Review: The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

17910124Blurb:

When the emperor of Annur is murdered, his children must fight to uncover the conspiracy—and the ancient enemy—that effected his death.

Kaden, the heir apparent, was for eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, where he learned the inscrutable discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power which Kaden must master before it’s too late. When an imperial delegation arrives to usher him back to the capital for his coronation, he has learned just enough to realize that they are not what they seem—and enough, perhaps, to successfully fight back.

Meanwhile, in the capital, his sister Adare, master politician and Minister of Finance, struggles against the religious conspiracy that seems to be responsible for the emperor’s murder. Amid murky politics, she’s determined to have justice—but she may be condemning the wrong man.

Their brother Valyn is struggling to stay alive. He knew his training to join the Kettral— deadly warriors who fly massive birds into battle—would be arduous. But after a number of strange apparent accidents, and the last desperate warning of a dying guard, he’s convinced his father’s murderers are trying to kill him, and then his brother. He must escape north to warn Kaden—if he can first survive the brutal final test of the Kettral.

Review:

Here is a (not really) spoiler summary for the first 75% of The Emperor’s Blades: An emperor, dead; a plot to kill his three children, underway; breakneck action to match those high-stakes…completely missing.

We start the book with the death of an emperor—as auspicious a premise as there ever was—but until the final quarter, nothing of importance happens. It’s quite shocking actually: a book that is going to be published could stand to lose its first 300 pages. All that happens in those 300 pages is an extended montage scene. The two princes—one training to be an elite soldier, the other serving as a monastic acolyte—get into various unimportant scrapes that are described in painstaking detail. (Literally ‘painstaking’: the pain of these unnecessary details is comparable to the pain of impalement by a stake.) Now I can never resist a good montage scene. Upbeat music coupled with characters getting ready to chase their goals is a perfect combination. But after a while I was hoping for, then praying for, then sacrificing cows at a homemade altar for a conflict to maybe kinda sorta sometime soon appear. Please Zeus?

As I waited very patiently, I was subjected to simplistic and forced dialogue that merely served to push the plot along. I also had to suffer dumb characters. Get ready to scoff and eyeroll when a character neglects to notice a big fat whopping clue slapping him on the side of his face! It happens quite a lot, especially with soldier prince. It’s even worse because the story is so emotionally simplistic, it is impossible to connect with the characters.

But what bothered me most about this novel was its treatment of female characters. Now this rant does not entirely belong to The Emperor’s Blades. Rather it is the result of hundreds of fantasy books, normally written by male authors, committing the same error. There are three POV characters in this novel, but I’ve only mentioned the two princes. That’s because the princess’s chapters are very few. What’s worse, in each of her chapters we are constantly reminded that this girl cannot be emperor, that she has no role in this man’s fantasy world. I don’t like “strong” female characters who are constantly told that they’re a rarity, that sexism does not want them where they currently have fought to be. Because honestly this just reinforces the idea that it is unnatural for women to be in positions of power. It suggests, quite unconsciously but regardless, that ambitious and successful women are an aberration. Give me a fantasy novel where men and women are equal and absolutely nothing has to be said about it because it’s normal!

Despite all these gripes, The Emperor’s Blades is a mildly entertaining novel that will be appreciated by those who like their fantasy more popcorny and less meaty. Do know that this is a series beginner and there is absolutely zero resolution here. Will I be back for book two? Possibly, since the mythology of this world seems interesting and I didn’t learn enough about it for my taste (instead I was treated to another knife fight or something). But I’m going to read reviews carefully before coming back for more to make sure that all of the significant action isn’t stuffed into the final 100 pages.

2 out of 5 stars

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Review: The Memory of Trees by F.G. Cottam

17415094Blurb:

Billionaire Saul Abercrombie owns a vast tract of land on the Pembrokeshire coast.  His plan is to restore the ancient forest that covered the area before medieval times, and he employs young arboreal expert Tom Curtis to oversee this massively ambitious project.
Saul believes that restoring the land to its original state will rekindle those spirits that folklore insists once inhabited his domain. But the re-planting of the forest will revive an altogether darker and more dangerous entity – and Saul’s employee Tom will find himself engaging in an epic, ancient battle between good and evil.  A battle in which there can be only one survivor.

Review:

I marvel at authors who can transform mundanities into atrocities. Axe-wielding murderers, spiky-jawed sharks, rabidly hungry wolves: these are everyday horrors, implicitly terrifying. But trees? What horror writer would ever endeavor to make trees—those limbed and leafy things we know from birth and walk beneath daily—as frightening as a deranged killer? Stephen King did it with the Overlook’s Hotel topiary animals in The Shining and F.G. Cottam does it here in The Memory of Trees.

He certainly creates an eerie atmosphere as the ill-fortuned protagonist replants an ancient Welsh forest, a well-intentioned act that awakens a centuries dormant curse. Among the yews and the elms and the willows, a decidedly malignant horror stirs, and it is this slow progression of evil that makes the novel quite the page-turner. Plotwise, I have very little to complain about. I found the ending underwhelming, but that’s expected. Horror novels normally revel in the exposition, the descent into madness, not the climax. I absolutely loved how Cottam chose to base the origins of the curse in medieval mythology. In fact, I would have preferred even more exploration of the history of the forest and its horrors.

What I appreciated less, however, was the writing. There are too many simple sentences and the dialogue is something awful. Particularly tiresome is Saul Abercrombie, the main character who desires to restore the forest, who frequently calls his hired arborist, “Tree Man”, and at the age of 70+ seriously uses phrases like “fucking cool” and “simpatico.” The lack of authenticity in the dialogue may derive from the weak characters who never feel real. They never seem to be anything other than players in a drama who have a role to fulfill. The writing is poorly worded to the point where some sentences require multiple readings before becoming comprehensible. For instance” “he did not delude himself he would enjoy the protection he did from the trivial nuisance Isobel Jenks had become when that confrontation occurred.” A few more thats and a few less sentence modifiers tacked on would have helped me decipher that monstrosity.

In spite of those misgivings, I enjoyed The Memory of Trees. I’m becoming convinced that horror is one of the hardest genres to write. Scary is scary—anyone with a word processor can do it. But to create a horror novel with a well-established backstory and an ingenious vector of terror? Well that’s rare and should be applauded.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: If I Stay (#1) and Where She Went (#2) by Gayle Forman

6990472Blurb:

On a day that started like any other…

Mia had everything: a loving family, a gorgeous, admiring boyfriend, and a bright future full of music and full of choices. Then, in an instant, almost all of that is taken from her. Caught between life and death, between a happy past and an unknowable future, Mia spends one critical day contemplating he only decision she has left—the most important decision she’ll ever make.

Simultaneously tragic and hopeful, this is a romantic, riveting, and ultimately uplifting story about memory, music, living, dying, loving.

Review:

This is one of those wackadoodle books where a young woman on the cusp of life meets a tragic fate and then floats around in a dead/near-dead state observing her friends and family. This type of plot intrigues me because the character always learns a lot about Life when she is reduced to an outsider incapable of action. It also bothers me, though, because I think: if a character is dead or comatose, shouldn’t she be, you know, dead or comatose? As a reader, my imagination has very few limits; I’ll accept ghosts, vampires, dragons, superviruses that only infect hermaphrodites born on Tuesday afternoons during a blizzard, but invisible floating (semi-)dead girls? That’s crazy!

Qualms about the premise aside, If I Stay is a short book overflowing with emotion. It unrolls over a single day and we alternate between the comatose protagonist Mia watching her friends and family cry in the hospital waiting room and the comatose protagonist Mia remembering happy stories with her friends and family from the past. The crux of the novel concerns Mia’s choice. After suffering a catastrophic car accident with her entire family, Mia asks, in the famous words of The Clash, “Should I stay or should I go?” That is, should I keep living despite the fact that my life as I knew it ended today? Or should I simply give up and die, having nothing left to live for? The plot largely succeeds because the flashbacks are well chosen; we get to see what is at stake for Mia, what she’d lose (or depending on religious perspective, what she’d regain) if she dies.

Pondering what you would decide in Mia’s situation is fascinating. It depends on your faith and on your relationships, but for anyone, it’s a question with no good answer. Seeing what Mia chooses and why she chooses it makes If I Stay a worthwhile read.

3 out of 5 stars

8492825Blurb:

It’s been three years since the devastating accident . . . three years since Mia walked out of Adam’s life forever.

Now living on opposite coasts, Mia is Juilliard’s rising star and Adam is LA tabloid fodder, thanks to his new rock star status and celebrity girlfriend. When Adam gets stuck in New York by himself, chance brings the couple together again, for one last night. As they explore the city that has become Mia’s home, Adam and Mia revisit the past and open their hearts to the future-and each other.

Told from Adam’s point of view in the spare, lyrical prose that defined If I Stay, Where She Went explores the devastation of grief, the promise of new hope, and the flame of rekindled romance.

Review:

Well, this is a bit awkward. The only reason I read If I Stay, the prequel to this book, was to eventually read Where She Went, which has ecstatic goodreads reviews and is considered better than the prequel. And now, here I am, having read both books and having been decidedly underwhelmed by both.

Truly, I don’t have much to say about Where She Went. It run-of-the-mill YA in my opinion, only with MORE angst, something I never really thought was possible since YA already owns 99% of the world’s angst. Yes, there were some heartfelt moments. Yes, it was a fairly thoughtful exploration of loss—both in the sense of death and break-ups. Yes, it was decently well-written. But was there anything special about it?

No.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

11447921Blurb:

The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks on over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.

And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio’s back lot-searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.

What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion-along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow.

Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising, Beautiful Ruins is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams.

Review:

Life is a film. You may often hear people say, “that only happens in movies,” yet in Beautiful Ruins, Walter tells us that each of our lives is a cinematic wonder, a staging of beauty and sorrow. But I don’t believe this. Life (and good literature, which should reproduce human life) is separate from film. That division, the division between the fantastical la-la land of movies and the harshness of reality, is important to me, so this book failed on a major level.

To present this theme to the reader, Walter writes his book almost like a screenplay and mixes fictional Hollywood characters with an actual Hollywood storyline concerning the love affair between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton during the filming of nightmare movie Cleopatra. A sample of the writing:

Not quite thirty, Shane Wheeler is tall, lean, and a little feral-looking, narrow face framed by an ocean-chop of brown hair and two table-leg sideburns. For twenty minutes, Shane has been coaxing an outfit from this autumn-leaf pile of discarded clothes: wrinkly polos, quirky secondhand Ts, faux Western button shirts, boot-cut jeans, skinny jeans, torn jeans, slacks, khakis, and cords, none of it quite right for the too-talented-to-care nonchalance he imagines is appropriate for his first-ever Hollywood pitch meeting.

Isn’t that such an odd paragraph, the copious hyphenated words notwithstanding? It’s so cinematic; I can just picture it as a screenplay: “Pan in on young man and pile of clothes, including …” Most of the book is written like this. I don’t know if the author intended to mimic screenplay writing, but whether he did or not, it’s irritating to read. It seems remarkably amateur, like “This is Shane. Shane looks like this. Shane does this.” Because of this style, the characters do not seem like real people but rather characters in an epic.

The plot also mirrors that of a movie. As a casual admirer of the occasional film, this technique is both good and bad. Movies uplift us, and this book, especially at the climax where all the characters step out of their individual vignettes to become an ensemble, made my emotions soar. But movies are also false. Movies focus more on theatrics than reality, and frustratingly, I noticed that in Beautiful Ruins as well. Walter asserts that we’re all “beautiful ruins,” messes with wonderful screwed-up lives, but this message does not align with the book’s structure. The whole book is heightened with drama. It’s a film in literature form, happy ending included.

Mostly, though, I disliked Walter’s faux-profundity, though by the number of kindle highlighters, it appears that most people found him truly profound. To me, everything in this book was SO obvious. I wanted to scream at the author to get some original ideas. Nothing in this book was something I hadn’t seen before or thought of myself. Exhibit A:

it was as if I was a character in a movie and the real action was about to start at any minute. But I think some people wait forever, and only at the end of their lives do they realize that their life has happened while they were waiting for it to start.

This quotation had 335 kindle highlights when I read it. I must ask: WHY? It’s such a cliché! The book is essentially a bunch of semi-interesting, unoriginal ideas packaged into pretty quotations. All I could think as I read was: does this author have nothing new to say? Does he only write in clichés because he lacks any original ideas of his own?

I enjoyed parts of this book—the cool blend of fact and fiction, the romantic backdrop of the film set of Cleopatra, the real-life characters Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. For the most part, however, it made me mad. Life is NOT a movie and we are NOT all “beautiful ruins.” This pure, unfiltered melodramatic sap, spiked with artificial depth.

Also, this is a legitimate quotation from the book, coming right in the middle of describing an elderly man’s humdrum morning routine. When I read it, I highlighted it and annotated “wtf??? is this a joke?” I still have no idea.

Or wait…is that the pill he took an hour ago? Ah yes, there it is, kicking in right on schedule: beneath the script, decrepit nerve terminals and endothelial cells release nitric oxide into the corpus cavernosum, which stimulates the synthesis of cyclic GMP, stiffening the well-used smooth muscle cells and flooding the old spongy tissue with blood.

My guess is the author is showing off.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

10626594Blurb:

It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.

At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.

Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen

Review:

I finally read a Maggie Stiefvater book that I didn’t hate! But ‘did not hate’ does not mean ‘loved.’ I am still decidedly underwhelmed by her books. Plotwise, they are too sparse, with weak pacing and thin storylines. Her writing, on the other hand, is too ornate, with pretty but ultimately vacuous sentences.

The Scorpio Races was more successful for me than her Raven Cycle series because, as a standalone, the story had to develop more quickly. I was also more invested in the fates of the two protagonists, particularly because the conflict is wonderful romantic catch-22: if one of the lovers gets what they most want, the other will automatically not get what they most want.

The final quarter is exciting as the heralded Scorpio Races finally take place. And the final pages are predictable but hauntingly beautiful. But still, ho-hum ho-hum. File Maggie Stiefvater under ‘Things I Just Don’t Understand,’ alongside other mysteries such as the purported attractiveness of young John Travolta in Grease and people who ruin scrambled eggs by putting ketchup on them.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo – and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up by Richard Parry

12988314Blurb:

Lucie Blackman—tall, blond, twenty-one years old—stepped out into the vastness of Tokyo in the summer of 2000, and disappeared forever. The following winter, her dismembered remains were found buried in a seaside cave.

Richard Lloyd Parry, an award-winning foreign correspondent, covered Lucie’s disappearance and followed the massive search for her, the long investigation, and the even longer trial. Over ten years, he earned the trust of her family and friends, won unique access to the Japanese detectives and Japan’s convoluted legal system, and delved deep into the mind of the man accused of the crime, Joji Obara, described by the judge as “unprecedented and extremely evil.”

Review:

There is something about a true crime novel that feels so disgustingly exploitative. Someone has suffered a gruesome and unfair death, leaving a horde of shellshocked family and friends behind, and then there is an author and his publisher, recounting the story for profit, and finally there is us, the readers, who feel a wispy nebula of sadness for the individual’s terrible fate, but who mostly feel a curiosity, an excitement to know all the criminal details, the bloodier the better.

Somehow Parry, a British journalist working in Tokyo, avoids sensationalism and tactlessness in People Who Eat Darkness. He simply tells the story of Lucie Blackman, a 21 year old British hostess who goes missing in Japan. If you’ve watched a crime drama or two, you know how this story ends, but Parry manages to make it gripping. He also includes fantastic academic details, such as the anthropology of hostess culture in Tokyo and the dynamics of police work in Japan (my favorite fact: Japanese police emphasize confession over physical evidence, which leads to a huge kerfuffle in the Blackman case, but seems somewhat successful in terms of convictions. Shocking statistics: in the US, 73% of defendants brought to trial are convicted, in Japan, a whopping 99.85%).

But alongside his factual account, Parry delves into the grief of a family living this insane situation. His stellar, sensitive writing never weighs down the story or fogs facts. Rather, it lends much needed humanity to the true crime novel. What most elevates Parry’s account is the fact that he avoids drawing summative conclusions. There is no gotcha moment where we understand the criminal’s damaged psyche, no epiphany that brings meaning to a meaningless tragedy. Parry tells Lucie’s story and ends by saying: this is one of the worst possible things that could happen to a person and to a family; even after following the case for years, I still do not know—I still cannot understand—why this horrible, horrible thing happened.

A fitting ending.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

425113Blurb:

When they were children, Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle were friends. But then a strange car pulled up to their street. One boy got into the car, two did not, and something terrible happened — something that ended their friendship and changed all three boys forever.

Now, years later, murder has tied their lives together again …

Review:

The only annotation I took during Mystic River is attached to this quote: “Life wasn’t a fucking movie, man, it was…fucking life.” I wrote, quite simply, “this author sucks at profundity and sentiment.”

Honestly I think that quotation and my brief comment could suffice for a whole review. What more do you need to know about this book after reading that clichéd ‘life is a movie’ line? But I will try to write more.

This is a mediocre mystery novel in every sense of the word mediocre. The writing is passable, just good enough not to distract you from the plot. The plot is, also, passable. The story never goes anywhere I didn’t expect it to go, but it is logical and believable. The main characters—three childhood friends united by a kidnapping in their youth and now a murder in adulthood—are tolerably interesting. And yet they feel like archetypes, not breathing, hurting humans.

In fact the weirdest bit is how the mystery doesn’t truly set off until nearly midway through the book. Although the murder occurs in the early chapters, the author writes in a strange way that makes you think the murderer has already been fingered, which led me to wonder, “hm, what’s the point then?” Once the actual mystery aspect begins, it’s easy to see who’s guilty a good few steps ahead of the detectives.

The novel has a distinctly masculine tone; it’s emotionless and paint-by-numbers. There is nothing offensive about it but nothing to commend it either. Mystic River: a solidly mediocre mystery novel.

2 out of 5 stars