Friday, September 23, 2016

Review: Fall of Giants

7315573Title: Fall of Giants
Author: Ken Follett
Genre: Historical fiction

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary:This is an epic of love, hatred, war and revolution. This is a huge novel that follows five families through the world-shaking dramas of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the struggle for votes for women.
It is 1911. The Coronation Day of King George V. The Williams, a Welsh coal-mining family, is linked by romance and enmity to the Fitzherberts, aristocratic coal-mine owners. Lady Maud Fitzherbert falls in love with Walter von Ulrich, a spy at the German Embassy in London. Their destiny is entangled with that of an ambitious young aide to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and to two orphaned Russian brothers, whose plans to emigrate to America fall foul of war, conscription and revolution. In a plot of unfolding drama and intriguing complexity, "Fall Of Giants" moves seamlessly from Washington to St Petersburg, from the dirt and danger of a coal mine to the glittering chandeliers of a palace, from the corridors of power to the bedrooms of the mighty.


I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected! I have read a lot of historical fiction novels set during world war II, but not so many that take place during the first world war. This book covers a lot of ground, from the years leading up to the war to a few years after and the Russian Revolution. It follows many different families and people from all walks of life: a Welsh brother and sister from a poor mining town, a rich English aristocrat and his family, a German aristocrat, an American politician, and Russian peasants. I really liked how there were so many diverse perspectives, and how all these stories were interwoven in unexpected ways.

For such a grand, sweeping story, it was one of the most intensely personal books I've read. Nearly every character is flawed and makes mistakes, but they all also demonstrate strength, resilience, and love. There are some characters who remain infuriating throughout the book, but others grow and develop into remarkable people. I was slightly annoyed at the beginning with the number of illicit love affairs and unrequited romances towards the beginning of the book; it seemed like every single character was defined by their romantic adventures. That quickly changed once the war began to loom larger in the story, and I enjoyed seeing how the strain of war brought out many of the character's true colors.

I also appreciated how well-researched this book was. It was like a much more entertaining and engaging version of my 10th grade world history textbook! We get glimpses of many important historical figures, including Winston Churchill and Lenin. Follett effortlessly blends fact and fiction, and he mentions in the afterword that he only included specific historical figures and events in his story when and where it was plausible that they really could have interacted with his fictional characters.

I very much enjoyed this book, but the grand scale of it makes it a little daunting to read the whole trilogy (it's called the Century trilogy, after all!). Although I probably won't continue the series, I highly recommend this book for historical fiction lovers.
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Thursday, September 22, 2016

ARC Review: The Rise of Io


28502830Title: The Rise of Io
Author: Wesley Chu
Genre: Science fiction

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary:Ella Patel – thief, con-artist and smuggler – is in the wrong place at the wrong time. One night, on the border of a demilitarized zone run by the body-swapping alien invaders, she happens upon a man and woman being chased by a group of assailants. The man freezes, leaving the woman to fight off five attackers at once, before succumbing. As she dies, to both Ella and the man’s surprise, the sparkling light that rises from the woman enters Ella, instead of the man. She soon realizes she’s been inhabited by Io, a low-ranking Quasing who was involved in some of the worst decisions in history. Now Ella must now help the alien presence to complete her mission and investigate a rash of murders in the border states that maintain the frail peace.
With the Prophus assigned to help her seemingly wanting to stab her in the back, and the enemy Genjix hunting her, Ella must also deal with Io’s annoying inferiority complex. To top it all off, Ella thinks the damn alien voice in her head is trying to get her killed. And if you can’t trust the voices in your head, who can you trust?



Well that was fun!

I'd never read any books by Wesley Chu, but I had heard a lot of really great things about Time Salvager. When I saw the blurb for The Rise of Io, I was instantly ensnared: Ella Patel, thief, con artist. Sold!

Within the first few chapters I quickly learned that Ella Patel was 5' 4", called her parents "amma" and "appa", and took no shit from anyone. I started joking to my friends that I was reading my own autobiography, if only I was also half-Singaporean and excellent with a knife. And possessed by a sentient alien creature.

I really liked how this book was set in India and involved a cast of very diverse characters. Most books I know of that are set in India are very "literary" for lack of a better word and focus on its history or very specific communities. It was refreshing to read a sci fi book that just happened to be set in India, where people from all over the world (and galaxy) cross paths.

Ella Patel is one firecracker of a main character. She's small but fierce as hell, and endearingly stubborn. I was expecting her relationship with her new alien possessor, Io, to follow a certain formula: confusion/hatred, grudging respect, mutual friendship. I was glad to see that things were a lot more complicated than I expected, and Io and Ella never stopped sassing each other, which was great. Their relationship is really complicated but they both stay in character even as they grow and change their opinions of each other.

I also liked all the secondary characters. Shura was terrifying, and I really liked Ella's mentor whose name I'm blanking out on right now. Cameron and Tao seem like really cool characters; I'm excited to read more about their adventures in the Tao books.

This book is really fast-paced and full of fight scenes, conspiracies, and betrayal. Another goodreads reviewer likened it to a Marvel movie, and I think that's an excellent description of the book's tone: humorous, fast-paced, and just plain fun.

My only complaint with this book is that there could have been a little bit more research on two things. The first is pretty nitpicky, but the second was frankly very disappointing. First of all, the fact that Ella calls her parents "Amma" and "Appa" when her last name and family history indicate that she's Gujrati/from north India. Those words are very south Indian, so it doesn't really make sense for her to be calling her parents "mom" and "dad" in a language neither of them speaks. Anyways, I realize that is super nit-picky and probably doesn't make a difference to most readers. But the other thing I noticed was that at some point in the book, someone says something about "Hindi gods". Hindi is a language, Hinduism is a religion, and they are absolutely not equivalent. Not everyone who speaks Hindi is a Hindu, and not all Hindus speak Hindi! The two words are similar and often confused, but it really doesn't take much effort to spot check and make sure you're referencing the religion and not the language.

Besides those two details, this book did a great job with its portrayal of a spectacularly diverse and kick-ass cast of characters. It was a lot of fun and I am looking forward to reading more Quasing books!

A free eARC was provided by Angry Robot books via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review: Water for Elephants

43641Title: Water for Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
Genre: Contemporary, historical fiction

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary:Orphaned, penniless, Jacob Jankowski jumps a freight train in the dark, and in that instant, transforms his future.
By morning, he's landed a job with the Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. By nightfall, he's in love.
In an America made colourless by prohibition and the Depression, the circus is a refuge of sequins and sensuality. But behind the glamour lies a darker world, where both animals and men are dispensable. Where falling in love is the most dangerous act of all... 



I don't often read contemporary fiction, because I usually find it dull compared to my usual sci-fi and fantasy. I had heard a lot of good things about this book, though, so I decided to give it a shot. I read it on audiobook, and I thought the narrator for younger Jacob was great. Older Jacob's voice definitely sounded like a 90-something year old, wheezing old man, which was realistic but also very hard to understand. I still thought they both did a good job of bringing both versions of Jacob to life.

I was not expecting to get as emotionally invested in this story as I did. It's actually pretty dark, since a lot of it focuses on an abusive marriage and a ruthless circus manager. Jacob stumbles into life at the circus after a tragic accident, not knowing what to expect. He soon discovers that life at a circus is hard and filled with prejudice and social hierarchies. He also discovers the love of his life, and unfortunately she's married to a man with schizophrenia who is very abusive on his bad days.

I liked that Jacob's story wasn't simply a love story, because I get bored with novels that are mainly about romance. It's also about his relationship with an elephant, Rosie, and how Rosie comes to symbolize hope for him and many others at the circus. There are also some unexpected yet endearing friendships in this book. I also liked how unflinching this book was when it came to portraying prejudice and cruelty during desperate times.

I wish the book had been more subtle or compassionate in its portrayal of a character with mental illness, because although it did acknowledge that August was charismatic and warm on his good days, it didn't do as good a job of showing how August wasn't defined by his mental illness. In fact, it did just the opposite, with most characters coming to see him as nothing but a cruel, sadistic, and insane man. Obviously I am not condoning any of August's behavior, but since we live in a world with so much stigma against people with mental illnesses, I think this book could have done a better job of making that distinction.

I enjoyed this book far more than I expected, and I will definitely be reading more by Sara Gruen.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell


14201Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Genre: Fantasy, historical fiction

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary:At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England's history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England--until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.
Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell's student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear. 


This book was almost painfully slow at first but once it started to pick up, I really enjoyed it! Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is unlike any other fantasy book I've read. It's odd because it's not quite historical fiction because there's too much magic but it's not really a typical fantasy novel because it's so rooted in daily life and the real world. I have definitely never read any other book like it, and I really enjoyed this!

I have to say the first 200 pages or so were quite slow. The beginning sets up the world: 19th century England, a world with no magic users but plenty of magicians who study magic (biologists don't create biology, they simply study it. Why should magicians be any different?). That sort of tongue in cheek wit and dry humor is very pervasive in this book, especially in the hundreds of footnotes.

Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange are the two practical magicians who actually know how to use magic. They have such different personalities and outlooks on why they pursue magic and what they use it for. Norrell is a bookish man who seems to really hate interacting with other human beings, while Jonathan is a far more charismatic magician who isn't shy about extravagant displays of power. But these two aren't the only two players in this story. I loved the subplot about Stephen and the mysterious flax-haired stranger, as well as Vinculus and Childermass. My favorite characters were Childermass, Stephen, and Arabella.

Aside from being witty and very true to Dickensian era books, this book was beautifully written and hypnotic. I was frankly bored through the first 200 pages but the plot and my emotional investment in the characters increased exponentially as the book went on. The climax was truly terrifying, and there were so many moments where I couldn't help but admire the beautiful words with which Clarke made me feel such horror and terror.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and definitely recommend it! I just started watching the BBC adaptation, and it's absolutely pitch perfect. The characters were cast perfectly and it has just the right dry sense of humor and wit of the book without as much of the tediousness at the beginning. I definitely recommend the adaptation as well!

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Monday, September 12, 2016

TTT: Top Ten Historical Fiction Faves



Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.


This week's theme: Top Ten Historical Fiction books


Fantasy is my favorite genre, and I also read and love a lot of science fiction, but I figured I would talk about another genre that I really enjoy but don't often wax poetic about on my blog. Historical fiction/alternative histories are really fun for me because I enjoy learning about other eras in our history and imaging what it might have been like to live there. In a way it's kind of like fantasy: escaping into a different time and place than the real world. Here are some of my favorite historical fiction books!

 11925514

One of my favorite books, this one makes me cry every time. It's such a beautiful story about friendship and resilience and even though war is brutal, it also shows us the human side of things.
 19063

This was one of those books I picked up and nearly gasped as I read the prologue because it was just so perfect. It's narrated by Death itself, and I loved the darkly humorous and jaded (but hopeful) narrator. This is the book I've read more than any other (7 times and counting!), I cry every time, and it never stops being meaningful.
 4667024

I listened to this book on audio, and that made me absolutely fall in love with all the characters. The narrator did such a good job of bringing out the humor, warmth, pain, and pride these characters possess.
 133518

This is one of those rare books that you have to read for school but end up truly enjoying. I don't know if "enjoy" is quite the right word, but this book touched my heart and I loved its message about stories and truth. 
 18148202

I guess I'm cheating a little with this one because the two main characters are fantasy creatures, but I adored all the characters and intersecting lives in this book.
 9565548

While I'm cheating with fantasy-historical fiction, I might as well mention this series. I actually like Dark Triumph MUCH better than Grave Mercy, but the whole series is really good. Assassin nuns of death, enough said.
 25324111

This was one of my favorite reads of this year. I loved learning about the Ottoman empire, the lush and vivid writing style, and the truly terrifying main character. I was fascinated by the tangled web of political intrigue and very messy emotions that make characters act in ways you wouldn't expect.
 128029

I'm not sure if the time period of this is too recent to be considered historical fiction, but I loved this book. It's heartbreaking, far more than The Kite Runner, because this is the story of two women fighting to hang on to their dignity and strength in a rather unforgiving world.
 17333786

This is a haunting story about a woman who is accused of murder and a priest's quest to find out the truth about what happened. I really liked learning more about Icelandic culture and it was such a beautifully written, atmospheric book.
 51827

This book is also about a woman convicted of murder, but it ends up being just as much about the treatment of women during the Victorian era is it is about the actual murder mystery. Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors for her science fiction, but this was great too!
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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Review: Truthwitch


21414439Title: Truthwitch
Author: Susan Dennard
Genre: Fantasy, YA

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary:In a continent on the edge of war, two witches hold its fate in their hands.
Young witches Safiya and Iseult have a habit of finding trouble. After clashing with a powerful Guildmaster and his ruthless Bloodwitch bodyguard, the friends are forced to flee their home.
Safi must avoid capture at all costs as she's a rare Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lies. Many would kill for her magic, so Safi must keep it hidden - lest she be used in the struggle between empires. And Iseult's true powers are hidden even from herself.
In a chance encounter at Court, Safi meets Prince Merik and makes him a reluctant ally. However, his help may not slow down the Bloodwitch now hot on the girls' heels. All Safi and Iseult want is their freedom, but danger lies ahead. With war coming, treaties breaking and a magical contagion sweeping the land, the friends will have to fight emperors and mercenaries alike. For some will stop at nothing to get their hands on a Truthwitch. 




I had heard only good things about Truthwitch, and the premise sounded really interesting. I never thought about it before I read the blurb for this book, but of course someone who could parse the truth from the lies would be invaluable and of course every person with any shred of power would want to use that person for their own gain. I was very excited for the power struggles and how far people were willing to go to control a Truthwitch, but I was also excited to see how the truthwitch herself would fight becoming just a pawn. I guess my expectations were a little too high, because while there were power struggles and a rebellious truthwitch, neither of them were interesting enough to really capture my interest.

I usually love stories that revolve around friendship, and Safi and Iseult certainly have an epic friendship. I wanted so badly to root for them and love them as they supported each other through their own personal challenges, but somehow I felt like both girls were too childish for me to really care about them. Their conversations were like those of middle schoolers, and they just generally seemed very whiny and immature; Safi especially never seemed to grasp the gravity of their situation. I did like Iseult's complicated relationship with her mom, and Safi did grow more mature by the end of the book, but I honestly didn't care that much about either of them. Merik was a little more interesting, with his magic and his incredible loyalty to his people. I really loved his bond with Kullen, now THAT is a friendship worth rooting for.

The character I was most intrigued by was the supposed villain, the assassin monk Aiduan. He's the most tormented character, trying to figure out if one of his unshakable beliefs is in fact very wrong. He is terrifying and cunning, but he also has a strict moral code; he always pays his debts.

There are a lot of really cool things in this book in terms of the magic. There are witches of nearly any kind you can imagine, and Dennard cleverly comes up with ways each kind of witch fills a role in their society. I also liked the Voidwitch idea and how that connected to the Cleaving. I wish there had been a little bit more background or worldbuilding though, because at first it was hard to figure out how all these scattered magical concepts fit together.

I wasn't a huge fan of the characters and I didn't find the plot particularly amazing, but I did like the worldbuilding and I see a lot of potential for book 2 to step it up in terms of character development and raising the stakes. I'm hoping Windwitch is better than this one!

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Friday, September 9, 2016

Review: Six of Crows


23437156Title: Six of Crows
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Genre: Fantasy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary:Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can't pull it off alone...
A convict with a thirst for revenge.
A sharpshooter who can't walk away from a wager.
A runaway with a privileged past.
A spy known as the Wraith.
A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.
A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.
Kaz's crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction—if they don't kill each other first.



It's no secret that I'm a sucker for stories about cons and heists. My favorite books include The Lies of Locke Lamora and The Final Empire after all! I really enjoy the moral ambiguity that comes with rooting for a bunch of roguish but usually good-at-heart characters to do something insane and most likely illegal. I also love seeing how the thieves manage to outwit and out-maneuver the system, always trying to be one step ahead even when everything starts to fall apart. And my favorite thing about these kinds of stories is the characters. They're always an eclectic bunch with their own motivations and weaknesses, and seeing how they learn to work together (or not) is always fun.

Six of Crows has everything I love about heist novels, with the added bonus of being set in a fantasy world. I've only read the first Grisha book and I wasn't that impressed, so I'm not that familiar with Ravka and the details of the world, but whatever I saw here was great. Six of Crows begins with the discovery of a new drug that can enhance Grisha powers to extraordinary and frightening levels. This sort of thing can easily become a terrible weapon in the wrong hands, and so our unlikely group of heroes is hired to find the guy who came up with the formula and make sure the drug isn't employed by the enemy.

I absolutely loved all the characters, especially Kaz. Kaz is a very broken soul, dealing with PTSD and a limp but never letting either of them ruin his image of being a cold, cunning force to be reckoned with. His traumatic past has made him shut out other people from his life, and he has a hard time acknowledging his own feelings and emotions. As you learn more and more about his past and what has made him the way he is, your heart breaks over and over again. I also loved Inej, who has her own nasty can of worms from her past to deal with. Unlike Kaz, though, Inej hasn't lost her warmth and her confidence. She's fierce and intelligent, and she's not about to go down without a fight. Wylan was adorable! His past is not nearly as troubled as any of the other crew members, and he is in way over his head with this crew but it's so great to see him grow up and find his calling as the journey goes on. Jesper was great, I loved his witty banter with Wylan and how he didn't let certain aspects of his life define him. I liked but didn't love Nina and Mattias, probably because I found their baggage annoying and I just wanted them both to stop pretending to hate each other.

One of the greatest parts of this book is that all the characters are given equal weight and space to grow. I grew to love all of them and I loved seeing how they changed from a bunch of individuals forced to work together into an actual crew. I also really liked that you don't know any one of their motivations and allegiances until the very end. You never know when someone is bluffing, betraying, or saving someone else! I also liked that things don't end neatly. There is a lot of collateral damage and just when you think everything is going to be fine, a new challenge presents itself.

I really enjoyed this book, and I'm looking forward to book 2! Thank goodness I don't have to wait too long :)

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