Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Guns of Empire by Django Wexler

Posted by Rebecca Brendel

Reviewed by: Becky Brendel

What I Read: The Guns of Empire by Django Wexler

Find It @YCLD: Here!

What It's About: This book is volume 4 in a projected 5-volume military fantasy series set in a world similar to Europe in the Napoleonic era. In previous books, the more "fantastic" elements of the story (mostly people who have gained powers by speaking the names of various demons) have balanced themselves with the reality of life on the march in a large army. This volume ratchets up the magical action, however, as tactical genius Janus bet Vhalnich sends his army to defeat the "Priests of the Black" he believes have been threatening the world from the shadows. But their country is not so easily taken, and even within Janus's army, not everyone is sure he's trustworthy - not even his own Queen.

What I Thought: In previous volumes of this series, I'd figured out fairly quickly that Wexler was retelling French history in a fantasy world: previous plot points include a brilliant general, a domestic Reign of Terror, and an immensely successful campaign against a desert country. The previous volume had also ended with Janus assuming more power than any general had in his nation's history. I thought, therefore, that I knew where this story was going.

But if a story draws its cues from actual history, it's easy to surprise the audience by diverging from that history. That's exactly what happens here. And it's excellent.

With The Guns of Empire, Wexler takes his story completely on its own path, making clever use of the magical elements that separate his world from ours. He's already toyed with history in various ways - his Queen character is unlike anyone in the French aristocracy, and not just because she happens to be immortal - but here he both nods to historical fact (do not invade Russia in the winter, for example) and points out all the ways magic subverts it (if they have demons on their side, it does not matter what time of year you invade Russia). Wexler using my expectations against me made reading this book a delight.

He also ties up most of the subplots he's included in previous books so that the final volume can focus on the main conflict. While this does make this book serve as setup for the finale, it's also very satisfying. Like George R.R. Martin's popular A Song of Ice and Fire, Wexler switches between multiple characters' points of view when telling his story. Each of those characters has their own story and motivations and desires, and in The Guns of Empire, many of those stories are concluded (though not necessarily with death). Having followed these characters through several long volumes, I was happy to see their stories resolved. Wexler is very good at creating flawed people it's still easy to root for, with an emphasis on talented yet complicated female characters.

His best character, however, is absolutely Winter Ihernglass, the young woman who'd disguised herself as a man to join the army and now serves as one of Janus's generals. She's also the closest thing this series has to an actual main character, and so it's fitting that of all the stories in this series, hers is the one most closely tied to the conflict he's set up for Book 5. She also, I was happy to note, gets to start a new romance in this book - normally I don't really care for too much romance, but Winter prefers women. A lesbian whose previous relationship ends badly, and then is allowed the chance to be happy with someone new, is a rare duck indeed in fiction (unfortunately). I am rooting for Winter to save the world, get the girl, and maybe finally let her old flame go. They care for each other, but they just aren't compatible anymore.

If Wexler manages to bend history to his will some more in the meantime, however, I will not say no.

Readalikes: Cold Iron by Stina Leicht, for more "flintlock fantasy"

Or look this book up on NoveList!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Train Go Sorry by Leah Hager Cohen

Posted by Rebecca Brendel

Reviewed by: José Beltrán

What I Read: Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World by Leah Hager Cohen

Find It @YCLD: Here!

What It's About: Leah was one of the first hearing children who attended the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, New York. She felt she had missed the boat to belonging to the deaf. “I’m so hearing,” she lamented. She so wanted to share in their intimacy. Her parents were engrossed in the school: her Jewish father, Oscar, was principal then director and her Protestant mother was a nursery school teacher. Oscar was a CODA (hearing child of deaf adults).

Leah’s family was also a cultural microcosm of religions, races, hearing, and deaf. Her parents were hearing. Her grandparents Sam and Fanny Cohen were deaf. Had Sam’s deafness been detected at Ellis Island, he would not have been allowed to enter the USA. In 1916 they were called Deaf-Mutes, more familiarly Deaf Dumb. The insensitivity of the past is erased as cultures and societies evolve. The personal tragedy of the Cohen family was that the hospital did not provide an interpreter to Sam or his wife Fanny, or allow their bicultural son to communicate with the doctors after Sam’s heart attack.

What I Thought: “Train go sorry” is a Deaf idiom for “missing the boat, missed connections, lost opportunities”. This book is an impassioned plea for the civil rights of Deaf culture. The Deaf should be the ones to decide what is best for them instead of being expected to conform to hearing culture or communicating like hearing people. About 1 in 20 Americans are Deaf or hard of hearing (deaf). There are over 4 million Deaf people in the United States. Sign language is used by about 70 million people worldwide and is the fourth most used language. ASL is accepted by many schools for fulfillment of foreign language requirements.

Still many Deaf people feel isolated! Deaf Melissa testified that she had first attended a hearing school then transferred to a deaf school. At the hearing school she was isolated, shy, and passive, unable to participate. In the deaf school, her participation soared as cheerleader, peer counselor, choreographer, and as the lead in the Deaf school play.

The Deaf like all people yearn for connection. But they find themselves confined to the small world of those who know ASL. You can make the world of the Deaf larger by learning ASL. The Yuma County Library District have books and DVDs for learning ASL. Look at the eyes! Use peripheral vision for the hands. Join a Deaf Club!

Readalikes: Deaf Again, Children of a Lesser God, The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community, When the Mind Hears

Or look this book up on NoveList!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Posted by Rebecca Brendel

Reviewed by: Elia Juarez

What I Read: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Find It @YCLD: Here!

What It's About: This book really tells two separate but intertwined stories. The first is a murder mystery, while the second tells the story of the earliest days of the Mormon church in the United States.

The murder mystery goes like this: a young man who was raised in a Fundamentalist Mormon family that practices polygamy is kicked out of his home as a child. Many years later, as an adult, he learns that his mother (who is wife #19 of MANY) has been arrested for the murder of his father, and he must decide whether he wants to return home to help her.

At the same time, we slowly learn the story of Anne Eliza Young, one of famed prophet Ann Eliza Young, who was also a 19th wife. Through her eyes, we learn about the beginnings of the church in America, and get some background on why the polygamist practices of the fundamentalists, were outlawed by the mainstream church.

What I Thought: I found the book to be interesting and engrossing, but I found myself getting much more sucked in by the Anne Eliza Young side of the story, and not as much by the modern-day mystery of the murder. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I tend to read a lot of historical fiction, or maybe it’s because I knew so little about the history of the Mormon church before I started this book, but I found myself wanting to rush through the chapters set in the present to return to the 1800s and Anne Eliza’s story.

The wrap-up of the murder mystery also seemed a bit rushed to me.

Still, I definitely enjoyed the book and would most certainly recommend it.

Readalikes: The Sister Wife by Dianne Noble, Wife No. 19 by Anne Eliza Young

Or look this book up on NoveList!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Grand Tour by Rich Kienzle

Posted by Rebecca Brendel

Reviewed by: Jim Patrick

What I Read: The Grand Tour: the Life and Music of George Jones by Rich Kienzle

Find It @YCLD: Here!

What It's About: When George Jones died in 2013 at the age of 81, he was widely acclaimed as the greatest country music singer ever.  More importantly, in his later years he had finally conquered most of his personal demons and addictions with the loving support of his wife Nancy Sepulvado.  George Jones’ recovery did not come easily, however.  His life story is full of the pathos and melodrama of his greatest songs, and Rich Kienzle recounts these personal struggles in the context of Jones’ legendary musical career.  Alcoholism destroyed the first two marriages, while the infamous third marriage to singer Tammy Wynette had the added burdens of Jones’ cocaine habit and Wynette’s personal and physical problems.  Due to poor financial management—including several attempts at establishing country music theme parks—Jones faced financial ruin on numerous occasions.  At the darkest point in the late 1970s, Jones was living in his car and was unable to get concert bookings due to his “No Show Jones” reputation.  Astonishingly, he recorded his masterpiece, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” during this period of his life.

What I Thought: I have read numerous articles and liner notes by Rich Kienzle, so I approached this book with an appreciation for the author’s expertise and critical acumen.  The temptation in writing a George Jones biography is to dwell on the well-known sordid and sensational episodes, such as the time he rode his lawn mower to the liquor store after his second wife took away his car keys.  Kienzle shares this story and other painful, unflattering ones, but he balances these with his masterful descriptions of George Jones’ music.  By tracing Jones’ long recording career with numerous record companies and producers, Kienzle does an admirable job of explaining why so many of Jones’ peers rank him as the greatest county singer.  Detailed explanations are given of specific songs, songwriters, session musicians, and duet partners.  These sections of the book were particularly enlightening to me—and they even prompted me to go back and give a fresh listen to the great music of George Jones.

Readalikes: He Stopped Loving Her Today : George Jones, Billy Sherrill, and the Pretty-much Totally True story of the Making of the Greatest Country Record of All Time by Jack Isenhour; Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen by Jimmy McDonough

Or look this book up on NoveList!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey

Posted by Rebecca Brendel

Reviewed by: Andrew Zollman

What I Read: Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey

Find It @YCLD: Here!

What It's About: Talia is a member of the Valdemar citizenry who live along the eastern border called Holderfolk. Holderfolk keep to themselves living in a patriarchal family system with women subjugated by the men in their lives. They live day to day following orders and completing tasks of their fathers and his wives.

When confronted by her family at the age of 13 that she is to begin the process of marriage, Talia is terrified. Her only other option is to be cloistered, giving up her own livelihood to prayer and the church. So Talia does what any youth in her situation would do with only unfavorably options given in their future. She becomes a runaway and seeks solitude from her family and others while she thinks about where she will take her life next.

Talia, while hiding, is confronted by a Companion. Companions are mystical creatures linked throughout Valdemar history to Heralds. She soon finds herself bareback riding the Companion back to the capital in hopes to return it for some kind of compensation. Instead she is made a Herald at the royal court after she rescues the Companion and trained as a Herald. During her training she soon uncovers a plot to seize the throne and Talia must use her newly trained empathic powers to save the queen.

What I Thought: This is the first of the Valdemar books written by Mercedes Lackey. It sets the tone and flow for every other Kingdom of Valdemar book in publication by Mercedes Lackey and does a good job of presenting and summarizing the basics for any reader of her books. The Kingdom of Valdemar is a complex communal system of checks and balances run by a King or Queen (who has to be a Herald) and Heralds and their Companions who ride circuits around the kingdom working with its citizenry.

I didn’t start with Arrows of the Queen in the Valdemar books and had to learn through 5-6 novels the ins and outs of how Valdemar society works and was shaped by its complex history. I recommend starting from the beginning and working your way forward so you don’t have to backtrack in the readings. There are many concepts and ideologies associated with the books and the functions of its many characters. If you don’t start from the beginning I would suggest a healthy dose of Medieval European history and a lot of high fantasy novels with a focus on magic or pscionics a.k.a. mind magic. Just flexing my inner geek for you.

Mercedes Lackey loves to tackle social norms and controversial topics in today’s society. One of the things I like to see in her writing is how she approaches clashes between characters in relation to something like controversial family relationships and governance, same sex relations, and things we still take for granted 19 years later.

One thing I can tell you about the book is that Talia is your typical female protagonist for a fantasy. She has her own set of social and emotional cuts she tries to hide from others. The traumas from her past life and the expectations she has for her every action shapes and defines her character and personality. She is difficult to get to like sometimes but that’s part of her struggle and the life she once had. Relationships come hard to her and reaching out even harder. It takes the character a long time to open out and accept new emotions and feelings, but when she does it opens up a new talent within her to connect with others. This is a very strong and encouraging aspect of Arrows of the Queen and helps progress the story.

If you like violence and conflict this book isn’t for you. The message and execution is a subtle thing that drives this series. There are times when description is vivid but it is done in a tasteful fashion.

I recommend this for High Fantasy readers and older teenagers who find that there isn’t enough substance in YA novels. Enjoy!

Readalikes: Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings

Or look this book up on NoveList!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany & Jack Thorne

Posted by Rebecca Brendel

Reviewed by: Becky Brendel

What I Read: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne; based on characters by J.K. Rowling

Find It @YCLD: Here!

What It's About: Albus Potter, son of Harry Potter, is miserable. He doesn't feel his famous father understands him, he got sorted into Slytherin - a House he hates - and his only friend Scorpius is rumored to be the son of the Dark Lord. When the two boys hear of something they can do to try and change their world for the better, they seize the moment, but may in fact be making things worse...

What I Thought: Despite being the eighth installment in the Harry Potter series, this screenplay would have worked better as a standalone story about a boy growing up with a famous father. As-is, it's written itself into a corner: the plot hinges on young Albus Potter's frustrations at living in his father's shadow, but it's not allowed to ever fully become Albus's story - the title isn't Albus Potter and the Cursed Child for good reason. The climax of the story hinges completely on Harry's personal trauma, and events from Harry's life are frequently revisited (sometimes physically) by the characters.

The plot and many of the characterizations also read like fan fiction: full of cameos, trivia, full redemption arcs for fan-favorite characters, and a villainness with a completely unbelievable backstory. The moral of the story, that "anyone can become anything if circumstances were different", also flies completely in the face of the Harry Potter novels' focus on personal choice. This is not a Harry Potter story. It's an anti-Harry Potter story starring the cast of Harry Potter.

All of which is unfortunate, because the two new protagonists, Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy, are delightful. Both sound very believably like teenagers - their banter is great - and the "anyone can become anything" theme isn't a bad idea in and of itself, just one at odds with the world of Harry Potter in the novels. The screenplay is also very good at "show, don't tell" for evoking how miserable Albus is: its use of short vignettes to show time passing is very powerful, as incident upon incident piles on Albus until he reaches a breaking point. I would very, very happily read a seven-novel series about Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy. Just maybe not one with this plot. Or where Albus's dad still manages to get his name in the title.

Recommended, ironically enough, more for casual fans of Harry Potter than diehard ones.

Readalikes: The Magicians by Lev Grossman, for more "gritty" fantasy; Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, for a pair of main characters that should appeal to fans of Albus and Scorpius.

Or look this book up on NoveList!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Arena by Holly Jennings

Posted by Rebecca Brendel

Reviewed by: Andrew Zollman

What I Read: Arena by Holly Jennings

Find It @YCLD: Here!

What It's About: The year is 2054, and virtual gaming (eSports) has overtaken traditional sporting events worldwide. Millions of viewers tune in worldwide to get a glimpse of arena death matches featuring gamer turned athletes. Team Defiance is one such team, led by Kali Ling, who are fighting in the RAGE Tournaments to be this year’s champions. Gamers live every day dying and coming back to life like gods to appease viewers and sponsors alike. Every player is a modern digital gladiator wielding weapons and wearing armor.

The pain is real and the brutality extreme, and has made the public numb to outrageous acts of violence. Kali Ling is an exceptional fighter. Coined ‘The Warrior’, she is the first female captain to lead a team in the RAGE tournament. Is the task before her to difficult? Can she deal with the realities of the sport? When a tragic event happens during the tournament, can Kali find herself again in time to get herself and her team back into competitive form? Virtual gaming is much more than it appears, the truth is being hidden and not everything is as it seems for those not involved with the fighting.

What I Thought: This is Holly Jennings's debut novel as a writer. Both the concept and subject reflect current trends popping up in our society and changes affecting our culture as we move on from the age of millennial gamers into the 21st century. Virtual Reality gaming has just hit the markets and a story about its use is well planned for a writer. As a new writer, Jennings is just getting into the industry and has some lacking elements in her work as she explores her possible future in the story. The evolution of her characters and their interactions are well established and you can relate to their shortcomings and personalities when describing an avid gamer or athlete. She does a great job of blending the two together for the purpose of the story.

The action on the other hand is lacking. Jennings touches on the combat and brutality of the sport but never goes into full detail of the situation. When someone cuts into someone else, is there sensation, is there a change in personality, what else can happen to those involved? In Arena the characters in a sense become numb to the violence. There is little difference or variation between one gamer and another as they compete. I would have liked to see her delve deeper into what happens because of sport and the violence. Even with what is expected of gamers for sponsors and the fans, the addition of drinking and drug use just blurs the differences between reality and the virtual world. I would have also liked her to go a little bit more into the aspect of the combat, the styles, tactics, and uses of each. Combat in the tournament matches was extremely fast and was overshadowed by the challenges of Kali and the team. So much so that at times it was forgotten and I had to go back and read them again to remember what happened.

A bright spot in the story was Kali’s interactions with her team and the challenge that is the sport and the image she is being forced to play by her boss and sponsors. The conflict hits close to home and some of the more controversial aspects of professional sports we see today in Boxing and MMA when fighters interact with media and the spotlight.

This is one of my first science fiction titles that I have read with a focus on sports and virtual reality. The conflict is there but more background and research into the effects of gaming and violent sports would have made the story more convincing. I liked the concept and the approach, but I think it needed more detailed information for the reader to push them closer to the problem and message. The romance was light and has teenage tones of relationship which was good. I don’t like romance in books to overshadow the conflict that the main character is facing and the focus of the book.

Recommend for older teens and adult readers who actively read science fiction. Once again this story has a strong female character which the story revolves around and I think it help move and shape events. Enjoy!

Readalikes: This is Not a Game by Williams, Walter Jon

Or look this book up on NoveList!