& Review: The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye

The Crown's Game by Evelyn Skye. Publisher: May 2016 Balzer + Bray

The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye. Publisher: May 2016 Balzer + Bray

The Book Itself: I love the imposing architecture formed into a crown! And I like that it is slightly off-center. Overall, a very solid, intriguing cover.

My Review: Vika Andreyeva can summon the snow and turn ash into gold. Nikolai Karimov can see through walls and conjure bridges out of thin air. They are enchanters—the only two in Russia—and with the Ottoman Empire and the Kazakhs threatening, the Tsar needs a powerful enchanter by his side.

And so he initiates the Crown’s Game, an ancient duel of magical skill—the greatest test an enchanter will ever know. The victor becomes the Imperial Enchanter and the Tsar’s most respected adviser. The defeated is sentenced to death.

Raised on tiny Ovchinin Island her whole life, Vika is eager for the chance to show off her talent in the grand capital of Saint Petersburg. But can she kill another enchanter—even when his magic calls to her like nothing else ever has?

For Nikolai, an orphan, the Crown’s Game is the chance of a lifetime. But his deadly opponent is a force to be reckoned with—beautiful, whip smart, imaginative—and he can’t stop thinking about her.

And when Pasha, Nikolai’s best friend and heir to the throne, also starts to fall for the mysterious enchantress, Nikolai must defeat the girl they both love… or be killed himself.

As long-buried secrets emerge, threatening the future of the empire, it becomes dangerously clear… the Crown’s Game is not one to lose.

The Crown’s Game is trying to have aspects of Leigh Bardugo’s The Grisha Trilogy and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. The key word here is trying. Two magicians in a high stakes battle for who can make the most ooh-worthy attraction = The Night Circus. Quasi-Russian setting with just a few Russian vocabulary words thrown in there for color = The Grisha Trilogy. In theory, that would make one hell of a great story. In execution…it falls pretty flat.

Both The Grisha Trilogy and The Crown’s Game are about as Russian as beginners level Rosetta Stone: here are some words in Russian. Here is a description of a scene you might find in Russia. Here is some sort of real, sort of fictionalized Russian history. It tries to lend a spicy, frostbitten mystery to the novel, when really I just get confused. The island Vika grows up on kind of sound like the rural Michigan I saw when I visited my grandparents when I was little. St. Petersburg, where the competition takes place, sounds like any number of vaguely-European city – Amsterdam, maybe. Or even Venice. You could plop the characters in any place – America, Europe, even Asia, and it doesn’t seem like it would make a difference. The setting either needs to be much stronger, or much vaguer (if that makes sense).

As for this supposedly deadly competition: our protagonist’s hormones seem to trump the life-or-death stakes they find themselves in. Once they see each other, once they feel each other’s magic (which sounds vaguely dirty…), even their attempts to foul each other’s chances, their vague attempts at killing or even tripping each other up fall by the wayside. And honestly…I expected more out of the moves of the game. Most of their magic seemed kitschy and cheesy…kind of…fanciful rather than practical. Aren’t they competing to be the tsar’s Imperial Enchanter? Shouldn’t they be proving they can level whole armies, or protect an entire city from attack? Not dye-ing rivers rainbow colors and making a giant puppet show (the book’s excuse for this is that they are competing near the tsar-to-be’s birthday…so the moves are all themed as such. But I don’t know what ruler-to-be who would prefer water shows to a stronger militia to protect his rule).

I know, I know, I’m being a fuddy-duddy. The book is a good example of fantasy-lite. It’s pretty well-written, with good secondary characters and fun-if-not-very-impressive magic. It’s just that fun-magic books are different than life-at-stake magic books. From the premise, this should be a life-at-stake kind of magic. But more often than not it just seems frivolous.

The magic system itself seems shaky. Usually only one enchanter is born and the entirety of the world’s flow of magic is fed into one body. But in this generation we have two conduits for magic: Nikolai, who specializes in material magic, and Vika, with natural magic. It’s never truly explained why they can’t both exist. I think there’s a line in there about how the power cannot be divided, that it must be present in only one person. Again: why? What are the consequences? And what happens to the magic when one half dies? Does it just kind of…transfer into the other one? So that Nikolai can suddenly manipulate the natural world, or Vika can alter man-made materials?

And the magic just kind of happens. They close their eyes and think of something and it’s there. Sometimes it makes them tired. Sometimes it doesn’t. There’s no collection of ingredients for potions, there’s no real consequence to their doing magic. Nikolai makes himself a suit and Vika sets a forest on fire, nothing to it. It should be harder than this. But it’s not. And it bugs me.

There’s also a should-be-important side plot about a main character in one of our enchanter’s lives that ends on either a cliffhanger or goes nowhere…it’s hard to tell. Paternities and maternities are revealed and they are predictable and unsurprising. Overall, the book just doesn’t take anything seriously enough, and it could have been very, very good if it had.

My Grade: C-

& Review: Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. Publisher: Simon & Schuster April 2016

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. Publisher: Simon & Schuster April 2016

The Book Itself: Powerful and dramatic. Not only is the black rose backlit by a spotlight eerie on its own, but the font that the title is in already makes the title seem tongue in cheek – it’s blocky, in-your-face. This story isn’t literally about the luckiest girl in the world. It’s much darker than that.

My Review: Ani FaNelli is the woman you love to hate. The woman who has it all. But behind the meticulously crafted façade lies the darkest and most violent of pasts…

When a documentary producer invites Ani to tell her side of the chilling and violent incident that took place when she was a teenager, she hopes it will be an opportunity to prove how far she’s come since then. She’ll even let the production company film her wedding to the wealthy Luke Harrison, the final step in her transformation.

But as the wedding and filming converge, Ani’s immaculate façade begins to crack, and she soon realises that there’s always a price to pay for perfection.

I thought this book was going to be one, or a combination of two things: another privileged, rich girl story that would make me roll my eyes a lot, AND/OR a crime drama akin to an episode of Criminal Minds/NCIS/Law and Order, etc. where you get a mystery, a crime, and a certain amount of time to figure it out before it’s revealed to you.

And yes, this is a privileged rich girl story. TifAni is one of the most vapid, judgmental, morally horrible female characters I think I have ever read. But she is so unbelievably over-the-top in her thoughts and actions, unable to let a moment slip by where she doesn’t pass judgment on something or build herself up while tearing something else down, that it read like a parody. Knoll makes her insufferable from page one. She makes you hate everything about this TifAni FaNelli, from her bizarre name to her bitchy comments to coworkers and waitresses. And then she spends the rest of the novel unpacking what makes TifAni tick, and why she is so unbelievably awful. Okay, I thought, upon being introduced to our protagonist. Something’s up with this narrator. Let’s find out what it is. And I couldn’t stop reading after that.

A lot of people seem to hate Luckiest Girl Alive’s comparison to Gone Girl. I personally hate comparisons saying “this is the next Harry Potter!” or “this year’s To Kill a Mockingbird!” because books can and do stand apart from one another. They can be LIKE or SIMILAR TO Gone Girl or share traits with a trilogy or genre, but Gone Girl and Luckiest Girl Alive are completely different books. All they really share is a female narrator with a troubled past and psyche. The plot, the methods of telling the story, and the character motivations are completely different. And both, I think, are good in their own right.

Now that I’m off my soapbox: Luckiest Girl Alive gives you the world’s worst person, and then sifts through her past to find what made her this way. You still don’t necessarily like her by novel’s end, or feel that her past justifies her present day actions, but I think it’s an interesting character study.

There are two horrific events that form the foundation of TifAni’s terrible past. I think both are written well. Both are very sudden, very shocking, and very telling of the characters involved. If you read through other reviews, you’ll spoil both events for yourself. I’ll do my best not to reveal anything. While I think either event would do serious emotional damage to any person, let alone a young man or woman growing up, going through puberty, navigating high school, BOTH are just the perfect storm to royally screw someone up.

TifAni doesn’t have an overwhelming a-ha moment. There is no moment where she comes to terms with her traumatic past and sees the error of her ways. But by the novel’s end, I don’t expect her to. The TifAni FaNelli (every time I type that name is just looks more and more absurd) we come to know would not break down and apologize for everything she has ever done. She couldn’t possibly process everything that has happened and become Mother Teresa.  I wouldn’t say that I like TifAni FaNelli by the end. But I can begin to understand her a little better.

I will say that I thought there would be another side to the story. By that I mean that I thought there might be one more shocking twist at the end, revealing that TifAni was more at fault during the traumatic events than we realized. I kind of wished she was a more unreliable narrator, that there was another facet to her (yes, terrible) personality.

But I didn’t hate the book. I wouldn’t say it’s the next Gone Girl.  But it’s a compelling story that pulled me in. Maybe, just maybe, it had me rooting for the worst girl in the world by the end.

My Grade: C+

& Fridays: On Reading a Series #2: The Waiting Game

It’s a satisfying feeling: you finish a book – whether it’s one everyone has been talking about, or one a friend eagerly pressed into your hands, or just one with a pretty cover that you pulled off the shelf – and you LOVED it. You just know you’ll be thinking about the characters for weeks, and you cannot wait to see where things go next. You Google the series. You pull it up on Goodreads, eagerly clicking through the author’s profile only to see….you have a year to wait. Or worse: there isn’t even a date set!

And then you curl up into a ball and sob, because you loved it and now you have a book hangover and HOW ON EARTH WILL YOU BE ABLE TO READ ANYTHING ELSE? NOTHING CAN COMPARE!

Even if you don’t descend into that extreme of a despair spiral, your heart at least falls a little. For me, it’s not so much the waiting (well, sometimes it is…but there are so many other books to read!), but the realization that in a year, I will not remember all of the wonderful characters and details that made me like the first book. Even books I adore, I feel the need to re-read before I go out and get the second book. And when you get to the fourth book, the fifth book…with a year in between each release…that’s a lot of re-reading.

But I already did a post on re-reading for a series. How do you deal with the waiting game between sequels? Do you re-read the first one every few months to remind yourself of the book world you loved? Do you stalk fanfiction, fan art, ANYTHING to do with the book? Do you mildly stalk the author on social media?

And at some point, do you just get annoyed? I greatly respect the authors who can churn out a sequel to a book in a year. But sometimes the year turns into two…or three…or seven…and you start to go “WHERE’S MY SEQUEL?” and you start to run amok, terrorizing cities and breathing fire.

No? That’s just me when I’m hangry? Okay…

But let’s be honest – it sucks to wait a long time for something you really, really, really, really, really want. And you see the author blogging and you see a picture of them with their family and you go “WHY AREN’T YOU WRITING?!”

Well. Neil Gaiman wrote an apt blog entry on that very feeling. Titled “Entitlement Issues,” it boils down to this distinct though: “George R.R. Martin,” (or insert your beloved author here) “is not your bitch.”

Essentially, he writes that writers are *gasp* human, that they run into deadline issues and have to, you know, live their life. And despite the fact that they want to sell books to readers, they do not work for you individually. There’s no contract when you buy a book that the author now works for you, and must submit quality work to your liking by a certain time. You can find the article here:

http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2009/05/entitlement-issues.html

It’s a valid point, but not something everyone understands or even accepts. I’ve had my own share of exasperated sighing when I check for a book’s due date and see that there isn’t one yet. It’s frustrating, especially when the things you’ve been reading recently don’t hold up to the standard of that story/character/world. But hey: do you want to read half-hearted crap from your beloved author, or a well-crafted, well though over book that you love more than the first?

The latter, I think. It’s just hard to play the waiting game.

&Review: All Stories are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer

All Stories are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer. Publisher: Harper March 2016

All Stories are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer. Publisher: Harper March 2016

The Book Itself: Again, another simple cover. The heartbeat monitor in the background is nice, but not enough to really set this cover apart.

My Review: In this thoughtful, mesmerizing tale with echoes of Station Eleven, the author of An Uncommon Education follows a group of survivors thrown together in the aftermath of two major earthquakes that strike San Francisco within an hour of each other—an achingly beautiful and lyrical novel about the power of nature, the resilience of the human spirit, and the enduring strength of love.

On Valentine’s Day, two major earthquakes strike San Francisco within the same hour, devastating the city and its primary entry points, sparking fires throughout, and leaving its residents without power, gas, or water.

Among the disparate survivors whose fates will become intertwined are Max, a man who began the day with birthday celebrations tinged with regret; Vashti, a young woman who has already buried three of the people she loved most . . . but cannot forget Max, the one man who got away; and Gene, a Stanford geologist who knows far too much about the terrifying earthquakes that have damaged this beautiful city and irrevocably changed the course of their lives.

As day turns to night and fires burn across the city, Max and Vashti—trapped beneath the rubble of the collapsed Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium—must confront each other and face the truth about their past, while Gene embarks on a frantic search through the realization of his worst nightmares to find his way back to his ailing lover and their home.

I picked up this book on a whim: I really liked the title. As I read it, it dawned on me that I was reading about a fictional (though very possible) devastating earthquake that cripples San Francisco….about a week after my best friend and I purchased show tickets and started planning a long weekend in San Francisco for this fall…

Maybe not my best idea. I’m not freaking out and cancelling reservations or anything, but the book does offer a sobering snapshot of a disaster zone, and the very human moments that occur amidst the chaos.

I cannot offer any insight into the scientific or political accuracy of the events that happen in All Stories Are Love Stories. But everything unfolds much the way you’d expect in a disaster film or scary speculative fiction: you get to know the characters, brief snippets of their backstories, their relationships with their families and loved ones, their actions as they move through their last day before the earthquakes. And then disaster strikes and even though you knew it was going to happen – the earthquakes are clearly outlined in the novel’s synopsis – the scenes that unfold afterward are still heartbreaking and even horrifying at times.

And yet…I’m still a bit ambivalent about the whole thing. I tend to be this way about books and movies created solely, it seems, to elicit an emotional response: all they want to do is make you sad. I sound like a heartless robot now, but there is just something…almost manipulative about a tear-jerker. Sometimes they sacrifice true character or plot development for another emotional twist. I particularly dislike Nicolas Sparks’ books and movies for this very reason. Although All Stories are Love Stories is no Nicolas Sparks: it is better written and has a speculative, human interest bent to it.

Max and Vashti had a beautiful, tragic love together in their past. The reason they broke up, and what each of them did while they were apart is a heartbreaking study of love in and of itself. When they are trapped beneath rubble post-earthquake, they are forced to unpack their feelings about what happen. You do root for them, and their situation is so wrought with conflict that you’re not sure how you would have handled it either.

Gene is a geologist stumbling home to get to his ailing partner post-quakes. He more or less knew these quakes were coming, and soon, and the guilt he feels about that and his fear for those around him make him an interesting character to follow. It is smart for Percer to include him as a character because 1) he brings insight to the earthquakes and the aftermath they wreck on a city like San Francisco. I might not be able to understand some of the science, but a character who can put it into layman’s terms is a good voice to have in the novel, and 2) even I would have become very bored if all of the novel’s action was trapped beneath the rubble with Max and Vashti.

There is also a rather confusing side story involving kids from a children’s choir that Max directs, and a nun and priest from an unusual religious order. The book alternates between these three perspectives, and I definitely think the kids/nun/priest perspective is the weakest. Overall the scenes involving them are confusing – I often lost track of who was speaking – and I thought the other two perspectives were much more compelling.

The pace also kind of lagged for me as well. I don’t think it was a bad book, or a bad story at all. In fact, most of the writing was quite beautiful, and the stories of the characters involved were certainly sad and complex. I’m just not sure this was quite my cup of tea. I would recommend it for those of you who like a good, emotionally-wrought story, though. A final twist at the end really sucker punches you in the heart. Even a stone-cold, robotic heart like mine, apparently 😉

My Grade: C+

& Fridays: On Reading a Series: To Re-Read or Not to Re-Read…

I have been musing on many things having to do with reading book series lately, so I thought I would write a few Friday posts on the subject matter. There are four posts planned so far, but if something you say or something I think of sparks an idea, this could continue!

I have spent a lot of time re-reading this year. All because I read the first book in a series when it first came out. In hardcover, in paperback, in an advanced reader’s copy, etc. The premise intrigued be and I picked it up and I loved it.

And then a year goes by. The sequel comes out. And more often than not, I feel like I have to re-read the first book in the series in order to fully appreciate/understand the goings on in the second book. I often decide this before I even crack the cover on the second book. I read the synopsis, think something like Uhhhh…I don’t remember who that character is, or Wait, that happened in the first book?!

And so I re-read the first book. This is both good and bad. Good because I clearly liked the book enough to get the sequel, so I know most likely I will enjoy it the second read through. Bad because re-reads take time! Time I could be reading other books, or reading the shiny new one on my shelf!

I know, I know. Bookworm problems. Sounds tough, feel sorry for me, etc. But I suffer from a little reader’s guilt if I DON’T re-read a first installment before its sequel. It freshens up the world that the novel is set in, re-familiarizes me with its characters, and sometimes I am still surprised by events and plot points.

Or maybe I just have a HORRIBLE memory for these things. What about you? Do you feel the need/desire to read the first book before you crack the spine on the second? Are there books you can re-read forever and never get tired of them?

&Review: The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney. Publisher: Ecco March 2016

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. Publisher: Ecco March 2016

The Book Itself: A very posh cover – quilted details, monogrammed “P’s” for the Plumb family, the title in what should be a coat of arms. Definitely brings to mind a pedigreed family. Fitting for the story.

My Review: Every family has its problems. But even among the most troubled, the Plumb family stands out as spectacularly dysfunctional. Years of simmering tensions finally reach a breaking point on an unseasonably cold afternoon in New York City as Melody, Beatrice, and Jack Plumb gather to confront their charismatic and reckless older brother, Leo, freshly released from rehab. Months earlier, an inebriated Leo got behind the wheel of a car with a nineteen-year-old waitress as his passenger. The ensuing accident has endangered the Plumbs joint trust fund, “The Nest,” which they are months away from finally receiving. Meant by their deceased father to be a modest mid-life supplement, the Plumb siblings have watched The Nest’s value soar along with the stock market and have been counting on the money to solve a number of self-inflicted problems.

Melody, a wife and mother in an upscale suburb, has an unwieldy mortgage and looming college tuition for her twin teenage daughters. Jack, an antiques dealer, has secretly borrowed against the beach cottage he shares with his husband, Walker, to keep his store open. And Bea, a once-promising short-story writer, just can’t seem to finish her overdue novel. Can Leo rescue his siblings and, by extension, the people they love? Or will everyone need to reimagine the future they’ve envisioned? Brought together as never before, Leo, Melody, Jack, and Beatrice must grapple with old resentments, present-day truths, and the significant emotional and financial toll of the accident, as well as finally acknowledge the choices they have made in their own lives.

This is a story about the power of family, the possibilities of friendship, the ways we depend upon one another and the ways we let one another down. In this tender, entertaining, and deftly written debut, Sweeney brings a remarkable cast of characters to life to illuminate what money does to relationships, what happens to our ambitions over the course of time, and the fraught yet unbreakable ties we share with those we love.

I almost didn’t read The Nest. I was worried that it would be another piece about entitled kids from rich parents at the moments that they realized their lives aren’t set in stone for all eternity. I fell a little bit in cover love with the book, and it was everywhere you looked: on TV, in magazines, on giant posters at the bookstore…

So I gave it a whirl. And while it wasn’t as vacuous and superficial as I feared it would be, it did not stray too far from that often-used trope.

We meet the Plumbs – Leo, Jack, Beatrice, and Melody – I had to look up all of their names again, because there are some plot stumbling blocks that makes the story not about them, but also about the effect they have on other people. This sounds like a good thing, but it also lessens the insight we get into each of the Plumb siblings, who all need more development at the story’s close.

In addition to the Plumbs, we get a grieving widower with a 9/11 connection, one or both of Melody’s twin daughters, occasionally one of the sibling’s romantic partners, and most significantly, Stephanie, Leo’s former flame/perhaps only friend. These perspectives narrate chapters in between the Plumb’s narrations, and it gets distracting. In fact, I could almost say that the story is more about Stephanie than about the Plumb siblings. The book ends on such a strong, life-altering note having to do with Stephanie, that I’m kind of reeling, thinking what did I just read? Is this about the Plumbs, or about the people who know the Plumbs?

The Nest is almost a side-plot. I don’t think we know with absolute certainty what really happens with the money still in the fund. What we really watch is the Plumbs digging themselves more and more into their perspective holes – financially, emotionally, relationship-wise, work-wise, and family-dynamic-wise. And it can be kind of fun/terrible to watch. You know, in the way a crash on the highway causes traffic because everyone is rubber-necking: it’s obnoxious when you’re in the traffic because you’re trying to get where you’re going. But you inevitably rubber-neck too.

The Plumbs are almost universally selfish, naïve, and nearly blind to their own faults while pointing out the faults of others (especially their siblings). The writing is very well done, with chapters zipping by, plot twists carefully laid out, and emotional punches around surprising corners. A dinner party at which the reality of The Nest is revealed to all characters not still in the know is particularly well structured and paced.

But I could eliminate almost all the other chapters from other characters and probably like the novel more, if the extra time were spent on developing and growing the main quartet of Plumbs. By novel’s end, none of them seem to have learned a whole heckuva lot. Leo is perhaps the most deplorable, but I’m not about to spoil anything.

It’s a fast-paced can’t-look-away kind of novel, but we don’t get particularly rounded characters, or even a bottom line on the book’s namesake by story’s end. It’s good, quick summer reading though.

My Grade: C+

& Fridays: To-Be-Read Pile: How Much is Too Much?

I read an awful lot. It feels strange and off-putting if I go an entire day without reading a few chapters. This means that I buy/borrow/rent books quite often. I buy/borrow/rent to the point that I finish off one book, and I have bought three or four to take its place. I’m not terrific at math, but if I read one and get three more…that’s not a good ratio for polishing off my “to-be-read” pile anytime soon…

When I got the new bookcases in my room, I designated two lower shelves on the biggest bookcase for my “to-be-read” books. I told myself that I would stick to these two shelves, and no more. If the shelves were full, I would simply read a few books before I bought new ones.

Ah, youth (this was about a year ago…)

How naïve I was…seeing as not only are those two shelves full, but now I have stacks of new books in front of the older ones, so that I can’t even see the books originally on the to-be-read shelf! It’s a sickness, I tell you. A wonderful sickness. But still, it’s getting a little out of control.

So now I’m going to actively try to clear up the shelves a little bit. I intend to read four books before I allow myself to buy a single new one.

Now, I will (rather unfairly) not count Uppercase Box or Owl Crate books. I’ll be getting both book subscription boxes for the next few months, and they give me a new hardcover release each.  I’m justifying this by saying who knows if I will have read four new books by the time I get these new ones, and I am not going out and choosing these ones – they’re coming to me!

I know, I know, it’s a lame excuse. But if I’m now limiting my book buying and borrowing to once or twice a month, I have to be a little lenient with myself…

And there are a couple of book releases I have already penciled into my planner (yep, still have a paper planner – I’m in love with it, don’t judge) that I am tempted to not include in this 1 book for 4 rule. For example, the fourth book in the Gentleman Bastards series comes out a little more than a week before the published script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is released. And in August, new installments for two different series I read come out: Tana French’s new Dublin Murder Squad mystery, and the sequel to An Ember in the Ashes. SO MANY BOOKS, SO LITTLE TIME!

But maybe it won’t even be an issue in August. Maybe I will speed read through so much of my to-be-read shelves that buying new ones isn’t that much of an issue.

Ah, there’s that youthful naivety again…

Anyway! Are your to-be-read piles climbing to the ceiling? Are they stacked three deep on your shelves? Are you quite buried under all of the books you fell in love with in the store/library? I ask because I genuinely want to know, but also to reassure myself that I’m not the only one 😛