Monday, January 25, 2016

CBR 8 Review 2 : Sounds Like Me by Sara Bareilles

"Life is a big, long free fall, and the sooner you can embrace what is beautiful about that, the sooner you will start to enjoy the ride.” 

Some important information before I dive into this review. I'm a singer, I have a degree in Music with a concentration in musical theatre, and I love Sara Bareilles' music with my whole heart. This memoir, as Lani Diane Rich from StoryWonk would say, was made to delight me. I went into this book (which was a gift from our Cannonball Read Book Exchange in December - thanks Nate!) prepared and expecting to love it.

I was not disappointed.

Sara has a beautiful voice, and in this case, I'm not referring to her music (though that's certainly true, too). She's honest, unflinching, funny, self-deprecating, and soulful. I love the formatting for this as well. Sara frames the stories of her life using her music, with song lyrics opening each chapter. They also provide a unifying theme - either the chapter is about the creation of that song, or focuses on the things reflected in the song. Often it's both. 

Sara tells a lot of great stories, from childhood straight up to working on Waitress, which I cannot wait to see in March when it opens in New York. It's always fascinating to me to see how much I have in common with the artists I love, and I feel like we're very much kindred in spirit, if not in specifics. She was a happy, imaginative child who loves her family and musical theatre. She had a lot of problems with her self image in her youth, which was true for most of us, myself included. She's lived abroad and struggled with identity while doing so, which I've also done. She's been challenged by what it means to stay true to herself in an industry that wants nothing more than to shape you into whatever product they think they can sell, which is my daily life.

And through it all is the music. I love her connection to her music, and it makes perfect sense with the way her heart seems to pour out of every song. Everything feels better and more centered when she can process it through music, and it's beautiful and lovely. I feel like she worked really hard to put all of this to paper. She does it brilliantly. It felt very much like sitting down and sharing a bottle of wine together, personal and real.

Basically, what I'm saying is this - Sounds Like Me: My Life (so far) in Song is a fabulous read and I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

CBR 8 Review 1: Queen of Shadows by Sarah J Maas

“She was fire, and light, and ash, and embers. She was Aelin Fireheart, and she bowed for no one and nothing, save the crown that was hers by blood and survival and triumph.” 

I have completely failed to review any of this brilliant series on this blog. You'll have to head over to Cannonball Read to find some other reviews. Suffice it to say that while I will not discuss major spoilers from this volume here (or will properly hide them if I feel a need), I will absolutely discuss things as they fit into the larger narrative. So if you haven't read the first three books in the Throne of Glass series (Throne of Glass, Crown of Midnight, and Heir of Fire), you may want to skip this, or tread very lightly.

Queen of Shadows picks up where Heir of Fire left off. Celaena, now only identifying herself as Aelin Galathynius now that she has accepted her heritage, arrives back in Adarlan with several important goals to accomplish. A lot has changed in the months of her absence, including a great deal about her former paramours, Chaol Westfall and Prince Dorian. It's a festival of bad news for Aelin, as she discovers Chaol is no longer Captain of the Guard, due to his connections to the rebellion started in her name, and Dorian...Dorian is being used as a vessel for the horrifying Valg that she barely survived battle with in Wendlyn. Stripped of her Fae powers and form due to the towers restricting magic, Aelin has to figure out how to save her friends, rescue the beloved cousin she didn't realize was alive or supporting her cause, free magic, and start the journey to recover her kingdom, not to mention getting a little long overdue revenge on the man who sent her into slavery - Arobynn Hamel, King of Assassins. 

Aelin isn't the only protagonist we're following. Manon, Wing Leader of the Thirteen, Heir to the Blackbeak Clan, may have secured her spot at the top, but she's not sure what exactly she's supposed to be doing there. Witches don't take orders from mortals, and the chain of command in Morath chafes. Conflicts with her second, demands to use witch clans like chattel, and the discovery of a mixed blood chained and abused who may be of use to them all keep Manon busy, while her grandmother creates a terrifying weapon for the King of Adarlan.

We also get glimpses into Dorian's internal battle with the Valg Prince occupying and controlling his body, the earlier mentioned half witch whose name I cannot currently recall, and our beloved, conflicted Chaol.

The last volume didn't do a lot for me, but this one really did. I think a lot of Heir of Fire suffered by being building blocks for what was to come; a transition from one set of storytelling to the next. Queen of Shadows hits the ground running, adding more characters that we can love (Lysandra, Nesryn) while allowing the ones we already love to grow into better, more complex versions of themselves. The stakes amp up, while still allowing more room to build in the next books. One of the things that made the biggest improvement between volumes was Manon's storyline. I'll admit, the last time 'round, every time a chapter opened in her POV, I set the book down. I just didn't care about her or the witches. This book did a much better job of earning my attention as far as they were concerned. They served the greater story in a more obvious way, Manon as a character got significantly more nuanced, and the addition of input from Asterin helped a lot. Connecting the Thirteen to Kaltain, who we already knew from previous books, was another smart move.

The storytelling in general was tighter and faster paced, while still allowing room for everything to breathe. There's some great work filling in character histories, especially with Lysandra and Arobynn. I could have done with less alpha male posturing between Rowan and Aedion. I understand the function, and that it's a characteristic of the Fae, blah blah blah. It was leaned on too often and for too little payoff. Having Aedion hurt and jealous that someone other than him was allowed to swear the blood oath to Aelin is appropriate; having the two of them try to out-dick each other every time anything happens got old. As did the "we're men that need to protect the woman" thing, even if it was used to show how stupid that is as a concept.

Overall, a really fantastic entry into the Throne of Glass series. I'm incredibly interested to see where we go from here - the ending did a LOT of things, and really shook up the world in an interesting way. There are two more books proposed for the series, which gives Maas plenty of time to play around in the new circumstances she's set up. I adore these characters, which is always the biggest selling point for me, and I like the idea of seeing what they do now that so much has changed, both in the world, and between each of them.

If you like the series, you'll love this book.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Maybe this year will be better than the last


Ahem. Now with that out of the way...

Another year means another Cannonball Read. We're at 8 this year, I started with 3, which is a lot of years of reading. Over those 5 years, according to this blog, I've managed to read 187 books. I've managed to do reviews for 113 of them (the last two years have been *rough* on me and actually submitting my reviews). That's a lot of reading. And reviewing. But the last two years have taught me that I'm really bad at this reviewing business, and as such I'm setting my bar low. Instead of a half cannon, this year I'm only committing to the quarter cannon. That's 13 books, ya'll.  Now, obviously, I have no trouble *reading* that many books. I can reach a half cannon easily that way. However, the whole point of this endeavor is to share, which means reviews. I'm hoping if I keep the number low, maybe I'll be less defeated by it.

I'm already one book in, and plan to write and post my review tomorrow (as I approach the ends of books 2 and 3). Here's hoping for a more successful year!

Please check out Cannonball Read for more reviews by brilliant people, and to read the history of this fantastic group of people and what we do.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

CBR7 Review 6: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

“Hate will keep you alive where love fails”

I don't know what possessed me, in the lead up to Christmas, to read this book in particular. Nor what motivated me to keep reading when I realized just how dark it is. However, I'm not upset that I did, even if it was an awfully dark, twisted sort of story to read in the holiday season.

This book, the start of a series, tells the story of Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath. Known as Brother Jorg to the men he leads on the road, our protagonist journeys from an innocent child witnessing the murder of much of his family to one of the darkest, most sociopathic characters I've ever seen. Something breaks in Jorg the night his mother and brother are taken from him, as he struggles to free himself from the thorn bush that holds him fast. Jorg heals from his injuries physically, but mentally and emotionally he is never the same. Four years pass between this horrific turning point and the setting of our story, with Jorg recalling some of what happened to put him on this path in chapters conveniently labelled "Four Years Ago." Jorg, although only reaching the age of 14 during the course of this volume, manages to commit some truly horrific crimes as he raids the countryside with his band of brothers, on a path to revenge and power.

It's important to understand the setting of this book, since it makes what Jorg does a little more...understandable is the wrong word, but the context at least makes it less insane. The Empire has been fighting a war, or really series of battles, known as The Hundred. The land is hopelessly fractured, with a hundred small nations all competing for power that none of them are likely to ever hold. It's the perfect environment to nurture the kind of brutality our protagonist is famous for. Coming to this book as a lover of things dark and violent (I've read and watched all of Game of Thrones, I adore Vikings, etc), I wasn't particularly scandalized by the violence perpetrated by any of the characters. What I found interesting and compelling was the internal dialogue of Jorg - how he chose to justify what he did, how little he minds sacrificing those close to him, and the complete lack of emotion with which he addresses just about everything. 

Jorg is a terrifying and awful character...and I loved him anyway. Loved not in an affectionate way, but loved as a character. For all that he is brutal and unrepentant, I'll be damned if he isn't charismatic and interesting. I'm glad for it, because this book wouldn't work any other way. It feels a little weird to care about and possibly root for (the jury's still out on whether or not I *really* want him to succeed in what he does) such a dark and terrible character, but you kind of can't help it. It's very, VERY easy to forget how young Jorg is. He kills for the first time at 10, and the things he does at 13 & 14 are crimes you'd be upset and surprised to hear an adult committed, let alone a pre-teen. 

I will tell you, this book is *not* going to appeal to everyone. There is a lot of darkness, and a lot of violence, and much of it committed by or ordered by our young protagonist. If that's not your cup of tea, feel free to skip it. But it's a really interesting and very different entry to the fantasy genre. I know I didn't mention any of the fantastical elements, but I think it's better to come across them in the course of the narrative instead of letting me tell you about them - suffice it to say that magic and fantasy to play a role in this story. Will I pick up the next one? Possibly, but I think I need a small break before diving back into Jorg's darkness.


Check out more great reviews at Cannonball Read!

Friday, December 18, 2015

CBR 7 Review 5: The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

“The French just said he was a damned nuisance. Or they would have had they the good fortune to speak English. Instead being French they were forced to say it in their own language.” 

I know you'll be shocked when you discover I'm reading yet another book that is part of a series (well, maybe you are - if you are only reading CBR7, you don't know my reading proclivities as yet). However, this is one that, while enjoyable, doesn't motivate me to continue the rest of the journey. It's probably just as well. While I'm a habitual reader of series, even to me, 12 is a *lot* of books. I do recommend you look at the list of titles Willig has come up with to keep to the Color Flower combo for the title characters - there is some serious struggle going on after awhile ( MIDNIGHT MANZANILLA??). That said, let's dive right in.

This story is set in one of my favorite formats, albeit less successfully so, which is that of the multiple time period structure. I'm a fan of my historical fiction being brought to me via a contemporary (or more contemporary than whatever they are finding out about). Eloise Kelly is our intrepid principle narrator, an American transplant in London pursuing her dissertation on The Scarlet Pimpernel and other spies like him. Eloise gets the opportunity to read some very interested documents held by the descendants of the Purple Gentian, documents that may finally reveal the identity of an even more elusive spy - The Pink Carnation. 

As Eloise reads, we are transported back in time to 1803 and three different narrators - Amy Balcourt, our heroine, Richard Selwick, the Purple Gentian himself, and, for reasons I'm still not really clear on, Delaroche, the vicious French police inspector. Through these people we learn of romance, intrigue, and, yes, the identity of the titular Pink Carnation. We are swept back to Eloise periodically, as she is challenged by the nephew of the woman who provides all these secret family documents. Colin is *not* pleased to be sharing family secrets, especially not to an American. Their conflict is the centerpiece to Eloise's portion of the story. The historical section is focused on Amy's discovery of the identity of the Purple Gentian (a thing we know from the start), and the English objective to subvert Bonaparte's intended invasion of Great Britain.

From a POV perspective, the only notable misstep is the inclusion of Delaroche. We don't need him. He's literary filler. The things revealed in his chapters don't provide more depth to his character, and the story points they uncover are better left either unsaid, or shown later as they come to pass. He's a mustache twirling kind of villain, and we don't care what he's thinking. The book would be tighter without it. I liked being in all the other perspectives, and appreciated that Eloise, Richard and Amy all had different voices to bring to the table. 

In terms of plot, nothing particularly revolutionary to uncover here. You know certain characters are safe by dint of history, and it's not even history you had to know ahead of time, as Eloise fills us in on enough to be certain of some things from the get go. Espionage and torture and the like are great when the stakes are higher. I never really felt like there was much to lose with these characters, which reduces the impact of the story. It's also not terribly hard to figure out the identity of the Pink Carnation if you care to look for it. Willig utilizes the normal mystery tool of red herrings, but they are unlikely to fool anyone.

All that said, it's still a fun romp through Bonaparte's France. There's reasonable set up for the sequel, in particular in the modern story, as Eloise sets off with Colin for a weekend at the family estate at book's end. I liked the characters, Richard in particular, and it was a fun, easy read. I'm just not invested enough to continue. However, that may not be true for you, so feel free to give this one a whirl and see if it grabs you! I've heard tell that the series gets progressively better, so if you've got the time and desire to see it through, more power to you. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

CBR 7 Review 4: The Secret Life of Violet Grant by Beatriz Williams

“I thought, how magical, the first glimpse of snow. By March I would be sick of it, but here in this November instant those tiny flakes swirled with the unspeakable purity of a divine gift.” 

It all began with a suitcase. Lovely and vivacious Vivian Schuyler gets a note for an unexpected package at her little Manhattan apartment in 1964. Retrieving it leads first to meeting Dr Paul, an incredibly beautiful doctor with whom Vivian shares instant chemistry, and more importantly, to her great aunt Violet Schuyler Grant, the woman to whom the suitcase belongs. Dr Paul turns into a rather complicated romantic entanglement. Violet leads to something else altogether - not just the stories and history her illustrious socialite family tried to bury, but a mystery that could help Vivian make her mark at the magazine job she took against her family's wishes.

Violet's interesting history starts in Berlin in 1914, but fills in some blanks preceding that period of time. A country on the brink of war, a woman on the bring of divorce, a meeting of brilliant scientific minds, and a murder.  All these things lie in the story that unfolds from Violet's POV as Vivian researches the past.

I already knew I enjoyed Beatriz Williams' prose, though I haven't reviewed the other book of hers I've read just yet (A Hundred Summers). This is no exception. Williams has a gift for language that is both timely to the period her characters occupy, and timeless in its accessibility. She's also very capable in mixing time periods and balancing the bounce between POVs that a lot of authors attempt and fail at these days. It never feels like she switches between Violet and Vivian just because she feels like she's supposed to; there's always reasonable story motivation. She also does a nice job in the vein of Dan Brown with ending a chapter in a way that inspires a reader to keep going "just one more" till hours have passed.

I vastly preferred Vivian to Violet, but that was bound to be true based on the limitations on women of their respective decades.Vivian is peppy and sharp and witty, written in the vein of a Sherman-Palladino or Whedon character. Violet's more reserved and a hell of a lot more naive, but the circumstances of her life justify it. It took me awhile to warm to Violet, whereas I loved Violet from the first moment she stumbled onto the page. 

The mystery of Violet's murdered husband is a more interesting one than I anticipated, as is the fallout from it. There are a lot of red herrings, but not delivered in a way that felt manipulative. It was set up so that there were plausible possibilities that the reader considered just like Vivian did. There was at least one twist I didn't predict, and that always thrills me.

All in all, definitely a book worth checking out, especially if you enjoy historical fiction!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

CBR 7 Review 3: Her by Harriet Lane

“I found the final plot twist unsatisfying, as plot twists often are: nothing like life, which - it seems to me - turns less on shocks or theatrics than on the small quiet moments, misunderstandings, or disappointments, the things that it's easy to overlook.” 

That quote was strategically chosen because I found the final plot twist of this DEEPLY unsatisfying. Remember how the last book I reviewed was all about apathy and no vitriol? I've saved that for this entry. It's been three months since I read this book and I can still feel the white hot fury finishing it inspired in me.

There's not a ton I can do by way of plot synopsis, both because of spoilers and the nature of how little actually happens. Nina and Emma, our primary characters and the two POVs our book's narrative bounces between, meet seemingly accidentally and seem to have little in common. It's fairly obvious from the get go that Nina knows who Emma is, while Emma has no memory of Nina.  An odd sort of friendship is manipulated into being by Nina and develops over the course of the story, leading to...well, a lot of spoilers and nothing.

In a non spoiler capacity, this book infuriated me. There are slow burns, and then there's absolutely glacial pacing. Things happen so slowly in this book that I would fall asleep during chapters. The only reason I kept reading at all was that I assumed there was going to be a wham-bang finish to justify how much everyone seemed to be losing their minds over its greatness. Boy howdy was I wrong. The end is such a complete pile of bullshit and questions that I actually threw my Kindle across my couch. The justification for Nina's behavior is practically non existant, and if you're building this story as "sociopath stalks woman" then fine, but that's not the story being told her. The history they tease constantly is nothing at all, and does nothing more than confirm that Nina is a terrible person, which is a thing we learn really fucking early.  And that ending?  Highlight for spoilers: What?? HOW? Who in their right mind thinks it's OK to threaten drowning a toddler and then NOT ACTUALLY TELL YOUR READERS IF IT HAPPENED OR NOT? That's not a cliffhanger, that's just rampant douchebaggery. It would be tragic enough if it ended with Nina succeeding in her mission to be a HORRIBLE SOCIOPATH WHO MURDERS CHILDREN BECAUSE HER DAD WAS A MANWHORE WHO FLIRTED ONCE WITH THEIR MOTHER but to not even tell us what happens??  WHAT THE EVER LOVING FUCK?

OK, so that's that. If you are a person that loved this book, that made it pop up on all my must read lists this summer, that got it on the bestseller list - feel free to leave comments and explain to me why. Because I just don't get it.

Check out more great reviews at Cannonball Read!