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.


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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.

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CBR7 Review 2: Hidden by Megg Jensen

First review back, and it's not going to overwhelm you folks, since this book left me feeling so incredibly meh that I can't even work up vitriol about it.

Hidden is Book 1 of the Dragonlands series, which hardly matters since I cannot come up with a single compelling reason to continue the franchise. Since it's the first book, like first installments before it, this book is required to do a lot of the heavy lifting of world building and character creation.  Unfortunately, it does neither in a way that matters, though you can tell Jensen is trying. The book opens with a historical chapter, setting up the world in which our protagonists live. The children awaken to the town of Hutton's Bridge with no adults, surrounded by a fog that claims lives.  Our main story begins decades later, when the girl from our prologue, Sofia, is an old woman and great grandmother to our female protagonist, Tressa. The town has remained isolated all this time, and as such its residents have adapted life to being completely shut off from the rest of the world. Youths are paired off by ribbon drawing, designed to prevent inbreeding. If the union produces a pregnancy in 3 months, they are mated - if not, they draw again. Tressa appears to be infertile, making her a social outcast (more on this later), and also unable to be partnered with man she loves, Bastian, who happens to love her back. Every year, 3 people are selected supposedly at random to go into the fog and try to find a way out for their people - no one has ever returned.  On the eve of Tressa's departure into the fog, Sofia dies, leaving the community without their eldest resident, and the only person who was alive when the fog first descended. The following day, plague hits the village, a dead dragon drops from the sky, and Tressa, Bastian, and their friend Connor (who is barely developed at all before events change him) head into the fog.  It's not a spoiler to say that there is a wider world, and the youths discover it.  It's a much more terrifying and evil place than they had anticipated, however, and Bastian and Tressa reunite only to be split apart for their stories to continue.  And really, that's the only reason their stories split - narrative necessity.

That's all I can say without getting into spoiler territory, though spoiling this story really doesn't amount to much. The thing that rankled with me as opposed to merely causing excessive apathy was the treatment of Tressa in the village. I get that in a society where numbers are limited to your own tiny population, the ability to create more humans is an important thing.  That said, bodies aren't the only thing that makes a society work - you also need skilled tradesmen.  Tressa has skills of weaving that she uses to help the village, and she's also one of the only people capable of reading and writing. She's great granddaughter to the only person living (well, temporarily) that was there when the fog fell. She proves time again that she's resourceful, brave, and capable. And yet she's a complete pariah because she's barren?  Fuck that noise. Hell, we're talking about a society where women die in childbirth all the time, and 3 people get murdered by fog every year - let barren women like Tressa help take care of the orphans, which Tressa herself was (mom died in childbirth, dad lost to fog). It just seems like such a stupid waste, and a manipulatively anti-feminist way to create some three dimensionality to a character who doesn't get a lot to work with.

And that, friends, is the apathy motivator for this book - there just isn't a lot of there there. The prose is weak, the character development is competely informed rather than organic, the danger not all that compelling, the world building missing a lot of pieces.  Bastian and Tressa's relationship matters because we're told it does - we're not given enough time with them to see it develop or mean anything. It's also a cheap shot to make Vinya, Bastian's wife, into such a shrew. Setting up romantic roadblocks is fine, and can be interesting fiction, but don't take the lazy way out. She can be flawed and wrong for Bastian without being the personification of every horrible wife stereotype we've ever seen.  Hell, you could even leave the terrible wife things and at least make her a capable and loving mother - there's no reason at all to make her irredeemable.

The only character I really grew attached to is Leo, who we will not be seeing later in this series (not that it would inspire me to pick up another volume) because at least he was charming. Because he's supposed to be mysterious, we also don't have a lot of forced character development for him either, which worked far more effectively than what is done with the rest of the cast of characters.

End result? Skip it. It's not terrible, I'm not mad at it, I didn't throw it at a wall after finishing it because the ending made me mad (I'm looking at you Gone Girl and Her) - I just have no idea why I even finished reading it in the first place.

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CBR 7 : Apologies and Amends

As I'm sure the 3 of you who follow this have noticed, I have utterly failed at both my attempt to do video reviews of books for Cannonball Read, and, hey, at doing them at all.  According to Goodreads, I've read 43 books this year, which is much more than the half cannon I committed to.  That said, they don't count if I don't review them, which was my problem last year as well.  At least this time I'm reacting to it before December?

So here's why I'm making this post. I'm going to attempt to get as many of those books reviewed as I can before the end of the year.  I don't recall if that's the actual deadline for CBR, officially speaking, but that's my goal for me. Also, for now, they are just going on here and not the official CBR blog because I can't for the life of me remember anything about how to do those posts there, including my login info.  I'm also just sticking to writing them - doing that one short video took me ages, and I have neither the time nor the desire to get crazy with webcams and makeup and whatnot. So for the moment, my only goal is to review a bunch of books here, in print, by year's end.

The biggest challenge at this point isn't the dedication of time require to review the 42 remaining books (I do have *one* video review up). No, no, my hardest obstacle is going to be remember what the hell I thought about each of these books. Some were not particularly noteworthy at the time I finished them, let alone months after the fact.  You can also expect each of the series that I've read to fill one very long post each.  It seems silly to me to attempt to differentiate between each volume when instead I can do a longer post really delving into the entirety of something like the Codex Alera.

So that's the plan folks!  Tune in over the next month and a half and see how well I do!

Friday, January 23, 2015

CBR7 Review 1: Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

Check out my first video review! We'll see if I need to transcribe it or not. For now, I'm just posting this.

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CBR 7 - An intro

What's up!  It's almost February, which means I'm finally going to start posting reviews of the books I read in January.  Trying to keep up this year, instead of getting so far behind that I never catch up.  This year I'm dedicated to a half cannon (I think? I should probably look that up). But this year, I'm going to try something different.

Video Reviews.

For those of you that don't know, I'm an actor by trade. So it appeals to me to film my responses to these books. I don't, however, know how well this is going to work yet. As I sit here, I'm trying to get my stupid webcam software to update so that I can take a crack at the first review.  I'm going to give it a go, and see how we fare. The plan is to post to my YouTube account, and link that video here. If needed, I'll post transcripts along with the video link here, that way y'all have the option to not watch.

So we'll see if this works at all.  It's possible it will be an epic fail, and I'll return to the traditional format I've used for the last several years of CBR. Or this could be awesome. Either way, I plan to actually post my reviews this year, instead of managing two of them once December hits!

Ciao for now.