Tuesday, 30 September 2014

I've moved!

So I've finally moved! My new home is over at Wordpress, at www.inkyrealms.com.

Everything still looks a bit shaky and basic but hey, my reviews are there so I guess everything else will follow... eventually... :D


Sunday, 20 July 2014

Blog Hiatus

This blog is going on a brief hiatus. THANK YOU so much to everyone who has read & commented on reviews. I'm currently on holiday (in beautiful Indonesia) and after that I've got a bunch of assignments due for a distance Masters in GIS that I stupidly signed myself up for and have been putting off all year. So I'll be MIA for while, at least over here. 

I'm planning to revive everything in a month or two over on Wordpress. Fortunately my wife is a web designer and has promised to make me something beautiful :D 

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Book Review: The Lost by Sarah Beth Durst

The Lost (The Lost #1) by Sarah Beth Durst
Genre: Fantasy/ Mythic Fiction
Publisher: Harlequin/Mira
Date Published: May 2014
Author Information: Goodreads | Website | Twitter
Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Blurb (from Goodreads): It was only meant to be a brief detour. But then Lauren finds herself trapped in a town called Lost on the edge of a desert, filled with things abandoned, broken and thrown away. And when she tries to escape, impassable dust storms and something unexplainable lead her back to Lost again and again. The residents she meets there tell her she's going to have to figure out just what she's missing--and what she's running from--before she can leave. So now Lauren's on a new search for a purpose and a destiny. And maybe, just maybe, she'll be found...

Against the backdrop of this desolate and mystical town, Sarah Beth Durst writes an arresting, fantastical novel of one woman's impossible journey...and her quest to find her fate.



Why I read it: The blurb looked intriguing, and I loved the cover. Happily the novel was as good as I expected!

My thoughts:

I really liked this one.

It begins with somebody called Lauren driving out of town, doing her best to ignore her life. She doesn’t call in sick. She doesn’t let her mother know she’ll be home late. She just leaves. It’s a very quiet breakdown: a lone girl speeding in a car on the highway, shutting off the static on the radio because listening seems “self-consciously melodramatic.” Still, it’s dangerous to go on such escapades when there is magic realism afoot, as our heroine Lauren later ends up trapped in a little town called Lost – seemingly the home of all the abandoned and misplaced things in America.

Honestly? It’s a great start to a good novel.

Lost itself was brilliant. It’s described like one of those American hick towns you only see in the movies: just another town in the middle of nowhere, complete with dirty motel and run-down diner. However, Lost’s suburbs are made up of abandoned and foreclosed houses, and the streets are dangerous. They’re patrolled by feral dogs; littered with trash, odd socks, and broken glass. There’s no escape – beyond Lost, there’s only desert, and a soul-destroying dust storm. And yes, I mean that literally.

Lauren is understandably pissed when she works out what’s happening – she doesn’t want to be stranded in a settlement that shouldn’t even exist, not when her mother is sick at home. She’s made increasingly unhappy when the Missing Man, the only person with the power to return people to their lives, disappears. This forces her to team up with Claire the knife-wielding six year old (who is completely unrealistic but adorable all the same) and a guy named Peter, who I’ll talk about later. On the whole, though, I really liked Lauren. She made good choices in this book, and was generally very competent in a subdued, undramatic way that I found appealing. It’s mostly for her that I’m so excited about the sequel.

However, underpinning this book is a romance… and this had problems! Peter is described as arty rebel boy: a good-looking, tattooed fellow who favours the colour black and is exactly Lauren’s type. So far, so good. But a huge power imbalance quickly develops between the two of them. Lauren is a newcomer to Lost. She doesn’t know how to scavenge and survive on the fringes; she hasn’t the faintest clue about the lay of the land and the local inhabitants. Peter, however, has lived in Lost for years. He’s also MUCH older than her (and possibly not human?). Worse, he has some creeptastic tendencies - like sleeping in her wardrobe without permission, and regularly putting her down because “he likes her”. To be fair, both the narrative and Lauren call him out on some of this behaviour, but not consistently. (Although I admit I still enjoyed their budding romance despite this.)

A note on diversity: There’s a decent mix of genders here. All the main characters seem to be white, although one semi-important secondary character (Victoria the waitress) is described as having rich brown skin. There’s also no queer content: all relationships are heterosexual ones, and everyone appears cisgender. This strikes me as a wasted opportunity for a town of “lost” people, and I hope we’ll see a wider range of people in the sequel.

But those complaints aside, I really enjoyed this novel. It was well-written, and even made me cry at one stage! The overall worldbuilding and uses of magic were very metaphorical, but if you’re a fan of magical realism, I would definitely recommend this.


I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 
Thanks Netgalley & Harlequin!

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Book Review: Assassin's Quest by Robin Hobb

Assassin’s Quest (Farseer Trilogy #3) by Robin Hobb
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Date Published: March 1997
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Blurb (from Goodreads): King Shrewd is dead at the hands of his son Regal. As is Fitz—or so his enemies and friends believe. But with the help of his allies and his beast magic, he emerges from the grave, deeply scarred in body and soul. The kingdom also teeters toward ruin: Regal has plundered and abandoned the capital, while the rightful heir, Prince Verity, is lost to his mad quest—perhaps to death. Only Verity’s return—or the heir his princess carries—can save the Six Duchies.

But Fitz will not wait. Driven by loss and bitter memories, he undertakes a quest: to kill Regal. The journey casts him into deep waters, as he discovers wild currents of magic within him—currents that will either drown him or make him something more than he was.


Why I read it: 

I read Assassin’s Apprentice, and thought it was pretty good. Royal Assassin was better, easily a 5 star read. Of course I was going to finish this trilogy off!


My thoughts:

I’m not quite sure how to write this review. Saying this was a 5 star read doesn’t do this book justice. Because while I have read some great 5 star reads this year, I didn’t enjoy them half as much as this one. If Robin Hobb consistently finishes trilogies like this (and I plan to find out very, very soon!) then she will be joining the ranks of Jacqueline Carey and Guy Gavriel Kay as my all-time favourite authors.

And before I gush about it some more, a warning: there's a few MAJOR spoilers for book two below. Read on at your own risk!




The end of Royal Assassin, book two in the Farseer Trilogy, saw Fitz “die” at Regal’s hand. He only survived because he used the Wit to escape into the mind of his wolf. However, this endurance came at a cost. The wider world (including most of his friends and allies) consider him long gone. And on a more personal level, Fitz’s time spent living as a wolf stripped him of his humanity; it’s unclear if he will ever fully regain his human side. In short, Fitz is a broken and changed man: barred from his home at Buckkeep and with little left to live for (or lose!). Which sucks for him (and I felt for Fitz, I really did!) but is a very dramatic place to begin a novel.

And it only gets better from there.

The plot builds slowly. It begins with Fitz’s convalescence under Burrich’s hand. Later, it follows Fitz inland as he quests for revenge. Regal stole his life and Verity’s kingdom; Fitz intends to make him pay. The result is a series of increasingly epic (mis)adventures through Farrow and the Mountain Kingdoms. There are even dragons!

There’s also a LOT more magic in this book, which made me very happy. In my review of Assassin’s Apprentice, I said the Wit bored me because it seemed like generic animal magic. But I take it all back! The Wit is awesome. It’s integral to the plot, and to Fitz, with strengths and flaws that are incredibly interesting. Fitz even meets others of the “Old Blood” during his journey, and learns just how little he knows about Witted folk and what they can do. It was great to finally get a glimpse of how the Wit was used outside the confined world of Buckkeep proper.

We also see more of the Skill and its capabilities. Fitz continues to show promise with the Skill, and his limited training continues to trip him up. Regal’s coterie, led by Will, is an increasing threat. However, the Skill-related plotlines are advanced mainly by a couple of new characters and various strange situations that Fitz encounters. It’s brilliant - I love this kind of fiddly, vicious mind magic. It’s so much fun to read about!!

There’s also some great character stuff in this book. Fitz is the core of the novel (and my heart broke for him. Repeatedly. Poor guy.) but the secondary characters remain brilliantly written. I have a soft spot in my heart for Verity, but I also enjoyed the two new female characters introduced. Kettle the crotchety old woman was excellently written, and Starling the bard had surprising depth.

We also learn a lot more about the Fool. He played a fairly minor role in the first two books, but really comes into his own here. Suddenly I understand why everyone raves about how awesome Fitz & the Fool are together! They become much closer in this novel, and I really appreciated the glimpse of love (and possibly romance?) shared between them. I also loved the (very unexpected!) discussion on gender the Fool comes out with in this book. I’ve always imagined him as your average straight and cis-male, because nobody has ever commented otherwise. But knowing his personal views of gender, and the fact that he was androgynous-enough that another character mistook him as a female, means I have to revise my internal image of who this person is. And that makes me very happy! I like it when books screw with your expectations, and obviously I’m a fan of queer-ish content in my fantasy.

The only thing I didn’t like was Fitz’s relationship with Molly, his lover and childhood friend from the previous two books. Her appearances in this book are brief. Fitz dreams of her occasionally, and remains deeply in love. But their relationship is deeply unequal. Molly doesn’t even know that Fitz is alive, and mainly exists to be threatened by Regal and cause Fitz some noble man-pain. However, I liked the way her plotline was concluded, so this criticism is given half-heartedly at best.

Also? You can look forward to an ending that is both satisfyingly epic and more than a bit melancholy. (I even cried a little.)

Seriously, I can’t recommend this book enough! Some of the best epic fantasy I’ve read in years. 

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Waiting On Wednesday: The Magician's Land

Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Breaking the Spine, a great place to geek out over upcoming books!

My pick for this week is The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman, to be published by Viking in August. I’ve really enjoyed this series so far (yes, despite Quentin’s whining!) so I can’t wait for the conclusion. And not just because I share the same somewhat-guilty love of Narnia that seems to permeate these books! The Magician King had an excellent ending, and I do want to know what happens to Quentin now he’s been flung back into the real world. Plus the blurb is promising epic things. Ah portal fantasies, how I love you.


Quentin Coldwater has been cast out of Fillory, the secret magical land of his childhood dreams. With nothing left to lose he returns to where his story began, the Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic. But he can’t hide from his past, and it’s not long before it comes looking for him.

Along with Plum, a brilliant young undergraduate with a dark secret of her own, Quentin sets out on a crooked path through a magical demi-monde of gray magic and desperate characters. But all roads lead back to Fillory, and his new life takes him to old haunts, like Antarctica, and to buried secrets and old friends he thought were lost forever. He uncovers the key to a sorcery masterwork, a spell that could create magical utopia, a new Fillory—but casting it will set in motion a chain of events that will bring Earth and Fillory crashing together. To save them he will have to risk sacrificing everything.


The Magician’s Land is an intricate thriller, a fantastical epic, and an epic of love and redemption that brings the Magicians trilogy to a magnificent conclusion, confirming it as one of the great achievements in modern fantasy. It’s the story of a boy becoming a man, an apprentice becoming a master, and a broken land finally becoming whole.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Book Review: Child of a Hidden Sea by A. M. Dellamonica

Title: Child of a Hidden Sea
Author: A. M. Dellamonica
Genre: Portal Fantasy
Publisher: Tor Books
Date Published: June 24th 2014
Source: Publisher via Netgalley
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Blurb (taken from Goodreads):
One minute, twenty-four-year-old Sophie Hansa is in a San Francisco alley trying to save the life of the aunt she has never known. The next, she finds herself flung into the warm and salty waters of an unfamiliar world. Glowing moths fall to the waves around her, and the sleek bodies of unseen fish glide against her submerged ankles.

The world is Stormwrack, a series of island nations with a variety of cultures and economies—and a language different from any Sophie has heard.

Sophie doesn't know it yet, but she has just stepped into the middle of a political firestorm, and a conspiracy that could destroy a world she has just discovered… her world, where everyone seems to know who she is, and where she is forbidden to stay.

But Sophie is stubborn, and smart, and refuses to be cast adrift by people who don't know her and yet wish her gone. With the help of a sister she has never known, and a ship captain who would rather she had never arrived, she must navigate the shoals of the highly charged politics of Stormwrack, and win the right to decide for herself whether she stays in this wondrous world... or is doomed to exile.



Why I read it:  

I love portal fantasies and anything nautical, so this looked right up my alley.

My thoughts:

There was so much I loved about this book: the characters, the nautical setting, the irreverent tone...

I’m going to discuss the characters first, because they were what I enjoyed most about this novel. The main character was Sophie, a thrill-seeking American biologist in her mid-twenties. Adopted at birth, she finally tracks down her biomom – and then gets accidentally transported into the world of Stormwreck for her troubles. (As her brother Bran later comments, “It’s not enough to go looking for a few biological relatives, you mad overachiever? You have to find a whole birth planet.”) For a middle-class girl from San Francisco, Sophie’s skillset is remarkably apt for this alternative archipelago world - she can dive, climb, sail, and is handy with a camera – but she never comes off as a Mary Sue. Although she’s calm under pressure when she’s doing something she’s been trained in, there’s a lot that happens in Stormwreck that she was completely unequipped to deal with. Watching her work through that made her a very interesting character.

But Sophie wasn’t the only character I loved. This book is very much about Sophie’s two families – both real and birth – so her brother Bran, half-sister Verena, and other relatives play central parts. Captain Parrish & First Mate Tobias, sailors on her aunt’s ship Nightjar, were also key players. Bran was probably one of my favourites. He spends much of the novel conducting an intellectual quest to determine the origins of Stormwreck, picking up the local language (although his stupendous ability in Fleetspeak seemed unrealistic to me. I’m sorry, but nobody learns languages that fast) and bantering with Sophie. The only thing that disappointed me was Bran’s single status – after he acknowledged that “Captain Tasty” was a suitable nickname for Parrish, I wanted a shipboard romance between the pair SO MUCH.

Ahem.

One thing I also liked (and will thus comment on, because I always seem to) is that there is a lot of diversity here. Firstly – gay people exist, yay! Both Bran and Tobias are queer, as well as a random few others throughout in the novel. We find out about their sexuality because it’s (somewhat) relevant to the plot, and Dellamonica later confirms that the rest of the Fleet doesn’t give a toss about your sexuality. There are some religious zealots who think homosexuality is sinful, but they are looked down on by the main characters for it. Secondly, the world isn’t entirely Caucasian. Parrish is probably the most notable PoC – I think he's meant to be the guy crouched on the cover with Sophie.

I also really enjoyed the world. Both the magic system and intricacies of government protocol seemed really interesting, although we saw less of them then I’d like. I really like having the nuts and bolts of a magic system laid out clearly (perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Brandson Sanderson here!) but Dellamonica keeps most details on how inscriptions function under wraps. This does make sense as Sophie doesn’t understand magic in any depth either, but I hope it gets expanded it later novels. The multiple islands and cultures also mean there is still a lot of explore. Gah. Can you tell I want the sequel?!

My one criticism is the lack of a map - given how much time Bran and Sophie spend pouring over charts and children’s drawings of Stormwreak, I was surprised the novel didn’t come complete with one. Dellamonica has explained this was excluded because Stormwreak is the size of Earth and predominately ocean, so a global map wouldn’t be that interesting. However, my inner cartographer would like to point out that included maps could always be on a large scale rather than a small one, or feature winds & currents instead of just ocean. I also think that showing just part of the world would link nicely to a lot of characters’ ignorance about the location of the outlying islands. But I suppose this has more to do with the packaging of the book than the book itself.

Basically, this is a brilliant novel: light in tone and cleverly plotted. I’d recommend it in a heartbeat.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Waiting on Wednesday: Posion Fruit by Jacqueline Carey

Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Breaking the Spine, a great place to geek out over upcoming books!

My pick for this week is Poison Fruit (Agent of Hel #3) by Jacqueline Carey. It’s coming out in October and is the final book in her Agent of Hel series, so I’m expecting slew of delicious magical chaos for Daisy. It’s going to be awesome. Possibly more exciting than that (for me, anyway) is that Jacqueline Carey will have to start writing a new series now this one is over. Fingers crossed for something epic!

The hot-as-Hel series with the “Sookie Stackhouse type of vibe” (Paranormal Horizon) is back—but this time the paranormal Midwestern town of Pemkowet is feeling a frost in the air and the residents are frozen in fear...

The Pemkowet Visitors Bureau has always promoted paranormal tourism—even if it has downplayed the risks (hobgoblins are unpredictable). It helps that the town is presided over by Daisy Johanssen, who as Hel’s liaison is authorized by the Norse goddess of the dead to keep Pemkowet under control. Normally, that’s easier to do in the winter, when bracing temperatures keep folks indoors.

But a new predator is on the prowl, and this one thrives on nightmares. Daisy is on her trail and working intimately with her partner and sometime lover from the Pemkowet PD, sexy yet unavailable werewolf Cody Fairfax. But even as the creature is racking up innocent victims, a greater danger looms on Pewkowet’s horizon.

As a result of a recent ghost uprising, an unknown adversary—represented by a hell-spawn lawyer with fiery powers of persuasion—has instigated a lawsuit against the town. If Pemkowet loses, Hel’s sovereignty will be jeopardized, and the fate of the eldritch community will be at stake. The only one who can prevent it is Daisy—but she’s going to have to confront her own worst nightmare to do it.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Top Ten Tuesdays: My Summer TBR Pile

Cheers to the gals at The Broke and the Bookish for hosting this lovely meme!

This is meant to be the Top Ten Books on my Summer TBR pile. However, I’ve listed the nine books (or possibly 13, if you count all the titles by Hobb that I intend to read!) that are definitely next up in my TBR list, although I’m sure I’ll pick up some random others based on reviews I see floating around. I've got a one month holiday coming up in August too, so I'm hoping to get through quite a few!



Assassin's Quest (Farseer Trilogy #3) by Robin Hobb
This is the last book in an epic trilogy that I have loved so far. I binge-read the first two books, and have definite plans to finish off the third soon (and probably the Tawny Man trilogy too, because why not). Based on the first two, I have no doubt that they will be awesome. Just look at that dragon on the cover!

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
I’ve only ever read one short story by Nnedi Okorafor. (It was marvellous.) Plus, her books seem to keep extremely good company on Goodreads – whenever they pop up, they’re always listed with others I love. So looking forward to her novel on the alien invasion of Nigeria!

Lord of Emperors (The Sarantine Mosaic #2) by Guy Gavriel Kay
I started reading Kay a couple of years ago, and have loved everything he’s written. Now this book was actually on my Spring TBR list, but somehow I didn’t get around to it (I blame Netgalley!). But I love Kay’s novels. They’re dramatic, and epic, and always make me cry. Definitely reading this over summer.




Shadowplay (Micah Grey #2) by Laura Lam
I read Book 1 earlier this year, and now Book 2 is sitting on my Kindle, waiting patiently to be read. A second instalment of queer fantasy, apparently with more magic than the last? Yes please.
  
The Mirror Empire (The Worldbreaker Saga #1) by Kameron Hurley
I’ve heard a lot of good things about Hurley’s other books, although I’ve never read them. This new series of hers seems like a good place to start! It looks suitably epic. 

I know there are a lot of people who dislike these books, but I’m not one of them. (Maybe this could be blamed on my love of Narnia, despite its many flaws?) Anyway, I can’t wait to see how Grossman wraps this trilogy up.  



Rose Under Fire (Code Name Verity #2) by Elizabeth Wein
Another WW2 pilot novel, this time about an American who gets captured and sent to Ravensbruck, the notorious women's concentration camp. Looks as heart-wrenching as the last, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Also, that cover! Arty & dramatic.

Earth Star (Earth Girl #2) by Janet Edwards
I don’t read much YA, but am happy to make an exception for this series. The first book was awesome, and I’ve heard the second lives up to its predecessor. Yes to clever sci-fi & awesome female protagonists. 
 
War for the Oaks by Emma Bull
This book has been sitting on my Kindle for at least a year, and I found it when I was reorganising my books. I know it’s a classic (with faeries! I have a terrible weakness for faeries) so am really looking forward to reading it.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Book Review: Magic City, Recent Spells edited by Paula Guran

Magic City, edited by Paula Guran

Genre: Fantasy, Short Stories
Publisher: Prime Books
Date Published: May 2014
Source: Publisher via Netgalley
Star Rating:  3.5 stars out of 5

Blurb (from Goodreads): Bright lights, big city... magic spells, witchcraft, wizardry, fairies, devilry, and more. Urban living, at least in fantasy fiction, is full of both magical wonder and dark enchantment. Street kids may have supernatural beings to protect them or have such powers themselves. Brujeria may be part of your way of life. Crimes can be caused (and solved) with occult arts and even a losing sports team's "curse" can be lifted with wizardry. And be careful of what cab you call - it might take you on a journey beyond belief! Some of the best stories of urban enchantment from the last few years is gathered in one volume full of hex appeal and arcane arts.

Why I read it:
I like short stories, but I don’t read enough of them. This collection looked interesting – I love urban fantasy in small doses, and there were stories by heaps of authors I was curious about. 

My thoughts:

Magic Spells consists of 24 short stories, mostly urban fantasy. It didn’t feel like a cohesive collection, but I’m not convinced that it matters - there are some pretty awesome stories in here. (And some duds, but I suppose that’s expected.) They’re all tied together with a vague essay on magic at the beginning, tiny introductions that detail “The City” and “The Magic” in each tale, and the overarching urban theme - although this is defined very loosely, as we have stories from Ancient Babylon, a secondary fantasy world, Bordertown, and a string of various (mainly American) Earth locals.

One thing I loved about this anthology is the overall diversity it achieves. There are stories about and by both men and women. The LGBT crowd are well-represented, with 4 out of 24 stories (approximately 17%) featuring queer protagonists. And there are characters from a range of backgrounds and races. I also enjoyed “The City” introductions, which were often a bit random. For example, Mary Rosenblum’s The Woman Who Walked with Dogs is declared to be set in “an American city, perhaps one fairly near Philadelphia.” I spent most of the story wondering how exactly Guran had decided that, as Philadelphia was never mentioned. (Although I will be the first to admit my general ignorance of American geography, so perhaps there was some little clue in the story that I missed.)

My favourite stories were easily Seeing Eye by Patricia Briggs and Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor & Alan Dean Foster. Seeing Eye was a surprisingly engaging story, featuring a blind witch, a werewolf cop, a smidgen of romance and a lot of adventure; while Kabu Kabu chronicles the misadventures of Ngozi as she tries to get to the airport via an extremely odd taxi, complete with amazing descriptions and a plot that managed to be both somewhat predictable and utterly marvellous all at once. I’ve not read much by either author, but am now adding the Mercy Thompson Books and Who Fears Death to the top of my TBR pile.

There were a lot of other stories I enjoyed too, with The Arcane Art of Misdirection by Carrie Vaughn, Paranormal Romance by Christopher Barzak, The Slaughtered Lamb by Elizabeth Bear, and In The Stacks by Scott Lynch standing out in particular. But to be honest, most of these stories were pretty entertaining. The only truly sour note came from Curses by Jim Butcher, where half of the story consists of Harry Dresden finding different ways to ogle and comment upon a bartender’s boobs/butt/"assets" in general. Seriously, this would have been a much better collection without such objectifying drivel.  

That said, Magic Spells still manages to be a very good anthology. Recommended (with a caveat – a lot of these stories have also been published elsewhere. If you read a lot of them, check the table of contents before buying).

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Waiting on Wednesday: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Breaking the Spine, a great place to geek out over upcoming books!

My pick for this week is The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, to be published in September by Riverhead. And why? Because Waters is a stunning author - Fingersmith is possibly my favourite non-SFF book ever, The Night Watch was beautiful and melancholy, and her other books are awesome too. And this one! I was a bit worried when I first read the blurb – it doesn’t make it clear that there are lesbians in it, and her last novel, The Little Strangers, didn’t have any queer content – but apparently she’s not making this a trend. Plus all the reviews have said glowing things about both the romance and the overall tension in this book. I seriously can’t wait.


From the bestselling author of The Little Stranger and Fingersmith, an enthralling novel about a widow and her daughter who take a young couple into their home in 1920s London.

It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned; the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa—a large, silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants—life is about to be transformed as impoverished widow Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the “clerk class,” the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. Little do the Wrays know just how profoundly their new tenants will alter the course of Frances’s life—or, as passions mount and frustration gathers, how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize three times, Sarah Waters has earned a reputation as one of our greatest writers of historical fiction, and here she has delivered again. A love story, a tension-filled crime story, and a beautifully atmospheric portrait of a fascinating time and place,
The Paying Guests is Sarah Waters’s finest achievement yet.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: The Best Books I've Read (So Far) in 2014


Cheers to the gals at The Broke and the Bookish for hosting this lovely meme.

This week’s list features the top ten books I’ve read so far this year. It was an easy list to make as I haven't actually read that much recently - I blame my new job. Still, the list below is filled with great novels so I'm happy to let the gushing (re)commence! 

SFF: 



Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. I never got around to reviewing this one, but my god did I love the adventures of Breq the gender-subverting ex-spaceship. Probably my favourite novel this year.

A Stranger in Olondria
by Sofia Samatar.
A beautifully-written fantasy about literacy and ghosts. (My review.)

Child of a Hidden Sea by A. M. Dellamonica. An awesome portal fantasy - full of nautical mishaps, pop-culture musings and even a few gay people. Although I find it depressing how happy that last fact made me. (Review coming soon.)




Assassin's Apprentice (The Farseer Trilogy #1)
by Robin Hobb
. A compelling fantasy about Fitz, a lonely royal bastard and apprentice assassin. (My review.)

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. A very thoughtful stand-alone examining the burdens of leadership in an elven court. (My review.)

Pantomime by Laura Lam. Queer fantasy with circuses and a slight bit of of magic. Yes, of course I liked this. (My review.



Historical/Lit Fic: 




Somewhere in France: A Novel of the Great War
by Jennifer Robson. A satisfying story about a rich-girl-turned-ambulance-driver and her on-off boyfriend. (My review.)

Sarah's Key
by Tatiana De Rosnay. A surprisingly easy read concerning the Vel D'Hiv incident in France. (My review.
 

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. Heartbreaking novel about a string of interlinked families.

 

Non-fiction: 


The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why by Amanda Riply. Very interesting book, full of anecdotes & a bit of research. 

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Book Review: The Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Title: The Assassin’s Apprentice (Farseer Trilogy #1)
Author: Robin Hobb
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Voyager
Date Published: March 1996
Source: Bought
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Blurb (taken from Goodreads): In a faraway land where members of the royal family are named for the virtues they embody, one young boy will become a walking enigma.

Born on the wrong side of the sheets, Fitz, son of Chivalry Farseer, is a royal bastard, cast out into the world, friendless and lonely. Only his magical link with animals - the old art known as the Wit - gives him solace and companionship. But the Wit, if used too often, is a perilous magic, and one abhorred by the nobility.

So when Fitz is finally adopted into the royal household, he must give up his old ways and embrace a new life of weaponry, scribing, courtly manners; and how to kill a man secretly, as he trains to become a royal assassin.


Why I read it: 

I’ve never read anything by Robin Hobb, which is pretty terrible. So I decided to change that. This book seemed like a good place to start, especially considering Fool’s Assassin is coming out later this year.


My thoughts:

In many ways, The Assassin’s Apprentice is rather conventional. It’s set in the Six Duchies, a united (and medieval) kingdom with a smidge of magic. The protagonist is young, male, and somewhat magical. He also has royal blood, at least on his father’s side. So far, so traditional, right? Still, I’d be inclined to call this book classic rather than cliché because omg it was just that good.

The main character was (the) Fitz. A talented lad, he is trained as a stablehand, scribe, and assassin. This furnishes him with all sorts of useful skills – reading, writing, riding, biology/gardening, fighting, sneaking and others – to manipulate a situation to his favour. However, Fitz is a decent lad and not a cold-hearted killer. A lot of the book shows how incredibly isolated he is at court (can’t be easy growing up a royal bastard), and the doubts he has over his profession and general place in the world. It’s compelling reading. In fact, the only thing I disliked about Fitz was his use of the Wit.  I’m sorry, but I just find magic that lets humans bond telepathically with animals boring. 

The secondary characters were also great. I was surprised how much I liked Verity, Fitz’s royal uncle and second in line for the throne. Burrich the stablehand definitely grew on me too. However, I was also disappointed by the scarcity of women in this book. It’s not to say that it was badly written – none of the ladies we met seemed like stereotypes, and some were capable and confident characters. But for the majority of this book, Fitz doesn’t interact with any of them. He knows women who are unimportant servants or self-indulgent nobles, but their lives hardly touch his. Fortunately, this tendency lessens a bit near the end. I’m hoping the second and third books won’t suffer the same problem though: this trilogy looks like it will be great fun, and I want to be swept away in it instead of nitpicking at the gender politics.

I loved the plot too. There’s a lot of court politicking, which I always enjoy. There’s also some interesting stuff going on with the raiders harrying the shores of the Six Duchies, although I don’t want to say too much about that because spoilers. Beyond the Wit (yawn) there is also a nifty form of magic called the Skill, which looks like it will be explored more in later novels. Basically, I am getting pretty invested and can’t wait to read more of it. And I’m only on Book 1!

Highly recommended. This book really deserves 5 stars, but I’m stealing one because of the regrettable lack of ladies. Still an awesome novel though.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Book Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Title: The Goblin Emperor
Author: Katherine Addison (aka Sarah Monette)
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Tor
Date Published: April 2014
Source: Bought
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Blurb (taken from Goodreads): The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an "accident," he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.

Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.

Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend... and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne – or his life.

This exciting fantasy novel, set against the pageantry and color of a fascinating, unique world, is a memorable debut for a great new talent.



Why I read it: 

It felt like the entire blogosphere was raving about this book, plus I love fantasy novels with a heavy political element. A match made in heaven? 



My thoughts:

I think I would have enjoyed this one more if I’d known nothing about it. It was good, sure. But I wasn’t blown away by it, and I expected to be.

The concept is a simple one. We have an elven land ruled by a powerful emperor. But when a freak "accident" kills him and his first three heirs – the only ones trained for the crown – the mantle of power falls to Maia, whose goblin blood saw him exiled from the court at a young age. Maia may be the Emperor's last remaining heir, but he's also a half-blood upstart with only a rudimentary understanding of court politics and no clue how to rule. 

It’s an interesting set-up. A lot of it works simply because Maia is so nice. An introvert thrown into the deep-end (and honestly, I couldn’t imagine a worse job for somebody who doesn’t appreciate small talk and needs time alone), he tries to make things work because – well – it’s his country, and therefore his duty, to do the best he can to hold things together. The next in line for the throne is only a child, and (as Maia frequently reminds himself) child emperors rarely rule well. So he preserves ever onwards.

However, it also wasn’t the book I was expecting. I kept hearing that this book was a deeply political novel, and imagined a court filled with Terre D’Ange style machinations. And hell, this court probably was. But we don’t see any of it. As emperor, Maia is sequestered away from his people; he has courtiers to do his politicking for him. His job is simply to rule, to pick and juggle the options presented to him, to remember titles and customs and obscure bits of etiquette. The result is a very earnest novel – one that was superbly written, but also a bit slow at times. It examines Maia's loneliness, and his struggle to connect and trust while maintaining the stature required of a good emperor. All interesting, but I couldn't help wanting to know more about the manoeuvrings going on behind the scenes.

A note on the names: There is a glossary at the end of the book. I wish I’d flicked to this early in the novel. When I finally read through, I realised just how much of the nuance I was missing in the titles.

So there you have it. The Goblin Emperor was thoughtful, straightforward and good, much like its protagonist. I also found it disappointing because it didn’t quite live up to its hype for me (despite still being a very well-wrought story).

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Covers I'd Frame As Art

Cheers to the gals at The Broke and the Bookish for hosting this lovely meme.

This week TTT is a free choice, so I’ve decided to list the top ten book covers I’d frame as pieces of art. (I wanted to join in for this topic a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve been working 65-70 hour weeks recently and couldn’t find the time.) 

Anyways. Let the ogling commence!!



God's War by Kameron Hurley: I haven't read the book, but I like the cover. Nice sense of movement & interesting patterns. 

Earth Girl by Janet Edwards: Silhouetted birds against a dramatic sky and beautiful choice of title font? Yes please. 

L'Elue, aka the French edition of Kushiel’s Chosen, by Jacqueline Carey: I love this cover. It has great colours and an overall sense of sensual epicness that I think fits the book very well. I would put this in my bathroom and cackle at visitors' reactions to it.
  



Welcome to Bordertown edited by Holly Blak and Ellen Kushner: An otherworldly city featuring a decrepit motorcycle covered in ivy? Come on, who wouldn't want that on their wall? 


The Magicians by Lev Grossman: I like this cover. It manages to be simple yet somewhat magical all at once.

The Scar by China Mieville: It seems that I have a thing for dramatic skies. This one is in green and yellow, crowning the city of misty ships on the horizon. I approve. 
 


Elantris by Brandon Sanderson: I think a lot of minimalist fantasy covers are on the boring side, but this one really works. Beautiful colours & lovely shading.  

Lud in the Mist by Hope Mirreles: Another fantasy city paired with a striking title and yet more birds. I really like the colours and old-school magic vibe I get off this one. I would put it in my office to stare at and daydream.

The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff: Creepy and a little bit fey. I haven't read this book, and this cover is making me regret that.



And finally, The Peter Grant books by Ben Aaronvitch: I love all these because I collect maps – my entire house is covered them. It’s not great cartography, but it is great design. I think Whispers Underground and Moon Under Soho are my favourites so far.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Book Review: Static by L. A. Witt

Title: Static
Author: L. A. Witt
Genre: Science-Fiction, Romance, LGBTQ
Publisher: Riptide
Date Published: Jan 2014 (revised second edition)
Source: ARC from publisher
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Blurb (taken from Goodreads): After two years together, Alex has been dreading the inevitable moment when Damon learns the truth: that Alex is a shifter, part of a small percentage of the population able to switch genders at will. Thanks to a forced implant, though, Alex is suddenly static—unable to shift—and male. Overnight, he’s out to a world that neither understands nor tolerates shifters . . .  and to his heterosexual boyfriend.

Damon is stunned to discover his girlfriend is a shifter, and scared to death of the dangers the implant poses to Alex’s health. He refuses to abandon Alex, but what about their relationship? Damon is straight, and with the implant both costly and dangerous to remove, Alex is stuck as a man.

Stripped of half his identity and facing serious physical and social ramifications, Alex needs Damon more than ever, but he doesn’t see how they can get through this.

Especially if he’s static forever.



Why I read it: 

This looked like a cool concept, plus I’ve been meaning to read more specifically queer novels. Seemed like a good pick.


My thoughts: 

The world Witt creates here is an interesting one. It’s our Earth, with the single addition of shapeshifters who change gender rather species. It’s a cool idea, right? Witt’s shifters aren’t transgender, because they switch genders repeatedly rather than just once, and can tweak their body to match their mind. Instead, they have an identity of their own and a raft of other shifter-specific and queer issues to match, although these were a bit of a mixed bag. Some felt very realistic - for example, American shifters have documentation for both of their bodies, but can’t get married unless they show up as the opposite gender to their chosen partner on the big day. However, some of the set-up seemed bizarre – I mean, why would shifting exasperate some medical problems and solve others?

I also really liked the characters in this one, especially at the start. It was hard not to feel absolute pity for Alex. A closeted shifter who was illegally operated upon at her family’s behest, she ends up trapped in a male body – and suddenly out to a straight boyfriend and conservative workplace. Sounds like hell. It would be bad enough to have a family that wouldn’t accept you… but to have one that would drug & violate you in such a way? Urg. However, I though the book did a great job at balancing the pain Alex feels at being a shifter with the conflicting desire to live however he pleases, which was certainly not as a single gender.

The aforementioned straight partner in this book was Damon, who I think wins the award for best book boyfriend ever. Sure, he was bewildered and angry when he discovered that Alex was a shifter - but they’d been dating for two years and Alex had been lying the entire time about his identity; a little anger is natural. In fact, Damon’s initial reactions rang very true to me. However I didn’t buy how their friendship/romance progressed, but won’t say too much more on that front (because spoilers). I do wish we found out what Damon’s job was though – learning that Alex worked in technical support as a woman and moonlighted in a gay bar added a nice dimension to her character.

The only one thing I had trouble believing was in how Alex performed gender. Damon frequently notices that male Alex has the same mannerisms as his girlfriend. Makes sense, as they’re the same person. But the book never comments on how Alex walks or sits, which can be intensely gendered actions. It would have been nice to get at least a throwaway comment acknowledging this, even it was just to lampshade it and then let it go.

So I’m a bit torn about this book overall. I loved the central idea, but I thought the execution was lacking. There was average writing, a romance that veered between adorable and unbelievable, and a couple of heart-rending scenes.(Hesitantly) recommended, especially for those who like their fiction queer.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Thursday Thoughts: On eReaders and Their Awesomeness!

Another Thursday, another bookish discussion! Thursday Thoughts is a feature started up by Ashley over at Ok, Let’s Read, and I’m super excited about it this week because hey, got strong feelings about this one!  
 
Her questions: eReaders - Do you own an eReader (or a tablet that you read on)? Do you prefer eReaders or physical books and why? Do you think it is wise to invest in an eReader? If you could only read physical books or an eReader for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why?

My answer: Team Kindle, all the way.

I admit I used to prefer print books. I would rhapsodise about the smell of books (old & musty, new & salt-and-vinegar-ish), the beauty of their binding, and the pleasures of reading in a bathtub. And I still do appreciate bookbinding, although I think it’s an archaic hobby and have thus given it up in favour of learning R.

But I personally think ebooks (and ereaders) are far superior to their print counterparts. Why? They’re cheap. They’re light. You can carry hundreds of them in your purse. They help declutter your house. The automatic dictionaries improve your vocabulary and are complete life-savers when you read in a second language. They’re easy to search, preserve, and share. And how many people own bathtubs anyway? I haven’t lived in a dwelling that had one for, oh, the past ten years or so.

Downsides: eReaders rarely display maps well, which is sometimes an issue when reading geographical non-fiction texts/ epic fantasy novels. I expect this will change as the technology improves.


Basically I LOVE ebooks because they can go anywhere. My print books - twenty odd boxes of them - are still sitting in my parents’ garage. They’ve been there for years. They’ll probably never leave. It’s just not practical to shift that number internationally, especially since I've no idea how long I'll be based in China. (Another six months? Another year? Another three?) So yes: if pressed, I would exclusively read ebooks for the rest of my life. It wouldn't be hard; I practically do that already. 

Environmentally, I’m not sure if print or electronic books are better. I’ve read articles arguing it both ways. Yes, print books require paper... but ereaders also require resources, and old electronics are rarely disposed of properly. 

But this brings me to the main criticism I hear about ereaders – that they break, leaving you bookless. And yes, I have felt this pain. The first time my Kindle broke, it took me over three months to replace. Because it turns out that Amazon.com doesn’t ship to China, and Amazon.cn doesn’t sell Kindles – in fact, they’re really hard to buy over here (although there are other ereaders on the market). In the end, I had the Kindle sent to a friend in NZ. She then posted it onto me. A month later, after some bureaucratic wrangling with customs, I got a very exciting box in the mail. Still, during that Kindle-less period, it wasn’t like I didn’t have access to books. I had a Kindle app on my phone. Because I am a firm believer in stripping the DRM off books, I could also read everything on my computer with Calibre. (I know Amazon has a Kindle app for PC, but it’s really buggy and I’m not a fan. Also, the app doesn’t allow you to organise books, which becomes a problem when you have 300+ of them.)

What about you? Do you prefer ebooks to print, or don't you care either way?

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Book Review: A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

Title: A Stranger in Olondria
Author: Sofia Samatar
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Date Published: April 2013
Ranking: 4 out of 5 stars

Blurb (taken from Goodreads): Jevick, the pepper merchant's son, has been raised on stories of Olondria, a distant land where books are as common as they are rare in his home. When his father dies and Jevick takes his place on the yearly selling trip to Olondria, Jevick's life is as close to perfect as he can imagine. But just as he revels in Olondria's Rabelaisian Feast of Birds, he is pulled drastically off course and becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young girl.

In desperation, Jevick seeks the aid of Olondrian priests and quickly becomes a pawn in the struggle between the empire's two most powerful cults. Yet even as the country shimmers on the cusp of war, he must face his ghost and learn her story before he has any chance of becoming free by setting her free: an ordeal that challenges his understanding of art and life, home and exile, and the limits of that seductive necromancy, reading.


A Stranger in Olondria is a skillful and immersive debut fantasy novel that pulls the reader in deeper and deeper with twists and turns reminiscent of George R. R. Martin and Joe Hill.

Why I read it:  

I picked it up in a bookstore when I was on holiday in New Zealand and was entranced by the writing. I later saw it had been nominated for a Nebula, so I bought it.

My thoughts:

The blurb for A Stranger of Olondria outlines (or possibly, spoils) the plot of the entire novel. I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing or not, as this book seems much more about the writing and personal growth the characters than anything as prosaic as the plot.

It starts off almost like a travelogue, describing Jevick’s privileged childhood in the scorching village of Tyom. As the heir of his father’s wealth, Jevick is tutored not by a local, but an Olondrian. His father has two reasons for hiring a foreigner: he hopes his son will never be cheated by merchants over the sea, and revels in the status hiring an Olondrian brings. However, Jevick gets something different out of the lessons – he learns how to read.

Yes, this is another book about the pleasures of reading, featuring a protagonist who is more than a bibliophile than I am. But underlying that is the knowledge that Jevick comes from The Tea Islands, where almost everyone is illiterate because stories are passed on orally. For him, reading is akin to magic… but it’s also (maybe?) a colonial act. In any case, it rapidly entrances Jevick; he becomes fascinated by Olondrian culture and alienated from his own, creating a tension that drives a lot of the novel.

Yet after Jevick finally reaches Bain, Olondria’s capital – “the Harbour City, whose lights and colours spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses” – the story takes a startling turn, for Jevick becomes haunted by an angel. This was so unexpected I had trouble believing it at first, for it dramatically alters both the tone of the novel and Jevick’s life. It is also the only real mention of magic in the entire book. Unfortunately, Olondria has forbidden the worship of angels, placing Jevick in an awkward position: outlawed by the society he idolises, but with little hope of escape. What happens afterwards is incredibly interesting, although I won’t spoil it more than the blurb already has.

I actually loved the world Samatar created here. Throughout the novel, we get drip-fed snippets of history and literature, along with beautiful descriptions which I plan to quote later. It’s clear that Olondria is a complex place with myriad cultures and fraught religious systems, for all the story steers away from the many of the underlying issues it raises. This is largely due to the protagonists – one a scholar and dreamer; the other, dead – who only explore the world through their (rather limited) viewpoints. I’m not sure if this is a flaw or not. It was definitely a deliberate choice, and results in a powerful story. I did want to see more of Olondria though.

When I first started reading, I spent quite a while trying to link The Tea Islands & Olondria to their earthly inspirations. I later gave up. There are plenty of descriptions to tide you along; quantifying Samatar’s main influences isn’t that important.  I admit I’m still curious about the world (mostly in regards to the brewing religious strife) but this is probably because tempted to run a short RPG set in Olondria. I think my gaming group would enjoy it.

Also - the writing in this book was amazing. Here we have a nautical morning:
The air was cold, the sea restless; the boat danced at the end of her tether like a foal.
Here a palace:
We passed the famous palace of Feilinhu, standing in nacreous grandeur against the dark lace of its woods… 
Here a girl:
I thought of her playing with her friends, and I could see her so clearly: satin-eyed, dictatorial.
And here I will stop quoting despite the masses of underlined passages I have on my Kindle. But rest assured: pretty much all the prose is like this.

What else can I say? This was a great book. It’s also one of those absorbing, time-destroying novels. I almost gave up on it because the plot moves at a very deliberate (aka slow!) pace, but I’m incredibly glad I didn’t. There are some interesting themes and stunning sentences, but more importantly, a very satisfying ending… resulting in a cohesive and worthwhile read overall.