Saturday, 7 April 2018

The Miniaturist

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Book Title: The Miniaturist
Author: Jessie Burton
Date Started: April 1st 2018
Date Completed: April 7th 2018
Genres: Historical, Mystery, Adult
Quality Rating: Five Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Five Stars
Final Rating: Five stars
Review:

It's rare you find a book with a story so compelling; that unfolds so naturally as if it isn't written at all. To then find that it has beautiful writing as well is even rarer. I thoroughly enjoyed The Miniaturist, even having watched the BBC adaptation so I already knew the story.

For me, this is diverse historical fiction. It's how you write a feminist story (that features varying minorities) that is still accurate to the time period and society it's set in. The history of Amsterdam is so interesting, and even without being a primary focus I feel like I learnt a lot about general everyday life, especially about the kinds of people that aren't recorded in history.

Nella is an interesting protagonist because she begins entirely believing in how she's been raised. She has such clear expectations and anticipation for what she'll have to endure, and suddenly she's thrown into a whole different game and has to tread water herself. So often these days I find myself seeing character arcs that are simply triumphing over evil instead of personal development. But through experience, hard learning and actively starting to make decisions when she thought she couldn't, Nella completely transforms.

The book is just as enjoyable as the show - and as accessible too. It's a very faithful adaptation but I felt like I was discovering it all over again. I'm quite glad I read it after watching the show since I knew to pay attention to the slow-burning plot and have the patience for the politics. That being said, it's all so engaging regardless of your historical knowledge that I would've loved it anyway.

Friday, 30 March 2018

East

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Book Title: East
Author: Edith Pattou
Series: East #1
Date Started: March 27th 2018
Date Completed: March 30th 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, Adventure, Historical
Quality Rating: Four Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Five Stars
Final Rating: Five stars
Review:


It's very weird timing that I decided to reread East (or North Child, as I read it). I just felt like reliving something I loved in my childhood, only to get halfway through, have a look on GoodReads and see that it has a sequel coming out in a few months. Ended out working quite well - the only problem is I want West now.

It's my kind of fairytale retelling; faithful to the original but with its own kicks for a modern sense of society and politics. Of course Rose drives that, but the themes are suited for a more recent audience. The book is based on the fairytale East of the Sun and West of the Moon, a Norweigan folktale that some might compare to Beauty and the Beast, though it deals with quite a different set of themes and ideas. While the French fairytale is more focused on things like purity and love overcoming the animal instinct and beastly aggression, East of the Sun and West of the Moon explores things like unspoken loyalty, trust and determination.

This is a beautifully period-centric piece. It tells the story as you'd imagine it in the traditional fairytale, but it's still universal and timeless in its themes and storyline. I can't speak for how accurate its representations are, but it makes me want to find out more about the various cultures featured, especially at this time in history. The fact that such a fantastical story is grounded in history is really interesting (I'm not sure if it is so in the original fairytale or not); it somehow makes the events grander. Really, it's a love letter to historic voyages; mapmaking, hiking, apprentices, royal families, humans are the mercy of a greater being are all tied in. It's not hard to see why I loved it so much as a child: it's everything the great explorer I wished I was could need.

Rose embodies the ambiguous heroine from the traditional fairytale but has her own dramatic agency. I think that's ultimately what a fairytale retelling should do (or at least if they're trying to stay true to the original - I understand modern adaptations have a whole different set of rules to deal with), and Pattou aims for a feminist twist with her protagonist's unrelenting determination. There were times when I started to get analytical about her characterisation - a scriptwriter at heart, that's me - but actually I was always impressed. Rose actively solves the problems given to her, and her companions give her aid but never save her - only the white bear goes for the protection of Rose herself in the climax. I like that, and I think for younger readers it's especially empowering: anyone can put their chin up and try to make things better, even if you're scared and you have help and you don't totally suceed. It's the trying that counts.

East is a brilliant book for younger readers, maybe on the cusp of moving over from children's/middle grade, and can be enjoyed by any age group. It's a case study for fairytale retellings, and an example of solid feminist representation without making your character a caricature. I look forward to reading it's newly announced sequel and rejoining Rose and her white bear.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Dark Days

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Book Title: Dark Days
Author: Derek Landy
Series: Skulduggery Pleasant #4
Date Started: March 25th 2018
Date Completed: March 27th 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Mystery, Adventure, Thriller, Action, Horror
Quality Rating: Five Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Four Stars
Final Rating: Five stars
Review:


Get ready for the darkness to set in, because this is where Skulduggery Pleasant gets grim. For about two minutes and then someone cracks a joke and you have to try not to grin because it's really not appropriate, I mean someone's probably just died horribly. But damnit, those wise cracks are good. This is probably one of the grimmer instalments of the series; despite what happens later on, the characters are still getting used to each other (even four books/years in) so the drama sits a little heavier. It's still a lot of fun. Even if people do die horribly.

I noticed with The Faceless One how the action started to ramp up, and in Dark Days it's the politics that's kicked up a notch. When I was younger I loved it for worldbuilding and I've always been interested in how people interact and run things, but now that I'm older I properly appreciate the amount of skill that goes into that kind of detail. By the way, this book is 8 years old as I write this. Eight. And I understood everything that happens back when I first read it, even if I didn't fully comprehend its implications. These books have complicated worlds, complicated systems, complicated characters, and I understood it. If that isn't high praise for Derek, I don't know what is. (I mean, he's probably not satisfied until you're bowing before him, but hey I've been here for a while Derek, this is what you get.)

I always remember being smug that, having collected the hardbacks up to Mortal Coil without reading them yet (the fate of all my books when I was a kid), when The Faceless Ones ended on its cliffhanger I didn't have to wait a year. I went straight from the last page to the first of this one. And yet, even without that waiting anticipation (both then and now) I still feel my heart rate raising a little bit as Val goes through that portal. I'm also still amazed that they manage to rescue Skulduggery [spoilers, but if you hadn't guessed they get him back in a nine book series where he's the titular character, there's no hope for you] and still have a fully fledged plot in itself. You get a satisfying payoff and a good old-fashioned mystery adventure all rolled into one, not to mention all the clues about where the series is going.

Derek has said that the Skulduggery books are essentially three trilogies, each against a different enemy. First there are the Faceless Ones, from here until the end of Death Bringer it's the Remnants, and then you have Darquesse for the final three. Looking at it from a scriptwriting perspective, the structure is on it to the T; it's so carefully orchestrated and it's only really now going back and reading the series in full that I can see how much Derek had planned from the start. I would never have noticed it on the first reading, but he plants just what you need before you need it, so when something it revealed details fall into place like a puzzle. That's how you write satisfying mysteries and series with tangible payoffs. You scheme like Derek and laugh at your readers' pain. Or, failing that, you learn how to plan ahead.

It's even in the characters. There's foreshadowing sprinkled everywhere; from their abilities to what their fates will be. Again, from a theory perspective, but knowing what your characters' motivations and wants make them so much more developed and real. Their arcs are maintained, and there's tension. They don't just conveniently have feelings or reactions as they go on, they're built on hard action and events. So much of the time you get authors who know what story they want, but can't make their characters match up. Which implies that they don't fit together in the first place. You also get used to having one character, or one relationship dominate the story, whether it fits with logic or not. Not here. Skulduggery and Val are the main duo, sure, but we follow other people and other stories in between the main plotline. There are other forces that influence the progress of the story.

And Valkyrie has tangible connections with people other than her partner in crime: Tanith, Fletcher, Ghastly, Wreath, China, not to mention the unique dynamics between recurring villains, new villains, the various Sanctuary agents that have varying degrees of dislike for her. Oh yeah, and Val can be dislikeable. She can be incredibly loveable too, and you root for her, but she's not a polite, perfect, even necessarily sociable human being. she's a real person and sometimes she's rude or makes bad choices or puts herself before others. Guess what, people (and, shock horror, women) do that. They aren't always likeable. They can still be developed characters, and you can still root for them.

What can I say that I haven't already gushed about in every review? I loved it, as always. I could sit down for a week and read all of them one after another, but alas I have to be a functioning adult. It's a shame, really.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

City of Brass

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Book Title: City of Brass
Author: S.A. Chakraborty
Series: The Daevabad Trilogy #1
Date Started: March 19th 2018
Date Completed: March 25th 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, Historical
Quality Rating: Three Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Four Star
Final Rating: Three stars
Review:

◆ Thanks to Netgalley for this ebook for review ◆

I was having a whale of a time reading City of Brass to begin with, but then it had some wobbles at the midpoint, and by the end I just didn't care. I'm not quite sure what I was supposed to get from reading it since it ended up just being set-up. In all fairness, the rest of the trilogy will probably be great. I'm just tired of saying that for every other book since I've been doing that for about three or four years now.

The idea of Egyptian/Arabian myth/folklore was what really pulled me to this book. I grew up obsessed with ancient Egypt and I'm still a history nerd to this day. Ultimately, the fairytales are only really there for the setting and political system. It could've been any sort of mythology put into those brackets. I wanted to learn specifically about this group of myths, this ancient culture. I don't know if it could've been more visceral descriptions or just the myths being a greater part of the story, but I wanted more. Much more.

As much as Nahri was a great character, she spends a whole lot of her time being led along instead of acting herself, and even more time telling the boys to stop fawning over/protecting her. I'm all for showing women being rebellious against men's expectations but when it takes over a character's plot it's not saying anything anymore. Again, this was mainly a problem because the story was being dragged out so that it could span multiple books. The only action really left was the melodrama.

Which brings me to the two problems with this book, both of which have the cliche of trilogies to blame: first, there's no structure past the midpoint, and then it doesn't deliver on the story that it's promised the reader at the start. We open with the traditional 'chosen one living in ignorance' and proceed to them accidentally discovering their heritage/magic/talents, and thus the adventure begins. Jumping to Daevabad to establish the worldbuilding, politics and other characters was a good call, but it's all pretty familiar. Protagonists being chased; there's a rebellion brewing; political intrigue and alliances being conflicted. You can see what's been promised to the reader already. But you get to the midpoint and suddenly, woah, we're going too fast, we got two more books to fill. The pace disintegrates and we get 250 pages of bickering and wandering around the city. It's engaging, yes, but my expectations have been set up and it now feels like I'm being strung along. I can count at least (at least) three plots that were executed like the main storyline then just disappeared. I'm sure they'll be back full-force in future books, but it left nothing for this book. I really want publishers to learn that I want to enjoy each book, regardless of if it's in a series. I want a story that is more than welcome to be part of something better - but I want a full story please. This book could've established what it needed to and wrapped up at least some things easily. Instead, it started at a normal pace and then did a counter turn before it gave too much away, and that's sad.

I feel like I'm saying I'm conflicted about a lot of books at the moment. I just want to enjoy them all but I'm just... not. And it's pretty much always to do with these little stereotypes that don't need to be there - I don't mind convention, it's something that we all need from time to time and it's effective for a reason. But cliches just throw you out of the story because you know exactly how it's going to work, so what's the point reading it? (There was a moment where I said I was going to throw my kindle across the room if there was a love triangle. It's now dented.) I'm sure there's a lot of people who will enjoy City of Brass - and I did, too - but it didn't match up to all the five-star ratings I've been seeing either.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Ash Princess

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Book Title: Ash Princess
Author: Laura Sebastian
Series: Ash Princess #1
Date Started: February 28th 2018
Date Completed: March 11th 2018
Genres: Romance, Fantasy
Quality Rating: Two Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Three Star
Final Rating: Three stars
Review:


◆ Thanks to Macmillan and NetGalley for this review copy ◆

I don't like saying something is copying everyone else because I think there are millions of ways to make something very familiar just a little bit different - and that little change can dramatically change everything. That being said, while Ash Princess feels like it's heading in new directions at times, it skirts the edge and carries on as predicted. In all fairness, I think it had good elements, but it needed a few more times through editing before it was ready.

The biggest thing I've seen people talking about (who disliked it anyway) has been about the cruelty. Now, I like dark twisted stuff, and I like explorations of tough subjects. But I like them because I like stories dealing with the bad things in the world and looking at how we as humans can get past them. But Ash Princess was carelessly cruel. It used subjects like torture, being a hostage, riots, murder and sexual harassment as plot devices, and that's where it crosses the line for me. I don't have a problem with any of it in substance, but the style in which it was applied used it to further the plot and not to explore tough themes. This meant that it wasn't believable and it wasn't purposeful either.

I was also a put out by the fact that the author's writing was so clearly geared towards her final 'twist'. I knew who the surprise antagonist was going to be at the end because Sebastian was against them from the start. It was perhaps meant to be the twist that would set this out from the thousands of other YA captured queen books. Sadly, the side-story it comes from was revisited for seemingly no reason and flung around with such volatility that it was quite clear from the get-go.

A big part of the reason that this book falls so hard when it comes to believability is that there's no preamble. We get thrown straight into what's happening, and not for a story reason. We need to believe that Theo's lived in captivity and been tortured for the resistance of her people for 10 years, but within the first dozen pages the rebels have infiltrated the castle and are plotting with her. There isn't enough establishment of her position in the castle, of the severity of the rebel cause, Theo's mental state etc. It might say a few things in exposition but it feels like a weak-ass system of guards, politics and torture (and yes, I have said how violent the torture is - do you see my problem?).

On top of that, Theo's character doesn't make sense. In stories like these, the heroine is so key to pulling everything together, and Sebastian can't quite keep hold of her. She's painfully passive in a painfully cruel world - which is fair enough. I'm all for letting protagonists struggle in situations where you'd be insane not to struggle in. I'm not accepting people saying she's not kick-ass enough to be a heroine. Women can be quiet and still be strong. The issue is when she's suddenly observant, strategic, devious the second a rebel turns up on her doorstep. After being trapped for 10 years, suddenly everyone's in love with her, and she's a tough queen. By the end I liked her, but she didn't have a believable arc. You can't victimise someone in such an exaggerated way and then say 'she's fine' and get on with the story. Struggle is okay, especially in the dramatic form of a novel, but you can't dismiss trauma like that whenever you feel like it.

It's fine, and it has potential. But too much speed and not enough haste makes it nothing particularly special, especially in a market so oversaturated with fantasy heroines trapped into castles with evil conquerors who inevitably fall in love with their sons. It's all the tropes we're bored of, but in a less effective way (we're told who someone is, the position they have and what they mean to Theo AFTER they've been introduced - even copy and paste-ing the exposition paragraph two pages earlier would make it more impactful). A couple more times in edits were needed I think.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Ready Player One

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Book Title: Ready Player One
Author: Ernest Cline
Date Started: February 28th 2018
Date Completed: March 11th 2018
Genres: Adventure, Sci-Fi
Quality Rating: Four Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Three Star
Final Rating: Four stars
Review:

Ready Player One is a book that has me really conflicted. I enjoyed it a lot, but I feel like it was supposed to have more gravity than that. And for me it was fun and that was it. I wanted more. That being said I think it does a brilliant job of reviving 80s pop culture in a way that people who aren't well-versed in it can appreciate and engage with.

This book is renowned for its references. In fact, the only thing I really knew about it going in was that it was full of them, and I was worried that it wasn't going to be very accessible because of it. I like video games and I grew up watching Star Trek, Star Wars, The X Files and god knows what else, but I sit and watch Stranger Things and only really recognise Dungeons and Dragons. But, actually, Cline did a good job of explaining things - sometimes a little too well. There were some parts where I was sat there for two or three pages thinking 'yes, I know how virtual reality works, thank you'. But that was needed so that any reader could enjoy the story, and I think they can. It must be a hell of a ride for a male 80s geek though.


Now, I swore at this book more times than I can count. And not the 'holy shit what just happened' way, more of a 'fuck off and get over yourself' kind of way. Did it escape the bounds of believability? Amazingly, no. Did is use the protagonist's conveniently obsessive knowledge and seemingly undefeatable charm/wit/characteristic-I-wasn't-sure-was-there at every opportunity? Absolutely. The plotline itself is the traditional underdog overcoming the odds and the state, but it does feel different just from the sheer amount of geekery, and that's what makes it fun. I'm not sure it makes up for the deus ex machina copy and pasted in like a video game cheat code at multiple points but, like I said, we're here for the fun.


What really impressed me with Ready Player One, and kind of pushes me over the line with my opinion of this book, was how well it did with referencing existing material as opposed to name-dropping it. One of my biggest pet peeves for books is when an author name-drops, essentially just to say 'hey, look, I know this thing! Look how I know this thing you know, that makes me/my character/my story cool and clever'. Nine times out of ten it doesn't, it's just lazy. You don't want to put the work in yourself so you mention someone else who did it instead. Cline doesn't do this - and it's frankly astounding. You gotta give it to him, it's impressive to create a story where 50% of the material is not your own and make it feel new. And it pays off because you can tell he had a whale of a time writing this book. If people want to know what a homage (or several hundred) is, they should read this.


There's generally good diversity in the characters. I wasn't a fan to begin with by how testosterone-driven literally everything was. This didn't necessarily go away - Wade still annoyed the hell out of me the entire way through with his insecure arrogance (I solved the first riddle in about thirty seconds, the only gaps was the 80s context) - but it balanced out as some more perspectives were added. I would've liked to have seen some characters that weren't obsessively knowledgeable just so someone would embody me sitting there saying 'really?' every five pages, but I accept this wasn't their story. I am a bit sad that a book about being a geek didn't have anyone I could relate to, though. And the self-proclaimed 'quintessential geek girl' pissed me off and still does. Which is damn irritating considering Art3mis was a pretty good character on her own terms.


I did really enjoy it, and I look forward to seeing the film, but it wasn't as epic as it'd be hyped up to be. I think it comes down to the fact that the hunt was, at the end of the day, a competition for money. Yes, it had mortality issues at times, but the stakes for winning the game never felt like they were that drastic. The freedom of the characters, maybe, since they were being seriously threatened, but that wasn't really the focus of the book. It's all fun and games - literally.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Hazel Wood

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Book Title: The Hazel Wood
Author: Melissa Albert
Date Started: February 26th 2018
Date Completed: February 28th 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Adventure, Mystery, Young Adult
Quality Rating: Three Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Four Star
Final Rating: Four stars
Review:

◆ Thanks to Netgalley for this ebook for review ◆

The Hazel Wood is half supernatural urban fantasy and half dark fairytale. And I mean half quite literally since it transitions rather suddenly just after the midpoint. I liked it, but I think it had issues that could've been solved.

I loved the first part of this book. And I loved the second part of this book. I did not love them together. Part 1 is City of Bones (the movie) mixed with Inkheart, then at around 65% we go into what I see as Part 2, which is Alice in Wonderland meets the Spiderwick Chronicles. I adore both of them, but not following on from each other. If you know the stories I've mentioned, you'll probably be able to pick out how they don't run smoothly into one another. A supernatural urban setting with characters going on treasure hunts in a city is one thing - and it can even be moved into a more direct fantasy storyline quite easily - but suddenly crashing headfirst into a dark, whimsical full-on fairytale land with no ties to what just happened is too much too fast. Maybe if this was a two-book series that could work with a break in the middle, but within a page we go switch. As a reader, I have expectations when I'm lulled into a story (and 65% is a fair amount through a story), and it can be really hard to rapidly abandon everything I've learnt about a world if things change. Alright, maybe this is partly a personal preference thing, but I'm sad because I can only remember these two parts compared to one, instead of imagining them as a single story weaved together.

My favourite thing about this book was Finch. He's not the main character but I think he was far more interesting than anyone else. He might have walked out of a John Green novel or maybe Call Me By Your Name (not in the way you're thinking), but he was interesting, (annoyingly) charming, and conflicted. I think I liked him so much because the choice between a relationship and his dream/desire/whatever you want to call it was a choice he genuinely struggled with. So often we have protagonists that are conflicted for ten minutes and then saying 'I'd never give you up'. That's not how it works in real life. The choice between a person and a lifestyle can be really hard. Sadly, compared to him, Alice (the protagonist) was a bit lack-lustre for me. Her big reveal fell flat for me personally because it felt like it came out of nowhere (I guess it makes sense, but it didn't feel like it tilted the world on its head like it should have), and her characterisation was more generic. She played her part, but she wasn't the star of the show.

The Hazel Wood had my favourite kind of ending: life changes and things get left behind - often things we don't want to leave behind - but the world and the characters move forward anyway. I think a lot of people look at those sorts of resolutions as sad endings, and they are in a lot of ways. But I think it's so good when a story can pull off a realist ending where it is bittersweet because the world moves forward as if nothing happened, but this protagonist is never going to be able to go back to how they were, and show that that's okay. The Hazel Wood pulled it off. I just wish it hadn't been tainted by the blatant and abrupt tone shift in the middle. In all fairness, there's a lot of things that I don't think were solved (or I missed them being solved) and some motivations that didn't make sense in the end, but I'll let it slide because my main issue with this book pretty much entirely consumed my attention.

It's not really my style of fairytale - it definitely borders more on the supernatural horror side than traditional faerie - but I still loved its little twists and dark side. The emphasis on the adventure made it feel more like a children's book than Young Adult. I'm not even sure the horror aspects are too much for that audience, it's just the swearing and age of the characters that seems to have pushed it to a teenage audience. I feel like this book wanted to be something that wasn't natural to it, hence the dramatic out-of-place tone shift in the middle too. It had its strong points, but I think it would've been stronger if Albert had let it run its natural course, rather than trying to tailor it to a different audience.