December 30, 2015

Review: The Empress Game

The Empress Game First in the Empress trilogy
By Rhonda Mason
Available now from Pyr
Review copy

In the intergalatic empire at the center of THE EMPRESS GAME, the new empress is chosen through a tournament.  As this is obviously a cracked way to determine a political ruler, cheating is rampant.  Isonde, a political mover and shaker who is also the beloved of the emperor, enlists help to find a body double who can fight.  Her man Malkor finds Shadow Panthe, whose true name is Kayla Reunimon.  She is, of course, secretly the princess of a conquered world.

Despite being in the title, I found the games the most tedious part of THE EMPRESS GAME.  They gave Rhonda Mason the chance to add more action scenes, but even with explanation I was never quite sold on the tournament as a way of declaring a ruler.  The political machinations, however, were ace.  THE EMPRESS GAME is a good choice for space opera fans who like a plot that moves quickly and don't mind a prominent romance subplot.

Sparks fly between Malkor and Kayla, even though they are unsure whether they can trust each other.  Even more than herself, Kayla worries about her younger brother Corinth, who has been mute since the assassination of their family.  Keeping him safe and avenging her family are her top priorities, followed by returning to her people.  She's only invested in Isonde's scheme as a means to get where she wants to go.  Malkor, on the other hand, is only invested in helping Kayla out in order to put Isonde on the throne and further his political agenda.  However, the two of them might have more ideology in common than they first suspect.

I thought THE EMPRESS GAME could use a bit more emphasis on the space part of space opera, but that the complex layers to the characters' motivations were done very well.  Mason has set up an intriguing system where almost all of the political opinions have some merit.  I'm intrigued to find out what will happen in the second book of the trilogy.

December 29, 2015

Review: Trail of the Dead

Trail of the Dead Book two of the Killer of Enemies trilogy
By Joseph Bruchac
Available now from Tu Books
Review copy

Lozen and her companions are on the move.  They're all getting better at fighting gemods (genetically modified monsters) and Lozen's abilities are growing, tying them tighter together in unexpected ways.  But Lozen is also getting sick, and a new and powerful enemy has been set on her trail.

Lozen is a member of the Apache and Chiricahua tribes, and the mythology she grew up with informs how she battles monsters and keeps her humanity.  I've always loved stories that blend myth (or legends) into the story, and TRAIL OF THE DEAD is very satisfying on that account.  Her people's history is also very important to her.

In this post-apocalyptic future, few people have access to books or other pop-culture relics.  Lozen travels with the Dreamer, who it turns out has managed to save some books.  It is interesting to see what recovering a bit of written history can do for some people.  Lozen's crush, Hussein, is eager to read the Koran.  Still, oral tradition keeps alive many things that writing has failed.

I wasn't a fan of passages through the point of view of the villain, Luther Little Wound.  I found that they became repetitive as the book went on, because he doesn't have many interests aside from violence.  His point of view also didn't add much that we didn't learn, or couldn't have learned, through Lozen's point of view.

Apart from that quibble, TRAIL OF THE DEAD is a fun adventure story.  It has plenty of action, but still questions the consequences of violence.  It has a diverse cast of characters who are learning that they too might have their own prejudices to overcome.  It also has a tough heroine who has shouldered a heavy burden and is managing the weight.  I look forward to her final adventure.

December 28, 2015

Review: The Walls Around Us

The Walls Around Us By Nova Ren Suma
Available now from Algonquin Young Readers (Workman)
Review copy

THE WALLS AROUND US is a ghost story that becomes ever more eerie as it goes on, twining its way around you like the vines growing outside Aurora Hills, a juvenile detention center.   Aurora Hills is the home of Amber, sent there when she was thirteen.  It was the home of Ori, Violet's best friend. 

The girls both have terrible secrets in their past, as does the entire prison.  Nova Ren Suma doesn't shy away from many of the abuses committed in these institutions, nor from the racism and classism of the justice system in the United States.  THE WALLS AROUND US shifts back and forth in time, slowly revealing myriad tragedies, including the shocking murder of all forty-two residents of Aurora Hills and just what Vee and Amber have to do with it.

Vee and Ori were ballet dancers, both talented but bullied for different reasons.  Amber and her mother were abused by her stepfather, and Amber feared her younger sister was next.  The press says Ori killed two other ballerinas in a vicious rage.  The press says Amber engineered the car wreck that killed her stepfather.  Everyone in Aurora Hills says Ori and Amber are the only two innocent ones there.  But THE WALLS AROUND US is a story where no one knows the whole truth; at least, not until it is too late.

Nova Ren Suma's writing gets stronger with every novel.  She's always had style to spare, but I feel like her plots are becoming both tighter and more ambitious.  THE WALLS AROUND US is slow in event and focuses more on developing the main characters, as you might expect from a Suma novel.   But the overarching mystery of what happened between Vee and Ori and what happened to the girls of Aurora Hills ties everything together as the story begins hurtling to its macabre conclusion.

Questions of innocence and guilt, as well as the social issues surrounding juvenile incarceration, ground this slightly surreal story of a malevolent haunting.  There's also the question of remorse, which is always the question of justice.  Do only the penitent deserve to go free?  This is the kind of horror story where everyone gets what's coming to them.  I thought it was a satisfying, memorable read.

December 23, 2015

Making a List, Checking it Twice ...

... of books to take on Christmas vacation with me!

I still have some reading to finish for the Cybils, but I'm also packing some books that are just for me.  I intend to fully relax over the holidays.

I have two historical romances.  I've been very excited about COLD-HEARTED RAKE, Lisa Kleypas's return to historicals.  Eloisa James is another historical author that I love, and I picked up a copy of AN AFFAIR BEFORE CHRISTMAS because it seemed thematically appropriate.

I made an amazing second-hand store find at my local Half Price Books: INSTEAD OF THREE WISHES by Megan Whalen Turner.  This collection of seven short stories is hard to find (in my experience).  I love Turner's Queen's Thief series, so I'm happy to try something else by her - especially something this short!

LANCELOT AND THE LORD OF THE DISTANT ISLES or, THE BOOK OF GALEHAUT Retold is an Old French medieval romance that fell into obscurity until this translation by Patricia Terry and Samuel N. Rosenberg in 2006.  This edition also includes wood engravings by Judith Jaidinger.  I'm a huge fan of Arthurian romance, and Galehaut is said to include quite the interesting love triangle.

What are you reading?

December 21, 2015

Movie Monday: Star Wars: The Force Awakens: 2D vs. 3D

Thanks to a generous coworker, I was able to attend the Star Wars Marathon on Thursday.  This was a showing of all the films, culminating with Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 3D.  I'd already purchased a ticket to Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2D for Saturday, so I've gone to see the movie twice already.  One was with a rowdy, punch-drunk crowd; the other in a fairly quiet theater that couldn't resist cheering at some of the biggest surprises or victories.

I enjoyed the movie both times.  J.J. Abrams truly made this movie to cater to Star Wars fans.  He succeeds - sometimes a hair too much, in my opinion.  I hope the next two movies in the trilogy continue to become more of their own thing.  (There is a Death Star analogue, which, c'mon, that was used twice in the Original Trilogy!)  I particularly hope for this because I loved the new characters.  Rey is a young scavenger and pilot who happens across a droid who needs help.  Finn is a stormtrooper who realizes in his first battle that he can't work for the bad guys and has to escape.  Both of them are kids who are in over their head but still stumble towards the right thing.

But I don't want to give too much away.  I tried to avoid as many spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens as I could.  (Going on opening day did help.)  Instead, I'll focus on 2D vs. 3D.

I'll admit, I'm biased towards 2D.  I generally find it a more enjoyable movie experience, and this was no exception.  The 3D was done very smoothly; it didn't bother my eyes.  Mostly, it didn't make much of an impression.  There were a few moments that did wow me in 3D.  The opening crawl looked amazing in 3D.  It would've gotten my heart pumping anyway, but it really struck me in the 3D.  There's a moment where the Star Destroyer is right in the audience's face; many people in the theater I was in didn't hold back and tried to touch.  There's also a moment where Rey slides down a hill that looked pretty cool. 

However, there was one big drawback to the 3D.  The opening scene takes place at night and is full of fast-paced action.  I had trouble following it as well in the 3D version.  There were too many objects and too little light for me to clearly discern what was happening onscreen.

(I will admit, this also reminded me how dark modern filmmaking tends to be.  I saw this right after the Original Trilogy, which is suffused with sunlight.  Please, please don't be afraid of light!  I like when I can see what is happening onscreen.)

The 2D version lacks those few stunning moments, but I did find it easier to follow overall during the action sequences (of which there are many).  If you do want to see the 3D, seeing it in theaters might be your only chance.  It's mostly a toss-up of whether you want to pay the money or not.

I can't weigh in on the IMAX presentation, but I do still intend to go see Star Wars: The Force Awakens with my dad.  Maybe I can convince him to go see it in IMAX.

December 15, 2015

Review: Archivist Wasp

Archivist Wasp By Nicole Kornher-Stace
Available now from Big Mouth House (Small Beer Press)
Review copy

ARCHIVIST WASP has been showing up on a number of Best of lists, so I had very high hopes.  It has a great name, a striking cover, and comes from the imminently cool Small Beer Press (founded by Gavin J. Grant and Kelly Link).  The opening certainly caught my attention.  Wasp, in a fight to the death, decides to stop the cycle of violence and spare her opponent.

In the end, however, I didn't really like ARCHIVIST WASP.  I thought it meandered too much and combined two stories that didn't really fit together.  I kept waiting for an ah-ha moment to bring the story together, but it didn't happen. Wasp shows a lot of personal growth over the novel, but it was hard to connect the event happening to the changes in her character.  The prose of the novel flowed smoothly, but how the characters decided to move from point A to point B often seemed more a function of what Nicole Kornher-Stace wanted to happen next than anything to do with actual motive. 

The two main characters are Wasp and a ghost who convinces her to go on a journey to the underworld with him, to find a companion he left behind in life and needs to find in death.  The ghost is driven to find her for closure.  Wasp is driven to find her because once the quest gets going she's invested, mostly.  (She helps him at first for medical attention.)

Wasp eventually returns home for her big triumph.  ARCHIVIST WASP is yet another novel where a man uses religion to keep a bunch of dangerous girls down.  It's a familiar story in feminist science fiction, and one not given enough space to breathe.  Too much of the novel is about the quest that has nothing to do with the religion or how people are treated in Wasp's present and it only coincidentally gives her the key to fighting back.

Meanwhile, how did this world get from the ghost's day to Wasp's?  In the ghost's day, the big issue was the ethics of human experimentation, not the ways religion is used to oppress.  There is a huge commonality about people being used as weapons, and yet that thread never seems to get teased out.

ARCHIVIST WASP is stylish, with an underworld that requires you to travel by means of the things that aren't quite right.  For me, it needed another draft to really help the disparate elements cohere.  As it is, I think ARCHIVIST WASP is a case of style over substance.  If only the characters were as fleshed out as some of the nightmare landscapes.

December 13, 2015

Books for Christmas

I've been wrapping all weekend, which has made me well aware that I'm gifting more than ten books this Christmas.  I think all the recipients will really enjoy the ones I've chosen, however.

(One of my cousins is the easiest, because she likes YA fantasy.)

Do you give books as gifts?  How do you choose which ones?

I try to pick ones with appealing titles and covers, in addition to thinking they'll fit the person.  I want it to be a book they'll try to read, instead of tossing it aside and thinking, "Boring."

Need any help trying to decide on a book gift for someone?

December 11, 2015

Review: The Big Bad Book of Bill Murray

The Big Bad Book of Bill Murray A Critical Appreciation of the World's Finest Actor
By Robert Schnakenberg
Available now from Quirk Books
Review copy

Bill Murray is a cultural touchstone.  He's had a large influence on comedy, critical success with drama, and enjoys starring in strange anecdotes.  I like many of his performances, although I wouldn't consider myself a fan.  I haven't followed his career in any real capacity.

I'm certainly not Robert Schnakenberg, who has exhaustively researched Bill Murray and knows what sports and music he likes on top of the history of his performances.  THE BIG BAD BOOK OF BILL MURRAY only draws from secondary sources, but Schnakenberg clearly researched those exhaustively.

It's honestly a bit too exhaustive for me.  THE BIG BAD BOOK OF BILL MURRAY is laid out as an encyclopedia, covering the movies Bill Murray has been in, people he's associated with, movies he was considered for, and more in alphabetical order.  I started losing steam somewhere around the D's.  This is more a book to idly flip through than read front to back.  (And it is wonderful to flip through!  Quirk Books specializes in gift books, and this one is nicely designed indeed.)

I was shocked by the entry on Butler, Jennifer "Jenny."  Jenny Butler was Murray's second wife, who put out a restraining order on Murray during their divorce and alleged that he abused her.  I'd never heard any of this before.  I do think it is commendable that Schnakenberg didn't stick to hyperbolic praise throughout the whole book.  There's some less-than-flattering anecdotes in THE BIG BAD BOOK OF BILL MURRAY in addition to the love for his performances.

I think THE BIG BAD BOOK OF BILL MURRAY will delight fans of the actor.  It is quite thorough and quite lovely.  I might still not be a fan, but I feel like I know more about the man now.

December 9, 2015

"Waiting On" Wednesday: The Great Hunt

"Waiting On" Wednesday is hosted by Jill of Breaking the Spine.

The Great Hunt I enjoyed the Sweet Evil series, so I kept an eye out for new books from Wendy Higgins.  The first book in her new duology, THE GREAT HUNT, comes out March 8th.  I'd be interested in it any way, but knowing that it is a fairytale retelling made me even more eager to read it.

Publisher's blurb:

Wendy Higgins, the author of the New York Times bestselling Sweet Evil series, reimagines a classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale with The Great Hunt, a dramatic, romance-filled fantasy with rugged hunters, romantic tension, and a princess willing to risk all to save her kingdom.

When a monstrous beast attacks in Eurona, desperate measures must be taken. The king sends a proclamation to the best and bravest hunters: whoever kills the creature will win the hand of his daughter Princess Aerity as a reward. The princess recognizes her duty but cannot bear the idea of marrying a stranger—she was meant to marry for love—until a brooding local hunter, Paxton Seabolt, catches her attention. And while there’s no denying the fiery chemistry between them, Princess Aerity feels that Paxton’s mysteriousness is foreboding, maybe even dangerous.

Paxton is not the marrying type. Nor does he care much for spoiled royals and their arcane laws. He is determined to keep his focus on the task at hand—ridding the kingdom of the beast—but the princess continues to surprise him, and the secrets he’s buried begin to surface against his wishes.

What are you waiting for this Wednesday?

December 7, 2015

Movie Monday: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

Mockingjay Part 2 As I wrote before, I went to go see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 with my aunt, two cousins, and a cousin's friend on Black Friday.  I went to the first movie with friends, so it was nice to get to see the last movie with family.

All of us enjoyed it.  Hilariously, the girls thought Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson's roles should be switched, because they liked Peeta better but thought Gale and Katniss looked better together.  They also wanted to know more about what happens to Gale, but he exits at the same point he does in the book (although with a slightly more sympathetic portrayal).

I think the various directors and Suzanne Collins have done a wonderful job of bringing The Hunger Games series to the screen.  It can be particularly effective in bringing home that we are the Capitol.  There is one unfortunate bobble due to the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, but everyone involved did the best they could with his inability to appear in the scene.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 is not a happy film.  It ends with peace, but it is a grueling journey.  Katniss is driven to kill Snow, thinking that removing the head of the enemy will solve her problems.  Peeta is recovering from torture and brainwashing.  Gale is dealing with watching more than 90% of District 12 be gunned down in the streets.  None of them are at their best, but everyone is watching.

Jennifer Lawrence continues to kill it as Katniss.  It is a very internal, but vulnerable performance.  She's captivating from the moment you see the collar taken off in close up, Katniss's eyes saying so much that she can't say with her voice yet.  The cast around her is also up for the challenge.  Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, and all of the others bring so much to these roles.  It is hard to imagine the casting going any other way, no matter what the preteens I saw it with said.

There is no use in seeing The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 if you've neither seen the other movies nor read the books.  If you have, however, I think you'll be please with the conclusion.

December 4, 2015

Review: 'Twas The Night Before Christmas (with Santa's Bag Sweepstakes!)

By Clement C. Moore
Adapted and illustrated by Daniel Kirk
Available now from Put Me In The Story (Sourcebooks)
Review copy

I find making the personalized Put Me In The Story books quite fun.  The builder engine is quite easy to use -- you can even see the text and picture you put in immediately.

I personalized 'TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS for my nephew.  I enjoyed figuring out the right message to include for him, and had plenty of lines to include a nice sentiment.  His picture appears twice in the book: once at the beginning and once at the end, in an ornament you can cut out.

'TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS is based on the classic poem by Clement C. Moore.  There are a few changes, like dreams of yummy treats instead of sugar plums.  (I must admit, I didn't understand the point of that change.)  The real draw for this version of the poem is Daniel Kirk's illustrations.  They're adorable and bright, with beautiful textured details.

I think this makes a nice, personalized gift.  You could win a copy for yourself, as well as copies of OUR LITTLE DEER by Sarah Magsamen and SANTA IS COMING TO MY HOUSE by Steven Smallman, and a $750 gift card.  You can enter once per day through December 8th. Details are as follows.

Enter here and get a 30% off coupon:
Official rules here:


Put Me In The Story, the #1 personalized books site in the U.S., has hundreds of personalized books and gifts for newborns, kids, and even grown-ups! With a diverse selection of personalized story books, activity books, adult coloring books, adorable plush and more, Put Me In The Story is a fantastic spot to find personalized gifts that become beloved keepsakes.

As a huge thank you to their customers, Put Me In The Story is hosting SANTA'S BAG SWEEPSTAKES, just in time for Christmas! Now through December 8, enter each day for a chance to win the grand prize in Santa’s bag of goodies.

December 2, 2015

Review: The Casquette Girls

The Casquette Girls First book in a series
By Alys Arden
Available now from Skyscape (Amazon Publishing)
Review copy

THE CASQUETTE GIRLS, as I understand it, was originally self-published.  Alys Arden's success led to the book being picked up by Skyscape.  I never read it in that original form, but I can see why it was successful.

THE CASQUETTE is set in a New Orleans that has been ripped apart by a storm.  Katrina is never named, but it weighs heavy on the novel.  Adele Le Moyne was sent to live with her mother in France; however, her mother shipped her off to boarding school and rarely saw her.  Thus, Adele leapt at the chance to return to her father and her city. 

Arden's descriptions of New Orleans and the people that populate it are powerful.  It is a city full of memories that have been swept away and left to rot, and yet the traditions continue regardless.  Adele and her friends show up to work in a cafe every day, and eventually the kids go back to school.  Life starts picking up its expected pace.  Except for the crime wave.  There's a suspiciously high number of murders, and all of the victims have been drained of blood.

THE CASQUETTE GIRLS is darkly romantic, both due to love of a wild place and a romance with a boy who just might kill Adele.  There is the de rigueur love triangle, plus some bonus decoy love interests thrown in.  Nicco is a foreigner looking for his sister, and Isaac is a New Yorker come to give aid.  Both boys are full of secrets.  But Adele is starting to discover that the biggest secrets are those of her family's past, hidden in the objects she's inherited from her ancestor Adeline.  She could save her city, and all it requires is a ridiculous amount of translation.

I thought that THE CASQUETTE GIRLS went on for a touch too long and that the romantic resolution was rather abrupt.  It is still a thoroughly enjoyable popcorn read with a final line that will have you begging for the sequel.  (No really, when is it coming out?)  The book's greatest strength is its sense of community.  There's New Orleans itself, as I've already covered, but there's also the people Adele surrounds herself with and those that Adeline bonded with.  THE CASQUETTE GIRLS is a story of people coming together.  At the same time, it posits that trust can be dangerous.

THE CASQUETTE GIRLS is a great choice for readers who like witches, vampires, and folklore with more than a seed of the truth.  I hope that the sequel continues to build on the strengths Arden shows hear and that it is just as readable.


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