Category Archives: Book Reviews

M is for Mab (The Blood Keeper by Tessa Gratton)

A-to-Z Blogging Challenge 2015--MEarlier this month, I reviewed the incredible Blood Magic by Tessa Gratton. If you haven’t read Blood Magic, there may be some spoilers here. Be warned.

If you’re still reading, I’ll assume you’ve either already read the earlier book or don’t care about spoilers. The Blood Keeper is a companion to Blood Magic, not exactly a sequel, because it focuses on new characters, but it does take place about 5 years after the first book, and Silla and Nick make appearances. Reese’s crows are definitely present, now as familiars to the new Deacon, Mab. (For those who, like me, are big fans of Reese as a character, you can check out Crow Memory, Gratton’s short story from Reese’s perspective that bridges the gap between the two books. It’s available to read for free on her website.)

Mab is the daughter of Josephine Daly, and bears the burden of knowing her mother was the one who killed Silla and Nick’s parents, and caused Reese to become the flock of crows who watch over her now. When the old Deacon, Arthur, died, Mab took on the role. Some call her the Blood Keeper, as she is the one who watches over those with blood magic and provides safety and protection to those who need it. Arthur’s last words to Mab instructed her to destroy the rose bushes at their home. She knows the roses hold a curse, but instead of destroying them, she tries to understand the magic they hold. In doing so, she inadvertently releases the power that was bound within the roses. The curse causes her life to intersect with that of Will Sanger, a young man from a military family who doesn’t know what he wants in life–except that he doesn’t want what’s expected of him.

The pacing of this book is a bit slower than Blood Magic, which isn’t a bad thing. I loved Mab in all her wildness, loved getting to know her and what the Deacon’s role involves. Like the first book, this one alternates between the current story and journal entries–this time of “Evie”, who came to live on the blood land with Arthur and his longtime companion Gabriel. The journal entries reveal much about the magic, and about the former Deacon, which fans of the first book should be interested to learn. The curse of the roses itself is haunting. Mab’s need to protect those under her care as Deacon–especially her newest charge, a young boy named Lukas who has been the victim of magical abuse–makes fighting the curse a dangerous balance. Will’s relationship with his older brother Ben feels real, as does his family’s varied ways of coping with his other brother’s death.

The last half of the book definitely picks up pace, and I stayed up ridiculously late reading page after page. The stakes are high throughout, and the payout is worth reading to the end. I can pretty much guarantee that I will read absolutely anything Tessa Gratton writes. She has a knack for ripping my heart out and filling it up all at the same time. All of her characters have depth and conflicts and desires and flaws that are realistic and complex. The Blood Keeper allowed me to linger a bit in this darkly beautiful world she has created, and I sincerely hope she will revisit it somehow in the future.

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L is for Levana (Fairest by Marissa Meyer)

A-to-Z Blogging Challenge--LSince I’ve already mentioned my deep love of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series, it should come as no surprise that I pre-ordered her latest installment and pretty much devoured it as soon as it was available. Fairest is a considered a novella, though the page count is actually pretty close to standard novel length for YA–222 pages for the hardcover–and tells the story of Queen Levana’s rise to power. Oh, and it has one of the best covers I’ve seen in ages, teasing at the fact that we’ll finally get to know who Levana is underneath her veils and glamours.

This is such a different book from the rest of the series that I felt it definitely merited a separate review. Fairest is really the story of descent into madness by someone who truly believes she is right and justified in her actions. Through the course of this book, we understand some of how Levana came to be the way she is, but she is NOT a sympathetic character. This isn’t the story of a misunderstood woman who we know will redeem herself in the end. Rather, it shows us just how a psychopath is developed. Yes, I felt some sympathy for her early on, but she makes conscious decisions throughout that show her lack of empathy for others, and her utter selfishness. It’s the story of a woman driven by obsession, desperate to be loved, but not understanding that love is not the same as desire or possession.

This is a dark venture into the mind of a villain. You won’t find the lighthearted humor of the other Lunar Chronicles books. But for me, it helped me understand the motivations of this mysterious woman, and I’m certainly even more eager to read Winter when it comes out this fall–especially since there were teaser chapters at the back. We got a lot of Winter’s backstory in Fairest as well, so it will be interesting to compare her more obvious insanity, caused by refusing to use her glamour, to that of Levana, who believes herself sane and the rest of the world to be villainous. I cannot wait for the conclusion to this series!

Do you have a favorite literary villain? Let me know in the comments!

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K is for Karou (Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor)

A-to-Z Blogging Challenge--KOnce upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love.

It did not end well.

So begins Daughter of Smoke & Bone, the first in a trilogy by Laini Taylor. It’s the story of Karou, a teenage art student living in Prague, a girl whose mysterious nature baffles and intrigues even her closest friend. She has tattoos, blue hair (which happens to just grow that way), and a way of shrugging off any uncomfortable questions. Karou’s secrets are many. The fantastical creatures she draws in her sketchbook and whose stories she tells her friends are actually real, and raised her. They send her on crazy errands to all corners of the world. Brimstone pays her in wishes. She loves them fiercely. But that doesn’t mean she really knows who they are or how she came to be among them.

It’s also the story of Madrigal, a beautiful creature from among the Chimaera–part animal, part human–who falls in love with Akiva, a Seraph. Their people are at war, but Madrigal saves Akiva’s life on the battlefield. Theirs is one of the most beautiful stories of star-crossed lovers I’ve ever read. As the opening line tells us, it ends badly, causing Akiva to lead a terrible strike against the Chimaera, particularly Karou’s guardian, Brimstone. As her world falls apart, Karou seeks answers to her past more desperately than ever.

I loved so much about this book. Taylor paints gorgeous pictures with her words. I’ve never wanted to visit Prague so badly as I did after reading this. This isn’t a shiny, pretty story. It’s dark, mysterious, but still filled with an incredible overtone of hope and the enduring power of love. It is a love story, a mystery, a dark fantasy. Karou is surprisingly real, given her mysterious origins and unusual occupation. She’s blunt when she’s with those she trusts, talented, has a consistent voice and viewpoint, and is incredibly brave. Her best friend, Zuzana (known to Karou as the “rabid fairy” because of her small size but fiery temper) steals nearly every scene she’s in, and is one of my favorite characters of all time, not only because of her insane skills as a puppeteer. Akiva is wounded, but you know his history and want so badly for him to be redeemed.

It’s been years since I’ve felt so passionately about a series, or read them all so quickly. This first book can stand on its own, but the over-arcing story is worth reading the other two books, though I will warn that they get very dark, and my heart was ripped out about a dozen times over the course of the series. The third installment took some weird turns, but it did still work for me. At the end of this month, I’ll also review the novella Taylor wrote about Zuzana and the violin-playing Mik, Night of Cake & Puppets. It works as a stand-alone, but chronologically takes place between the first two books of the trilogy.

If you’re looking for a fantasy with gorgeous writing, a romantic plot, but still with a lot of dark and sometimes bloody business, this is the series for you! Feel free to share your favorite stories of star-crossed lovers in the comments.

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J is for Jonas (The Giver by Lois Lowry)

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The Giver was one of those books everyone around me is shocked that I never read. The thing is, many of my friends, especially in the writing community, are younger than me. They forget that while they read this in school, I was already in high school when it was released, and probably in college (or nearly so) by the time it hit curriculum in my district. So it was high on my list for my 100-book challenge this year.

This is a quick read, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it is a fluff piece. Far from it. The Giver is one of the first YA dystopian novels, and its influence on more recent titles is apparent almost immediately. Jonas, our main character, lives in a community that has placed Sameness as its highest value. All history, emotions, even colors have been suppressed. The Rules of the community are many, and maintain a strictly regimented society. When Jonas is selected to be the new Receiver of Memory–the sole bearer of all the history of the world before Sameness–he begins to question everything he has always taken for granted, and wonders if humankind sacrificed too much in the name of peace and civility.

What sets this aside from so many of the newer dystopian stories is that there are many things about the community that seem at first to be very good. Everyone has enough to eat. People are polite to each other. Since everyone is taught not to focus on what makes each other different, there are no bullies. Everybody rides around on bicycles from the age of 9 up, so there is no smog, no traffic congestion. But with everything that Lowry unveils about the Community, you discover one more way in which individuality is discouraged. In trying to keep everyone safe and protect them from the ugliest parts of human nature, they destroyed the most beautiful parts as well. This is a world without music, without color, where language is required to be precise not expressive.

Jonas and his mentor, the former Receiver who now calls himself the Giver since he is passing all the memories on to Jonas, both see what the world has been. They understand the cost of changing their Community. But they also see that Sameness is not always good, not always worth what has been sacrificed. The ending is deliberately vague, and in my copy which had a Q & A with the author, Lowry says she meant it to be hopeful. I’ve heard mixed things about the rest of Lowry’s books in the quartet, so I think I’ll leave them for a bit. There is so much in this one to process that I’ll probably reread it once I’m done with my 100-book year. It is well-deserved of all the praise it’s been given, and I highly recommend it.

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I is for (John) Isidore (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick)

IMy writing group has decided to do a book club this year since so many of us have big goals for our Goodreads Challenge. We figured picking a book to read together each month meant we’d at least read 12 books each. Our March book was the science fiction classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, which surprisingly, none of us had previously read.

For those who don’t know, this book was the inspiration for the movie Blade Runner. The emphasis there is on “inspiration”–the movie is NOT a direct adaptation at all. The only real correlations are that the main character hunts rogue androids, the world having been decimated by radioactive dust causing those remaining on earth to place high value on animals is the same setting–though in the book it is a much more sparsely populated world–and some of the names are the same. Most of the plot is VERY different between the book and the movie. Honestly, I feel like I would not be missing out if I had gone my whole life without seeing the movie. I know, it’s a classic of the 80s. I know, it’s Harrison Ford. And I love sci-fi movies in almost all forms. This just didn’t do anything for me. And Daryl Hannah’s death scene was ridiculous. Couldn’t take the rest of the movie seriously. But I digress… back to the book.

This was one of those books which I felt I needed to read because it has influenced so many other writers, but honestly, probably wouldn’t have read if not for the peer pressure of having it as a book club assignment. My feelings are very mixed. On the one hand, I appreciated the underlying theme about empathy. I was a bit fascinated by the concept of a dying earth causing people to elevate all life forms to such an extreme, making any form of harm to animals a very serious crime. And empathy is what separates humans from the very realistic androids the main character hunts. He justifies “retiring” the androids (a euphemism for killing them) because they do not have empathy and therefore are not equal to humans.

The way that the belief system–Mercerism–is depicted was confusing at best. People connect to one another, experiencing firsthand the physical trials of a man named Mercer. As he climbs a mountain, slipping on rocks, being attacked by others who throw rocks at them, those attached to their Empathy Boxes experience the same things, even receiving the same physical wounds. They feel the joys and sorrows of all the others who are participating in Empathy at the same time. It’s an interesting concept, but which is kind of left off to the side and which clouds the plot, particularly the ending.

There are so many loose ends and dropped stories in this that it was hard for me to appreciate the story. The character whose name I chose for my post inspiration is a “chickenhead”–someone with low intelligence, affected adversely by the radioactive dust and ineligible for transfer off-world. He is probably the most sympathetic character in the book, but primarily serves just as a POV character so that we know what the big bad androids are doing while the main character is hunting for them.

In short, I’m still glad I read this, because it did make me think about questions of empathy and the value we place on life, I definitely won’t be rereading it. I’m giving it a middle-of-the road rating and moving on with my life. I may visit other books by the author–his writing style wasn’t really the problem here–but I’ll give myself a break first.

Do you have a favorite science fiction novel? Any “classics” that disappointed you? Share with me in the comments!

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H is for Henrietta (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot)

A-to-Z Blogging Challenge 2015--H

In 1951, a young black woman died of a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer. Without her knowledge or consent, cells from her tumor were taken for research–a common practice at the time. The result was the first line of “immortal” cells–able to reproduce in a lab setting indefinitely. These cells were key to developing vaccines, cancer treatments, and have even been sent into space to test the effects of zero gravity on tissue. Yet her family didn’t even discover until decades later that the cells had been used, and many within the medical community gave her a different name entirely when they did refer to her.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells of the dual legacy of the woman in question. First, there is the legacy of the cells themselves, known in the medical community as the HeLa cell line, and the questions of medical ethics involved. Then there is the legacy of the children she left behind, a family who feels violated and cheated by the circumstances which made her mother’s cells famous and made many others very rich, but who never received compensation of any sort.

The author does not shy away from any of the complex issues of race, informed medical consent, education, and the commercialization of medicine. She tells both the scientific story and the personal one with honesty. The book was the product of about ten years of research, of getting to know the family and learning their stories. It all came from a desire to know the real woman behind the cells that she studied in school, and to know what her story was. She took the time to build the trust of the family, to listen to them, and as a result, we get a brutally honest picture of the family that Henrietta left behind. Sometimes, I felt the personal stories went a bit too in depth, but the overall picture was well-balanced. Skloot doesn’t really offer answers to the questions posed, just tries to explore all aspects of the issues at hand. This isn’t a light read by any means, but it is a worthwhile one.

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G is for Grisha (Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo)

A-to-Z Blogging Challenge 2015--GI was a bit under the weather yesterday, so you’ll get 2 posts today instead of just one.

Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone (the first book of her Grisha trilogy) is one of those books that I hesitated to read simply because I had heard too much hype about it. I didn’t feel it could possibly live up to the initial reviews. Then I got to meet Leigh Bardugo when she came to Kansas City for the Fierce Reads tour. She’s funny–I laughed myself to tears pretty much throughout the evening–and was just so genuine and kind to her fans there.

The Grisha series is set in Ravka, a fictional world based loosely on the culture of Imperial Russia. Basically, it’s its own world with its own rules. I have seen some highly critical reviews by people furious with differences between Ravka culture and actual Russian culture. As a student of Russian, I understand the gripes, but I still allow for dramatic license in fictional worldbuilding, so those details really didn’t bother me much. I loved the atmosphere Bardugo creates with Ravka.

Ravka is a land divided by the Fold, a large swath of magical darkness filled with nightmarish creatures. Our main character, Alina, and her fellow orphan and best friend Mal are serving in the army as the novel starts. Their regiment is attacked as they begin to cross the Fold, and Alina unleashes a magical power she never knew she had. Then the story really begins, as Alina becomes part of the Grisha, the magically-gifted force under the leadership of the mysterious man known as the Darkling. The Darkling alone is reason enough to read the series, as he is seductive, powerful, and incredibly dangerous. Alina’s attraction to him is undeniable, but so is her fear of his magic and the secrets he keeps.

While it took me a bit to get into this one, once I did I practically devoured the rest of the book. I will definitely be reading the rest of the series very soon.

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