Top Ten Tuesday: Ten books we plan to read poolside, or at least somewhere summery

Hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl

CJ's Selections

Lately "reading by the pool" has turned into "drinking by the pool" so these might just end up being summer reads on my balcony. Or my air conditioned couch, because heat index of 105 WTF THAT'S NOT FOR HUMANS.  
1.Whisper of the Tide / Sarah Tolcser - The first, SONG OF THE CURRENT, was one of my favorite of last year. It's about ships and such so it even feels summery. I'm partway into WHISPER and it's already giving me major PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN feels. Perfect beach reading.

2.#murdertrending / Gretchen McNeil - What more do you want in a beach read than serial killers and mayhem? I know, I know, you can't possibly answer that because there's NOTHING. Plus I do love when I'm out in my swimsuit and people are sneakily trying to figure out why my book says "murder." This reality show deathmatch is straight up my alley.

3.Legendary / Stephanie Garber - This doesn't get to leave the outdoors unless I'm by grass because it's a shiny happy hardcover and I will murder anyone who gets water spots on it. But I'm dying to read the highly anticipated CARAVAL sequel, with more Legend, extra magic, and 90% more Tella. How much you bet there's another cliffhanger?

4.Mirage / Somaiya Daud - I just got approved for this on Netgalley, aka I will be reading it as soon as humanly possible. Gimme ALL the non-Western fantasy! And all the fantasy, really, but I'm loving the push for new voices in the genre because it means new worlds! This is actually science-fiction which is even better because I'm trying to read more sci-fi, and there's a fake princess in disguise! Do I need more exclamation points!?!!!

5.Ruin of Stars / Linsey Miller - I thought that MASK OF SHADOWS had a lot of promise and a kickass premise: a genderfluid wannabe assassin joins a deadly competition to become an actual assassin, one of the queen's own. Now that Sal is in the big leagues and realizing their liege is keeping national secrets, I'm hoping for more political intrigue and some secrets about the creepy deadly magical shadows that keep eating people alive. Obviously. And assassins are beachy? I got nothing.

Whitley's Selections

Pool? What pool? Ah, what I wouldn't give to have easy access to a pool.
1.Bruja Born / Zoraida Cordova - I had mixed feelings about the first book, but one of those feelings was "hrm, that was a lot of set up for a sequel....WHICH SOUNDS AMAZING." Fingers crossed hard that all the set up will pay off! Shouldn't be too hard for me to get to this one, I'm going to one of the author's tour stops on Thursday, woot woot!

2.Trail of Lightning / Rebecca Roanhorse - Only one week to go and I think I might just up and implode from how excited I am for this book. I have heard nothing but good things about it, which I believe, because, c'mon, have you seen that summary? (Or read Ms. Roanhorse's short stories, which you totally should?)

3.Map of Salt and Stars / Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar - This sounds really poignant, and I really love the concept of using maps to connect the two different eras being discussed.

4.I am Still Alive / Kate Marshall - This is the second time I've put this one on a TTT list, and I'm unreasonably excited for it, and I really really hope I'm not shooting myself in the foot with all this mental buildup. Only a month left before I find out!

5.Heroine's Journey / Sarah Kuhn  - I love the style of this series. The plots, the humor, the relationships, the family and friendships, the humor, THOSE COVERS, just everything about them. Plus, the dog on the cover is modeled after Fitz, the bookshop dog from The Ripped Bodice. How could I not love something with that kind of injoke involved?

Your turn! What book are you planning to hit this summer?


Review: A Cowboy's Sweetheart

Book Cover
title: A Cowboy's Sweetheart
author: Crista McHugh
pages: 164
format: eARC
buy it: Amazon | Goodreads
rating: 3/5

Pampered New York Socialite and dressage rider, Kensington Pope, has been exiled by her jet-setting parents to her aunt’s Rodeo Academy in Wyoming. She wants nothing to do with the rough and tumble students there, especially one particularly handsome cowboy, Javier. But she won’t be there for long. She has a plan in place to break out after her next international competition.

Javier Cruz takes one look at the spoiled city girl and instantly dismisses her. The school of tough knocks has already educated him on what the important things in life are, and he has bigger things on his plate. He’s counting down the days until his eighteenth birthday when he can pull his younger siblings from the foster care program and reunite his family. But as he gets to know Kensi, he sees a kindred spirit and discovers there’s more to her than meets the eye.

Kensi begins to question her desire to flee the ranch as her relationship to Javier deepens and she learns the importance of family. But when he discovers her escape plan, will he be able to trust her again? And when tragedy comes to the ranch, will Kensi be able to step up and take her place in the family?

Short and sweet and highly readable, this book was right up my alley and I couldn't help picking it up. Rich girl/poor boy? Cowboys? Yes, please! I really liked the characters and chemistry between our two leads, the sweet moments between them were downright adorable and their relationship got me very invested. I liked all the side characters as well and I tore through the book in less than 24 hours.

Buuuut (you knew there was a but, there's always a but) when I say short I do mean short. At 164 pages I probably could have ready any story in less than 24 hours. If the book had been strictly focused on Kensie and Javier, it would have been a perfect length, but it had enough subplots and side relationships to carry a full-sized novel. Kensie didn't just have to learn humility and fall for a cute boy, she also had to form relationships with her extended family and find a new coach and prep for an international competition and reject basically everything her parents stood for and discover her own self worth and struggle with confidence issues and and and and. Javier got it even worse, with a tragic backstory and a court custody battle. All of these other things were touched on and...kinda did okay, but still suffered from being so truncated. 

Javier, while I love him, is also some problematic rep. He's...of some unclear ancestry on dad's side, and mom is Mexican-American. Literally everything in the book related to his parents is a tragic downer. He has no relationship to his culture or past that isn't 100% death and crying. I would have liked to see something other than 'my heritage got me bullied and there is literally nothing good about it.'

And, while I am a sucker for rich girl/poor boy, this book went ahead and failed where every other book in this genre has failed for me, too. I love the idea of people connecting across class lines and learning about each other's problems and trauma and bonding over similarities they didn't expect to find but that doesn't mean you have to flatten all trauma into the same 'level' of 'bad.' It got especially egregious in this novel, where Kensie repeatedly used the word 'survive.' She had to 'survive' in her upper crust NYC society, everything was 'fighting to survive.' And she said this to a guy who literally had to kill someone in self defense or be killed. Girl, you were not in a survival situation. It did better than a lot of books I've read with this trope, but when it fucked up, it fucked up with fireworks.

I still really liked the relationship(s) in this book, and I want to read more from this author. But the 'buts' are some pretty big ones, and will turn off a lot of readers.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books We Decided to DNF, and Associated Problems

Hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl

CJ's Selections

Like Whitley, I don't usually go back to books I've DNFed, so I have no idea if I'd have liked most of them later. So my own spin is going to be Books I Didn't DNF Quickly Enough.  And yeah I realize two of them aren't actual DNFs don't @ me.  
1.Queen of Shadows / Sarah J. Maas - It was way too long and none of the characters made sense and I didn't give a fvck about Rowaelin and I just kept waiting for it to get better and it never did and I basically only read it for Manon whom I'm sure has been ruined since then somehow because that's her MO isn't it. Yeah I finished it. Yeah I'm bitter.

2.The Tiger's Daughter / K. Arsenault Rivera - Maybe this'll be a "too quickly" one because, who knows, I might go back. I really loved the first half! It was epic and beautiful and the relationship between the two women was swoony and complex. But then I realized it was still the first half and there were like 300 more pages and nothing was happening, and I wasn't in the headspace to deal with that.

3.Fear the Drowning Deep / Sarah Glenn Marsh - People loved this book but I really didn't get it. I definitely didn't DNF it quickly enough because I wanted to after like 50 pages but it was for a tour so I FINISHED IT LIKE A BOSS in about a night and yes there was a lot of skimming so sue me. But it was instalove and two weird unconnected monsters and the plot felt like "then this happened then this happened then this happened OKAY I GET IT STOP STOP LET ME LIVE." Yeah okay I'm salty. (Like the sea.)

4.Song of Blood and Stone / L. Penelope - This book has gotten rave reviews from others, including black readers, so don't skip on it just because of my sour grapes. I think the pacing sticks more to conventions of adult romance or NA than fantasy, so I was just like, please something happen soon? But also lots of things happened really fast? Like the world was so cool (I loved the folktale snippets!) but it felt like it started in the middle with ALL THIS STUFF going on and then slowed down to a crawl. I stuck with it for a while, but I found myself pulling teeth and avoiding reading anything, which is why I didn't finish a book for like a month.

5.Done Dirt Cheap / Sarah Lemon - This one was really my fault because WHY did I even request this book? I have zero interest in bikers! Or age gap romances! Or Americana! This was basically an exercise in selection effects because, SURPRISE, I didn't like a book that combined all three and I found myself resenting it as I was reading further because that damn progress bar wouldn't shrink. Also I found the characters kind of Mary Sueish but maybe that was a side effect.

Whitley's Selections

Artsy Reader Girl said I could spin this one, so it's not really cheating this time! But yeah, I so rarely go back to things I've already DNFed, so I'll do "pettiest reasons I've DNFed something."
1.The Reader / Traci Chee - When I say petty reasons, I mean petty reasons. And this one had one thing that really bugged me - PEOPLE IN THIS WORLD CAN READ. It's pictograms, but that counts! IDK why that bothered me so much, but for some reason that just made me completely irrational.

2.Spinning Starlight / R.C. Lewis - Another language based problem, I think this is going to be a theme, lol. But a huge chunk of the middle of this book was the protagonist struggling to learn...the alphabet. Just, that's it. Weeks and weeks spent in emo flailing because she couldn't remember two dozen characters, even though in her own culture she remembered far more because they used pictographs. Heck, I learned the Korean alphabet in three days, and I wasn't motivated by that being my sole means of communication! It just...didn't seem a good enough challenge to take up so much of the book.

3.A Soldier's Duty / Jean Johnson - And the pettiest language DNF award goes to....they specified that she put a headset on her head. I mean, I was annoyed at the writing in general before that, but that sentence took the cake. Could not go on after that.

4.Illusionarium / Heather Dixon  - This book came about in a time when I'd read just a few too many "competition" books in a row post-Hunger Games and I was burned out on the concept. The summary for this book didn't include a competition angle, so when the story changed part way through to be that, I threw it aside without a second thought.

5.Passenger / Alexandra Bracken - Sooooo much repeating! Every single scene and conversation had to be told to use at least twice, either through the narration summarizing it for us, or the characters reflecting on what just happened, or everyone discussing it more than once. I was actually interested in the plot, but after hearing about everything over and over again it got to be too much. Alas.

Your turn! What DNF issues have you had in the past?


A Princess in Theory

Book Cover
title: A Princess in Theory
author: Alyssa Cole
pages: 360
format: Paperback
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 4/5

Between grad school and multiple jobs, Naledi Smith doesn’t have time for fairy tales…or patience for the constant e-mails claiming she’s betrothed to an African prince. Sure. Right. Delete! As a former foster kid, she’s learned that the only things she can depend on are herself and the scientific method, and a silly e-mail won’t convince her otherwise.

Prince Thabiso is the sole heir to the throne of Thesolo, shouldering the hopes of his parents and his people. At the top of their list? His marriage. Ever dutiful, he tracks down his missing betrothed. When Naledi mistakes the prince for a pauper, Thabiso can’t resist the chance to experience life—and love—without the burden of his crown.

The chemistry between them is instant and irresistible, and flirty friendship quickly evolves into passionate nights. But when the truth is revealed, can a princess in theory become a princess ever after?

I think I've basically expired from how adorable this book is. I was gleefully amused, from the very first page, when Ledi deletes what she thinks is spam mail from an "African Prince" claiming she's his long lost fiance. (Well, prince's assistant.) The descriptions of her stressful life and increasingly bizarre prince-assistant-emails are...okay, it seems rude to describe someone's stress as amusing, but it lends enough charge to the electronic exchange to have me laughing anyway.

Ledi really carries this book. I adored her so much. She's got a lot of storylines to juggle in this, from struggling with her past in the foster system to trying to redefine her friendships to gaining authority in her job and, of course, meeting the hot new stranger in her life who is just so "eerily familiar." It works, of course, because everything is connected, but also because her struggles are so richly presented and matched with her wit and determination and enduring good nature.

Thabiso is a little less rounded, and I felt like a few times the "he made it work because money" excuse was used too liberally. There were a lot of convoluted situations required to make the setup work, and the book used the same shortcut for all of them. :/  Thabiso's conflicts are all about trying to juggle his own needs with those of his country, and I very much enjoyed that his spoiled-prince qualities were...very much present without being cartoonish, and without making his better nature unbelievable. That's a hard balance to get right. And the chemistry he had with Ledi was awesome.

Things started to fall off the rails a bit at the end, when a Sudden Mystery was presented to...IDK, because we had a perfectly serviceable plot to begin with. To replace that plot, I guess. But it wasn't resolved to satisfaction, because it didn't pop up until the last third so it didn't have time to properly develop. Mildly disappointing, but not enough to detract from the utter charm of the rest of the novel.


Review: The Ugly Stepsister

Book Cover
title: The Ugly Stepsister
author: Aya Ling
pages: 452
format: eBook
buy it: Amazon | Goodreads
rating: 4/5

When Kat accidentally rips apart an old picture book, she's magically transported into the world of Cinderella--as Katriona, one of the ugly stepsisters! Life turns upside down now that she’s a highborn lady and must learn how to survive the social season, including how to get through the door in a huge metal hoop skirt. To get back, she'll have to complete the story, right to the end of happily ever after. But the odds are huge: the other stepsister is drop-dead gorgeous, the fairy godmother is nowhere to be found, and the prince, despite being insanely hot, openly dislikes balls. Can she ever return to the modern world?

This book was just so utterly...charming. I loved it. I was completely hooked by it. And all despite being chock full of tropes and having very little new to offer. ...I can't for the life of me figure out why it worked.

Kat is your typical, ordinary, everyday high school girl who exists in high school limbo between popular and friendless and has every kind of trouble talking to cute boys. The book even opens with her stuttering and stumbling when confronted with a hot exchange student. Totally typical for a YA. And...I...just....loved it? I know, I don't get it either, but the voice and the writing style was enough to make me go "Yup, I believe this, please tell me more!"

The hottie has no part to play in this book by the way, he's forgotten a few chapters later as Kat accidentally breaks an enchanted book (how did she get the book? WHO KNOWS.) and gets sucked into a England-ish, Regency-ish version of Cinderella. Cast in the role of the 'ugly' stepsister. A story where Cinderella is meek, the stepsisters are actually pretty beautiful, and the Evil Stepmother has basically the same plan as Angelica Huston in Ever After.

And again, it...just...works? There's nothing about this I haven't already seen, but Kat's reactions to everything are earnest and adorable. The plot throws in an invisible goblin to explain everything in a plot-dump and....yeah, I'm cool with it? Frankly, having the plot explained lets us get into the fun parts faster and I don't even care that it's a whole chapter of exposition. And it is a fun plot. In order to get back to her own world, Kat has to see the story through to its happy ending, but no one seems to want to play along. There's no ball on the horizon, Elle doesn't seem to particularly want to be rescued, and there's no fairy godmother in sight.

To make things worse (or better), Kat's attempts to bring Elle and the prince together just manage to make Edward interested in Kat instead! Oh no! It's so trite. It's so convoluted. And...it's fucking adorable. I can't help it. I love these two. Edward is sweet and charming and Kat is flustered and flabbergasted and probably the best saving grace about it is that she admits she's normal by her own time's standards and only special relative to this time. (To which Edward says "probably true, but I like you anyway" and aslkjfjkashdfkjlashdflkjhasdfkjlhasd)
Kat winds up embroiled in a worker's rights movement (it makes sense in context) and the whole thing is thoroughly simplified and compressed and...I don't care. It's a YA, written in a pretty young voice, and it's a B-plot. As a "teen's early introduction to Changing the System Takes Time" it's pretty good.

I just loved it. It was things I'd already seen, but done in a way that exactly suited me.

With a few caveats. (Yeah, you knew that was coming.) The fatfobia is rife throughout this book. There's an overarching theme of "beauty is the ultimate feature" which I can kind of overlook, because Kat's attempting to operate on fairy-tale logic and no one else in the book really goes along with her. But then she also equates "thin" to "pretty" regularly. And not just any thin, but "model-thin," which...nope. There's problematic lines throughout, likely more than I even noticed, but I picked out at least Islamophobia and transphobia. 

That, and, the target age group. Throughout the book I thought that it was aimed at mid-to-younger teens, like 15 ish. I guessed that just based on the voice and the complexity of what was going on, because the character herself is 17. I was happy to see something a little younger; so many YA these days is just NA searching for a label. But then the second book has her at 24 and she almost has sex in the first chapter and I'm going....holy rusted whiplash, Batman. What's the target age group?

IDK, maybe the target is 32, because I'm halfway through the sequel already.


Top Ten Tuesday: Ten of our favorite character names from books

Hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl

CJ's Selections

I'm a linguistics nut, so of course that translates to names! I hate when names aren't consistent in a world, but I love clever ones that aren't too absurd. 
1.Truthwitch / Susan Dennard -


I love this name. Such a graceful variation on Sophia. Rolls off the tongue. I think it might actually be Arabic or Persian originally? In which case it's probably not related to the Greek except by sound.

2.Song of the Lioness / Tamora Pierce -


I've always loved this name. Pretty sure I wanted my parents to change mine at one point. I finally did meet a friend called Alana in later life, although she spells it differently--but the character was the impetus for her friendship with her now-spouse, so that's pretty cool.

3.Wild Magic / Tamora Pierce -

Numair Salmalin

Tamora gets another win. His whole name is epic and magical and rolls off the tongue. Although apparently I've been pronouncing it wrong, if the audiobooks are any measure.

4.Dark Lord of Derkholm / Diana Wynne Jones -


This was a dragon, and I loved this name so much that I totally stole it for a dragon character in one of my books. Gimme a break, I was 9. I have since given the character a much less purloined moniker.

5.The Wrath and the Dawn / Renee Ahdieh -


I'll pick the spelling from my favorite retelling, but I love this name in general. There's something mystical but also grounded about it. Strong, like the queen to whom it was given.

C.J.'s Selections

Whitley has zero interest in character names so you're getting extra me today.  
1.All the Bright Places / Jennifer Niven -


I've loved this name/nickname since before my beloved Theo came along, but his attachment to the name made me love it all the more. It's so cheeky and sly.

2.Golden Son / Pierce Brown -


It's a play on the Roman Victoria, but the shortening takes the elegant Latinate title and makes it sharper, harsher, pointier. Sort of like its owner.

3.Alice's Adventures in Wonderland / Lewis Carroll -


I've adored this name for years because of the most obvious incarnation of it, and I'll find a thousand ways to use it, mark you me.

4.Le Morte D'Arthur / Thomas Malory -


Another classic. Mordred just sounds as evil as he is, only the name doesn't actually mean anything evil, it's just really cleverly chosen. I also love the French (?) version, Medraut.

5.Children of Blood and Bone / Tomi Adeyemi -


So freaking pretty. It fits her character so well too, somehow both lovely and fierce at the same time, with those gorgeous open vowels that roll delightfully off the tongue.

Your turn! What character names do you adore? 


Review: Dread Nation

Book Cover
title: Dread Nation
author: Justina Ireland
pages: 455
format: Hardcover
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 3/5

Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.

But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

This was an interesting book, and I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, but there were several things that stood in the way of my wholehearted enjoyment. In fact, by the time I got to the end, there were a few things that retroactively made me side-eye the parts I liked at the beginning.

Namely, the school set up. At first I thought it was a clever idea, and I liked it. But 1) we didn’t stay in the school, so we really didn’t get to explore its context or implications and 2) the author’s note was basically “I found out about Native boarding schools and thought, wow, what if that happened to my people.” Which is, uh, never a good look on anyone.

Once the main characters left the school at one-third of the way in, we also leave everything promised in the jacket-cover summary and enter a zombie western. Which…isn’t really a new concept. Frankly I was disappointed to be leaving the Baltimore setting, which I thought was much more fraught and creative. The Kansas setting, on the other hand, was everything dialed up to 11. I'm not trying to say that's a terrible decision to make, and it was written well. But compared to the Baltimore beginning, it just seemed like a step down on the creative/new scale. I would have really loved to see the book carry on as it started and explore that set up.

But I can hardly ding the book for daring to not follow what I wanted it to do. I can ding it for being an utter snoozefest as a western and as a zombie story. It really took no creative risks with either of those genres. The zombies in particular annoyed me, although in the same way that most zombie stories annoy me. I just…can’t be scared of something when the MC can slaughter 20 of them at a time and then outrun them in a horse-drawn wagon. These zombies are slow and stupid and there were so many logistical plotholes in their history and application that it actively distracted me from feeling any amount of tension in the action scenes. Now, as I said, same problem I have with most zombies, but…there’s been decades of nerds writing entire think-pieces about how zombies make no sense and how to fix the plot holes. The info is out there for people who want to write zombie stories, no effort needed, just take the advice being actively shouted into the void. But nope.

It also follows the ‘empty west’ fallacy of assuming/talking like all of Kansas was just a total blank slate. There’s multiple lines even about how people were moving west because there’s fewer people around to get all zombified and be a threat. Which is egregious enough in a regular western, but really bad in a story where the dead come back to eat people. You know, what with all the genocide that was going on at the time. We saw exactly one live Native and one Native zombie in the entire book. (There were other issues, especially with the in-story discussion of the schools, Debbie Reese covers it here.)

I did really like the characters, their various attitudes and trials and the interactions they had with each other. Jane’s anger mixed with humor was glorious, and Katherine’s…whole….everything, I loved Katherine. They way Jane and Katherine interacted, the side characters and their complicated relations to each other, all of that was excellent. I adored every one of the characters in this book. I just wish they had…more to do, basically.

Note: Jane is bi and Katherine is ace and/or aro, and while that was nice to see, both aspects basically begin and end within the same two-page conversation, so as ‘rep’ I don’t know that I’d go wild over it? Katherine’s aro/ace-ness does lend another level to her storyline, but as her story happens mostly off-page, it feels more like another missed opportunity.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books we disliked but are glad we read anyway

Hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl

CJ's Selections

"Glad" might have a broad definition here. Does hate-reading count? 
1.Queen of Shadows / Sarah J. Maas - This book killed my love of that series. The first three were pretty tight and interesting and compelling and this was just...so bland. Dense. Plotless. The ships changed for no reason and the characters seemed different. At the time I was disappointed, but at least it dulled the pain when I later became disillusioned with her.

2.Turn of the Screw / Henry James - When I read this for my senior year AP Lit class, I'm pretty sure I compared it to watching an actual screw turn. But it's one of those books that you can commiserate about with most lit majors or AP lit kids, and it's one that I might read again someday...and maybe I'll like it this time?

3.Breaking Dawn / Stephanie Meyer - I don't care how much shade I get...I thought this book was awful. Even my super-Twilight-fan friend hated it, which was why she gave it to me. And it was so hysterically bad. Renesmee!? JACOB IMPRINTING ON A TODDLER!? I'm sorry. I can't. We can agree to disagree. But I'm glad I read it so that I understand years of memes and pop culture bits, or else I'd be lost.

4.Trylle / Amanda Hocking - Speaking of hysterically bad. It's just really hard to get past the idea of sexy trolls. Plus the guy basically stalks her and then she's in love with him? Eep? Plus there was a word misspelled with a zero in it? But I read it with my (at the time) friend in our mission to come up with the next bit PNR, so it was a fun bonding activity.

5.The Girl From the Well / Rin Chupeco - I didn't hate this book, I just didn't like it that much. It was like reading two different books smashed into one. But the one about the origin of the Ring/Ringu story was really badass. I wouldn't have known otherwise that it was a real legend, and even though I'm sure that Rin took liberties, it was a really cool intro to some Japanese folklore. I do love my creeptastic urban legends.

Whitley's Selections

This was a really interesting topic and really made me think, and as usual I come up with a few different answers on the same prompt.
1.Fifty Shades of Grey / EL James - Yes. That book. I suppose I'm glad I read it because this is the book I used to launch my Reading with a Vengeance blog, and picking FSOG certainly got me a lot of activity right off the bat. But more than that, I had a lot of really great comments while working on this project that were highly informative about the kink lifestyle and community, so I wound up learning so many things that I didn't even know I didn't know.

And even more than that, although it took a few years, I found some really great conversations revolving around the appeal of these books (and others like them) and how much of said appeal is rooted in purity culture. I realized the question of "why do women like this stuff" is...an actual question, and not just a prelude to eye-rolling the way I had treated it at first. It's a question with fascinating answers that can be discussed at length for days, and I'm very glad I read the books enough to be part of it.

2.Daughter of Smoke and Bone / Laini Taylor - "Dislike" probably is the best word for this one, as I can't really say I had...strong feelings for it any direction. However, I adored the second book in this series - Days of Blood and Starlight - and of course I couldn't have enjoyed #2 without having gone through #1. So in that sense, yeah, I'm glad I read Daughter, even though it'll never be on my reread list.  [[C.J.: We almost had words.]] 

3.Battle Magic / Tamora Piece - It...just...um...oh Tammy.

To be fair, I don't think Ms. Pierce could have won with this book. It was announced and anticipated so, so long before the actual book came out that there was no possible way to live up to the imagination of die-hard fans. But even with that in mind, this one...fell short. In a sense I'm glad this came out and I read it just so I can stop anticipating it. It's over, it wasn't great, now on to the next thing (and fanfiction) with clear slate.

4.Ship Breaker / Paolo Bacigalupi - I absolutely adored this book....for about the first third of it. At about that one-third point, certain characters and tropes wound up taking center stage and and I disliked the book from there on out, but wow that first third still sticks with me. It's some excellent worldbuilding and emotional scene-setting, and I'm very glad I got to read that good part, even if the rest of it still sits sour with me.

5.The Assassin's Blade / Sarah J. Maas -I can go back to people who said "it's all justified if you read the novellas" and cry "NO IT ISN'T."

...kinda worth it?

Your turn! Have you ever been glad you read a book you disliked?


Review: Whitley: Even the Darkest Stars

Book Cover
title: Even the Darkest Stars
author: Heather Fawcett
pages: 437
format: Paperback ARC
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 2/5

Kamzin has always dreamed of becoming one of the Emperor’s royal explorers, the elite climbers tasked with mapping the wintry, mountainous Empire and spying on its enemies. She knows she could be the best in the world, if only someone would give her a chance.

But everything changes when the mysterious and eccentric River Shara, the greatest explorer ever known, arrives in her village and demands to hire Kamzin—not her older sister Lusha, as everyone had expected—for his next expedition. This is Kamzin’s chance to prove herself—even though River’s mission to retrieve a rare talisman for the emperor means climbing Raksha, the tallest and deadliest mountain in the Aryas. Then Lusha sets off on her own mission to Raksha with a rival explorer who is determined to best River, and Kamzin must decide what’s most important to her: protecting her sister from the countless perils of the climb or beating her to the summit.

The challenges of climbing Raksha are unlike anything Kamzin expected—or prepared for—with avalanches, ice chasms, ghosts, and even worse at every turn. And as dark secrets are revealed, Kamzin must unravel the truth of their mission and of her companions—while surviving the deadliest climb she has ever faced.

This book…had potential. I think that’s the best way to summarize it, really. There were a ton of things that were super interesting in concept and had so much potential to be great, and then they just…weren’t.

For instance, Kamzin has a magical familiar and much commentary is made on how unusual it is to have familiars, how odd it is that Kamzin and her sister both have one. And then her familiar…is just a pet. A pet fox. Who does nothing except occasionally bite people and wander out of the story when there’s nothing for him to do. Her sister’s familiars (crows) are super helpful and smart and take commands from Lusha, but Kamzin’s fox is…around. Cuddles a bit, bites people, wanders off again. Rather a let-down, really.

I felt the same way about the mountain climbing. “Oh, wow, we have to climb this huge mountain that no one has ever scaled before (without dying, at least)” and then it’s accomplished with…walking. And a bit of rock climbing, which was cool but really only one part of mountain climbing. There was a distinct lack of a lot of the techniques and trails I’ve read about in other Everest climbing stories (and, yes, Raksha is Everest, all the technical specs given for the fake mountain match the real one, so). There was mention now at then of various injuries, but that’s it. They were mentioned, and then the characters just kept going anyway without actually treating anything. (Except at the very end, when injuries were used to just keep certain characters out of the way.)

I would have really liked to see this book’s plot played out to the fullest extent, because I think there was a ton of possibility in it, but it did everything by half-measures instead of going full-bore.
There were a lot of weird bits and lazy tricks, too. A lot of tropes like ‘girl overlooked by her family despite having special skills’ and ‘you’re not like other girls’ things, which seem to just…stand on their own, instead of having any narrative context to support them. Why was Kamzin overlooked by her family? Oh, because. Why has River never met any other girls who…rock climb, despite it being mentioned frequently that he travels with women companions and assistants? Oh, because.

Why is there a tired triangle between the new bad boy and the old best friend? Lol, you know why.

Overall…I’m not upset that I read to the end, but I’m not really fulfilled, either. I won’t be continuing this series.


Review/Discussion: The Traitor Prince

Book Cover
title: The Traitor Prince
author: C.J. Redwine
pages: 416
format: Paperback ARC
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 3/5
Is it a review, is it a discussion? WHO KNOWS! Certainly not me. Because, well, I had a lot of…thoughts while reading The Traitor Prince that weren’t necessarily about this book by itself, so I’m going to talk about those and the book at the same time. Onward we go.

Royalty has long been a staple of fantasy books, and I’ve long been unquestioningly accepting this fact. On the surface it makes a bit of sense: in the pseudo-feudal set up it’s the royals and nobles who are the movers and shakers and world-plot instigators. (Or, rather, it’s easy to think of them as such, because history belies that statement as being absolute fact.) There’s the appeal of getting to write about luxurious settings and accoutrements, the access to nation-level intrigue, and…to be frank, the ability to circumvent a lot of the tediousness of pre-industrial life. It’s hard to be a peasant class hero when all the chores necessary to just stay alive take up your entire day.

So I get the appeal, even though lately I’ve been itching for a shift away from the hyper-royalty focus. I realized how much I would like it when I read The Will of the Empress, which had one of the main characters giving up one of her noble titles. (Just one of them, mind you, so it wasn’t that much of a statement.) Or when I read The False Prince and realized I would have enjoyed the story far more if the main character really had been a ‘false’ prince.

There’s so many things that come along with having a story focused on royalty that generally get dismissed or downplayed in favor of Saving the Kingdom and whatnot, but more and more I find I can’t keep those things out of my brain or stop myself from wishing they’d be subverted. There are questions of legitimacy, of class and power dymanics, of responsibility and corruption and abuse, that all get (not always, but a lot) swept under the rug of “look, she’s a princess, and fantasy stories are about princesses, so off we go.”

And then The Traitor Prince came along and just crystalized this issue in my brain. And suddenly all these feels I’d been having about royalty-focused-stories became feels about this book. So. Off we go.
Javan is the prince of this fantasy nation who has been away from home for ten years, attending an elite boarding school. Just before he is due to return, assassins try to kill him and replace him with his cousin, a royal bastard who (naturally) looks a lot like him. Since no one has seen Javan since he was eight, they figure any differences between them can be explained by ‘he grew up.’ Fair.

Now, ‘impostor tries to take the throne’ is practically a sub-genre in its own right at this point, and this book is a fair example of that plot. But it’s also such a pure distilled example of that set up, and of why it’s iffy in the extreme. Javan, the “rightful” ruler, is good and pure and only wants the best for his country and has motives as clean as the driven snow. Rahim, the “usurper,” is cruel and petty and violent and ruthless and bent on gaining power just because he thinks he should have it because of his birth.

Except, “thinks he should have it because birth” is presented as a villainous trait in Rahim’s case, and yet as…just actually correct in Javan’s case. He never says as much in those exact words, but he does thump on a bunch about being the ‘rightful’ prince. At no point in the story does anyone actually consider which of these boys would be a better ruler, or what ‘rightful’ means, or if their inheritance laws might be maybe just a little flawed. Javan’s parents were married and Rahim’s weren’t; Javan is good and Rahim is bad. Period. Nothing more to it. There may not be a direct line between those two things, but there sure is a whole lot of implication.

Rahim has lived in Akram his whole life, and more to the point, among the poor and working class citizens of Akram. Javan has been in a different country for over half his life, at a school and surrounded by other wealthy foreigners. At no point in the book is it even hinted at that Rahim might actually know the people or the country better than Javan, or that this might be to any sort of advantage. Javan has ‘education,’ which is no small advantage but is still entirely theoretical at the start of the book because he has no experience to match with it. But much like with the legitimacy issue, Javan=good, Rahim=bad and no discussion is even started. There’s also an uncomfortably correlation between Javan=rich=nice and Rahim=poor=bitter and cruel.

Royals are in charge because other powerful people kind of generally agree that they do, plus some complex traditions or institutions that grow up after the fact. Lots of them suck at it, some are cool, but there’s pretty much nothing stopping someone from a different family from sitting on their chair and doing just as good of a job. And usurper stories are in a prime place to actually confront this face and play with it and question it and maybe even have a regime change or two. But stories like The Traitor Prince instead stick to the unquestioning line of legitimacy, and align all their good and bad characters accordingly. The morals of the characters create the situation, rather than the situation testing and revealing the morals of the characters.

And so many issues get completely ignored and dropped to make this work.

I don’t necessarily think it’s required for usurper stories to end with the monarchy in shambles or the commoner in charge, but I do think one needs to grapple with the question of why the people in charge are in charge when succession becomes a key plot point. (Or, well, always grapple with that, if we’re going to be frank.)

That was only the setup of the book, of course, and the rest of it has Javan thrown in prison when he randomly pops up all un-assassinated. He has to fight in the prison’s gladiatorial-style competitions to win a chance to see the king and cry ‘dad, it’s me!’ He winds up enlisting the help of the warden’s slave girl, who is desperately trying to hide the fact that she’s part elf, since elves are both feared and hated. And that part of it is a solid story. The fights are well described and choreographed, and all of them are against monsters not other prisoners, and the monsters are creative and a lot of fun. Well, for us. There’s plenty of tension and a good relationship between Javan and Sadja, the girl. It was a very entertaining book, just not one that aims to break any boundaries.

I still think the strongest book in this series is the second one, which is a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. The fourth one is a Cinderella retelling that sounds quite interesting, and comes out Feb 2019. I’m excited for that one. I think this author has some real skill at twisting fairy tales and making their plot lines both fresh and familiar. I just wish she’d do the same with some of her genre’s more tired tropes, as well.