May 2018 Wrap-Up

Didn’t I just do one of these posts last week? I swear, time is going by faster and faster. Early to mid-May was a whirlwind of mental health issues and emergency hospital visits, so I’m kind of surprised that I still managed to squeeze in 11 books. So let’s dive right in:

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Shirewode (The Wode 2) by J Tullos Hennig: (9.0/10)
If you saw the new Robin Hood movie poster and thought, “So it’s exactly same as the dozens of other Robin Hood adaptations except Robin gets to wear a machine-stitched hood?” then boy, do I have a series for you. With The Wode books, Hennig weaves Welsh mythology into the classic tale and reimagines Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne as lovers and Maid Marian as Robin’s sister–and all three entwined by magic and fate. The worldbuilding is intricate, the language is gorgeous (though some of the Welsh slangs flew over my head), and the characters are achingly flawed. It’s the best Robin Hood retelling I’ve encountered and I’m definitely going to need to do a full review on it sometime in the near future.

The first two books also feature a “friends to lovers to enemies to lovers” arc and I can’t believe this isn’t a more common trope, because holy hell, it is a beauty of an emotional rollercoaster.

The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle 2) by Maggie Stiefvater: (8.5/10)
This was a great sequel to a book that I thought was interesting but still lacking something. Ronan is fascinating and I adore stories that explore dreams, so this one was just made for me. Review here.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang: (8.5/10)
Worth all the hype. Explores the atrocities of war and the dangers of vengeance without blinking an eye. I had some issues with the pacing and prose, but those are very much just new-author problems. Review here.

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Armistice (Amberlough Dossier 2) by Lara Elena Donnelly: (8.0/10)
A slower-paced sequel to Amberlough that was, at times, a little too slow, but the excellent character work makes it worthwhile in the end. Review here.

The Enchanted Chest by Jean-François Chabas: (6.0/10)
A weird little graphic novel that doesn’t seem to know who its intended audience is. The subject matter is a bit to mature for children, but the story is too hand-holdy for adults.

The Wicker King by K. Ancrum: (9.0/10)
A beautiful genre bender that explores mental health and codependency in microfiction-multimedia format. Review here.

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A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White:
A fun space opera featuring a bisexual car racer (who’s also a WoC) and a mouthy veteran-turned-treasure-hunter. It’s not without problems, but I had a great time with it overall. Review to come!

The Prince of Mirrors by Alan Robert Clark: (4.0/10)
This was supposed to be a character-driven historical fiction set in Victorian England, but I found said characters uninteresting and their relationships flat. I did appreciate the exploration of mental health and LGBTQIPA+ issues through a 19th century lens.  

Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno: (5.0/10)
I’d expected a lot of great things from this book but was left severely disappointed. At least the cover’s pretty. Review here.

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The Rig by Roger Levy:
This is a very ambitious story that’s reminiscent of Black Mirror, with the cynicism dialed down a couple of notches. It juggles many complex subjects, and while I can’t say that it’s a complete success, I have to give props to the author for trying. Review to come.

The Curse of the Wendigo (The Monstrumologist 2) by Rick Yancey:
A reread–or a re-listen, rather–of one of my favourite series of all time. Though I’ve read and listened to the first and third book many, many times, it’s been years since I’d picked up the second one, so I decided to listen to the audiobook. Not as good as the third, but still very, very good, and the narrator does a pitch-perfect job.

 

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DISCUSSIONS

Then and Now: “Strong Female Characters”

TOP 5 WEDNESDAY

T5W: Favourite Non-Written Novels
T5W: Favourite SFF Covers
T5W: Intimidating Books on My TBR

DIVERSITY SPOTLIGHT THURSDAY

DST: Historical Fantasy
DST: Portal Fantasy

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And that’s it! Tell me how your month went and if you’ve read any books that you think should go immediately into my TBR!

 

Review: The Dream Thieves – Sweet Dreams are Made of This

Dream Thieves

Title: The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle 2)
Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: September 17, 2013
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Page Count: 448 (hardback)
Goodreads

Rating: 8.5/10

 

 

 

My reviews for this series are somewhat unorthodox because, one, I figure there have been millions of traditional reviews already written about them. And second, a normal review just doesn’t feel right for this story and these characters. So they’re part story-time rambles, part discussion of Stiefvater’s writing craft, and many parts purply. I’ll most likely write out a full series review once I finish the other two books.

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I’ve held a deep fascination with dreams since I was a kid. My best friend and I would write volumes and volumes of comprehensive dream journals and tell each other all the crazy, otherworldly dreams we’d had the night previous. These were stories conjured up from the depths of our brain to which we had no prior knowledge of and in which we were the actors. And we lived for them.

We were especially fascinated with how much control we held in these dreams. We often talked about how many of my friend’s dreams had a running theme of death. It was so easy for her to experience death in her dreams. And she felt she had no choice but to let it play out.

Me? I was deathly afraid of death. I wanted to avoid death by whatever means possible. And this fear gave me a burst of lucid control that I normally wouldn’t have had.

I’m in a car that’s catapulting off a bridge?
Slow down time, conjure myself a parachute, and jump out.

I’m being chased by a snarling dog and it’s this close to biting me in the ass?
Turn it into pillow.

I’m trapped in a corner, chased by all manners of nightmare fantasy creatures?
Will myself awake.

And one of my favourites? One that’s becomes more and more frequent?
Pause. Conjure up a game menu. Load a previous save where I wasn’t yet in danger.

I was also unnerved and intrigued by how much of my daytime anxieties and fears would seep into the narrative of of these nightly adventures. It doesn’t take a professional dream analyst to figure out which of my real-life problems are fueling my recurring nightmares.

Well, that’s fascinating, Kathy. But why are you babbling about dreams?

Because this book is all about dreams–the kind of dreams that take hold of our senses as we sleep. The wonder of them. The impossibility of them. The manipulation of them. And the way we drag our waking demons into them. Except in this story, the dream-warped demons follow out into the real world.

But Stiefvater also presents the other kind–the dreams that reside in our waking minds and fill us with hunger. While all of the Raven Cycle characters deal with the latter kind, here we find out that Ronan Lynch deals with both.

To write up a character like Ronan into existence, Maggie Stiefvater must have one foot resting in the dream realm herself, because he’s a complex mix of contradictions and illusions. You look at him and you think you see a sharp edge, and then you blink and it turns out it’s a smooth whorl. He’s false layers lying over real layers lying over false layers. And he’s infinitely, absorbingly fascinating. You can’t help but want to turn him over and over in your hand and study all the minute details.

Moreover, this series continues to be an AP English teacher’s wet dream. Everything is used to tell a character’s story–from actions and body language and expressions, to the environment (like the crookedness of Adam’s apartment and the raggedness of Gansey’s car), and words that say one thing but mean another. It’s very hard to pull this off in full-length novels without coming across as contrived, but Stiefvater nails it with brazen confidence.

I still think Gansey is the weakest of the boys (not including Noah). It’s not so much that he’s not a complex character; it’s that his struggles ring a little Poor Little Rich Boy for me to empathize with. And I’m still not sure what to feel about Blue. On one hand, I like her weirdness and her spunk. On the other, her “I’m sensible” shtick is getting a little old.

We also don’t get too much further with the Glendower plot. But I’m perfectly fine with that. This book is more about Ronan’s journey of realization that the past–and all the anger and fear that comes with it–should be wielded by the hilt, not the blade. It’s fantastic, introspective stuff.

The sleepy illogic of the plot and setting plays right into the tastes of readers who close their eyes each night eagerly anticipating that drop from the waking realm to the world beyond.

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The Raven Boys (The Raven Cycle 1) Review – 8.0/10

 

To-Read Pile: April 2018

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April is probably the biggest month for new releases that I’m actually interested in reading (at least until fall). I know I won’t be able to get through all of them, and writing up a schedule with an expectation to follow it is just asking for trouble. But hey, having goals is good and conducive to a healthy and productive lifestyle! Or something.

New Releases (Definite Yes):
April-2018-TBR

  • Grey Sister (Second Book of the Ancestor) by Mark Lawrence:
    I’d planned on reading this in March but couldn’t make the time. Red Sister is probably my favourite Lawrence book thus far and I have high hopes for the sequel.
  • Fire Dance by Ilana C. Myer:
    A standalone that is also a followup to Ilana Myer’s brilliant debut Last Song Before Night, which has become one of my favourite books in recent years. It’s my most anticipated release this month (narrowly edging out Grey Sister) and I can’t wait to see that gorgeous cover in person.
  • From Unseen Fire (Aven Cycle 1) by Cass Morris:
    A political intrigue set in alternate-Rome with mages duking it out for control of the city. It’s a melding of two of my favourite genres–fantasy and historical–so I can’t possibly say no.
  • Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente:
    I mean, the premise is Eurovision in space. I’m expecting something fun and crazy.
  • This I Know by Eldonna Edwards:
    Another mesh of historical and fantasy. Set in the 60’s, it stars an eleven year-old clairvoyant girl named Grace living in a small town that is full of secrets. It sounds like a heartwarming coming-of-age story and the world could always use more of those.
  • Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert:
    A YA contemporary featuring asian-american LGBTQ teens, which there aren’t enough of, so I’m definitely nabbing this one. 

 

New Releases (Tentative Yes):
Dread NationWhite Rabbit

  • Dread Nation by Justina Ireland:
    Historical fiction with zombies feat a bi poc protagonist. Enough said.
  • White Rabbit by Caleb Roehrig:
    It’s one of the only mysteries on my list, and it’s a queer one, so I’m gonna try hard to squeeze it in somewhere.

Old Releases:
Dream ThievesThe Last of the Wine

  • The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle 2) Maggie Stiefvater:
    [furious whispering] I will get through this series by the end of summer. I will get through this series by the end of summer.
  • The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault


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I’m hoping to get through more of the new releases, but we’ll see how it goes.

Happy April, everyone!

 

Review (That’s Not Really a Review): The Raven Boys – I Can’t Believe I Didn’t Read This Sooner

The Raven Boys
Title: The Raven Boys
Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Publisher: Scholastic
Release Date: September 18th, 2012
Genre(s): YA, Fantasy, Contemporary
Page Count: 416 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

 
This isn’t going to be in the form of most of my reviews–in that I’m not going to go down a checklist and recount all the ways in which I enjoyed, or disliked, the plot, the setting, and the characters. The book doesn’t feel like the first entry of a series, but rather the start of something large and looming, so it feels wrong to give a comprehensive breakdown so early on in the journey.

So, instead, I’m going to talk about how the book has surprised me, and highlight some of the excellent writing craft that Maggie Stiefvater displays.

Here’s the thing. The summary blurb for these books are, I think, the most detrimental part about the series. It gives the impression of another YA urban fantasy in which a quirky girl falls headlong into forbidden love with a rich boy. But that can’t be further from the truth. In fact, Blue and the boys barely interact for half of the book. Most of that time is spent laying down the groundwork of non-romantic relationships–the friendship between the raven boys and the strange bonds within Blue’s household.

The prose is not what I’d expected. At all. There’s a languid maturity to it I don’t usually see in this genre, and mostly in adult literary fiction. It’s a sense that Stiefvater knows  exactly the kind of story she’s writing and she’s trusting the readers to trust her to get them there eventually, via her terms, however unorthodox that may be. This means that she takes her sweet time to set up the setting, the atmosphere, and the characters. And the payoff (at least, the ones we get in this book) is pretty great.

This is a character-driven story, through and through. Pretty much every element of the story is used to say something about one of the main characters. The most obvious way is through POV shifts. Via alternating POV chapters, we get access to many of the characters thoughts, their fears and doubts; each narrative voice is distinct and compelling.

But what I really find impressive is Stiefvater’s oblique way of developing a character–not from inside their head, but from a distance. Outside-in.

What do I mean by that?

Well, for one, the use of inanimate objects to tell a character’s story. When we interact with our surroundings, we all leave parts of ourselves behind. And I don’t mean those scraps of dry skin that cascade off when you rub against a surface. I mean the small habits, ticks, dislikes, preferences that seep their way into our surroundings. The way we organize our spaces, the decorations that adorn our walls, whether our clothes lie strewn like landmines across our bedroom floors or painstakingly folded in that one specific nook between the dresser and the bed .

They are, each and every one, scattered leavings of our selves.

Stiefvater understands this and incorporates it so very well–it’s in the way she describes Monmouth Manufacturing, Gansey’s car, Adam’s neighbourhood. They all help form the image of a character in ways that dialogue can’t.

Secondly, the constant use of body language and deconstruction of facial expressions to examine characters from a distance–that says something about the characters from a distance.

Every one of these characters are swashed in layers. Some layers you only see when they’re interacting with certain people, some layers don’t emerge at all, and some you only see mere glimpses of in certain instances.

For example:

[Gansey’s] bald expression held something new: not the raw delight of finding the ley line or the sly pleasure of teasing Blue. She recognized the strange happiness that came from loving something without knowing why you did, that strange happiness that was sometimes so big that it felt like sadness. It was the way she felt when she looked at the stars.

This isn’t the character deliberately–or even consciously–revealing something about himself. It’s one of his layers getting caught against the protrusion–the insistence, the intensity–of a particular moment and getting peeled back slightly for just for a moment, and another character being at the right place and the right time to peek inside it.

Gansey can think, or say out loud, “I’m so glad we found these ley lines,” and that would be another way to present the same thing. But it’s not as punchy as another character recognizing, and empathizing with, that unadulterated joy in his body language and expression. And the latter is what sticks in your mind.

All in all, this is a wonderful start and I’ll most likely be writing a full thinkpiece on the series when I finish (hopefully within a month!).

Until then…

Excelsior