Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top Ten Books for 2013

Hoo boy - this is exciting!  Time to reflect and re-inhabit, if just for a few moments of contemplation, the best books I read this year.  I don't read a lot of new releases so my list will consist of books that I have read this year but not necessarily published this year. Links on the title will take you to my full review for each book.  I will likely do a second post to wrap up my challenges for the year and do a little less listy reflection of the year in reading. 

The first four are easy as they were the four books I gave 5 star reviews to this year.  Looking from a distance I still agree with my original rating.  It's also worked out to be a nice representative diverse group: 1 Literary Fiction, 1 Non-fiction, 1 YA Fantasy, 1 Fantasy/Romance. 

1) Atonement by Ian McEwen

This is a pretty famous book so I don't know how much I need to say about it.  It follows the consequences that a lie told by a 13 year old in pre World War II Britain has on the lives of herself and two others.  It is gorgeously written, thought provoking and delivers a one two punch at the end that makes you question everything you've just read.  Also a deftly done and vivid historical fiction that brings the reality of war clearly into focus.  I found that when I picked it up I had trouble putting it back down.  It was everything a great novel should be!

 2) Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
This was the big book of 2012 and I wanted to read it as soon as I heard about.  I'm one of those people that will be more exhausted after a day of guiding a group of volunteers through a gentle stroll then I will after a day of digging ditches. In other words I'm an introvert and people suck the life right out of me.  It doesn't mean I'm unfriendly or hate people or that I could live as a hermit but I do need to re-charge with some quality alone time (reading of course:0).  I knew this before reading this book but I think deep down I think I felt like it meant I had a failed in some way.  Cain's book was revelatory for me, in that it did teach me some new things about myself and others like me and most of all it convinced me that being an introvert is not failing, it's an asset that I should embrace.  Yay for emotional growth!

3. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
First of all take a moment and look at that beautiful cover - once I saw the cover I HAD to read it.  Any book that evokes that kind of imagery in an illustrator's mind is likely going to be something I love.  This year I made my acquaintance with YA fiction and this book for me embodied what is great about YA fiction.  Strong narrative, grand adventure, heroic characters, growing up.  The wonderful thing about Seraphina is that it never feels forced or melodramatic and the characters are so authentic despite operating in a fantastical story.  AND it is highly imaginative with such a unique and creative take on dragons.  LOVED IT!

4. The Hidden Goddess and The Native Star by M.K. Hobson
So this is cheating a little bit because it is two books BUT it tells one large sweeping story for the most part so it felt weird including one with out the other. They are a blend of alt-history fantasy and romance and I think Hobson nails both so well.  These books were so much fun  - I listened to the audio of both and would invent housework so I could pop on my headphones and get back to the story.  The best part is that the fun came along with substance.  The magic system is one of the most interesting I've encountered.  The characters are people you want to spend time with, interesting and funny and flawed and the romance was done SO perfectly.

Now things get a little harder.  I have 24 books on my list of 4 star reads and I can only choose six.  Hmmmm...  In no particular order:

5. The Rook by Daniel O'Malley

This book felt like it was written with a lot of joy.  I guess you would classify it as Urban Fantasy but it didn't feel like any Urban Fantasy I'd read before.  It's a world where a paranormal MI-5 with an administrative body named after the major Chess pieces, clears up any major magical messes that threaten Her Majesty's Britain.  Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in the park one morning surrounded by dead men with no idea who she is and finds a cryptic note in her pocket from herself.  And that's just the beginning. It starts with a bang and delivers on that bang with a first class mystery, spy thriller, fantasy cleverly unraveled through Myfanwy's amnesiac confusion. AND it's hilarious.  It's a full package and then some!

6) Before They Are Hanged (#2 in The First Law Series) by Joe Abercrombie

I could've cheated again and added this whole amazing trilogy of gritty fantasy books but decided that Before They Are Hanged was a clear favorite for me amongst the series.  There's a traditional fantasy quest/journey and a big bad that threatens to destroy then world but despite that this is nothing like your traditional fantasy.  Things are not what they seem and the "heroes" are infinitely complex and could probably be mistaken for villains and I cared about every single one of them.  If you like George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, it's a fair bet you'll appreciate sinking yourself into this completed trilogy.

7) Memory (#10 in The Vorkosigan Saga) by Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold never fails to astonish me.  I don't even like Miles Vorkosigan very much and this book spends half the book swimming around in his head and yet still I ended it feeling blown away.  This is a turning point in in Miles' life and in the Vorkosigan series and it packs an emotional and satisfying punch.

8) Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

I guess you'd classify this one as a literary mystery novel.  It was my introduction to Kate Atkinson and I'll definitely be wanting to get into more of her books.  This book follows three unusual and cold case crimes that were never solved.  They all land in Jackson Brodie's lap, a private investigator with compassion and a pretty screwed up life.  All is brought to as fitting a resolution as one gets in life and along the way the nature of families and of evil is explored.  I really, really want to see the BBC production of this series featuring Jason Isaacs but want to read all the books first.

9) The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

There is something about Edith Wharton's writing that sucks you completely into the world she's writing about.  Lily Bart, the heroine of this story must be one of the most masterfully written characters in literature.  She's selfish and vain and materialistic but the story of her downfall broke my heart.  How did Wharton do that?

10) Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh

This last book was the hardest to decide but in the end I think Love Minus Eighty was the book that will stick with me the longest and most surprised me.  Set in a future where social media technology has reached new and scarily realistic heights, it explores what might happen if we stop relating to each other as humans.  It is set around the disturbing premise of the Bridesicle facility which keeps newly killed women who cannot afford to be revived,  frozen so that rich men can "woo" them and decide to whether they want to pay for the woman's revival in exchange for marriage.  This outlandish idea is portrayed in a way that is utterly believable and raise s so many questions.  Despite the heavy subject matter the book manages not to feel heavy and ends on a mostly positive note.

Want more Top Tens?  Head over to The Broke and The Bookish and you'll find several hundred other blogged "best of" lists thanks to their weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

REVIEW: Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews

Magic Bites (Kate Daniels, #1)Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Format: Hard Copy
Narrated By: NA
Original Publication Year: 2007
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy
Series: Kate Daniels #1
Awards: None

I am not generally a big fan of Urban Fantasy. I tend towards being a historical fiction and traditional swashbuckling fantasy junkie. I don’t hate it, but I haven’t really found the book or series of books to suck me in and keep me invested. Basically I’m always on the lookout for some trustworthy recommendations and I found one by the blogger of The Fantasy CafĂ© blog who indicated that the Kate Daniels series was her favorite Urban Fantasy series. Since many of the other books she was recommending also looked pretty amazing, I thought I’d give it a whirl.

Kate Daniels is a mercenary in a world where magic and technology wage a kind of war each surging and dying at different times causing chaos that most people have learned to deal with. The world is full of monsters and Kate’s job is to take on all kinds of jobs dealing with fixing magical messes. She is a bit enigmatic at the start and I was unsure what her deal is but she turns out to have very powerful magic that is dangerous to reveal too widely. Most of the time, she keeps her magical abilities almost entirely under wraps and relies on her ass kicking skills which are also pretty prodigious. She becomes personally involved with a murder investigation when her guardian, a powerful official in a magical institution called The Order, is brutally killed. The investigation leads her right into the middle of growing unease between The Pack (all the were-beasts and their leader The Beast Lord) and The People (a sketchy organization of necromancers who can control the dead, like vampires and zombies).

So the key thing for me is how I felt about Kate and I ended up really liking her. I understood all her motivations and really appreciated that she was super tough but still had vulnerabilities. She reminded me a lot of early Anita Blake before she turned into the most annoying and slutty character in fiction around book 6 or 7 of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake Series. I LOVED and quickly devoured the first books in that series and this gave me a similar type of tingly feeling. So I am hoping that this character does not develop in the same spiral of suckage that Anita did. From the recommendations I’ve read, it sounds like it keeps getting better so that’s encouraging!

The world and society created is also really cool. There is a lot of interesting lore about the usual suspect supernatural creatures. Vampires are more mindless monster than sexy human and are used as errand boys by necromancers who can control their weak minds. The shape changers or were-beasts can devolve into a similar mindless monster if they do not exercise extreme discipline and live by a strict code.

The action scenes in the book are pretty full on and I didn’t find them to be boring or full of sequences of ka-pows. I could follow and picture what was happening and felt that it had bearing on the plot and was not just thrust in to liven things up. There is obviously a romance being set up between Kate and one of the other main characters but it’s taken slow and easy for which I am very grateful.

My one complaint, and it could be my faulty reading comprehension, is that I felt some of the plot elements were a bit forced. For example, at one point in the last ¼ of the book The Pack gets REALLY MAD at Kate about an incident and I couldn’t figure out how this incident was her fault. I didn’t really see what she did to offend and it felt like the emotion was manufactured because the author needed there to be a brief rift. This possible sloppiness was pretty easy to overlook however because I was having too much fun.

Final Verdict: Urban Fantasy that I actually liked a lot with a great well-rounded main heroine.3.5 Stars.

Are there any Urban Fantasy gurus out there?  If so, what would you recommend to someone who perhaps struggles with the genre?

View all my reviews

Thursday, December 26, 2013

REVIEW: Murder on Astor Place by Victoria Thompson

Murder on Astor Place (Gaslight Mystery, #1)Murder on Astor Place by Victoria Thompson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Format: Hard Copy
Narrated By: NA
Original Publication Year: 1999
Genre(s): Mystery
Series: Gaslight Mysteries #1
Awards: None

I went into my local book shop looking for something new. Once the bookseller had ascertained that I enjoy historical fiction and mysteries, she immediately suggested this series. It is nothing too unique or noteworthy but I was easily sucked into it and I particularly enjoyed the development of the two main characters.

The time and place setting is 1890’s New York. Sarah Brandt is a former debutante, who is now cut off from her family and working as a midwife. She is compassionate and curious which draws her into the investigation of a teenage girl’s murder in a boarding house where she helped deliver a baby. Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy is a New York City cop, who on the surface appears to be a stereotypical cop of the time, only interested in solving cases that come with a reward or bribe. The two make an unlikely detecting team and for the first half of the novel they mostly just irritate each other. It becomes eventually clear however that they can each provide something to the investigation that the other lacks and they begin grudgingly to work together.

As may be apparent from my plot synopsis above, the two main characters and their development and relationship was really the element of the book I liked the most. I have no doubt that the author will eventually get these two together romantically but she doesn’t rush things (which I appreciate) and by the end of the book they are barely on speaking terms. They’ve each developed respect for the other and they have each learned something about themselves and each other as they’ve worked together.

The mystery was pretty good though I guessed the solution fairly early on and was therefore irritated with the heroine’s denseness for not catching on. She can hardly be blamed however, since she hasn’t had the advantage I have of reading lots of mysteries like this! The point being, that it is not a mystery that surprised or amazed me but I was interested all the same because of the personalities involved. I also enjoyed the historical detail of the time period.

It struck me as being an American version of the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt mysteries by Anne Perry. It’s been a while since I’ve read any books in that series but I think it’s a fair comparison tonally etc….

Final Verdict: A competent historical mystery with engaging and interesting main characters. I will definitely pick up others in the series when I’m in the mood for a quick and enjoyable read.

So, what's y'alls favorite historical mystery series?  Mine is probably Kate Ross' Julian Kestrel Series.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday - Books I'm Most Wishing For

This week's Top Ten Tuesday from The Broke and the Bookish is about the top ten books I wouldn't mind finding under the Christmas tree. Oh, how to choose among the millions...

Links are to the book's page on Goodreads.com.

1. Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

I kind of covered this in my last post but I've had this book on my TBR for a couple years and my local libraries don't have it in their collections.  Written in 1933, this is a humorous look at the daily life of a family of  British country gentry .  I love this time-period and the excerpts I've read are downright hilarious.

2. The Dorothy Dunnett Companion by Elspeth Morrison

The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett is one of my favorite fiction series of all time.  It follows the adventures of 16th century Scottish lord, Frances Lymond, as he spies and intrigues his way across Europe involving himself in all the major political machinations of the time.  Dunnett loads the books with obscure literary allusions and touches on so many intricate historical happenings that I can't imagine a better series of books for which to have a Companion.  I'd love to do a re-read of the chronicles with this book in my hot little hands.

3. Murder on St. Mark's Place by Victoria Thompson

I just finished reading the first in this series, really enjoyed it and bummer!  My library doesn't seem to have the second book in the series though it has the later books in the series:( It's a cozy mystery series set in late 19th century New York and features a midwife and a police detective as the investigators.  The closest comparison I can make is an American version of Anne Perry's Charlotte and Thomas Pitt mystery series.

4. The Other End of the Leash by Dr. Patricia McConnell

Dr. Patricia McConnell is one of the best dog trainers/behaviorists out there.  She has a really deep understanding of the place where dogs come from and how people can and should relate to them.  I think I'd like to have this one around the house on a permanent basis to refer to.

5. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

It seems like everywhere I go, people are throwing parades of rainbows and puppies in celebration of Rainbow Rowell.  Nothing to be done but join the parade, I suppose.

6. One Good Turn (Jackson Brodie #2) by Kate Atkinson

 The first in this mystery series was one of my favorite books of the year and I'd love to curl up with the next in the series.  Jackson's an intriguing main character and Kate Atkinson is a fantastic writer.

7. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

I've been eying this delightful looking book all year.  The story of two mythical creatures trying to make their way in turn of the 20th century New York.

8. Siege and Storm (Grisha #2) by Leigh Bardugo

I really liked Shadow and Bone, the first in this YA fantasy series, which features an interesting magic system and setting and a very engaging lead character/narrator.  I'm excited and a little nervous to see how Alina and Mal are faring  - could it live up to the first book?

9. The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

Much anticipated 3rd installment in the Gentleman Bastard series and book 2 ended on quite the cliffhanger. Definitely interested to find out what's up with Locke and Jean these days!

 I think that's it for me except to say that some of my favorite books over the years have not been books I've coveted but those given and recommended by a friend or family member.  So I'll leave the final spot to one of those.  Merry Christmas everyone!  May all your bookish wishes come true!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Book Spending Spree!

I've really been working on taming the big spender that takes over my body from time to time.  I've been listening to and reading Suze Orman and Dave Ramsay (which reminds me that I haven't reviewed their books) and have decided to get debt free at the ripe old age of..well...older than I should be to have made this resolution.  I mention this only to emphasize just how dang excited I was to receive a $25 Amazon gift card and how thoughtful I wanted to be about spending it.  I decided to get some books for my Kindle that I couldn't get from any of the local libraries.  I also downloaded samples of each of the books I was considering to see if we were a compatible match.  Frankly, it was a bit like internet dating. I went over the $25 a bit but, I'm still really pleased with my haul.  

Links are to the book's page on Goodreads.

1. Wild Comfort: the Solace of Nature By Kathleen Dean Moore 
I've had this book on my TBR for a long time, probably since my father died 5 years ago this month.  It is a series of essays that focus on how our connection with nature is essential to our mental well-being and specifically how it can help us understand loss and deal with grief.  I've also been told that Moore is a beautiful writer and the sample I downloaded clearly illustrates that.  Two passages in the 15-20 odd pages provided made me catch my breath and think.  Both are from an initial chapter on snakes in spring time:

"The human mind has that many vomeronasal genes too, five hundred. But all but six of them are broken and degenerate.  I can hardly bear to think of this loss: four hundred and ninety-four ways to drink in the world are lost to us, crumpled in our exalted minds."
That last idea makes me think.  We humans did have to pay a price for our extraordinary intelligence and what might the cost truly be?

"Rain that fell like dead weight all winter long defies gravity in the spring.  Mist floats over the river and drifts away east. Even my own spirits are lifting, as if heavy snow has melted off my shoulders. I would not be surprised to see Persephone herself crawl on her elbows from under a mat of dead grass, dirt in her hair and snakes in her hands."
I love this image of Persephone rising from her winter in the underworld, not on a beam of light but coated in the newly thawed earth.  If I have gained anything from the past 8 years living in the Upper Midwest, it is the absolute giddiness of spring after a winter that just had to be endured.

I am looking forward to curling up with this book off and on throughout the winter, especially when my job as a wildlife biologist/conservationist starts to feel too much of an up hill slog.  I think this book will inspire.  It's also on my 100 Books Reading Challenge.

 Except the Dying by Maureen Jennings

I love the Murdoch Mysteries TV series and just finished watching the 5th season.  The show is based on a series of mysteries by Maureen Jennings that focus on a police detective in late 19th century Toronto.  I've been wanting to dive into the written source of the show for years but oddly my library, which would normally be all over this and in fact carries the DVDs of the show, doesn't have these books on the shelf.  Murdoch on the show is this rather serious, super smart detective who has embraced many of the new techniques in solving crime and even invents some of these forensic techniques.  He develops an enthusiastic partnership with a rare lady coroner who also has ideas beyond the times.  They are really interesting characters and have an interesting relationship and I'll be curious as to how close they are to the characters in the books. Also on my 100 Books Reading Challenge.

 A Taste of Blood Wine by Freda Warrington

This and the next one very recently joined my TBR based on recommendations by Kristen of The Fantasy Cafe as part of the Smugglivus event on The Book Smugglers.  There were so many books on her favorites list that just seemed to call my name.  I was very intrigued by the sample for this book.  It is set in England/Europe just after the First World War. This time period is fascinating and as Kristen mentioned the "big bad" is intriguing.  What convinced me that I should buy this though was that I immediately engaged with the heroine, who is out of place in the society of her time.  Scholarly and curious but painfully introverted and shy to the point of being afraid of the world, she finds it difficult to mix in superficial society.  I'm interested to see where she'll go!

Transformation by Carol Berg

Along with Freda Warrington,  I had never heard of Carol Berg so Kristen's assertion in her post on The Book Smugglers that this is an amazing author who deserves more attention, made me take notice.  After reading the sample, which completely sucked me into a world of conquering hordes, slavery and magic, I am on board.  The set up in the few short pages of the sample promises a great story.

THE B TEAM...Sort of

There were a couple of books that didn't make the cut for a couple of reasons but I'm still excited about them.   

Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews

This was another recommendation from Kristen's Smugglivus post where she describes this series as her favorite Urban Fantasy.  I've had trouble connecting with Urban Fantasy, so hearing that it's somebodies' favorite, particularly when that person reads a LOT of fantasy, made me want to give it a whirl.  Plus, I'm curious about the lion. He looks mysterious. This was available at the library so I didn't buy.  

Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

It has been on TBR for a couple years now and is on my 100 Books Reading Challenge. It looks charming, funny and poignant and very British all of which make it a book I am likely to adore.  Unfortunately, my library doesn't have it so I eyed it very longingly when making my purchase.  The kindle version doesn't come out until May of next year and it was on the expensive side so these things swayed me away from it.  But it will definitely be on the list of the first thing to buy the next time a gift card comes my way.

So this has likely completely derailed my winter reading list . This is a great example of how I don't really have the discipline to be making such lists.  I see something shiny and completely lose focus.  But in the grand scheme of things I think it hardly matters:)!

Any splurgey spending going on elsewhere?  What are your favorite new treasures?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Top Ten...uh Wednesday... New to Me Authors in 2013

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and The Bookish Blog.  Sadly Tuesday has passed me by with nary a list being created but I say better late than never!  This was a particularly interesting topic to me: Top ten authors read in 2013 that I hadn't read before. 

1) Ian McEwen

I just finished Atonement and really loved it.  He was an author I had really wanted to read for a while and I'm glad I finally did.  I found his writing pretty spectacular on all levels from word choice to weaving an engrossing plot that makes you think. 

2) Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson is one of those writers that floats seemingly effortlessly between genres, at least that's what I've heard.  Instead of picking up her ultra buzz producing new literary novel Life After Life, I picked up the first in her mystery series featuring Jackson Brodie called Case Histories.  It blew me away and provided everything I want from a mystery novel and then some. 

3) Joe Abercrombie

A gritty fantasy writer ala George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie swept me up in his The First Law series.  I read the whole darn thing this year and LOVED all the complex characters, political intrigue, topsy turvy conventions and moral ambiguities.  Terrific storytelling!

4) M.K. Hobson

I really loved the first two installments in M.K. Hobson's debut series: The Native Star and The Hidden Goddess.  It's fantasy set in alt-history, wild west, steam punky awesomeness.  It's got a really creative and unique magic system and most importantly characters that are fun to spend time with.  AND it's got really well done romance. 

5) Daniel O'Malley

I really enjoyed his romp of a book The Rook which takes you into a magical British spy agency.  It's loaded with humor and an interesting alternative world.  Can't wait to see what else he'll write!

6) Anthony Horowitz

He wrote a brilliant Sherlock Holmes installment called The House of Silk which was really enjoyable.  And the rest of his catalog looks like a real treat.  I am already a fan of his mystery series Foyles War on the BBC and after tasting his writing, I'm sure the books are even better.

It was a year for me to explore young adult literature and below were my author highlights.

7) Rachel Hartman 

Her debut novel Seraphina blew me away.  My biggest challenge with young adult literature is connecting with the characters and  this was not even close to a problem with this book.  I found the characters and relationships believable, the world created fascinating and richly imagined and the story gripping.  This book will probably be on my top ten for the year and I can't wait for the next installment in the series.

8) Alyxandra Harvey

Not nearly as sophisticated as the above but I had so much fun devouring her Drake Chronicles. It was like Twilight but with a sense of humor and characters that don't suck. 

9) Leigh Bardugo

I read the first in the Grisha series, Shadow and Bone and was really swept away by it.   My only complaint is that I got confused and initially read Daughter of Smoke and Bone which I did NOT like and I was wondering what all the fuss was about.  But I can hardly blame my addlepated brain on Leigh Bardugo:).

10) Gail Carson Levine

I finally read Ella Enchanted and was seriously enchanted.  Great book for middle grade girls - has all the story elements they (and I) love and a great overall message to boot. 

11) Karen Thompson Walker

Yes I'm cheating and including 11 but I just had to include Karen Thompson Walker for her melancholy and fascinating coming of age sci-fi novel The Age of Miracles.  One of the best I've read this year.

I'll shut up now.  What about you?  Do you have any new to you authors that you need to crow about?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

REVIEW: Atonement by Ian McEwen

AtonementAtonement by Ian McEwan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Format: Hard Copy
Narrated By: NA
Original Publication Year: 2001
Genre(s): Literary Fiction
Series: NA
Awards: A few including the National Book Critics Circle and the L.A. Times Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Man Booker

I’ve wanted to read a book by Ian McEwen for many years because he seems to be a literary writer that is almost universally admired and enjoyed. But I approach literary fiction with some level of caution. Sometimes I feel like it is incredibly readable and it just blows me away but sometimes I feel a bit like Gavin of The Readers podcast that it's 300 odd pages spelling out a story about a guy walking to the shop. It’s just a sketchy label for a book - what does it even mean? So I wasn’t sure what I was going to get with Atonement but I was hopeful and my hope was fulfilled many times over. This was a spectacular read.

The book revolves around a crime committed on an English estate in 1934. The crime is compounded and made all the more tragic because of the faulty testimony of a 13 year old girl Briony Tallis. The repercussions of these events ripple out through the years and into World War II and beyond.

There is so much to talk about with this book. First, I have to say that while I never found myself yearning to get back to it, once I did pick it up I had a hard time stopping. I found it completely absorbing and mesmerizing and could have read it in one sitting if I’d had the time to devote. There is an almost constant sense of suspense and tension.

Second, there is both so much and so little going on in this book. The first third to half covers just about one day in the life of the Tallis family. The reader floats among the different characters; Cecilia, Briony, Robbie, Emily; getting different perspectives on the events and most interestingly on each of the characters. It is all building up to something, the foreboding clear in the writing, and when it crashes it is utterly devastating. Then we’re in World War II and Robbie is crossing France to get to Dunkirk. Briony has grown up and realizing the damage she has wrought, she is attempting to atone by not taking the privileges given to her and instead signing up as a nurse. The last half of the book is spent in Robbie and then Briony’s head and the grand events unfolding are seen through their eyes. In the end McEwen provides a wallop that will break your heart and leave you wondering.

Finally there are all the questions. I felt like McEwen captured perfectly the attitude and brain space of a 13 year old girl. Still a child with little experience and mostly a child’s perceptions but utterly convinced that she has an adult’s judgment. I wanted to throttle her as she completely misread almost every situation with an incredibly tragic result. But she is a child and what is the culpability of the adults surrounding her? Why are they so easily able to turn against a childhood friend, someone they know well and who is practically family? How can they believe such things of him? And for that matter why is life so very unfair? I found it impossible not to feel compassion for Briony and felt she was just as much a victim as the others. I think it is a book that would be very interesting to discuss with others.

It probably goes without saying, considering McEwen’s stature as a writer, but the writing at the sentence and word level is also breathtaking. The structure of the book is unique - it is not a straight through narrative and it's not even what the reader thinks it is. The book's full payoff and meaning comes in the last few pages.

Final Verdict: I believe I will likely be joining the ranks of readers who think Ian McEwen can do little wrong. Atonement was incredibly readable and while a lot of time is spent in people’s heads thinking their thoughts, it was never boring or too noodly. It provided hours of mesmerized reading and lots of thoughtful contemplation. 4.5 stars out of 5.

I also very much liked the movie of the book and enjoyed picturing James McAvoy as Robbie.  Any other McEwen fans out there?  What do you think is his best book?

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

REVIEW: The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook

The Iron Duke (Iron Seas, #1)The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Format: On Kindle
Narrated By: NA
Original Publication Year: 2010
Genre(s): Romance, Steam-punk Fantasy
Series: Iron Seas #1
Awards: Nothing major but a number of reader’s choice awards

Steam Punk, Pirates and the British Navy! With these three things going for it, I was very excited to read this book. I LOVE me some big old sailing vessels, be they legal or otherwise and I was imagining a steam punk Jack Aubrey with some romance thrown in. Expectations were therefore very high, so it’s important to say, right off the bat, that if this resembles your imagining in any way, you may be disappointed in the lack of shippy goodness. There are other things to like however.

The first thing to note is that this is very definitely first and foremost a romance novel. It comes along however with a pretty intricate plot and some heavy world building which I liked very much. In this way it reminded me a bit if the Soulless series by Gail Carriger though less competently done perhaps, because in The Iron Duke my feeble brain did have some trouble keeping up with things. I’m not entirely positive if my slowness was due to reading comprehension issues or if the plot/world-building was a little too complicated and/or under-explained. Regardless here is what I think I know.

We begin in a steam-punk Britain (indeterminate 18th century, with some steam powered mechanical gew gaws and airships). It is an England and Europe that has somewhat recently (within 5-10 years) been liberated from an enemy known as The Horde who seem to be middle-eastern in origin. The horde is technologically advanced and kept its empire under control by infecting the population with nano-agents which makes them uber-healthy and strong but also enslaves, because The Horde can send out a signal to direct the nano-agents and therefore those that are infected with them. Liberation was mostly achieved through the actions of one man, Rhys Trahaearn and his ship Marco’s Terror and because of his actions; he has reached legendary status and is known as the Iron Duke. In this post-liberation world, there is conflict between the people who stayed in England and were infected with the nano-agents, called Buggers, and the people who fled England for America and who do not have the nano-agents, called Bounders. You following me so far?

The heroine for the story is Mina Wentworth, a member of the nobility (I think her father’s an Earl) whose family stayed in England during the occupation and are therefore Buggers. She also happens to be a detective chief inspector with the police and the product of a Horde union. What this means, I think, is that during a frenzy (an orgy orchestrated by The Horde), her mother was raped by a member of The Horde and apparently this fact is very obvious just by looking at Mina though I can’t for the life of me remember if it was ever spelled out what about her and others like her makes it obvious that they are the product of such a union. This makes her an object of hatred and disgust by most of the British populace, however it does not prevent Mina from being loved by her family and being very good at her job. All right, we’re almost there.

Hero and heroine collide when a body appears as if out of nowhere on The Iron Duke’s well guarded estate. Mina is sent to investigate. Sparks fly and a convoluted plot is set in motion which involves flying all about Europe on an airship, running away from zombies, and battling a kracken and a ship of the line. There’s also some family drama in there. Phew!

Taken as a whole, I was swept up in the adventure of the novel and it was a moderately addictive page turner. Probably my favorite bit, however was the first third which takes place in England. I very much liked Mina as the tough and smart detective inspector who is awkward at tea parties and balls. When she gives in to The Iron Duke’s blackmail and sets off with him I actually started to like her less especially because he was pretty significantly uninteresting to me. Rhys is the stereotypical “Alpha Male” found rampant throughout the romance genre and I found very little depth to him otherwise.

Basically what I am saying is I thought this book had real promise as a steam-punk adventure and crime/mystery novel but unfortunately all that part of the plot was muddled and rushed because of the focus on a lackluster romance. This book would have worked much better for me as a steam-punk mystery with a side of romance, instead of a steam-punk romance with a mystery. The steam punk world being presented was intricate and interesting but I felt like it wasn’t allowed to be presented fully and clearly, because the romance needed to be the focus.

Final Verdict: For most people who are looking for a romance, this book will likely provide you hours of fun reading. Even if you are hoping for something more, you will likely still enjoy it. Despite my disappointment, I will likely seek out books two and three to learn more about the world.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday - Winter To Be Read List


 Tuesday already?!  Where does the time fly?  This week's Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is the top ten books on my winter TBR.  As I've mentioned before I'm not much of a planner with my reading so these projecting into the future lists are not easy but they are a good exercise.  So here goes:

1) The Stand by Stephen King

This book has been plaguing (look I made a pun:) me for over a year now.  I got to page nine hundred and something earlier this year before losing steam.  I WILL finish it this winter, dang it! Only 400 pages to go!

 2) A Barbara Pym book

I haven't settled on which one yet. Perhaps No Fond Return of Love, or Some Tame Gazelle.  I ended last year curled up on the couch with her lovely, quiet and funny Excellent Women and it sounds like a good way to end this year as well.

3) Sabriel by Garth Nix

 I hear a new addition to this series is due out next year and it's high time I get started with book one.  I've read some short stories by Nix as well as his middle-grade series The Keys to the Kingdom and I love his writing style and creativity.

4) The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements by Sam Kean

My inner (and let's be honest outer) science nerd has had this book on my TBR for a good while and it's sitting on my Kindle taunting me.  It will make a nice non-fiction winter read.

5) The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

This was the big read of last winter that I think would make a good winter read this year.  Possible fake children appearing out of the Alaska wilderness sounds awesome.

6) Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo (Grisha #2)

I love the first book in this young adult series about an imaginative and magical Eastern Europe-like world.  2013 was a year of exploring young adult fiction and this was one of the books that I loved pretty unequivocally.

7) Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal (Glamourist Histories #2)

Winter encourages hibernation and curling up with comfort reads.  I didn't love the first book in this series about Regency era magicians but it was good fun.

8 and 9) The Pursuit of Love and Love in Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

These look lovely and British and funny and bonkers.  Sign me up! Also on my 100 Books Reading Challenge.

10) The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

From everything I've heard and read this looks like a profoundly satisfying and engrossing book that I can get sucked into during the more chaotic bits of the winter. 

I think that's it for me!  What are you hoping to read this winter?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

REVIEW: Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know by Alexandra Horowitz

Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and KnowInside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Format: Audio from Library
Narrated By: Karen White
Original Publication Year: 2009
Genre(s): Non-Fiction
Series: NA
Awards: NA

Musing about what is going on in a dog’s brain is pretty much a daily occurrence for me. I share my space with two of the hairy beasties and I’m always looking for that key piece of knowledge that will unlock the why of them and therefore enable me and the pups to live in perfect harmony. Don’t get me wrong, my dogs and I get on smashingly, but there are those moments of aggravation when they do something crazy at the worst moment and guilt that I am not providing them what they truly need to be as happy as they deserve. So I love books like Inside of a Dog which purport to tell me exactly what is going on in those floppy-eared heads of theirs.

My response to the book is a little ho-hum but it is not the author's or the book's fault really. The problem is that earlier this year I read The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Thinkand the two books cover A LOT of the same ground. Therefore, I encountered very little new material in Inside of a Dog and was getting frustrated that I wasn't learning anything new. However, though I read Genius of Dogs first it was actually published four years after this book so it’s not really fair to judge this book as lesser based on “no new information” when it actually covered the ground first. Upon further thought and examination, while the books are similar, they do complement each other. My recommendation would be to read both but not in a short time frame and I would read Inside of a Dog first.

So, I don’t want to reveal all the secrets of a dog’s psyche that are revealed in the book but suffice it to say that dogs see the world quite differently than we do. Horowitz spends a lot of time examining the five senses and how a dog uses those senses vs. how people use them. None of it was terribly earth shattering but each was covered in sufficient and organized detail. The chapters dealing with dog cognition were most overlappy with The Genius of Dogs and it does not cover that topic as well as that book. However it covers the information on the senses in much greater detail which is why I think the books are complementary.

Horowitz’s writing style is pretty engaging and easy to get into. She gets downright poetical and florid when describing little vignette’s of her and her dog Pumpernickel. And of course the inevitable description of that dog’s death had me in floods of tears. It comes out in the writing that Horowitz is obviously a kindred spirit to those of us who are fascinated by and feel blessed to share our lives with the amazing balls of fur called dogs.

In the end, I don’t feel like I learned much that will change my relationship with my dogs but I read a lot of books like this. I was never bored and enjoyed spending time with Horowitz and Pumpernickel.

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I know you're wondering. Why, yes I do crimp Jasper's ears every morning. He's a very 80's sort of dog and I want to keep him happy:)


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday - 2014 Releases

This week's Top Ten Tuesday hosted by The Broke and the Bookish is about the most anticipated releases of 2014.  This is kind of a challenge for me because I am a dunce and clueless and don't really pay attention to releases.  I think it's somewhat related to the way I read which is mostly by whim.  I don't really plan or anticipate and I don't read a ton of new releases.  I do love series of books which I get sucked into and can get obsessed with the next one in line but I usually wait until a series is complete before I start it with the occasional exception.  

This translates into that there aren't any big upcoming releases that I am really coveting.  But I'll see what I can come up with below.

Product Details
The Dead and Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley: I do like the Flavia DeLuce series ( though the books do occasionally irritate me) and it looks like a a new one in the series will be release in January.

William Shakespeare's The Empire Striketh Back by Ian Doescher I remember hearing about the first one which was a retelling of Star Wars in Shakespeare's style and being intrigued.  I love me some Shakespeare and some space opera so I'd like to check these out some time.

Deception's Princess by Esther Friesner:  This just caught my eye and looks interest - strong female heroine, Ireland and some romance - sign me up!  I have never read anything by this author but it says she is award winning so that bodes well for this books quality. Released in April.

Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant:  I'm a bog fan of Sarah Dunant's historical fiction and this is a book about the Borgias!  Though I just noticed that even though this came up in my future releases list it was actually published this past July.  No matter - I'm keeping it on here because it looks awesome.  Looks like it will be release in paperback in March 2014.

Deranged Marriage: A Memoir by Sushi Das: This appears to be a memoir about growing up Indian in 1970's London.  Looks like it might be one of those memoirs that makes you laugh and feel appalled all at the same time.  Released in April.

Doctor Who: 11 Doctors, 11 Stories:  This makes my little Doctor Who fangirl heart speed up a bit.  Fun!  Released in February.

The Splendour Falls by Susanna Kearsley:  I've not heard anything about this book or this author but it hints that she combine Gothic mystery, history and romance.  Sounds like a quick fun read.  I think just a new format of the book will be released in January.

I think I'll stop there or I'll be up all night perusing books!  Kind of haphazard list but it was fun exploring.  I'll look forward to seeing what other people are anticipating!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

REVIEW: Magic Casement by Dave Duncan

Magic Casement (A Man of His Word, #1)Magic Casement by Dave Duncan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Format: Audio from Audible
Narrated By: Mil Nicholson
Original Publication Year: 1990
Genre(s): Fantasy
Series: A Man of His Word #1
Awards: NA

I know people get tired of the same old archetypes trotted out in book after book but I have a confession; I kind of love archetypal stories. As long as they are done well - details of the book unique and characters with depth and complexity - there is really no story I prefer cozying up with. They are comforting and inspiring and there is, after all, a reason they pop up over and over in literature. One of my favorites is the underdog made powerful, the ordinary Joe or Jane discovering that there is something special within them and becoming the hero/heroine. Magic Casement by Dave Duncan is this type of story.

The world of Magic Casement is a feudal Empire vaguely reminiscent of renaissance (or perhaps earlier) Europe. The heart of the action takes place in a small but strategically key Kingdom in the far, frozen north called Krasnegar (apologies for any misspellings as this was an audio I’m not sure how certain names were spelled). This kingdom is ruled by a kindly, widowed king whose only heir, a somewhat obnoxious, free-spirited and tomboyish girl, is named Inosolan. One of her best friends is an orphaned stable boy named Rap and they both teeter on the edge between childhood and adulthood (around 14-15 years old). Almost as soon as Inosolan is sent south with her Aunt to the more metropolitan city of Kinvale to learn how to be a more proper princess and perhaps pick a husband, things start going wrong in Krasnegar. The King’s health is failing and with the urging of an enigmatic stranger, Rap decides he must face the journey across the harsh winter countryside to warn Inosolan of her Father’s illness. Thus the adventure begins.

A classic story but Magic Casement has a lot of elements that keep it fresh. The setting of the book, in a near arctic environment adds some unique peril and hardship. The different races and cultures are also fascinating. There are Goblins, Imps, Jotnars, Fauns, Elves, and Gnomes though none are exactly as we think of them. They seem human except for a few familiar sounding characteristics. For example, Goblins have a slightly greenish tint to their skin and Fauns have particularly hairy legs – it is as if they represent the myth-source for the creatures we’re familiar with. The Goblins which have a Native American type existence (superficially), living in the arctic wastes is particularly interesting. One of the Goblin characters, Little Chicken, makes the most unusual sidekick for the hero Rap.

The magic system is also very interesting and the details of it are unraveled throughout the story as Rap learns about his power. It revolves around the passing down of words of power which enhance a person’s natural abilities.The more words you know the more things you can do  - the more magical you become.

Rap is the traditional humble boy with a great destiny and happily he fills this role engagingly. In fact most of the characters are pretty great – I particularly liked Insolan’s Aunt Kade. Insolan herself was a little irritating but not too bad. 

This book features only the beginning of Rap and Inosolan’s journey and ends on a cliffhanger. It’s a good start, embracing all the elements that make this type of traditional story enjoyable while also including enough unique stuff to keep it interesting. I’ll definitely be continuing with the series and I am glad I came across this older book in a sale on Audible.

Final Note: The reader is an older English woman which put me off somewhat as much of the story follows Rap - a 14 year old boy. She didn’t match the youthfulness of much of the cast. However, I did get used to it and in a way, given the fable like feel of the story, her choice as narrator made sense.

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