Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book Review: Seraphina

Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty's anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen's Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

In her exquisitely written fantasy debut, Rachel Hartman creates a rich, complex, and utterly original world. Seraphina's tortuous journey to self-acceptance is one readers will remember long after they've turned the final page.      Quoted from Goodreads


Ever since reading Leah Bardugo's wonderful Shadow and Bone (which I will probably review later), I have been looking for another great fantasy book, and Seraphina by Rachel Hartman was just what I wanted.  Strong main character?  Check.  Unique world building?  Check.  Mystery?  Check.  Internal and external conflict?  Check.  Multi-dimensional characters? Check.  A dash of romance that doesn't swallow the story whole?  Check.

In Seraphina's world, hyper-logical, emotionless dragons can take on human form, and their accompanying feelings, though these are seen as a disease or intolerable weakness. Despite forty years of uneasy peace, humanity still fears dragons, and as the day to renew their peace treaty draws closer, old fears and hatred grow stronger, ignited by the suspicious murder of a beloved prince. 

Enter Seraphina.

In her world, Seraphina is the unthinkable: a half human, half dragon hybrid.  Her human father didn't even know her her mother was a dragon until she died in childbirth, leaving him with a daughter that shouldn't exist and he didn't know what to do with.  One thing is certain, no one must ever know.  Only her father and teacher Orme (her mother's brother) know what she is.  So she pretends to be fully human, glorifying in the one legacy of her mother's that she loves: music.  Despite everything, she has risen to become the assistant to the royal music master, placing her at court, just as tensions begin to rise . . . 

Let's start with the lovely Seraphina.  I absolutely adored her.  She is strong, conflicted, filled with secrets, and torn between what she should and should not want.  She is brave without being foolhardy and acted instead of simply letting the story happen to her. Most of all, she is torn and maybe a tiny bit broken, and I like how she struggles to overcome that as the book progresses.  

The rest of the characters are just as interesting, and most are equally conflicted about something at one point or another.  

The writing is beautiful, and there is a texture to Hartman's world that I thoroughly adored. The pacing may be considered a bit slow, though I thought it was just fine, and the romance . . .  it was absolutely perfect.  It grew and developed between the characters instead of blasting the reader with insta-love.  Plus it was obvious why the two of them fell for each other.  Everything that was strong or messed up about them, drew them closer, making each one perfect for the other.

I also love a good mystery, and this book didn't disappoint.  Maybe  everyone else saw the ending coming, but the whole, who's he bad guy dilemma kind of reminded me of J.K. Rowling in her early Harry Potter books.  I know it's rather dangerous to be throwing that name around, but there it is.  Now everyone who reads this will be on the lookout, and you will probably all spot the villain before I did, but oh well.  I still think it was an excellent surprise, one that had all the pieces set up, but I sill missed it.

I give this book a solid 4 stars and recommend it to anyone who likes fantasy, adventure, or mystery and beyond.

Oh, and if you are interested, you can read a short prequel here.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian

Seemingly nothing in this world daunts the young criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl. In the fairy world, however, there is a small thing that has gotten under his skin on more than one occasion: Opal Koboi. In The Last Guardian, the evil pixie is wreaking havoc yet again. This time his arch rival has somehow reanimated dead fairy warriors who were buried in the grounds of Fowl Manor. Their spirits have possessed Artemis’s little brothers, making his siblings even more annoying than usual. The warriors don’t seem to realize that the battle they were fighting when they died—a battle against Artemis—is long over. Artemis has until sunrise to get the spirits to vacate his brothers and go back into the earth where they belong. Can he count on a certain LEPrecon fairy to join him in what could well be his last stand?

New York Times best-selling author and comic genius Eoin Colfer will leave Artemis Fowl fans gasping up to the very end of this thrilling finale to the blockbuster series. Quoted from Goodreads


Did you catch that?   The End. 

Yes, I am devastated, but there is something to be said about having the entire series available all at once, so for anyone who hasn't read the books, I suppose this could be considered good news.  I'm mostly just sad though.  I would say this post isn't a review so much as a tribute to the ending of a great series.

Ten years ago, (and yes, I cringed while writing that number) my teacher introduced me to this series, and have to say, Artemis Fowl was probably my favorite book of the semester.  I liked it enough to translate the symbols running along the bottom of the page and read the extra side story of a phlegm pot cleaner!  Seriously, when your writing isn't even in English, your main character cleans pots full of phlegm for a living, and it took an inordinate amount of  time to finish translating it, you know I enjoyed the book.

Seven books later, I still love the series. It is magic and myth meet technology and science.  It has action, memorable characters, brain vs. brawn, and growth. That's probably what I like most about the series.  In the first book, there is a strong argument for Artemis filling the role of the villain. At the very least he is an anti-hero.  By this last book, he has grown a moral compass and is clearly the hero. Through it all, I loved watching him change.  

All my favorite characters come back, and each are given their moment of glory: Opal Kaboi, probably my favorite villain of the series (after Artemis, that is), is back, brilliant, vain, insidious,and matching wits with Artemis every step of the way. Foaly's love life is explored, and he gets to play the techno-genius yet again. Mulch Diggums bums around pulling Artemis out of trouble in some disgusting way  or other.  Holly is still kicking butt and watching Artemis's back.  Ever-loyal Butler proves once again that he is the man to beat. And dear Artemis plots, plans, and generally schemes his way through the book.

Was the book perfect?  No.  I had a few problems in particular with Opal Kaboi's younger self and this whole timeline thing.  Still, it set up the rest of the adventure and kept me on the edge of my seat all the way from Salt Lake to New York.  I thought the ending was a little short, and I wanted an epilogue, but maybe that would have distracted from the climax.

The book itself is probably a 4, but following the Academy Award's example with Tolkein's Return of the King, I am awarding it 5 stars. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Book Review: Book of A Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

    When Dashti, a maid, and Lady Saren, her mistress, are shut in a tower for seven years because of Saren’s refusal to marry a man she despises, the two prepare for a very long and dark imprisonment.

    As food runs low and the days go from broiling hot to freezing cold, it is all Dashti can do to keep them fed and comfortable. With the arrival outside the tower of Saren’s two suitors—one welcome, the other decidedly less so—the girls are confronted with both hope and great danger, and Dashti must make the desperate choices of a girl whose life is worth more than she knows.

    With Shannon Hale’s lyrical language, this little-known classic fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm is reimagined and reset in a land inspired by the Asian steppes; it is a completely unique retelling filled with adventure and romance, drama and disguise.   Quoted from Goodreads
I have read several of Shannon Hale's young adult novels, but for some reason, this one was always at the bottom of my list.  I think I hesitated in reading it because it was based upon a fairy-tale that I did not recognize, and therefore other of Hale's books, such as Goose Girl, enticed me more with it's familiarity.  

Having read this novel, however, I am sad I did not pick it up sooner.  I think that Dashti is perhaps the noblest of all of Shannon Hale's heroines.  A unique blend of toughness and humor, ignorance and wisdom, frustration and and humility, make her someone that any reader would cheer for.  She is no wilting flower of a girl, but someone that any reader would want to be like.

Hale is a master of incorporating unique cultures and settings into her stories. Having the story take place in a land inspired by the Asian steppes certainly gave the book an exotic feel.  The land, much like Dashti, is filled with seemingly conflicting elements.  It is both harsh and beautiful, oppressive and liberating, and its people a dynamic mix of just and merciful, cruel and kind, fearful and brave.  

Perhaps the most compelling thing this story has to offer is the relationships between Dashti and the other main characters.  As a lowly "mucker" maid, she faces unique obstacles in dealing with noble Lady Saren, Kahn Tegus, and my favorite character, the villain Lord Khasar.  He is a deliciously evil villain, and I love that he is.  A heroine is only as great as the villain, and part of why I loved Dashti so much is because she had such an incredible villain to overcome.

This book is 4-stars for how these dissonant elements are woven together to make a harmonic masterpiece and a fun, romantic read.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Book Review: The Selection

For thirty-five girls, the Selection is the chance of a lifetime. The opportunity to escape the life laid out for them since birth. To be swept up in a world of glittering gowns and priceless jewels. To live in the palace and compete for the heart of the gorgeous Prince Maxon.
But for America Singer, being Selected is a nightmare. It means turning her back on her secret love with Aspen, who is a caste below her. Leaving her home to enter a fierce competition for a crown she doesn't want. Living in a palace that is constantly threatened by violent rebel attacks.
Then America meets Prince Maxon. Gradually, she starts to question all the plans she's made for herself- and realizes that the life she's always dreamed of may not compare to a future she never imagined.     Quoted from Goodreads
As a huge fan of this most recent season of The Bachelorette, I was more than ready to read a book whose inspiration did seem to come from reality TV's The Bachelor.  I found that I enjoyed this book just as much as I enjoy such TV drama, and for many of the same reasons.  

The dystopian world of The Selection was very interesting, and one of the book's stronger suites.  Based on a caste system, one's entire life's prospects are determined by what caste number you are born into.  1's are royalty, 2's are the super-wealthy, all the way down to the 8's, who are the dross of society.  In Cinderella-like fashion, our heroine, America, is a 5, poor enough to identify with all the common-man's plights, yet privileged enough that she is educated and hygienic.  Perfect for lots of social commentary, yet the book was surprisingly non-preachy, merely letting the story lead you to draw your own conclusions.  There's nothing quite like getting hit over the head time and time again by an author's own political or social agenda, and I am grateful that Kiera Cass used a feather as opposed to a sledge hammer.

As far as the conflict goes, the book remains largely stereo-typical.  You've got your typical love triangle (Team Maxon vs. Team Aspen), though to the author's credit, her heroine does handle the situation in a surprisingly mature and reasonable fashion, leaving you admiring her rather wanting to spoon-feed her Midol the entire time.  The one exception to this is the oh-so-classic scene where girl-is-jerk-to-guy-and-guy-finds-it-irrisistable.  But really, isn't that part of a typical female fantasy?  It's almost a staple in a book such as this. 

My greatest disappointment of the book was its climax.  Wait. I mean lack of climax.  I kept waiting for something big to happen, and found myself saying, when I finished the last page, "That's it?"  Then I realized the previous chapter's drama was the climax.  However, if it takes hindsight to recognize what was supposed to be a big moment, there is obviously something lacking.  It seems to me that the author is saving her big moments for the next book, and I sincerely hope she delivers enough to make up for the fact that I wasn't given much to hold me over.  

All in all, the book was a good 3-star read.  I categorize it as fun, light-hearted fluff, and as long as you know you're picking up cotton candy, you will thoroughly enjoy the tale as it unfolds.  

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Move over Jane Austen!

I thought today we'd start with an oldie, but goodie.  And contrary to what this title may suggest, I will not be reviewing Pride and Prejudice.  I figure that if multiple movies, book spin-offs, and hordes of raving fans have not already convinced you to read that book, then there is no way that I ever will.
However, the book up for review today is in the same vein as Pride and Prejudice.  Today we are going to review Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.

For those of you unfamiliar with the storyline of the book, here is a quick re-cap:  Jane Eyre is an orphaned governess who goes to work for the wealthy Mr. Rochester at Thornfield Manor.  There, Jane is in charge of Mr. Rochester's ward Adele.  In the course of her job, she meets and falls in love with Mr. Rochester, but the mysterious gentleman has a few well-kept secrets that not only serve for bone-chilling suspense, but act as a stumbling block for Jane & Mr. Rochester's ever being together.

This book puts the "R" in Romance, is incredibly well written, and has several fabulous plot twists.  However, it is read so much less than it deserves to be. As I've been preparing this post, I've tried to come up with some reasons why Jane has been so neglected, and I think I've stumbled upon a few reasons:

1) Many potential readers of this book have seen a movie version of Jane Eyre.  Because the author describes Jane as plain (get it, "Plain Jane"?), and Mr. Edward Rochester as athletic but not very handsome, any Jane Eyre movie is very hard to cast.  Call me shallow, but most people want to watch a movie where the main characters are at least good-looking, and if they can't be good-looking, at least be highly charismatic.  As a result, I personally don't think that any of the movies do it justice, and do not beckon any viewer to want to pick the book up.

Solution:  That's the beauty of books!  You get to imagine them just as you want, and if you are like my sister, then you can imagine them both beautiful if that's what it takes for you to get excited about their romance.

(And if you do decide to ever watch the movie, I have finally found one fantastic remake.  Simply google "Jane Eyre 2011" and you will stumble upon your next chic flick.)

2) The book starts off sooooo slow.  To be honest, though I have read Jane Eyre multiple times, I've never read the first part where Jane is in the orphanage.  And guess what?  I still understand the book.  My advice?  Skip the first of the book and start off when Jane is going to Thornfield.  All you need to know about the first part is that Jane has an aunt and three cousins who don't like her, and therefore sent her to an orphanage where she was badly mistreated.  There.

There you have it, folks.  I definitely rate this book as a 5/5, and hope that, should you read it, you thoroughly enjoy it!  I predict it will be one of those that, once read, you will wonder why you never picked it up sooner.

Do you like this book, yes or no?  Leave me a comment, let me know what you think!

Monday, July 16, 2012

What's this all about?

Hello one and all!  Welcome to Rachel's Reads.  This blog has come about for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, I love to read a good book.  Where most people panic when they've discovered they left their cell phone at home, I panic when I realize I left my Kindle or book  by my bedside.  My books come with me, so that when I have a minute, I can go wherever they choose to take me.
Now what, I ask you, is the point of reading a good book without being able to discuss it with someone?  Isn't that half the fun?  Over the years, I have become the local go-to-girl for my family and friends whenever they need a good book. I can't tell you how many times someone has asked me, "what should I read next?"  It is to these people, and anyone else who has ever asked that question, that I am dedicating this blog.  So I will try to keep you informed and - more importantly - entertained by my books and my opinions, so that the next time you wonder what you should read, you know where to go to find the answer.  

Happy reading!