Even Stevens’s #CBR5 review #26: Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers

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Finished my half cannonball just under the wire! I really liked this book and was glad I could close out the year on a high note.

Dark Triumph is the second book in the His Fair Assassin series by LaFevers.  The second volume switches points of view – whereas the first book, Grave Mercy, focused on Ismae and gave us brief glimpses of Sybella, this time we learn Sybella’s story, and all the secrets in her past and her present. Dark Triumph picks up immediately following the events at the end of Grave Mercy, and Sybella is struggling to find a way to cope with her current assignment at the cruel Count D’Albret’s castle, when she is ordered to carry out another: smuggle out the most closely guarded prisoner at the castle and return him to the queen’s company.

On the whole, I really liked this book. There are some pros and cons here: I think LaFevers is a great storyteller and I like her voice, character styling, and the flow of the stories. I also think she side-stepped a big obstacle in writing trilogies, which is that most of the time, the second book feels like filler. This most definitely does not feel that way and the story is fast paced and gripping. However, I think (at least judging from Goodreads ratings) that I am in the minority of people who enjoyed the first installment more. Ismae, Duval, and Anne really grew on me and I wanted to keep up with their characters much more. Sybella turned out to be a pretty great protagonist but sometimes I felt that parts of her personality and her story were more the result of engineering and trying to fit her into the plot, rather than vice versa.

Both volumes are set in the late 1400s and many of the people in the books existed and many of the events happened. I love historical fiction the more I read it and both of these books have been a pretty fascinating look at some long past history (even if some of it is embellished).

I really enjoy LaFevers’s writing and I will definitely be checking out the final part of the trilogy when it comes out next year (which will feature the third girl of their group, Annith). This is a quick but engrossing read and I was entertained to the very last page.

Even Stevens’s #CBR5 review #25: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

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On her 16th birthday, Elisa is wed to Alejandro – the king of a neighboring country whom she has never met. The marriage is a political one and Elisa, shy and nervous, would be content to be a lifelong wallflower and let her sister and father worry about politics. For Elisa, though, that will never happen because she also happens to be the bearer of the Godstone – a jewel placed in the belly of a chosen child on his or her naming day by God himself, marking the child for God’s chosen one. As Elisa leaves her home to go to a foreign country she is plunged into a world of political strategizing, greed, deception and sorcery. She must also contend with the fact that there are those who wish to eliminate the bearer of the Godstone and take its power for themselves.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns is 400 pages of high fantasy action and adventure, but it is also the tale of one spoiled young princess becoming a strong young woman. Elisa struggles with her weight and actually wishes for an ugly husband, so that she cannot disappoint him with her appearance. She’s loving toward her handmaids but also is self-absorbed and stubborn. Despite these last traits (or heck, maybe even because of them), Elisa is easy to relate to and I was rooting for her from the first page.

Carson does an excellent job of painting Elisa as a teenage girl on the cusp of becoming a woman.  She is smart and tough but hasn’t yet figured out how to apply those traits to the world around her.  As the events of the book unfold, she’s thrust into sink-or-swim situations and she becomes not only a survivor, but a fighter, proud and strong.  There is a hint of a love triangle that develops, and while I was initially annoyed by this overplayed trope, Carson turned the tired out scenario right on its head, leaving me pleasantly surprised.

Surprises are something this book is not short on. There were several situations in which I thought I knew exactly what would play out, but I was so wrong (and happy to be so wrong). Carson keeps up a fast pace and so many developments occur that I wonder what will happen in the next two books. Yes it is a trilogy, but for once I am beyond excited to dive in to the next installment.  In fact, I just got the next two as a Christmas gift, so I will be delving in shortly!

In a YA market crowded with supernatural and fantasy books, Carson’s excellent writing and character development make her stand out amongst the crowd. If you’re a fan of high fantasy with a kick-ass female protagonist (think Graceling) then I would recommend giving this book a go, I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Even Stevens’s #CBR5 review #24: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

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Going Clear is a comprehensive and objective look at Scientology, its beliefs and its leaders over the years.  The scope of information in this book is actually pretty mind-boggling. Wright first looks L. Ron Hubbard’s early life to his creation of Dianetics, which would evolve into Scientology. This takes up a large chunk of the book and it’s fascinating and a bit unbelievable – the man literally created his own religion.  Though never stated, Hubbard’s history paints the picture of a man who is not well and most likely has some sort of psychological issues that are untreated. This shows the most in his hatred of psychiatry and his constant assertions that psychiatrists are the root of evil in this world. Reading about his life and later adventures, especially at sea, reads like an adventure novel of a crazy old coot meandering the world and getting into shenanigans and hijinx.

Scientology has fascinated me for years; the stories of all the horrors that ex-members suffered, the stifling Hotel California-esque method of entry (you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave) and the dogged pursuit of those that try to leave or escape. I wondered how this could be allowed to call itself a religion when it is clearly a cult (an opinion that was only solidified by this book). Well apparently, it’s hard to distinguish the line between religion and cult when the members don’t actually feel they’re being abused. People are systematically manipulated and broken down so that they become dependent on the church (both psychologically and monetarily), making it hard for anyone to leave even if they want to. Wright covers all of this and more, and it is just truly fascinating and horrifying.

Wright takes an objective stance to all of this (and given what happens to people who speak negatively against the church, it’s not hard to see why) and it’s really impressive because I hit several points in the book where I was I thought “these people are crazy! N-U-T-S!”  His research and documentation is meticulous though, and it shows in the writing. There is also some unintentional humor peppered throughout – Wright will describe some awful event or practice that occurred within the church and then there is a footnote (and then another and another) reading: *The church categorically denies all claims that this happened. The cult church says it doesn’t abuse people?! Crazy talk. Anyway, it gets pretty amusing at the sheer number of denials the church issues.

A lot of attention is devoted to David Miscavige (total sociopath. Dude is scary.) and Tom Cruise and the Hollywood factor of Scientology. Scientology goes out of its way to recruit and cater to celebrities, which is really an ingenious way to keep your church front and center and always in the news.

There is so much more in this book, some scary stuff too. The most disturbing to me is Operation Snow White in which Scientologists basically infiltrated several foreign and domestic government agencies and gathered intel for blackmail and extortion. Seriously. This happened.

I want to just keep writing because this stuff is fascinating, but instead I will encourage you to read the book because it’s an engrossing read, and one that feels almost too crazy to be true.

Even Stevens’s #CBR5 review #23: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

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The Shining Girls is a time-traveling serial killer cat-and-mouse thriller.  Got all that? Obviously, you have to check your disbelief at the door here.

Harper has had that killer urge since he was a boy, and as he grows older, it gets even stronger and he begins to kill when he can get away with it. After a fortuitous (and cleverly circular) string of events, Harper discovers a time traveling portal in a house in Chicago, and that’s when Harper begins his life as a serial killer. Harper will step out into different times and hunt girls, his girls – he knows them by their shine. He always goes back to make sure the job is complete and he’s always been successful – until Kirby. Kirby is the only girl to ever survive his attack (though just barely) and she spends her life after the attack searching for the man who nearly killed her. Kirby gains an internship at a paper and teams up with Dan, a sports writer (and former crime reporter), to hunt down a killer.

This book has so many outrageous elements that it just shouldn’t work. Unexplained magical time portal? Check. Vicious serial killer? Check.  Tough yet vulnerable survivor protagonist? Check, check and check. In the hands of someone with mediocre skills this would have been as schlocky as it sounds, but in Beukes hands, it just shines (I’m sorry. I had to.) Each of Harper’s victims is introduced to us and I found myself rooting for them, even though you knew what the outcome would have to be. Beukes creates more 3-D characters in a few pages than some writers can in entire books.

Kirby is a great character, she’s smart and ambitious and she’s driven to find her attacker, and she is hell bent on revenge. I loved that she wasn’t 100% healed, and likely never would be, and sometimes she was bitter as hell. I liked her friendship with Dan and there was a lot of humorous moments peppered in to make the story not so heavy. Beukes really has a wonderful way with creating characters and that’s where the strength of this novel lies. There are some clichés to be found (sociopath with no empathy, bohemian free-spirited mother, disillusioned reporter) but she takes them just a step above so that even when I knew something was coming, I enjoyed the journey she took me on to get there.

If you’re a mystery/thriller fan and are looking for something outside of the box, this is definitely the book for you. It’s smart and funny and really just fun as hell.

Even Stevens’s #CBR5 Review #22: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

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I have been working like a crazy person and squeezing in reading whenever I have time, but I’ve fallen a bit behind on my reviews as a result. So let me start this with the short version, just in case I start to ramble: I absolutely loved this book. Loved.

Now, the rest.

Ashley Cordova, the daughter of a reclusive and mysterious horror film director, is found dead from an apparent suicide at the young age of 24. She is remembered fondly and her death is seen as tragic, but no one questions the circumstances. Well almost no one: Scott McGrath, a disgraced writer thanks to a run in with Cordova (the elder) years earlier, has a mysterious encounter with a woman in a red coat the night before Ashley is found. Scott is shaken, convinced Ashley was trying to tell him something, and begins to dig into the weeks leading up to her death, as well as the bizarre world her father created and lived in, investigating whether there was more to the story than meets the eye.

The novel starts off in a manner that reminded me a bit of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (only better because I actually *like* McGrath, unlike stupid Mikael. But I digress):  A disgraced writer, a mysterious death, a world of intrigue. But Pessl creates her own world of characters and brilliantly weaves in several different types of media: newspaper, websites, photographs, testimonials, etc. to help tell the story. I loved this approach because it pulls the reader right in and there were times I forgot that I was reading about fictional characters.

Pessl also works in several storylines, yet it never felt cluttered to me. We learn about Stanislas Cordova’s rise to fame and ventures into the dark and disturbing films he became famous for (the titular night films).  We learn bits and pieces about Ashley’s early life and rumors of cults and satanic practices at the Cordova estate. There’s Scott’s story, two more main characters, Nora and Hopper, and some witchcraft, a rehabilitation center “jailbreak” and many other small bizarre events that add up to a strange and disjointed bigger picture.  The devil is in the details (here, it can be taken literally) and Pessl has a vivid imagination that translates beautifully onto the page. There is one scene involving a secret nightclub that was surreal and sinister and I imagine would look absolutely amazing on the big screen.

In the hands of someone else, this could have been sloppy or overly dramatic, but she weaves in just the right amount of skepticism and doubt, keeping her characters grounded, and leaving the element of mystery about so much of the book’s events. Was Ashley’s death natural or was there something more sinister involved? Is McGrath imagining things? What really happened on the Cordova estate? It’s a wonderful read and the ending satisfies as well – I think the reader can draw his or her own conclusions or choose to leave it a mystery; she gives us the story and leaves the verdict up to us.

If you are a fan of mystery, I highly recommend this book, I think there is something in there for everyone and I will definitely be looking for more of Ms. Pessl’s work.

Even Stevens’s #CBR5 review #21: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

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“Words save our lives, sometimes.” – Neil Gaiman (in the acknowledgements)

“Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.” – Lettie Hempstock

These two excerpts from The Ocean at the End of the Lane perfectly encapsulate what I love about this book, and Neil Gaiman in general.  Simple, evocative, sincere, and just a little bit poignant, Neil Gaiman knows how to paint such a vivid story with his words.

Ocean tells the story of an unnamed seven-year-old boy who is shy and bookish, and lives a normal life until the day he stumbles upon Lettie Hempstock and the Hempstock farm, where he finds a world beyond anything he’s ever known or imagined.  This is one of Gaiman’s adult fairytales (my favorite kind of his style) and involves, as they usually do, an innocent child going up against evil forces that seem to be so much more powerful than the child himself.

This book is a short one (clocking in at 181 pages), but it packs so very much into those pages. This book really contains two stories: the fantastical one of the boy and Lettie fighting against a ghoulish presence, and our narrator stepping out into the world. The fairytale portion both encompasses and transcends the good vs. evil template; if they do not destroy the ghoul it will destroy them, but as Lettie points out, the ghoul isn’t really good or bad, it is just acting according to its nature.

The story of our narrator is so easy to relate to (especially for those of that were bookish and shy children) because it contains familiar themes that everyone goes through at some point: Tension with one’s parents and siblings, the realization that grown-ups don’t know everything (and along with that, the realization that your parents aren’t infallible), finding your way, standing your ground and fighting for what you believe in.  The world is a messy place and we all have our own paths to finding ourselves, our own traumatic experiences that stay with us well into adulthood. This is where Gaiman is at his best, and I soaked up every word of it.

Ocean has a little bit of everything and comes together to create a touching and exhilarating tale of magic and finding your way in the world. Gaiman’s writing is captivating, and this book was a joy to read, I reveled in every page and at the end I only wished there were more.