Thursday, December 19, 2013

Review: The Well of Ascension

Title: The Well of Ascension
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Genre: Fantasy, science fiction

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Goodreads summary:
They did the impossible, deposing the godlike being whose brutal rule had lasted a thousand years. Now Vin, the street urchin who has grown into the most powerful Mistborn in the land, and Elend Venture, the idealistic young nobleman who loves her, must build a healthy new society in the ashes of an empire.
They have barely begun when three separate armies attack. As the siege tightens, an ancient legend seems to offer a glimmer of hope. But even if it really exists, no one knows where to find the Well of Ascension or what manner of power it bestows.
It may just be that killing the Lord Ruler was the easy part. Surviving the aftermath of his fall is going to be the real challenge.

This book is so slow. I was bored through the middle, but I still trudged on.

I'm so glad I did.

The last fifty pages of this book had me at the edge of my seat and the final words had me leaping to my feet. I'm not sure I would say the plodding was necessary - the titular well of ascension isn't so much as mentioned until almost the end - but it was definitely worth it to get to the end (and even more worth it to get to an incredible third book).

The Well of Ascension picks up a couple of years after the end of The Last Empire. Vin and co. are attempting to establish order and rebuild their world after overthrowing the Lord Ruler. There's a lot of politics, a lot of threats and manipulations, and a lot of whining mopey characters. But then the end happens and everything gets turned on its head and you are left in utter delightful shock.

Vin and Elend are both incredibly whiny in this book, trying to make their relationship work despite both of their incredible burdens/stresses and responsibilities. It was almost unbearable to keep hearing them doubting themselves and thinking they each were unworthy of the other or simply being used but not loved etc etc. I also wanted to whack Breeze over the head with a frying pan (can you tell I've watched Tangled recently?). My favorite character, Sazed, thankfully continued to be awesome (if anything, even more so than in the first book). So thank you Sazed, for making the middle of this book bearable. I also really liked Zane - he was really freaky, and although I didn't realize it at the time, he is the first hint of things to come in the third book.

I don't want to spoil anything, but the end of this book gets a very unexpected ball rolling, which snowballs into the third book. Let's just say not everyone is as good - or evil - as we were led to believe in the first book. There are larger forces at work...

I can't say this book is particularly good, but I can say that the third book is definitely worth your time. So read this one, if only as a stepping stone to something better.

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Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Title: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
Author:Gabrielle Zevin
Genre: literary fiction

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Goodreads description:
On the faded Island Books sign hanging over the porch of the Victorian cottage is the motto "No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World." A. J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means.
A. J. Fikry's life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island-from Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who's always felt kindly toward Fikry; from Ismay, his sister-in-law who is hell-bent on saving him from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.'s bad attitude. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.
And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It's a small package, but large in weight. It's that unexpected arrival that gives A. J. Fikry the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn't take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J.; or for that determined sales rep, Amelia, to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light; or for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.'s world; or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn't see coming. As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love.

This book is simply adorable - both an homage to books and a gloriously happy look at people and family and love and all those other wonderful things in the world :)

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is part journey of self-discovery, part love story, and part love letter to books. It chronicles the life of a certain Mr. Fikry, an owner of a small-town bookstore. The story weaves in various (adorable) characters and anecdotes, but what really made this book special is how quiet and quaint it is. It's about the ups and downs of daily life and the people in your neighborhood; it's about the quiet power of words to provide comfort and inspiration. I know that might sound dull to people, but it's a really charming story and had me grinning and tearing up throughout.

I really loved the way the story had a diverse set of characters and broke a lot of conventions, but did so quietly. I am becoming more and more appreciative of books that include people of different races and backgrounds in their stories without making that a major deal. These characters are not only diverse ethnically and socioeconomically, they also bring to the table a decidedly unconventional love story (or two).

I really don't want to say anything about the plot for fear of spoiling things, but the story was engaging and it was a pleasure to watch these characters grow and mold to fit each other into their lives.

I think "charming" is by far the best word to describe this book. It brought a lot of smiles to my face, but also a few tears in my eyes, and when I finished reading, it was very bittersweet. I highly recommend reading this one while it's raining outside and you're curled up in bed - this book will give you all the warmth you need.

*An e-copy was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review*

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Review: In the Woods

Title: In the Woods
Author: Tana French
Genre: mystery, psychological thriller, adult fiction

My rating:  4.5 of 5 stars

Goodreads summary:
As dusk approaches a small Dublin suburb in the summer of 1984, mothers begin to call their children home. But on this warm evening, three children do not return from the dark and silent woods. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.
Twenty years later, the found boy, Rob Ryan, is a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad and keeps his past a secret. But when a twelve-year-old girl is found murdered in the same woods, he and Detective Cassie Maddox—his partner and closest friend—find themselves investigating a case chillingly similar to the previous unsolved mystery. Now, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him and that of his own shadowy past.
Richly atmospheric, stunning in its complexity, and utterly convincing and surprising to the end, In the Woods is sure to enthrall fans of Mystic River and The Lovely Bones. And look for French's new mystery, Broken Harbor, for more of the Dublin Murder Squad.

This book is so compulsively readable - it took me a while to get into, but I finished over half in one sitting!

In the Woods is about Detective Rob Ryan of the murder squad working on a case that has eerie ties to his past. As a child, he was once found in the woods with blood pooled in his shoes - it wasn't his own - and the children who were with him were never seen again. Now, over twenty years later, another murder brings Ryan back to the woods. Ryan is drawn to the possibility of bringing a repeat killer to justice, or at least unlocking his repressed memories. But it's not going to be easy...

What I really liked about this novel was that it was as much about people and their complicated relationships as it was about the actual murder. The case is a big part of the story, but it is not all about deductions and red herrings and investigation. I liked getting into Ryan's head and seeing his fears and insecurities - but then again, he is quite the unreliable narrator so I don't even know if there was more to him than he let on. I also really liked Ryan and Cassie's relationship. They had an incredible friendship, and their banter was a lot of fun to read - I was really sad that things ended up the way they did, but I again appreciate the way French portrays the complexity of people's relationships with one another.

The crime itself and its resolution were pretty disturbing - I did not see it coming at all. It's scary to think that people like that exist, and absolutely infuriating that some of them can get away with it.
I couldn't believe anyone could be so twisted as to poison and eventually murder her own sister. Rosalind was definitely a psychopath, and the scariest thing is that you don't even realize. I did feel like something was off with her, but I thought it was more of the catty teenage girl thing, not a manipulative psychopath thing. And worst of all, they couldn't even charge her because she admitted to everything without an adult guardian present! GAH!

A lot of people wrote in their reviews that this isn't a book that you read for answers, and I think that's pretty accurate. You aren't going to get a lot of answers about why people are the way they are, or what happened to them to make them that way. You will get some of what you're looking for, but part of the beauty of this book is its portrayal of broken people, and sometimes you just can't put them back together again.

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday 9

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

This week's theme: Top Ten 2014 Release I'm Dying To Read

I could only come up with 8 from next year that I really want to read - a lot of the books I want to read were published this year :)

Ruin and Rising (Grisha #3)

Cress (Lunar Chronicles #3)
Mortal Heart (Grave Mercy #3)
Dreams of Gods & Monsters (Daughter of smoke and bone #3)
Ruins (Partials #3)
Sinner (Wolves of Mercy Falls #4)
Burn (Pure #3)
We Were Liars

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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Review: Allegiant

Allegiant (Divergent, #3)Allegiant by Veronica Roth
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Strangely, I wasn't bothered by the capital E Ending. In fact, I really liked it. What bothered me was pretty much everything else.

Let me start out by saying that I loved Divergent. It was one of the better YA dystopian novels, and what I respected the author for in that book remains true for this one - bad things happen to the main characters. There is no almost-but-not-quite-in-harm's-way business here - people take a beating physically and emotionally, and you really can't say that a character is going to magically get through something just because they are an important/main character. No one is safe, and I really liked that since it seems like a lot of YA books tend to pull out all the stops to magically keep characters from ever actually getting hurt or dying in situations where they should (Julie Kagawa's Iron Fey series being a prime example). This is one of the reasons I really liked the ending that has driven a lot of people to chucking the book at the nearest wall. In case you tend to get very fond of your fictional friends, I repeat, no one is safe.

Then why only two stars? Well, there were a lot of things about this book that drove me nuts. For one thing, I'm a bioengineer, and if a books is going to make a big deal about a scientific explanation for something, then it had better be good. Or at least kind of plausible. The science behind the world of Divergent is very flimsy, which wouldn't be so bad if so much of the book wasn't devoted to discussing this scientific explanation and dissecting it and fighting for or against it. There's a huge rant under the spoiler, so brace yourself:
Apparently the city of Chicago is just one of many "holding pens" full of genetically damaged people. "Genetic damage" in this world means that you are genetically prone to having undesirable characteristics such as proclivity to violence.

First of all, how the hell do you expect me to believe our genes determine our character traits? Psychosis or sociopathy, fine, but being selfish or less intelligent than average or more easily angered?

Second of all, how did the entire nation (world?) buy into this idea of genetic "damage"? There weren't any groups standing up for themselves or their friends who were deemed unworthy? Eugenics during World War II anyone??

And even if the whole world just lacked brains and nodded its head to whatever propaganda the government fed them, how did the government manage to hide things like the holocaust and war and racism and rape and all the other terrible things we "genetically pure" people have done to one another?

Nope, I'm not buying it.

I haven't even begun to talk about the actual story yet...oh boy. This review is getting a lot longer than I anticipated (much like my review of Insurgent - another disappointment). This book is a departure from the previous two in many ways. For one, it's narrated by both Tobias and Tris instead of just the latter. I have heard people complaining that they couldn't distinguish the voices, but I was listening to the audiobook so that's one less complaint from my end. But I do have something to say about this gimmick, and it might spoil things for you, but not directly. Proceed at your own risk:
in The Hunger Games, you know Katniss isn't going to die because she is the narrator. You can't tell a story with only one narrator if the narrator dies. On the other hand, when you have a series like Game of Thrones, you can kill off your narrators because another POV can take its place. Now I wonder why Roth decided to bring Tobias in as a second narrator...

Back to Tobias and Tris. They have had a tough time, I'll give them that. They have been betrayed and abandoned and lied to by others and each other. But they stick together and try and make their relationship work. I respect their trying to find comfort in each other, but I am beyond annoyed with how possessive and needy they both are. They both want the other to be accepting of their more difficult decisions while breathing down the other's neck about their tough choices. They both have trust issues but insist that there is no problem at all and clearly they are going to live happily ever after. It just got incredibly annoying to listen to their whining and "I told you so"s.

This book is also a departure from the previous two in that it doesn't take place in Chicago. The majority of it is spent in a facility outside, and while this facility has some interesting new characters and ideas to bring to the table, it was mostly very dull. I felt like this book was very disjoint from the previous two, and could not bring myself to really care about any of these characters anymore - they have changed so much and are in such drastically different scenarios now that it's almost like reading a new series.

I did like the secondary characters. Many of them have grown throughout the series, and some of them make unexpected choices in this book. I liked how most of them stuck together and stayed true to their personalities and their beliefs instead of dissolving into angst like our two main characters did.

This book has been a disappointment, to put it mildly. I definitely continue to respect Roth for making decisions that stayed true to her story instead of one that pleases readers - I am very happy about that. But I generally did not enjoy reading this book, and I didn't think it was the best conclusion to a series that had so much potential.

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Monday, November 25, 2013

Review: Feast for Crows

A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, #4)Title: A Feast for Crows
Author: George R.R. Martin
Genre: high fantasy, adult fiction

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary:
With A Feast for Crows, Martin delivers the long-awaited fourth volume of the landmark series that has redefined imaginative fiction and stands as a modern masterpiece in the making.
After centuries of bitter strife, the seven powers dividing the land have beaten one another into an uneasy truce. But it's not long before the survivors, outlaws, renegades, and carrion eaters of the Seven Kingdoms gather. Now, as the human crows assemble over a banquet of ashes, daring new plots and dangerous new alliances are formed while surprising faces—some familiar, others only just appearing—emerge from an ominous twilight of past struggles and chaos to take up the challenges of the terrible times ahead. Nobles and commoners, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and sages, are coming together to stake their fortunes...and their lives. For at a feast for crows, many are the guests—but only a few are the survivors

I wasn't planning on reading this book. My entire review of the third book was pretty much me saying all the reasons why I wasn't going to continue this series. In a nutshell, almost everyone was either dead or drastically altered and I didn't care about anyone enough to keep reading their story.

And then my floor theme at my dorm ended up guessed it, Game of Thrones. At first I was really annoyed. It seemed like a cruel twist of fate that I would be surrounded by the faces and banners from the Song of Ice and Fire world after I'd decided not to revisit that particular saga. But after much persuading from friends who had read the book (and, I admit, the lure of the slightest snobbery that comes when you've read farther in a series than there is of the show/movie :) ), I finally decided to read the fourth book.

And it was good.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday 8

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

This week's theme: Top Ten Books I'd Recommend To X Person

This one is a little hard, since I just posted my list of science fiction recommendations for people who don't usually read sci-fi. There are books I really love and recommend to almost everyone I meet, but those books are the ones on my favorites tab and you can find those any time. Hmmmm...

I think I'll recommend fairy tale retellings, because everyone has read and loved fairy tales at some point in their lives!

Here goes...

1. Beastly by Alex Flinn - This is a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast, and it was pretty entertaining. Alex Flinn always manages to work in a lot of humor into her retellings, and this one also featured a main character who went through quite a transformation as the book progressed. I really enjoyed it!

2. Cinder by Marissa Meyer - This is a retelling of Cinderella and features a plague-ravaged earth, evil queen from the moon, and a cyborg Cinderella (yes, you read that right). It's amazing!

3. Spindle's End by Robin McKinley - I read this book about seven or eight years ago, so I don't really remember much about it. I do remember that it's a retelling of Sleeping Beauty that features talking animals, and I remember liking it a lot. Then again, this is my much younger self's opinion and I probably had much lower standards back then :)

4. The Looking Glass Wars trilogy by Frank Beddor - I really enjoyed the first and second books in this series, but the third was a bit of a let-down. They tell the "real" story of Alice in Wonderland, whose name is actually Alyss. I loved the re-imagined Hatter (and Molly) and the Cat. The evil queen Redd was pretty scary too - just look at that cover!

5. Ash by Malinda Lo - This retelling of Cinderella put me a little out of my comfort zone, but I really enjoyed it! I don't want to spoil anything, but this is a gorgeously written book and brings some very unexpected twists to the original fairy tale

6. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine - Yet another Cinderella retelling, and one of my favorite books from my childhood. I loved reading about Ella and how she outsmarted ogres and matched wits with the prince. Highly recommend this one!

7. The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett - This one is mostly based on the Pied Piper, but brings in elements of fairy tales and stories in general. It's incredibly witty, and one of my favorite books. Another one I highly recommend!

8. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - Pride and Prejudice isn't technically a fairy tale, but it has all the fluff and happily-ever after, so it might as well count. I didn't expect to like this book very much, but it was actually very entertaining to see Elizabeth and Darcy sparring with katanas instead of words.

I can't think of any other good retellings at the moment. Have you read any of these? Do you have any other suggestions? I love reading classics with a twist, so recommend away!

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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Science Fiction turned Science Fact

In case you're just joining, November is Sci-Fi month! I'm part of a bunch of blogs that are putting the spotlight on science fiction, hosted by Rinn Reads. Today's post takes a look at elements of science fiction that have now become a reality.

  1. Jetpacks - We don't have the kind that can power off and take you across the country yet, but we did develop the Bell Rocket Belt in the 1960s, a jetpack that is powered by hydrogen peroxide. Unfortunately you could only fly for 20 seconds at a time. Currently there's a Martin Jetpack, developed by Glenn Martin from New Zealand, which can fly for half an hour. The catch? It weighs over 100 pounds.
  2. Cell phones - Star Trek featured futuristic hand-held communication devices to talk to people all over the world. And now cell phones are a reality! It's hard to imagine that they were ever even the stuff of fiction.
  3. Teleportation - Like the jetpack, we technically have the technology for teleportation - just not the way you're used to imagining it. In the 1990s, scientists were able to teleport data using photons, but the photons were absorbed when they hit any surface. We can currently teleport individual atoms using quantum entanglement (whatever that is...), but we probably won't ever be able to teleport human beings or anything else macroscopic.
  4. Scuba Diving - Another one of those things that is hard to imagine as fiction. Jules Verne thought this up in 1870 for his famous novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
  5. Genetic Engineering - Aldous Huxley thought of genetic engineering and purposeful mutation in his novel Brave New World in 1932.
  6. the iPad - Yup, the idea of an iPad existed in science fiction way before anyone created one. HG Wells thought of a flat screen device that would scroll pictures and images in 1899!
  7. Flying cars - The Terrafugia Transition is a flying car that can cruise at 115mph. And it's legal!

Thanks to this video from Huffington Post and this page from the UK's Telegraph for the information!

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Monday, November 11, 2013

Science fiction recommendations

This is for all of you who are scared to dip your feet into the ocean that is sci-fi. Whether it's because you aren't into spaceships or aliens, or if it's because you think it's too technological, intellectual, or depressing, I have something for you! Science fiction is just so varied that there really is something for everyone.

If there's anything in particular you are looking for, just ask and I'll do my best to recommend something for you!

Biological sci-fi (for those of you who don't like spaceships or physics or robots, but don't mind medical terms or think genetic engineering is cool)

This one is set in a world where people are born with two souls and one fades away over time. But what happens when your other soul never really goes away?
The story is very character-centric and there's a bit of medical terminology, but I would call it sci-fi lite.

If you are really not deterred by medical jargon and virological/biological research, this book is fantastic! It is set in a future world after a war was fought between humans and their humanoid manufactured counterparts, the Partials. The humans are dying of a virus unleashed during the war which kills babies within days of birth, and the Partials are always looming on the horizon. How much longer can humanity survive? A more detailed synopsis and review are here.

This is one of my favorite books, and while it is part of a series, I think it stands alone very well. It's set in a world where teenagers who are considered "unstable" can be "unwound" - their body parts and organs will be given to people who need them (and since all parts of their body will still be living, it's called "separated existence," not murder). It's very frightening, very character-driven, and very good! 

Environmental sci-fi (what happens after we use up our natural resources)

All of Paolo Bacigalupi's books deal with the environment and the state of the world after we have abused it. My personal favorite is the Windup Girl, but that one might be very intense for people who are intimidated by engineering jargon, foreign languages, and books that deal with very difficult topics (i.e. abuse). So instead I recommend Ship Breaker - which is technically YA but definitely not watered down or over-simplified, just less disturbing  and jargon-heavy. It's about a world run by giant agricultural and oil companies, and people scavenging for supplies off of old ships to survive. Nailer is one such scavenger, and when he finds a newly-beached clipper, he has to decide whether to scavenge for all its worth or help the wealthy young girl trapped inside - and maybe find a way to a better life. But perhaps life outside isn't as great as he thinks it is. Perhaps he won't ever find out.

Not-too-Depressing sci-fi

Madeleine L'Engle's books are all wonderful stories in themselves, but what makes them really great is how much you grow to love the characters. You almost start believing that you are a part of the Murry clan! I loved A Wrinkle in Time and the rest of the books in the series - they are always hopeful and beautiful, and even when there is darkness, you always know light will prevail.

Books that take place in space but aren't too technology-heavy

Ok, ok, so Ender's Game might be a bit more on the spaceships & aliens side, but the focus of this book is really the characters and how they deal with what's thrown at them. Even if you have been put off by the movie, you should read the book - it's very thought-provoking. I liked the sequel, Speaker for the dead, even better, so if you are up for it go read both of them! (The rest of the Ender and Ender's Shadow quartet are also good, but I don't think they are quite as good as the first two Ender books).

There's another book that I want to put on here, but knowing that it takes place in space will be a huge spoiler so I'm going to stick it somewhere else on this recommendation list :)

Sci-fi/fantasy blends (if you like a bit of magic and fairy dust to go along with your androids and dystopian worlds)

Mistborn is more fantasy than science fiction, but it's set in a dystopian world and the magic system is pseudo-scientific (alchemy, anyone?). I really enjoyed it, and I'd highly recommend it (a synopsis and my review can be found here).

Cinder is a retelling of Cinderella in a dystopian earth where plagues ravage the population and gorgeous humanoid aliens from the moon are trying to take over. Oh, and did I mention Cinderella is now Cinder, a cyborg? This is a great fairy-tale retelling! 

Dystopian novels and Revolutions

I actually didn't care for this book that much, but I didn't think it was necessarily a bad book. I didn't really connect with these characters, but I'm sure other people will so I thought I'd put it on here. I think the tagline on the cover (Every revolution needs a hero) and the beginning of the synopsis say it all:
Keep Your Head Down.
Don't Get Noticed.
Or Else.

What's a sci-fi recommendation list without the Hunger Games? I do recommend the first book, but I would suggest either lowering your expectations for the next two or just watching the movies because the books sort of went downhill for me. Unless of course it doesn't bother you when your characters change dramatically (personality and motivation-wise) over the course of a series or you can accept that people are simply pawns of war - in which case, keep reading! You might enjoy them more than I did.

This is hands down my favorite science fiction series, so GO READ THIS.
If that isn't enough to convince you, here's my review of the third book - it doesn't spoil anything from the series, and it gives you a much better picture of why I liked it so much than my review of the first one.

Again, what's a sci-fi recommendation list without Margaret Atwood? I'm assuming that A Handmaid's Tale is already on your radar (and if it isn't, go read it!), so I'm recommending Oryx and Crake. This series is very well-written and very horrifying because of how plausible all of these twisted scenarios are. It's more on the biological/pharma side of things, if that's something you're interested in. I love this series, and I have yet to read the last book, but I'm sure it will be wonderful.

And the final no-brainer, 1984! This is the first dystopian novel I've read, and I was fascinated. It's not a very fast-paced story, but I couldn't stop thinking about the ending for a very very long time. This one requires mulling over, but I highly recommend it!

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