Saturday, February 6, 2016

Troubled Waters - Sharon Shin [Elemental Blessings]

Troubled Waters - Sharon Shin [Elemental Blessings]
Source: Library
Original Review: February 6, 2016
Rating: ★★★★★

Thanks to one of the myriad of reading challenges I'm participating in, I grabbed a copy of this from the library as well. And it had me hooked from within the first few pages. The societal customs and beliefs underscoring them have the power to make me think. For a novel to do that so early on is fairly impressive from my standpoint - even if those elements have nothing to do with the overall story arc.

Lucky for me, they did.

For the story itself, there was obviously quite a bit of thought put into how to capture the reader. When we meet Zoe, she is watching her father burn on a funeral pyre. That particular event foreshadows more than anyone could guess, though it wreaks havoc on how Zoe approaches what's coming. She is numb with grief - and behaves as such, surprising her own self in her actions and decisions. Grief makes people do strange things.

That may be why the first "twist" quickly fades from the mind and only comes back with time and some thinking. It occurs mere days after Zoe's father's funeral, while she is still wrapped in the shroud of grief - and we are wrapped in it with her to such an extent it barely registers as passing strange. The next one, which comes when she is well out of that haze, is much more significant, and has a much broader impact.

The main counter to our heroine - Darien - is likeable enough from my perspective. He doesn't let Zoe run him over, for all her personality is water based, she is very passionate. He is, if not stable, then at least steady. He also does not condemn her for not easily going along with his plan for her in her grief, and in fact seems pleased to have her fully present in the role she has to play. Even if she does not trust him - or like him much.

Shinn's approach to her characters is definitely more idealistic than realistic, I would have to say. While Zoe, Darien, and other's behavior and deeds aren't particularly exceptional, they are what I could call "appropriate" - Zoe mourned for an appropriate amount of time and in an appropriate manner. Darien's approach after finding her was appropriate. Zoe's reactions to discovering the extent of her fate was acceptable - and her response to her dead father's trespasses was most certainly ideal. Everything extremely calculated and every word written with specific intent.

It's that, and something else I can't quite identify, that helps the story move as one of the most organic ones I have ever read. There really isn't a while lot of drama - at least, nothing major. There are feuds between people, families, enemies and friends, but the flow of interaction, of cause and effect, makes it easy to be absorbed into the story - to find my own place in it as an observer.

Troubled Waters is very much like people watching. Watching the tension build between Zoe & Darien has me held rapt, my pulse fluttering as if I was Zoe - and wondering at her placid response - before realizing it is simply the way she was written to play it. Which makes sense. It's the way I would - and have - played it. It's a pleasure to, again, see something grow so naturally in a story that it seems like an integrated part of it instead of some random addition. There's no "intense, sudden connection" or "mysterious draw" between them - just a natural evolution from dislike to distrust, from distrust to social dependence, and from dependence to affection to love.

When I reached the final scenes, I found myself holding my breath as often as not, as secrets were unraveled and their potentially disastrous consequences revealed. Though I don't know yet if we've seen the full extent of Zoe's power just yet, we certainly see a few impressive displays - both as acts of heroism (calmly controlled) and wildly reactive. We see the results - both good and bad - of Zoe being raised away from her inheritance.

Ultimately, Zoe's preferred behavior is explained by her culture. Every person, from my understanding, "chooses" an elemental association. Certain blessings and behaviors are expected - and while Zoe is often referred to as being all water, she has a heart of fire, inherited from her father's family. Without having that to take into consideration, Zoe would likely come across as too perfect, too contrived. As I mentioned, the characters are all set up to be idealistic representatives of human nature, where any deviation is clearly explained with some sort of dire circumstance.

It is hard or me to find fault with this book, as it really was an enjoyable, well-paced read. I simply did not want to put it down, was sad when it was finished, and looking forward to the next!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Ashley Bell - Dean Koontz

Ashley Bell - Dean Koontz
Source: Barnes & Noble
Original Review: February 4, 2016
Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

There is something about Koontz's writing that never fails to drag me in. Granted, this is only the second book of his I have read, but his writing is so distinct that you could never mistake his for any one else's.

I was terrified to pick up another book after reading Innocence, afraid that I would be disappointed. That Innocence was a fluke of Koontz's writing that struck me so deeply. Early on, I was happy to say I was wrong. That a writer like Koontz is lucky to come around once a generation - if that!

So, imagine my surprise when - every third paragraph or so - our lead's mother starts spouting surfer lingo. Which is then promptly identified as surfer lingo, and a definition of what she said given.

Um... am I really reading the same Dean Koontz that wrote Innocence? The master of "show, not tell"? His ability to walk the subtle line between too much and not enough seems horribly compromised. I am used to seeing things that don't make sense early on in a book, but when these nonsensical things are completely disparate from the situation they are put in, they go from "confusing" to "pointless."

At only page 60 out of a 500+ page book, I was sorely tempted to return it and add it to my small (but growing) DNF list. Even that aside, I have never returned a book so early on before and, in fact, I have only ever returned a book to the store once before in my life. At that point, however, my desire to know the outcome was enough to keep me going.

Now, perhaps I read this too soon after finishing American Sniper. But reading a book in which the heroine's love interest is a Texas-born former cowboy Navy SEAL overseas on a blackout mission to take out a terrorist, while the heroine sits at home dealing with cancer with no one but her parents at her side... uh-huh.

The dialogue discourages me even more. Issues with the mom's dialogue aside, Koontz does a fair job of capturing how a person in various situations might actually speak. Hell, beyond the dialogue, he does a good job capturing how they might act as well. There just isn't enough of it!

"I need you to help me understand... You think the golden retriever cured you?"
"No. Maybe. Hell, I don't know. The dog had something to do with what's happened. It must have. Listen, I'm not saying it's a miracle dog. What would that mean, anyway, 'miracle dog'? Sounds ridiculous. But the dog and the man who brought him - they must know something. Don't you think so? I think so. Well, the man might know something. The dog wouldn't necessarily know. Who knows what dogs know? And even if the dog knew something it wouldn't be able to tell us what it knew, because dogs can't talk. So, we need to talk to the man." (p.88)
Perfect dialogue for someone inexplicably cured from a supposedly incurable disease. Absolutely brilliant.

So where's that brilliance in the rest of this incoherent mish mash?

And oh, my fucking god. She's in a coma. She's been in a coma this whole time, ever since all of the crazy shit started. We've been reading nothing more than a god-damned coma dream.


Even if it's not that... has Koontz started to rely only on his name to get people to keep reading? Using something so cliche... even if it's not really that - I'm having a hard time convincing myself to keep reading. In fact, I'm only still reading because I have nothing else to do except watch re-runs of Numb3rs, and listen to my eight year old ramble about her upcoming vacation. Both of which sound 100% more preferable to finishing this book.

But I'm more stubborn - and apparently more masochistic - than that. So, I press on.

Sort of.

Koontz still displays an impressive level of skill in portraying human behavior. However, his almost lyrical method of writing I became accustomed to previously is conspicuously absent from Ashley Bell. In fact, the style and method varied greatly throughout the book - almost as if Koontz wasn't the only one writing, and the voices just didn't blend.

I wish I could say the ending made the last week of reading worth it. It didn't. If anything, it just made my disappointment all the more absolute. There is no taking those hours back, and no redemption to be found for this book.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

American Sniper - Chris Kyle

American Sniper - Chris Kyle
Source: Kindle
Original Review: January 23, 2016
Rating: ★★★★★

**Most of this review is going to be on the content of the book. An autobiography isn't smooth or suave. It's real stories from a real human being. In this case, it's also only the story the US government will let Chris Kyle tell. It's very nature - being an autobiography - means it will piss people off. Truth hurts. He says what I can guarantee many, many more servicemen and women say behind closed doors. He gives a face to everything people don't want to believe of their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters or government. He takes the disdain and judgement so that the lot of them don't have to.**

Anything that falls under the realm of true life, military, etc, really hasn't been my thing.

Then, I get engaged to a man who served as a Ranger for ten years. He wants me to watch American Sniper with him, but he can't even make it through the first 30 minutes.

What else can I do? I get the book.

Not even two chapters in, and I wonder how crazy it is that I - having never served in the armed forces myself - am enjoying reading about his experiences thoroughly. I'm wishing I was there. I hadn't even gotten to the part on Hell Week before I had to file it under a book that made me laugh out loud.

Maybe it's because of my fiancé. Maybe it's because my family has military history dating back to William Wallace and beyond.

Or, maybe it's just like my fiancé keeps saying, and I've got the same kind of mentality that all the current and former "spec ops" people have. Thankfully, we'll never know. Yet, for all he described, for everything he said was most exciting, even though it was completely fucked up and torturous, it sounded like a good time to me.

I will admit, the opening of the book could have been handled with a little more finesse. But that's not what an autobiography is. That would take away from the measure of the man we get in these pages. His story is real and raw, as is his telling of it. If you can't get past t hose first pages, with the sentiments and situations found within, without passing judgement - you really shouldn't continue reading.

One thing that stands out hearkens back to the beginning of the book when he talks about something he had learned simply by being his father's son - do what you love. And Chris Kyle obviously loved what he did.

"I wanted to defend my country, do my duty, and do my job."

Based on the information he was provided, he believed our country, our freedom, and our way of life was under fire. Based on his training and his orders, it was his job to defend and protect. This was an idea I struggled with in the opening pages. But, the more I read, coupled with the service men and veteran's I know now and have in the past, it becomes clear - he was, and will not be the last - the only soldier taking controversial action based on what he believed was going on, or was going to happen.

In short, yes, he did what he believed "needed to be done." Yeah, that included killing. Yes, he enjoyed the killing. In wartime, when you're the one on the front lines, enjoying staying alive - and sane enough to make it home - means you enjoy killing.

You do what needs to be done. In a survival situation, that's all you can do.

So much of what I got out of the book came from impressions - not explicit statements. Chris Kyle is trying to tell his story more than he's trying to justify his actions, actions which I believe need no more justification than he was in a war and trying to keep the war from coming home. It's also an autobiography, so what's being told is a story, where the decisions he made weren't necessarily based on any active thought, but simple instinct.

In a way, I can understand the lack of mentioning his wife and kids. Being in a situation like that, it would seem there just wouldn't be any "good" time to drop your guard like that and really think about the family. As demonstrated by the time he called his wife and she ended up getting to listen in on an entire firefight.

On the other side of things though... there's no specific instance I can pinpoint that makes me recoil, but the times he wrote about his family seemed incredibly flat and shallow compared to how he approaches his combat memories. I hear that they went much further into his return home in the movie than they did in the book, so I'm hopeful that what happened when he got back to his family is fleshed out more there.

He was given orders, he was given procedures. Every killing he was responsible for had to be justified. Not to the American people - but to the military's lawyers. Take everything else out of the equation, and just remember the word "lawyers". If there was any doubt on the legitimacy of a kill, he was grounded. So, no matter how much he enjoyed it - he controlled it.

Does Chris Kyle admit to enjoying killing? Yes. But you have to look beyond that - he believed with all his heart that he was defending our country. He was killing people that, if given the chance, would kill his team, come here, and kill us. There is so much more to get out of this book than the words he's written.

At least give his story a chance. You might not think it justifies anything, but at least you'll gain some understanding. It is not my - or anybody else's - place to pass judgement. This book was written to tell a story, to give some insight on the realities of war. It's not all action, all the time. Even he admits to being luckier than most in the amount of action he saw and the number of kills he got. He didn't edit out what was "less interesting" in order to appease the masses, or add in unnecessary (and unrealistic) action. He kept it real to what he experienced, being a Navy SEAL in Iraq.

5 Stars. Because honestly, whether you agree with the man or not, an autobiography that bares the soul no matter how dark, is what writing is all about.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Burning Sky - Sherry Thomas [The Elemental Trilogy]

The Burning Sky - Sherry Thomas [The Elemental Trilogy]
Source: Kindle
Original Review: January 22, 2016
Rating: ★★★★☆

Atlantis has returned.
Or perhaps they never left. They rule under a being called Bane, and hunt for Mages of exceptional power.

Iolanthe is just such a Mage, which she discovers in the most unfortunate of ways, attracting the attention of not only Atlantis, but of the local ruling prince - who attempts to come to her rescue when he sees an omen of his fate yet to come.

Upon escaping the initial reach of Atlantis, Iolanthe finds herself unceremoniously dumped in London - a non-mage territory, at the not-so tender mercy of an exiled Mage. Though the Prince's earlier attempts to rescue Iolanthe were unsuccessful, he this time manages to free her from the grip of the insane exile, and entrench her firmly into the ranks of Eaton seniors via way of a pre-fabricated story and much magic and manipulation.

The story doesn't progress quite as quickly from there, which I am thankful for as it was easier to enjoy the latter 2/3 of the book much more than the first part. Thomas does not seem to be a very "descriptive" writer, in terms that we don't get very much input on how to visualize these characters, but there is certainly no shortage of personality to aid our imaginations!

Some of the inconsistencies can be jarring.

It is made very clear that Iolanthe and Tidus exist in the 1800's. However, when we read entries supposedly made by Tidus' mother in a journal she had kept in Tidus' early years, they were only dated in the 1100's. At one point, when there is some portal-hopping going on, it almost seems to skip a step from Iolanthe's side to get to where Tidus is.

I do have a tendency to hold on to that kind of detail where others might not, so to others it may not be as big of a deal as it is to me. However, it did detract for me from a read that was otherwise by far more consistent than many others I have read.

Usually don't give YA fiction of any variety such a high rating.

In almost all cases - such as this one - I actually forget that the characters are so young. Their depth and strength and overall development seems far above that of your typical teenager/young adult would have. Granted, the circumstances are far different from what an ordinary YA would experience, but I struggle to think that young adults of this day and age would conduct themselves so well were they faced with the same conflicts Thomas' characters did.

On top of that, being a person interested in spiritual ideas, Thomas introduced some very interesting points for me to ponder. I would have loved to see some expansion (particularly on the "what has been seen should not be changed", as opposed to the pervading belief of fate/destiny that it cannot be changed), but I understand - 'twas not the point of the book!

But not without it's flaws...

And at that, there's really only two that made me cringe. Certain "devices" should be left to the screen - and even then, they have passed the point of being cliche and overdone. Iolanthe also seems to be suspiciously good at everything - she essentially has no faults - which makes the whole charade of her being at Eaton rather boring until nearing the end of the book. Yet even then, her wit and skill save the day - again, and again, and again. (The Prince must be getting a complex by now...)

The only other complaint that I could have, if you could consider it a complaint, is that by only 40% of the way through the book, I felt as if I should already be nearing the end for how quickly the story progressed. It took quite some time after the first arc of the story completed to feel engaged again.

Would I recommend this book?

Despite not giving it a full five star rating (for the issues mentioned above), the answer would be a resounding yes. There is romantic - not sexual - tension between Tidus and Iolanthe, which is both complicated and made amusing by the fact she is attending an all-boys school under false pretenses. There is drama, though quickly snuffed by Iolanthe's brilliance. But overall, there is a unique alternate-history fantasy where Mages are openly accepted and used by the ruling government, until they outlive their purpose. There are characters with more than enough personality to keep you interested, and a heroine who you will find yourself cheering for before you even notice it (because let's admit it - she starts out as kind of a snit...)

Monday, January 18, 2016

Tarot Interactions - Deborah Lipp

Tarot Interactions - Deborah Lipp
Source: Digital ARC
Original Review: January 18, 2016
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Unfortunately, the first thing that stood out to be were issues with her credibility.

I haven't read any of Lipp's works before this one, so I don't know if this is a normal thing for her, but I found the repeated mentions of having been married to Isaac Bonewits to be... banal. It was almost as if she was teaching to him to lend some kind of credence to the fact she was writing a book on the Tarot and veering away from her normal fare of books on ritual and Wicca. Having to rely so heavily on another immediately takes away from an author's ability to stand on their own - as is the case here.

There are also certain things that she took credit for, that have been floating around the Tarot community for a number of years. I understand she has been reading Tarot, and teaching it for quite some time but the fact remains that certain things have long lost any capability to be traced back to any specific time or person. Many elements she claims as her own are nothing new to the seasoned Psychic, and it seems highly pretentious of her to try and claim them.

The problems didn't stop there... Is her mind still in the years she was married to Bonewits?

The book reads very old. A lot of the notions and thought patterns that were mentioned aren't nearly as prevalent as Lipp would have us believe. Long past are the days of TV psychics, while intuitives and mediums have followers numbering in the millions. Ever heard of Theresa Caputo? Yeah, she has her own show called Long Island Medium. It's in it's 7th season, and her fans actually take her seriously!

I'm hoping some of the issues I encountered in continuity were due to the fact I was reading an ARC.

I really, really hope someone over at Llewellyn was paying attention before they put this book to print. There were quite a few areas where Lipp referenced something from "earlier" or "above" that just... wasn't there. Not to mention, when specific so-called facts are mentioned, there needs to be a cited source. I don't care if there's a bibliography. If there's no direct reference to where a date or number comes from, it completely invalidates the claim.

So, what did I enjoy, exactly?

Her approach to meditation was, I think, one of the best parts about the book. Due to some strange fluke, I've always had a hard time meditating, along with everything else that goes along with it. Blame my ADD, but as that has recently changed, I can truly appreciate the need to really be expansive in your search for a meditation practice that actually works for your specific physiology and psychology. Meditation is not a "one shoe fits all" practice, and Lipp clearly acknowledges this. Her approach makes it less scary and more accessible to people who may have struggled with it before, while giving them a unique approach to consider for themselves.

Lipp also makes some very good points regarding trust - both our trust in ourselves, and our clients trust in us. So often we allow our own instincts and intuition to be overridden by our clients reticence. The example she gives is if we were to tell her a name for her aunt she had previously been unaware of. To her, the "client", we would not be telling the truth, even while our intuition was telling us otherwise. I feel the point she was trying to make here is that, it is up to us to speak the truth, not just the truth the client thinks they want to hear. If we are conduits, we tell the client what they need. It is their job to take the information we give them and do something with it.

Would I recommend this book or not?

As I read further into the book, exploring the ways she gives to learn the cards, how they interact with each other, the spread, the environment, and just about everything else under the sun, I was reminded of a book I'm actually working through right now, written by a very highly acclaimed Tarot expert. Next to what I am already exploring, some of the exercises Lipp recommends seem... shallow.

Couple that with the fact Lipp is clear early on that she is mostly referencing her own experiences, and interpretation of books, that takes me back to the beginning issue I had with her credibility.

I fully believe in supporting authors when support is warranted. There is some good information in this book, if you can get past the banality of it's presentation. Having already gone through the book, if I were to receive it as a gift, I would likely return it in favor of something less contrived and written by someone who could stand on their own two feet without having to rely on anyone else's name but their own.

Two stars for having usable information, but the presentation was all wrong.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Written in Red - Anne Bishop [The Others]

Written in Red - Anne Bishop [The Others]
Source: Kindle
Originally Reviewed on Goodreads: January 6, 2016
Rating: ★★★★☆

Umm... wow.

I've been a fan of Bishop's for years. I was introduced to her Black Jewels Trilogy back in 2002, and was hooked on that from page one. After I finished her first round, I went on immediately to The Pillars of the World of the Tir Alainn Trilogy, and following those, absolutely inhaled Sebastian of the Ephemera trilogy.

To say I'm a fan of Bishop's by this juncture would be a bit of an understatement. She has a distinct style that's apparent through all her books, and yet each series she produces is unique. She has either done quite a bit of research on all things Fantasy, or she's just an amazing genius.

Then again, some of the things she manages to tie together absolutely baffle me in their brilliance.

Take Meg, for instance. We quickly learn that she's got some seriously powerful blood. The kind that can make or break businesses - which is why she's running away from someone we eventually get to know as the Controller. What I wouldn't give to get behind that name and find out who our antagonist really was! But alas, he appears to be little more than a plot device. So sad.

Then we get into the fact that humans are considered little more than "meat" - at best, "monkeys." Yet somehow, this Meg manages to weasel her way into a very secretive, close community of Others. Even before they find out about her special blood, and the fact that she is very, very different from other humans. So, there's a lot to Meg. She kind of reminds me of Jarod, from The Pretender back in the day. Used and abused for her special abilities, and then used those special abilities to escape and forge a life for herself elsewhere, with a chosen family of people that would destroy everything they had built with the humans without a second thought, in order to keep her safe.

Aside from the Controller, there really didn't seem to be a clear antagonist. It's obvious that Meg is being hunted, that she has been bred/raised to cut to produce prophecy. She fought back against a system that treated her like a commodity, something to be sold. In fact, the true antagonist in this series doesn't really start to become clear until A Murder of Crows, and even then, it's very ephemeral, and you kind of have to read between the lines to get it.

I'm a picky reader. I read a lot, yes, but 90% of the books I start reading go unfinished (thank the gods for's sample feature!) Plus, Bishop set the bar pretty damned high with her the BJT. Her world and character building skills are second to none, and she skates the edge of the dark like one wrong step is the difference between the razor cutting and passing harmlessly over skin.

Not to Criticize, but...
Her world building in this group of books... lacking. Considering what she did years ago with the BJT, and Tir Alainn and Ephemera? It absolutely does not hold up to the intricate and delicate back and forth developed in the lands of those books. I get that this may have been simple creative license to help us focus more on the characters and events of the story - but after reading the second book, I just don't buy it. There simply wasn't nearly enough time invested in creating a world to support the story she wrote.

So far, the story seems fragmented. We do eventually start to understand the fierce protectiveness the Others feel for Meg, but it's glossed over by the characters almost as an afterthought. I mean, they're so secluded, so anti-human, and the fact that they would destroy an entire city of humans to keep her - another human - safe, doesn't seem to strike them as odd enough to give serious thought to. Very... "eh, it is what it is."

The culmination of Written in Red... what can I say? It vibrated. It resonated with something in me so hard my heart literally fluttered for a solid minute.