Thursday, March 26, 2015

Tough Traveling - Beloved Mounts

Tough Traveling is a fun meme that aims to tour all the tropes big and small, abhorred and loved that are littered across the fantasy landscape. It was conceived of and is hosted by Nathan at Fantasy Review Barn and here's how it's explained on the blog: 

Each Thursday, our copy of ‘The Tough Guide to Fantasyland’ in hand, we shall tour the mystical countryside looking for adventure and fun (and tropes) from all over fantasy.

This week's trope is Beloved Mounts:
A combination of suggestions from several people, as it seems many want to talk about the various animals that people in fantasyland ride. So be they horse, bear, or other let’s talk about favorite rides.
I picked mounts that play a very instrumental or at least a very large part in the story.

Temeraire from the Temeraire Series by Naomi Novik

Boy do I love a good British Navy during the Napoleonic War era story and Boy do I love dragons.  This series combines them.  How awesome is that.  Will Laurence, Captain of a regular old British Navy ship ends up capturing a dragon egg and bonding with it's occupant, Temeraire.  Temeraire and Will can talk with one another and they enter the British service in a new capacity in the skies instead of the sea. It's a great series and I'm not sure why I haven't read further into it!

Bree from A Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

I could have potentially put Aslan here because Lucy and Susan, at least, hotch a ride but A Horse and His Boy is one of my favorites (though a fellow blogger rightfully pointed out recently that it's kind of racist).  Bree is a talking horse of Narnia who was enslaved to a Calormen nobleman and he steals the young boy Shasta (also a slave) and they make a break for Narnia.  Bree is a good bit more cosmopolitan than Shasta and not only teaches him to ride but also a little about the world.  He also learns a lesson about being too proud.

Appa from Avatar: The Last Airbender by Gene Luen Yang et al.

Kind of a cheat since this is primarily a television show but I LOVE Appa and pretty much the entire concept of sky bison.  He is more than Aang's mount - he is also Aang's spirit animal and best friend really.  They share a very tight bond. 

Falada from The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

A really fantastic re-telling of the fairy tale of the same name.  Ani, the Goose Girl/Princess has the ability to talk to animals and one of the first bonds she creates is with her horse, Falada.  Falada, and Ani's love for her, play a pretty big role in the story but I don't want to reveal to much more than that!

Iorek Byrnison from His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman

This one's a stretch as Iorek cannot rightfully be called a mount - he's an armored bear, sentient and king of his people.  He's an important character in the books and I think he lets Lyra ride him at certain points but I have not read these books in an age - they are on my want to re-read list!  There are certainly plenty of images out there depicting this including one on the cover!

So besides Temeraire, I came up with all YA and middle-grade books. Interesting.   As usual I feel like I am missing a lot so will look forward to everyone else's brilliant lists which are found over on Fantasy Review Barn!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

REVIEW: Sheepfarmer's Daughter by Elizabeth Moon
Sheepfarmer’s Daughter by Elizabeth Moon
Original Publication Year: 1988
Genre(s): Fantasy
Series: The Deed of Paksenarrion #1
Format: Audio (from Audible)
Narrated by: Jennifer Van Dyck

This is, perhaps arguably, a modern classic of the fantasy genre.  I call it a classic because I feel like it shows up on people’s lists as a favorite especially amongst all the epic fantasy that was being produced in the 1980’s and 1990’s from Terry Brooks, David Eddings and many others besides.  I’ve had it on my TBR for so long, it got a place on my 100 Books Project List as I felt it was important that I read it.  In the end, I found this book quite odd and somewhat disappointing though I did like it.

The first thing I would characterize as unusual was that this was my first experience with what I would call “military fantasy”.  Sure, a lot of fantasy deals with war but this book reminded me of a Robert Heinlein novel (like Starship Troopers) transplanted to a generic European-type fantasy setting. The military structure is basically exactly like the modern American military except with swords and horses and the person in ultimate charge being a Duke.  There’s a boot camp and companies with sergeants and captains; there are non-commissioned officers and commissioned officers, a mess etc….

It is into this military environment that the sheepfarmer’s daughter, Paksenarrion or Paks, runs because she dreams of a life as a soldier.  She joins a reputable mercenary company that allows women and begins her life as a soldier.  This first volume details Paks first 2-3 years in the company and how ever-so-slowly, day by day, her star begins to rise and it becomes apparent that Paks is something special. 

The second unusual thing, is alluded to in that last sentence.  This is a VERY detailed and rather mundane narrative.  The reader is with Paks from day one of her training and, it seems like, every day after that for the following three years.  It gives a very clear picture of the life of a soldier – the training, the first battle, methodically looting a city, the death of comrades.  There are a few fantastical happenings but the story seems to concentrate on the everyday details.  Sometimes I found this very interesting and other times I found it dragged.  The prose is also pretty straightforward and matter-of-fact which fits the military focus and also lends to the air of mundanity.

Everything I’ve mentioned thus far was fine and gave the book a unique flair.  The methodical approach to the storytelling dragged at times but that wasn’t a major problem.  A major problem was that the characters, even Paks felt very shallow.  Very few of the secondary characters in the book are fleshed out in any real way and it was somewhat difficult to keep track of the rotating, basically identical-except-for-rank fellow soldiers.  Paks herself is simple and straightforward with very little interest in anything beyond soldiering -she’s not interested in men, she’s not interested in religion, she’s not even that interested in the other cultures that they encounter.  I in turn wasn’t that interested in her and that is what ended up making this just an okay read. 

FINAL VERDICT:  A unique, very detailed-oriented military fantasy that I ended up having trouble engaging with because of lackluster, generic characters.  I’m not sure I’ll pick up the sequels.  3 out of 5 Stars.

 NOTE:  I just realized that last Wednesday I review The Mermaid's Daughter.  I am unknowingly in a reading streak of books about people's daughters.  Odd.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday - Revisiting My Youth (-ful Reads)

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme for bloggers who like books and lists.  It's awesome and is graciously hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

This week's topic is the top ten childhood reads that we'd like to re-read.  As I've documented before, I feel like I missed out on some pretty iconic childhood reads so I'm not sure if I have a full ten childhood reads I want to re-visit.

1) Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

I've actually re-read this series dozens of time but it's been many years since I've done so.

2) The Belgariad and The Mallorean by David Eddings

I must have really enjoyed this series as a teenager because I have dragged around all the books in both series through many years and like 15 moves.  I better re-read it some time!

3) The Once and Future King by T.H. White

I remember it as a delightfully magical King Arthur tale.  I wonder if I would still see it that way.

4) Savage Spirit by Meg Cameron

This was my favorite romance story as a youngster - it's the story of teenage girl, Cat, on the frontier who is kidnapped by Indians and falls in love with a young brave named Blue Quail.  And yup.  I just pulled out those names from my memory.  I may have read it a few hundred times.  One more re-reading would be great. 

5) His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman

This is a fantastic trilogy that it has been far too long since I've read.

6) Pyewacket by Rosemary Weir

It's about a group of cats along a street that plot to kick out all the humans and take over. My copy looks just like the one in the picture including all the nicks and scratches.

7) Anne of Green Gables Books by L.M. Montgomery

I think I may have read this a little outside of my childhood but I think it still counts.

8) The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart

I had a thing for King Arthur as a kid.... Funnily, when I went to look this up on Goodreads, I found that there are a whole passel of books in Stewart's Arthurian Saga that I haven't read.

And I also just found a TTT post from November that was about re-reads and I mentioned several of these in that post too, so sorry for the repetition! 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

REVIEW: Avatar The Last Airbender - The Rift
Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Rift by Gene Luen Yang, Gurihiru, Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko
Original Publication Year: 2014
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Fantasy
Series: Avatar: The Last Airbender #3
Awards: None
Format: Paperback from Library
Narrated by: NA

NOTE:  This is a review of all three parts within the volume.

I adore the three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender so much and remember being incredibly disappointed that the show was not based on an existing series of graphic novels.  So my excitement knew no bounds when I finally discovered that the story was being continued in graphic novel form!  This is the third such collection that continues the story of Aang and his friends.

The Rift re-visits some of the themes from the first graphic novel set (the Promise); Aang’s sadness over the loss of the Air Nomad culture and the difficulties of integrating nations that are more used to being rigidly separate.  It also tackles the conflict between progress and honoring tradition (and our natural resources).

When Aang drags along his friends as well as the air acolytes to revive an ancient Air Nomad ritual he is horrified to find that a place sacred to air nomads has had a thriving city built on top of it during the 100 years he was frozen.  The spot is in the Earth Kingdom and Toph is immediately enamored by the lively city and particularly by a highly mechanized factory.  This sets up a conflict between Aang and Toph as it becomes clear that there is more at stake than just Aang’s disappointment at the loss of a sacred site. 

First of all I really like the theme addressed in this one and think it is explored pretty well and with an even hand.  Humans will always strive to better themselves and progress which has its positives and negatives.  Knowing what to embrace and what to be wary of isn’t always clear cut.  Aang represents a clinging to tradition while Toph embraces progress and they BOTH must find a middle ground. 

There are also several interesting developments and other details I really enjoyed; some conflicts from Toph’s past are addressed, Katara is confronted with old friends from the Southern Water Tribe, and the last Air Avatar, Yangchen, makes an appearance and is fleshed out a bit. 

My only complaint is that there was some awkward storytelling midway through the book that I didn’t think made a lot of sense.  Aang takes off in the middle of some fighting to continue the Air ritual with his acolytes without checking in to see if any of his friends are okay.  Which of course they’re not.  It was clumsy conflict set up but that’s my only nit pick.

One final question is whether these Graphic Novels would work for readers who have never watched the show and I’m not sure they would.  One of the best things about them is that they usually address something that wasn’t effectively resolved during the show (like the fate of Zuko’s mother in The Search).  Coming in cold to these relationships would also be a little difficult.  I think these are definitely intended for fans of the show.  Which if you are not a fan of the show, you should be :0)!

Final Verdict:  Another great addition to this “mythos” that continues the character and relationship growth while also telling a fast-paced mystery story.  4 Out of 5 Stars.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Saturdays in the Garden - Spring!


It's Spring! 

There have been a bunch of spring firsts here - two of which are personal favorites!  First the Red-winged Blackbirds showed up with their fancy little epaulettes and started strutting about in the grassy ditches by the road.
The Chorus Frogs started singing.
And the Robins have been hopping around picking randomly at the ground as they do.
It also got up to almost 86 degrees early this week, which is perhaps a tad too warm for this time of year but I'm not complaining.  I still have not yet gotten a single additional plant started but it's on the agenda for tomorrow.


The topmost picture was how my day started.  While I was the tiniest bit resentful at having to be on the road before sunrise on a Saturday, it does have it's perks:).  It was another busy week catching up at work but I think I'm over the hump.  There are still a few busy weeks ahead but manageable. I think.


I finished up the five seasons of M*A*S*H that were available on Netflix.  I'm happy to say that the show improved in season 5 after a weaker season 4 AND it also got a much better on the sexism front.  Houlihan had actually evolved into (arguably) the most interesting character on the show and we get this lovely exchange, acted superbly, with the formerly shameless Hawkeye:
Hawkeye: Oh, come on, Margaret, you're taking all the fun out of it.
Margaret: Yes, that's right, I am.
Hawkeye: Margaret, this is not merely a dream come true: gammaglobulin goes better in a person's kaboose.
Margaret: Not this person's.
Hawkeye: Margaret, you're a nurse!
Margaret: Oh, alright, let's get this over with!
Hawkeye: My sentiments exactly: let us not dawdle over a moment like this; let us treat it as a professional encounter of the most - oh, Margaret, may I pause on this occasion to express a few thoughts?
Margaret: If you say ONE word...!
Hawkeye: Oh, I wouldn't, I would not a word - but, but if I did that word would be magnificent! Would that be bad?
Margaret: Would you please just give me the shot?
Hawkeye: OK, OK. There.
Margaret: How dare you, come in here on the pretext of giving me a shot, and then stand there ogling me as though I were a side-show attraction?
Hawkeye: Boy, I show you a little appreciation and you hit the roof. What do you want from me?
Margaret: Respect. Simple respect. I expect nothing more and I'll accept nothing less.
Hawkeye: Hey, that's pretty good. You got me with that. Good.
Hawkeye: No, I mean, you really did. I bet that would work with Donald's mother.
Margaret: What?
Hawkeye: Maybe not those words, but that attitude: simple respect.
Margaret: Maybe.
Hawkeye: You know, in some ways, you really are magnificent, and not just on the outside.
With no more M*A*S*H, I watched the first couple episodes of the rebooted Cosmos with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and I have just one thing to say - Science is the bomb diggity.  I didn't want to continue with it tonight while I am trying to write this up because it requires some concentration so I casually scrolled through and decided to re-watch the first few episodes of The Vicar of Dibley which was the best idea I have ever had.  Dawn French may be the funniest and most charming person alive and she ends up getting together with Richard Armitage!!  It's a delightful show if you've never watched it - available for streaming on Netflix.

On the reading front, I finished Zenn Scarlett by Christian Schoon this week.  It had a lot of things I loved but also a fair number of things I didn't so middle of the road read.  I also started an older British police procedural - The Last Detective by Peter Lovesey.

On the Blog Last Week:

SUNDAY: I Wish I Lived in a Musical: My Favorite Broadway Musicals
TUESDAY: Top Ten Tuesday - Spring Reading List
WEDNESDAY:  Review of The Mermaid's Child by Jo Baker. 
THURSDAY:  Tough Traveling : Bards  - An examination of tropes in fantasy literature hosted by Fantasy Review Barn. My list is pretty pathetic, I'm afraid - I apparently don't read a lot of Bardic fantasy.

On the Blog Next Week:

SUNDAY: Review of Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Rift
TUESDAY: Top Ten Tuesday - Top 10 Books From My Childhood (Or teen years) That I Would Love To Revisit ).  Hosted by Broke and Bookish.
WEDNESDAY: Review of Sheepfarmer's Daughter by Elizabeth Moon
THURSDAY: Tough Traveling - Beloved Mounts

That's it for this week!  What are some of your favorite signs of spring?

Spring has returned. The Earth is like a child that knows poems.
Rainer Maria Rilke

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Tough Traveling - Bards

Tough Traveling is a fun meme that aims to tour all the tropes big and small, abhorred and loved that are littered across the fantasy landscape. It was conceived of and is hosted by Nathan at Fantasy Review Barn and here's how it's explained on the blog: 

Each Thursday, our copy of ‘The Tough Guide to Fantasyland’ in hand, we shall tour the mystical countryside looking for adventure and fun (and tropes) from all over fantasy.

This week's trope is Musicians/Bards:
"BARDS often join questing parties and provide entertainment around the campfire.  Sometimes their music even holds a little bit of magic.  Or a clue to an ancient mystery.  Or…"
Musicians, Bards  - I'll also throw out the word Minstrel.   I found this one incredibly difficult, either because I don't read books with a lot of music or I always forget the musicians - shame on me!

The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss

This is the first one that came to mind as music plays a very strong role in these stories.  The narrator and MC, Kvothe's family were traveling minstrels.  They were killed because they sang a song about some magical folk they shouldn't have sung a song about.  Kvothe goes on to become a master musician and pursue an investigation into the shadowy creatures who killed his family mostly by investigating the song that drew them and its origins.
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina is a court musician and music is very prominent in this awesome YA story.  I'm not sure you can classify Seraphina as a Bard but I really enjoyed all the musicians in the story and the role music played in this novel!
A Man of His Word series by Dave Duncan

This is an older fantasy series that I enjoyed discovering last year.  It has a unique magic system based on people knowing up to 4 words of power.  Each word imbues the possessor of the word with power and enhanced skills.  One of the most interesting "characters" are the Sequentials - five people/personalities sharing one body.  They were cursed into this state and each can be brought forth at will and has a different talent - there's the scholar, the thief, the burly violent one, the smooth charmer and....the Bard.  I, of course, can't remember his name. If only there was a site where I wrote reviews and recorded things like key character names....

And I think that taps me out this week.  Not a terribly impressive list - I'll look forward to see what books the other well-read participants in Tough Traveling include on their lists!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Mermaid's Child by Jo Baker
The Mermaid's Child by Jo Baker
Original Publication Year: 2004
Genre(s): Historical Fiction
Series: NA
Awards: None
Format: eBook - Thanks to Knopf/Doubleday Publishing Group for providing me with an advanced reader copy of this book (via NetGalley).  My review reflects my honest opinion of and experience with the book and was not influenced by receiving the book for free from the publisher. 
Narrated by: NA

Blurb from Publisher:
In this fantastical novel, the acclaimed author of Longbourn brings us the magical story of a young girl in search of her mother...who just might be a mermaid. Malin has always been different, and when her father dies, leaving her alone, her choice is clear: stay, and remain an outsider forever, or leave in search of the mythical inheritance she is certain awaits her. Apprenticed to a series of strange and wonderful characters, Malin embarks on a grueling journey that crosses oceans and continents €”from the high seas to desert plains €”and leads to a discovery that she could never have expected. Beautifully written and hauntingly strange, The Mermaid's Child is a remarkable piece of storytelling, and an utterly unique work of fantasy from literary star Jo Baker. 
I need to start this review with some speculation and a nit pick.  First the speculation. I received the book as an Advanced Reader's Copy from Netgalley but the book was published in 2004.  My guess is that the book is being re-printed and promoted in the wake of the success of Jo Baker's Pride and Prejudice-adjacent novel Longbourn?  Perhaps it was only previously published in the U.K.?   I bring it up to note that it is an earlier work by this author.  I have not read Longbourn (though I'd very much like to) so didn't read this book with any expectations.

Second the nitpick which is related to the above blurb by the publisher.  It's not 100% inaccurate but it paints the picture that this is a magical tale of fantasy and it isn't.  There is no magic and it is not a fantasy novel.  There are perhaps some surreal elements but its misleading to call it a fantasy.  It is in fact rather gritty historical fiction.  

I would describe the plot as a rather grim and surreal coming of age tale.  Malin is growing up poor, ignorant and soon an orphan in a small isolated town in an undefined time period (probably Victorian) and no clear country (probably England).  The only thing that interests her and keeps her going is her father's story that her mother was a  mermaid.  When a stranger comes to town and shows her some kindness, she sees her ticket out and her chance to look for her mother.  She follows him out into the wide world where she quickly learns that it is no less cruel then where she grew up.  She becomes a con, a sailor, a slave and a circus performer and with each she finds great sorrow and some joy. 

This is a pretty dark book but it keeps from getting sunk in melancholy by the somewhat fairy tale-esque nature of Malin's "adventures".  I just spent a whole paragraph above grumbling that it's not fantasy but it doesn't always feel that tethered to reality either.  I don't usually enjoy dark books but this one really sucked me in and I think it was the atmosphere.  It reminded me of the television show Carnivale which I adored and which also had a sort of tawdry, grim slightly fantastical feel to it.  Basically the book felt like this picture:
The writing is also excellent and I really connected with Jo Baker's writing style which also undoubtedly played a part in sucking me in to the book.

Malin is a fine narrator and main character.  She has just enough sense of adventure and belief in the magical that despite all the terrible things that happen to her, her voice is never melancholy.  She was strong and an interesting mix of practical/competent and a little insane.  

The thing that knocked the book down for me was the ending which felt very unsatisfying.   The way the story is being told it seems like an old woman telling the story of her life.  The book actually ends however, when she is still quite young and just felt incomplete. 

Final Verdict: A unique coming of age tale with a good narrative voice, great writing that I found engrossing but ultimately I was a little unsatisfied by the abrupt ending.  3 out of 5 stars.