by them.  These books may have young protagonists, and they may be quick reads, but they are anything but juvenile.

 

Arrows Flight45. Arrow’s Flight, Heralds of Valdemar # 2

Mercedes Lackey

Dates Read:  September 2 – September 8

It’s official:  I am going to adopt the same approach to Mercedes Lackey’s spectacular novels as I have already implemented with my two favorite authors, David Mitchell and Brandon Sanderson, and that is a quick and simple “perfect.”  I love all of these authors.  I have yet to encounter something written by them that is less than perfect.  And rather than use every possible synonym for “love” and “perfect” I can find in a thesaurus when writing these reviews, I am just going to call any work written by Mercedes Lackey (and David Mitchell and Brandon Sanderson) what it is:  perfect.

Young Herald-in-Training Talia has completed her coursework at the Collegium, but before she can become the full Herald she is destined to be, she must pass one final test: an 18-month internship, out in the field, under the tutelage of a senior Herald.  Talia’s heart has started yearning for the homely Dirk, but it is Dirk’s best friend, the dashingly handsome Kris, that is chosen as Talia’s supervisor.  The two set out on their field assignment – a tour of duty through Valdemar’s northern border lands – where the biggest danger they hope to find is two farmers fighting over a chicken.

What they encounter, however, is far worse.  Plague.  Invasion.  And a blizzard so fierce, none can recall its equal.  Then, when Talia needs to be at her best, she finds herself sliding into a dark chasm of doubt and fear.  Her telepathic Gift, empathy, has gone rogue, and if she can’t get it under control, somebody could end up dead, including Talia herself.  With mountains of snowfall burying Talia and Kris in the forsaken borderlands, and a watching darkness hedging in all around them, Talia’s fight for survival has taken on a new ferocity.  Who will triumph?

I have already espoused my love for Lackey’ remarkable Valdemar universe, so what really captured me in Arrow’s Flight was the growth of the characters.  When we meet Talia in Arrow’s of the Queen, she is young, idealistic, and full of dreams.  5 years at the Collegium opened her eyes to the reality of life as a Herald, and her 18 months on the road in Arrow’s Flight deepened her significantly.  Her own personality flaws crack her innocence, and mistakes she makes leave their marks.  I applaud Lackey for her masterful handling of Talia’s coming-of-age; she was subtle and discreet.  I never felt like it was getting slammed down my throat, or, even worse, not even happening at all.

So yeah.  Perfect.

 

Arrows of the Queen44. Arrows of the Queen, Heralds of Valdemar # 1

Mercedes Lackey

Dates Read:  August 25 – September 1

Oh, Mercedes Lackey, how do I love thee, and thou Valdemar universe?  Let me count the ways… if the stories continue to be as fabulous as The Last Herald Mage series and now this first in The Heralds of Valdemar series, I shall be reading each and every book set in this world (so let me count the ways?  There are 30 books to read).

We return to the magical kingdom of Valdemar in this first installment of The Heralds of Valdemar trilogy, where we meet young Talia, a veritable farm girl living in the far-flung Borderlands who dreams of becoming a celebrated Herald like the ones she reads about in her forbidden novels.  But her old-fashioned, magic-fearing, and viciously cruel family will hear none of it, and instead, plan to marry her off as tradition dictates.  Distraught at her bleak future, Talia flees into the forests near her home where she is found by the Companion, Rolan.  Fearing the telepathic horse is lost, Talia decides to return him to Havens, the capital city of Valdemar.  But what Talia does not realize is Rolan is not lost; instead, he has been searching for his new Chosen… and he has just found her.

Rolan’s Chosen isn’t just any Herald potential either – his Chosen will become the next Queen’s Own, the Herald that serves at the queen’s right hand as advisor, protector, and confidant.  In one instant, Talia’s whole world is turned upside down.  Now her lifelong dream may come true, but she is woefully unprepared for life at the Collegium, the training center for new Heralds, and, worse still, there are enemies hiding in the shadows – ones who do not want to see Talia succeed and will pay any price to make sure it doesn’t happen.  Can Talia find the strength and courage she’ll need to become a Herald and the Queen’s Own?  Will she survive long enough to take on her duties as such?

Oh, I just love it.  Such a fantastic universe to immerse yourself in, with so much creativity behind it.  And imagination.  And emotion.  I want a Companion like Rolan!  And I said the same about Yfandes from The Last Herald Mage trilogy as well, so let me put it like this:  I want a Companion!!  I can also say I want to keep losing myself in this amazing world of Heralds, Companions, Mages, and other fantastic beings of magic and dreams.  I want to keep watching heroes like Vanyel and Talia on their journeys to greatness with love by their side and adventure in front of them.  And I want to keep walking away with the magic of these books nestled deeply in my own soul.

Good thing I have 30 more books to go…

 

Pillars43. Pillars of the Earth

Ken Follett

Dates Read:  August 15 – August 25

Since I was 8-years-old when Pillars of the Earth was published, I have only ever known Ken Follett as the author of that “giant book about the cathedral.”  I know many of his fans were surprised by the release of Pillars since Follett had been beloved as the author of suspense thrillers, but for me, he had always been the guy who wrote a 1,000 page tome on building a church.

And since I didn’t know much more about Pillars than that, I never really had much interest in reading it.  Until friends kept raving about it.  Amazing.  Wonderful.  Incredible.  Beautiful.  All descriptors thrown at me, and now having blasted through all 1,000 pages of that historic epic, ones I will apply to this masterpiece as well.

To call Pillars of the Earth a book about building a church is to criminally undersell it.  Yes, the focal point of this magnum opus is the construction of the fictional Kingsbridge Cathedral in 12th century England, but the book is not about building a church.  It is about the men and women whose lives orbit this cathedral’s construction – their struggles, their passions, their sorrows, and their glories – and yes, how the cathedral shapes each one’s destiny.

First, there is Tom Builder, a talented stone worker who dreams of building the world’s most beautiful cathedral.  With his skeptical wife Agnes in tow, and their two young children, Alfred and Martha, along, the family wanders the countryside searching for the town or priory that will give Tom a chance to make his dream come true.  Then there is the mysterious and alluring Ellen, who, along with her young son Jack, lives in the forests hiding from civilization.  Until the day they stumble upon the wandering Tom and his family.

There is Father Philip, an honest and intelligent monk who is appointed the prior of the decrepit and run-down Kingsbridge monastery.  Philip dreams of making Kingsbridge prosperous again, but he finds that powerful enemies have their own plans for the broken down priory, and powerful enemies can get in the way of God’s work.

Enemies like William Hamleigh, the arrogant and proud son of a local earl who is seething with rage because the beautifully aloof Lady Aliena has rejected his proposal of marriage.  Revenge will be his, and William won’t let anything stand in his way, including an ambitious prior trying to make a rival village and monastery prosperous.  And Bishop Waleran Bigod, power-hungry and corrupt, he will stop at nothing until he is made Archbishop of a prestigious district like Canterbury or York.  Until then, however, he has to settle for bishop of the backwater Kingsbridge, and hope his glory will come when he has crushed the ambitious Prior Philip.

Different backgrounds, different motives, and different dreams bring all of these characters together at Kingsbridge, where the destitute Tom tries to convince Philip to build a new cathedral; where the uprooted Aliena tries to bury the horrors in her past and ensure the security of her brother’s future; where the wary Ellen seeks to find the happiness that had been ripped from her life years before; and where evil in William and Waleran hope to destroy everything good that comes out of Kingsbridge.

Set against the background of the tumultuous 12th century, everyone’s destiny hinges on more than just the good and the bad at Kingsbridge.  The Anarchy has started, civil war rages across the country, and throwing your lot in with one claimant for the throne may prove your salvation… or your downfall.

At its heart, Pillars of the Earth explores the complexities of human destiny.  One moment can change your life in unimaginable ways, and it is here, in this lesson, that Follett reigns supreme.  He reminds me a bit of David Mitchell in that respect, although Follett is not as poetic about it.  Where Mitchell creates a web of beautiful language to draw you in to the complexity of choice, Follett just puts it there in front of you.  But he still handles it masterfully, showing us through his characters how motivations affect destiny.  Decisions made based on hope (Tom), independence (Aliena), love (Ellen), ambition (Philip), pride (William), and greed (Waleran) all have their consequences, and leave their mark on the generations to come.

Pillars of the Earth is an incredible piece of historic fiction.  Wonderful.  Amazing.  Beautiful.  Well worth the undertaking, and definitely about more than building a church.  Just, you know, get it on an eReader or something.  1,000 pages is a heavy clod to carry around.

 

Thousand Autumns42. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell

Dates Read:  August 3 – August 15

Since my wordsmithing skills are scanty at best, I don’t think I need to create a grocery list of adjectives here that attempt to express the perfection that is David Mitchell.  He’s perfect.  That’s all there is to it.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet opens in the summer of 1799, and the eponymous hero is newly arrived in Nagasaki, Japan aboard a Dutch East Indies sailing ship, ready to start a new career as a clerk for the prominent trading company.  Ambitious, hard-working, and honest, Jacob plans to spend five years making a fortune in the far-flung empire, and then he will return home to Holland and marry his longtime love.

But as with any dream, things are not as easy as all that.  As soon as Jacob sets foot on the port island of Dejima, he steps into a world of intrigue, sabotage, deception, and greed.  Enemies pose as friends, thieves pose as honest businessmen, and extending trust could cost you your life.  Jacob tries to navigate these treacherous waters, but where can an honest man find footing in a sea of lies?

Things only get more complicated when Jacob meets Orito Aibagawa, a local midwife studying under the celebrated Dr. Marinus.  In love at first sight, the clerk tries to pursue the talented and intelligent Orito, but culture’s rules get in the way.  And when Orito is sent to a mountaintop convent, Jacob wants to save her, but the remote sanctuary is owned by one of the most powerful men in Nagasaki – an unscrupulous businessman who may have the power to crush the Dutch colony with a single snap of his fingers.

Allies come out of the woodwork, but even with them by his side, can Jacob find the courage to do what must be done?  Can he find his way to the truth with the Dutch East Indies operations on Dejima?  Can he save Orito?  Or will all be lost?

David Mitchell’s books are pure poetry, not just in his writing and his stories, but in the intricacies and subtleties in his work.  The Thousand Autumns is all about choices and how those split-second, single-moment choices can have the longest and most enduring consequences.  A choice to smuggle a Christian prayer book into a violently anti-Christian country; a choice to gift one you love with a personal token; a choice to make one business transaction with a modicum of extra caution; a choice to save someone seconds too late; and a choice to trust someone with something you don’t have the courage to do yourself – these and many others create ripples of reaction around Jacob, Orito, and everyone else in their strange and complicated world.

And I love that about Mitchell.  I love that he can take even the simplest of ideas and reveal the hidden complexities inherent in them with a few clicks on his keyboard.  It really is genius.  And perfect.

 

Magics Price41. Magic’s Price, The Last Herald Mage # 3 [audiobook]

Mercedes Lackey [read by Gregory St. John]

Dates Listened:  August 7 – August 14

Wow.  Sometimes that is all you can say.  Wow.  Books this powerful – ones that stay with you long after you have read the final page and ones that make you feel like you have lost a friend when you close that cover – are the reasons why I read with the voracity that I do.

Books like Mercedes Lackey’s The Last Herald Mage trilogy are ones I wish I read every time I open a cover.

Another 10 years has gone by since Herald Mage Vanyel defeated the dark magic rising from the neighboring kingdom of Lineas and once more saved his own kingdom of Valdemar from destruction.  The heroic magician is almost 40-years-old now and stationed full time in the palace of Valdemar’s ailing king, Randale. To support the royal family and keep Valdemar going, Vanyel takes on more and more political responsibility, but at the same time, he faces a real crisis: the Herald Mages are dying off, and dying off too quickly to be replaced.  In fact, there are only four left, counting Vanyel and his aunt and former tutor, Savil.

It is a terrifying prospect, especially now since another neighboring kingdom, Karse, is causing trouble along Valdemar’s borders and the Mages have a powerful enemy, one bent on their absolute and total destruction.  It could be Valdemar’s and Vanyel’s darkest hour, but even in the worst storms, there is always a light.  In this storm, his name is Stefan, and he is the new bard appointed to Randale’s court.  Not yet 20, the thoughtful and artistic charmer has his sights set on the older and untouchable Vanyel.  Can the Herald Mage let go of the heartache he has carried with him since the night his beloved Tylendel died?  Can he open himself up to a new love?  Or will his status as the most powerful Herald Mage in history destroy them both?

I hate to use the cliché, “there are no words” but that is how a cliché becomes a cliché:  there really are no words to adequately describe the power, emotion, and beauty of The Last Herald Mage trilogy.  These books crawl deep into your soul and take root, letting you never forget how much they affected you and your emotions.  I personally can’t remember the last time I cried over a book as much as I have cried over the reading of these three, or even the last time I have felt my heart pump and twist the way it did with the turning of every page.

I surrender to the power that is Mercedes Lackey.  I surrender completely.  And as I start the next trilogy set in the Valdemar realm, I hope this power continues to exert its absolute control.

 

Magic's Promise Cover40. Magic’s Promise, The Last Herald Mage # 2 [audiobook]

Mercedes Lackey [read by Gregory St. John]

Dates Listened:  July 27 – August 4

George R.R. Martin said it best when he said, “the reader lives a thousand lives. A non-reader lives only one.” When a book as beautiful, captivating, emotionally wrenching, and all-encompassing like Magic’s Promise comes along, and takes you away, then it does feel like you have experienced a whole separate lifetime…

It has been 10 years since young Vanyel’s channels for magic were blasted open in a tragic night of revenge gone awry.  The now-29-year-old hero is a full-fledged Herald Mage today – a warrior who uses his magic to keep the peace in the kingdom of Valdemar – and he is the most powerful one the world has ever seen.  But he is so tired.  And his heart still aches for his true love, Tylendel, whose death on that dark night 10 years ago carved away a piece of Vanyel’s soul.  That is why the Herald Mage decides to take a rest, and return to his family home for an extended stay.

Of course, how restful can it really be when his father acts so uncomfortable around his oldest – and openly gay – son, and his mother won’t stop trying to marry him off to any eligible maiden in the kingdom?  Vanyel must also face the childhood enemies that caused him so much pain, including the evil, torturer-of-young-boys arms-master, Jervis.  However, none of that compares to the evil magic Vanyel senses when he arrives.  An ancient magic.  And a powerful one.  Where did it come from?  And why is it here?

When both Vanyel and his companion Yfandes sense a call for help from a neighboring kingdom, the pair race into action.  But what they find is a darkness far worse than anything the two have faced before.  Can they defeat it?  Or is this a magic too old and too powerful for the most powerful Herald Mage in history?

There is so much to love about Mercedes Lackey’s world of Valdemar – a complex and solid mythology; layered, intricate characters; compelling and engaging storytelling; a creative and unique premise; soul-probing emotion that is heartfelt but not too saccharine.  I am only sad it has taken me this long to find her!  Lackey’s books, like David Mitchell and Brandon Sanderson, are why I love to read so much in the first place!  They transport you to whole new worlds… and leave you transformed.

 

TATTRIM39. The Answer to the Riddle is Me

David Stuart MacLean

Dates Read:  July 27 – August 2

Man snaps to consciousness on a train platform in India.  He has no memory of who he is or what he’s doing; he can’t even remember his name.  He manages to lurch over to a police officer and get help finding his way to an addict recovery boardinghouse, but then slips in and out of consciousness lead to violent and disturbing hallucinations, and man ends up in a mental institution.  Man is rescued by his parents and taken back home to Small Town, Ohio, where he struggles to recover his memory, to piece back together the shattered fragments of his life.  Mostly what man ends up doing is smoking and drinking.

I wish I could say The Answer to the Riddle is Me raised questions of identity, or provoked meditation on what defines us as individuals.  That’s what the dust jacket promised, but really, this book is one long list of individual sentences.  Don’t get me wrong – they were quite interesting sentences.  Interesting enough to keep me reading.  But The Answer to the Riddle is Me felt more like an academic paper than a personal memoir.

The man in question is the author, David MacLean, who was in India on a Fulbright scholarship when he “snaps awake” on the train platform.  His memory completely wiped, David is escorted to a local boardinghouse (the police officer who finds him thinks he’s coming down from a particularly bad drug trip), and before the sun goes down, he’s started hallucinating.  The hallucinations turn violent, and David is admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where the doctors are able to piece together enough information to track down his parents back in the States.  The doctors also determine David is suffering a reaction to Lariam – an anti-malarial he had been taking, and one whose disturbing side effects include memory loss and hallucinations.

When Mom and Dad arrive, they sweep David back to his hometown in Ohio, where they try to help him recover his memories.  Hours of looking at photos, reading old emails, and swapping stories has little effect – flashes of images and feelings do return, but they are often not associated with what is in front of David at that moment, trying to stir his memory.  And nothing comes back with enough power for David to say with any certainty:  this is me.  This is who I am.  Frustration settles in, of course, and David turns to the three vices he has at hand:  cigarettes, booze, and plans for killing himself.

And this is how the memoir progresses.  David stays in Ohio for a while to make sure the violent hallucinations at least have stopped.  He smokes, drinks, and contemplates suicide.  David heads back to India ostensibly to finish out his scholarship, and hope the return will bring back the memories.  He smokes, drinks, and contemplates suicide.  David then heads to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he is a graduate student and hopes being back in school will resuscitate the memories.  He smokes, drinks, and contemplates suicide.

And then, the end.  The book is over.  And in the final chapter, David is comparing himself to Nick Callaway in The Great Gatsby and how Callaway’s search for the legendary Gatsby ended in success only when Callaway had stopped looking for him.  The search for your identity ends when you stop looking for yourself.  That is the big lesson David was trying to impart, but, to me, he didn’t get there over the course of 200-something pages.  He smoked, drank, and contemplated suicide for 200-something pages.

Maybe I have expectations I shouldn’t have for memoirs.  Of course, David is writing this story 10 years after the events he is recounting.  He is now happily married, living in Chicago, and an award-winning author.  He is the man he was ostensibly seeking in The Answer to the Riddle is Me.  But can he really “go back” and remember the man he was on the train platform that day?  Without tainting the story by writing it as the man he already knows he will become?  Because, to me, he did not “go back.”  He recounted a series of anecdotes, peppered generously with booze, cigarettes, and suicidal thoughts, and then he was done.

I didn’t feel a character grow or develop in this story.  So to me, the riddle in question was not answered.  And it’s a shame, because it could have been a good one.

 

Magics Pawn38. Magic’s Pawn, The Last Herald Mage #1 [audiobook]

Mercedes Lackey [read by Gregory St. John]

Dates Listened:  July 15 – July 27

Now this?!? This is a book with a teenaged protaganist – a young adult novel as it were – that reaches deep into the pockets of your soul and nestles there, staying with you long after you have closed the back cover. I don’t know if The Last Herald Mage series is technically YA, but if it is, then it is fabulous YA, and proof that good YA can be just as good adult fiction.

Young Vanyel is the oldest son of the cruel and uncompromising Lord Within, and set to inherit his dad’s estates. But poor Vanyel has no interest in being a lord, and no inclination for anything that comes with it. All Vanyel wants to do is become a court bard. But he goes along with his duty, even though his brothers shun him, his father’s tenants deride him, and his parents barely look at him. Then Vanyel gets pummeled in his sword fighting class, and that is the last straw for Within – he sends Vanyel to the capital city of Valdemar to study under his Aunt Savil, a powerful herald-mage, and teacher for up-and-coming heralds.

Vanyel is distraught at the decision – he does not have pleasant memories of his father’s sister – but reluctantly leaves his childhood home for the unknown. What Vanyel finds, though, is a world beyond anything he could have ever hoped for… a home, safety, welcoming arms, and the stirrings of first, all-consuming, soul-crushing love.

But everything comes at a cost. When tragedy rips Vanyel’s newfound happiness away, new and unknown powers awaken. Can Vanyel master them? Or will he lose himself entirely?

Egad, there are no words that capture the power and emotion of Magic’s Pawn! A world so remarkable, a love so magical, friendships so unbreakable, Magic’s Pawn is fantasy at its best and most memorable. It is one of those books where you wish the world and the characters were real so you could get lost in them…

Plus, I want a horse I can communicate with telepathically.

“Thank the gods” there are two more books in this series, and several more series set in this world. I have a feeling I am going to love Mercedes Lackey as much as any of my other faves.

 

Columbine37. Columbine

Dave Cullen

Dates Read:  July 18 – July 27

April 20, 1999. I lumbered into my 6th period senior English class, and slid clumsily (as I always did) into my front row desk seat, whispers of “something” happening at a “school in Colorado” flitting around in my head. My English teacher had the classroom TV turned to CNN, so it didn’t take more than a few minutes to see the “something” my classmates had been fearfully discussing in the halls during our passing periods: shooters inside a high school located in a Denver suburb. Possibly holding students hostage. And so many students already dead.

I watched the coverage in mounting horror. I remember the sweeping shots of Columbine High School, the black-clad SWAT officers positioned everywhere the cameras turned, their small cannons they call “guns” ready to fire. I remember the small clusters of students fleeing the battered buildings every so many minutes, passing bodies lying on the grass outside. I remember a girl stopping and shrieking in horror when she passed a body before her classmate shoved her forward, and the group stumbled toward safety.

And stars above, I’ll never forget – and I never have forgotten – the image of a visibly injured Patrick Ireland (I learned his name later) appearing in the school’s shattered windows before he tumbled head first into the arms of SWAT officers waiting below. It’s one thing to watch bloodshed and violence on TV in shows and movies; it’s another thing entirely to see it on the news – to know that it is real.

Long before I picked up Dave Cullen’s tome on that tragic day that claimed 15 lives, including the lives of the two shooters, I sometimes searched out Columbine survivors online. Especially Patrick Ireland. Watching that tumble from the library’s windows struck chords I still feel twanging from time to time 16 years later. I had never seen such horror before, knowing it was real, and I had never heard of such bravery.

So maybe it is the fact Dave Cullen pulls out Ireland as a “main character” in this comprehensive and exhaustive work on the bloodiest school shooting (to that point) in history, or maybe it’s because, of all the horrible shootings we have watched happen, Columbine stands out to me the most. I was a senior in high school in 1999. I attended a school very much like Columbine High. It could have happened to me. Whichever it was, Columbine is a masterpiece in my eyes.

Starting on that dark day in April, and then shifting both forward and backward in time, Columbine explores the lives, minds, and personalities of the two shooters: Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, blasting away the myths many of us watching from afar have long believed to be truths. Harris and Klebold were not trench-coat toting loners suffering torment and torture at the hands of merciless jocks. They did not show up in the parking lot of Columbine High on a rainy Tuesday with enough firepower to level a dozen city blocks to exact revenge. Both boys were intelligent, well-liked, and to all outside perspectives, perfectly normal and happy. One just happened to be a psychopath obsessed with human extinction, and the other a suicidal depressive that didn’t see any point to life.

Columbine also looks into the lives of victims and survivors, telling their stories in candid detail and exploring who they were before… and for those who made it out of the school alive – who they became after. We meet parents of the victims and parents of the shooters, and watch in crushing sadness as their lives are destroyed by bullets not even aimed at them. Some rebuild. Some don’t.

And we meet the investigators. The detectives who spent months and years after the shooting trying to piece it all together. The police who had received multiple warnings that something was “off” about Eric Harris in particular, and in the days after the shooting, tried to erase that record. We meet psychologists who studied both Harris’ and Klebold’s writings and videos, searching for answers to that single most devastating question: why?

Cullen handles the topic smartly and deftly. He is very clinical in his writing, but still manages to infuse heart into the story. It is an eye-opening, heart-churning read for anyone who was affected by the Columbine tragedy, or anyone who wants to see human nature at both its worst and its best. Bravo, Cullen. For those of us who watched this horror unfold, it is truly a splendid look into that dark and devastating day.

 

WOT_Shadow_final_hi336. The Shadow Rising, Wheel of Time # 4

 Robert Jordan

Dates Read:  June 14 – July 18

The shadow rises alright, and it’s a long one. Very long. 1000+ pages long. Now, don’t get me wrong; I loved The Shadow Rising as much as its three predecessors, but it was long.

And part of that longness is in its epicness.

As with any epic containing a large cast of characters, The Shadow Rising splits into several coinciding stories, and follows groups of characters on their individual adventures. But first, everyone is briefly reunited at the legendary fortress, the Stone of Tear. Rand has claimed Callandor – the sword of the Dragon – and proclaimed his destiny as the Dragon Reborn. He is joined by Nynaeve, Elayne, and Egwene, who had pursued evil Aes Sedai, also known as the Black Ajah, across the world from Tar Valon. Mat and Loial have made their way to Tear after Mat learns his friends Nynaeve and Egwene are in danger. And Perrin, devoted and dedicated Perrin, found his love Faile chained inside the fortress after being taken prisoner by Darkfriends, and freed her.

However, none of them sit still for very long. Rand is planning… and he won’t share those plans with anyone, not even Elayne, who has declared her love for him, and definitely not with Moiraine, whom he still doesn’t trust past the tip of his nose. All he will say is that he is headed to the Waste, the lands of the enigmatic Aiel – Rand’s own ancestors and those who have waited for thousands of years in their harsh world for the Dragon to return.

Egwene joins Rand so she can meet with an Aiel Wise One named Amys. Turns out Egwene’s ability to enter the shadowy dream world, Tel’aran’rhiod, is far more dangerous than she knew, and without Amys’ counsel, Egwene may not return from Tel’aran’rhiod one night… Meanwhile, her Aes Sedai companions, Nynaeve and Elayne, are sent to the dangerous realm of Tanchico to continue their pursuit of the Black Ajah. This time they have to find whatever it is the evil Aes Sedai seek – a relic from the Age of Legends with the power to destroy Rand – and get it away from them before the Black Ajah get their hands on it.

Mat wants nothing more than to go home, but he feels an infernal tugging to stick by Rand’s side, so he too sets out on the journey to the Waste.  He hopes to find answers to questions long simmering: why are there giant blank holes in his memory during his time attached to the evil dagger? What is his role in all of this Dragon Reborn mess? And what did those blasted snake-like creatures he encountered when he walked through that magic doorway in the Stone fortress mean when they said he had to marry the “Daughter of the Nine Moons”??

Perrin does go home. But not for the reasons he would like. Word has come to Tear that Trollocs and Myrdraal have descended on Two Rivers and his village is besieged. Reluctantly taking Faile with him, and Loial too, Perrin heads back to save as many as he can. Will he get there in time? And will he arrive without killing that stubborn, iron-willed, bound-to-get-herself-killed-if-she-stays-with-him maiden he loves so much?

Then there is poor Min. Min had been sent back to Tar Valon in The Dragon Reborn to carry a message to the Amyrlin Seat on behalf of Moiraine. When Min arrives, her powers of foretelling show her terrifying images: Tar Valon in ruins, Aes Sedai dead, and evil spreading like a black cloud. When she relays her portents to Siuan Sanche, the Amyrlin Seat herself, Min is ordered to stay in Tar Valon to help any way she can. But what if the evil Min has foretold is inside the Aes Sedai home itself?

As the Wheel turns, this colorful casts marches toward their respective destinies: Rand seeking knowledge in the Waste, and the mystical city of Rhuidean, learning secrets long lost in the wheel’s eternal turnings; Mat seeking answers, and finding more than he planned; Perrin stepping out of the shadows and into the role of leader, warrior, and hero; Egwene crossing thresholds and learning more about her own powers; Nynaeve letting go of her fastidious control to reach her true potential, and let those around her get close; Elayne finding her own ground as an Aes Sedai, Daughter-Heir to the Throne of Andor, and a woman desperately in love with a man who may be her downfall; and Min grappling with a future she can see but may not have the ability to change. Looming over all of them is the Dark One, whose most devoted followers are loose in the world, and whose evil is spilling out from his prison at Shayol Ghul… and spreading.

It sounds like The Shadow Rising is an action-packed, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, and it does admittedly have those moments, but it also has long stretches of slowness. This is sometimes necessary in our epic fantasy universes when we need to dive deeper into new characters, new mythologies, and new legends, but the trick is to make sure these “slow periods” don’t drag on too long. Jordan thankfully does not drag on tooooo long – right around the time your eyes start glazing over, he throws in an action-packed, edge-of-your-seat thrill sequence, and it’s nothing but the whisk whisk of pages turning (or, in my case, the pad pad of touching a Kindle screen). But then slowness comes back, and we’re settling back down again.

I loved The Shadow Rising – I did and I am excited to continue the series – but it took me much longer to get through it than it has taken me to get through the previous installments. Admittedly, this is the longest one, and at 1,032 pages, it was going to take me some time to hack through. But I think I could have gotten through it more quickly if I hadn’t found myself sliding downwards in those slow periods. A little more editing, a little tightening up, and I think The Shadow Rising would have flowed so much more fluidly, even if it still remained in the 1,000+ page realm.

 

Blur35. Blur, Blur # 1 [audiobook]

Steven James [read by Nick Podehl]

Dates Listened: July 9 – July 15

Eh. That’s the best I can come up with for Blur. It was eh. I was intrigued enough to finish the quick read, but I thought the writing was weak, and the main character’s “descent into madness” was a little forced.

It simply didn’t have the fluidity or the depth the story could have had.

So, yeah, main character. Descent into madness. His name is Daniel Byers and the 16-year-old star quarterback for the small town high school football team is as shocked as everyone else when 14-year-old Emily Jackson is found dead in Lake Algonquin. However, shock turns to horror when Daniel has a terrifying vision at the funeral: a reanimated Emily sitting up in her coffin, begging Daniel to find her glasses and repeating the cryptic, “Trevor was in the car,” message over and over again.

Like any skeptic, Daniel brushes the vision aside – even though it caused him to faint in the middle of the funeral home – until it happens again, this time on the football field in the middle of a game. Now Daniel starts to worry he is losing his mind, and feels the only way to save his sanity is to follow the messages the dead Emily seems to be trying to tell him. But Emily’s death was an accident, right? The more Daniel digs into the case, the less sure he is Emily was alone that fateful day at the lake. Yet how much can Daniel trust his conclusions when he can’t even trust his own take on reality?

It is definitely a great concept. This idea of communicating with the dead, having visions that seem so real, they have to *be* real, but at the same time, are so unreal, they have to be imagination on overdrive, has a wealth of potential. Even though this is technically a YA book, I think the concept of reality versus fantasy, and the loss of the distinction between the two, is something the author could have developed much more fully.

While Daniel provides a great analogy in the beginning – comparing the separation between the two as spaces separated by a hanging blanket – that analogy is the only time James starts to wade into the deeper waters of this idea. The rest of the novel is filled with statements like, “Daniel wondered if he was losing his mind,” and “That blanket between reality and fantasy has fallen,” without any further context around them. They are almost like blocks of words James drops in because he wants you to believe Daniel is going crazy, but he doesn’t know how else to tell you besides bludgeoning you over the head with it.

So, Blur could have used a little more meat on its bones. A little less bam-in-the-face and a little more subtle maneuvering. You want us to believe Daniel is losing his mind? Include more interactions or situations that Daniel believed were real but turned out not to be. And don’t just blurt out, “That wasn’t real.” Massage it. Nurture it. Guide us as the readers to the conclusion.

Had Blur been a subtler novel, with that added depth, it would have been a five star read for sure

 

8115334. Briar Rose

Jane Yolen

Dates Read:  July 7 – July 8 (not finished)

I gave it a valiant effort. I made it almost 80% of the way through this weaker-than-a-bird’s-bone novel before I finally tossed the book across the room.

I understand this is meant to be YA, or some may even say children’s, but that is not an excuse for such poorly written dribble. A book can be a “kid’s book” and still be well written and enjoyable. But Briar Rose is nowhere close. Take, for example, this gem on page 24:

“She thought of Gemma lying in the bed, eyes closed, whispering, ‘I am Briar Rose.’ Sleeping Beauty. How could she think of that?”

Now, mind you, this is a novel in which the enigmatic Gemma exists only to tell the exact same story over and over and over again across the 23-year life of her granddaughter, Becca: the story of Sleeping Beauty. And not just the same story, but the *exact* same story, word-for-word, article-for-article, over and over again. So, how could a character that has repeated the same verbiage for 90 years think of it at the end of her life? Geez, I don’t know.

And the whole book is full of these clueless maneuvers where Becca here proves that a career in rocket science is not in her future. At another point, protagonist Becca is comparing a photograph of herself with a picture of grandma Gemma taken when the latter was approximately the same age, and reminding herself of the striking resemblance she bears to her grandmother – a resemblance she admits she has always known existed – and then asks, “any more surprises, Grandma?” What in the world is she talking about? If Becca always knew she resembled her grandmother, where does “surprise” come in?

Random. And poorly written. Have I said that yet?

Which is a real shame since the concept is a great one. Grandma Gemma here is on her deathbed and she begs her favorite granddaughter (Miss Oh-So-Obvious-And-Dumb-As-Rocks Becca) to “find the castle, find the castle, find the castle.” The castle being the one in which Sleeping Beauty took her marathon nap. Becca knows this because she grew up listening to Gemma’s story about Briar Rose… in fact, Becca can repeat the story word-for-word since Gemma never changed the narrative. And since Gemma always insisted the story was true, and that she was Briar Rose (another clueless maneuver: the deathbed rambling of “I am Briar Rose” was not news to Becca; Gemma always claimed to be Briar Rose in the telling of her tale), Becca knows her grandmother is asking her to find a real castle.

As Becca starts her search, she uncovers a past her grandmother had buried deep in the shoe boxes under her bed: Gemma may be a Holocaust survivor, and the only woman to escape a notorious death camp in Poland. As Becca follows the trail to her grandmother’s past, the story of Briar Rose takes on a new and darker meaning – a story of survival against impossible odds.

The use of a fairy tale as a coping mechanism for extreme trauma has such potential. But when it is completely trashed as it was in Briar Rose, well, then, it’s nothing more than some clueless words on a page.

 

1583997633. Red Rising, Red Rising #1 [audiobook]

Pierce Brown [read by Tim Gerard Reynolds]

Dates Listened:  June 5 – July 7

If you want a dystopian future, and that’s “dystopian” in all caps mind, then you want Pierce Brown’s remarkable Red Rising. But even scarier? Though this first installment in a planned trilogy is set in the distant future, it is actually a symbolic look into the distant past, and the barbarism of the Roman Empire.

In other words, the hell described in Red Rising existed 2,000 years ago.

But the book itself is set at some undisclosed year in the far future, and centers on Darrow, a 16-year-old miner who lives and works deep in the bowels of the planet Mars. Darrow – a member of the “Red” class of society – has been raised believing the Reds have worked for generations to make Mars habitable for Earth’s refugees. So even though the Reds are the dregs of the color-coded class hierarchy, living and existing as little more than slaves, they toil in their quest to make their new planet a home for those dying on the old one.

And then Darrow’s wife, Eo, shows him a horrifying truth: Mars has been habitable for years; the mining done by Reds is not making the planet ready for human life, but is instead used to line the pockets of Golds – the highest tier of society. When Eo’s revelation leads to her death by execution, an enraged Darrow is recruited by a resistance movement that hopes to bring down the ruthless Golds and free the Reds from their subterranean slave existence. Darrow is sent “undercover” as a young Gold ready to start his career, but first he has to make it through the Gold’s initiation and training school – the Institute – where a classroom is a barren landscape, textbooks are competitions amongst your fellow students for supremacy, tests are surviving to the end of the year, and “acing it” is emerging as the conqueror. Can Darrow survive? Can he conquer? And even more, can he do it all without revealing his true identity?

Red Rising is The Hunger Games in a classroom, but it is also a look at a society that has pulled itself out of the primitiveness of a “Dark Ages” and into the “glory” of a ruthless, conquering, tyrannical empire. It has a strict class system with no opportunity for movement across the lines – born in that class, die in that class – and the higher tiers rule the lower with true savagery. Power is achieved through ruthlessness and a willingness to do anything, even murder, to obtain it. But at the same time, the society touts its achievements and its advancement. These solar system settlers are not primitive savages; they are the pinnacle of human evolution – look at everything they have accomplished! Look at everything they create and control! This is humanity at its very best.

And it is that outlook – that belief in the supremacy of this empire – that distinguishes Red Rising from other dystopian futures, like The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, and any others I am forgetting just now. While The Hunger Games and Divergent pretend to be better than they are too, it is not as entrenched in the social structure as it is in Red Rising. There is not a belief the society itself is at its best in the other dystopian future books. That belief is present in Red Rising, and the strongest point of comparison between the solar system settlers of the future and the conquering Romans of the past – the Romans believed they were the capstone too.

These are some interesting subtleties and nuances here, and ones I love about dystopian future and post-apocalyptic literature. While we always think we are moving forward, we are actually moving in a circle. History repeats itself. Ancient cultures become modern again. So much so in Red Rising that many of the characters even have Roman names (Augustus, Pax, etc…). And embracing that idea through a creative story line like that of Darrow and his immersion in Gold culture is what makes Red Rising such a fantastic read.

 

Girl on the Train32. The Girl on the Train

Paula Hawkins

Dates Read:  June 9 – June 12

Bad things happen to bad people.  Or maybe it’s bad things happen to people who screw up.  Admittedly, people who screw up because they are driven by selfish motives, but while The Girl on the Train has been compared to Gone Girl, I think there is at least one fundamental difference: the characters in Gone Girl were morally bankrupt.  No redemption for those denizens of humanity.  The cast here didn’t lack morals per se; they were just plain ol’ selfish.

Self-centeredness can lead to very bad things.  But self-centeredness can lead to redemption too, right?

34-year-old Rachel Watson is an alcoholic on a painful downward spiral.  She once had it all:  a loving husband, a high-profile career in public relations, and a home in a sharp London suburb next to tracks where the soothing sounds of trains passing by brought her comfort.  But the one thing Rachel wants more than anything else in the world is something she can’t have.  So she drinks.  She drinks so much, she loses everything – her husband, her home, her job.  Now Rachel rents a room in a friend’s house, and every morning, she gets on the train to London even though she has no place to go.

And every day the train goes past Rachel’s old house, where ex-husband Tom lives with his new wife, Anna, and their infant daughter.  But just a few doors down from Tom and Anna is another couple that catches Rachel’s attention.  Young, beautiful, and outwardly happy, the couple is dubbed “Jason and Jess,” and Rachel spends her train rides creating their life story in her head.

Of course, truth is always stranger than fiction.

One morning, Rachel’s “Jess” goes missing.  And that happened to be the morning after Rachel watched from her train window as Jess kissed a stranger with definite passion.  Convinced Jess is having an affair, Rachel decides to tell “Jason” what she saw.  But as Rachel tries to insert herself into the investigation, she finds increasingly disturbing questions waiting for her.  Like what actually happened the night before Jess disappeared.  Why was Rachel in her neighborhood?  And worse yet, why was she covered with blood?

It’s a psychological thriller at worst, made all the more suspenseful because much of the mystery hinges on Rachel’s alcohol-induced blackouts.  At best, The Girl on the Train is a character study.  Not just in false outward appearances (spoiler alert:  Jason and Jess were not as happy as Rachel sensed from her train-based observations), but also in what motivates us to make our decisions.  Each character in this book has one objective: me.  Everything is about that character’s life, and that character’s pain.  When things don’t go that person’s way, hell comes forth, with lots of fire and brimstone.  So it definitely makes this crew nigh unlikable.

But like any good train wreck (double entendre intended), you can’t stop watching.  Rachel, Tom, Anna, “Jason,” and “Jess” are all self-centered douche bags to some extent.  But you still have to know what happens next.  You can’t stop.

Which makes Hawkins pure genius.

 

Dragon_Reborn_ebook_med331. The Dragon Reborn, The Wheel of Time #3

Robert Jordan

Dates Read:  May 26 – June 9 

I don’t think I can effuse enough about Robert Jordan.  In fact, I think I need to cut back a bit on the effusing because I have what?  13 more books to go in his remarkable Wheel of Time series?  If I keep effusing, I will run out of effusive words.  Look at me – I am already repeating myself.  So let me sum up my feelings on The Dragon Reborn:

I loved it.

Enough said, right?

In this third installment, the said nascent mythological reptile – also known as Rand al’Thor – is actually quite absent.  Rather, we follow the ongoing journeys of the ones who love him most: his two best friends, Mat Cauthon and Perrin Aybara, his childhood sweetheart, Egwene al’Vere, and the slightly-older-and-therefore-more-bossy childhood friend, Nynaeve al’Meara.  When we left our heroes in The Great Hunt, Rand had battled the Dark One within the walls of Falme – a port city recently overtaken by the slave owning Seanchan people – and across the sky.  All have seen the Dragon fighting Evil Incarnate, and they are ready to follow him to whatever fate awaits them.

During the Battle of Falme, Mat had blown the legendary Horn of Valere, summoning the long-dead heroes from the Age of Legends to fight the Children of the Light, a militant order of religious fanatics that destroy anyone they believe has connections to evil, who were marching on Falme to find what they heard was another False Dragon.  The undead heroes did their job well.  The Battle of Falme was won, but Mat’s connection to the evil dagger is taking its toll.  If he doesn’t get to Tar Valon, and under the care of the most skilled Aes Sedai, he will die.

Egwene, Nynaeve, and their friend and fellow Aes Sedai novice, Elayne, had been tricked by an evil Aes Sedai – known as a Black Ajah – into traveling to Falme, where Egwene was captured and enslaved by the Seanchan.  Nynaeve and Elayne rescued her as Rand fought the Dark One, and now they head for Tar Valon with a comatose Mat by their side.  Though prepared for a hostile greeting, the three are shocked when the Amyrlin Seat – the head Aes Sedai – recruits them to spy on the circle of Black Ajah led by the Aes Sedai who orchestrated their trip to Falme:  Liandrin.  Reluctant, terrified, and doubtful, the girls undertake their task.  But they are novices – new to their powers and their abilities.  How can they find a circle of 13 women far more powerful than they?

As for Perrin, he escaped Falme with Rand, and the others trying to guide the Dragon, including Aes Sedai Moiraine and her bodyguard, Lan, as well as the Ogier Loial, and novice Aes Sedai, Min, who has the ability to see future events in people’s auras.  Rand and his company hide in the woods waiting for direction from Moiraine, but hearing more and more about strife and conflict across the kingdoms.  Not everyone believes the Dragon Reborn has returned.  And they are killing others because of it.  Rand, desperate to end the bloodshed and embrace whatever fate awaits him, flees in the night to seek out the Dark One on his own.  Now, Moiraine, Perrin, and the others follow, afraid Rand will destroy himself before he can fulfill his destiny.

They all take journeys.  Egwene, Nynaeve, Mat, Perrin.  And they are all changed in fundamental ways.  Egwene and Nynaeve explore new powers, ones more dangerous than any they have encountered before.  Mat tries to find his place in the events unfolding around him – the Pattern – at the same time he resists taking that place.  And Perrin.  His ability to communicate with wolves is having disturbing effects.  Is he losing his humanity?

At the same time, new characters step into the limelight, weaving themselves more fully into the Wheel of Time’s Pattern.  Elayne, Daughter-Heir of the Andoran throne and Aes Sedai with Egwene and Nynaeve pursues the Black Ajah alongside her two friends.  Faile, a Hunter of the Horn, finds Perrin and joins his quest to track down Rand, hoping to be part of a great adventure.  And cynical gleeman Thom Merrilin returns, joining Mat on his journey to deliver a message… and save those he loves.

Perfect book.  Perfect.  Perfect.  Perfect.  What else can I say that won’t be effusively repetitive?  This is a perfect book.

Too late.

 

A Darker Shade final for Irene30. A Darker Shade of Magic: Darker Shade of Magic, #1 [audiobook]

V. E. Schwab [read by Simon Crossley]

Dates Listened:  May 21 – June 3

No need to fantasize about alternate realities here; in V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, alternate realities are just as real as our own.  And some can access them.  Some can pass between them as easily as you or I can open an unlocked door.  A very few have this ability, but as with any power, what happens when the ones who have it abuse it?

Kell is a Traveler.  He is one of the few who can pass between the alternate realities and visit parallel Londons.  Kell himself is from Red London – a kingdom where magic exists in everyday life and its power casts the city in soft shades of red.  Grey London is the drab, dreary, and depressed world of no magic ruled by the aged King George.  White London is cold, hard, and dangerous, and a city where magic is in charge, where power is accorded to those who kill to obtain it.  And Black London.  Black London met with a cataclysmic fate, and its downfall is why only a few individuals can now Travel between the worlds.  But nobody goes to Black London, not even Kell.

Kell does, however, travel between the other three Londons, carrying messages back and forth between the monarchs, and smuggling trinkets and gadgets to sell to those who dream of visiting new worlds.  When a stranger in White London thrusts a package into Kell’s hands and begs him to deliver it to a Red Londoner, Kell reluctantly agrees.  But then he is attacked and nearly killed immediately after his return, and Kell discovers his package is a powerful stone talisman – one that can create dark magic.  And lots of very dark people want it.  Now on the run with the mysterious stone, Kell flees into Grey London where he bumps into aspiring pirate Lila Bard, who knows a thing or two about survival.  The unlikely partners bicker and bark as they try to solve the mystery of the stone, keep it out of dangerous hands, and, well, stay alive.  But can they really out-run magic?

A Darker Shade of Magic is a gripping read with a creative and inventive world at its center.  It was definitely a take-the-long-walk-home-so-I-can-keep-listening kind of book, but I will admit I felt it contained some flaws in the character development.  I enjoyed Lila, and thought she was well-rounded, complex, and interesting.  Kell, however, was a little more two-dimensional as was his “brother,” Prince Rhy.  The boys here are supposed to be closer than twins, but Schwab has to tell the reader that.  It is not inferred in the same way as Lila’s quirks and personality.  And that necessity takes away from the emotion of the boys’ bond at the same time it makes them less layered than other characters.

That said, I enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic.  I loved A Darker Shade of Magic.  I think the ingenuity behind the universe of alternate Londons and the mythology of magic outweighs the character deficiencies.  And that is why, like any fan, I am counting the days until Book 2 comes out in February 2016…

 

EOTN29. Eye of the Needle

Ken Follett

Dates Read:  May 19 – May 25

So history lesson: apparently the Allied forces in World War II hatched an elaborate scheme to mislead the Germans into believing they were going to invade France via Calais, when really they were planning to invade via Normandy.  This elaborate scheme involved the creation of a fake military base in East Anglia, complete with styrofoam tanks, scaffolding designed to look like battleships, and barracks made from movie sets, as well as false intelligence and radio reports, and even misleading troop movements and air raids.

Who knew?

Ken Follett did because he crafted the early spy thriller, Eye of the Needle, around this explosive deception.  In the novel, German spy Henry Faber has been operating in England since the outbreak of the war.  Silent, deadly, and remarkably clever, Faber can sneak into any location, find the intelligence he needs, and get back out without leaving so much as a stripe in the dust.  All witnesses are dispatched with lethal alacrity, all loose ends are always tied tight, and no trace of the spy is ever left behind.  And that keeps Faber so far ahead of MI5, he’s not even on their radar.  That’s why it’s a no-brainer when the German military selects Faber for a new assignment: check out rumors the Allies are amassing in East Anglia, and if so, the size of the force, the type of artillery, and any intelligence he can gather on their game plan.  A walk in the park for this experienced spy…

Meanwhile, history professor Percival Godliman has been recruited to work for British Intelligence, and make sure Allied secrets stay secret. When a German spy the Brits had been tracking turns up dead from a knife wound to the chest, the murder sets Percy and his right-hand-man, Frederick Bloggs, on Faber’s very shadowy trail.  And Faber is good.  Real good.  It’s going to take everything Percy and Fred have to track this ghost down.

Caught in the middle is young newlywed Lucy Rose.  When she and her husband, David, are in a car accident on their wedding day – an accident that results in the loss of David’s legs – the couple retreat to a tiny island off the coast of Scotland so David can heal, and they can try to be a normal couple again.  But David’s bitterness runs deep, and Lucy is enveloped in loneliness on her island world.  Little does she know, a skilled assassin and spy is headed her way… and he is going to change her life forever.

Eye of the Needle is definitely a spy thriller.  Lots of intrigue and action with those inescapable situations Faber manages to wriggle his way through, not to mention the near misses, the close calls, and the “he didn’t make it”s.  There actually isn’t much to say about the book other than it was a suspenseful read.  Interesting historic context.  Nice escapism.

Nothing profound or life-shattering here.  Just a fun read.  Eye of the Needle isn’t the most memorable book I’ve ever read, or will ever read.  But it was fun.  And sometimes that is all you need.

 

Black Powder War28. Black Powder War:  Temeraire, #3 [audiobook]

Naomi Novik [read by Simon Vance]

Dates Listened:  April 16 – May 20

The adventures of Aerial Corps. Captain Will Laurence, and his beloved dragon, Temeraire, continue in a thrilling third chapter of the series, but this time the two find themselves in Prussia after a trip along the Silk Road and a sojourn in Istanbul.  What a vacation.  Not.

A non-vacation that starts in China, where Temeraire has killed Prince Yong Shin after he tried to assassinate Laurence, and Laurence himself has been designated a “son” of the Emperor.  It is a ceremonial honor bestowed for bringing down the treasonous prince, and a way for China to gift Temeraire formally to the stalwart captain.  But while it may seem like a happily ever after, the true dangers are only just beginning.  First, there is Yong Shin’s own dragon, the albino Lien, who has sworn vengeance on Temeraire by destroying everyone the dragon loves.  And then, right as Laurence and Temeraire are to depart China and sail back to England, Laurence receives cryptic orders to head for Istanbul and pick up two dragon eggs to bring back to the home country.

Adventure begins on the legendary Silk Road – the ancient trade route between China and the Mediterranean – where the dangers of the unforgiving landscape almost spell the end for Temeraire and his crew.  Beleaguered, beaten down, and barely alive, they scratch their way into Istanbul, only to find more danger and intrigue in the Caliphate’s palace than along the entire Silk Road.

When those relations go sour, Temeraire and his company beat a hasty exit, but adventure is not done with them yet.  The crew manage to barrel their way into the deflated Prussian army, struggling to keep Napoleon’s invading forces at bay.  Knowing their only way home is through Prussia, Laurence and Temeraire agree to stay and help the battered soldiers fight the far larger and more skilled French army.  Surely they can win, but when an old enemy resurfaces, doubts begin creeping in.  Can Temeraire and Laurence bring down the French forces, now under the command of a highly-skilled and ferociously deadly leader?  And what if the Prussian army falls?  Can they even make it home alive?

Now, while I enjoyed Black Powder War – and even as I write this, I can understand Noovik’s thought process – I did not feel this book had the same heart as Throne of Jade.  I loved how Laurence and Temeraire’s relationship evolved in the second book, whereas, Black Powder War was definitely more of a scrape-by-the-edge-of-your-teeth adventure.  And I can understand that approach:  Book 2 is more heartfelt; Book 3 should be more action.  I get it.  But I missed the heartfelt of Book 2.

That said, I, like every other Temeraire fan, was delighted to meet the spitfire Iskierka, and to see some long overdue changes happen in Temeraire’s crew.  It will be interesting to see how the stories, and the characters’ relationships with each other, develop from here.

And I also enjoy the fictional take on real history.  It is one reason why I have loved the Ethan Gage books, and I am enjoying it here in the Temeraire series, especially since, until the Ethan Gage books, I didn’t know much about the Napoleonic Wars.  Now I feel like I can give a college lecture on them… okay, not really, but I feel more informed at least 🙂

 

End of Days27. End of Days:  Penryn and the End of Days, #3

Susan Ee

Dates Read:  May 18 – May 19

Oh my. Did I mention Raffe and Penryn are blisteringly hot? Somebody turn on that cold shower again, extra freezing this time, because I sure do need it.

They found each other at the angels’ new aerie in Half Moon Bay, and escaped together, but not before Penryn killed an angel with Raffe’s sword, and not before Raffe managed to saw his own wings off the back of his enemy angel, Beliel. Now Raffe and Penryn are on the run, but time is quickly ticking down. The angels are holding an election to select their new Messenger (i.e., leader) now that archangel Gabriel is dead. Power-hungry Uriel has orchestrated an apocalypse – complete with Biblical locusts (half human / half scorpion creatures that feed on human blood and organs) and six-headed sea monsters – to curry favor with his fellow angels. But he still faces a serious threat from Raffe, even if the archangel also known as Raphael has demon wings and an undeniable attachment to a Daughter of Man.

And Raffe knows the only way he can possibly defeat Uriel, and save his fellow angels, is to find and release his own legion of soldiers, whom Raffe had cast into the Pit (a hell dimension) when they committed the most heinous of angel crimes: coupling with Daughters of Man.

Meanwhile Penryn has her hands full. Not only is there a bounty on her head for the murder of the angel, but she knows the angels’ election will involve more than secret ballots… and if Raffe survives it, he will leave. If Raffe survives it, the human race will likely be done for, and the rag tag group of Resistance fighters Penryn has come to love as her family will be dead. Which side does she choose? Can she really take up arms against Raffe if it comes to a war between angels and humans? But can she stand back and do nothing if the angels wipe out the human race?

And why oh why does she feel this unbearable yearning for an angel, an enemy, and a relationship she knows can never be, as Raffe himself tells her over and over?

Oh, is it hot. Hot, hot, hot, HOT! And it was here in End of Days I finally realized why: the simple tenderness between Raffe and Penryn. Rather than classic Harlequin romances, where the steamy comes from sexual lust, Raffe and Penryn express their feelings in such tender and sweet ways. A caress of a cheek, a brush of a face against hair, locked eyes that smolder with feeling – these all create far more romantic tension than a heroine longing to feel some testosterone-overloaded, half-naked Scottish Highlander’s fingers in her nether regions…

And those moments when Raffe breaks down, loses himself in his feelings, and kisses Penryn like a dying man searching for air, the tension becomes so tantalizingly sweet, it made my own heart pound. Oh shivers, shivers, shivers!

The Raffe and Penryn relationship is admittedly the best part of the series, and it is bittersweet to know their story is over. But it was one pulse-pounding (in more ways than one) ride, and I enjoyed it thoroughly and completely.

 

World After26. World After:  Penryn and the End of Days, #2

Susan Ee

Dates Read:  May 16 – May 17

Half human / half scorpion creatures that feed on human fluids, children cut open and stitched back together with sharp razors for teeth and a taste for human flesh, and a sentient sword called Pooky Bear.  Yep, that is Susan Ee for you, at it again with the second in the Penryn and the End of Days trilogy, World After.

When we left Penryn and Raffe in Angelfall, Raffe had dropped a paralyzed Penryn off with her family as they were fleeing San Francisco following the destruction of the angel’s aerie.  Raffe believed Penryn dead after one of these half human / half scorpions attacked her in the basement of the aerie while she was trying to locate her sister, Paige.  But Penryn is not dead – only fully and temporarily paralyzed – and she is reunited with her paranoid schizophrenic mother and her baby sister… yet the mutilated and grossly scarred Paige, with that mouth full of razor teeth and an ability to walk again, is what?  A monster?  Penryn can’t quite tell, but she knows one thing for sure:  she wants the angel who kidnapped Paige dead.

Luckily, Penryn has Raffe’s sword.  Claiming the sword is sentient, Raffe passed it on to Penryn when the sword “rejected” him after the botched surgery to re-attach his wings.  Wings were re-attached, but they were not the fluffy soft, snow white wings Penryn used as a bargaining chip to find Paige, but rather monstrous, black leather, demon wings with deadly scythes along the edges.  After depositing Penryn and his sword with her family, the devastated Raffe set off to find the angel that orchestrated the botched surgery, the one Raffe was fighting the night he met Penryn:  Beliel.

Meanwhile, Penryn, Paige, and their mother are hiding with a group of resistance fighters until the night Paige’s new nature takes a turn for the horrifying.  Paige escapes before the others can destroy her, and Penryn finds herself, once again, trying to find her baby sister, this time with an even more unlikely ally than Raffe:  her mother.  The stakes are even higher, and the game even deadlier, now Penryn has seen the nightmares the angels are creating in their aerie basements.  It’s too bad Raffe isn’t here…

I think the fact I read this book in essentially a day is an indicator of how much I loved it.  Although I will admit I wasn’t sure about these half scorpion creatures Penryn first encounters at the end of Angelfall, and then pop up quite regularly here in World After.  But once Ee explains the reason for their genesis, it does make them more terrifying… and believable.

I also applaud Ee’s ability to create that page-turning, going-to-stay-up-for-one-more-chapter suspense, not just in building riskier and riskier situations for Penryn to navigate, but also in the Penryn and Raffe separation.  Raffe believes Penryn is dead – Raffe is devastated by Penryn’s death – and you turn each page hoping the two will reunite so Raffe can learn Penryn is still alive.  And that he will be so relieved, he’ll beg her forgiveness for being such a dipstick.  This is suspense at its best:  both what is and what isn’t happening.

But on the whole, it is a terrifying world Ee has created.  I don’t think I’ll ever look at the archangels the same way again…

 

angelfall-book-cover-art25. Angelfall:  Penryn and the End of Days, #1

Susan Ee

Dates Read:  May 13 – May 15 

Somebody turn on the shower – water extra cold.  I need it after reading the hot, hot, HOT Angelfall and the smolder between leads Penryn and Raffe… whew!  I haven’t been this emotional about a star-crossed romance since Margaret and Mr. Thornton in Elizabeth Gaskell’s beautiful North and South.

In Angelfall, a single snow white feather floats down from the sky and lands on the lap of wheelchair-bound Paige Young.  It’s not a goose feather, a swan feather, or even a dove feather.

It’s an angel feather.

Six weeks ago, our world became theirs.  They came, not as chubby-cheeked cherubs with harps and kisses, but as indestructible warriors, with preternatural strength and speed, and within days, the planet became a charred and devastated ruin with billions of people dead.  Pockets of human survivors have banded together to protect themselves, not just from the angels but from their fellow humans who are willing to do anything – even murder – to stay alive.

In this World After, 17-year-old Penryn Young is trying to protect her 7-year-old crippled sister, Paige, and her paranoid schizophrenic mother, who lives in a fantasy (or real?) world of demons and monsters.  One night, when Penryn tries to get her family to a safer location on the fringes of what used to be the Silicon Valley, a single snow white feather floats down from the sky and lands on the lap of her wheelchair-bound sister…

Moments later, Paige is kidnapped by a brutal angel that had just attacked a fellow and sawed off his wings.  Mom has run into the hills to hide, and Penryn is left alone with the horror that her sister is gone.  Gone, but not for long because Penryn is determined to rescue her.  When she realizes the wingless angel is still alive, although barely, Penryn hatches an insane plan:  ransom the angel’s amputated wings for her sister’s safe return.  Will this enemy of humanity agree?  Worse yet, if he does, what dangers will Penryn face in this new World After?  She has seen enough to know there are more than just angels lurking in the ruins…

Considering the dystopian future craze in the recent years, the teenaged Penryn is obviously a candidate for comparison against Katniss from The Hunger Games and Tris from the Divergent series.  And she does share a great deal in common with them:  strong, independent, intelligent, resourceful, with a fierce dedication to her family and a loyalty to them that may cost her her life.  But unlike Katniss and Tris, Penryn lived through the apocalypse that changed her world, and she still retains traces of the teenager she had been in the World Before… which makes her all the more a heroine in this story.

Because there is no denying that Raffe is deliciously hot.  No teenaged girl who spends any time in his company is going to walk away without a slip of a crush.  But the inner war Penryn fights with herself – loyalty to an angel that is showing angels may be more than ruthless killers versus revulsion for the beings that destroyed her world – highlights the complexities that should be a teenaged character, or any character caught in the same circumstances.

But ultimately, I think Susan Ee outpaces her fellow dystopian future authors in the fiery tension between Penryn and Raffe; a tension that clenches your own stomach and heats your own face as you read it.  I’ll say it again:  the two of them are just HOT.

 

Lusitania24. Lusitania:  Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Era

Greg King and Penny Wilson

Dates Read:  May 7 – May 12

Now, this is just what the shipwreck-fanatic ordered: another up-close and personal look at the 1915 Lusitania disaster from the perspective of the people on board.  Although Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Era is not as poignant as Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, Greg King and Penny Wilson still hit it out of the park, at least for this shipwreck aficionado, in their coverage of the doomed ocean liner’s final voyage in early May 1915.

And the two authors do that by exploring the final week aboard the doomed ocean liner in early May 1915.  Other works on the Lusitania tend to focus on the political machinations of Great Britain, Germany, and the United States during World War I, as well as any and all conspiracies they can postulate on the sinking.  Few studies on the disaster I have encountered focus on the human tragedy:  Dead Wake, of course, Diana Preston’s Lusitania: an Epic Tragedy, and now, Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Era.

Opening on Saturday, May 1, 1915 – when Lusitania sailed from New York on her final voyage to Liverpool – this spectacular work steams slowly (pun intended, unfortunately) through the next seven days, introducing us to the colorful cast of passengers and crew on board.  We meet Captain William Turner, a seasoned mariner who had faced his fair share of maritime disasters prior to sailing as master of the Cunard Line’s beloved Lusitania, including at least one prior shipwreck and two daring rescues-at-sea.  Then there is Leslie Morton, and his brother Cliff, who had signed aboard Lusitania as deckhands to work their way home to England.  Leslie is renowned in Lusitania lore as the first crewman to spot the torpedo as it streamed towards the liner.

First class included multi-bazillionaires like Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and Charles Frohman, the former on his way to work for the Red Cross (and attend to business associated with his many horses) while the latter was preparing to tour the European theatre circuit in hopes of identifying his next Broadway hit.  Frohman had had a modicum of success with Peter Pan, so he was in the market.  Also aboard was Lady Marguerite Allan, whose husband managed the Allan Steamship Line, and her two teenaged daughters, Gwen and Anna, who were all headed to war-torn Europe to start a hospital for wounded Canadian soldiers. When Lady Allan was pulled from the water by a fireman aboard a rescue vessel, she is said to have stated very matter-of-factly, “I like you.  For what, I don’t know.”  And there was the architect-slash-spiritualist Theodate Pope, a pioneer in feminism since she vociferously pursued her own career at a time when women married and raised children.  She also talked to dead people.

But it is these quirks that made Lusitania: Triumph… such a resounding read.  It was the story of the passengers and crew.  Their lives, their dreams, their journey across the Atlantic, and what happened in those terrifying 18 minutes between the torpedo’s strike, and the favored ocean liner, known as the “Greyhound,” hit the seabed just off the coast of Ireland.  And for those of us who latch on to shipwreck stories because of our interest in the people… well, let’s just say this work here was a great addition to the literature.

 

black swan green23. Black Swan Green

David Mitchell

Dates Read:  April 26 – May 4

I am cheating on my favorite author Brandon Sanderson with David Mitchell.  Actually I can’t really call it cheating since these two incredible talents write completely different books.  So let’s call me what you will: a reading polygamist.

But how can I not love David Mitchell when he writes something as amazing as Black Swan Green?  And introduces me to an unforgettable character like the novel’s protagonist, 13-year-old stammerer Jason Taylor?  In 13 vignette chapters, we spend the year 1982 looking at the world through the eyes of Taylor, who lives in an upscale neighborhood in the tiny English village of Black Swan Green with his (always fighting these days) parents and older (evil) sister, Julia. As is the case with most teenaged boys, Taylor’s main concern is his reputation and acceptance by his peers:  smoking is ace (even if it makes you sick), taking a walk is gay; playing pranks on the neighbors is ace (albeit terrifying); writing poetry is gay; making out with the ultra-hot Dawn Madden would be ace; going to the movies with your mum is gay.  And don’t even mention the stammer, a condition Taylor refers to as “Hangman,” and seems to attack at the worst possible times… like when he has to read aloud in class or when the popular kids are actually paying attention to him.

So while Taylor may not understand how Clark Kent can give up his superpowers to have sex with Lois Lane, or believe the British government can lie to the public about the Falklands War, changes are afoot.  As each chapter carries us forward one month in the year 1982, Taylor starts down that twisty road we call growing up.  Each person he meets – from the crazy old lady who lives in the House in the Woods to an eccentric literary critic aristocrat who challenges Taylor to write better poetry to a group of wandering Gypsies camped in an old quarry just outside Black Swan Green – changes Taylor’s life in small yet fundamental ways.  And these encounters coupled with the turbulent affairs of Black Swan Green – bullying! death! sex! – will bring Taylor closer to finding his true life, his own mind, and his powerful, stammer-less voice.

Now let me just say I am not a character novel person.  I tend to get bored with books that don’t have much in the way of a plot, but instead drag us readers along on a character’s personal journey… unless that character novel is written by David Mitchell.  While Black Swan Green has little in the way of plot, it is still a gripping, page-turning read because of the genius that is David Mitchell.  First, the novel’s structure.  Each chapter is one month in the year 1982 and really is a vignette because each chapter could stand on its own as a short story.  Second, the voice.  Writing from the perspective of a 13-year-old is nothing if not challenging.  Yet Mitchell pulls it off like it was no work at all.  You don’t just read about Jason Taylor, you are Jason Taylor.

And the humor. Taylor’s teenaged sarcasm is thick and rich throughout, such as with this gem: Operation’s this game where you take out bones from a patient’s body.  If you touch the sides with the tweezers his nose buzzer buzzes and you don’t collect your surgeon’s fee.  We tried to rewire Operation with a giant battery so you’d get electrocuted if you touched the sides.  We killed Operation and the patient forever (p. 230).

Ultimately, though, Mitchell is a genius wordsmith.  Some of the best lines I have read are in his books:

Listening [to music is] reading if you close your eyes.

Music [is] a wood you walk through. 

Wars do not simply appear from nowhere.  Wars come, over a long period of time, and believe me, there is always plenty of blame to be shared out between all those who failed to prevent its bloody arrival.

I realize something about all the suicides traipsing north, north, north to a nowhere place where the Highlands melt into the sea.  It is not a curse or a punishment.  It is what they want.

They’re scared of you.  They don’t understand you… It’d be a start if they could just sit here.  Get warm, round your fire, and just listen to you.  That’d be a start.

Time in the woods [is] older than time in clocks.  And truer.

 

cover-the-alloy-of-law22. The Alloy of Law:  A Mistborn Novel

Brandon Sanderson

Dates Read:  April 16 – April 25

I have a new word for perfection, and that word is:  Brandon Sanderson.  Okay, that’s two words, but the point remains – if perfection were made manifest, it would take the form of Brandon Sanderson.

It has been 300 years since Vin and Elend, Sazed, Spook, Breeze, and Ham overthrew the Final Empire and repaired a world nearly destroyed by ancient powers.  Heroes then, the ragtag thieving crew are legends today.  Legends and gods.  Although at this particular moment, the Ascendant Warrior, the Last Emperor, the Lord Mistborn, and all the others aren’t forefront in the minds of Waxillium (Wax) and Wayne – two rough-and-tumble lawmen who mete out justice with pistol, allomantic power, and feruchemical ability, in an unsettled part of the new world called the Roughs.

But then tragedy strikes.  Wax accidentally shoots and kills his lady love while trying to corner a criminal, and he is so devastated, he returns to his hometown – the sprawling city of Elendel – and claims his place as Lord of the powerful Ladrian estate.  While Wax tries to throw himself into the life of an aristocrat, he finds, as he himself says, “you can take off the badge but you never stop wearing it.”  Wax can’t resist poking around when a remarkably skilled crew of thieves – known as the Vanishers – start robbing trains in a way the constables can’t figure out:  no signs of disturbance, no trails left behind, and the rail car doors all locked.

When the Vanishers start kidnapping noblewomen, Wayne shows up determined to get Wax back in the game.  And Wax may miss the lawman life, but he’s not sure he has what it takes anymore… until the woman he has arranged to marry (as befits an aristocratic nobleman) is kidnapped herself.  Now Wax is on a mission:  solve the riddle of these phantom thieves and rescue his intended fiancé.  But with a nest of criminals as skilled as the Vanishers, Wax is going to need every ounce of his talents, not to mention his abilities to push on metals and make himself heavier or lighter as needed.

Especially since half the battle will entail keeping his partner, best friend, and fellow Allomancer / Feruchemist Twinborn, Wayne, under control.  And protect his fiance’s illegitimate half-sister, who insisted on helping since she is training to become a lawyer.

But what good is being a renowned lawman without a few challenges?

Of course, in the hands of Brandon Sanderson, it all comes out perfect.  I know I have used that word entirely too much, but how else can I describe the remarkable companion novel / sequel to the equally remarkable Mistborn trilogy?  Everything in this book is fabulous  the storyline, the characters, the mystery with its twisty finish, the world and its mythology, the connections to the original trilogy… everything.

But being the emotional sap I am, my absolute favorite part of this perfection is the bromance.  I haven’t had this much fun with two best friends and partners since BBC’s Sherlock.  And I do mean laugh-out-loud, teary-blinks-of-joy fun.  Wax and Wayne are – yep – perfect.

 

dark-places-book-cover21. Dark Places [audiobook]

Gillian Flynn [read by Rebecca Lowman, Cassandra Campbell, Mark Deakins, and Robertson Dean]

Dates Listened: April 9 – April 14

Here is a warning most readers probably don’t need:  do not read a Gillian Flynn book if you want something light, fun, happy, escapist, and / or mindless.  Even those who have seen the trailer for the Gone Girl film can guess that Flynn doesn’t exactly do comedy.  But with that said, Gillian Flynn is an amazing author, and her books, dark as they most certainly are, are still gripping, page-turning, suspenseful, and utterly engrossing.

Libby Day is a drifter.  Aimless, unfocused, unmotivated, and completely apathetic, she hides from the world, and everyone in it, in a small dingy house in Nowhere, Kansas.  Of course, Libby isn’t your average floater:  when she was 7-years-old, her entire family was brutally murdered in what was then considered a gruesome satanic ritual and sacrifice; Libby was the only survivor.  Well, Libby and her 15-year-old brother, Ben, who is now serving a life sentence for the shocking murders.  A life sentence he earned because of Libby’s eyewitness testimony at his trial.

But all of that happened almost 25 years ago, and Libby does her best today to forget it.  Unfortunately, Libby’s trust fund is running low, and she finds herself desperate to keep a steady income pouring in.  When she is contacted by a Kill Club – a group of true crime enthusiasts who have researched her family’s murder to the minute of the minute detail – and invited to appear at a conference, Libby reluctantly agrees.  Being out in public as the sole survivor of a satanic murder spree is not something she normally goes for, but she needs the cash.  What Libby doesn’t count on, however, is how much everyone in this Kill Club believes her brother is innocent… and the evidence they have to support their claim.

With new questions in hand, as well as more cash from the Kill Club if she can find answers, Libby sets out to uncover the mystery of that fateful night her mother and two sisters ended up dead.  Is her brother innocent?  If he is, then who is the real killer?  And if Libby’s family wasn’t killed in a satanic ritual, then why were they killed?  Libby’s search carries her back 25 years to the darkest day of her life, and a past she has tried to bury for so long now stares her smack in the face.  Can Libby pursue the search all the way to the end?

This may sound like your typical, run-of-the-mill, dead-body-on-every-other-page murder mystery fare, but let me kill that victim:  Dark Places dives deep into the complexities of the human mind; studies in gory detail the sheer evil people are capable of inflicting upon each other; and looks at how single moments can destroy an entire life.  Dark Places slides under your skin and wriggles under there like bugs.  You can’t forget about it.  You can’t get it out of your system.  And it feels like evil.  Flynn does a masterful job creating such loathsome characters – you feel like there really is no hope for humanity.

And at the same time, you can’t stop.  You can’t stop reading (or in my case: listening).  You have to know what happens next.  You have to see this journey through to the end, even though you are encountering such awful, nausea-inducing, cringe-causing people along the way.

So, nope – don’t go for Gillian Flynn if you want something lighthearted and fun.  But have something lighthearted and fun at hand if you do read a novel by this amazing author.  You’re going to need it when you’re finished.

 

EINTY20. Everything I Never Told You

Celeste Ng

Dates Read:  April 7 – April 13 

You know when you visit Disneyland, and the rides all have those warnings signs that read, This ride is a high-speed roller coaster that includes sharp turns and sudden drops.  For safety, you should be in good health and free from high blood pressure, heart, back, or neck problems, motion sickness, or other problems that could be aggravated by this ride.  Expectant mothers should not ride?  Books like Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You should have a warning similar to that:  This book contains moments of deep sadness, betrayal, and loss.  Readers who hail from dysfunctional families and have suffered from overbearing parents and distanced siblings, or have endured depression, suicidal thoughts, and extreme loneliness because of family dynamics should read something else.  Like the Ethan Gage books by William Dietrich.

Not that Everything I Never Told You isn’t a powerful and moving book.  But, whew.  I need some good old fashioned fluff right about now…

It is 1970s small-town, middle-of-America, and Lydia Lee, the 16-year-old daughter of parents Marilyn and James, is found dead in the lake near her home.  Why?  How?  These are only two of the questions the Lee family struggles to answer in the weeks that follow.  But they are the most important as each member of the family, including older brother Nath and youngest sister Hannah, try to understand what happened.  Their search takes them back to the days when Marilyn and James first met in college; Marilyn a bright, blonde, and beautiful aspiring doctor, who put her dreams on hold when she falls in love with her professor: quiet, intelligent, and exotically Chinese James Lee.  It continues into the early days of the Lee family, when the realities of life in small-town America as a mixed-race family, and the hum-drum life of Suburbia, start to sink in.  And it continues into Lydia’s final days, where the family begins to see how their individual demons rippled outward with devastating consequences.

Beautiful, heartfelt, and yes, moving, Everything I Never Told You started out as very much The Lovely Bones sans the afterlife perspective.  The effects a sudden death has on a family; the shattering it can cause in relationships are themes found in both books.  But as the Lee family’s history starts to emerge, and as the pieces of the puzzle that ultimately lead to Lydia’s death fall into place, Everything I Never Told You starts to stand on its own.  Unlike The Lovely Bones, which explores how a family copes after the death of a child, Everything I Never Told You explores how dynamics of the family can affect each member in subtle and profound ways.  And how, in some cases, those dynamics can lead to tragedy.  The Lovely Bones is the story of after; Everything I Never Told You is the story of before.

Hence why the book should have that warning.  It is emotional, and sad, and depressing, and makes you want nothing to do with family.  But, then again, it may remind us all that the most powerful force in the world really is love.  You just gotta get through 200 pages of deep sadness before you get to that one.

 

Throne of Jade19. Throne of Jade:  Temeraire, #2 [audiobook]

Naomi Novik [read by Simon Vance]

Dates Listened:  March 25 – April 8 

It is a question as old as love itself:  what are you willing to do, and what are you willing to give up, to make the one you love happy?  And Aerial Corps. Captain Will Laurence finds himself facing that question in Book 2 of the Temeraire series, albeit in a rather unconventional way.

When the dragon Temeraire hatched from the egg Laurence seized from a French man o’ war, everyone knew he was unique.  What Laurence – and other members of the Aerial Corps – did not realize is that Temeraire is a Celestial, a very rare breed of Chinese dragon with the unique ability to create devastating windstorms with a single breath.  And when the Chinese government learns the egg they had intended as a gift for Napoleon has instead become a soldier in the British military, they send Prince Yong Shin to reclaim Temeraire for the Chinese crown.

Of course, the prince has to get through Laurence first.  And Temeraire himself isn’t exactly amenable to a relocation to the other side of the globe.  But the British crown can’t afford to start a war with China, and both Laurence and Temeraire are sent with a naval transport to the Far East to negotiate a peaceful resolution.  Much more difficult than it appears since someone seems to want Laurence dead… and Temeraire starts to see a different kind of life – one with much more freedom – amidst his Chinese counterparts.  Will he want to return to England even if the Emperor agrees to release him?

A deep friendship forged in Book 1 is tested when Laurence watches Temeraire reach out to experience new things, and new things that may influence Temeraire’s priorities.  But that is the heart of Throne of Jade – Laurence’s journey to providing the support Temeraire really needs to grow, which in some cases can mean letting go.  And while Laurence grapples with Temeraire pursuing his individuality, Temeraire faces a fork in his road:  embrace a rewarding and fulfilling life as a Chinese dragon, or return to the only life he has known and loved thus far.

It is these deeper themes of love, friendship, sacrifice, and choice that made Throne of Jade a real delight.  Sure, the plot itself doesn’t move at the rapid-fire pace of an action film, but it was nice to take a step back and explore Laurence and Temeraire’s relationship, and to watch both face the real situations of identifying who you are, and how you decide what is going to matter to you.

The fact that Temeraire is a dragon is just a bonus.

 

Great Hunt18. The Great Hunt:  The Wheel of Time, #2

Robert Jordan

Dates Read:  March 22 – April 6

I can see why readers sometimes compare Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and even Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, but based on my minimal exposure to epic fantasy (I have read both LOTR and ASOIAF, however), I am coming more firmly to the conclusion that The Wheel of Time really is in a class by itself.

The Jordan, Tolkien, and Martin series definitely share elements in common:  magic, separate worlds with defined mythologies, battles between good and evil, unlikely heroes, etc…, but I think those elements are what define fantasy, and not necessarily ones fantasy authors have “ripped off” from each other.  I mean, think of the Harry Potter series – it contains all of these aforementioned concepts as well, but Harry Potter is rarely used as a comparison across epic fantasy works.

Anyway, I may be only two books in to what I believe is a 14-book series, but I am definitely a Jordanite.

It hasn’t even been a year since sheepherder Rand al’Thor and his friends, Mat Cauthon, Perrin Aybara, Egwene al’Vere, and Nynaeve al’Meara stole away from their tiny village, Two Rivers, under the protection of sorceress Moiraine Sedai and her bodyguard, Lan, after it was attacked by the half human / half beast Trollocs intent on taking the three boys captive.  But it could have been lifetimes ago.  Egwene and Nynaeve both learned they can channel the One Power, and therefore, have the potential to become Aes Sedai, but they must get to the city of Tar Valon and the White Tower, where they will train to become the sorcerers they both can be.  Mat has found himself mortally linked to a jewel-encrusted dagger he casually lifted from the ruined city, Shadar Logoth, where the evil that wrought the city’s destruction still lives and tries to break free.  If Mat can’t get to Tar Valon, and under the care of the more powerful Aes Sedai, the dagger’s evil will eventually kill him.  Perrin’s encounter with the mysterious wanderer, Elyas, who claims he can communicate with wolves, has unlocked Perrin’s own power to do so.  Fearing this new ability is a mark of the Dark One, Perrin does his utmost to avoid using it.  But how can he forget it when every time he sees his reflection, his eyes now shine gold like a wolf’s?

And Rand.  Poor Rand.  He had hoped that finding the Eye of the World and using the power contained therein to destroy the Dark One was the end of his troubles.  But as he is reminded repeatedly, the Wheel turns as the Wheel wills, and the Pattern is not done with the young sheepherder yet.  Rand knows he faces a troubled future because he can channel the One Power, and all men who do so eventually go insane because the male half of the power had been tainted during the Age of Legends.  Determined not to hurt those he loves, Rand decides to leave the group and set out on his own… but if only things were that simple.

When The Great Hunt opens, the five battered friends are holed up in the Fal Dara stronghold in the far-flung Shienar province.  They barely escaped the Blight, the wastelands north of Shienar where the Eye of the World had been held, and while they did make away with the legendary Horn of Valere and the banner of the last known True Dragon, Lews Therin Telamon, Rand is still determined to flee.  But then the Amyrlin Seat arrives – the most powerful of the Aes Sedai – and she informs Rand he is the Dragon Reborn, and no, he did not kill the Dark One when he fought him in the Blight.  Which is followed quickly by the escape of Darkfriend Padan Fain, who steals the Horn of Valere and Mat’s evil dagger on his way out.

And now, Rand knows he cannot escape.  He joins Mat, Perrin, and several Shienaran soldiers on a quest to retrieve the Horn and the dagger before the Horn can be used to free the Dark One and before Mat’s separation from the dagger results in his death.  And as with all journeys, this one is less than smooth.  Rand’s fear of his ability to channel the One Power leads to unconscious channeling, which can have devastating consequences for him and his friends.  Perrin may find the only way to save the Horn and the dagger is through his new powers.  And Mat’s very life is on the line.

As for Egwene and Nynaeve, they join the Amyrlin Seat on the journey back to Tar Valon, and start their training to become Aes Sedai.  Egwene is determined to succeed; Nynaeve still doesn’t trust anyone or anything.  But both will find themselves fighting for their lives when their immersion in the White Tower brings them into contact with the Dark One’s devoted followers.

The Wheel of Time is a completely unique world with its own solid history and mythology.  The characters are believable, relatable, and enjoyable, and while this tome clocked in at almost 700 pages, it never once felt like a tiresome read.  As a devoted fan of Brandon Sanderson – who helped finish the series after Robert Jordan’s death – I am probably biased in my approach to The Wheel of Time, but I’ll keep it if it means I’ll continue to enjoy the series as much as I have enjoyed these first two books.

 

HMD Cover17. His Majesty’s Dragon:  Temeraire, #1 [audiobook]

Naomi Novik [read by Simon Vance]

Dates Listened:  March 16 – March 24 

It is an alternate reality, where dragons are as much a part of the military machine as horses, and the men and women who fly them are members of an elite branch called the Aerial Corps.  In this world, where France is newly under the control of Napoleon Bonaparte, we meet Captain Will Laurence of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, who has just captured a French man o’ war and taken the crew prisoner.  Deep in the ship’s hold, Laurence makes an incredible discovery:  a dragon egg – a treasure and a boon to his native Britain – only to find the egg is within days of hatching.

In Naomi Novik’s incredible universe, a dragon must be “harnessed” (bonded) to a human immediately after hatching so it can be trained to fight on behalf of the “handler’s” native country.  Bonding with a dragon, however, means sacrifice.  The handler commits him- or herself to the Aerial Corps for life, and to their bonded dragon.  Laurence, a Navy man through and through, is horrified when he finds himself harnessing the newly hatched dragon, whom he names Temeraire, and realizes his beloved career at sea is now over.  What Laurence doesn’t count on, however, is how quickly a friendship with Temeraire develops, and how much the dragon comes to mean to him in such a short time.

So it is with an apprehensive but determined heart that Laurence and Temeraire set out for Aerial Corps training in the far reaches of Scotland, where Laurence quickly comes to learn the strict code of the Navy no longer exists.  Men and women are equal in the Corps, formality is not even a formality, and “aviators” manage their own dragons, and their own business.  As for Temeraire, a brilliant and talented dragon unlike any seen in Britain for hundreds of years, he must come to accept his differences from the other breeds, and find his place in the Corps amongst his fellows.  Luckily, Laurence and Temeraire have each other, but with Napoleon’s power growing, and a threat of invasion lingering in the air, this unlikely duo may find themselves on the front line of battle sooner than they think.

I will say that as one who believes firmly in the human / animal bond being as strong as any, I absolutely adored this novel for the relationship between Laurence and his devoted dragon, Temeraire.  If His Majesty’s Dragon had been nothing but the friendship between these two, it would still garner five stars from me.  But it was all that and more.  A wholly believable reality presented in such a way, it is a surprise to finish the book and find dragons weren’t involved in the Napoleonic Wars (or any other historic war for that matter).  And creative to a fault with true historic events presented alongside the fiction of a dragon-based military unit.  Novik has created something truly special here, and I am excited to continue the series.

But I must emphasize one more time how, I feel, the true gem of this book is that devoted bond between Temeraire and Laurence.  A man who had looked forward to a long and illustrious career in the Navy, with a wife and children possibly waiting for him one day at home, finds all of that gone in an instant… only to be replaced with something far richer and more fulfilling.  It was poignant and touching to watch Temeraire and Laurence become best friends, and see how both of their lives are enhanced by the presence of the other.  I only hope the future books continue it.

 

Dead Wake16. Dead Wake:  The Final Crossing of the Lusitania

Erik Larson

Dates Read:  March 17 – March 22 

In a chapter titled simply, Lusitania: Sunshine and Happiness, author Erik Larson has included five passenger testimonies that each list the person’s name, age, a single descriptor such as a hometown, reason for sailing, or job title, and sailing class followed by that passenger’s own words describing their time aboard the famous ocean liner on its May 1915 voyage from New York to Liverpool.  Each testimony is its own paragraph in this page-long chapter, and concludes with the darkly funny, “Dorothy Connor, twenty-five, of Medford, Oregon, in first class: ‘I’d never seen a more uneventful or stupid voyage.’”

Those five short paragraphs, comprised of nothing more than the aforementioned qualifiers and passenger words, is more powerful than any narrative of the doomed ocean liner could possibly be.

But that is Erik Larson.  If anyone knows how to write powerful – knows how to take the primary sources and turn them into a gripping chronicle – it is the man here, the talent behind one of the best and most poignant works on the 1915 Lusitania disaster I have read.

Furthermore, Larson is a master at weaving together different narratives to tell one overarching story.  Dead Wake is no exception.  The journey begins with a … journey, the Lusitania’s final one, a transatlantic trip from New York to Liverpool the first week of May 1915.  She carries aboard a surprisingly full complement of passengers and crew, with the former encompassing some of the richest and most famous of the day.  Interspersed with the seven days Lusitania was at sea before her fateful encounter with a German U-boat, Larson takes us to the White House, where a grief-stricken Woodrow Wilson, devastated at the loss of his first wife, finds new hope in the love of Edith Galt, at the same time he tries to keep the United States neutral in the growing war.  We spend time aboard U-20, the German submarine captained by Walther Schwieger sent forth from the Fatherland in late April 1915 to disrupt British shipping by sinking anything he could set his sights on long enough to fire the torpedoes.  We have rare access to the top-secret Room 40, the code-cracking team for British Intelligence, where the men huddled at their machines listening to all wireless communication had enough pieces to put together the puzzle:  the Lusitania was in mortal danger.

And we stop in and meet some others along the way, including First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, US Ambassador to Great Britain, Walter Hines Page, Director of British Naval Intelligence, Captain William Hall, and a few of the higher-ups in the German military.

Together, Larson presents a vivid and comprehensive picture of world events in early May 1915.  But always at the very center was the beloved Cunard “greyhound,” called such because of her high speeds, and the world of those who were on board.  Names that could easily be just that – a list of names – are real people with real hopes, desires, and fears because of Larson’s master skill.  Of course, the same could be said for the crew of U-20, under the leadership of the charismatic Schwieger, whom the men on board admired and respected for his humor and good-natured disposition.

Dead Wake is an amazing work in so many ways, not least of which is Larson’s focus on the players on the Lusitania stage.  So many other works on the doomed ocean liner spend more time on the political and military background against which the Lusitania sailed – the people involved in these backgrounds are second to the context.  In Dead Wake, Larson provides enough context to make the narrative understandable, but his primary focus really are the individuals.  The passengers aboard; the crew; the U-boat team; the military men and politicians watching blindly as the Lusitania sailed into dangerous waters.  That is what makes this book truly splendid.  That, and letting the words of these individuals speak for themselves.

 

The Just City15. The Just City

Jo Walton

Dates Read:  March 11 – March 16

As any reader knows, there are books you love.  And books you hate.  Books you want to love, but can’t bring yourself to for some reason.  Books that make you think.  Books that open your eyes.  Books you blunder through because there is enough to keep you interested, but you are more than ready for that last page.  Books you’ll never forget.  And books you’ll never remember.  I’m not fully sure where The Just City falls at this moment.  Definitely a book that made me think.  But a book I loved?  A book I’ll never forget?  Eh.

Athena, ancient Greek goddess of wisdom and war, has found herself intrigued by Plato’s concept of a “just city” after reading his Republic, where the philosopher outlines exactly what is needed for such a metropolis to happen.  So, with nothing but time on her hands, she decides to try it out:  can Plato’s proposal work?  Can a truly just city exist?  Traveling across all time periods, from the ancient past to the distant future, Athena pulls 10,000 children all aged 10 (or thereabouts) and a few hundred adult masters to become the first residents of her experimental city.

One of those 10,000 children is 11-year-old Lucia, a child from ancient Egypt sold into slavery and then rescued by Athena for the Just City.  Renamed Simmea, the willfully intelligent child blossoms under the tutelage of the adult masters.  She is what Plato dreamed:  a child seeking to become her best self.  Simmea is joined in this effort by 10-year-old Pytheas, who is the Greek god Apollo in a mortal disguise.  Intrigued by the idea of free will and equality between men and women, Apollo takes advantage of Athena’s experiment to become human and try to understand the complexities of mankind.  If he can know humans better, maybe Apollo can become his best self.

Guiding all the children are the few hundred adult masters, all Plato enthusiasts who wanted to see the Just City happen in their own times.  Such as Maia, who, born in Victorian England, knew her desired life of academia was a fruitless dream because of her sex.  But now, she is in the Just City, a part of what she always wanted, and guiding the lives of the children towards their best selves.

And then comes Socrates.  He arrives in the Just City, disgusted by what he sees, and yet curious about how the individuals in this experiment view themselves.  Using his eponymous method, Socrates’ questions start undermining the very foundation upon which Athena built the Just City.  Ideas of freedom versus slavery, free will versus destiny, animate versus inanimate, love versus justice, and happiness versus selflessness all fall victim to the Socratic method and head toward one outstanding question:  can any human society really achieve justice?

These are intriguing questions, and admittedly, The Just City made me ponder them.  Are you free if you had no choice in where you are?  Can a society exist without dregs – those who perform the lowliest jobs?  Are you entitled to your own happiness if it means others will suffer?  And who or what determines if a being has a soul?  Profound questions to say the least, and interesting to say more.  I applaud The Just City for putting these questions in a narrative form, and in its way, introducing whole new generations to Plato and Socrates, and their thoughts on these ideas.

But the story itself?  I felt it was a little stilted and mechanical.  Emotion didn’t convey well, and especially traumatic events like rape and infanticide were treated with no more emotion than eating in the dining hall.  The science of human complexity was definitely a strong presence, but emotions – love, joy, anger, jealousy, melancholy – were not.  We were told these emotions were happening.  But I didn’t feel them.  And that is why I will appreciate The Just City for the philosophy.  But it is not a book I will remember.

 

The Black Dahlia14. The Black Dahlia [audiobook]

James Ellroy [read by Stephen Hoye]

Dates Listened:  March 4 – March 13

I ponder a deep and profound existential question:  can a fantastic narrator make a bad book great?  Okay, not that profound and existential, but I admit:  Stephen Hoye was such an incredible performer on The Black Dahlia’s audio, I am curious.  Would I have enjoyed this book as much if I had read it?

That’s not to say I didn’t love this book.  Cuz boy did I love this book.  I was completely and fully enraptured.  In fact, I often found myself adding steps to my routine so I could keep listening.  Like a book too good to put down, The Black Dahlia on audio is too good to hit the stop button.

She may be the titular character, but the Black Dahlia is really more of a backdrop in front of which the main characters perform.  Los Angeles police officers Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert and Leland “Lee” Blanchard are partners and best friends.  Both amateur boxers, they are put together in the ring as part of a publicity stunt to increase support for the struggling LAPD.  When that stunt worked, the two are assigned as partners in the coveted Warrants division, and they spend hours chasing down the slimiest criminals in post-war LA’s underbelly followed by nights hanging together with Lee’s girlfriend, Kay.

And then 22-year-old Elizabeth Short is found dead in south central LA, her body ravaged by torture and mutilated.  Bleichert and Blanchard are among the first officers on the scene and quickly assigned as investigators on the baffling murder case.  As the two try to piece together the short life and gruesome death of the woman quickly dubbed the Black Dahlia, they find their own lives changing in horrifying ways.  Trust.  Loyalty.  Friendship.  Honor.  Love.  All get ravaged like the body of Elizabeth Short as Bleichert and Blanchard spiral deeper into her mystery, and the darkness of obsession.

All this said, The Black Dahlia is really more about the friendship of two police officers than it is about the gruesome 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short.  The Dahlia is a force around which the two men revolve, but it is the effect of that force on their lives that is the heart of this novel.  Both men become obsessed with the Dahlia, but for different reasons, and their obsessions engender far different consequences.

I can see, then, why some may have been disappointed in The Black Dahlia.  It is not a book about one of the most famous unsolved murders in LA history.  And those who picked it up expecting that are undoubtedly disappointed.  But The Black Dahlia is a remarkable novel – or at least it is a remarkably read novel.  Ellroy’s 1940s LA sucks you in like a vortex, and the characters are as real as fiction can make them.  But even more, the subtleties, the nuances, the minute details that all come into play as the pieces of the Dahlia puzzle start fitting together, is pure genius.  I want to read the other three books in the LA Quartet series, and maybe I should read the next one to make sure they are as outstanding as I felt The Black Dahlia to be.

Of course, if Stephen Hoye narrates the others though, well….

 

The Eye of the World13. The Eye of the World, The Wheel of Time #1

Robert Jordan

Dates Read:  February 19 – March 9

While many epic fantasy fans likely came to Brandon Sanderson through Robert Jordan, I did the opposite:  discovering Robert Jordan after reading (and loving!) Brandon Sanderson.  And being the Sanderson aficionado I am, I thought, if Brandon Sanderson was involved in this series, even if not until the very end, it can’t be that bad.  And it wasn’t that bad.  Not at all.  In fact, it was page-turnin, nail-bitin, hair-pullin, stayin-up-all-night-to-read-what-happens-next amazing!!

The kingdom Andor.  It is a massive realm controlled by the Wheel of Time, whose rotation brings in new ages, and the heroes of the past become legends of the present.  Though times change, the war against evil rages on, and it is a war where losing means the release of The Dark One, evil incarnate, who has been sealed inside a barren wasteland for thousands of years.  In the small and rural Two Rivers, a sheep herding community on the far flung fringes of the kingdom, Rand al’Thor, Matrim Cauthon, and Perrin Aybara are three young men on the cusp of adulthood.  Their lives do not extend beyond the borders of their sleepy village, and when the next festival is going to happen, but that all changes, of course, when two “outlanders” arrive:  the mysterious Moiraine, and her even more mysterious bodyguard, Lan.  Uneasy at the presence of these two strangers, things are not helped when all three boys are attacked by vicious half human / half beast creatures called Trollocs, and Moiraine tells them the attack comes because The Dark One’s power is growing… and he has his sights set on these three lads from Two Rivers.

To protect their families, and save their own skins, Rand, Matrim (Mat), and Perrin flee Two Rivers in the company of Moiraine and Lan, and two fellow villagers, the beautiful, adventure-seeking Egwene, and the town’s healer, the equally beautiful Nynaeve.  Traveling hard across the land of Andor, the refugees fight to stay one step ahead of the Dark One’s minions, known as Darkfriends, and uncover their individual roles in the Pattern – the collective fate of all who are under control of the Wheel of Time.  But solutions are not easy to find, especially when Rand, Mat, and Perrin don’t know who to trust, even those closest to them.

This is epic fantasy at its pinnacle, I say.  Jordan grabs you from the first page and yanks you into the world of Andor with no mercy.  You are just as much a part of the magic – the One Power with its dual male and female halves – as any of the fictional characters struggling to understand it.  You fear the Trollocs, and the Fades, and the Darkfriends as they slither in the dark, and your heart races as the young heroes find themselves trapped over and over again.  You subscribe to the mythology of The Wheel of Time, a world made by a powerful Creator, who also trapped The Dark One in his wasteland prison, but in the process, “damaged” the magic of the One Power.  Now only certain Aes Sedai (sorcerers) can channel it without destroying themselves.  And in the midst of all this, the legend of the Dragon.  A hero among heroes, and the world is anxiously awaiting his return.  Has the Dragon been Reborn?

It is gripping, chilling, spine-tingling reading.  The Eye of the World is what makes voracious readers like myself love reading…

 

I Saul12. I, Saul [audiobook]

Jerry B. Jenkins and James MacDonald [read by John McLain]

Dates Listened:  February 25 – March 3

Imagine you’re walking down a beautiful trail, enveloped in some pretty nice surroundings, and having an enjoyable time.  But you keep hitting obstacles – stupid and annoying things like a fallen tree you need to climb over, or a detour into a ditch because part of the trail is closed for repair – and you breathe through gritted teeth as you navigate around them because they are annoying.  You get back on the trail though, and your spirits start to lighten, until you hit the next annoying obstacle.

That is the journey you undertake when you read I, Saul.  The novel is good – enjoyable – and you can get on board with it, until you hit some plot point so remarkably stupid, it takes a little motivation to get back on track and enjoying the novel again.  Only to hit another stupid plot point… and you get the idea.

This ancient-mystery-brings-intrigue-and-adventure monograph alternates between 1st century Rome and the modern-day Eternal City, with the Christian apostle Paul at the heart of both stories.  In the 1st century narrative, Paul is in prison, awaiting execution by the emperor Nero (who has just managed to burn the city down and blame it on the Christians), and visited by his good friend, the doctor and later gospel author, Luke.  Paul is desperate to finish his memoirs before he loses his head to the executioner’s axe, and he’s counting on Luke to help him.  Willing to do anything his dear friend needs, Luke undertakes the daunting task of organizing Paul’s extensive writings, which cover the apostle’s early childhood in Tarsus – when he was Saul – his life as a zealous Jewish preacher, and his conversion to Christianity after a blinding encounter with the risen Jesus.

Switching to the present day, theologian and professor Augustine “Augie” Knox has received a frantic phone call from his best friend, Roger Michaels, a tour guide in Italy, who claims his life is in danger, and Augie needs to get to Rome five minutes ago.  It takes Augie a few days, but he swings it, where he learns that Roger is on the run from the Italian Art Squad because a colleague – who is now dead – found 2,000 year old parchments secreted inside an ancient prison cell’s wall, and this colleague entrusted them to Roger before he met his end.  With the Italian police now on their tail, Roger and Augie have to solve the mystery of the ancient parchments before they too find themselves on the receiving end of an assassin’s bullet.

It is a solid premise, even if it is a bit Da Vinci Code-esque, but there are some moments that smack you in the face and really leave that sour taste in your mouth.  Like the 1st century story, which is entirely too modern.  I know many authors who write about the ancient world “modernize” certain points to avoid confusion for readers – like notating distance in miles or time in hours and minutes – but sometimes you can modernize to the point where the story might as well take place in the present-day.  In fact, there wasn’t anything happening in the Paul and Luke narrative to place it solidly in the ancient world.  In fact, I’m surprised Luke wasn’t chatting with Paul about his memoirs on SnapChat.

As for the Augie and Roger story, it seemed to flow better, although plot holes glare from the pages like the holy light that blinded Paul.  For example, the initial discovery of the parchments was pretty quiet, and while the Italian police were aware an artifact had been found, there was no indication of what artifact it was.  So all of the sudden, assassins are crawling out of the Roman baths intent on killing everyone?  Uh, yeah, and remind me how they knew the artifact that Roger’s colleague found and snuck out of the dig site was a heretofore unknown manuscript by the apostle Paul?  And I personally have never had to run for my life, but I find it hard to believe I would have time to stop and text someone while I was doing it… calling frantically on the phone, sure.  But texting?  I can’t even walk and text at the same time, let alone run frantically through Rome’s cobbled streets and send a coherent message while I’m at it.

Couple that with some pretty ridiculous dialogue – Augie’s fiancé, Sophia, who is also drawn into the adventure, at one point calls her beloved, frets over the safety of their friend, Roger, and then immediately follows with a declaration that her father is trying to “set her up” with a family friend – and you have those annoying obstacles I mentioned above.

But there were stretches of story that were good, and enjoyable, and made continuing with the novel a worthwhile endeavor.  It wasn’t a waste of time, but I just don’t know if I will want to read the sequel…

 

The Miniaturist Cover11. The Miniaturist [audiobook]

Jessie Burton [read by Davina Porter]

Dates Listened:  February 12 – February 24

How do we live – really live – when strangers can see our darkest secrets?  When strangers know more about our lives, dreams, hopes, and fears than we do?  These are the questions at the heart of Jessie Burton’s beautiful novel, The Miniaturist, a velvety smooth ride through the truths we keep hidden behind closed doors… that may not really be hidden at all.

Amsterdam.  1686.  Eighteen-year-old Petronella Oortman-Brandt arrives at the front door of her new husband’s luxurious home, ready to take on the roles of dutiful and loyal wife, competent household manager, and someday soon, loving mother.  What she finds is a husband that is kind, but distant – Johannes Brandt spends every hour on his job as a merchant for the Dutch East India Company – and a demanding, domineering, sister-in-law, Marin, with acerbic tongue and controlling hand.  Not to mention a flighty, obtuse, and obstinate maid, Cornelia, and exotic manservant, Otto, with his skin dark as ebony.  Adrift in this house of strangers, Nella seeks to make sense of her new surroundings, but feels as though she keeps crashing into closed doors.  Then, one day, her new husband presents her with a wedding gift:  a dollhouse that is an exact replica of her new Amsterdam home.  Equal parts fascinated and insulted by this gift, Nella decides to occupy her time furnishing the model house, and therefore, reaches out to a mysterious and nameless craftsman that specializes in miniatures.  When the Miniaturist delivers Nella’s first order, and includes several creations she did not request, the questions begin.  Why did the Miniaturist include these additional pieces?  And how did he get the details of them so perfectly right?

As secrets in the Brandt household start to unravel, the Miniaturist always seems to be one step ahead, sending figurines and model pieces that mirror events happening in Nella’s life.  Is the Miniaturist a spy?  Or a prophet?  One thing is for sure:  Nella won’t rest until she finds out.  But what happens when Brandt household secrets threaten the very lives of these strangers Nella is coming to embrace?  Can the Miniaturist foretell what is going to happen?  More importantly, can he stop it?

This enveloping novel wraps around you like a thick down comforter and makes you relish in the luxury of each moment.  While a mystery at its heart, The Miniaturist is also a detailed look at life in 17th century Amsterdam and the luxuries of being connected to a successful merchant.  The language is rich, smooth, and full of soft velvet, and as with any good storyteller, Burton makes you feel every word on the page – the tastes of the sweets Nella craves, the rush of the crowded city she wanders through on her trips to the Miniaturist’s shop, the quiet of secrets prowling darkened halls.  It is a beautiful, delectable, gorgeous novel.

Admittedly it includes whole passages on events in the Brandt home that seem completely irrelevant – there is a lot of going ons about trading and selling sugar in a city that looks down its nose at sweet treats – but, of course, those passages do come into play in the taut climax.  But getting to that climax and determining how these seemingly unnecessary passages are important can be a bit of a slog for some.

On the whole, the language and storytelling save this novel for me.  I look forward to seeing more works from Burton in the future.

 

Firefight10. Firefight

Brandon Sanderson

Dates Read:  February 15 – February 18

I have run out of adjectives that adequately express the storytelling genius of Brandon Sanderson.  So I’m going to skip that part and jump right into how much I love – like everything else this man has written – the next iteration in the Reckoners series, Firefight.

David Charleston has achieved his lifelong dream – he has become a Reckoner, a member of an elite group of human fighters battling the super human Epics, and he has killed the supposedly indestructible Steelheart, the Epic that murdered his father and ruled post-apocalyptic Chicago (Newcago) as a draconic tyrant.  But revenge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  First, David has fallen in love with his fellow Reckoner, Megan, only to find out she is an Epic, and she likely betrayed David to Steelheart.  David’s leader, Prof, is also an Epic, and he saved David’s life… lots of times.  Which doesn’t reconcile with David’s outlook of “Epics are bad.”  Not to mention, more super humans are pouring into Newcago on a mission to assassinate the “Steelslayer,” so David is spending a lot of time fighting them off, and each time he kills one, he sees Megan’s face.  When Prof determines that most of these assassins are coming from Babilar (post-apocalyptic Manhattan), the Newcago team heads out to see what Babilar’s equivalent of Steelheart – Regalia – is plotting.

In a city partially submerged by Regalia’s water-controlling powers, David faces more than just another indestructible Epic.  He has to reconcile what he has spent his whole life believing with what he has seen with his own eyes.  Is there such a thing as a good Epic?  Or is it, as so many claim, impossible to be gifted with super human powers and not be corrupted by them?  Finding these answers isn’t easy, and David has to squeeze the search for them in with a looming battle against Regalia, and her fellow Epic, Obliteration, who has the ability to fry an entire city… not to mention enemies much closer to David’s own heart.

Firefight is everything you want in a sequel, a second installment in a series, etc…:  the characters become richer and more complex, the universe becomes more deeply rooted, the story develops and carries everyone forward while it also builds on what came before, and the story itself is creative, fast-paced, nail-biting, and pumped full of wit and action.  Check all of the above here because Brandon Sanderson has done all of these with Firefight.  In fact, I’m trying to think of something critical to say about Sanderson… maybe use a different typeface?  Seriously, his books are as close to perfection as I can conjure.

And most of all, he has left me wanting more.  As with every other book I have read by Sanderson, I turn the final page jonesing for the next book in the series.  For this one, I have to wait until spring 2016… sigh.

 

Titanic Tragedy9. Titanic Tragedy:  A New Look at the Lost Liner

John Maxtone-Graham

Dates Read:  February 5 – February 11

Considering there must be somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 books on the ill-fated Titanic, it definitely gets more and more challenging to find a fresh approach to the disaster.  Especially since it is a singular moment in history.  But that became the contest when the centennial of the sinking passed a few years back:  create a new batch of Titanic books that don’t rehash the same old story:  big, beautiful, brand new ship is built, sails on maiden voyage, hits iceberg, sinks, lots of people die.

I have to admit that Maxtone-Graham’s Titanic Tragedy isn’t the best I have read in this latest round of Titanic literature, but it isn’t the worst either.  I enjoyed his syntax (such proper English!) and when he was immersed in the throes of a story, I felt myself completely enraptured as well.  But the overall structure of the book – its haphazard approach to what one can call periphery elements of the sinking – and the random “tossing in” of anecdotes detracted from the stories Maxtone-Graham was telling.

Titanic Tragedy devotes single chapters to different elements of the Titanic disaster, including the role of wireless technology, the construction of the ship in the Harland and Wolff shipyard, the launching of the lifeboats on the night of the sinking, the eventual rescue of survivors by the Cunard ship Carpathia, and finally, a look at the quirky side of the eminent Titanic historian, Walter Lord.  Any of these chapters could have been monographs by themselves; they are all fascinating stories in maritime history.  But their inclusion in one book, and no real thread connecting them together, creates a disjointed journey through Titanic history.  Not to mention Maxtone-Graham had a tendency to drop in unrelated anecdotes, introducing them with phrasing like, “one more thing I want to point out,” and “a couple more things to mention before we move on.”  That coupled with amazing thesaural language like “illumining” and “abrogated” and “anathema” made it feel like, at times, I was reading a high school student’s history paper.

But I cannot fault Maxtone-Graham’s storytelling.  When he got going on a particular topic, then it really was all or nothing.  The story leapt from the page and I felt like I was right there, in that moment.  Which made those sudden jumps to an unrelated anecdote all the more jarring.

So while Titanic Tragedy could have been a better book, it could have been a worse book too.  Although considering some of the mistakes Maxtone-Graham made – Dorothy Gibson, William Sloper, and Frederick Seward did not escape in Lifeboat 1 as mentioned on page 99, but in Lifeboat 7 – can call into question the veracity of his other facts as well.

 

Persuasion8. Persuasion [audiobook]

Jane Austen [narrated by Juliet Stevenson]

Dates Listened:  February 5 – February 10

What I am about to write here is not meant to be an insult to Jane Austen.  If anything, it is a compliment to her skills as a storyteller that I get so emotionally entangled in her settings and her characters.  But I gotta say:  I would have been the first official case of death by boredom if I lived at the turn of the 19th century.  Especially if I had been a woman of a certain class.  What an insipid life!  Hanging out at home, worrying about manners, and more so, worrying about what everyone else around you is doing, and who is hooking up with who.  Sounds like high school.  For my entire life.  Kill me now.

But such is the situation in Persuasion.  Lady Anne Elliott is the middle daughter, and the only member of the family who isn’t a complete nitwit, of Sir Walter Elliott, a vain, self-centered, and completely ridiculous patriarch.  Her elder sister Elizabeth follows in Daddy’s footsteps, while younger sister, Mary, who is equally vain and self-centered, has the added benefit of being a self-pity master.  The novel opens with Sir Walter and Elizabeth facing the crisis of debt; they have too much of it, and in an attempt to bring some of it under control, they are very reluctantly persuaded into renting out their country estate, Kellynch Hall, and taking cheaper quarters in Bath.  The new tenants of Kellynch are the Admiral Croft, and his wife, Lady Sophia, whose younger brother, Frederick Wentworth had been engaged to Anne some years previously.  However, that engagement ended when Anne had been persuaded by a family friend, Lady Russell, to call it off.  Apparently, Mr. Wentworth was not good enough.

It is eight years after that failed engagement, and Anne has never fully recovered from it.  So imagine her surprise when Frederick shows up to visit his sister and brother-in-law, and in the process, makes the acquaintance of Mary’s in-laws, the Musgroves.  Included in that family are the lovely younger sisters of Mary’s husband, Charles: Henrietta and Louisa.  And note, when I say “lovely,” I do mean vapid.  Which sister will claim Frederick’s heart?  That becomes the question at the center of the first half of the book, while quiet, introspective, always-proper Anne watches from the shadows.  But don’t worry, Anne has her own romantic triangle to face, for a long-estranged cousin, Mr. Elliott, turns up and has his sights set on the oft-overlooked middle sister.  But can Anne let go of her attachment to Frederick?  Is Mr. Elliott everything he seems to be?

It is a strange dichotomy because this is one of those stories that could be resolved in 5 minutes.  If Frederick and Anne had just talked to each other, all would have been roses and bells.  But of course it doesn’t work that way in early 19th century British culture.  Women don’t take control of their own lives; it is all up to the men.  Anne isn’t going to say anything about her feelings to Frederick.  That wouldn’t be proper.  And men are so full of pride… but I guess that is always an element of every love story.  Somebody has to be too proud.  Sigh.  But my frustration at these characters, as I mentioned, is only a testament to Austen’s talent.  It is a rare thing to get pulled into a story that is such an anathema to my own personal lifestyle decisions, but involved I did become.  Even if I did find Wentworth a bit lame, and Anne a bit boring.  19th century Britain, Rachel.  Remember that.  Because I did love the story, and I shall read Austen again.

 

Resolute7. Resolute:  The Epic Search for the Northwest Passage and John Franklin, and the Discovery of the Queen’s Ghost Ship

Martin Sandler

Dates Read:  February 1 – February 6

This is the book that first introduced me to the whole saga that was the 19th century search for the Northwest Passage, and sparked in me the interest to learn more about it.  Now, five or six books on the topic later, I have come back to this treasured first.  To re-experience its lively storytelling, its cast of brought-to-life characters, and its gripping adventures.

It has an epically long title but Resolute focuses solely on the most dramatic century of the five-century quest for a water route from Europe to Asia via the Arctic.  And that most dramatic century was the 19th, from which the most famous names in Arctic exploration hail:  Edward Parry, John Ross, James Clark Ross, Robert McClure, John Rae, Charles F. Hall, and of course, John Franklin.  In fact, Franklin’s doomed 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage and the subsequent search-and-rescue missions are really the heart of this slim-but-action-packed tome.

When Franklin, and his crew of 128 men aboard the two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror had gone three years without sending a single word of their whereabouts, both Great Britain and the US launched massive search expeditions to find them.  Most of these voyages were beset by their own problems, but easily the most dramatic was the 1852 – 1854 expedition commanded by British naval captain Edward Belcher.  An expedition that included scores of men and five ships, the HMS Resolute among them.  Belcher quickly proved not to be an Arctic man – he hated everything about the frozen wasteland – and after almost two years trapped in that landscape, he called it quits.  Belcher ordered his officers to abandon their ships, and all 260+ men on the expedition boarded one vessel to head for home.  Four ships had been left to their fates in the Arctic, but it is the Resolute that makes a reappearance… over a year later, when a whaling crew finds her drifting aimlessly in the waters of Davis Strait near the southeast coast of Baffin Island.

Aghast at their discovery – the Resolute had drifted an astonishing 1400 miles from where she had been abandoned on the south coast of Melville Island to where she was found – the whaling crew decided to tow the derelict ship back to their home port.  In a grand undertaking of international goodwill, the US Congress voted to restore the ship and return it to England.  Years later, when the ship was sent to the scrap yards, Queen Victoria had timbers from the Resolute carved into a beautiful wood desk, and she gifted it to President Rutherford B. Hayes.  That desk has remained the president’s own in the Oval Office ever since (with a few exceptions).

This amazing piece of non-fiction is chock full of all the ship-i-ness I love.  Not only do we get caught up in the stories of those Arctic explorers who braved unknown waters, lands, and dangers, but we hear about the ships that carried them.  Chief among them is the Resolute, but we also read about others, like the HMS Terror, one of the ships on Franklin’s 1845 expedition, which had her own incredible tale – starting with her days as a bomb ship in the War of 1812, where her bombardment of Fort McHenry inspired the United States national anthem, to her near sinking in the Arctic while under the command of explorer George Back in 1836, to her journeys through the Antarctic in the early 1840s, and her disappearance on the Franklin voyage.

Resolute is a slim read, and an easy one, which makes me all the more grateful I read this one first before tackling some of the more comprehensive volumes on this topic.  It’s a great introduction to say the least, and provides that contextual detail that others lack.  I recommend it for anyone even slightly interested in voyages of discovery and exploration… and old ships of course!

 

Tropic of Serpents6. The Tropic of Serpents, Memoir by Lady Trent #2 [audiobook]

Marie Brennan [read by Kate Reading]

Dates Listened:  January 19 – February 4

It’s all fun and games until someone decides to mess with international politics… and dragons.  Actually, it is all fun and games regardless.  The Tropic of Serpents, Book 2 in the planned series of memoirs written by the delightful natural historian “Lady Trent” is nothing if not another rip-roaring good time through pure escapism.

Three years after returning home from the frightful mountains of Vystrana – an adventure told in the first book – young, and now widowed, Isabella Camherst finds herself living as a virtual recluse trying to raise her 2-year-old son, Jacob.  But motherhood doesn’t come easy, and Isabella sorely misses her first passion: researching dragons.  Not that she isn’t keeping busy.  In partnership with the fiercely quiet Tom Wilker, Isabella spends most of her time trying to solve the mystery of preserving dragon bones; a feat accomplished by a bitter rival from the Vystrana expedition.  But when Lord Hilford, the patron for the Vystrana trip, offers Isabella the opportunity to lead yet another research adventure to the wilds of Eriga, she literally jumps out of her chair.

Little does Isabella know that departing Victorian Scirland, which entails leaving her young son behind, and bringing along Lord Hilford’s runaway granddaughter, is the least of her problems.  Eriga is in the midst of an ongoing war with various tribal communities fighting each other at every turn, and Isabella’s home country, Scirland is trying to stake their own claim on the rich continent.  To get her shot at studying the native dragons, Isabella finds herself making naïve political promises to the local village tribes, and (possibly) worse yet, finds herself heading deep into the deadly swamps known colloquially as the Green Hell.  Thick with all the hazards that can possibly accompany a swamp called the Green Hell, every day is a struggle to survive.  But Isabella, Tom, and the runaway granddaughter, Natalie, brave on, forming alliances with the natives and seeking out their treasured prize: the water-dwelling swamp dragons. And when Isabella’s respect for her native companions blossoms, can she keep the promises she made to the villagers?  Especially if she knows those promises could mean the end of the Green Hell?

As with A Natural History of Dragons, The Tropic of Serpents is more about the adventures of the feisty, iron-willed, and utterly independent Isabella in a male-dominated society than it is about dragons.  Which is probably why I have so thoroughly enjoyed both of these books.  And Isabella really is my favorite part of these books.  Not just in her independence, but in her wit and sense of humor, and her courage.  I just adore her.

And her stories work.  Neither of these books are the most fast-paced adventure novels I have read, or the most gripping, thrilling, or suspenseful.  But I can’t imagine them being structured any other way, and Isabella still being nearly as enjoyable.  The Lady Trent series is proving to be that rare magical combination of great characters, great storytelling, and perfect pacing, and I am waiting in breathless anticipation for Book 3.

 

Arctic Labyrinth5. Arctic Labyrinth:  The Quest for the Northwest Passage

Glyn Williams

Dates Read:  January 20 – January 30

Call me crazy for being fascinated with the search for the Northwest Passage, but at least I’m not as crazy as the guys who actually went on the search for the Northwest Passage.  And what a crew they were.  Fearless, daring, stalwart… these were men who sailed into unknown waters on masted sailing ships smaller than a modern-day semi with nothing more than a spyglass in hand.

They were also looney enough to undertake return voyages after they had already spent months frozen in ice, suffering from scurvy, frostbite, and other debilitating conditions, enduring frightful boredom from endless days and nights in a solid white landscape, and almost always half-starved and three-quarters dead by the time they made it home.  But as any maritime historian will tell you, the centuries-long quest to find that treasured seagoing route to Asia via the ice-choked waters north of Canada is a testament to the endurance of the human spirit.

I still call it looney.

But fascinating it is, nonetheless.  And Glyn Williams handles it deftly, covering every major explorer involved in this long-futile quest from Martin Frobisher (1500s) to James Cook (1770s) to Edward Parry (1810s – 1820s), and the doomed John Franklin (1830s – 1840s) and into the modern-day.  Williams also chronicles every major milestone, including the first tentative reaches into the vast network of straits, sounds, inlets, and bays that comprise the island-ridden waters in the Arctic, the discoveries of new lands and new peoples, the loss of ships to the floating packs of ice, and every tragedy and disaster that befell those explorers who lost the fight with the elements in the unforgiving landscape.

For us maritime nerds, who read about the Northwest Passage with a little more frequency than really is sane, the most famous of the Arctic disasters was the last expedition led by Sir John Franklin, which departed England for the Arctic in 1845.  He sailed on two ships – the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror – with a complement of 128 men, and they were never seen again.  Several search and rescue expeditions were launched in succeeding years, most of them fiercely supported by Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane, but only relics were found.  First, there were three graves discovered on Beechey Island, later identified as belonging to Franklin crew members.  Early expeditions also found evidence of the crews camping on Beechey Island during the winter of 1845 – 1846.  And in subsequent decades, the searches continued, and more relics were discovered, including skeletons, tools and artifacts from the two ships, and cairns – or canisters holding documents and notes that ideally detail an expedition’s progress and next steps – which have led historians to believe the crew had abandoned their ships after they became frozen in pack ice, and headed south on foot to find rescue.  As they marched, scurvy, lead poisoning (possibly from tainted canned food), and starvation did the crew members in, one-by-one.

Williams devotes an entire section of this detailed work to Franklin’s expedition, and the subsequent search and rescue missions.  But he doesn’t scrimp on the details anywhere else as a result.  It is all here, and written with a simple straightforward prose, which I definitely appreciate.  There is a lot going on, and I can see why those who are not familiar with Arctic exploration might become bogged down.  I have read other books on this topic, and I can’t keep all the names, dates, routes, and ships straight.  I was constantly flipping to the few maps included to keep track of the progress of each expedition, and I had to do the whole “pause-and-check-Wikipedia” thing to keep the names and dates straight (remember, most of these guys who made it out alive the first time around did go back), but I don’t think that comes from Williams – that is the nature of reading about Arctic exploration.  There were a lot of men involved, a lot of ships, a lot of expeditions, a lot of dates, and a lot of routes.

And I think, considering the volume of data, Williams handled it well.  I would have liked a few more maps, and maybe a few more contextual reminders (James Clark Ross, whom we had last seen doing this, that, and the other thing), but I know I will definitely call on Arctic Labyrinth for reference when I continue my readings on the search for the Northwest Passage in the future.

Yep, I’m looney too.

 

hero of ages4. The Hero of Ages: Mistborn Book 3

Brandon Sanderson

Dates Read:  January 5 – January 19

I am just staring at my laptop screen because I cannot formulate the words that properly express the full power that is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy.  If you asked me right now to name a favorite book, I would blurt out this trilogy without a moment’s hesitation.  Because I simply cannot remember a time I read a series of novels as stirring, evocative, emotional, and as magical, creative, and unique as this series.

The Hero of Ages brings the Mistborn mythology full circle.  Tricked into releasing the ultimate power of destruction – appropriately called Ruin – from the Well of Ascension, Vin faces her toughest battle yet.  With Elend by her side, the two are in a race to save the entire world from Ruin’s power.  But how can you stop a force?  Especially when that force has the power to destroy the planet?

Elend and Vin aren’t giving up, though.  The tyrannical Lord Ruler – slain by Vin in the first book – knew Ruin’s freedom from the Well of Ascension would come someday, so he hid vast storage caverns around the entire empire in preparation.  In each cavern, he leaves an enigmatic clue that Elend and Vin hope will ultimately lead to something they can use to save the world and protect the Final Empire’s people.  Their journey across the broken landscape brings danger in the pursuing koloss, troll-like creatures with strength exceeding ten men, and in the environment itself, for ash is blanketing the land in mounds reaching waist and chest high.  And for each step Elend and Vin take, new questions arise they cannot answer.  Why are the mists attacking people?  And why is exactly 16% of the population going down each time?

Everything comes to a head in Fadrex City, the site of the final storage cavern, and the place where Vin and Elend hope they can find the answers they need.  But the king ruling the area is loyal to the Lord Ruler, and rebels against Elend’s claim.  Are the answers in the final storage cavern beneath Fadrex City’s streets?  Can Elend and Vin find them in time?

And as with the preceding two novels, Elend and Vin’s adventures are not the only ones leading to the final showdown.  Sazed, the scholar and Keeper, lost his faith when his beloved Tindwyl died in the Battle of Luthadel.  Now, he searches through the hundreds of religions he has studied over his lifetime looking for the one that is the truth, while he also tries to serve Elend and Vin in their fight against Ruin.  Can a broken man really help?  TenSoon, the kandra servant Vin forced into a wolfhound’s body, has been arrested, and awaits trial for violating the sacred contract of the kandra people.  He alone of his kind knows what is coming, but can he convince the older kandra of it?  And Spook.  The youngest and seemingly least important of Kelsier’s original crew, has been sent to the northern edges of the Final Empire as informant for Elend, who is desperately trying to hold onto his fragile kingdom.  When Spook finds the northern dominance has been claimed by a new leader – a tyrant in the same vein as the Lord Ruler – he becomes an unwitting leader in a rebellion that tries to keep Kelsier’s original dream of freedom for all alive.

As with the preceding two Mistborn novels, what Sanderson does here is pure magic.  There are so many themes running through the book – love, faith, hope, leadership, heroism, perseverance, strength – it really is a whole world in itself.  One that tackles questions we face ourselves, like what makes a person good or bad?  What does it mean to have faith?  Hope?  How long do you fight before you know the battle is over?  What does it mean to truly love someone?  But ultimately, what do we need in order to live a beautiful life?  Can we exist without everything both good and bad that comes with living?

Go, Sanderson.

 

Still Alice3. Still Alice [audiobook]

Lisa Genova [read by author]

Dates Listened:  January 14 – January 18

Heartbreaking.  And heartwarming.  That is Still Alice, a remarkable look at the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, as told by the eponymous heroine (and newly diagnosed patient), Alice Howland.

Our narrator is a world-renowned linguist, and psychology professor at Harvard University, whose busy and fulfilled life revolves around her career as teacher and lecturer, her family, and her research.  When Alice starts experiencing lapses in memory – an inability to recall a specific word during a talk, a missed flight she completely forgot to catch, a struggle to remember which lecture she is presenting that day moments after reviewing her notes – she starts to worry menopause is striking hard.  When Alice finds herself lost one day in the middle of her daily run, and on a route she takes every day, she heads to the doctor.

Not menopause.  Not depression.  Not stress.  Alice, at the age of 50, is experiencing the first visible symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s disease.  Heartbreaking diagnosis in hand, Alice struggles to face the reality slapping her in the face:  she will lose everything important to her.  She will cease to be a lecturer and a researcher, she will forget her family, which includes husband John and three adult children, and one day, she will forget herself.  But, as Alzheimer’s continues its steady march forward, and those realities come true, Alice also finds unexpected joy in everyday moments like walks on the beach, an ice cream cone on a hot sunny day, and time spent with the ones she loves.

Still Alice is a crushing look at Alzheimer’s, and it is made all the more powerful by being told from the perspective of Alice herself.  We are there, in Alice’s world, as she navigates the treachery of this disease, which, in addition to the characteristic memory lapses, includes loss of spatial understanding (Alice mistakes a black rug on the floor for a hole), language analysis and processing (reading and writing become increasingly difficult), and loss of time (Alice often believes her mother and sister – who both died years previously – are still alive).  And we are there when Alice finds those moments of pure happiness:  the swim in the ocean, the ice cream cones, the moments with her children.

Still Alice is nothing if not a beautiful reminder of the fleeting nature of life.  What do we do with our time?  What will be most important to us?  How can we love and support those around us when they make decisions with which we don’t agree?  Where do we find our moments of happiness?  Those are all questions Lisa Genova raises through Alice’s remarkable and memorable journey.  A treasure.  Still Alice will remain… always, a treasure.

 

The first book in a series about natural historian, Lady Isabella Trent, has a strong, self-assured, and independent female lead. The only thing she shares in common with Twilight's Bella is her first name...

The first book in a series about natural historian, Lady Isabella Trent, has a strong, self-assured, and independent female lead. The only thing she shares in common with Twilight’s Bella is her first name…

2. A Natural History of Dragons, Memoir by Lady Trent #1 [audiobook]

Marie Brennan [read by Kate Reading]

Dates Listened:  December 29, 2014 – January 13, 2015

Take one strong, independent, and intelligent young woman from the Victorian era, add a dash of Indiana Jones adventure and intrigue, and don’t forget a pinch of fantasy (a la dragons), and you have the recipe for Marie Brennan’s fantastical and overly enjoyable A Natural History of Dragons, Memoir by Lady Trent #1.

Meet young Isabella.  A noblewoman of Scirland, she yearns to pursue a life of scholarship, studying the mysterious creatures that captured her heart as a young girl stealing books from her father’s library:  dragons.  However, she is a woman, in a very Victorian society, where women are housewives, caretakers, mothers, and nothing more.  So, to avoid a life of drudgery, Isabella does what any sensible, aspiring female scholar would do:  find a husband that will support her interests.  She meets Jacob Camherst, a fellow dragon enthusiast, who does take her as his bride.  It’s a slow start to a life of rigorous academia, but Isabella is happy.  Her new husband is both friend and scholarly partner, and he allows her to pursue her interests… so far.  When Jacob is invited to be part of an expedition to study dragons in the mountainous land of Vystrana, Isabella desperately wants to go.  Will Jacob forego societal propriety and allow his headstrong bride to accompany him?

Spoiler alert – yes, he does.  And the adventure only just begins with that reluctant yes.  The expedition is beset with problems before it even arrives at the mountaintop village of Drustanev in Vystrana.  Dragons, normally shy creatures, are attacking humans in broad daylight.  The bureaucrat who invited the scientists in the first place, has disappeared.  Mysterious figures scurry about in the night.  And those ruins on the hillside near Drustanev; are they really haunted by an ancient spirit?  Did the arrival of the dragon expedition unleash an unholy terror?

There is so much to love in this book – great characters (Isabella is a dynamo!), creative storytelling, mythology and lore, etc…, but I can understand why some readers may have been disappointed.  The book appears, at first glance, to be a wild fantasy adventure with dragons.  Hmmm… not so much.  Yes, dragons are very much a part of the story, but in this book, they are creatures of science, not mythical beings you fight with flaming swords.  Isabella and her adventures are not rooted in a fantasy world so much as they are in our very own.  Replace the dragons with any “real” animal, like whales, tigers, elephants, etc…, and Isabella’s story stands as well as the Amelia Peabody series (about equally strong, independent, and intelligent Egyptologist, Amelia Peabody, and her crazy adventures digging up antiquities in Egypt).  If you open this book expecting edge-of-your-seat adventure with gruesome mountaintop battles, hero knight against fire-breathing dragon, etc…, then yes, you will be disappointed.

A Natural History of Dragons is more about a woman with a purpose finding her way, proving that hurdles and obstacles can be overcome with enough perseverance, patience, and passion.  I am also partial to strong independent women, so Isabella here fits my ideal for a heroine.  I will do what I want and the rest of you be damned is a perfect mentality for women as far as I’m concerned.

And there is Brennan’s superb approach of turning creatures of myth into creatures of science.  It is fascinating to read (in my case, listen) about the physiology of the dragon, their anatomy, their behavioral practices.  Almost made it feel like dragons are real, and one hike up into the snowy mountains is all it takes to find them.

 

Well of Ascension1. The Well of Ascension:  Mistborn Book 2

Brandon Sanderson

Dates Read:  December 16, 2014 – January 5, 2015

I’m not going to rant and rave about how wonderful and amazing and beyond talented I feel Brandon Sanderson is.  I love the guy.  Let’s leave it at that.  And I have a feeling I will never read a book by him that will garner less than 5 stars from me.

So off we go!  The Well of Ascension or Book 2 in the Mistborn Trilogy.  The tyrannical Lord Ruler is dead.  Slain by Mistborn Vin herself.  And the dream that carried everyone to the final showdown in the Lord Ruler’s own palace, has been achieved:  the Final Empire has collapsed.  Too bad that was only the first battle in what is looking to be a long and costly war.

Things are not going well in Luthadel – the capital city of the former Final Empire.  Kelsier, the Mistborn leader that kicked off the rebellion to overthrow the Empire, is also dead, and his ragtag crew are trying to pick up the pieces of a costly rebellion.  Lord Elend Venture, the love of Vin’s life, has been named king of this fragile land, with Kelsier’s former crew as his advisors and administrative heads.  Elend wants to establish a new world order where all are free and the city is governed by a council, but the skaa, the slaves who toiled under the Lord Ruler’s tyranny, have only known oppression for a thousand years.  They don’t know how to be free.  The council Elend appoints doesn’t think too highly of his abilities.  And there’s the problem of rival kings marching towards Luthadel hoping to take the crown away from Elend… one of them is his own father.

Add to all this the changes occurring in the physical world since the Lord Ruler’s death.  The mists, which had previously only covered the land at night, are now sticking around longer and longer during the day.  There are also rumors of people dying in painful and grotesque ways – killed by the mists themselves.  Vin and her former steward, Sazed, both believe the answers to these changes lay in the Well of Ascension, where the Lord Ruler seized his power a thousand years before.  But how to find it?  The Well’s exact location has always been a mystery.  So while Sazed pores through the scanty records from before the Lord Ruler’s ascension, Vin takes steps towards her own destiny.  Is she the Hero of Ages?  The one prophesied to save the world?  Or is she, as Vin herself believes and she is told by a mysterious new Mistborn, only a tool for use in a bigger political machine?

It is so difficult to get down in a paragraph or two what Sanderson’s books are really about.  There is so much depth to each work, it is impossible to condense it to less than 500 words.  The Well of Ascension for example, which explores the power of love in the relationship between Vin and Elend.  Deeply committed to each other, Elend and Vin will do anything for the other.  But that drains Vin as she tries to protect Elend from all the forces that want to tear him down, and Elend, though he loves Vin wholeheartedly, doesn’t fully understand her or her powers.  There is the road towards faith, both in oneself and in greater powers, as seen in the evolution of Kelsier’s former crew.  Breeze, Ham, Clubs, and Dox are all men whom Kelsier picked because he could see more in them then they can see in themselves.  Can they live up to the vision Kelsier had for each of them?  And Sazed – the Keeper of Religions who is now facing his own crisis of faith.  What can he believe in when everything he uncovers contradicts what he knows?

Sanderson is a super star.  There.  Enough said.

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