Alexis’s #CBR5 Review #14

santacallscoverSanta Calls is a gem. As someone who pays attention to books I’m ashamed to admit that I only recently discovered the luscious joys of William Joyce. And that my pick for the Best Christmas Book of 2013 was in fact, published in 2001 *ahem*. William Joyce is a genius writer and illustrator of the first water. And Santa Calls is a gorgeous adventure that is both captivating and completely original.

It starts with a boy named Art.

“Art Atchinson Aimesworth was a very singular boy. Orphaned at an early age by a gang of desperadoes, he had applied himself wholeheartedly to the making of inventions, the quest for adventure, and the fighting and smashing of crime.”

One day, Art, his best friend Spaulding Littlefeets, and little sister Esther find a mysterious box the day before Christmas. They decide to examine it scientifically which involved a stick and some careful poking. A note emerges:

Open the box. Assemble the contents. Come NORTH. Yours, S.C.

SCboxWhich, of course, they do (wouldn’t you?). Upon arriving at the North Pole they run into Ali Aku, captain of the Santarian Guard who tries to bring them to Santa before they are waylaid by the Dark Queen and her Dark Elves (note: if naughty kids don’t amend their ways they turn into a Dark Elf.)

“By the moons of Jupiter, this is a swell place,” said Art.

It sure is. Art and crew go on to have lavish adventures in Toyland. Esther is kidnapped by the Dark Queen. A furious licorish battle ensues. The stalwart band of heroes emerge victorious.

“The world is more full of wonders than I ever knew,” he said in a whisper.

Williams Joyce is a fantastic talent and I adore everything he does. Feel free to come check out the full review on my personal blog. Or you can skip it and just enjoy the Oscar-winning short from his book here.

Alexis’s #CBR5 Review #13

beautifuldisasterAKA how I learned not to trust raving Goodread reviews. Beautiful Disaster frequently shows up in “best of” romance lists and get’s 5 star reviews by many. Although contemporary romance is not my thing I decided to give it a try.

Mary Sue Abby is a pretty, quiet college student who, based on how often she goes shopping and/or is at the salon, has waaay more time and money than I did in college. Travis Maddox is a popular, muscular, sexpot who notoriously eschews any romantic entanglements. Also Travis pays for college by participating in an underground fight club. Because, of course he does.

Despite the bevvy of bikini-clad women available to Travis he is intrigued by Abby, because of course he is. Abby wisely steers clear of Travis until an ill-conceived bet results in Abby being forced to live with Travis for 30 days. Their mutual attraction blossoms but Abby fights it knowing that it will only end in heartbreak. Abby, however is, dating some hot rich dude (Parker but who cares) who is totally into her (because, of course he is) who amazingly is totally OK with the developing relationship between Abby and Travis because Abby repeatedly tells him that “Travis and I are just friends.” Which they are, until they have sex. So that’s a little awkward.

After that things get blurry – there are multiple break ups and make ups. Pretty forgettable and stupid until….

*SPOILER ALERT which you won’t care about because if you take my advice you’ll NEVER read this book*

Abby is a card shark. Her evil drunken gambler Dad shows up and will be KILLED BY A VEGAS MOB BOSS if Abby doesn’t fly to Vegas immediately and win enough at poker to pay off the Mob Boss. Abby comes up a few dollar short but after Travis BEATS THE MOB HENCHMEN TO BLOODY PULPS the Mob Boss hires Travis to fight in an underground Vegas match with a professional fighter in order to pay off save Abby’s Dad.

Luckily Travis is SOOO good that he has no issues dispatching the pro and he and Abby happily trundle back to college where they can bicker about if Abby’s latest fraternity formal dress shows too much skin.

Travis may be sexy but he’s also a caveman. He solves most of his problems by beating them to a pulp (in real life, Travis would be in prison.) If that doesn’t work, he gets drunk and has sex with strumpets.

Abby is a bore. Not only did the whole “card shark” angle come out of nowhere but it’s completely incongruous with everything we’ve learned about Abby up to this point, namely that she likes getting her nails done.

At one point Abby dumps Travis who is desperately heartsick for months. In the meantime Abby changes her mind and decides to get back together with Travis. Only because of stupidity decides to say nothing. Months later fates conspire for them to reunite and Abby finally admits that she decided to get back together months ago. Is Travis angry because he suffered needlessly for months? Does he recognize that his beloved has the emotional maturity of a four year old? Naaaahhhh….

They just fly to Vegas and get married.

I can’t lie – this was a compelling read that kept me up late. But let’s be honest, Beautiful Disaster is the book equivalent to Sharknado. It was horrible yet oddly compelling. After it was over I felt vaguely sick to my stomach and embarrassed that I had spent time on it.

(Phew…just squeaked in my quarter cannonball!)

Alexis’s #CBR5 Review #7-#12

Hi Cannonballers,

Frequent reader/commenter who never posts, hi nice to meet you. In an end-of-year last ditch effort to not get myself uninvited back next year I’m going to share some brief reviews of the absolute best books I’ve read this year – all highly recommended!

saga Five Stars – Romantic, disturbing, gorgeous, and utterly original Saga is one of the first comics I’ve ever read and this non-comic reader urges you to consider adding these (Vol 1 & 2) to your Christmas list. Inter-species and forboden romance in a space saga by way of David Lynch. Fantastic. Note: For mature readers only – There is the occasional X-rated visual in these books so if comic sex is a deal-breaker for you, best to steer clear. Also – there is a cat that says, “Liar” whenever anybody nearby attempts a fabrication. I desperately want to own this cat.

flowersfromthestorm Five Stars – While nowhere near on par with Mrs. Julien or Malin, I read more romance novels than I would comfortably admit to in public. Most are fun and forgettable little truffles – if prompted I would have a hard time remembering what happened later and have been caught out re-buying books I’ve already read. Flowers From the Storm is not a forgettable truffle. Jervaulx is a reckless Duke who suffers a stroke leaving him painfully and humiliatingly vulnerable. Maddy is the stalwart Quaker who becomes his personal nurse. Their journey is painful and heartrending and fabulous. One of the best romance novels of all time.

dreamthieves Five Stars – The Dream Thieves is book #2 in Stiefvater’s Raven Boys series. The first book, Raven Boys, focuses largely group of prep school friends hunt for an ancient and mythical King Glendower who, if found, will grant you a wish. The second book expands the breadth of mysteries by getting more involved with the family of clairvoyants, the fay land of Cabeswater, and the Grey Man. None of this will mean anything to you and I hesitate to give even scant details because this is a book best approached with no foreknowledge. Stiefvater deftly juggles multiple characters and mysteries shrouded in a palpable sense of doom. I adore this series and am desperately counting the days until book #3 comes out.

thorns Emperor of Thorns closes the chapter of King Jorg, one of the darkest most richly-drawn and unforgettable anti-heroes of all time. By this book, young Jorg has killed, clawed, and betrayed his way into his own Kingdom, barely pausing before continuing his quest to be Emperor. He’s got a new child on the way, is beset on all sides by enemies, is hunted by the Dead King, and is a downright vicious bastard. This complex series comes to a close with haunting brilliance. Start at the beginning – Prince of Thorns. You have to frankly, the author, brilliant Mark Lawrence, will spoon feed you nothing and assumes that you’ve got the cast of characters well in hand from the start. Spectacular read, well-deserving of a place on every “best of all time” fantasy list.

fangirl Five Stars – Fangirl is easily one of the most delightful books I’ve read all year – fantastic characters, engaging romance, and the fan fiction is so compelling I want her to write an entire series of Simon Snow slash fiction because I would devour them all. I can’t remember the last time a book made me smile as much as this one did. Best book of the year, hands down!

Alexis’s #CBR5 Review #6, Ashfall, Mike Mullin

ashfallAlex is a video-game playing, ninja black belt kid from Cedar Falls Iowa. He also happens to be home alone when a mysterious object crushes into his house, setting it on fire and almost killing him. Ash is raining from the sky, the sound is deafening, and nobody knows what is going on. Nothing works – thick ash has clogged the roads, motors, and electrical devices. No cell phones, no water, no food. Within days looters are on the prowl. Safety and comfort are a distant memory.

In desperation, Alex decides to find his family at his uncle’s farm. Heading overland with a backpack and cross-country skis, Alex is alone.

He stops at a few farmhouses seeking food and water. Some welcome him in, others encourage him to keep moving with a well-placed shotgun. Half-starved he runs into Target, a beast-like man roasting meat over an open fire. Target offers him a share if he promises to team up with him. Unfortunately Target is a raging sociopath and when Alex tries to leave, they fight leaving Alex bloody and Target down an eye.

Alex flees through the woods until he stumbles, weak and bloody, into the farm of Mrs. Edmunds and her daughter Darla. They care for him while Darla digs for corn (hidden under feet of ash), invents a bike-powered corn-grinder, breeds rabbits, and generally establishes herself as “the ideal partner for the apocalypse.”  Eventually Target tracks down the Edmund’s farm leaving Mrs. Edmunds dead and the farm burnt to the ground. With no viable alternatives, Darla and Alex join up to continue the harrowing journey through desolation and looters to find Alex’s family. And hopefully safety. And possibly a clean pair of underpants.

Ashfall is a YA novel that uses the idea of a “supervolcano” (unlike Sharnados these actually exist) to quickly turn reality into a shadowy distopian world. The dangers – starvation, dehydration, violent men, are tangible.

But ultimately Ashfall fails to emotionally connect. Alex and Darla fall in love (no spoiler alert is necessary, it’s a YA book with a male/female protagonist, of course they do) but you never feel their romantic connection. Both suffer immense personal trauma but there is no emotional consequence to those experiences. There is no emotional journey for these two, they’re essentially talented robots traveling the ashy landscape.

Darla and Alex also seem so well-suited to post-apocalyptic survival that it deserves a bit of an eye roll. The author has a black-belt in taekwondo, which comes out in the lovingly depicted battle scenes where Alex repeatedly takes down larger, stronger, and more experienced protagonists. Darla is a teen McGyver who can make a solar battery with some chewing gum and a stick.

So unlike other distopian YA novels (Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The Knife of Never Letting Go) that feature rich characters and dramatic situations that compel you to keep reading, Ashfall was just interesting enough to keep me from bailing early.

Parenting Note: This qualifies as an “older” YA novel due to the inclusion of violence, rape, and mild sexual content.

Alexis’s #CBR5 Review #5, Consequences, Aleatha Romig

16100228Decisions have consequences. Going against your gut instinct and getting a self-published book because of the glowing Goodreads recommendations has consequences. Listening to the reviews that repeatedly stressed the “OMG ENDING!” that forced me to slog through the whole turgid affair to find out what the OMG was all about had consequences. And the consequence of all that is, apparently, this spoiler-free review.

Claire is an out-of-work Meteorologist (of course she is) who is invited to have drink after work with a handsome and wealthy stranger. She wakes up bruised and apparently sexually violated by said wealthy stranger in a large lavish rooms. She is a prisoner. A prisoner by an extremely handsome, astoundingly wealthy man named Christian Grey Anthony. She is fed amazing food, dressed in luxurious clothes, and savagely sexually violated on a regular basis.

Gradually she realizes she can earn “privileges” by adhering to certain rules. Soon she’s allowed to have access to the house and grounds. She earns the right to have meals with Anthony outside of her rooms. Each time she establishes her trustworthiness she is given more privileges, to the point that he invites her to attend the Opera with him.

The Opera. A place with people, telephones, security guards, and other useful items. Claire however indulges in none of these options because she realizes that back at the bar she signed a cocktail napkin agreeing to all of the prisoner-like treatment and sexual abuse in exchange for Anthony paying off her school debt. And a deal’s a deal, right?

Months go by and Claire exercises, hikes around the wilderness that surrounds Anthony’s estate, and watches movies in his home entertainment room. Eventually Claire and Anthony fall in love (of course they do) and despite his obsessively controlling ways which include (not allowing her access to phones or computer, never being allowed to have a phone conversation when he is not present, never leaving the house without permission, etc.) they are happy together. Until the OMG ending which I refuse to divulge on general principal.

There’s a lot of WRONG in this book.

  1. If you’re going to have your characters move from sexual abuse to something akin to romance you’re setting yourself a lofty goal. They’re going to have to spend a lot of time together where we see emotional growth, some sort of redemptive qualities, and a basis for them to form a genuine connection. None of this happens.
  2. If your characters are constantly having sex you could, on occasion, let the reader in on the action. This strategy worked gangbusters for Fifty Shades of Grey. For all the copious sex that happens in the story, there is only one brief awkwardly forgettable sex scene in the book. Isn’t that the whole reason to have a young nubile girl kept prisoner by a stunningly attractive billionaire who uses her as a sex slave?
  3. Aleatha writes dialogue so wooden Pinocchio would have turned up his nose at it. She also refuses to use contractions to such a degree that I have to believe that her keyboard was broken so the apostrophe was not available to her. “Tony, I do not want to get in the way. I am here because you want me to be.” “Yes. That is true. It is my choice, and I do want you here. I believe your presence will benefit me.”
  4. Aleatha clearly didn’t splurge for an editor. This book would have been a lot more fun (not saying great, but a better read) if it were easily 35% shorter. Claire spends an awful lot of time sitting by the pool contemplating her circumstances. 90% of the story contains no dialogue. Maybe the delete key on her keyboard is broken too?

What is RIGHT in this book:

  1. If you’re really into the fantasy of being a sex slave to a hot billionaire and can overlook the dearth of titillating details, this book is for you.
  2. The OMG ending is indeed OMG. If you’re curious you could simply save the effort of reading the book and check out spoilerific reviews online. I took that option with the two subsequent books.

This book gets rave reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, etc. People have written emphatic gif-filled essays declaring their love for the author and desperation for the next installment. I have no idea why. This book was a slog so poorly written I actually laughed out loud at parts. It was un-finishable however I dutifully plowed onward because I JUST. HAD. TO. KNOW. THE. ENDING.

Now I know. It’s not worth it.

Alexis’s #CBR5 Review #4, Red Country, Joe Abercrombie

red countryShy is a hard woman with a dark past. Lamb is a giant of a man and a bloody coward. But he’s the closest thing to a father Shy and her two young siblings is ever going to have. When Shy finds her farm burnt to the ground and her young brother and sister taken, Shy and Lamb take off cross country to find them. It is a journey that will cost them everything they are.

“What do we do if we catch them?” she muttered, keeping her voice down. “Chances are they’re going to be armed and willing. Better armed than us, that’s sure.”

“Recon we’ll have to be more willing then.”

There are many detailed characters in Red Country but none is as riveting as Lamb, a quiet man who kept his head bowed for years, farming, raising children that weren’t his own. Perhaps the story of Lamb draws from too many familiar tropes (the lone warrior, ronin, etc.) but Lamb’s journey, dialogue, and challenges haunt me weeks after finishing the book.

I didn’t want no trouble,” said Lamb. “It blew in anyway. Trouble’s got a habit that way.” He pushed his wet hair out of his face, and his eyes were wide open, bright, bright, mouth open too, breathing fast, and he was smiling. Not like a man working his way up to a hard task. Like a man enjoying getting to a pleasant one, taking his time about it like you might over a fine meal, and of a sudden Shy saw all those scars anew, and felt this coldness creeping up her arms and down her back and every hair on her standing.

Elsewhere Captain General Nicomo Cosca leads The Company of the Gracious Hand, a fierce bunch of mercenary murderers and thieves, accompanied by a feckless lawyer named Temple. The Company of the Gracious Hand has been hired by the inquisition to route hidden pockets of rebels, which they mean to do by burning and pillaging their way across the country. It’s a Red Country indeed.

This is a fantastic book that spans many characters, miles of travel, and battles. No one ends the journey unscathed, definitely not Lamb who turns out to have a much richer and darker past than Shy ever suspected. Abercrombie’s Law of the Blade trilogy is also fantastic but the characters are so dark that you almost stop caring about them. In Red Country, Shy, Temple, and definitely Lamb are dark, broken characters and yet you never stop rooting for them to succeed. They are forced into many hard choices, each with a hefty price to pay, and each conflict brings an uneasy resolution. Yet the dialogue has so much sly wit and humor that the book never seems TOO dark or bleak. There is a spark of hope and warmth that keeps the balance.

Joe Abercrombie is a modern master of the anti-hero and Red Country is his best work to date. I highly recommend.

Alexis’s #CBR5 Review #3, Grave Mercy, Robin LaFevers

gravemercyGrave Mercy is a book about a convent of trained assassins. That’s not a typo – this is a book about killer nuns.

Ismae is a 17 year old beet farmer whose father is only slightly less horrendous than the brute he marries her to. Luckily after being locked in a root cellar she is rescued by a priest who spirits her away to the convent of St. Mortain, patron saint of death.

So by page 5 Ismae is now being tutored as an assassin nun. Which seems like a pretty juvenile concept unless you’re knee-deep into winter in Vermont and desperately want any sort of escapist adventure that will help you forget for 5 seconds just how cold and grey that it’s been FOREVER. Now….where was I?

So Ismae is a killer nun. We don’t hear much about her training but are told that she is highly competent and her specialty is poison. Don’t forget this fact – it’ll come into play later.

In no time Ismae is sent to court of the Duchess of Brittany to find an evil French mole. She is posing as the paramour of the brilliant and passionate Gavriel Duval and quickly becomes attracted to his dark intensity. But what is he is the mole? Then she receives orders from the convent that she is to kill Gavriel! Oh no, now somebody has POISONED Gavriel but who? And how can she, a master of poison, ever hope to counter the effects of this horrible deed? SPOILER ALERT: She kisses the poison out of him. It’s like he had a bad case of morning breath and she had a fresh piece of gum in her mouth and they just made out until the effects of his terrible halitosis was neutralized by her Juicy Fruit. [FACEPALM]

Look Ms. LaFevers,

Killer nuns is a cool idea. This is only the first of many killer nun books you will write (aside: book #2 is scheduled for release in April). If you want to throw in a bit of romance, go for it. It worked like gangbusters for Ms. Meyers so why shouldn’t it work for you too? But let me whip out my intro to writing text book and share a few points that may be helpful in developing your writing career:

  • If you’re going to put the quote, “Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?” with a picture of a girl with a crossbow on the cover and repeatedly TELL us what a skillful assassin she is, then you also need to actually include some assassinations in your story. Or to be brief – your killer nuns would be much more interesting if they actually KILLED PEOPLE.
  • Like you, I also have a hard time writing dialogue and try to cover for my lack of skill with far too much exposition. However unlike you I am not a published author. Also a single spoken sentence is not dialogue. Dialogue involves 2+ people talking about things meaningful things (not the weather or how one has slept).
  • If you want to have your killer nuns falling in love that’s great. I love a bit of romance. Romance is developed through dialogue (see point above) and the two characters overcoming some obstacle to being together. Ismae and Gavriel spent little time together, when they did they barely spoke, and the only barrier to them hooking up was actually spending enough time in the same room to get it on.
  • Go to the library and pick any writing book. Invariably this book will contain a chapter titled something like, “Show don’t tell.” I know – this is hard to do. But you can’t keep telling us about how everybody is feeling about everything that is happening. Which brings me to…
  • Things need to happen. 100+ pages of quiet dinners, games of chess, and changing clothes does not a great assassin nun book make. Which brings me to…
  • If you’re writing assassin nun books then make the focus about nuns who are assassinating people. You tried to get too much into court intrigue which was both dull and irrelevant. Philippa Gregory can write fantastic court intrigue, but probably couldn’t write a nun assassin book to save her life. We each have our own gifts. (Aside: Philippa Gregory could probably write an AMAZING nun assassin book.)
  • Your assassin nuns have mystical powers. They didn’t really need them (the story would work – or not as the case may be – without those mystical powers). But if you’re going to give them mystical powers then make those mystical powers a) interesting and b) germane to the story. For example Harry Potter is a magician and his ability to do magic is absolutely crucial to the whole series. See how cool it can be?

Killer nuns. Seemed like a fun idea, but it wasn’t. Don’t be fooled by the high rankings on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. Trust me on this one.

Alexis’s #CBR5 Review #2, The Way of Kings Brandon Sanderson

Way-of-Kings-203x300The Way of Kings is a book of 1,0001 pages. I say this first because if you aren’t into reading a book that weighs more than you do, you’ll want to give this a pass.

The Way of Kings is a high-fantasty novel that takes place in Westeros Roshar, a land that glories in war led by the leaders of the Seven Kingdoms High Princes who are currently locked in a lengthy battle campaign against the Parshendi. The ability to use magic stormlight has been largely lost over time but a few are able to perform incredible feats with it. Also a great unknown danger is looming, winter voidbringers are coming.

This is a book rich with world-building, enhanced further by lovely illustrations throughout the book. Many cultural details, flora, fauna, and points of history are woven into the story. It is not simply the middle ages redrawn with some Fantasy tropes mixed in. The chapters move through a rich cast of characters who are all stuck in various unhappy circumstances:
Kaladin: Unfairly cast into slavery, the noble warrior seeks freedom and redemption.
Shallan: Brilliant ward of Jasnah who has left her home and family to become a master scholar. And surprise many with a brutal betrayal.
Dalinar: The Blackthorn, military genius and Shardblade warrior, he is unable to convince the king and other High Princes of the futility of their ways.
Adolin: Dalinar’s faithful son and…uh….skirt-chaser. Seriously, his defining character trait seems to be that he can’t keep a girlfriend.
Jasnah: Leading scholar and owner of a rare and powerful Soulcaster – a mythical gauntlet that can effectuate any transformation.
Navani: Saucy old broad who’s had an eye on Dalinar since the way back.
Szeth: Powerful warrior whose ability to harness Stormlight makes him all but unstoppable. His code of honor puts his actions entirely at the mercy of whoever holds his oathstone.

Excellent illustrations drawn by Paper Pie.

By any measure this is an ambitious book which, according to Amazon, is the first in what is to be a 10 book series. Sanderson paints this world with the richness of detail that clearly puts him at the top echelon of modern Fantasy writers. He creates multiple character-arcs, each compelling enough to keep you looking forward to coming back to see what happens next. Although therein lies the challenge, for many many pages the answer to what happens next is, “Not a whole lot.” Almost all of the characters are stuck, unhappily, in their current circumstances and they remain stuck for the vast majority of those 1,001 pages.

This is a really good book. This is an enormous book. With some judicious editing this could have been an excellent 700 page book. As it was, it sagged like an old mattress in the middle and I definitely found myself wondering where the good parts were (answer: page 864+). The next book is supposed to come out in 2013 (amusingly its working title is the Book of Endless Pages) and while there is much to recommend The Way of Kings, I can’t say I’ll be racing to continue on with the series.

Alexis’s #CBR5 Review #1, The Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

Days of Blood and Starlight The Days of Blood and Starlight is the sequel to the bestselling Daughter of Smoke and Bone. If you haven’t read Daughter of Smoke and Bone don’t read this review. While it contains no spoilers for Days of Blood and Starlight it will ruin some of the fun of Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Which is really fun and not something you want ruined.

Moving on.

Days of Blood and Starlight finds Akiva back with the Angels feeling wretched about his role in the total destruction of the chimaera. Karou is hiding out with the few remaining chimaera having formed a tentative truce with Thiago to resurect those chimaera whose souls have been saved, building them powerful and terrible monster bodies so they can wreak whatever revenge they can upon the Angels.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone was a delightful fantasy that unfolded in a delicate manner where the magic trickled into the story in a slow and satisfying way. Much of the dialogue was so quick and clever it would make you laugh while also feeling jealous in the knowledge that you would never be half so clever. The developing romance between Akiva and Karou felt tangible and also magical. It was light.

I can’t say that Days of Blood and Starlight is a bad book. It isn’t. It’s well written combining multiple compelling story-arcs across different worlds and characters. But all of the delightful magic and clever dialogue is gone. The first half of this book feels more like a dirge where the messages of “war is bad” and “violence doesn’t solve anything” just gets hammered repeatedly. It suffers from the classic middle book syndrome where little is happening through much of the story. Both protagonists are “stuck” in their current and unpleasant circumstances and neither are making any forward progress.

Until the last third where things pick up in a way that frankly salvages the dirge of the first two thirds. Mostly.

I hate to say anything negative about Laini Taylor. I love her, the pink hair, the fairies, the whole thing. I’ll be pre-ordering the final book in this series. If compared to many other authors I would rank this book a 4. But on the Laini Taylor scale of book quality it, sadly, is a 3.