Brief Book Reviews, Fall 2018

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the novels I’ve been reading recently.

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The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas

I read this one for Banned Book Week back at the end of September.  I just wanted to give it another mention because it deserves it.  Aside from the relevant topics of police shootings and race relations, I really loved the depiction of Starr’s family.  Starr’s parents are not perfect people, but they are good parents.  Her family life can be messy, but it is loving, and I think that’s a great thing to show in a YA novel.  Also, I really want to know Starr’s reaction to her favorite player LeBron moving to her hometown Los Angeles!

Vicious

VE Schwab

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Don’t you just love a book that gets you to root for the sociopath?  After loving Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic series, I picked up another of her books and was blown away.  If ADSoM had a weakness, it was the villains, and this series avoids that neatly by having all the characters be villains! 

Well, that might be overstating it a bit, but I love a good “grey” character, and this book is full of them.  It centers on Victor and Eli, who were college roommates studying EOs: people with ExtraOrdinary abilities caused by near death experiences.  Ten years later, Victor is out of prison and going after Eli.  I loved the way the story unfolded in both time periods, picking up a strong supporting cast.

It was also a great read for the Halloween season, having some of the same themes as Frankenstein.  Plus it starts and ends with the characters digging up bodies in a graveyard.  Can’t ask for better atmosphere than that!

I read this in anticipation of the sequel Vengeful, which is out now, so check back soon for my thoughts on that one.

Into the Bright Unknown

Rae Carson

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A solid conclusion to the Gold Seer trilogy, a YA historical fantasy series.  After an Oregon Trail scenario in the first book, and a more standard conflict with the main villain in the second book, this one switches it up with a heist story.

While I appreciate the effort to show the contributions of women and minorities to American history, I did find it a bit funny that these books were apparently trying for the title of most woke series ever.  Some examples:

  • Only the villains own slaves.  Even the closest thing we have to grey characters, some prospectors, make sure to mention that they are from Ohio and therefore abolitionist.

  • A villain deliberately misgenders our protagonist Lee as an insult.

  • The male lead asks for affirmative consent before kissing Lee.

  • A random white male bank clerk in California is sexist, then a few pages later also racist.

  • Lee is rebuked several times for playing white savior

This kind of black-and-white morality is a not quite subtle enough for me, but I think it serves YA fiction well.  Overall, I’d recommend the series to anyone who likes YA light fantasy and the Wild West.

The Rose Legacy

Jessica Day George

36314263This book is for all those little girls (or former little girls) who are horse crazy!  It’s a charming light fantasy, middle grades story of an intrepid girl and her horse companion who get involved in secret plots affecting the whole kingdom.  I didn’t find it quite as strong as the author’s other books, but still enjoyable.

The opening of the book reminded me of a favorite, The Blue Sword.  As an orphan, Anthea has been bounced around between family and now goes to join relatives past the wall in the north of the kingdom, where there are rumors of secret magic things (like horses).  The story has some interesting twists, and the characters are pretty good, especially one that reminded me of Mrs. Coulter from The Golden Compass.  The ending could have been tighter, but there will be a sequel coming next year.

The Potion Diaries

Amy Alward

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You may have seen this one under a previous title, Madly.  This cute fantasy adventure would be a great beach read, a fun mix of princes, puzzles, and pharmaceuticals.  I liked the magic and the characters were fun, but ultimately it was on the forgettable side.

 

 

 

 

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My Top 5 Parallel Universes

Reading the wonderful and wild Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore a few months ago got me thinking about alternate dimensions–specifically, about their use in stories.  The concept appears across a range of speculative fiction, including both sci-fi and fantasy stories, and across a variety of media.  It can be an interesting way to explore the age-old question “What if?” as well as the idea that even the smallest events or decisions can change the course of lives.

So here’s my list of some favorite parallel universes in fiction.  I wanted to tend more towards the idea of multiverses, so I haven’t included any stories where there are only two dimensions, such as Star Trek’s mirror universe, the world of Fauxlivia and Walternate in Fringe, and the Light/Dark worlds of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

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The Flash (CW)

After scientist Barry Allen was gifted with super speed during an accident with Central City’s particle accelerator, he became the superhero known as the Flash.  Barry can do some pretty crazy stuff with his speed powers, including traveling through time and opening portals into other dimensions. The breaches between dimensions weren’t originally intentional, more of a side effect of Barry trying to fix something else he’d done unintentionally.  (This kind of stuff happens to Barry a lot.)

The Flash probably comes the closest on my list to a true multiverse idea.  Barry Allen’s world is Earth One, the centerpoint or juncture of the multiverse.  There are theoretically an infinite number of worlds comprising every possible existence (though about 50 are known in the show), each vibrating at a different frequency so they don’t normally interact.

Accordingly, some worlds have “doppelgangers” of our main characters; the Barry Allen of Earth Two, for example, is also a scientist but is not a meta-human and has no powers.  There are also worlds where there is no Barry Allen.

This TV show was originally a spin-off of Arrow, and later crossed over with Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow as well.  Together, the Arrowverse has been able to do some really fun stuff with dimensional travel, including an obligatory visit to a dimension where the Nazis won WWII.

A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab

I wrote in praise of this series a little while back, and one of the things I liked about it is the world building.  The main character, Kell, is a magician who can travel between worlds: there are four total, and each has a version of London (Black, White, Red, and Grey).  In fact, each has a specific tavern in a specific spot in the city, which serves as a kind centerpoint, but that’s about where the similarity between the worlds ends.  Our world is ostensibly that of “Grey” London, the home of Lila Bard, which is ruled by the Prince Regent (later George IV) and has no magic. Black London, however, was basically destroyed by magic, and White London still feels the effects of this, struggling to hold onto what power they can, which manifests in major societal and political upheavals.  

Red London, Kell’s London, does still have magic, and Kell is their ambassador to White and Grey, being one of the ancient line of Antari, who can do blood magic to cross worlds.  Antari are few and far between, and are distinguished by a single black-filled eye (the color black is closely associated with magic in general in this series). They draw magic seals with their blood, speak a phrase in the language of magic, and use a token from the other world to cross over (leaving us to wonder how the first Antari got their tokens, but that’s really not important to the story).  They can also travel between two points in the same world, but when crossing worlds always travel to the same geographic point they left in the last world.

These four worlds are parallel in time, but not civilizations or events.  Because so few people are able to travel between worlds, and transporting objects is forbidden, even the cultural exchange is extremely limited.  There are no doppelgangers here, and while a world may die like Black London, there is no evidence that new ones are ever created.

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

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This series, sometimes thought of as the “anti-Narnia,” begins with hints of alternate dimensions in The Golden Compass, but it’s not until the second book, The Subtle Knife, that the idea begins to really be explored. This cosmos is also theoretically a multiverse, which concept the characters refer to as the Barnard-Stokes Theorem.  Just as in ADSoM, the two main characters, Lyra and Will, come from two different universes.

There are several ways of crossing between universes, the most prominent being the titular Subtle Knife. Will becomes the owner of this double-edged blade, one side of which can cut a window between worlds.  However, this power is not without price: the children eventually discover that each piece of inter-dimensional fabric that is cut off becomes a Spectre that menaces adults (kids are safe).  

Several worlds are visited in the course of the story.  Will’s world appears to be our world, and Lyra’s is relatively similar (they both even have an Oxford University).  Some are completely different, such as the world of the mulefa, animals that have evolved to use wheels, or the land of the dead.  The story does not present any doppelgangers, either because they don’t exist or because the chances of actually meeting one in the multiverse would be slim.

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The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny

Nine Princes in Amber has one of my favorite openings of any novel ever: our protagonist wakes in a medical facility (presumably in our world) with no memory of who he is or how he came to be there, only the vague sense that he was injured and is now being kept incapacitated.  He eventually remembers that he is Corwin, Prince of Amber, the one true world; all other worlds are simply shadows of Amber.

The royal family of Amber can manipulate the Shadows, essentially creating whole worlds where they can live like kings, or disappear into obscurity.  They speak of “adding” and “subtracting” things as they travel through various realities on the way to Amber.  With such mathematical language, it make sense that Amber turns out to be only one anchoring pole of reality, that of order; the world of Chaos is its opposite pole, with the Shadows existing between them.  The royals also have a special set of cards, trumps with their own portraits, that allow them to communicate across worlds.

The parallel universes are the backdrop for a grand political struggle among the royal family, taking place over generations.  Corwin in particular has spent a lot of time in the Shadows, but eventually makes his way back to Amber to fight for the crown.  One interesting detail is that different universes can apparently have different laws of physics; some have different color skies, for example.  Also, gunpowder does not ignite in Amber, which results in a lot of sword fighting in the books.

CLAMPverse

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Sakura, Syaoran, Mokona, and Kurogane from Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle Omnibus v.4

My favorite authors of Japanese manga are a group of 4 women collectively known as CLAMP.  Over their prolific career they have produced dozens of stories, most of which crossover to form a loose universe.  Nowhere is that so evident than in the two series XXXholic and Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (which directly crossover, but can be read separately).  In the CLAMPverse, crossing between dimensions requires such great magical power that only few can do such a thing; one of these is Yuuko the Dimensional Witch, who runs a magical store where wishes can be granted for a price.  A group of travelers comes to her asking to be given the power to journey between dimensions, not just once but many times (they all have their own reasons for this quest), and she gives them white Mokona.

What is Mokona exactly?  “Mokona is Mokona!” the creature helpfully cries.  Mokona (a version of character originally created for Magic Knight Rayearth) has the power to take the group between dimensions by kind of sucking them into a giant whirlwind in its mouth.  It’s catchphrase when traveling is “Mokona Modoki mo doki doki!” which loosely means “Mokona is getting excited, too!”

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Mokona: Cutest method of dimensional travel

The number of dimensions in the CLAMPverse is unknown, but it seems to be many, if not infinite.  We see several dozen of the throughout the course of the story. We also meet versions of many, many characters found in CLAMP’s other works, most importantly Cardcaptor Sakura (my all-time favorite manga).  Each version of the character we meet is different, living in under different circumstances, but they each have the same soul and therefore have many things in common, often having similar personalities, characteristics, preferences, and mannerisms.  For example, Tomoyo (first seen as a schoolgirl in CCS), is a princess in one world and the president of a toy company in another, but is always polite and caring.

Honorable Mention: Sliders

I would include this 1990s TV show on my list, except that I haven’t seen enough of it to really count myself a fan.  It follows the adventures of a group of travelers “sliding” between universes to try to get to back to their home dimension.  The show also has a multiverse concept; because some universes are more technologically advanced than others, it also lets the show occasionally explore time travel-type scenarios as well.

Review: The Prince and the Dressmaker

I’m not reading a lot of print books right now, but I’m glad I made time for this cute tale.  The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang is a graphic novel for all ages with charming artwork and a message about being yourself and accepting others for who they are.

The two title characters are good friends Sebastian and Frances.  By day, Sebastian is a prince whose parents are trying to make a royal match for him; by night, he is Lady Crystallia, and Frances is the dressmaker who makes Crystallia’s fashion dreams come to life with her creations.  But Sebastian is continually worried that his secret will get out, and Frances starts to worry that she will never be able to reach her full potential.

Of course, they do manage to find their way through their troubles together, leading to an entertaining happy ending.

Frances and Sebastian

The writing and art go well together, whether it’s a scene of heartfelt and endearing simplicity…

…or a scene bursting with Parisian fashion and glamour.

Although I’m not an expert on LGBT literature, I thought Sebastian’s cross-dressing/genderfluidity was handled well.  Rather than discussing labels or gender pronouns as a contemporary story might do, it comes at it from a more organic perspective, letting Sebastian and the other characters tell their own truths with plain and honest language.  Sebastian explains:

“Some days I look at myself in the mirror and think, ‘That’s me, Prince Sebastian! I wear boy clothes and look like my father.’ Other days it doesn’t feel right at all. Those days I feel like I’m actually a princess.”

I would definitely recommend checking out this charming story.  I have a feeling it will be one of the most popular graphic novels this year.

 

2017 Reading Review

I was fortunate that I got to read approximately 100 books this year (not counting re-reads).  Unfortunately, I did not find much time to review many of them.  I enjoyed another year of the bimonthly GeekyNerdy Book Club which expanded my reading selections (look for one last post for the year presently).

Here are a few books I’d like to highlight from this year’s reading.

Most-read author

8367225This title is awarded to Georgette Heyer.  This year I went on a huge Regency Romance kick (a plurality of the books I read fall into this category), and part of that was discovering this wonderful author whose wit and historical detail is unrivaled in the genre.  I read 21 of her historical romances, and I look forward to reading more in the future.  The Grand Sophy was the one that really got me hooked, and it’s a great place to start for anyone intersted.  I recommend her work to anyone who loves Jane Austen as I do.

YA trilogies:

I read a lot of YA fantasy, and I find the vast majority of it enjoyable.  However, it’s rare to find a series as well-written as Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy.  It wasn’t entirely my style, being a bit too dark and Gothic, but I really felt there was a depth to the story not often seen in YA fantasy.  In particular, I liked the author developed themes of free will, including the use of classic literature.  And the characters are surprisingly diverse considering it is set in a girls’ school in Victorian England.

This series was translated from the original German a few years ago, and it is one I definitely stayed up late reading.  Though nominally set in contemporary times, the main character is a time traveler trying to uncover a conspiracy, so we get to travel to several different time periods in the course of the books.  I was so impressed with how well all the time traveling fits together over the series; the author clearly plotted the whole thing out very well beforehand.  It’s also really fun for all the mysteries to be revealed over the course of the books.  The characters can be a bit emo at times, but hey, they’re teenagers.

Classic YA Fantasy:

8464112I can’t believe I had never heard of these two short novels (published in ebook format together), let alone read them.  The first book introduces the rebel Mel on her quest to overthrow a corrupt king with the help of her brother and their people…and some unexpected help along the way.  The second book sees brash Mel getting an education in the subtle politics and court life of the capital city.  There’s also a wonderful slow-burn romance.  Each book has a slightly different tone, but they work beautifully either together or separately.  The characters and wordbuilding in particular are memorable.  It really gave me vibes of The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, which is high praise indeed.

15722552I came across this series after it was recommended to me by Purple Pumpernickel on my Regency Romance post earlier this year.  I love Patricia Wrede, author of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, so I was excited to pick this up, and I was not disappointed.  There’s plenty of magic, mystery, adventure, and a bit of romance and whimsy.  It is told in epistolary form, as a series of letters between cousins Kate and Cecelia, with each author writing one character.  An unusual form, but it really works here, especially feeding into the Regency setting.

Non-fiction:

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For the GNBC I enjoyed reading As You Wish (Cary Elwes’s memoir of making The Princess Bride) and Carrie Fisher’s Shockaholic

The most affecting nonfiction I read this year was the best-selling Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.  It tells of the author’s upbringing in rural West Virginia and Ohio, surrounded by poverty, family dysfunction, drugs, and declining jobs.  Vance eventually made it “out,” but in some ways these parts of his youth will stick with him his whole life.  I thought this might be a dry read, but it was anything but.  I read it as fast as a novel.

Much has been made of the divide in the US between urban and rural, blue state and red state, haves and have-nots.  This book does not do much to put forward ideas to solve any of the problems of drugs or lack of jobs affecting communities like Vance’s, but that’s not really its point.  Its point is to help us better understand why these communities live the way they do, and to have some empathy for them without judging them.  I can’t say it changed my political views or anything, and I already understood some of these concepts from living in Ohio, but it really did make me think and expand my worldview while being an engaging read.

You can check out the other books I reviewed this year with the Book Review category (click here) or the GNBC tag (click here).  There was a distinct lack of sci-fi on my reading list this year, so hopefully that will change in 2018.  I also read some contemporary YA and some comics, and hopefully I’ll be writing more about those in the future.

 

Here’s to more great books in the new year.  What books did you enjoy most in 2017?

Regency Romance…with a bit of Magic

So I recently went on a months-long Regency Romance kick.  It’s been a wonderful escape from everything going on in my life and in the world.

The “Regency” period refers to a time in the early 1800s when Britain was ruled by the Prince Regent (later King George IV), because his father George III was deemed unfit. (This era also includes the Napoleonic Wars.)

Not actual Austen books

Jane Austen is of course one of the most famous authors of the Regency period, and I have read all six of her completed novels many times (my favorites being Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice).  So it’s no surprise that in the twentieth century a whole genre developed around writing similar novels, now as historical fiction.

Georgette Heyer essentially created the Regency romance genre, doing meticulous research to provide readers with accurate information about the period, using the same phrases people of the time would have used, and with the same worldview.  This has spun out into a large, varied genre whose books have varying degrees of historical detail, humor, intrigue, sex, and even sometimes a little magic.

Georgette Heyer

As I said above, for Regency Romance, there is no better place to start than the works of Georgette Heyer.  I am currently working my way through her thirty-some historical romance novels, and there are so many things to love.  She comes very close to Jane Austen in her dry wit and love of the ridiculous in her characters.  I am constantly laughing as I read them.  I love that she writes with 8367225such historical detail; I’ve learned so much about the culture of that time.

I also love that she has many varied plots and characters: she has some Gothic novels, some mysteries, settings in London and in the country, main characters that are young and silly, or older and more sensible, couples that have known each other forever or have just met.  Her romance is very clean, usually with some kisses at the end.

Here are a few of my favorites so far:

The Grand Sophy: The second of her novels that I read, and the one that got me hooked.  Sophy is a tour-de-force main character, the kind of person that can manipulate everyone around her into doing what’s best for them.  The ending gets a little ridiculous, 11727810but it’s so funny you won’t care.

The Quiet Gentleman: I liked that this one has some mystery in it as well as romance; the main character suffers several attempts on his life after returning home to claim his inheritance.  It was pretty easy to figure out who the culprit was, but I still enjoyed it.  I also liked that the heroine is very unromantic and sensible—a girl after my own heart.

Bath Tangle:  This novel features several couples, all with varying (but entertaining) 11689134personalities, and it is set mostly in Bath as the title implies.  I really enjoyed the interplay between as the characters as they all struggle to figure out what they really want.

The Alastair-Audley series: The three main books in the series (These Old Shades, Devil’s Cub, and Regency Buck) are absolute classics.  The heroes are not always particularly likeable, but the heroines are always capable of handling them.  These books probably have the most history in them, too, dealing with many important figures and events of the day.  The first two are actually set in the Georgian period just before the Regency which gives the series even great scope.

Lester Family series by Stephanie Laurens

The Reasons for Marriage • A Lady of Expectations • An Unwilling Conquest • A Comfortable Wife

24406970This is a series of “reformed rake” stories all centering around one family.  It’s not really necessary to read them in order, but I liked that they were all connected, and many of the same characters appear throughout.

The first book, The Reasons for Marriage, was probably my favorite.  It features an apparent marriage of convenience that turns into something more.  I particularly liked that the heroine Lenore was intelligent, independent, and even a little introverted; her eventual pregnancy is also part of the plot, which resonated with me currently.

These are actually the first Harlequin romance novels I have ever read, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed them.  Though more racy than Heyer’s novels, they are fairly tame in terms of adult content.

I also started reading Laurens’ Cynster family series, and those are much more explicit in a bodice-ripper style.  As I told my husband, I was 7% of the way into the first book and there was already a hot shirtless guy running around.  For reasons.  Anyways, the Cynster books are not as much my cup of tea, but also feature some entertaining characters.

Love, Lies, and Spies by Cindy Anstey

25320766I loved the intrigue and adventure in this recent, lighthearted YA romance.  It was just wonderfully fluffy and charming.  I also loved that the heroine Juliana is a scientist trying to get her work published!

The book was nothing particularly groundbreaking, but it was entertaining from the very first chapter.  The main couple was very cute.  There was quite a lot of stuff like Miss Telford had very nice eyes and a nice smile but Spencer wasn’t going to think about that right now.

The author also published another YA Regency title this year, Duels and Deceptions, which I have on hold at the library and hope to read soon.

Now…onto the magic!

Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix

24737347On my quest to read more of the authors from the twisted fairy tale anthology I enjoyed last year, I uncovered this gem (pun slightly intended).

This one has all of the charm of a Regency romance, plus dangerous magic, adventure on the high seas, and assumed identities thrown in, too.  It was a wonderful mix of genres; I think it leans a little YA also.

The first chapter, in which Lady Newtington’s (Newt’s) emerald is stolen, read a bit like a short story, and then the rest of the book kind of goes off in a different direction in searching for the emerald, with a bit of shift in tone.  It was a little weird, but the book was so entertaining it didn’t bother me much.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

This is the first in a series about a family of sisters that have some talent for glamour, aka8697507 magic, which is kind of considered a womanly art.  I really, really liked how the concept of illusionary magic was done here; it was interesting and could easily be explored further in the series.  Although the tone is more adult, I don’t recall anything more than a bit of kissing.

However, the characters and plot were rather average.  I read this several months ago and can’t even remember all that much about it.  The heroine Jane was interesting enough, but I did not take to the hero at all, finding him at turns boring and confusing.

So, in short, I don’t plan on reading any more of the series.

Do you guys have any favorite Regency stories (of any genre!) to recommend?