Month: May 2015

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

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*I received a copy of Uprooted through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.

Agnieszka (pronounced Ag-nee-esh-ka) is a young woman growing up at the edge of the Wood. Her family is industrious, and, by and large, they lead a normal life. Their town is small, but tightly knit. Her best friend, Kasia lives only a few houses away. It would be idyllic, if the Dragon, a wizard with dominion over their valley, didn’t take away young women of the valley for years at a time. When they return, they all leave the valley for good.

Agnieszka and her family has never been too worried about the Dragon. He takes girls who are beautiful, special. He takes girls like Kasia. Except this time. This time, for reasons they can’t figure, he has chosen plain, normal, woefully wild Agnieszka. The Dragon and Agnieszka are stuck together. What’s worse: the Wood is coming closer. Reminiscent of stories like Baba Yaga and the Brothers Grimm, Novik’s story features some vivid scenery and lots of fast-paced action.

The story is told in a first-person narrative from Agnieszka’s perspective. She’s a classic protagonist: young, empathetic, overly impulsive. The Dragon, her “captor,” is a brooding, impatient multi-centuries old wizard. He’s exacting. This kind of sucks for Agnieszka for a number of reasons. She’s not used to the prim and proper lifestyle and isn’t a very quick learner. I liked them both, typical though they may be.

I thought that the story was going to be an escape tale: young girl gets captured, uses her cunning and will to defeat the bad guy and escape.

I was wrong.

Definitely more menacing is the Wood in the valley. The Wood is dark, enchanted, and if you go in, you come out contaminated. The Wood’s victims become agents for its evil. The Wood is slowly edging further and further into the valley. The only thing keeping it in place is the Dragon.

Agnieszka begins to learn from the Dragon. I liked the conflict between the Dragon’s instructive style and Agnieszka’s learning style. The Dragon is a classic instructor. The instructions are clear and to be followed to the letter. Agnieszka, however, is clearly not a classic student. She thrives on experimentation and is an intuitive person. This was appealing because it echos conflicts I’ve seen throughout my life. And some of the exasperation and frustration that goes in hand with it struck me as being pretty true to life.

The dynamic between the two of them was a bit off-putting at times. There’s a romantic undertone in a lot of their interactions. For me, it’s tiring to see a romance of this sort. It’s really just my own personal pet peeve, because I have always had male mentors and these stories don’t really get at the heart of a teacher-student relationship the way I’d like. Fortunately, I really didn’t think that it took up too much time in the story. The romance was far from the main plot point.

Agnieszka gets herself into a lot of trouble. She doesn’t always think things out before she acts. I was glad to see Novik didn’t let her out of these problems too easily. I was, however, a bit disappointed that she was, by and large, successful. I would have liked to see Agnieszka struggle more and lose more of her fights.

The descriptions are vivid, and they are very visual. I enjoyed that aspect of the storytelling. The plot was fun. I liked a lot of the battles and the imagery that Novik uses to show them to us. It wasn’t always the most unique in storylines, but was handled fairly well. My only complaint on that front is that there were about four potential stopping points and so some of the final scenes lost their impact for me.

Overall, it was an enjoyable story and a fun twist on the fairytale retelling subgenre.

You can check out the book on Goodreads: http://bit.ly/1PQEN87

or on Amazon: Uprooted

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Review: The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

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The Girl in the Road is a story about two people crossing continents, both running from circumstances in their life that are intolerable and unexplainable.  We meet Meena, a young woman on the run from a group she believes is meaning to kill her. Meena has barely escaped an attack by a snake that left bloody, infected wounds on her chest. Meena is forced to run for her life from Mumbai to Djibouti across the Trail, a turbulent floating power source that will take her, alone and on foot, across the open ocean. Miles and decades away, a girl named Mariama, hides away in a caravan destined for Ethiopia. She says that she is an orphan, but regardless of the truth of the statement, she is alone and on the run from something. She is taken in by a group of transport men and a woman named Yemaya.

The stories are intentionally ambiguous and unreliable. Meena is being followed by a barefooted girl who seems to grow wings. Mariama is a lonely little girl with a clear obsession and a dark past. No one is really reliable and the characters are meant to be very unsettling. Perhaps the most successful part of the novel, Byrne creates two distinct and equally disturbing but likeable characters.

The setting is unique. It takes place primarily in India and North Africa both during and post-worldwide flooding. The world’s population is out of control, and everything seems vaguely cataclysmic. I enjoyed that the world wasn’t focused necessarily on what we would currently consider to be developed areas. I thought in this way it offered a different and interesting perspective. The world was very heavily Indian influenced, a likely course considering population growth, the economic region, and the countries that would have technological capabilities for the kind and scale of renewable energy project that the plot uses.

I really liked the way the storylines came together. It was very subtly done and not how I initially expected they would.

The story overall is dark. It’s not the kind of story that is going to have a happy ending, but Byrne makes that pretty clear from the beginning. As we learn more about each character’s past, the story gets more and more sobering. I do wish that there had been a bit more meat to the characters’ pasts, but they were fairly detailed and the growth throughout the story was distinct. Similarly, I wish there had been a bit more to the resolution of the story, but I understand the thought process behind the ending.

It was definitely a good read. The Girl in the Road blends science fiction and fantasy beautifully.

I received a copy of The Girl in the Road for free in exchange for an honest review.

Mini Spotlights on Graphic Novels

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The Death-Defying Dr. Mirage

The Death-Defying Dr. Mirage by Jan van Meter and Robert de la Torre is a fantastic story. Dr. Mirage is a parapsychologist. She helps people connect with the spirits of their lost loved ones and can cross over, when necessary, to the world of the dead. She’s been hiding out since her husband’s death. He’s the one spirit she cannot speak to.

Things that rock about The Death-Defying Dr. Mirage:

I want to say everything, but let’s be more specific. There’s some really fun artwork with great attention to detail. In the trade, they talk about the lettering process, the way that the lettering is presented. The very deliberate choices that are used are apparent and really help to set the tone. The coloring in dynamic and entertaining. AND Dr. Mirage is awesome. She’s complicated, constantly growing, and a fascinating character. The plot was pretty heart breaking, but man it was worth it.

Rat Queens Volume 2: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N’Rygoth*

Oh, Rat Queens, how I love thee. Rat Queens, vol. 1 is fantastically funny, blending some of the best parts of fantasy, D&D and girl power. It’s drawn beautifully and has a fantastic sense of humor. Volume 2 is no less fantastic. It shines a light on the backstories of our heroines (I’m using the term liberally) and manages to still retain humor and a new extension of the plot. INCLUDING GIANT SQUID!

Just. Do. It. You’ll thank me.

Low Volume 1: The Delirium of Hope*

This one admittedly wasn’t my favorite. It’s a far future story. Humanity has moved under the sea and there is huge conflict. It revolves around one family that has the power to move the underwater ships humanity is living in. I’m not really sure why it didn’t click with me. It’s got some fun dialogue and great, colorful, and scenic illustrations. I’m guessing it was just a mood problem. I’m going to revisit it and will update later.

*I received marked titles from Netgalley for free in exchange for an honest review

Let’s Talk: When I shop at Amazon

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So, this is an interesting topic. The world is all abuzz about Amazon, indie shops, and the death of the library. Of course, I have two cents.

I want to start out by being very clear: I love the library. I love my local indie books and comics shops. I also love Amazon.

Libraries

I worked at a library for four years as a tutor and instructor. I understand that libraries are vital to the system. They provide services to so many who truly need them. The truth is that computers and internet access are not universal. Calm environments aren’t universal. Educational aid isn’t universal. With the library those things can be. I don’t go to the library because I’m scared that it will cease to exist. Frankly, I’m less concerned about a book-filled building being shut down than I am about the community services that libraries play a vital role in providing no longer being available. I use my library for a bunch of different reasons. Not the least of those is that I don’t have the funds to constantly be buying every book I want to read, especially for series that have huge backlogs and that I may simply not enjoy.

As a side note, for those of you who are concerned about the library disappearing, go there. Library funding isn’t necessarily based on the number of books checked out. A big factor is in service use and foot traffic. You’re helping just by going in and sitting down in the library’s quiet environment. Stats track the number of people coming into the building. That in and of itself is vital.

My local indies

I try and make a point of going to my indies, both the books and comics stores. There are a number of reasons for this, but mostly I just can’t imagine not having them. I can’t imagine a world where I have to resort to simple computer algorithms (however good they may be) for my book and comics recs. I love the feeling of walking into a bookstore and smelling the books, especially when the building is slightly cramped and crowded, filled to the brim with books. I love the people who frequent them. I can’t imagine not having those available.

Unfortunately, I can’t afford to always shop there. I try and go on payday, but I can’t go constantly.

So, my rule of thumb: use Amazon or the library for testing out series, go to the indie to read the rest of it. By and large, my expenses on a single series are going to be high. If I love it, I’ll stick with it for a long time, even if the story drags or starts to sour. But, I try out a lot of series. This lets me (1) test out books at a lower cost, and (2) concentrate a lot of my consistent purchases on places I love to visit.

Books and comics I love and never would have read if it weren’t for my indies:

Amazon

This leads us to the beast. Amazon has a big role to play in the books industry. It has the capacity and presence to lap my indies like no one else. While I always will want my brick and mortar store, I shop at Amazon a lot.

Amazon is able to provide some super cheap prices. This is often seen as a big threat to bookstores. This is only sometimes true. Does the current ease of access make me occasionally less likely to buy in store? yes.

However,Amazon’s presence also allows a lot of my local indies, especially ones with a specialty market (for instance in classics or antiques) to supplement their own income. Amazon owns The Book Depository, AbeBooks, and a variety of  other marketplaces where they can list products that aren’t selling in store. My local shop has a lot of signed books. I’m not going to buy a signed Heinlein, but there’s a guy in Massachusetts who will. If the presence and utilization of Amazon and its subsidiaries allows them to sell specialty products and stay in business, I’m all for it.

On top of that, with the option to buy from vendors other than Amazon, I know that I can spread the love around. Is Amazon a great company? Maybe, maybe not.Yes there are some ethically questionable stuff, but they also (1) fulfill some of my needs as a consumer, and (2) feed into my book purchasing overall. In combination with my Rule of Thumb, I think it tends to actually lead me to purchase more in store.

Amazon also provides a service for people whose libraries or bookstores maybe far away. It takes over 5 hours to get to a bookstore that sells anything other than the top best sellers where my parents live and their library is very limited, with long waits and shipping times. Amazon there fills a very important role.

Anyways, just some thoughts. They’re not terribly elegant, but there you have it.

 

Review: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

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Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook follows Myfanwy Thomas, a woman with extraordinary power. She’s risen to one of the highest positions in an organization of similarly talented people. The Chequy, pronounced Shek-eh, is a group of people with super-human powers defending the United Kingdom from monsters that lurk in the night. Myfanwy Thomas is a Rook, a leader in domestic affairs. She’s utterly competent, highly organized, and has absolutely no clue who she is. Guided only by letters from her pre-amnesiac self and the knowledge that someone wants her out of the picture, Myfanwy has to infiltrate her own life in order to survive. O’Malley’s story blends corporate intrigue, spy novels, and moster madness in a captivating and utterly enjoyable way.

The story is split between two narrative voices: the pre-amnesiac Myfanwy (Let’s just call her PAM for simplicity’s sake), who talks to us and her present self in letters, and the post-amnesiac Myfanwy, who speaks in a more traditional narrative. This was one of my favorite parts of the book. At first, I was very hesitant about the split. I was afraid that the voices would blend together or that Myfanwy would have too much access to information and, thus, wouldn’t actually be in the dark about what was happening.

My fears were totally unnecessary. O’Malley works with two very distinct voices. PAM is organized, to the point, and as her doom comes, increasingly frantic. Myfanwy is powerful, emotional, and more unreserved in her manner of speaking. Though PAM is very prepared and has provided some very detailed information for Myfanwy, Myfanwy is left to do all of the deductive reasoning on her own.

The plot is fast-paced. There is a lot of intrigue and a lot of monsters. Vampires, mutants, and genetically engineered humans galore. Much of the story can seem abrupt, as though one thing after another is constantly happening, but I thought this was actually pleasantly reflective of the inevitable sense of chaos in Myfanwy’s story. She’s discovering much of her world at the same time the reader is and, as a result, we’re both in the dark at times.

I do wish that there had been more foreshadowing and that we’d seen Myfanwy draw her conclusions more. There’s a bit of a surprise element every time she figures something out. She’ll announce what she’s found and instead of seeing her draw the connections, she explains to us what they are. I thought that was perhaps the weakest point of the story.

There’s also a bit of a monster-of-the-moment feel to some of the organizations interactions.

Overall, though, it was a lot of fun. I thought the characters were likeable and the execution pretty well done. I’d give it a 3.75.

Even better, the sequel, Stiletto: A Novel, is out next year.

Mini Spotlights on Graphic Novels

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Rat Queens, vol. 1

Rat Queens is pretty epic. It follows the (mis)adventures of the Rat Queens, a questing group composed of D&D esq classes of rogues. This all girl gang gets in trouble repeatedly. A combination of risk taking, self destructive habits, and collusion means they’re destined for trouble. And now, it’s found them and won’t rest until the Rat Queens are gone.

This was described to me as Kevin Smith meets D&D meets girl power. I think it’s even better.

The art is compelling and the story rocks. There’s a fantastic sense of humor throughout the entire thing. Despite its light-hearted approach, Rat Queens also tackles some more serious interpersonal issues and builds some fairly complex characters pretty quickly. I’m glad I picked this up this month, because vol. 2 is out in trade on the 19th. I don’t think I could have waited much longer.

The Fade Out, vol. 1

And now for something totally different (though still pretty good).

The Fade Out is a classic Hollywood noir type story with a fantastic sense of chaos. It blends classic story tropes with a more realistic approach to the types of struggles people deal with. The art is dark and emphasizes the story’s plot. I loved the look at the politics of the 40s and 50s in Hollywood. It wasn’t always overly fast paced and it’s not very funny (though it has its moments), but overall I was pretty please. Three for you, Ed Brubaker, you go Ed Brubaker (though I think it actually ranks higher than a 3/5)