Breath of Fire Falls a Little Flat

After reading Amanda Bouchet’s debut A Promise of Fire, I was determined to wait until all three books in the Kingmaker Chronicles were published to continue reading.

I made it until about a week ago and then decided that I  had to read the next one, Breath of Fire. I really could have waited.

On the romance side of things, Griffin and Cat’s relationship is pretty stable. Griffin does lose his temper when he discovers Cat’s true identity. As far as the principle of the matter goes, I understand that Griffin is upset about Cat lying to him. On the other hand, it was obvious, Griffin. So, so obvious. You really should have figured it out way before you did.

As far as Cat and Griffin’s efforts to take over the world, I wasn’t all that impressed. For one thing, Cat’s improbable series of near-death experiences continues. The methods of keeping her alive are getting equally improbable as we go, up to and including Kato regurgitating a magic snake. I’m no longer the least bit concerned for her well-being, just slightly curious what monster is going to chew her up next and how Bouchet is going to work around it.

The main cast of characters is great, but there seemed to be a lot of emotional weight tied to secondary characters who hadn’t been developed enough. For example, when the sixth person on their team gets murdered in the hallway right before their competition in the Games. This is really just an elaborate set up to give them no other choice to than to enter Jocasta in the fights. And I understand that this would shake up the rest of the team, but I can’t even remember the poor woman’s name. As happy as I am that Beta Team is thus far intact, if you want me to resonate with the loss of a character, it’s going to have to be a little more meaningful than that.

What with all the build up to fortifying Sinta’s borders so that the team can compete in the Games to sneak into Tarva, I thought the climax was very anti-climactic. They make it to Alpha Tarva, find out he’s much more powerful than they anticipated, and then get saved by another previously unknown character making the ultimate sacrifice. It left me more confused about what just happened than anything else.

I still love these characters and I’m still looking forward to book three, but this book did not live up to the expectations set by book one. 3 out of 5.

Caraval: Can It Be Real?

I usually dislike books that confuse me. I just want to know what’s happening, or at least to have it figured out by the conclusion. Three days after I’ve finished Stephanie Garber’s Caraval and I’m still not sure exactly what happened.

But whatever it was, I loved it.

It had it’s weak points. Like most young adult novels (and lots of adults ones too) the romance felt rushed. On the other hand, Scarlett went through a very emotional and disorienting week with Julian her only touchstone throughout the process, so it makes sense that she has intense feelings for him, even if she has only known him for ten days. Also, I loved how he insisted on calling her Crimson.

I still can’t decide if Tella is the greatest sister ever or a selfish jerk. If you’ve read this book, let me know what you think, because I honestly don’t know.

And is magic real? How much of the book was real and how much was just the game? Was the warning at the entrance to Caraval about not taking the game too seriously a genuine warning, or was it a way for Legend to do whatever he wants by telling the people who question him that they’ve gotten too deep into the game? What was scripted and what was real?

As I said, I don’t usually like books that leave me with this many unanswered questions, but I’m making an exception for Caraval. The unanswered questions aren’t just lazy writing or plot holes but meant to echo Scarlett’s own confusion as she is drawn further into the game.

Also, I’m hoping she answers some of those questions in the as-yet untitled sequel which is due to come out in 2018.

So, to recap, this is a fairly typical young adult novel character-wise. You’ve got your selfless heroine falling in love with the scoundrel who is helping her find her sister. But the setting of Caraval makes you question everything, which means it’s nice to have something solid to ground your reading on, like a predictable relationship.

This makes for an excellent summer reading book. Throw it in your vacation back and whip through it when you have a couple days off. You should probably throw a couple extra books in there too, though, in case you get unexpectedly caught up and end up zooming through the whole thing in one day like I did.

Four out of five. Eagerly anticipating book 2.

 

Missing, Presumed is Missing Something

I have always had this belief that everyone has a great story to tell. That normal, everyday life is a fascinating series of adventures that deserve to be told.

Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed is making me question whether or not that is true.

DS Manon Bradshaw is a very realistic character. She’s good at her job, not on the best terms with her family, and bearing down on 40 with a growing sense of desperation over her single status. I thought her story was believable and at times touching. But it really didn’t leave me wanting more, which is not a good sign for a novel that is supposed to be launching a series.

Part of the problem for me was my American-ness. Thanks to my love of Bones, Castle, and J. D. Robb novels, I can follow American police lingo fairly well. The British detectives were losing me at every turn. I was almost halfway through the book before I realized that a “misper” is a missing person. It was hard for me to really feel invested in the case when half the time I had no clue what the characters were talking about.

Also, I don’t know why realistic so often has to mean depressing. I realize that life is not a bed of roses and hard things happen and dreams do not always come true, but in an entire unit of cops not one of them is really happy with their life.

The high point of this story is Manon’s relationship with Fly, a young boy whose older brother has recently been killed. Manon investigates his death while trying to make sure that Fly is well fed and cared for, now that his only family is a dying mother. It humanizes Manon, which is something that she desperately needed.

Maybe I missed something, because this book got incredible reviews across the board, but I would give it a 3 out of 5. Though I won’t be rushing out to snatch book 2 as soon as it comes out (Persons Unknown, coming out on July 4th) I would be willing to give Manon another shot. Perhaps I’ll crack the British police code, become more invested in Manon’s character, and finally figure out what everyone else is so excited about.

 

Jane Steele: Retelling Gone Right

When I reviewed Eligible, I admitted that I didn’t like it, but I thought that retelling someone else’s story was hard. After reading Jane Steele, I might have to change my opinion.

The basis of any retelling is a “What if” question. Most authors ask “What if (insert classic story) took place in a modern setting?” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, most often it doesn’t do much for me. Lyndsay Faye asks, “What if Jane Eyre was a serial killer?”

A question that had never crossed my mind, but once it did, I had to know the answer. And that answer is Jane Steele. I have never been a big fan of Jane Eyre, partially because I don’t care much for Jane herself. I don’t know what it says about me that I liked her so much better as a serial killer, but I loved Jane Steele. Through no fault of her own, she finds herself in difficult situations, starting at a young age. When life gets hard, Jane Steele doesn’t fall apart, she finds solutions. Usually her solutions involve killing someone, but trust me, these people had it coming.

Mr. Rochester also gets a much needed upgrade in this retelling. Charles Thornfield loves his ward, is dedicated to helping his friends, and completely unperturbed by the fact that his governess can wield a knife and swear like a sailor. Sounds like my kind of guy.

Jane Steele is shipped off to boarding school, away from her childhood home of Highgate House, after her cousin dies. What no one knows is that Jane killed him. Accidentally, kind of. She pushes him into a ravine when he tries to rape her. She decides she is a wicked girl for killing someone and embraces her fate. She’s quite happy bypassing heaven as she’s told that her mother, a depressed widow who committed suicide, has no doubt been sentenced to hell.

With this rather inauspicious start to life, Jane finds herself in an abusive school, which leads her to London, which eventually circles her back around to Highgate House, where she plans to kill the man who inherited the house when her aunt died and so claim her own inheritance. There’s only one problem.

She really likes Charles Thornfield and his household. So do I. I’ve already hit Thornfield’s highlights, but the rest of his household is just as good. The most prominent features of this unorthodox English estate are the Sikh butler, Sardar Singh, who seems like a great guy but is obviously hiding something, and Sahjara, Thornfield’s ward who is delightfully wild.

Unraveling the mystery of this odd household becomes more urgent after Jane kills a nighttime intruder. The answers lie in the Sikh Wars in India, but Jane’s investigation is further hampered by Mr. Sam Quillfeather, an Inspector who may be able to tie Jane to at least three deaths.

Even more complications arise when Jane discovers that her aunt was not her father’s sister-in-law, but rather his legitimate wife. He married Jane’s mother under false pretenses with an assumed name.

To top it all off, Jane can’t just fall back on her usual method of un-complicating things, because she has fallen in love with Charles Thornfield and doesn’t want to admit to him that she is, in fact, a murderess.

The way Faye weaves all of these storylines together along with seamless character development makes for a very enjoyable read. The fact that Jane most often kills to protect other people makes her a downright heroic figure. The way the people around her react to her protection often made me judge them more than her.

If there was one thing I disliked about the book, it was the way Jane blamed herself for her cousin’s death. She saw that as her downfall from grace, when anyone else would clearly label it as self-preservation. But the book is redeemed when Jane finally comes clean to Thornfield about the people she has killed and he quickly sets her straight on her view of herself.

Jane and Thornfield’s relationship is everything a literary romance should be. They are remarkably well suited for each other, becoming good friends rather quickly. Their banter is endlessly entertaining, and the obstacles to their relationship genuine problems and not contrived issues. It’s true strength is that the romance is not the center of the story, but rather a thread that runs underneath the plot and helps to tie it all together.

Not only did I love reading this book, I’m already looking forward to re-reading it. 5 out of 5 stars, no question.

Nimona

I don’t like graphic novels. I procured a copy of Nimona for my sister with no intention of reading it myself. She loved it so much I had to at least crack the cover and it had me from page 2.

The story of supervillain Lord Ballister Blackheart and his shape-shifter sidekick Nimona is heartwarming and gory and horrific and hilarious. I don’t quite know how it manages to be all of those things at the same time, but it is. And I loved every second of it.

I’m not entirely comfortable with loving this book. Nimona is a bloodthirsty little savage. She straight up murders people on a regular basis. The established supervillain has higher morals than she does.

Getting the story from the villain’s point of view automatically makes the hero suspect, but Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin is shady. He blew off Blackheart’s arm after losing a jousting match to him, supposedly  by accident but most of us make it through life without accidentally maiming our best friend. Said maiming leads Blackheart down the path of villainy, but I’d say being named Blackheart kind of did that long before the jousting incident.

As it turns out, the entire thing was orchestrated by the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, who wanted Blackheart out of the way so that Goldenloin could be their champion, since he’s so easily duped.

Blackheart is not duped at all, and so launches a mission to reveal the true nature of the supposed good guys. He doesn’t make a whole lot of headway on that, but then Nimona shows up and makes herself his sidekick. Her shapeshifting powers come in very handy, but as she slowly reveals more and more powers, Blackheart begins to wonder just what he’s teamed up with.

All of the characters are delightfully three dimensional. Blackheart is a self-proclaimed villain, but he’s really not a bad guy. Goldenloin looks like the most heroic of heroes, only to be revealed as weak and susceptible. The Institution, which stands for all that is good and right, is power-hungry and corrupt. Nimona, the entertaining sidekick, is a horrifying blood-thirsty fiend.

Noelle Stevenson manages to raise and address heavy issues with a lighthearted tone. The book is rated at a third grade reading level, but it will keep any adult entertained.

I give it 5 out of 5 stars, and I don’t do it lightly. This book earned every single one.

The Dry

Jane Harper’s The Dry has gotten insanely good reviews. And I just don’t know why. It’s a fine book but there’s nothing outstanding about it.

Murder mysteries, like most established genres, have a pretty set formula. The Dry follows this formula almost to the letter. The mystery itself isn’t predictable (I didn’t figure it out), but the novel is.

Brutal murder shocks small town…check
Main character return to hometown for funeral intending to leave asap…check
Main character doesn’t leave asap…check

Aaron Falk was forced to leave town quickly as a teenager after being suspected of murder. Now he’s returned for his former best friend’s funeral, and is literally counting the hours until he can get back to Melbourne. Everyone believes that Luke murdered his wife and son before killing himself, but Luke’s parents beg Aaron to stay in town a few extra days and prove that Luke didn’t do it. Aaron reluctantly agrees, joins forces with the local cop, and faces his past while solving the mystery.

Harper does a good job of laying a trail of clues that keeps the reader guessing until the truth is revealed. It’s a solid case and the murder from Aaron’s past keeps rearing its ugly head to keep things interesting. There’s a satisfying conclusion, though it’s a bit depressing, which is only to be expected from a crime that includes the murder of a little boy. The weak point of the story was the budding romance between Aaron and Gretchen, which I really didn’t care about.

All in all, I’ll give it 3 out of 5 stars. As I said, solid but not spectacular.

The Regional Office Is Under Attack!

This book had me at super-powered female assassins. Or, really, it had me at THE REGIONAL OFFICE IS UNDER ATTACK!, which is kind of hard to overlook when its sprawled in giant letters across the cover of a book covered in asterisks and lightning bolts. It looks like a fun book and it sounds like a fun story.

It lies. This book disturbed me on a rather deep level. I finished it the day after I read Nimona, which didn’t help since they both have startling similar premises. What do you do when an organization dedicated to doing good turns out to have corrupt leaders? Who do you cheer for when the splinter group fighting back against the corruption turns out to be kind of corrupt itself?

Who do you cheer for when both sides and right and both sides are wrong?

Manuel Gonzales wrote a fantastic book. The characters are well done, the story is well paced, the prose is well-written. And yet I kind of wish I hadn’t read it. I want a hero to cheer for. I want a villain to hate. I don’t want to feel torn between two heroines who are remarkably similar and both duped by their respective leadership.

I like books that make me happy. Books that affirm that good always wins and that things have a way of working out in the end and that people have a natural tendency to do the right thing. But we need books like this. As unsettling as I found The Regional Office Is Under Attack! I think everyone should read it.

Because our world is very gray. We like to think that we are the heroes and those who don’t agree with us are villains, but it doesn’t really work like that. Most of us are just trying to do what we think it best and hope we don’t hurt too many people in the process. If you’re a super-powered assassin, that’s a but harder to do, but most of them still try.

Manuel Gonzales makes you see both sides of a battle where nobody wins and you realize how much better it would have been if people had just been honest with each other and become friends and joined forces to fight against the real villains.

Sarah and Rose never got that chance. It’s kind of depressing and I don’t really like depressing books. But it makes you think, and more people need to take some time to think about how their story looks from the opposite point of view. To realize that the world is not black and white but full of all kinds of murky gray areas. To look beyond the person who doesn’t agree with you and try to find the real villain and discover a way we can settle our differences peacefully and then go after them.

The Regional Office Is Under Attack! is not the fun book I thought it would be. It’s pretty bloody and light on the humor and dissatisfying in its resolution. Somehow it still gets 4 out of 5 stars from me.

(In)Eligible: A Modern Pride and Prejudice

To be fair to Curtis Sittenfeld before I start reviewing her version of Pride and Prejudice, I think retelling someone else’s story in a new setting is really difficult. With that being said, I didn’t really like Eligible.

It started out strong. I thought she captured the Bennet family well, and I found Mr. Bennet extremely entertaining. I thought having Elizabeth and Jane move back home to help in the wake of their father’s health scare was a brilliant way to get all the sisters back under one roof while still differentiating between the younger, free-loading, dead-beat Bennet sisters and the responsible elder two.

 

For all of its promising set up, however, the book fell flat on delivery. Elizabeth takes it upon herself to clean out her parent’s home and put it on the market, as the family can no longer afford to maintain the house. This is supposed to be her shouldering responsibility, but to me that’s just overstepping your bounds. You can’t sell someone’s house behind their back and insist you were just doing what was best for them.

Aside from her interfering in everyone’s life, Elizabeth also lost quite a bit of my respect when she had an on-going affair with a married man. In Austen’s novel, Wickham fools everyone into believing he’s a great guy before Darcy reveals the truth about him. Sittenfeld’s Jasper Wick is just a scumbag and he really drags Elizabeth down with him.

Jane, who is supposed to be the other admirable sister, struck me as something of a non-entity. You’re supposed to root for her and Chip to get together, but I wasn’t real invested there. Part of the fault there lies with Chip. He was a very weak character. In the original story, he gets accused of just doing whatever he is told, but he comes across as a genuinely nice guy who’s just trying to make people happy. In Eligible, it seems more like he can’t make a decision so he just follows orders.

Mr. Darcy, of all people, comes out as the nicest person in the novel. He has never been my favorite Austen hero (Mr. Kingsley for the win!), but I found myself entirely on his side throughout Eligible.

All in all, I would give this 2 out of 5 stars. If you want to read Pride and Prejudice, then just go read Pride and Prejudice.

A Promise of Fire Shows Promise

Amanda Bouchet’s debut novel, A Promise of Fire is a strong start to a writing career. While there wasn’t anything about the book to launch it into timeless favorite status, it’s a good story that I devoured in one day.

Cat is living a quiet life in the circus, hiding from her past, when warlord Griffin Sinta, recent conqueror of one-third of the world, shows up and outs her as the Kingmaker, a person with powerful magic.  I don’t want to discourage you on reading this book too soon, but I also want to end on a high note, so let’s do the cons first.

CONS

First off, I have to admit that I did not look at the cover as closely as I should have. The book is clearly marketed as fantasy romance.

a-promise-of-fire

Missing that, I launched into this story expecting epic fantasy. Which is exactly what I got until it somehow turned into a romance novel, though it still had hefty doses of epicness sprinkled throughout.

While I can’t complain about something I should have known before reading the book, I do feel like the romance created pacing issues. Cat’s fighting a dragon! Cat’s…not sure how she feels about Griffin kissing her? Cat’s taking out 30 men single-handedly! Cat’s…reluctantly admitting that she doesn’t hate Griffin even though it’s pretty obvious she doesn’t after repeatedly almost dying to save his life. Which leads me nicely into my next point.

Cat is almost unkillable, but she nevertheless has a ridiculous series of near-death experiences. The problem with this is, each time you do this, it loses some of its punch. The first time Cat almost dies, it means something. By the end of the book, it’s become part of a cycle. Stop milking it Cat, you’ve had worse. Suck it up and go fight with Griffin some more.

I hope leading with the cons didn’t turn you off too soon. I would say this book’s flaws mainly boil down to romance and fantasy both being rather predictable genres. But don’t stop reading now because even though A Promise of Fire falls into a couple of pit holes, it avoids other ones spectacularly and we are just now getting to the good part.

PROS

A pretty basic but good starting point here is that I like Cat. She has some fairly stereotypical traits, like a dark past that forces her to keep everyone at arm’s length and an excessive use of sarcasm, but they fit her story. And even though she’s almost immediately attracted to Griffin, it takes her a while to get over the fact that he literally abducts her from her home. Everyone else acts like she’s being unreasonable about this, but I think she has a good point. Her god (actually a god) father Poseidon plays a huge role in this abduction, which saves Griffin from being the bad guy, which is the normal role for a kidnapper.

Another thing I like about this story is that magic makes sense. As you may have guessed from Poseidon showing up, Greek mythology makes up a huge chunk of this world. It saves Bouchet from having to explain everything to her readers, which usually bogs down a story. It also provides a framework so things can pop up unexpectedly without feeling like they came out of nowhere.

These are great things, but I think Bouchet’s best accomplishment in this novel is her flow of information. One of my greatest pet peeves when reading fantasy is when I feel like I’m not being told something important for no good reason. Cat’s past is dribbled out throughout the book, but I never feel like I should know things about her that I don’t. At the end of the book we still don’t know everything (book 2 is out: Breath of Fire) but we’ve been given enough information to fill in the larger gaps, even if it hasn’t all been spelled out for us yet.

Cat and Griffin’s story might be somewhat predictable, but it’s still a fun and enjoyable read. I’d give it an 8 out of 10.

The High Mountains of Portugal Review

the-high-mountains-of-portugal

Well, this book surprised me. Mostly because it didn’t surprise me. Remember that ridiculous prediction I made about the chimp? Turns out it wasn’t so ridiculous. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This book starts out following Tomás in the wake of his family’s death. Within one week he loses the woman he loves, his child, and his father. Understandably, it leaves him a bit damaged. As a way to express his grief, he starts walking backward. I didn’t really get it, but we all grieve differently, right?

While working on some old records, Tomás finds a priest’s diary and becomes obsessed with a relic that the priest designed. He borrows his uncle’s automobile (it’s 1904, so they’re pretty new) and sets off to the High Mountains of Portugal to find this relic. His uncle’s driving instructions are hilariously brief. Pull this lever, push this pedal, and you’re good to go. See you in ten days.

Tomás hates the automobile, but it’s the only way he can make it to his destination and back home in the time he has off from work. Yann Martel does an excellent job of making you feel as though you are jolting along the rural roads of Portugal with Tomás. It is excellent writing. It’s not exactly comfortable reading.

Also, it drags on. Tomás doesn’t make it to his destination and back in ten days. In fact, it takes him that long just to reach the High Mountains of Portugal, which, by the way, doesn’t have any mountains. Tomás is having a mental breakdown during this journey, and while it’s described masterfully, I got tired of reading about a man fighting with his car and scratching his lice and sobbing into the elephant-leather seats.

There are some high points. In one village a woman threatens to feed him to a dog and then eat the dog. I’ll give her top marks for originality. I might have to use that threat someday. The excerpts from the priest’s diary really make you want to know what this relic is that Tomás is chasing. Finally we learn that it is a crucifix, but one that will shake Christendom to its core. Tomás believes that bringing this relic to life will destroy people’s faith, just as his has been destroyed by the death of his family.

In his very lowest point, Tomás hits and kills a child with his automobile. It really is not his fault, but rather than face what he has done he flees down the road, his guilt now hastening his complete collapse. He finally makes it to the village that holds the crucifix, which depicts a chimpanzee on the cross, rather than a man. The villagers dismiss Tomás’s claim, believing instead that the figure on the crucifix is oddly proportioned because it was meant to be viewed from below, and the artist was attempting to correct the distortion from that perspective. Also, Tomás is not a very credible figure at the moment. He collapses outside the church and his part of the story ends.

I was honestly pretty relieved to leave Tomás behind. I felt some sympathy for him, but I still didn’t like him much. And my feelings for him completely dried up after he left a child lying in the road. The urge to flee is an understandable and very human reaction. It’s also despicable.

We leap ahead 35 years to the morgue in Bragança, Portugal. Eusebio Lozora is the pathologist there. He is working late at night on December 31st, 1938, attempting to catch up on his paperwork. He is interrupted by his wife, who drops in with some books and a bottle of wine. I love this woman already.

They have a very entertaining discussion about theology and Agatha Christie and how the Gospel story is like a murder mystery. It’s more of a monologue really, with Eusebio nodding along to his wife’s thoughts. This is my favorite scene of the book.

Eusebio’s wife finally leaves and he tries to get back to work, only to be interrupted by another woman. A widow has dragged her dead husband down from the High Mountains of Portugal for him to perform an autopsy. Eusebio cuts the body open to find that the man is filled with an odd assortment of things from vomit to feathers to children’s toys. I was fairly certain that either Martel or myself was hallucinating.

It turns out, neither of us were, but Eusebio was. The woman who transcribes his autopsies comes in the next morning to find him passed out at his desk. She is worried about him, ever since his wife died recently. He is not handling the grief well.

Despite the fact that the autopsy never happened (OR DID IT?!?) some interesting facts come to light. The widow tells Eusebio that she and her husband had a son, who was killed when he was five years old. He was out of town with his father, who had gone on a trip for work. He was discovered, miles from where he should have been, dead on the road.

To continue our triad of widowers, we jump to 1988 and across an ocean. Canadian Senator Peter Tovy has just lost his wife. He drifts around for a while, buys a chimpanzee on impulse, and moves to Portugal to explore his roots. He goes back to the village his parents left when he was three years old, in the High Mountains of Portugal.

With surprisingly little difficulty, Peter settles into his new life with no electricity and a simian roommate. He lives this simple existence for two years, learning how to exist only in the present from his chimp.

One day he discovers a suitcase full of odd things (the same things that were found in the body during the autopsy of part 2). While investigating the contents, he learns that the house he is living in is his old family residence. This leads to the discovery that his mother’s cousin, who was killed when he was only five, has become a sort of local saint women pray to when they’re having trouble conceiving. Also, the crucifix hanging in the local church looks oddly like a chimp.

Peter, who has a bad heart, then takes a long walk with his chimpanzee and dies out on the plateau of the High Mountains of Portugal. The End.

As I said, this book is masterfully written. Yann Martel excels at subtlety. Little things tie all the sections together, such as walking backwards to express grief. It also has touches that will feel familiar to fans of Life of Pi, such as animals who straddle the line between characters and symbols. There’s also an ambiguity about what is really happening and what the characters are imagining. If I was grading the writing, I would give this a 9/10.

When it comes to enjoyability, the grade falls to about 6.5. On the one hand, I like that Martel doesn’t feel the need to spell every little detail out for his readers. On the other hand, the fact that he sets up important moments and then just lets them hang there creates a lack of resolution that I find unsettling. Just tell me what happened already!

I admire Yann Martel’s writing, but I don’t know that I like reading his books. And I think he might take that as a compliment. I certainly don’t mean it as an insult. I think it’s okay for books to leave you a little uncomfortable. But it isn’t what you’re looking for when you just want to curl up in front of the fire with a mug of tea.