Month: April 2017

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Refugees  by Viet Thanh NguyenThe Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Published by Grove Press on February, 7, 2017
Genres: Short Stories
Pages: 224
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
five-stars

With the coruscating gaze that informed The Sympathizer, in The Refugees Viet Thanh Nguyen gives voice to lives led between two worlds, the adopted homeland and the country of birth. From a young Vietnamese refugee who suffers profound culture shock when he comes to live with two gay men in San Francisco, to a woman whose husband is suffering from dementia and starts to confuse her for a former lover, to a girl living in Ho Chi Minh City whose older half-sister comes back from America having seemingly accomplished everything she never will, the stories are a captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration.

This second piece of fiction by a major new voice in American letters, The Refugees is a beautifully written and sharply observed book about the aspirations of those who leave one country for another, and the relationships and desires for self-fulfillment that define our lives.

Wow this collection made me think and get even more fascinated about those who left Vietnam and came to the United States to resettle. Some stories didn’t resonate with me as much as others did. The stories flowed together well though I thought.

“Black-Eyed Women” (5 stars)- a woman with a career as a ghostwriter finds herself laying some ghosts to rest. Her heartbreaking story of her and her family fleeing for a better life in America will gut you when you get to the end and read about how entwined she is with her mother.

“The Other Man” (5 stars)- a man who resettles in the US in the 1970s finds himself on uncharted territory when he ends up being sponsored by two gay men in San Francisco.

“War Years” (5 stars)- a young boy recounts a story about a widowed woman from Vietnam demanding money from his family in order to fight the Communists. The story helps him see his mother and father in a new light. I honestly thought the story was going in a different direction until I got to the end and you end up feeling pity.

“The Transplant” (4 stars)- A man named Arthur Arellano who has a liver transplant. This causes him to look for the man’s family. This causes him to look at his family in a different way when he finally meets the son of his transplant donor. I was enjoying this until the end, when I think that Nguyen maybe wanted you to feel sorry for poor put upon Arthur. I was kind of over this guy though when you realize how self absorbed he is.

“I’d Love You to Want Me” (5 stars)- A woman who is struggling with her husband’s onset of Alzheimer’s. Mrs. Khanh’s story was probably my next favorite after Black-Eyed Women. Her realizing that her husband had a life she didn’t know and how she really doesn’t care for her oldest son. You get to see Mrs. Khanh slowly giving up on her dreams when she starts to think about what does love really mean. In her mind, it’s being devoted.

“The Americans” (5 stars)- James Carver, an African American former Air Force pilot (I think) goes back to Vietnam with his Japanese wife to visit their daughter who is there teaching. Lord, his daughter was exhausting. There’s a scene when she yells at her father for what he did while running missions in the country. And sigh, nope, no sympathy for Claire. I did love though James going through his struggles in his career and life and him being pretty baffled by his daughter and what she wants from him. Loved the ending a lot though.

“Someone Else Besides You” (3 stars)- My least favorite. A man going through his family’s history and why he wasn’t ready to have children with his ex wife. The father in this story was odd to me. I don’t know what his purpose was besides to criticize the son. The story takes an odd turn after some vandalism.

“Fatherland” (5 stars)-Really enjoyed this one. A woman named Phuong is excited to meet her half sister who has lived in America, that comes back to Vietnam to visit her, and the rest of the family. The story set up (Phuong’s sister Vivien) was raised with her two other siblings in America and her mother divorced their father. The father marries his mistress and has three other children he names after the first set (yeah that happened). What I loved was Phuong coming to realization about her father and her half sister.

five-stars

The Wangs Vs. the World by Jade Chang

The Wangs Vs. the World by Jade ChangThe Wangs Vs. The World by Jade Chang
Published by Houghton Mifflin on October 4th 2016
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
one-star

Charles Wang is mad at America. A brash, lovable immigrant businessman who built a cosmetics empire and made a fortune, he’s just been ruined by the financial crisis. Now all Charles wants is to get his kids safely stowed away so that he can go to China and attempt to reclaim his family’s ancestral lands—and his pride.

Charles pulls Andrew, his aspiring comedian son, and Grace, his style-obsessed daughter, out of schools he can no longer afford. Together with their stepmother, Barbra, they embark on a cross-country road trip from their foreclosed Bel-Air home to the upstate New York hideout of the eldest daughter, disgraced art world it-girl Saina. But with his son waylaid by a temptress in New Orleans, his wife ready to defect for a set of 1,000-thread-count sheets, and an epic smash-up in North Carolina, Charles may have to choose between the old world and the new, between keeping his family intact and finally fulfilling his dream of starting anew in China.

Outrageously funny and full of charm, The Wangs vs. the World is an entirely fresh look at what it means to belong in America—and how going from glorious riches to (still name-brand) rags brings one family together in a way money never could.

Seriously. This book is awful. I read that this was supposed to be funny (I didn’t laugh at all) and hey if you want to read about a self absorbed rich family who consist of Chinese people, I say go read Crazy Rich Asians instead. One of this books’s genres on Goodreads is “Abandoned” so I should have looked into that before I spent money on this thing.

This book takes place in 2008, of course for us Americans, we know that is when the housing bubble in the US burst, and then we had a recession set in and millions of people were without work and or lost their homes. “The Wangs Vs the World” follows a millionaire (maybe billionaire) family living in L.A. who lose everything when the family patriarch (Charles Wang) decides to put up his home and businesses as collateral to start a new line of makeup products. When the economy takes a tumble, Charles decides he will pack up his second wife (Barbra) and pick up his two kids who are at school (Grace and Andrew) and make his way to his oldest daughter’s (Saina) home in Helios, New York. We get not only Charles’ POV during this mess of a book, but also Grace, Andrew, Barbra, and even the POV of the freaking car they are riding in for the majority of this road trip.

I can honestly say that I didn’t care for one character at all. These people suck. Charles is just a terrible father and husband. It’s understood he has affairs, but you know, don’t get upset about that. That’s just the world or something.

Barbra was obsessed with Charles when she knew him in China and just bides her time to get him after his first wife dies in the weirdest accident ever. She’s not worried about being a mother to his children that he had with his first wife and is just barely present it seems in anyone’s life.

Saina was okay at first, but she’s dumb when it comes to love and it gets old reading about her romance problems.

Andrew was a hot mess. I just…reading about someone’s comic stand-up is not interesting. At all. Wait, I take that back, I did laugh while reading Chelsea Handler’s books, so maybe once again it’s just that this book is not funny.

Grace was inoffensive. I wish I cared more, but honestly since the whole rest of their family was exhausting, I just wanted to be done with them all.

The writing was not that great. Between the run on sentences that lasted whole freaking paragraphs sometimes which was bad enough; Chang also had some dialogue I think either in Cantonese or Mandarin and doesn’t translate it. I say I think since once again she doesn’t bother to translate what people are saying.

Also, FYI authors, there is nothing endearing about reading how prejudiced and racist in some cases the whole family was about people who were African American. Also be prepared to read about how if you have a mixed race kid who is cute, that makes it okay to be with a black man or woman. Shoot they even had some comments towards white people. I just didn’t find any of it clever. I found myself cringing throughout and sighing.

Also there is a point in the story where Chang goes into a fixed rate loan he takes out which took me out of the story. Dumb me, but didn’t the whole housing crisis happen cause people everywhere had adjustable rate mortgages that overnight went from being several hundred dollars to several thousand? It just didn’t even make sense to me why Charles took out a loan when he supposedly had money to burn.

The book settings moves around a lot, the family is traveling by car from California to New York and all I have to say is that the route they take seemed to be making the trip longer, but I am too lazy to look up potential routes. That is way too much effort for me to be putting in towards a book I seriously disliked. The action at one case even moves to China.

The ending was just a question mark to me. I don’t know what I was supposed to think and honestly I didn’t care. I was glad to be done with this book so I can freaking count it towards Booklikes-opoly. FYI, that is the only reason I kept up with this.

Electronic edition: 368 pages (via Goodreads)

201 to 400 pages: $3.00

Bank: $23.00

one-star

Mad Love by Nick Spalding

Mad Love by Nick SpaldingMad Love by Nick Spalding
Published by Lake Union Publishing on December 6th 2016
Genres: Romance
Pages: 316
Source: Borrowed: ebook
Goodreads
four-stars

Can two people who have never met make a marriage work? Popular dating site Sociality thinks so, and is marrying London lad Adam to California girl Jessica to prove it.

What better way to show that your ‘love algorithms’ work than to put two complete strangers together in an expensive publicity stunt? But, as livewire Jess and lazybones Adam quickly discover, just because a computer says you’re the perfect match, it doesn’t make it so!

Two million Sociality subscribers and the media are following the happy couple’s progress, and they have to make a go of it or they’ll lose everything, look like idiots, and destroy Sociality’s reputation. But can the mismatched pair, who seem to be constantly at each other’s throats, put their differences aside and work their way into each other’s hearts?

Nick Spalding, bestselling author of Fat Chance and Bricking It, will make you cry with laughter at this story of marital warfare—complete with sinking boats, badly aimed flatulence, well aimed tennis balls and some very suggestive pastry.

I seriously love Nick Spadling. There have been only one book that was a miss for me so far. The other ones have been hilarious though. In “Mad Love” Spalding takes a look at a man (Adam) and woman (Jessica) who agree to get married via a dating website (Sociality). With the promise of a new flat that they can call their own and a split of thousands of pounds Adam and Jessica are trying their best to give their marriage a go. But they both realize that when one tends to fib (lie people) on their dating profile, that Sociality’s algorithm may be wrong about what a perfect match they should be.

Adam works as a video game journalist. I was going to say something about ethics in gaming, but that is bringing bad memories up for me, so let me say that Adam is not an ass. He is currently living in a place with a lot of flatmates and a cross eyed rat, so I can see why he would leap on being married to Jessica when he finds out about her. The beginning depicting Adam waking up and going to a video game con was hilarious. I just cracked up. Spalding always does a great job with the guy POV in these books.

Jessica is an American living in London trying to get her masters in Nutrition (I am to lazy to look that up to make sure that is accurate). She is also working at a strip club as a bartender. Once again, Jessica’s POV had me laughing at so many times in this book.

When Adam and Jessica agree to their marriage and realize it means that Sociality’s owner is going to be up in their faces for the next several months, you realize that both of them are trying to put their best face forward until it turns into a War of the Roses thing that the book did a great job with.

The only misstep I will say that happens, that really is what besides the ending made me knock a star from this book, is that Spalding gives us insight into why Adam was so focused on staying married to Jessica. I maybe rolled my eyes a bit. It felt like it came out of nowhere since there are no hints to this during Adam’s POV that Spalding could have at least hinted at so we could see what secret Adam was keeping.

The writing was great. Spalding does a great job of depicting relationships (see Love From Both Sides) and he has a great voice for both male and female characters. He chooses to tell the story from both Adam and Jessica’s POV with each chapter beginning with a question and answer they responded to on the Sociality website. I laughed so hard many times I started howling. There are just some scenes I don’t want to spoil for you. But let me just say, the scene with them getting married. It was inspired.

The book setting switches between London and Jessica’s birthplace of California. Spalding does a great job of depicting where Jessica grew up to the point I want to visit there sometime.

The ending was a bit eh to me though. I thought it was just too over the top and not realistic.

four-stars

The Bone Witch (The Bone Witch #1) by Rin Chupeco

The Bone Witch (The Bone Witch #1) by Rin ChupecoThe Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco
on March 7, 2017
Genres: YA, Fantasy
Pages: 432
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
one-star

Let me be clear: I never intended to raise my brother from his grave, though he may claim otherwise. If there's anything I've learned from him in the years since, it's that the dead hide truths as well as the living.

When Tea accidentally resurrects her brother from the dead, she learns she is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy means that she's a bone witch, a title that makes her feared and ostracized by her community. But Tea finds solace and guidance with an older, wiser bone witch, who takes Tea and her brother to another land for training.

In her new home, Tea puts all her energy into becoming an asha-one who can wield elemental magic. But dark forces are approaching quickly, and in the face of danger, Tea will have to overcome her obstacles...and make a powerful choice.

Image result for stares into space gif

This freaking book.

Just to get this out of the way, this was not a good book. As many reviewers at Booklikes noted, this YA fantasy novel hit every trope that many of us readers are tired of reading.

Main character is the best (insert name of thing) ever.

There is purple prose galore.

World-building is all over the place and more often than not, author contradicts themselves regarding the rules they have put in place.

There is a love triangle (STOP IT!)

People (usually women) are jealous of main character for reasons unknown. That don’t make sense to you as a reader, but at that point you just go with it since you want it to end.

Development of characters seems to be an afterthought.

Book ends on freaking cliffhanger so you know as a reader that the author/publisher is going to stretch this thing out to at least 3 books. Looking at you “Dorothy Must Die” series which managed to push out 4 books.

I really loved the cover for “The Bone Witch” and when I read the synopsis a few months ago I thought this book would be right up my alley. I was wrong.

Told in alternating points of view, “The Bone Witch” has a character who is a bard (no, not looking up his name) who comes across Tea, who is a dark asha (think witch, it’s easier) also called bone witches.

This bard has come from (don’t recall kingdom) in order to find Tea.

Tea agrees to tell her life story after the bard witnesses her slaying a daeva in order to get its bezoar. Just think of a daeva as an undead thing that looks like a dragon. I don’t know. The bezoar is a jeweled remnant left behind that a dark asha like Tea can use in her spells. Seriously, after that the book just jumps into a free for all regarding this world that we find ourselves reading about.

When the POV switches to Tea, we find out what incident occurred in order for Tea to be declared a dark asha. We get to read about how she raised her dead brother (Fox) from the grave. And this is what kills me. The book has promise when you read about that. You are instantly fascinated. Then you are drowned in minutiae and you just don’t care anymore.

The book goes back and forth between the bard’s POV and Tea’s. I really wish that Chupeco had not decided to tell the bard’s POV in italic. I know that they want to visually show the different points of view. But it was hard to read. I don’t think people realize that when you have an e-reader or heck even a hardcover or paperback having someone’s eyes having to constantly adjust to different fonts can cause a headache. I know I had one yesterday.

Tea was not exciting at all. If you want to read about her crush on Prince Kance enjoy that. Also read about how angry she is at having to deal with chores and the food she eats. For pages and pages. I am not kidding about this. A good 3/4 of this book was just descriptions of what she was wearing, what was in her hair (jeweled things that somehow give ashas power), how she felt when Prince Kance was near her, what she was eating, how she sang, danced, and fought. This book borrowed heavily from “Memoirs of a Geisha” to the point that a few times I felt like I was experiencing deja-vu because a scene would sounds so similar to one from that book.

Image result for memoirs of a geisha gifs

There were a few things in here that I think that Chupeco wanted to include for a very special after school moment, but it fell flat to me. She includes a character (named Likh) that wants to be an asha (he has a silver heart) but in this world, since he is a male, he has to be a deathseeker. Likh doesn’t want to be one, and Tea and her dead brother Fox try their best to be behind his efforts to become an asha. At one point he makes a speech that he doesn’t seem himself as a boy, that since he was a boy he liked girl things (dolls and dresses) and I just cringed inside.

Image result for stop it gif

I think Chupeco is trying to portray him as gay. But that does not equal only liking girl things and not liking swords or rough play. Heck I was a tomboy and fought my mother tooth and nail to not be in a dress outside of church (boy did she despair) and yet I was not gay. I just think she should be careful with generalizations like this when writing.

We have other characters like Lady Mykaela, Lady Zoya, Mother Parmina and others who I wish we had been able to visit with more. They had more going on then Tea that was for sure. But honestly after a while, it was hard to keep track of so many people. Every few pages it felt like someone new was being included in this book.

The writing was purple prose run amok.

And honestly what really kills me about this book is that I still don’t get the world building that Chupeco has in this book. We have ashas who can control fire, water, wind, and earth (I think). And then we have dark ashas who can control the dead. How the heck does that even link up to the other four elements? Even Captain Planet decided to go with “heart” for crying out loud as a fifth element.

Don’t get me started why ashas who can control the elements are even being taught about dancing, flower arrangement, how to sing, how to perform, etc. Chupeco even has the ashas going to tea houses to have conversations with men. Once again there is a whole what in the world thought running through my mind. When Chupeco goes into Tea having to work off her debt to the “Mother” of her house I just started to laugh. This fantasy world is definitely not for me.

Chupeco tries to describe the runes that Tea is learning about, but man oh man my eyes just glazed over. We really only get two fight scenes in this book, and those were the only interesting parts of this book. Everything else was a big meh to me.

Chupeco has “The World of the Bone Witch” section that she included at the end of the book. It would have been better to put that up front after she showcased the maps of this world. I also really wish that Chupeco had thought to include a dictionary for the terms in this book. You have to guess a lot at what certain words mean or what she means when talking about somethings. For example, the clothes that the ashas wear are referred to as huas. Guess what I could not find that word anywhere in the dictionary. I ended up having to Google and found out that hua means China. I don’t know if that is true or not since it popped up via Wikipedia. I imagine that Chupeco means that this outfits (based on the endless pages of descriptions) are similar somewhat to kimonos though. Same thing when I tried to look up daesha which turned up some interesting results.

The setting of this world that Chupeco creates at first glance sounds interesting. Everyone has an actual physical representation of their heart that they wear for all to see in a heartglass. People (ashas mostly) can see the colors in the heartglass and can tell if you are happy, anxious, sad, sick, etc. But if you give your heart away (cue danger) you can slowly start to die. But sometimes not. And sometimes you can get a new heart. I am sure this is all going to reveal about love or something in book #2 or #3.

Chupeco also shows the kingdom includes people with blonde hair and blue eyes, dark haired people with dark eyes, and golden skinned people with I can’t even remember what eyes they had, I think she refers to their shape. But then people pop up who are dark skinned and I just didn’t have the energy to figure out what kingdom they even come from.

The ending was a freaking cliffhanger. There are enough clues here and there that you can imagine what happened to put Tea on this path, which is why having a cliffhanger really doesn’t work. There was one reveal that I think will surprise some readers if they manage to finish this book. I know that I don’t really care what caused Tea to take the measures that she is about to do.

I read this for booklikes-oply. The Kindle Edition is 432 pages.

one-star

In the Labyrinth of Drakes by Marie Brennan

In the Labyrinth of Drakes by Marie BrennanIn the Labyrinth of Drakes (The Memoirs of Lady Trent #4) by Marie Brennan
Series: The Memoirs of Lady Trent #4
Published by Tor Books on April 5th 2016
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 352
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
five-stars

The thrilling new book in the acclaimed fantasy series from Marie Brennan, as the glamorous Lady Trent takes her adventurous explorations to the deserts of Akhia.

Even those who take no interest in the field of dragon naturalism have heard of Lady Trent's expedition to the inhospitable deserts of Akhia. Her discoveries there are the stuff of romantic legend, catapulting her from scholarly obscurity to worldwide fame. The details of her personal life during that time are hardly less private, having provided fodder for gossips in several countries.

As is so often the case in the career of this illustrious woman, the public story is far from complete. In this, the fourth volume of her memoirs, Lady Trent relates how she acquired her position with the Royal Scirling Army; how foreign saboteurs imperiled both her work and her well-being; and how her determined pursuit of knowledge took her into the deepest reaches of the Labyrinth of Drakes, where the chance action of a dragon set the stage for her greatest achievement yet.

I am caught up to the final book, which won’t be released until the 25th.

I adored this book. As far as my enjoyment goes, the pacing of this series has been remarkably effective. Although the tale is being told as a memoir, Marie Brennan has done an outstanding job letting the intellectual development of Isabella unfold. We get some of the most frankly feminist moments in this book. Lady Trent, at this point, is a woman with no fucks left to give about propriety. She has learned, in the hardest way possible, that it does not matter how amazing she is, how accomplished she is, how much BETTER she is than the man. Her womanhood forever excludes her from being part of the old boy’s club.

I highly recommend reading Brennan’s free short story, available on Tor, before jumping into this one. It is a slender thing of a tale, told in letters, between Isabella and a man who is so clearly her inferior in all things important, but who is just so smug about his superiority.

The tagline for this book could be: “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white male.”

I’m going to share a few quotes here, because they are so awesome.

“Shall we get to the point? You are afraid that I will disgrace Scirland by carrying on with an unmarried man.”

“I would never suggest that.”

No, he would only imply it. I ground my teeth, then said “Colonel, do you make a habit of querying your men about their involvement with every woman they meet? I assure you that many if not most of them have done far more to merit censure than I have. I know it may be difficult to believe, but dragons truly are my concern here. I have not undertaken their study in the hope of attracting a new husband; indeed, such a thing would be an inconvenience rather than a benefit, as there are few husbands who would accept my life as I have become accustomed to living it. As for scandal outside the bounds of marriage…that would be even more inconvenient, as people question my professional integrity quite enough without such justification to encourage them. So you may lay your mind at ease, sir: I have no intention of disgracing our nation. Not when there are dragons to be studied.”

This is a conversation between Isabella and the Colonel Pensyth, who is basically in charge of her new research project, which is an effort to breed dragons in captivity for use in military combat.

In this book, Brennan has laid bare the struggle of women to be taken seriously in their chosen field, both in the past, but as well, in the present. In a conversation with Isabella’s older brother, Andrew, they are discussing her undeniable attraction to Suhail, who reappears in this book. Andrew is commenting that Isabella need not choose between her attraction to Suhail and her work as a dragonologist. Isabella corrects him:

I felt weary, as if I were ten years older than my brother, instead of a year his junior. “Yes, it doe. You and I are not held to the same standards, Andrew. People will forgive a slip, a weakness, a minor personal folly — when it comes from a man. They may click their tongues at you, even gossip about your behavior…but at worst, it will only reflect on you.

“If I misstep, it goes far beyond me. Errors on my part are proof that women are unsuited to professional work.”

And, when Andrew goes on to point out that Isabella is “not like other women,” she pointedly states:

“Ah, yes,” I said ironically, “I have made myself exceptional. It is a wonderful game, is it not? Because I am exceptional, anything I achieve does not reflect on my sex, for of course, I am not like them. Strange, though, how that division seems to vanish when we are speaking instead of my shortcomings. Then I am a woman, like any other.”

One of the things that I’ve really loved about this series is Isabella’s platonic relationship with Tom Wilker. As fellow scientists, they both carry a stigma. Tom is low-born, not one of the peers who are encouraged to take up science as a hobby, and who are given opportunity after opportunity on the strength of their ancestry, as opposed to their talent or work ethic. Isabella, of course, is a woman. Tom’s lot is, actually, not so difficult as Isabella’s, although he certainly doesn’t have it easy. But even though he has to scrap and struggle, he considers Isabella to be his colleague, and there is never a suggestion by him, although Isabella does suggest it once or twice, that he take credit for her work in order to get it published. He is intent on pulling the two of them up together, and if she can’t go too, he isn’t interested.

So, when they make the scientific discovery of a generation, Isabella, Tom and Suhail (another character who defies the path laid for him by birth and sex), I literally cheered. I almost wept. Never has this book and these characters felt more real to me than in the section where they discover the “Watcher’s Heart,” as the site became known, a monumental archeological treasure of the Draconean civilization.

Near the end of the book, Tom bursts out, angrily:

“We have to achieve twice as much, in order to get half as much reward.”

There was no answer I could make to that. It was true…but neither of us could do a thing about it. Except, of course, to achieve four times as much. To be so exceptional, they could no longer shut us out, and having done that, to hope that those who came after might be judged on equal terms with those who should be their peers.

It is not a dream easily attained. We have no truly attained it in my lifetime. But I was more determined than ever to do my part.”

In The Labyrinth of Drakes is an exceptional book, which I loved. Brennan has built this series into something amazing, each book frankly becoming better than the last, which is a rare thing in series, in my experience. I am waiting for the end of the series with delight.

five-stars

The Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan

The Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie BrennanVoyage of the Basilisk (The Memoirs of Lady Trent #3) by Marie Brennan
Published by Tor Books on March 31st 2015
Pages: 352
Goodreads
five-stars

Devoted readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoirs, A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents, may believe themselves already acquainted with the particulars of her historic voyage aboard the Royal Survey Ship Basilisk, but the true story of that illuminating, harrowing, and scandalous journey has never been revealed—until now. Six years after her perilous exploits in Eriga, Isabella embarks on her most ambitious expedition yet: a two-year trip around the world to study all manner of dragons in every place they might be found. From feathered serpents sunning themselves in the ruins of a fallen civilization to the mighty sea serpents of the tropics, these creatures are a source of both endless fascination and frequent peril. Accompanying her is not only her young son, Jake, but a chivalrous foreign archaeologist whose interests converge with Isabella’s in ways both professional and personal.

Science is, of course, the primary objective of the voyage, but Isabella’s life is rarely so simple. She must cope with storms, shipwrecks, intrigue, and warfare, even as she makes a discovery that offers a revolutionary new insight into the ancient history of dragons

I had been awaiting this one with enthusiasm because Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle has always enthralled me. I’m not particularly a ship/boat person, but the idea of a scientist travelling ’round the world studying the natural world is extremely appealing to me. So, this book would be, I hoped, the opportunity to read of such a fictional voyage.

A cross-section view of the hold of The Beagle

It was quite a satisfying tale, although there wasn’t quite as much travelling as I had hoped. Natalie doesn’t join her on this trip, although her son, now nine-years-old, does, and becomes entirely obsessed with ships.

Lady Trent has the opportunity to swim with the dragon turtles!

But I did not need to be a champion swimmer to see the dragon turtles, for they are both huge and relatively fearless of human company. In shape they are more like enormous turtles than anything else. Their shell alone is often two meters or more in length, and when they extend their flippers, a swimmer feels positively tiny in comparison. The name “dragon turtle,” however, derives from the shape of the head, which is indeed like that of a Dajin dragon: a thrusting, squarish muzzle; flaps of skin depending from the jaw; long whiskers which dance in the current as the turtle swims.

And she visits an island where she ends up becoming embroiled in a political scandal, after scaring the natives who are convinced that she is “dragon-spirited” because her refusal to behave in a traditionally feminine manner. There’s a rather amusing part of the book where she ends up “married” to a local woman because that’s the only way to satisfy the native population that she’s safe to keep around.

“Do you believe you are neither male nor female?”

I almost gave a malapert answer, but caught myself in time. We had an established habit of intellectual debate, and I valued it; I would not discard it now. “So long as my society refuses to admit of a concept of femininity that allows for such things,” I said, “then one could indeed say that I stand between.”

Finally, Lady Trent rides a dragon. Well, a sea serpent who is a dragon, but still.

Whereupon I realized that we were, indeed, riding a dragon. I cannot honestly recommend the practice to my readers. Apart from the number of Keongans who have been killed attempting this very feat, it is not very comfortable. The ragged cuts on my knees and elbows stung unmercifully. Every time the serpent dove, I was buffeted by the water until it realized the error of its ways and surfaced once more. Again and again it drew in water and expelled it in a blast, for that was its defense against what troubled it, and the beast’s mind could not encompass the fact that this annoyance could not be disposed of in such fashion; but it came near to working regardless, for the shuddering of the serpent’s body whenever this happened threatened to dislodge us. There was no moment of the entire experience that was not a precarious struggle to stay aboard. And yet for all of that, it was one of the grandest experiences of my life.

At this point in the book, she becomes embroiled – once again – in a royal Scirling government scandal, and is basically sent home subject to the official secrets act after saving the life of a grateful Princess. I should probably also mention Suhail, a foreign archaeologist from a vaguely middle eastern country, with whom Isabella is quite taken, and from whom she is abruptly separated at the end of this book when his father, the Sheikh, dies unexpectedly and he is called home. All in all, this was an incredibly satisfying outing in the series, and I’m looking forward to the fourth book, In The Labyrinth of Drakes.

five-stars

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette KowalShades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories, #1) by Mary Robinette Kowal
Series: Glamourist Histories #1
Published by Tor Books on August 3rd 2010
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 208
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
two-half-stars

The fantasy novel you’ve always wished Jane Austen had written
Shades of Milk and Honey is exactly what we could expect from Jane Austen if she had been a fantasy writer: Pride and Prejudice meets Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It is an intimate portrait of a woman, Jane, and her quest for love in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality.

Jane and her sister Melody vie for the attentions of eligible men, and while Jane’s skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face. When Jane realizes that one of Melody’s suitors is set on taking advantage of her sister for the sake of her dowry, she pushes her skills to the limit of what her body can withstand in order to set things right—and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.

Overall, I found this book to be a disappointment.

I started out listening to the audiobook, and kept getting distracted because it moved so slowly that I decided to read it instead. I did finish it last night, rather quickly, so this is one of those rare occasions where my initial chosen format didn’t work for the story.

When I decided to read the book, I expected to like it a lot, because Jane Austen + magic sounds like the bomb. The problem that I had with the book was that the magic seemed incredibly weak and pointless to me. All anyone seems to be able to do with it is make their drawing rooms look extra pretty.

I also hated, hated, hated Jane’s sister Melody. She’s all of the worst parts of Lydia Bennett with none of the madcap charm. She was a total snot to Jane and I wanted someone to slap her into next Tuesday. I did not buy her whiny explanation that she was just jealous of all of Jane’s accomplishments for one minute. She was an unredeemably shallow, self-centered bitch, and it totally marred my enjoyment of the story. And Jane’s constant woe-is-meeeeeeing about her plainness was also pretty annoying. I kept wanting to tell her to buck the fuck up.

I also found all of the love interests to be unconvincing. We’ve got an obvious Mr. Wickham/Mr. Willoughby/Mr. Churchill stand-in who was even more obviously rotten than the other three. There’s also the romance between Jane and her suitor(s), which I again found pretty difficult to buy. The wrap-up of the romance was so quick that I couldn’t figure out how the two of them (and I’m not going to say who the ultimate winner of Jane’s hand was, since that’s a primary plot point that shouldn’t be divulged) actually ended up together. It was emphatically not as convincing as the Darcy/Lizzie pairing or the Emma/Mr. Knightly pairing. I couldn’t see it.

A lot of my bookish friends read and enjoyed this book much more than I did, and they saw depths to the book that I frankly missed, so I wouldn’t take my review as the final word on the subject. I also found the writing to be quite lovely. In addition, I’ve read that the series improves significantly after the first book, but they remain pretty expensive, so unless I can grab one on sale, I doubt I will be continuing. I may give the series one more chance with Glamour and Glass, but I’ve not decided yet.

two-half-stars

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American Gods by Neil GaimanAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman
Published by William Morrow on June 21st 2011
Pages: 565
Goodreads

First published in 2001, American Gods became an instant classic—an intellectual and artistic benchmark from the multiple-award-winning master of innovative fiction, Neil Gaiman. Now discover the mystery and magic of American Gods in this tenth anniversary edition. Newly updated and expanded with the author’s preferred text, this commemorative volume is a true celebration of a modern masterpiece by the one, the only, Neil Gaiman.
A storm is coming...

Locked behind bars for three years, Shadow did his time, quietly waiting for the magic day when he could return to Eagle Point, Indiana. A man no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, all he wanted was to be with Laura, the wife he deeply loved, and start a new life.

But just days before his release, Laura and Shadow’s best friend are killed in an accident. With his life in pieces and nothing to keep him tethered, Shadow accepts a job from a beguiling stranger he meets on the way home, an enigmatic man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. A trickster and rogue, Wednesday seems to know more about Shadow than Shadow does himself.

Life as Wednesday’s bodyguard, driver, and errand boy is far more interesting and dangerous than Shadow ever imagined—it is a job that takes him on a dark and strange road trip and introduces him to a host of eccentric characters whose fates are mysteriously intertwined with his own. Along the way Shadow will learn that the past never dies; that everyone, including his beloved Laura, harbors secrets; and that dreams, totems, legends, and myths are more real than we know. Ultimately, he will discover that beneath the placid surface of everyday life a storm is brewing—an epic war for the very soul of America—and that he is standing squarely in its path.

I decided that the time had come to read this in preparation for the Starz series, which looks amazing. I’ll start by saying that I really liked this book, although I don’t think that it has tipped The Graveyard Book out of it’s Numero Uno spot as my favorite Gaiman. One of the most noteworthy things about Neil Gaiman is that each of his books is so unique. American Gods is very much an adult novel, and not simply because of the sexual content. The themes are grittier, and it lacks that undercurrent of sweetness that runs throughout The Graveyard Book.

American Gods is ambitious, setting out to do nothing less than put gods in the context of America. The book begins with an epigraph:

One question that has always intrigued me is what happens to demonic beings when immigrants move from their homelands. Irish-Americans remember the fairies, Norwegian-Americans the nisser, Greek-Americans the vrykólakas, but only in relation to events remembered in the Old Country. When I once asked why such demons are not seen in America, my informants giggled confusedly and said “They’re scared to pass the ocean, it’s too far,” pointing out that Christ and the apostles never came to America.

At the end of the book, Gaiman mentions that the question he’s never been asked, that he thought he would be asked, was “How dare you.” But the “how dare you” isn’t the one that I personally expected, in the sense of “how dare you be such a heretic, talking about small g gods in the old U.S. of A, the most Christian nation in the world,” but the question was “how dare you – as someone who is not an American – write a book about America.

I don’t have a problem with the idea of Gaiman – someone who very much stands outside of America – writing a road trip novel set in America. I think he did a terrific job of getting at some of what makes America inexplicably different:

“No, in the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat-house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.”

I’m not sure, are we the only place with roadside attractions? The corn palace, the Wall Drug, the bizarre shrines that pop up in the middle of nowhere, where people towing travel trailers stop in enormous parking lots to buy tiny commemorative spoons, paperweights and elephant ears? Maybe. I thought that aspect of the book was simply wonderful.

And, I loved the old gods. This was a whirlwind tour of folklore and myth, with Whiskey Jack, Czernobog and Mr. Nancy. Reading the book on kindle was tremendously helpful to me – I could highlight a name and wikipedia would whip out an entry that gave me an origin and a basic outline of the myth. Gaiman’s creative use of non-standard mythology was inspired. I also enjoyed the roadtrip with Shadow – this book unfolds in layers, peeling back one at a time.

There were, however, two areas that I felt like the book struggled. First, while the old guys were drawn with depth and drama and pathos and humor, the new gods were . . . not.

“Now, as all of you will have had reason aplenty to discover for yourselves, there are new gods growing in America, clinging to growing knots of belief: gods of credit-card and freeway, of internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon. Proud gods, fat and foolish creatures, puffed up with their own newness and importance.

Perhaps that was Gaiman’s point: what we worship now, in 21st century America, is all flashing lights and emptiness. But, I have to say, there was nothing about the new gods that convinced me that they were actually being worshipped. If the gods come into being and power from belief and sacrifice, then the new gods should have had power. They should’ve been electric with it. And yet, they were bland and boring and ultimately sterile beings of nothingness. A dead woman dispatched them with ease, and they were outsmarted by the diminishing old gods. The most minor kobold operating in Lakeside had more power than the most powerful new god. And then, what happens when the new gods die? I’d like to know. Did the lights blink out? Did the television go black? Did the credit card machines stop functioning? Or are all of the gods, ultimately, sound and fury signifying nothing? Illusions, brought to life?

And, the other problem that I have with the book – and it’s a biggie – is the utter absence of Christianity. Gaiman has him as just a guy walking down a road in Afghanistan. If Americans can conjure a god out of their credit cards simply by believing in them, then it is inconceivable that American Jesus wouldn’t have a presence among the American Gods. We are a consumerist society, it is true, and Gaiman nailed that part of us, but we are also a deeply religious society. Much more so than his native England.

For better or for worse, for truth or for lie, for sacred or for profane, for sincerity or hypocrisy, American Jesus was absent from this book and that did not make sense to me. If this book were possible, I would expect there to be a hundred slightly different versions of Jesus presiding over parts of America, like the images in a funhouse mirror receding into mirrored infinity. You’d have your Lutheran Jesus, who eats jello salad with shredded carrots in church basements all around the midwest, and you’d have your angry abortion-clinic-picketing Jesus wandering randomly around the south with a gun, ready to shed blood for the babies, and your capitalist Jesus, dressed in an Armani suit, preaching the virtues of selfishness, a la Ayn Rand, surrounded by acolytes who all resemble Paul Ryan and who can’t wait to shove the impoverished Americans out of the lifeboat. Without the many versions of Jesus Christ who are ubiquitous in American religion, the book feels incomplete.

What I’m trying to say is that America is like that. It’s not good growing country for gods. They don’t grow well here. They’re like avocados trying to grow in wild rice country.”

Gods may not grow well here, but old time religion certainly does, and that was absent from this book. I feel like it should’ve been in there, although that would’ve been a dangerous narrative choice for sure. Although anyone who would read this book would have to be willing to tolerate heresy, so I’m not sure that it would’ve made the book more likely to be controversial.

So, overall, I really liked this book, but I feel like it left some money on the table. It could’ve been better and didn’t fully realize its promise. But it was damned good anyway!

The Falconer by Elizabeth May

The Falconer by Elizabeth MayThe Falconer (The Falconer, #1) by Elizabeth May
Series: The Falconer #1
Published by Chronicle Books on May 6th 2014
Genres: Fantasy, Historical, YA, YA - Fantasy
Pages: 378
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
three-stars

One girl's nightmare is this girl's faery tale

She's a stunner. Edinburgh, 1844. Eighteen-year-old Lady Aileana Kameron, the only daughter of the Marquess of Douglas, has everything a girl could dream of: brains, charm, wealth, a title—and drop-dead beauty.

She's a liar. But Aileana only looks the part of an aristocratic young lady. she's leading a double life: She has a rare ability to sense the sìthíchean—the faery race obsessed with slaughtering humans—and, with the aid of a mysterious mentor, has spent the year since her mother died learning how to kill them.

She's a murderer. Now Aileana is dedicated to slaying the fae before they take innocent lives. With her knack for inventing ingenious tools and weapons—from flying machines to detonators to lightning pistols—ruthless Aileana has one goal: Destroy the faery who destroyed her mother.

She's a Falconer. The last in a line of female warriors born with a gift for hunting and killing the fae, Aileana is the sole hope of preventing a powerful faery population from massacring all of humanity. Suddenly, her quest is a lot more complicated. She still longs to avenge her mother's murder—but she'll have to save the world first.

The first volume of a trilogy from an exciting new voice in young adult fantasy, this electrifying thriller combines romance and action, steampunk technology and Scottish lore in a deliciously addictive read.

I received a free e-copy of this book from netgalley.

I requested this book because I’ve been seeing the series by Elizabeth May popping up everywhere. Overall, I liked the book – it was sort of an 18th century Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with fae instead of vampires. I do have a few issues with the book, however.

First, it is awfully similar to the Karen Marie Moning Fever series, which makes it feel a bit derivative. In addition, one of the strengths of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was her relationship with her posse – Xander, Willow and Giles. It would’ve been nice to see some development of the supporting characters so that they could’ve been more active participants as opposed to being essentially window-dressing. I also like the Scottish themes.

Finally, I do have an issue with the title of the book – it’s a bit strange to call a book “The Falconer” when it doesn’t even remotely involve falcons, no matter the historical context. I suppose calling it Aileana the Fae Slayer would’ve been too obvious, however! I’m curious about book 2, and will likely continue the series. This one was enjoyable, but slight, and I doubt it will leave a lasting impression

three-stars

The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

The Tropic of Serpents by Marie BrennanThe Tropic of Serpents (The Memoirs of Lady Trent #2) by Marie Brennan
Series: The Memoirs of Lady Trent #2
Published by Tor Books on March 4th 2014
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 331
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads

The thrilling adventure of Lady Trent continues in Marie Brennan's The Tropic of Serpents . . .

Attentive readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoir, A Natural History of Dragons, are already familiar with how a bookish and determined young woman named Isabella first set out on the historic course that would one day lead her to becoming the world’s premier dragon naturalist. Now, in this remarkably candid second volume, Lady Trent looks back at the next stage of her illustrious (and occasionally scandalous) career.

Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics.

The expedition is not an easy one. Accompanied by both an old associate and a runaway heiress, Isabella must brave oppressive heat, merciless fevers, palace intrigues, gossip, and other hazards in order to satisfy her boundless fascination with all things draconian, even if it means venturing deep into the forbidden jungle known as the Green Hell . . . where her courage, resourcefulness, and scientific curiosity will be tested as never before.

This was the third time I’ve read this book, and each time I like it a little bit more. I reread it in preparation for the third book, The Voyage of the Basilisk, because for some reason, I haven’t kept current on this series, in spite of the fact that it is one of my favorites on the strength of the first two books. Books 3 & 4 have been released, and the final book in the series, Within the Sanctuary of Wings, is scheduled for release on April 25.

In terms of the the plot, if you plan to read this series, and you haven’t finished book 1, it’s really impossible to discuss this book without spoiling two significant changes in Isabella’s life. When we left her at the end of book 1, she had just returned from Vystrana, after undertaking her first voyage of discovery as a “naturalist.” She returns, not as a wife, but as a widow, Brennan having conveniently disposed of Jacob, her husband. She also returns pregnant. The Tropic of Serpents picks up three years later, after Isabella’s son is born, as she begins to hunger for dragon-based adventures and discovery once again.

This series is actually more about women in science and in public life than it is about dragons. Dragons are the fiction around which Brennan builds her society, which is modeled on our own, late 19th century, world. Isabella’s scientific aptitude, her ambitious, intrepid nature and her unwillingness to be relegated to a traditional female role is the true north of the series. Everything else is an exploration of this – from her unfeminine interest in dragons (as opposed to more socially acceptable interests like horses or dogs) to her lack of interest in maternal things (which is acceptable in ladies only when their interest is diverted by frivolities, like dresses and gossip). Isabella is a deeply substantive woman, in a culture that doesn’t really know what to do with substantive women. And, aside from Lord Hilford, who manages to see her as a fully-realized human being and more than simply a walking womb, the men who surround her really have no idea what to do with her. She is changing the men she encounters as much as she is changing herself.

Reading that Mike Pence refuses to consume a meal alone with a woman peer immediately after reading this book is a disheartening reminder that, while we’ve come a long way baby, we apparently haven’t come far enough, and that there are still plenty of 21st century men who seem to be unable to view women as anything other than an ambulatory, speech-capable vagina.

On this outing, Isabella heads to the fictional Eriga, which seems to be somewhere in Africa, and gets involved in local politics. She manages to muddle about, immerse herself in the local (native) culture, and accomplish a feat of great environmental conservation all the while coping with a culture that is just as skeptical of women who act like men as her own. She plunges headlong into the swamp known as the Green Hell, and learns to fly, both literally and figuratively. We also meet Natalie, another young woman who is entirely disinterested in a typical female life, and I hope to learn more about Natalie in later books.

I am very excited for the Voyage of the Basilisks, as it sounds very much like the trip that Charles Darwin took on the The Beagle, a voyage that has captured my imagination since the moment I heard about it.

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