February Wrap Up

Saturday, February 28, 2015
This month is the shortest, -- maybe that is why we feel so productive here at the end? All I know is that, like January, this month went by very fast. I had a few hits and a few more misses than I'd like for my reading, but there's always next month.

Reviews Posted:
The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand
DNF Round Up
The Boy Next Door by Katie Van Ark
Trade Me by Courtney Milan (Cyclone #1)
Two Minute Review: Forever by Maggie Stiefvater (Wolves of Mercy Falls #3)
Discussion Review: Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen
The Crown by Colleen Oakes (The Queen of Hearts #1)
The Sculptor by Scott McCloud
Ice Song by Kisten Imani Kasai (Ice Song #1)
Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes by Cory O'Brien
Book Tour: Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran by Marion Grace Woolley
Book Tour: The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson
The Peculiars by Maureen Doyle McQuerry
Two Minute Review: Another Little Piece by Kate Karyus Quinn
Sass and Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe (Rat Queens Vol. 1)
The Emperor's Knife by Mazarkis Williams  (The Tower and Knife Trilogy #1)

Fun Stuff:
No fun stuff this month? All business here at APR, guys.

Book of the Month:

Have a great March and we'll be back soon!

Review: The Emperor's Knife by Marzarkis Williams

Genre: fantasy
Series: The Tower and Knife Trilogy #1
Pages: 360 (Nook NetGalley ARC edition)
Published: October 2011
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3/5

There is a cancer at the heart of the mighty Cerani Empire: a plague that attacks young and old, rich and poor alike, marking each victim with a fragment of a greater pattern. Anyone showing the marks is put to death. That is Emperor Beyon's law . . .

But now the pattern is reaching closer to the palace than ever before. In a hidden room, a forgotten prince has grown from child to man, and as the empire sickens, Sarmin, the emperor’s only surviving brother, is remembered. He awaits the bride his mother has chosen: a chieftain’s daughter from the northern plains.

Mesema travels from her homeland, an offering for the empire’s favour. She is a Windreader, used to riding free across the grasslands, not posing and primping in rare silks. She finds the Imperial Court’s protocols stifling, but she doesn’t take long to realise the politicking and intrigues are not a game, but deadly earnest.

Eyul is burdened both by years and by the horrors he has carried out in service to the throne. At his emperor’s command he bears the emperor’s Knife to the desert in search of a cure for the pattern-markings.

As long-planned conspiracies boil over into open violence and rebellion, the enemy moves toward victory. Now only three people stand in his way: a lost prince, a world-weary killer, and a young girl from the steppes who once saw a path through a pattern, among the waving grasses.

Mazarkis Williams tries for a lot with his fantasy debut, the tale of several people within an ancient but decaying Empire here in The Emperor's Knife. With wildly differing, interesting characters and a shifting point of view between them, Williams certainly begins his story on solid ground - The Emperor's Knife feels new and created rather than rehash or a re-imagining of another, already established place. There might not be the most original of plot-lines at the heart of the novel, especially for the fantasy genre, but Williams has a way with his words and this is a novel that is quickly engaging, quickly read and quickly finished. I found several aspects of the book to be quite well done and thought-out, but had issues with pacing down the line as well as the  too-frequent, often confusing, afmorementioned POV switches.

In the land of the Cerani Empire, life is hard and life is often cruel. That way of life is shown in the culture and personalities of nearly the entire royal family, from the scheming Tuvaini to the emotionally dead withdrawn Nessaket. Sarmin, easily the most sympathetic and likeable guy of the whole book, is the sole survivor of the purge of his 5 brothers, excepting the Emperor Beyon. Broken mentally by seeing his male siblings cut down on Beyon's ascension to power Sarmin has remained in one room his whole life. Sarmin is a surprising character: for a room-ridden Prince that no one knows of you wouldn't expect much but he was by far the nicest and most well-rounded of all the cast. Imprisoned within silk and stone, Sarmin grows from a scared boy into a mature, thinking man. It's not hard to see that I was rooting for him (and even his love interest I didn't care too much for) for a happy ending.

That love interest is the female protagonist of the novel, Mesema. Sent from the tribes outside the Empire to get an heir with the hidden Prince, she is the typical fantasy trope of an tribal fish-out-of-water in a cultured pond. Unkind, judgemental and even kind of racist, Mesema is a tough nut to crack. She knows the dangers of Nooria, and of the Empire (her mother warns her to get pregnant only once and then use a tar(?)/some substance to prevent more pregnancies. My question is: why didn't the previous Emperor's harem do the same if they knew their kids would be murdered when Beyon ascended? Blehhh.)

 Like the rest of the female characters Amalya, Eldra, Nessaket, I never felt a true affinity for the Windreader of the Felt tribe. She becomes fairly annoying and demanding as her journey progresses, and then almost abandoned after the halfway mark. She seems vastly underutilized in the second part, only popping up at the most random and opportune moments. I liked her best with Beyon, honestly and the romance love triangles are all OVER the place in The Emperor's Knife (Mesema, Beyon, Sarmin; Mesema, Sarmin, Banreh; etc.), though I appreciated her for Sarmin as well. She works best as protagonist when with other characters, with them in charge.

It's also hard to get close to any of these characters, including ones I've not mentioned. Eyul, the royal assassin is a key part to both the past and the present of the Empire and of Sarmin's health, is a decent anti-hero. I wished for more time and more detail from the reticent character but the way too frequent POV shifts, one after another, from Eyul to Sarmin to Beyon to Mesema was disjointing. Nessaket also had potential to be the kind of villain that a reader could really enjoy, but she seemed to be tossed aside in favor of a less compelling, less interesting character the further the novel progressed. There was very little continuous time with just one or two characters at length, instead jumping perspective in what seemed like five page increments.

With a lack of any real tension until nearly the very end and character deaths that had little to no impact upon me, The Emperor's Knife is not a novel that cuts to the heart of the reader: it's a bit superficial and the occasional gorey death does a lot to keep interest from flagging. I was also probably more upset by the deaths than excited for the romances because none (welll maybe just one) of them felt entirely believable or honest for the characters within the relationship: I didn't like Mesema and Banreh's interactions, I didn't like Sarmin and his carrier's complications to the plot, etc. The romances just seemed joined with the easiest candidates and I wanted some chemistry.

Much like a favorite of mine, Brandon Sanderson, a prolific author that both manages to write huge intimidating tomes of novels (Way of Kings, anyone? It clocks in at a tidy 1007 pages) and create unique magic systems for them, Mazarkis Williams has at least two different known magical systems in play for his novel. Both of them, in my opinion, are quite inventive and... well, I believe "awesome" is the most applicable word. The pattern marks that appear on the inflicted are much more than they appear to be, and while I won't spoil the ending, I though it was a marvelous spin on the predicted outcome. It's vague and unexplained until it seems almost obvious, and I have to credit William's authorial sleight-of-hand on that magical count.

The other magic, which I will go into a bit more, is that of the mages of the Tower. They are few in number and each mage corresponds to a certain element: fire, earth, water, air, spirit. While that aspect of elements for power might not be the most original, Williams' spin on the trope is: the element the mage most relates to is actually an elemental spirit that will be encased within/made part of the mage, fighting to get free as the mage continually siphons off the power of the spirit. I loved this: the mages aren't immortal or all-powerful in this world. They have to trade, to barter away their very lives for a tenuous grip on power for, at most, a few decades of magic. It's an interesting idea for an Empire that relies so on its magic - it's an unsteady and unreliable but essential part of the Cerani Empire.

It's a mixed bag for The Emperor's Knife for this fantasy fan. I liked the worldbuilding that was present: quiet but with an Arabic or Asian touch, especially the shifting sand dunes and relentless heat made for a newish locale with imported homages from the real world. I loved the magical aspects and limited appearance they had on the plot and characters, I just wished for more oomph, for better female characters and less POV jumping. There's a lot to enjoy in this world and these characters, I just want there to be more to it. Less hiding, more showing to Eyul, Govnan, the Pattern Master, etc. It's thoroughly engaging if not the most action-packed fantasy fare, with an ending that left me mildly anxious for the second in the series.

 I'd tell any hardcore fantasy fan to give The Emperor's Knife at least a try - it has potential to grow into a truly epic story with flawed, real characters. Here's hoping for book 2. 

Review: Sass & Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe

Friday, February 27, 2015
Title: Sass & Sorcery
Author: Kurtis J. Wiebe
Genre: Graphic Novel, Fantasy
Series: Rat Queens Vol. 1
Pages: 128
Published: April 8, 2014
Source: Purchased
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Who are the Rat Queens?

A pack of booze-guzzling, death-dealing battle maidens-for-hire, and they're in the business of killing all god's creatures for profit.

It's also a darkly comedic sass-and-sorcery series starring Hannah the Rockabilly Elven Mage, Violet the Hipster Dwarven Fighter, Dee the Atheist Human Cleric and Betty the Hippy Smidgen Thief. This modern spin on an old school genre is a violent monster-killing epic that is like Buffy meets Tank Girl in a Lord of the Rings world on crack!

Collecting Rat Queens #1-5!

Rat Queens is like the book version of http://www.whothefuckismydndcharacter... . The standard D&D races and classes are represented, but what makes the Queens different is each also has an aesthetic that influences her personality. This gives us Violet and Hannah, a relatively standard, if blood thirsty, hipster fighter and rockabilly mage respectively, but it also leads to Betty, the Smidgen (Halfling) hippy thief, who loves free love, candy, and psychedelic mushrooms, and my favorite, Dee, the atheist human cleric.

The book is very tongue in cheek. A scene where Dee explains how her magic works when she doesn't believe in God is punctuated with another character asking, "why haven't we ever talked about this before?" "Convenience." It's aware of the fantasy tropes and it's having a good time playing to them.

The story starts with four quartets of adventurers being assigned quests to make up for yet another bar fight. The Rat Queens are sent to kill a pack of goblins that they just cleared out last month, (damn those respawn times,) but once they make their way to the cave, they're confronted by an assassin's trap. Thus begins our five issue arc as the girls search for and confront their attacker. Each issue gives a little backstory on one of the girls, (Hannah had a thing with the captain of the guard, Betty's girlfriend has left her, Violet's brother wants her to come home, and Dee's parents worship a flying squid,) but the comics are mostly about butchering thine enemies.

These books are M for a reason. There is an excessive amount of drug and alcohol use, bad language, (including the c-word if that's a dealbreaker,) casual sex, and rude gestures, but it's the close-up, gorily detailed brain that pushed it over the edge for me. Have you ever seen a troll deep throat a broadsword the size of a Shetland pony? If you've read issue 4, you have. There's nothing "lady-like" about these women.

While I admire the Rat Queens, I don't necessarily feel the book is written for women, and that's where I'm deducting my half star. There's girl fighting for no real reason, especially between Hannah and the leader of another group, the Peaches. The armor is fairly practical on all characters, except Betty's half shirt and Dee's...bottom. It's not as sexualized as a lot of main stream comics, but Dee takes a hit early on that leaves half her ass hanging out and there are a few boob and butt poses.

Something about Betty's relationship with Faery didn't sit right with me, either. I think it has to do with making the only queer character also the one whose race "like pushing things out almost as much as they like sticking them in". Because female homosexuality is already characterized as slutty, it seems stereotypical. The kiss was rather male gaze-y as well.

Still, I loved Sass & Sorcery a lot. I have a few problems with how the women were portrayed, but I'm willing to overlook them to see a fantasy comic where women are allowed to act as badly as men. Where they're allowed to take control of a sexual encounter and slay a troll and tell crude jokes and drink until the sun comes up. A comic with different body sizes, races, and sexualities. The girls are funny and the story is fun, (though familiar.) It's not perfect, but I'm actually very impressed.

Two Minute Review: Another Little Piece by Kate Karyus Quinn

Thursday, February 26, 2015
Title: Another Little Piece
Author: Kate Karyus Quinn
Genre: horror
Series: N/A
Pages: 419
Published: June 2013
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Rating: 4/5

 On a cool autumn night, Annaliese Rose Gordon stumbled out of the woods and into a high school party. She was screaming. Drenched in blood. Then she vanished.

A year later, Annaliese is found wandering down a road hundreds of miles away. She doesn't know who she is. She doesn't know how she got there. She only knows one thing: She is not the real Annaliese Rose Gordon.

Now Annaliese is haunted by strange visions and broken memories. Memories of a reckless, desperate wish . . . a bloody razor . . . and the faces of other girls who disappeared. Piece by piece, Annaliese's fractured memories come together to reveal a violent, endless cycle that she will never escape—unless she can unlock the twisted secrets of her past.

Weird, different, haunting. For a debut this is so impressive. It's memorable and different; it leaves an impression. From the beginning chapter to the end, you're easily held captive but eh way this new author spins and uses words.

I love thoughtful horror and that is the brand that is being sold so skillfully here. It's not overt or too gorey, though Quinn isn't going to be accused of sanitizing her novel, either. Another Little Piece is creative and smart in how it uses violence and that makes it all the more effective in the long run.

This is not a book for answers or finality. It's akin to Imaginary Girls and other magical realism novels in that the author's aim is to make you believe, not to make you doubt. Very much recommended for fans who like a different kind of horror and gore. 

Backlist Review: The Peculiars by Maureen Doyle McQuerry

Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Genre: young-adult, steampunk, fantasy/science fiction
Series: N/A as of now
Pages: 368 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: expected May 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

This dark and thrilling adventure, with an unforgettable heroine, will captivate fans of steampunk, fantasy, and romance.

On her 18th birthday, Lena Mattacascar decides to search for her father, who disappeared into the northern wilderness of Scree when Lena was young. Scree is inhabited by Peculiars, people whose unusual characteristics make them unacceptable to modern society. Lena wonders if her father is the source of her own extraordinary characteristics and if she, too, is Peculiar.

On the train she meets a young librarian, Jimson Quiggley, who is traveling to a town on the edge of Scree to work in the home and library of the inventor Mr. Beasley. The train is stopped by men being chased by the handsome young marshal Thomas Saltre. When Saltre learns who Lena’s father is, he convinces her to spy on Mr. Beasley and the strange folk who disappear into his home, Zephyr House. A daring escape in an aerocopter leads Lena into the wilds of Scree to confront her deepest fears.

The Peculiars is, best and most simply said, a peculiarly delightful novel.  With a humanly flawed and real character in protagonist Lena Mattacascar,  a fun cast of intriguing background characters and a familiar-yet-alien enveloping atmosphere, this is one of the first novels I've read this year to so thoroughly and quickly grab my attention. This is advertised as a 'steampunk adventure' and admittedly that was half of what drew me to this particular novel, but this is really more proto or early-ear steampunk than a full-fledged addition to the genre. It's more of a window dressing than the main house if you follow me, though that's not the novel's overall detriment. What Peculiars has in plenty is charm, dimensional and likeable characters and its aforementioned alluring alternate universe.

Lena lives in an 'alternate universe of the 1880s", a world that persecutes and hates 'Peculiars'. Though there's no real basis for the hate (other than the oh-so familiar "they're different from us"), and though no studies have ever reported from studying them, they are labelled as "soulless", prone to violence, hateful and full of selfishness. While it's easy to see parallels between the treatment of Peculiars in Lena's world and the treatment of minorities in America's not-so-distant past, McQuerry doesn't beat the reader over the head with it. Her message(s) throughout The Peculiars are simple but direct. The Peculiars themselves are largely unseen for most of the fantasy novel, giving them an added air of mystery to their already largely mysterious demeanor - do they even exist? what actually defines a Peculiar? Lena herself grapples with the possibility certainty that she is a Peculiar often and genuinely. It is so easy to understand and sympathize with her plight and her subsequent questions and actions. Fearing her half-Peculiar nature, Lena shuns part of her heritage and hates that non-conformist part of herself - something most people, willing to admit it or not, can easily commiserate with and remember from their own pasts. 

I loved Lena. I didn't love her initially, as she seemed a bit judgmental and quick on the draw for it (see: Jimson in the train) but Lena is a wonderful character, one that grows and learns throughout the course of her journey. As the pages go on and Lena makes mistakes, learns, I became quite fond of the snarky but smart girl. She is flawed both personality-wise and appearance-wise but her character is rounded out with intelligence, courage, and other attributes. Her search for her father is clearly about much more than finding answers about a long-ago crime; it's about Lena finally accepting who and what she is, unconditionally.  I do wish this had been in first person perspective as it was focused so closely on Lena, her thoughts, struggles, and experiences and it's always weird, for me as a reader, to read that type of narrative from a secondhand perspective. <SPOILER WARNING>I would've been very disappointed if Lena's long-routed trek to Scree had resulted in a father-daughter reunion. Who Lena is shouldn't be defined by anyone else, nor her acceptance of what she is. Hats off again to Ms. McQuerry for avoiding the obvious and easy out. </END SPOILER>

While the hatred/segregation directed towards the Peculiars as a race/species brings back uncomfortable memories, the slight paranoia, fear and overall watchfulness of the world will do the same. This time, the mood set forth is more dystopic, akin to Nazi Germany with the normal, non-Peculiar citizens encouraged in an anonymous report-your-neighbor spy system. While the worldbuilding isn't the most solid I've come across, the tidbits that eke out over the course of a read do much to fill in the early blanks. While I didn't get a final answer until the author's afterword, certain phrases/words/names were dropped or alluded to throughout The Peculiars - further reinforcing both the similarities and disparities between Lena's world and ours. The clues appear at random and it can be kind of fun matching the cognates between alternate worlds: Karl Marx, Meriwether Lewis, Napoleon, Mendel all warrant specific mention, if in different capacities than actual history takes. London, Holland, Sweden, India - all are referenced as countries still existing. The only frustrating part about those tantalizing hints is that no real place is confirmed as the location. Scree/Knob Knouster is the scene for most of the events, but no country, fictional or fact, is mentioned as a home country. 

I did find the 'villain' of the novel to be a bit lacking. He didn't really add a lot of suspense or tension until too far for my personal tastes, so I felt that certain sections...dwaddled a tad. I liked the pull Lena felt between the two possible romantic interests she had in this novel: this love-triangle, as slight and proper as it was, actually felt like more than a plot device to further drama. While I can't say I am a fan of it here, even, I will willingly and readily admit that this is one of the few authors that actually can present a believable mess of emotions like Lena. The marshal appeals to her 'human side': win his affection and it's like proof she's all human. Jimson on the other hand, represents a wilder, unknown attraction and Lena's indecision rings true. It's not drawn out overlong, either, when Lena's mind is made up. Likewise my disappointment with the villain's lacking presence, so too the the absence of more than just a few Peculiars. So much was made about them that I was genuinely curious to find out the same answers as Lena - do they have souls? How many kinds are there? What happened to make the Peculiars? Unfortunately for my impatient soul, The Peculiars doesn't dole out the easy answers for all the questions Lena and I have. The only way I won't be majorly disappointed in the execution of such an inventive idea is if Maureen McQuerry pens a sequel with those revelations inside. 

This is a book I would actually love to see in a series. (Make it happen, world!) Though I can't help but commend McQuerry for neatly wrapping up the ties of loose plot floating around the end of her novel, I just want more. More of this steam-powered world of goblins and winged people, more of Lena and Jimson. More of Mrs. Mumbles, a Scree-cat that joins fellow famous felines like Harry Potter's Crookshanks, Grimalkin from the Iron Fey, and Mogget/Yrael of Lirael/Sabriel fame as my favorite literary cats.  The Peculiars is quirky and odd but filled to the brim with great, living characters - this was a read I didn't want to finish and a world I didn't want to leave. 

Book Tour Review: The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson

Thursday, February 19, 2015
Title: The Tell-Tale Heart
Author: Jill Dawson
Genre: general fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 256
Published: February 10 2015
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
Rating: 2.5/5

After years of excessive drink and sex, Patrick has suffered a massive heart attack. Although he's only fifty, he's got just months to live. But a tragic accident involving a teenager and a motorcycle gives the university professor a second chance. He receives the boy's heart in a transplant, and by this miracle of science, two strangers are forever linked.

Though Patrick's body accepts his new heart, his old life seems to reject him. Bored by the things that once enticed him, he begins to look for meaning in his experience. Discovering that his donor was a local boy named Drew Beamish, he becomes intensely curious about Drew's life and the influences that shaped him--from the eighteenth-century ancestor involved in a labor riot to the bleak beauty of the Cambridgeshire countryside in which he was raised. Patrick longs to know the story of this heart that is now his own.

In this intriguing and deeply absorbing story, Jill Dawson weaves together the lives and loves of three vibrant characters connected by fate to explore questions of life after death, the nature of the soul, the unseen forces that connect us, and the symbolic power of the heart.

Literary fiction is often a hard sell for me. I like the ideas that can be explored in varied, meaningful ways and Jill Dawson does so here with The Tell-Tale Heart. It's the story of an older heart transplant recipient, Patrick, and that the recent life of his donator and the donator's ancestors in a labor riot in the 1800s. It's an interesting premise and an interesting story, but there was no emotional connection for me to anything or anyone depicted. 

I liked the book most when Patrick wasn't involved. He's pretty much a wash of a character -- judgmental, weak-willed, entitled, rude, and misogynistic. I was much more interested in the life of his counterpart Drew Beamish, the kid whose heart ends up in Patrick, and Drew's ancestor Willie Beamiss. The fact that the novel focuses much more on Patrick than his counterparts was disappointing to me. Patrick's storyline has potential -- characterizing Helen and Alice, especially -- but Patrick himself is a cold fish made colder by his reluctance to be a decent person.

I can deal with unlikeable characters, and often love them, but I have to have something to glom onto to really care about the story.  Drew has a lot of potential in his confused teenage life, but his sections, like Willie's, are too short to make that much of an impact. For all that though, The Tell-Tale Heart is readable and offers a new perspective in the lives of organ donors and recipients. That angle carried the most empathy into the story and what kept me reading.

Book Tour Review: Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran by Marion Grace Woolley

Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Title: Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran
Author: Marion Grace Woolley
Genre: historical fiction, retellings
Series: N/A
Pages: 288
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
Rating: 3/5

A young woman confronts her own dark desires, and finds her match in a masked conjurer turned assassin.

Inspired by Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera, Marion Grace Woolley takes us on forbidden adventures through a time that has been written out of history books.

"Those days are buried beneath the mists of time. I was the first, you see. The very first daughter. There would be many like me to come. Svelte little figures, each with saffron skin and wide, dark eyes. Every one possessing a voice like honey, able to twist the santur strings of our father’s heart."

It begins with a rumour, an exciting whisper. Anything to break the tedium of the harem for the Shah’s eldest daughter. People speak of a man with a face so vile it would make a hangman faint, but a voice as sweet as an angel’s kiss. A master of illusion and stealth. A masked performer, known only as Vachon.

For once, the truth will outshine the tales.

On her birthday the Shah gifts his eldest daughter Afsar a circus. With it comes a man who will change everything.

A dark, odd little book Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran is attention-grabbing from early on. The story of Afsar, a daugther of the Shah set in the 1850s in Iran, there's a lot to love about the novel. It's certainly atmospheric, creative, and distinct. The writing itself is lush and full of visuals and unique imagery. The courts at Sari and in Tehran pop from the page, as does Afsar and her counterpart, Le Comte de Mort Rouge. It's a darkly fascinating journey with two damaged people and Marion Grace Woolley is a skilled storyteller.

A retelling/reinterpretation of the famous Phantom of the Opera in a new locale is refreshing and fully allows Marion Grace Woolley put her own stamp on the famous and often-told tale. Vachon is recognizable from his earlier incarnations, but the author definitely molds him in a distinct manner. Afsar, who says she has "been written out of the history books" is the main character and narrator (I did some googling and am unsure if this would be the correct historical corollary for her character if not her characterization). She is a difficult character to both like or relate to. She's interesting, though, and her arrogance is both frustrating and a key plot point to her own downfall.

The writing itself is the highlight of reading the novel. The issues I had stemmed from the pace and the lack of any real plot to propel events toward anything meaningful. Throughout the book Afsar and Eirik give into their baser urges and desires, if not the in way anticipated, and compete as often as they cooperate. However, there's no overarching plot to guide their actions. They do as they want just because they want. And while they aren't the best of people (ask Sheyda or Ludovico) I needed more than "baser instincts" as a reason for the story.

An intrigui9ng mix of retelling and historical fiction, Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran is disquieting but impossible to looka way from. As Afsar and Eirik encourage each other to new and more dangerous heights and depths, Mario Grace Woolley's story emerges as a adept and engaging novel. Fans of the original, or of darker historical fiction will find a lot to enjoy in this easily read and imaginative story.

Review: Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes by Cory O'Brien

Title: Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes: A No-Bullshit Guide to World Mythology
Author: Cory O'Brien
Genre: Non-fiction
Series: None
Pages: 304
Published: March 5, 2013
Source: Gift
Rating: 4 out of 5

All our lives, we’ve been fed watered-down, PC versions of the classic myths. In reality, mythology is more screwed up than a schizophrenic shaman doing hits of unidentified. Wait, it all makes sense now. In Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes, Cory O’Brien, creator of Myths RETOLD!, sets the stories straight. These are rude, crude, totally sacred texts told the way they were meant to be told: loudly, and with lots of four-letter words. Skeptical? Here are just a few gems to consider:

� Zeus once stuffed an unborn fetus inside his thigh to save its life after he exploded its mother by being too good in bed.

� The entire Egyptian universe was saved because Sekhmet just got too hammered to keep murdering everyone.

� The Hindu universe is run by a married couple who only stop murdering in order to throw sweet dance parties…on the corpses of their enemies.

� The Norse goddess Freyja once consented to a four-dwarf gangbang in exchange for one shiny necklace.

And there’s more dysfunctional goodness where that came from.

OK, so like you know that post on Tumblr, the one where the girl explains the Minotaur myth and it's super funny and easy to understand and everyone's like, "omg this is amazing, why aren't ALL myths TOLD LIKE THIS?!?" Guys, ALL THESE MYTHS ARE TOTALLY TOLD LIKE THAT.

Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes is worth a read, not just for being laugh out loud funny, but for actually being an interesting critique on oral traditions. Mythology was originally passed by bards, the kind of people who were either drunk or performing for the drunk. So while we think of mythology as this stuffy thing historians or your history teacher prattle on about, at the time, they actually were told a lot like...well an overly excited twenty-something on Tumblr.

The first thing that attracted me to the book are the bonkers chapter titles, which themselves went viral for awhile. (If you have a teenager who likes history and social media, buy this and be the cool adult in their life for awhile.) Things like "Ra and Sekhmet, or: How Beer Saved the Universe" and "Sex 4 Gold" should give you a pretty good idea of the stories you're getting. It's filthy. Just gobs of semen jokes. There are stories about nothing but poop and testicles. The illustrations are like a pack of 13 year old boys were turned loose with sharpies. Yet, while crude, it's not mean.

The Greek and Norse stories are my favorites, because I'm most familiar with these stories, so there's humor in knowing what the author changed and what was ABSOLUTELY in the originals. There's a great mix of other cultures represented, from Egypt and other African nations, (which the author does a good job of not lumping into one THIS IS WHAT AFRICA THINKS mush,) to China, Japan, and Hindi. There's even a small section of modern American myths like Pecos Bill and Scientology.

Each story ends with a "moral", that is a total bastardization of the actual message, like:

"if you are not ready to be a father
consider all of your options
before skipping directly to cannibalism"


"apparently women ARE currency
but the exchange rate of women to gold
isn't actually that great"


If I have one critique, it's the epilogue. The author decides to argue that our current science is it's own kind of myth, so we should be nice to the religious and everyone should get along. Hmm, no.

If I have two critiques, I understand presenting many creation myths to show the similarities in multiple cultures, but the jokes got repetitive after awhile.

In all, I really enjoyed Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes. It's not the most detailed look at mythology. It's not the most accurate. But it is the funniest, and you'll probably be WAY better prepared to drunkenly explain how Zeus turned to lightning and killed the mortal he was banging. You know, next time that comes up.

Review: Ice Song by Kirsten Imani Kasai

Title: Ice Song
Genre:  fantasy, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi
Series: Ice Song #1
Pages: 384 (Nook  ARC edition)
Published: May 2009
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3.75/5

There are secrets beneath her skin.

Sorykah Minuit is a scholar, an engineer, and the sole woman aboard an ice-drilling submarine in the frozen land of the Sigue. What no one knows is that she is also a Trader: one who can switch genders suddenly, a rare corporeal deviance universally met with fascination and superstition and all too often punished by harassment or death.

Sorykah’s infant twins, Leander and Ayeda, have inherited their mother’s Trader genes. When a wealthy, reclusive madman known as the Collector abducts the babies to use in his dreadful experiments, Sorykah and her male alter-ego, Soryk, must cross icy wastes and a primeval forest to get them back. Complicating the dangerous journey is the fact that Sorykah and Soryk do not share memories: Each disorienting transformation is like awakening with a jolt from a deep and dreamless sleep.

The world through which the alternating lives of Sorykah and Soryk travel is both familiar and surreal. Environmental degradation and genetic mutation run amok; humans have been distorted into animals and animal bodies cloak a wild humanity. But it is also a world of unexpected beauty and wonder, where kindness and love endure amid the ruins. Alluring, intense, and gorgeously rendered, Ice Song is a remarkable debut by a fiercely original new writer.

This was an engrossing, thrilling, fresh, lovely read... for about 200 hundred pages of the 384 total duration.  Not that I didn't enjoy the last of the novel, or that I wasn't involved in Soryk/ah's unique tale - Ice Song simply and sadly suffers (alliteration is fun!) from a problem that so many other novels of the fantasy genre also suffer: it's just too long. Three hundred eighty-four pages is far from the longest book I've read this year, but it's nothing to sneeze at, certainly. But, truthfully, it's no doorstopper in a genre with works like The Way of Kings (1007 pages), To Green Angel Tower (1104 pages), and The Bonehunters (1231 pages) easy to come by and at more than twice this one's length. The problem with Ice Song is that the length outlasts the actual plot - large sections could have been culled from the narrative (for example: halve the trk across the ice, kill edit the entire House of Pleasure overextended bit) and this would've been a much more streamlined, clear story. Ice Song may be a long-winded but my expectations were exceeded drastically by this gender-bending adventure across the Sigue or 'The Land of the Ice Song'.

I loved a lot about this very creative and individual 'fantasy' novel, including the fact that this was clearly and awesomely not just a straight fantasy.  There's the obvious signs early on that seem to set this darkly captivating novel out as clear-cut, epic fantasy: the long journey against an well-established enemy, the alien world peopled with the chimaera-like "somatics" - a genetic(?) mutation of both human and animal, and last but not least: Sorykah's strange ability as a Trader to change genders and become Soryk. But further and close reading will out many and often references to a very familiar world - which would make this more of a post-apocalyptic novel than a fantasy. References to a very modern society gone: "canned soda", the use of opium,  "DNA", mutterings of a "Great Change" and a mysterious "Split"between humans and the changeling somatics, "video cameras" and most tellingly: "baseball". I also came around to believing the setting for the trek Soryak takes - the harsh and frozen Sigue - could be what we call Antartica. The sly mentions of more populated areas "up North" along with the frozen and inhospitable climate further reinforce my opinion that Sorykah's world is our own, but far in the future.

I loved the creative take the author used to build her world, and the lovely way she wrote only helped make a favorable impression. Before I got tired of the seemingly-endless (and deadly! [SPOILER] RIP sled dog team! Who knew I could harbor such anger towards a seal? And that it was a leopard seal only further reinforces my the Sigue = Antarctica theory. [end SPOILER]. This also reads like a fairytale at times, which I found both charming and odd juxtaposed against the dark nature of the novel. Kasai has an elegant way with words, and her vivid descriptions of both character and setting evoke a very detailed, real world and read.

"He smiled, wickedly, or so it seemed, for the grins of wolves always appear wicked, even when innocently offered."
Doesn't that sound like a line straight from a fairytale? A Little Red Robin Hood with a gender-bending Red Robin Hood. Too bad the rest of the story doesn't fit within the LRR story or I would make a theory on the spot.

I loved the somatics as a species. Described as a human/animal hybrids with "scrambled genetics and bizarre deformities" they are the fringe of society within this (our?) world. While some of the minglings of man and creature strain credulity at times [SPOILER] (Rava - how would you possibly hide those that condition for years? As a drug addict?) [end SPOILER] I loved that the somatics were often shown as the most human, the most humane characters (read: Dunya, Sidra, Carac) in a world where their race are considered sport and open game for freak hunters, and the actual monsters were wholly human. Soryk/ah shares some of same plights as the somatics: isolated, hunted, and misunderstood. However, unlike the species, Sorykah is one of so few like her that many in the world have never seen a Trader. For Soryk's entire existence it was fight or flight, hide or be hunted and used as a sexual circus freak. Though born of and into a harsh life, Soryak isn't a fighter or a rebel: she's a lowkey, trying to be normal, strong, courageous and compassionate woman. Her sole motivation isn't just to kick as much ass is possible but to save her kids and get some revenge in the process. This is a compellingly strange character isolated or afraid until the birth of her similarly-affected twins - which gives credence for her out-of-character actions throughout Ice Song.

My main gripe besides the length is the House of Pleasures stay towards the final fourth of the book. Until this bit, the author took pains never to make Sorykah's 'problem' the entire focus of her characterization. Yes the character switches genders, personalities but there's much more to her than her alternating names. The House of Pleasures put Sorykah on the spot (literally) and it was not fun to read for 20+ pages. Both Sorykah's motivations for being there and her actions once there don't really fit well within the frame of the novel or her previous personality. Not to mention that both the creepy women of the House and Sorykah's display at their hands were just uncomfortable to read. I'm not a prude, I can handle sex in books just fine, but the House of Pleasures displays were too distasteful for me. 

My other three slight gripes with this strangely-weird-but-not-in-a-bad-way novel: 
  • Sorykah's trek across the ice is too long and becomes monotonous before it ends. A lot of fantasy novels draw out the traveling portion and this is sadly one of them.
  • The solution for Sorykah's confusion/memory loss is too easy and [SPOILER] I'm disappointed it involved sex. Being a Trader shouldn't just be about the sex part of her nature.
  • And last but not least, Ice Song suffers from about five too many POV's. The two personalities of Sorykah - fine, perfect even. But Zarina, Meertham, Radhe, Dunya, and Carac certainly didn't need to have their own - usually just one or two instances - POV 

This is a good book, though not the great one I thought I had at the start. Sadly first impressions are not always the right ones, and my problems with the latter part of Ice Song lowered this from a 4 - 4.5 to a 3.75 stars. There is a sequel attached, Tattoo, already out and published - and one I will keep my eye out for in bookstores. Though the execution might wobble a bit, Ms. Kasai's ideas are starkly original and fun, and written in a very readable, pretty prose. Fans of fantasy will enjoy this and I look forward to whatever comes next in this twisted and unique world.

Review: The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

Monday, February 16, 2015
Title: The Sculptor
Author: Scott McCloud
Genre: graphic novel, supernatural
Series: N/A
Pages: 496
Source: publishers for review
Published: February 3 2015
Rating: 4.25/5

David Smith is giving his life for his art—literally. Thanks to a deal with Death, the young sculptor gets his childhood wish: to sculpt anything he can imagine with his bare hands. But now that he only has 200 days to live, deciding  what  to create is harder than he thought, and discovering the love of his life at the 11th hour isn't making it any easier!

This is a story of desire taken to the edge of reason and beyond; of the frantic, clumsy dance steps of young love; and a gorgeous, street-level portrait of the world's greatest city. It's about the small, warm, human moments of everyday life…and the great surging forces that lie just under the surface. Scott McCloud wrote the book on how comics work; now he vaults into great fiction with a breathtaking, funny, and unforgettable new work.

The Sculptor was my first graphic novel ever -- at age 27, no less. And, having raced through this tome in just over a day desperate to see how it all plays out, I don't know if I can continue exploring within this medium. I have no idea how anything that comes after will match my experience reading The Sculptor -- in terms of plot, character, emotions, everything. I was definitely not expecting to be carried away as much as I was, but with David and Meg and Ollie, Scott McCloud has created something pretty damn wonderful. It's heartwrenching and funny and sometimes just fun, but also full of honest emotion and human struggle. It's not always pretty but it holds a lot of meaning.

The myriad emotions at the heart of The Sculptor shape the story in so many small but meaningful ways. David's frustrated passion and stubbornness, Meg's giving heart and depression, Ollie's yearning for love and misguided attempts... all spoke to me so much and carried each on their own individual paths. These are imperfect people trying their best -- and though David's story seems to be ending with the deal he makes in the first section of the novel, he learns a lot and changes authentically throughout the nearly 500 page course of the novel. And while David is the main character and the focus of the novel, he nearly loses all attention to Meg, his love interest and so much more. Meg is complicated and messy and imperfect; ferociously, amazingly opinionated and at the same time fragile.

What I loved about these characters is that they aren't mere caricatures. Meg isn't the trope she seems at first, and neither is David. Meg so nearly was a MPDG but McCloud gives her plenty of depth and a magnetic personality all her own. David seems to fit the bill of "obsessed failing artist" pretty closely but McCloud doesn't let his main character stagnate. Watching David try and fail, try and fail before figuring ~things~ out is cathartic and relateable -- and also totally believable for all the special abilities he is granted. He has talent, but like Meg, he is imperfect and makes mistakes along the way while trying so so hard to fill his definition of success. They grow as people and they grow together; I defy you not to get major feels as their relationship matures and deepens.

The Sculptor is heartfelt and heart-wrenching and nearly perfect. It's good in so many ways it became almost painful to leave the characters behind after the ending. The urge is to race through and absorb as much as possible but with Scott McCloud's art, it's really worth it to take your time and really pay attention and truly get to know Meg and David and their version of NYC. The visual medium worked so well for me here that I can't be anything but impressed with this novel as a whole. Some parts were a taaaad predictable (the eventual relationship, the inevitable regret, etc.) but I was also completely surprised by a turn late laaate into the story.

Scott McCloud was a a great author to introduce me to graphic novels as a medium for stories. The Sculptor may veer a tad close to a few established fictional tropes but his deft authorial touch saves what could sound rote on paper into something truly unique and lovely.

Recent Bookish Acquisitions

Thursday, February 12, 2015
So it's been another great couple weeks for books. I did pretty good on not buying any until the last week or so. But I was also sent A LOT of great books from generous friends and publishers. 2015 is off to an excellent start.

The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson (sent from TLC Book Tours)
Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran by Marion Grace Woolley (another from TLC Book Tours -- it's a Phantom of the Opera retelling!)
Joyride by Anna Banks (sent from MacMillan)
Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson (sent from TLC Book Tours)

Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt - Once Upon A Crime Family #1 (sent from Bloomsbury)
Rebel Mechanics by Shanna Swendson (sent from MacMillan)
Withering Tights - Misadventures of Tallulah Casey #1 by Louise Rennison (sent from Morgan @ Gone With the Words!)
Half Bad - Half Bad #1 by Sally Green (sent by Christina@ Christina Reads YA!)
Revenge, Ice Cream, and Other Things Best Served Cold - Broken Hearts and Revenge #2 by Katie Finn (sent from MacMillan)
The Heart of Betrayal - The Remnant Chronicles #2 by Mary E. Pearson (sent from MacMillan)

Women Who Broke the Rules: Dolley Madison by Kathleen Kull (sent from MacMillan)
The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan - Wheel of Time #4 (bought - new covers for this series means I must own them all)
The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan - Wheel of Time #5 (bought - see above)
I Was Here by Gayle Forman (bought because Gayle Forman)
Doll Bones by Holly Black (bought -- hardcover for $1.99? How could I resist?)
The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner - The Queen's Thief #2 (another steal for $1.50. Couldn't resist.)
Sculptor by Scott McCloud (sent for 01Second Books)
Mist of Midnight by Sandra Byrd (sent from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours)
Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu (sent from Roaring Books Press)

So I did pretty good -- both in restraining myself and being spoiled by the mail.

Any new releases or buys you're especially excited for?

(Thank you thank you MacMillan, Bloomsbury, TLC Book Tours, HFVBT Book Tours, Christina, Morgan, 01Second, Roaring Brook, aaand Ryan's Wallet)

Review: Queen of Hearts: The Crown by Colleen Oakes

Sunday, February 8, 2015
Title: Queen of Hearts/The Crown
Author: Colleen Oakes
Genre: retelling, fantasy, young adult
Series: Queen of Hearts #1
Pages: 222 (ARC edition)
Published: February 14 2014
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

Not every fairytale has a happy ending.
This is the story of a princess who became a villain.

A father’s betrayal. A Kingdom with a black secret. A Princess slowly unraveling.

As Princess of Wonderland Palace and the future Queen of Hearts, Dinah’s days are an endless monotony of tea, tarts, and a stream of vicious humiliations at the hands of her father, the King of Hearts. The only highlight of her days is visiting Wardley, her childhood best friend, the future Knave of Hearts — and the love of her life.

When an enchanting stranger arrives at the Palace, Dinah watches as everything she’s ever wanted threatens to crumble. As her coronation date approaches, a series of suspicious and bloody events suggests that something sinister stirs in the whimsical halls of Wonderland. It’s up to Dinah to unravel the mysteries that lurk both inside and under the Palace before she loses her own head to a clever and faceless foe.

Part epic fantasy, part twisted fairy tale, this dazzling saga will have readers shivering as Dinahs furious nature sweeps Wonderland up in the maelstrom of her wrath.

Familiar characters such as Cheshire, the White Rabbit, and the Mad Hatter make their appearance, enchanting readers with this new, dark take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

"She'll wear the crown to keep her head."

Everyone loves a good retelling of an old favorite. Everyone loves "reboots" or re-imaginings that breathe new life into stories we have known and loved for years. Queen of Hearts is a clever, inventive retelling of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that is ACTUALLY a much more a creative take on an origin story for Lewis Carroll's Queen of Hearts character. What the author has done here is like what Wicked did for The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz; the original perspective is flipped and the former antagonist of someone else's story is now the protagonist of her own story. It makes for an updated, different edition of a favorite story that is, at once, both familiar and brand new.

Oakes's version of Wonderland feels familiar while still obviously being the author's own interpretation on the classic. There's the nods to the source material: an ambiguous adviser to the King named Cheshire (who has "a feline smile"), there are soldiers/guards/cops called the various Card suites (the Heart Guards, etc.), etc. but Oakes has fashioned them all into a believable medieval-ish fantasy story with little to no magic. There's obviously a lot of information to be passed to the audience, but the infodumping is reigned in for the most part. The only issues I had with the writing were the infrequent-but-always-short-lived infodump, the occasional tendency to tell rather than show, and an overuse of CAPS in both inner monologue and dialogue.

What shines here are the creative refashionings of the old story on a new frame and the characters Oakes re-imagines (or invents) in her own way. This especially applies to the main character and eldest but most unwanted daughter of the King: Dinah. Dinah is another one of those prickly narrator-types. She reminded me most of Nyx from Cruel Beauty. If you don't like her, this story will probably be much less of a hit for you that it was for me. Much of her life she has been abused, neglected, or ridiculed by her own father. The book has its lighter moments, but it's obviously not all sunshine and All Tea's Day for Wonderland's princess. She's a bitter and angry young woman, but she isn't quite as hardbitten as Nyx.  You can see the kernels of what she will become and how far she will go in her at this young age, but Dinah is sympathetic frequently and likeable often.

Even with third person, you get to know Dinah very well through the short course of the story. She's fiercely protective of those she loves (even if they don't seem to love her back coughWardleycough), and she's smart. I liked that she was proactive, even if foolhardy in doing so. She doesn't want to be saved -- she's half antihero/half actiontastic girl with an insane plan to save other people and herself. She's interesting, and complex and watching her evolve from a teenage girl into the famous villain is going to be quite the trip with this author. And while I love a lot to say about Dinah, others such as her father and love interest and her "odd" brother (aka the Mad Prince aka The Mad Hatter) don't have the same luxury. They weren't as fleshed out as they could have been (Vittiore, anyone? What's her game?), but they all hold potential to become much more in the future. The bones are there -- Okaes just has to follow through.

There's not a lot of plot to be found in this series opener, but there's also not a lot of book to Queen of Hearts. It's impressive that Oakes does so much, lays so much foundation with so little time, but the clear missed chance to expand on the world and characters is felt by the end. Two of the books main issues are that lack of a clear plot and the abrupt way the novel ends. There's really no resolution to anything going on - the book cuts off after a very fast-paced and frenetic action scene (Wardley?! Mysterious benefactor!?) and.....credits. It's a painful end to a book that zooms along with hardly a misstep before. I wanted more from the ending. Not an unsatisfying cliffhanger. The wait for book two -- as of yet unset, and it unnamed! -- is horrible to contemplate. This is a book that leaves you wanting more! More sequels! More chapters! More anything, really. 

Basically, this book is what I wanted and didn't get from Splintered last year. Just detailed enough to be believable, clever enough to be its own creation while still recognizable as a retelling, Queen of Hearts is a promising and impressive book for Colleen Oakes. It's dark and twisty and hugely, engagingly entertaining. It's fun. It's Wicked meets Cruel Beauty with some of the better aspects of Splintered sprinkled in. If you liked Sarah Cross's Kill Me Softly and how that author redid fairy tales, this is likely the next book you'll want to buy.

I had a great time reading Queen of Hearts (though I hate that I can't tell if the book is Queen of Hearts or the series is Queen of Hear and the book is The Crown? Amazon has it has Queen of Hearts (The Crown). EVERYTHING IS SO UNCLEAR.) and I am on high alert for the next installment. Technically this was a 3.5 for me, but I had so much fun I rounded up to a 4/5.

Check this one out. It's only $3.99 for a kindle copy. You really have no excuse. Forgo Starbucks for one day and try this gem out.
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