Monday, 12 February 2018

Immortal Reign

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Book Title: Immortal Reign
Author: Morgan Rhodes
Series: Falling Kingdoms #6
Date Started: February 11th 2018
Date Completed: February 12th 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, Adventure, Young Adult
Quality Rating: Three Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Three Star
Final Rating: Three stars
Review:

I've never said that the Falling Kingdoms series was high literature, but it has always been enjoyable. This sticks through to Immortal Reign, if waning a little towards the end. I think the more inventive storyline at the beginning of this series was far more effective than the canon good vs. evil battle it becomes, but it's nice having been able to follow these characters along further.

I did forget how hand-holdey the writing is. I find myself sitting there thinking 'yes, I know' whenever I'm reminded about a plot point that was revealed five minutes ago. As a reader, I don't need to be directly told everything. If Cleo's angry you only have to say it once (and at this point I'm probably going to expect it) - don't go through a thesaurus looking for different versions of the same adjective. I think it's more a self-conscious thing than bad technique, but I would hope that six books into a series there's enough character development to hold the people up by themselves without having to tell the reader exactly what they're thinking.

The plotline goes pretty much as you'd expect from a Falling Kingdoms books: things change three times a page, people argue five times a page, and time itself jumps massively in a single sentence. People often refer to this series as the Young Adult Game of Thrones, and I think that's kind of fair (I don't think YA necessarily has to be as simplistic as that leads you to believe, but the structure and storytelling style is similar). But, don't get me wrong, it is still enjoyable. As much as I don't like being told everything rather than being shown it, it's nice to just fall into a book and let it take you without having to engage much. The dramatics are indulgently so, over-the-top and a bit silly but it's fun. (The romance is a bit lovey-dovey at this point but hey, guilty pleasures.) I just wish the structure of logic was held a little stronger, so I could buy into the story, however over-dramatic it was.

The biggest example of which being the characters' motivations. Ever since learning about scriptwriting and directing I've been a little hyperaware of this, but what a character wants is what determines how they act. Most of us don't even acknowledge that motivation, it's just what's underlying to make the character developed and solid. But in Immortal Reign, characters change their tune lightning fast just to go with what the story needs, and I think it's a disrespect to their characters. I mean what even was Lucia in this book? In theory, she's conflicted between protecting those she cares about and doing the right thing, but what happens is that she's confiding in the heroes one moment and allied with the antagonists with all of her loyalty the next - and I'm supposed to feel like she's still conflicted. It wasn't ambivalent, it was just unbelievable. 

This is all really to do with the fact that Cleo should really be the protagonist. I don't know why we have so many characters when the author clearly only cares about her - and don't get me wrong, I only care about Cleo. But there's this whole cast of characters that aren't distinguishable enough to do anything more than show up in a few scenes and say a few words before hanging around behind the main trio. I feel like this wasn't so prevalent in the other books, but now that all the heroes are in the same location at the same time with the same obstacles, everyone but Cleo, Magnus, and maybe Jonas, just get pushed to the side. I think the book might have benefitted from being Cleo's story, with a whole host of other side characters, than trying to make everyone equal in an ensemble cast.

I did still enjoy the last book in the Falling Kingdoms series, but it's a shame it didn't really evolve into something stronger. I definitely preferred when the conflict came from the relationships between the protagonists - there were dimensions to the action. Now that all the heroes get along and the antagonist is effectively a faceless evil the engagement isn't quite there for me.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Hold Back the Stars

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Book Title: Hold Back the Stars
Author: Katie Khan
Date Started: February 5th 2018
Date Completed: February 10th 2018
Genres: Romance, Sci-Fi
Quality Rating: Three Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Four Star
Final Rating: Three stars
Review:

◆ Thanks to Netgalley for this ebook for review ◆

Hold Back the Stars wasn't my usual genre - in fact, romance and sci-fi are probably my two worst genres for novels. But, I'd had a personal recommendation and a review copy so I was open to trying it. In the end, it was what I expected and not. I enjoyed it far more than I expected to, but there were just a few things that irked me to the point where I couldn't focus anymore.

I think a selling point for this book is its worldbuilding. As much as it's set-out as a contemporary novel, there are some really interesting aspects of the world that influence the story. There's been a dystopian war, but now there is 'utopia' in Europia, even if America and the Middle East are completely screwed. Surprisingly, this utopia is actually quite believable; people have jobs, families, friends and entertainment like we do today. With one difference: you can't settle down as a family until midlife (around 30?). Now, this seems logical to me when it's explained: the idea is that you have time where you have to focus on yourself and contribute to the community to keep utopia afloat before you start to focus on starting a family. Which isn't to say that you aren't allowed to have relationships when you're younger - in fact there are multiple occasions on which the protagonists are told that they aren't going to be punished for having a relationship, it's just going to be frowned upon and they won't be allowed to officially settle. I think a reason why I struggled with this book towards the end is that fact that this is the main emotional conflict; there's action, and there are smaller storylines, but the primary conflict is this Couples Rule. I can understand the emotional strain of such a situation, but this rule is made out to be evil - as are the people that believe in it - and that made no sense to me. If those in favour of it hadn't been so typecast as evil there may have been a grey area I was more inclined to believe, but it was Max and Carys against the world over this logical, if a little harsh rule. It was hard to get behind.

This was a big thing to me because at the start of this book I was completely sold. Much to my surprise, I was won over by the sweet characters, funny interactions and promising universe. Then suddenly near the mid-point (I can tell you it was exactly at the beach scene), things started to irk me. I don't know whether they weren't there to start with or I just didn't notice them, but suddenly there were tiny details popping up everywhere that annoyed me. Little mistakes, silly little choices, minute characteristics. Alone they wouldn't have bothered me, but things start to collect when they're dotted everywhere. I was upset because I was rooting for this book.

And then we reached the end, and I have only one question: what was the point of that? Not the book as a whole, but the way this story was finished. It's a massive spoiler, but for those who have read the book, you will know exactly what I'm talking about and I just don't understand. The author covered all of her bases, literally. With all those little things beforehand, that was the final straw to make me stop rooting for it.

Most negative reviews I've come across of Hold Back the Stars centre around the fact there's too much romance. I knew going in it was more of a romance than a science fiction story, so I didn't mind it so much. And I've read far worse love stories with far less developed characters. The romance wasn't the problem. The issue for me was that the author made some choices I just don't understand that compromised a good, solid, enjoyable story. Why those decisions that just stick out like a sore thumb? I don't know, but it was a shame they took away from my enjoyment considering I fell in love with it to start with.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Medea

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Book Title: Medea
Author: Christa Wolf
Date Started: January 13th 2018
Date Completed: February 5th 2018
Genres: Historical, Adult
Quality Rating: Three Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Three Star
Final Rating: Three stars
Review:


I've wanted to read Medea ever since I discovered Cassandra - another ancient Greek myth retelling by Christa Wolf. I can't tell you how much I fell in love with that book and so, to be fair, Medea was always going to have a hard time competing. In the end, it didn't even touch Cassandra in terms of excellence, but I think there were several circumstantial things that contributed to that aside from the story.

The first of which is that I'm pretty sure Medea must have had a different translator to Cassandra. Christa Wolf was a German writer and scholar, and so her works are translated into English. Medea felt so much harder to read for me; it was dense, its word choice wasn't as vivid and succinct, and just generally hard to read. The book is less than 200 pages and it took me the better part of a month to get through. It might be that I'm wrong and it's just an example of Wolf's earlier work or something like that, but considering it is a translated work I'd imagine that's what I struggled with.

Aside from that, Wolf's style did still shine through at times. I love how she tells stories; her books are less of a narrative story and more fictionalised studies. The non-linear structure focuses on a human flaw in each character and slowly reveals how it combines with the other flaws of the characters into a spiral of tragedy. Her novels very much follow the style of the ancient stage tragedies, even though they aren't direct retellings of any plays from antiquity. It's not for everyone, but if you're fascinated by people like me it's some of the best stuff out there.

I'm a self-proclaimed classics nerd, but I'm not as familiar with the tale of Jason and Medea as I am with a lot of Greek myths. And even though retellings shouldn't use the original versions as a crutch, not knowing the story well to start with did take away from my experience reading this novel. I felt like a lot of the politics and cultural and personal relationships were revealed once they became apparent to the story, but actually being aware of them to start with might have helped in understanding what was actually happening. I only say this because I know in Cassandra there were a lot of critiques and comments made in the subtext that I only noticed because I knew a lot about the Trojan War to begin with. Perhaps it's something to look at if I ever reread this book, but it didn't strike me as the most accessible instance of a myth retelling.

Medea definitely wasn't as vivid as Cassandra but was still visually alluring and provocative at times. It has a lot to say about the ancient world and woman's place in it, as expected. I feel like Christa Wolf should be more recognised for her work as it really is an interesting look at the classical world and its stories. Maybe go for Cassandra over this one, though.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

The Bear and the Nightingale

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Book Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Series: The Winternight Trilogy #1
Date Started: December 28th 2017
Date Completed: January 9th 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Adventure, Historical
Quality Rating: Four Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Five Star
Final Rating: Five stars
Review:

The Bear and the Nightingale is a traditional fairytale set amongst the frozen forests of historical Russia, rife with old wife's tales come to life and a headstrong, wild feminist heroine. Give me more. Now.

I'll be honest, when I started this book, I was a bit impatient. There's quite a lot of stalling at the start, and details of worldbuilding that I didn't care about. In the end, it happened to be one of the things I loved; there's so much vividness in every corner of Vasya's world. Even a winter kitchen is suddenly warm and full of life and secrets - but, frankly, I don't really care what kind of bread they're eating. I felt unnecessarily dense when the story felt like it wasn't moving. But the further in you get, the more interesting things become, and there was almost like a switch that was flipped somewhere about 40% through where I was totally sold.

All my favourite stories are those which turn our world on their head a little bit, whether it be through fantasy or the dark realities of human nature or something else. The Bear and the Nightingale blends traditional fairytales with historical Russia so self-assuredly that I could barely imagine this landscape without the little household spirits around Vasya's and the winter king in the forest. Arden clearly knows her stuff about Russian folklore and history, because it's weaved so beautifully and effortlessly. I feel like I've come out with a bit of a history lesson on my back, especially in terms of the Russian versions of many fairytale creatures I was already aware of. This is exactly the kind of book I would've cherished as a kid; I would've imagined myself to be Vasya and just sat rereading it for hours on end. Sadly, I don't think it's particularly accessible for younger readers since it's really dense at parts - I'm not patronising the reading ability of younger readers, but maybe their attention spans. It's a real shame. Like I said I would've adored it as a child.

Vasya is so true to the heroines of old fairytales. All we ever hear about in the mainstream is the princesses, or paupers who married a prince. But the wild girls that lived in little villages often go forgotten, when the whole point of fairytales was to teach lessons and morality; how can you learn those things if you can't relate to the people in them? The Bear and the Nightingale brought new life to these old tales, and Vasya is the driving force. She's bold, curious, adventurous and pious, but she's also a girl grown into a woman who chose to learn how to ride a horse and doesn't want to marry. And at that time, such girls were called witches and treated as such. Even though it's not the main focus, the representation of the persecution of women (both through Vasya and the other girls around her) touched me in a way that a feminist story hasn't in a while. This isn't to say we don't need all the feminist stories I consume - every little helps - but The Bear and the Nightingale showed such raw strength in a heroine living amongst it that I felt Vasya's turmoil along with her, and it became very personal.

The ending was a little messy but there are so many avenues left untrodden. It works as a stand-alone but, damn, I'm glad there's more of these coming. It's so funny, I read Holly Black's The Cruel Prince at the end of last year, and where that novel hit all the wrong notes for me, The Bear and the Nightingale struck everything perfectly. It's a novel about growing up, gaining independence and bravery, and the borders where the real world and traditional folklore meet - and done right.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

TheDaisyDeer's Best Books of 2017

Reading Year In Review

Books Read: 88
Novels Read: 42
*Pages Read: 23,693
*according to GoodReads so take it with a pinch of salt 

Novel with the Best Story read in 2017:

The One Hundred Nights of Hero
Isabel Greenberg
Read my summary review of The One Hundred Nights of Hero here!
honourable mentions to:
Circe, Madeline Miller
The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt


Novel with the Best Writing read in 2017:

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The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood

Novel with the Best Entertainment read in 2017:

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Resurrection
Derek Landy


Best New Discovery read in 2017:

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I Love This Part
Tillie Walden


Best Fantasy Novel read in 2017:

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The Final Empire
Brandon Sanderson


Best Sci-Fi Novel read in 2017:

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Invictus
Ryan Graudin


Best Dystopian Novel read in 2017:

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Our Dark Duet
V. E. Schwab
Read my review of Our Dark Duet here!
honourable mentions to:
The Song Rising, Samantha Shannon


Best Historical Novel read in 2017:

Circe
Madeline Miller


Best Contemporary Novel read in 2017:

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The Foxhole Court
Nora Sakavic
Read my review of The Foxhole Court here!
honourable mentions to:
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
Release, Patrick Ness


Best Mystery/Thriller Novel read in 2017:

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The Goldfinch
Donna Tartt


Best Graphic Novel read in 2017:

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On a Sunbeam
Tillie Walden

Best Poetry Collection read in 2017:

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Hold Your Own
Kate Tempest

Best Review Copy [not otherwise mentioned] read in 2017:

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Spellslinger
provided by Hot Key Books
Sebastian de Castell

Friday, 29 December 2017

The Faceless Ones

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Book Title: The Faceless Ones
Author: Derek Landy
Series: Skulduggery Pleasant #3
Date Started: December 26th 2017
Date Completed: December 28th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Action, Adventure, Horror, Young Adult, Childrens
Quality Rating: Four Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Five Star
Final Rating: Five stars
Review:

Rereading this series is like discovering them all over again, regardless of the fact I've skim-read and reread my favourite parts more times than I can count. The Faceless Ones was never my favourite, and that holds, but reading the story in full again makes me appreciate the hints for the future and the character arcs so much. This was really the book that kicked the Skulduggery Pleasant series into action and for that it's special.

What gets me about these now that I'm older is how well executed they are for younger audiences. I remember reading something where Derek was defending his use of violence in these books - and yes, there is a lot of violence - and saying that the whole point is that it's serious. There is murder, and there are violent people, and there are heroes getting seriously hurt. Because it's a world in which those things happen, and Derek takes that seriously. Which means that Valkyrie, even when she's 14, is involved. But it's not taken lightly; she does get hurt, and people acknowledge that she's too young to be in the middle of that.

In general, Derek is aware of the problematic elements of being a hero but he doesn't shy away from it, even if his hero is a pre-teen. Instead of dismissing her and her abilities, the characters TALK to Valkyrie about it; they make sure she understands the real danger she's in, and they ASK her how she feels. And respect her answers. She's a 14-year-old in an adult's dangerous world, but that doesn't mean she should be patronised or restricted, it means that she should learn and be protected until she can defend herself. My favourite line of this book is Kenspeckle telling her 'you seem to have this ridiculous notion that being treated like a child means to be treated with any less respect than an adult'. These books are mature without being cruel, accessible without being patronising, and empowering without being manipulative.

Which leads me on to our protagonist. When I was younger, I basically remembered my age as being a year younger than Valkyrie - that's how much of a role model she was to me (despite the fact we aren't really that similar - I'm far more a Tanith). And rightly so. Val is a great protagonist not because she's a hero, but because she so regularly makes mistakes and learns from them. It's 'how to write a children's protagonist 101', but Derek approaches it with a very adult perspective; this isn't a one-off per book, this is creating a solid human being. She's a reckless smart-mouth who can be rude at the best of times, but she's clever and kind too.

To be honest, I could sit down over three or four days and read this entire series cover-to-cover without stopping. I never want to put them down and I feel so at home with them that I wouldn't really need anything else. It's become somewhat of a tradition to say this in every review of this series, but Skulduggery was the equivalent of Harry Potter in my childhood, and I think they're some of the best children's books that can be read by anyone out there.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

How to Be Both

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Book Title: How to Be Both
Author: Ali Smith
Date Started: December 3rd 2017
Date Completed: December 26th 2017
Genres: Contemporary, Historical, Adult
Quality Rating: Four Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Three Star
Final Rating: Four stars
Review:

I'm a bit sore about this book; I think my enjoyment was seriously affected by the formatting on the Kindle version. I still enjoyed it, but I ended up being more concerned with if I'd missed something at the start of the book that I wasn't able to properly focus on the book itself. If I hadn't read up on the formatting while I was reading it I would've been completely lost, and I was still pretty confused.

If you don't know, half the print run of How to Be Both has Francesco's story at the start of the book, and the other half have George's first. The idea is that everyone who reads it will read it slightly differently, and have a different experience. Which, for the record, I think is a great idea. Until you mess it up on the Kindle format - which a lot of people read. In the Kindle version, BOTH editions are included in the same file meaning that a) I felt like I was reading a 400ish page book slower than a tortoise b) when you actually finish the story, you start reading the exact same thing again thinking it's just deja vu and c) most readers are always going to read Francesco first unless they know about the formatting style and skip halfway through the book.

The last of those I'm actually grateful for. Francesco's story takes place in the Renaissance, while George's is modern day. I don't think I would've personally been pulled into the story had it started with George - that's just personal preference but the exploration of a female painter hiding as a man to be able to work is fascinating, while George's story follows more of what you immediately think of for Ali Smith: modern, political, everyday person dealing with the internal struggles of life. All good, but you collect far more references and parallels having read the historical era first since the developments in society move forward rather than backwards. Perhaps the idea is that you continue to reread the story the other way around afterwards and see how the experience is different.

The thing that always gets me about Smith's writing is how it somehow captures perfect, pure moments of human experience. Subtle, insignificant things when we go through them, but translating the way a mother smiles after her child says something, or the shock registering when someone discovers your secret - capturing those tiny reactions so perfectly in writing astounds me. That's what makes her writing stand out, and it's why I always come back to it.

The only downside is it doesn't string together for some people, and I have to count myself in that. Those moments are wonderful, and the prose is easy-to-read and understand, but the story beats don't connect as intuitively for everyone and can be hard to follow. Smith's writing isn't for everyone (though I disagree with people who say she's unnecessarily difficult and pedantic - she isn't at all, she's just honest), which is a shame since it discusses things that are so relevant to today: what is it to exist in this era? How do we interact with the past, as well as the present?

It's always fascinating to read Smith's books, but I am sad that I don't connect to them in the same way a lot of people do. Though part of me wonders if it is an age thing. It doesn't have to be patronising to admit that the number of years of human experience you've had affects the way you perceive and absorb things. I'd be interested to read some of her work again when I'm older and see if I enjoy it more.