Saturday, September 13, 2014

REVIEW: Throne of Glass by Sara J. Maas

Throne of Glass (Throne of Glass, #1)Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Original Publication Year: 2012
Genre(s): Fantasy, YA
Series: Throne of Glass #1
Awards: None
Format: Audio
Narrated By: Elizabeth Evans

Have you ever been arrested for being a famous teenaged assassin and imprisoned in a really brutal labor camp? And then had the Prince come along and promise you a job and then your freedom if you could defeat a whole passel of other bad asses in a ritualized and epic tournament? No? Me neither but that is exactly what’s happened to Celaena Sardothien and as you can imagine she’s pretty pumped about winning the tournament and eventually being free to make her own damn life choices. Unfortunately, her simple plan is complicated by ghostly visitations, brutal animalistic murders of her opponents and two pretty, pretty boys who think she’s the cat’s meow. Because what’s a YA book without a damn love triangle?

So as you can see, there is a pretty great, if formulaic set-up. There’s a mystery and some intriguing references to political intrigue. There is also a lot of set up for what I suspect will be one of the big mysteries of the series - Celaena’s origins. However, all of that is merely hinted at in this installment and while it got me interested in continuing with the series it ultimately made Throne of Glass seem somewhat shallow. This first book is all about setting up the relationships and the world of Rifthold. So in the end, I have hopeful feelings for the future but was just meh about this particular story.

What would have helped me like this book more?
1) If the author hadn’t felt it necessary to mention on every other page just how beautiful/gorgeous/perfect-looking Celaena was.  Her astonishing good looks better play a very large role in the plot at some point in the series, otherwise I'm calling foul. 
2) If there had been some flashbacks to Celaena’s tragic/difficult childhood (time in the mine, time in the assassin training school, who the heck Simon(?) was), it would have provided some depth to her character. As it was we are told to feel bad for her even though she seems perfectly well-adjusted and happy most of the time except for one scene of moody piano-playing. I know this happy-go-lucky attitude is meant to be a mask she wears but I never felt like I got to see behind that mask to how she was truly feeling and why she was feeling that way. Or appreciate how hard keeping the mask on must be considering what she had been through. The only Celaena we get to see is the one who gets to wear pretty clothes, eat scrumptious food, lounge around in a sumptuous suite of rooms while being doted on by the two most eligible bachelors in the castle. My sympathy for her knows no bounds.
3) Somewhat related to the above, if I believed for even one micron of a second that Celaena was a renowned assassin. Or even just a so-so assassin. I didn’t believe AT ALL that this girl had cold-bloodedly murdered even one person, not to mention a whole bunch of seemingly important enough people for her to earn a legendary reputation. I feel like the author just gave her this bad ass title and expected me to buy it. I understand that she had to give her some kind of violent background but, beyond arrogance and vanity there didn’t seem to be any real thought about what an assassin would actually be like. She would have been far more interesting, believable and less of a Mary Sue if she had verged on the amoral. This would also have given the character room to grow and made the fact that she is going to be asked to selflessly fight for the side of good (because you KNOW she is) a little more fraught with conflict.
4) Her arrogance and vanity don’t seem to turn anybody off except those that are eeevil. I'm fine with characters have flaws and faults and in fact I applaud it but they need to feel real, add to the characters depth and have consequences. In this case, all the characters that are “good” are immediately drawn to and love Celaena. This is practically how we know who is bad and who is good and they are all, for the most part bad or good – no in between. It doesn’t help that arrogance and vanity are two personality traits that I find particularly difficult to relate to so for them to work for me I really need to understand why the character is acting the way they are.

You’ll notice that all of my wishes have to do with better character and relationship development. Celaena surfed way too close to Mary Sue territory for me to get behind her fully though there were definitely some great scenes (like when she gobbles up a half a pound of candy before breakfast:). In the end, the only character I found really interesting was Chaol Westfall mostly because the author deliberately keeps him aloof and mysterious which made me hope for hidden depths. However, even he and Prince Dorian exhibited an unbelievable naivete’ and immaturity that just didn’t make sense. It seemed like a sloppy way of divorcing them from the seemingly evil machine of which they are an intricate part (you mean prisoners being forced to labor in a mine are whipped and treated poorly? egads! How could this be?!).

To be fair there is at least one outside factor that could have influenced my feelings. The narrator was okay but she read Celaena with this really bratty, snotty high school girl tone that may have exacerbated any negative impressions I had of Celaena. I plan on reading the sequels rather than listening.

Because yes, despite all the grumbling, I do plan to continue with the series. I really enjoyed the world that was built and what promises to be an intricate plot with politics and the fey! I just hope the cast becomes as complex as the story in future installments.

And now I will go hide from Elizabeth at so long and thanks for all the fish.  I will be happy to accept any thrown rotten fruit or vegetables.  Hopefully I'll warm up to Celaena is future installments?  Also, anyone out there -if you connected with Celaena what did you like about her?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

REVIEW: 11-22-63 by Stephen King

11/22/6311/22/63 by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Original Publication Year: 2011
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Series: NA
Format: Audio
Narrated By: Craig Wasson

Hallelujah! I finished a Stephen King book – FINALLY. He’s such an iconic author and the stories he tells should be right up my alley but I’ve struck out twice with him (The Stand [I WILL finish it] and The Gunslinger). 11/22/63 seemed like the subject matter might be a little less dark than King's usual fare and I thought it might suit me a bit better. I was (mostly) right!

The story is that of Jake Epping alias George Amberson who is somewhat abruptly recruited to help stop the assassination of John Kennedy. The twist? Jake is a high school teacher in 2011, so this assignment requires him to travel back in time through a “rabbit hole” in the pantry of his friend Al’s diner. Anybody that goes through this rabbit hole comes out in the fall of 1958. Jake proceeds to have many, many, many, many, many adventures on his way to stopping Lee Harvey Oswald’s dastardly deed.

Why so many manys? Because this book felt like 4 books under one cover. Jake first goes to Darry, Maine to try and prevent a tragedy of a friend from 2011. Than he does it again when he fails the first time (every time through the rabbit hole is a reset). Then he spends some time in Florida, writing a book and passing some time. Then he moves to a nice town in Texas and takes up teaching again and falls in love and makes lots of friends, then he moves to Dallas and spends a whole bunch of time spying on Lee Harvey Oswald, then the woman he loves has some trouble and he has to help her, then he has some trouble and she has to help him, then they get to the part where he tries to stop Lee Harvey Oswald. I kept wanting to shake the book and yell “FOCUS, please!” Each part of the book was satisfying in and of itself but they felt very disparate and also wildly differed in tone. Lee Harvey Oswald doesn’t really make an appearance until half way through this very long book. I liked all the components and Jake is a likeable character to spend time with through it all but I kept feeling like it would have been a stronger book if it had been more focused.

With that complaint out of the way however, there is no denying that it was an enjoyable way to spend 30 hours of drive time. The writing is great and the time travel conundrums and issues are interesting and well thought out. The research done for the Kennedy assassination part of the book seemed incredibly detailed and was intimately portrayed. It was interesting and disturbing looking into the life of Lee Harvey Oswald and why he eventually did what he did. I found the ultimate end of the book very satisfying and well played. It is obvious also that King feels fondness and some pretty massive nostalgia for the era and this added charm and richness to the setting.

The reader for the audio book was okay though he sounded a little too old for the main character (Jake is meant to be in his mid-30s at the start, while the narrator sounds like he’s in his 60s [he was in fact in his late fifties]) and he occasionally sounds like he’s doing impressions rather than giving a character a unique voice. There’s a FBI agent towards the end that sounds suspiciously like Jimmy Stewart.

Final Verdict: Perhaps too long and unfocused but a hell of a lot of fun anyway.

This book is on my 100 books project list.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Underrated Authors and Books


Somewhat depressingly I would find it easier to list books that I think are overrated then those that are underrated.  I admit it, I'm a little stingy with the stars but there are some books that I feel like I was maybe a little out of step with the average person in a positive way.

I picked out a few from Goodreads where my score was higher than the average.  I noticed that the average star ratings on some famous works of  premiere literary writers were quite low. For example Atonement by Ian McEwen, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, and The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, all of which I liked, all had average scores at or below 3.83.  Not exactly low but low for such preeminent books.  I don't know if this is an artifact of backlash because they were so well critically received?  This is a tangent but all this is to say that I didn't include any of these and instead chose books that I think are a little more under the radar.

The other half of the list is a few authors that I feel like don't get enough popular attention from book fans, though this is admittedly from my limited view of the world.

Lastly, the exact topic from The Broke and the Bookish who host this awesome weekly meme, is the top ten underrated books in X genre.  I did not stick to one genre. Links are to Goodreads.

The Native Star/The Hidden Goddess by M.K. Hobson: I really loved these books and rated them with 4 and 5 stars.  On Goodreads, they have an average rating of 3.59 and 3.72 respectively  People who rated it poorly seemed to really dislike the heroine whom I very much liked.  So perhaps the issue rests there?

Moo by Jane Smiley: This is a fun cynical little book about the drama and crazy people at a land grant University in the Midwest.  The word on the street is that this grew out of Jae Smiley's time teaching at one of my alma maters, Iowa State University. Jane Smiley is a fantastic writer. I really enjoyed it but my book club at the time and obviously the folks on Goodreads do NOT agree - 3.43 average rating.  

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai:  I found this book about a children's librarian on a road trip with one of her quirky young patrons totally charming.  However, the average Goodreads rating is 3.47!  This book addresses some controversial political issues so I am guessing that is the reason for the mixed opinions with which it is regarded.  I gave it 4 stars.

Sunshine by Robin McKinley:  I LOVE this vampire novel by Robin McKinley but it is quirky and quite different then her usual fare.  It doesn't have a really low rating on Goodreads (3.83) but it  should still be higher!

Territory by Emma Bull:  Interestingly this is the second entry here that is a western with a magical twist (The Native Star/The Hidden Goddess).  This is such a great book surrounding the events leading up to the battle at the O.K. Corral. It is obviously the first book in what was at least supposed to be a two book series and I liked this one so much that I regularly check in to see if there's any news of a sequel.  Sadly this book is now 7 years old and no sign of a sequel:(.  Average rating on Goodreads is 3.74.

Authors I think deserve more attention, as in everybody on the planet should be hailing them as geniuses. I've gotten all soapboxy about them before on the blog.

Lois McMaster Bujold: She writes both science fiction and fantasy and all her books have well developed characters, great story and substance.

Georgette Heyer: In my mind she's the undisputed queen of Regency RomanceReading her books is what got me reading romance.  Her books are pure delight.

Dorothy Dunnett:  Her Lymond chronicles is the most perfect series of historical fiction.  That's right.  I said it.

I think that's it for me.  What are your most underrated books?

Monday, September 8, 2014

REVIEW: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of StairsCity of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Original Publication Year: 2014 (September 9th)
Genre: Fantasy
Series:?, I hope it’s the first in a series!
Awards: None
Format: e-Advanced Reader Copy through Netgalley.  Provided to me for free in exchange for a fair review.
Narrated by: NA

For some reason, I had it in my head that this was going to be a serious and melancholy book. Maybe it's the cover? Or the blurb? I don’t know where the impression came from but I was pleasantly surprised by what I got. It is not a book without weight but it is decidedly more fun than melancholy.

Shara is an intelligence agent from Saypur, the current ruling power on her world, and she is called to the former ruling city of Bulikov, now occupied by Saypur, to investigate the death of a Saypuri historian. This historian is an authority on the Gods that used to play large roles on the continent, with Bulikov at its heart, and who had allowed the continent to oppress Saypuri for many years. The Saypuris had rebelled and developed a weapon that killed the Gods…or did they? I am doing a horrible job at explaining the plot but essentially it’s a mystery with a goodly dose of political intrigue. It's involved and complex but not confusing - just hard to explain adequately. The setting is fantastical but not completely unrecognizable and Bennett has created a rich and fascinating mythology and history for his world. There was lots of plot to get immersed in!

The biggest complaint I’ve seen in many places is that the book is too slowly paced. This leaves me agog as I thought nothing of the sort. However, I also really enjoy Jane Austen and novels about the everyday mundanities of people, particularly in a past or otherwise unfamiliar setting. So perhaps this is fantasy for Austenites? Regardless, I thought the pace was perfect and at no point was bored though I guess if you’re looking for non-stop action and adventure you may be disappointed. Lots happens it's just not all jumping, shooting and shouting.

One thing that really kept me reading were the fantastic characters. Shara is a great heroine and narrator. In fact, while it is very different narratively this book's general tone reminded me of The Rook(by Daniel O’Malley), mostly because Shara from this book and Myfanwy of The Rook were similar character types – career driven, ordinary in appearance, extremely clever and quite snarky and the reader is almost entirely in their head. Shara is backed up by some really great supporting characters, as well, especially her violent factotum Sigrud and the colonial governor of Bulikov, Mulaghesh. Bennett takes the time to give all the characters, even those of the secondary variety, some back story and depth. I LOVED this.

It’s fair to say that I’m a fan and really enjoyed the book. I’d describe it as a drily humorous multi-faceted mystery set in a richly drawn fictional universe and told with characters that I loved learning about and spending time with. It also contradicted my expectations at times, particularly with an ex-boyfriend that appears and in its portrayal of the two featured countries - both Bulikov and Saypur seem equally corrupt and damaged, i.e. the oppressors are not universally bad nor the oppressed all good. Plus I always enjoy a mythology where the Gods physically interact with their followers. In the end, it ticked all the boxes that I wish to be ticked!

Final Verdict: I loved it and I really hope this is not the last book that will be set in this universe!