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 doesn’t ship to China, and 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. 

Friday, 9 May 2014

Tough Travelling: Dark Lords

Tough Travelling is a feature started up by Nathan over at Fantasy Review Barn, an alphabetical tour through the tropes of our beloved genre (as defined by the awesome Tough Guide to Fantasyland).

This week’s topic? Dark Lords. Because we all know that…

There is always one of these in the background of very Tour, attempting to ruin everything and take over the world.  He will be so sinister that he will be seen by you only once or twice, probably near the end of the Tour.  Generally he will attack you through MINIONS…

1. Satoris from The Sundering Duology by Jacqueline Carey
Ok, I admit it. The main reason I’m joining in this week is so I can gush about The Sundering Books, which are severely underloved. They basically deconstruct The Lord of the Rings, mostly through telling the tragic story of Satoris: a dark lord misunderstood god of sex who spends his time pacing the austere towers of Mordor Darkhaven, controlling an army of orcs Fjeltroll, and generally attempting to thwart any plan the “good” guys come up with.

2. Sauron from The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
I’m not a huge LotR fan but I figured since we visited Satoris, we might as well visit his inspiration – pretty much the classic dark lord of fantasy.

3. The White Witch from (some of the) Narnia Books by C. S. Lewis
Ah, another classical fantasy despot, this one with a love of winter and the colour white. You’ve got to admire Jadis for her class, though: she cultivated dramatic gardens and had brilliant seduction skills (come to the dark side! We have Turkish Delight!).

Random, slightly personal fact: I actually got married at Castle Hill, which is where they filmed her final showdown with the forces of Aslan in the most recent version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

4. Voldemort from the Harry Potter Books by J. K. Rowling 

Yes, yes, I went with the easy choices this week. But I loved the Harry Potter books. I couldn’t leave He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named off this list, although to be honest I think he was at his creepiest as the teenage memory of his former self. 

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Book Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

Title: Divergent
Author: Veronica Roth
Genre: Dystopian, Young Adult
Publisher: Katherine Tegan Books
Date Published: 2011
Ranking: 2 stars out of 5

Blurb (taken from Goodreads):
In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue--Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is--she can't have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles alongside her fellow initiates to live out the choice they have made. Together they must undergo extreme physical tests of endurance and intense psychological simulations, some with devastating consequences. As initiation transforms them all, Tris must determine who her friends really are--and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating boy fits into the life she's chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers unrest and growing conflict that threaten to unravel her seemingly perfect society, Tris also learns that her secret might help her save the ones she loves . . . or it might destroy her.

Why I read it: I read this book because I’ve heard a lot of students raving about it, and wanted to be able to discuss it with them/ incorporate it into lessons to raise participation levels in the classroom. Apparently I forget my tendency to dislike books pushed upon people at school (unless, of course, I am doing the pushing. Then I am just fine with it!)

My thoughts:

I was decidedly underwhelmed by this one. It had plenty of good ideas, but far too much inconsistency and silliness for me to properly enjoy it. 

The book is set in an isolated city (apparently Chicago) where society is divided into 5 cult-like factions. Military members of the Dauntless guard the outskirts; the only people allowed out are the Amity, who farm the surrounding environs. In any case, people seem remarkably incurious about the wider world. What’s important is your place in society, determined by your faction – so naturally this critical decision is decided on your 16th birthday, and once made can never be changed. Riiiight.

I quite liked the idea of the different factions, although they frequently verged into the unbelievable. Each is described as having their own traditions, style of dress, and possible career paths. For example, the Abnegation never celebrate birthdays, the Candor dress only in black and white (because ‘that’s how they see the world’) and the Erudite provide the scholars & scientists of society. However, this is taken to ridiculous extremes – especially with the Dauntless, whose defining characteristics include dressing entirely in black, having a love affair with piercings and tattoos, and jumping off buildings wherever possible. Roth occasionally lampshades the Dauntless’ confusing style – they’re meant to be military, so why, exactly, are they covered in impractical piercings? And are you seriously telling me that one fifth of society are wandering around looking like punks? – but for the most part she treats it as standard. Also, it frequently seems like the entire Dauntless unit is run by teenagers. There are brief mentions of adults, but they rarely feature in the novel. Maybe they killed off all the elderly because their tattoos were sagging. 

Tris was the main character of this novel. A teenager on the cusp of choosing her future, she’s daring and reckless (and apparently intelligent & selfless, although I never saw much evidence of that. In fact, her actions in this book are frequently baffling). I really liked her friendship with fellow-initiate Christina; beyond that, there’s not that much I want to say about her. Most of the book follows Tris’ struggle to be accepted by her faction, and I enjoyed those parts. Again, there are elements of silliness (I’m sorry, but you don’t become a master marksman in a week) but on the whole, it’s pretty fun.

One last thing I want to talk about is the entire concept of the novel – that a rare few individuals come up divergent, meaning they are equally suited for multiple factions, rather than just one – and the idea that this is somehow a dangerous and subversive act. The testing process is carried out with simulations that are supposed to let teenagers know what faction suits them best. However, choosing a faction is ultimately up to the individual. People can remain in their home faction, or not; making decisions contrary to their (secret) test results is perfectly acceptable. So I don’t see why being divergent is such a problem. Yes, it seems to give you some control over simulations (for reasons that make no sense, but whatever). But simulations are rarely, if ever, used in everyday society. So that shouldn’t matter either.

There are a couple of other things that bugged me about this novel, but I don’t want to complain too much. Yes, it had serious flaws… but I still managed to finish it, so clearly it wasn’t all bad. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but rabid fans of YA dystopias though. 

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Thursday Thoughts: Reading Slumps

Thursday Thoughts is a new(ish) feature hosted by Ashley over Ok, Let’s Read. The topics look interesting and I’ve enjoyed reading posts from previous weeks, so I thought I’d finally join the fun! 
This week’s discussion centres on reading slumps. Just to pander to my logical side, I’m going to start with a definition: a reading slump is when you look at your TBR pile… and instead of feeling like Belle in a library, you just can't be bothered. This either means that you 1) read less, or that 2) the reading you do is a chore. 

Now at times, I do read less – but that’s usually because I’m binge-watching a TV show, incredibly involved a roleplaying game, or watching a lot of theatre. I worked out a long time ago that I need stories to function, and I don’t really mind where I get them from. Occasionally I’ll forgo reading because I’m busy hiking/ travelling/ board gaming/ hanging out with friends, but that never lasts very long; I always need to recharge with a book eventually. But that’s not a slump. I’m still excited about reading – I just happen to be waiting a little longer between books. 

I think slumps happen when you’re trying to read on schedule. You feel like you have to read, but nothing really appeals. This is partly about the books you have in your TBR pile, of course, but also about relaxation – maybe you’ve just been reading too much and want to take a break. I'm guessing this can be stressful if you’re a book blogger with a regular posting schedule. (Especially if you’re one of those machines that plough through 3+ books a week! Honestly, guys, I don’t know how you do it.) Personally, I try to switch genres first – fantasy for historical fiction, historical fiction for sci-fi, sci-fi for contemporary, contemporary for whatever. But if that doesn’t work, I take a break until I feel excited again... because ultimately, I know who I'm reading for. 

What about you?