book review: The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

I procrastinated about reviewing this book because I wasn’t quite sure that I liked it.  The book started out strongly – there were 2 points-of-view.  The present was told by a bard and the past was told by the main character, Tea.  It’s obvious that something serious happened because the beginning of the book reveals that Tea has been banished to an island by herself.  I enjoyed the writing style, but I wish there had been more substance to the book and less of the airy descriptions.

There were also some holes in the story that didn’t make sense to me.  First, I didn’t understand how Tea was able to accidentally resurrect her brother, Fox, from death.  Supposedly, she has magical powers, but later in the book, in the descriptions of asha training, ashas (witches) have to draw ruins, sometimes using their own blood to create spells.  How does one accidentally draw ruins when one doesn’t know how to do it?  It occurs later on in the story, too, but with some sort of stone that amplified Tea’s powers.  I also didn’t understand the point of the heartglass.  Everyone has a heartglass (from what I can gather, some sort of stone) that changes colors according to their moods.  If you love and trust someone completely, you can exchange heartglasses with them, but it makes you vulnerable if they no longer love you at some point.  It’s also supposed to make  ashas weaker not to have their heartglass.  If you lose your heartglass and you don’t care about the person that you gave it to, you can have another one made for you at great expense.  It seems ridiculous to me.  You’re not born with these heartglasses attached to you so why bother going through the expense in the first place if it makes you vulnerable?  The book said that only really wealth people could afford to have another heartglass made.  How did the average person obtain a heartglass in the first place?  Maybe I missed something in the story that explained this?  It seemed like there were too many magical things going on in the story that the author couldn’t even keep track of them all.

I also didn’t understand some of the societal descriptions in the book.  People feared Bone Witches because they practiced “dark” arts.  Dark, in this case, means that they bring things back from the dead.  If they fear them, why would they call them Bone Witch, which is considered a derogatory term, instead of dark asha?  Throughout the book, there’s a hint that dark ashas are somehow bad, but they’re the ones protecting everyone from the daevas (monsters), at great personal risk.  The author said in the book that people fear and hate people they need.  That may be true of some people in a group, but I can’t see a whole society behaving like that.  Even if it were true, why would someone who was so useful and powerful need to dress up and entertain rich people at parties?!?

As if it weren’t enough that Tea has to face people who hate her and awful monsters, she also has to face an enemy known as the Faceless.  The Faceless appear to have strong powers, but we have no idea why they’re trying to harm everyone.  There’s no explanation about why some people have power and some don’t.  There’s no explanation about why some people are born with more power and others aren’t.

This leads me to my biggest problem with this book – it started a bunch of interesting characters and possible story lines, but then it never went anywhere.  I kept waiting for explanations or something and there was just nothing.  Fantasy books still have to make sense within the scope of that fantasy world.  I felt like this didn’t.  The ending of the book was supposed to be a cliffhanger to make the reader excited about the sequel.  I just felt disappointed that I read an entire book that was basically just a confusing prologue.

I don’t think I could recommend this book to others.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary e-book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

book review: The Pho Cookbook by Andrea Nguyen

I’m not sure if I’ve ever said this before, but please don’t ever buy the e-version of a cookbook.  They are never formatted correctly, no matter which app you use and the page references are all messed up.  Unfortunately, The Pho Cookbook was not the e-exception.

Parts of the text were suddenly a light gray color, which made it very difficult to read against the white background while other parts of the text were black.  I really shouldn’t have to change the background color in the app just so that I can read the text all the way through.  The page references (the author refers to other recipes in her book) are all off because the page numbers never match up on the electronic version.  Sometimes pictures are cut off in the middle of a page and sometimes you get text saying that a recipe is continued in the middle of the page because it was in the hard copy version of the book.  I would absolutely love it if editors/publishers could edit the books so that they were formatted correctly … even if they say something like we recommend using such and such app for correct formatting.

I found the book itself to be okay.  I liked the basic beef and chicken recipes and the “quick” versions were a neat idea, but they fell flat in taste.  Plus, the “quick” versions only serve 2.  Pho takes a lot of time and a lot of ingredients.  Even if you’re only making the “quick” version that takes about 40 minutes to cook, it’s going to take longer to prep the condiments, toast the spices, etc.  Do you really want to go through the expense and time of doing something like that for only 2 servings?  Personally, when I make pho, I make it in a huge pot so that I can get at least 2 meals out of it for the family.  Here’s my recommendation: don’t bother with the quick version.  Make a huge batch of the real pho (yeah, you’ll have to set aside a weekend day to do it), eat some yummy pho, freeze the remaining broth and then just reheat that when you want some more pho.  Your pho broth will taste so much richer and be so much more yummy than the fake stuff made with store bought broth.

The other problem I had with this book is the pressure cooker recipes.  I hate it when recipes call for special equipment that aren’t found in most homes.  The other issue is that unless you have a large pressure cooker, you’re not going to be able to make enough broth for a family of 4 to have 1 meal.  Again, if you’re going through the expense and time to make the pho, just make a huge batch.

I did find the section on other things to do with pho interesting.  There were many items that I had never heard of, like the chicken pho noodle salad.  I wanted to try the homemade hoisin sauce, but it required ingredients that I don’t usually have on hand (miso paste, Japanese rice vinegar, tahini, rice flour), so I haven’t tried it yet.

All in all, this was an okay book, but nowhere as good as the Banh Mi Handbook.

Disclaimer: I received a free e-copy of this book in exchange for my honest review from NetGalley.  This book will be released February 7, 2017.

book review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale was a book that I found hard to put down.  The characters were interesting, the plot was creative, and the writing was a mix of mythology and fantasy.  The book addressed Russian fairy tales, but it in itself was a fairy tale.  The writing style had a slight dream-like quality to it that is somewhat reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s books, and yet it felt unique.  Katherine Arden did a magnificent job of spinning her world.  It was hard to tear myself away from her world.

The basic plot is that the main character, Vasilisa (Vasya), uses her special ability to see spirits to try to save her people.  Vasya’s mother dies giving birth to her and she gets a stepmother (Anna) who, while able to see the spirits, fears them.  The differences in their reactions to the same ability defines their personalities and their lives.  Vasilisa accepts her ability, talks to the spirits and befriends them while Anna shrieks and faints and tries to get rid of the spirits.  There is a bit of a clash between the old world versus the new.  The “new” is represented by Christianity and the “old” is represented by the old spirits.  The book doesn’t say that one is better than the other, but it does say that ignoring one for the sake of the other may have unintended consequences.  This is evident in the priest that comes to live in Vasya’s village and what happens to him towards the end of the book.  Maybe the author is trying to say that the old ways are part of our heritage, part of what makes us and therefore abandoning them is a bad idea?

Even if you don’t get any message from the book, the characters themselves, whether they were main characters or minor characters (other members of Vasya’s family), were interesting and well-developed.  The book itself was a pleasure to read just for the sake of reading.

The only people I would hesitate to recommend this book to would be ultra conservative Christians, just because they may be offended that the book deals with old spirits.  If you don’t mind that and can just appreciate a work of fiction, you should definitely read this book.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary e-copy of this book to preview in exchange for my honest review from NetGalley.  This book will be published January 10, 2017.

 

book review: Jack and the Geniuses: at the Bottom of the World by Bill Nye and Gregory Mone

This book appears to be the start of a series of adventure stories geared towards middle schoolers.  The book is about Jack and his two genius foster siblings, Ava and Matt, who had themselves declared legally independent.  With two siblings who are geniuses, it is hard for Jack to stand out, but he manages to come up with some clever solutions to problems on his own.

I would say that the target audience would be upper elementary children (4th-6th and maybe even 3rd graders), maybe early middle school, rather than middle school.  The inventions described in the book are very creative and, since one of the authors is Bill Nye, he tries to stay true to the science.  In other words, even though the inventions don’t exist, parts of them do exist so it is possible that some of the inventions may come to fruition one of these days.

In this book, Jack and his siblings do volunteer work for an inventor named Hank Witherspoon who has to judge a contest in Antarctica.  As a reward for their hard work, he takes them along.  When they arrive, they are faced with solving the disappearance of a missing scientist.

I was wavering between 3 stars and 4 stars for this book, but decided to go with 4 because of the neat science bits.  I enjoyed reading about how to make a shelter in the snow, how to survive intense temperatures, and the great inventions.

I wish that the characters in the book had been more developed.  The story is told from Jack’s point of view so the reader becomes most familiar with him.  Unfortunately, little is known about Ava and Matt other than that they are geniuses and that Ava names her robots and Matt likes to work out.  Dr. Witherspoon is a rich man, but expects the children to work for him for free?  Come on, what kind of a person is he?

Maybe we’ll get to know the other characters better as the siblings go on more adventures in future book.  I hope Dr. Witherspoon intends to start paying the poor kids for doing so much work for him.

I received a complimentary e-copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.  This book will be published April 4, 2017.

book review: The Girl Before by JP Delaney

Personally, I found The Girl Before to be more suspenseful than The Girl on the Train (yes, I’m still hung up on how popular that book is).  The Girl Before tells the story of two women living in an rented home.  The home is in a great neighborhood and is cheap, but comes with a long list of odd conditions.  If you’re like me and skip reading the chapter titles, you might get a little confused at first.  It seems like the two women are applying for the same home and there will be some competition between them to get it.  When I looked back at the chapter titles, though, there’s a “Then: Emma” and “Now: Jane” to make it clear that the title refers to Emma and the present is Jane.  This makes it much more clear for the reader, but I still prefer my method of skipping chapter titles and figuring out what is going on as the story unfolds.

The home itself is interesting.  It is stark, but technologically advanced.  Only the essentials are in the home, no pets or children are allowed, no other furnishings are allowed than what is already provided with the house.  The house measures your biometrics to adjust lighting to give you the best night’s sleep, provide you with the perfect shower temperature, etc.  Occasionally, it asks you to complete questionnaires to ensure that it is best meeting your needs.  Some functions (such as hot water) are disabled until the questionnaire is completed.  It is a remarkable house, but it also makes many demands on its owner.

The architect is an unusual man, somewhat shrouded in mystery, with precise, exacting demands.  He is the one who has the final say in who is allowed to rent the home.  His character reminds me of Howard Roark from The Fountainhead, except that Howard was more likeable.

I’m not going to give away too much of the plot.  Basically, Jane moves into this house after undergoing a miscarriage and tries to figure out what happened to Emma.  As always, it’s the journey that matters and I enjoyed some of the twists and turns in this one.  I thought this book was better than The Girl on the Train.  I particularly liked the idea of the house and the way the author slowly unraveled her characters’ personalities.

I received a complimentary e-book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.  This book will be released January 24, 2017.

Book review: Gilded Cage by Vic James

Gilded Cage by Vic James presents an interesting look at what happens when some are born with abilities and some are not.  This book is the first in a series and takes place in an alternate England where people who are born with magic are part of the elite, ruling class whereas people who don’t have magic are common citizens.

This book won’t be released until February 2017 so I don’t want to give the plot away.  Instead, I’ll discuss what I found most interesting about the book – the social dynamics between the two classes.

At some point in their lives, all commoners are required to serve 10 years as a slave.  During those 10 years, they have no rights.  Commoners may request assignment at a certain location, but otherwise have no say in where they will be.  Some are assigned to what amounts to labor camps.  Others may get assigned to serve in an aristocratic family, which sounds like it would be better than labor camps … except that, since they are slaves and have no rights, there are no rules or punishment for mistreatment or commoners.  For commoners, the big decision is when to serve out their 10 years.  If they serve it while they’re young, they will most likely survive, but may be maimed physically or emotionally.  If they wait until they’re too old, they won’t be able to survive the harsh demands of the physical labor.

While they are slave, if they don’t perform satisfactorily, they may have years added to their sentence.  If they do something really bad like murder someone, they may receive a life sentence of servitude.

Interestingly, people who have no magical powers but are born to a family with magical powers seem to be exempt from the 10-year servitude requirement.

Obviously, no one wants to become a slave for 10 years so why would they agree to it?  The answer is that the magical people could force them.  The actual magical abilities are somewhat of a mystery, but there are rumors of mind control, moving objects, destroying objects, making things appear, deleting memories.  Those with magical abilities don’t want to spend their whole time quashing rebellions so they give commoners some freedom.  Getting to choose when they become a slave is one of the freedoms.  When they are not slaves, they are considered citizens and have rights, similar to what we have today.  They may own property, be protected from harm by police, etc.  There is just enough “give” there to keep the commoners intent enough.

The book follows a family of commoners as they begin their sentence.  The family consists of Mom, Dad, Abi, Luke, and Daisy.  Abi is an intelligent 18-year-old who was accepted to medical schools.  However, she turns down her offers to serve her time with her family.  Abi requested that they all be assigned to an aristocratic family so that they could be together.  Abi’s request is approved, but approvals means little once you become a slave with no rights.  Luke is a few years younger than Abi and is bitter about having to give up the prime years of his life in slavery, but understands that his parents wanted to keep the family together.  Daisy is the baby of the family.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), this book is part of a series so it does end on somewhat of a cliffhanger.  Just a warning that you’re going to have to wait a while before the next book is released.  I will definitely be keeping an eye out for the other books in this series.

I received a complimentary e-book from Net Galley in exchange for my honest review.

 

book review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

I know that there’s been a lot of hype about this book, but I didn’t know exactly what the hype was about because I don’t read reviews until after I’ve read the book myself and have had a chance to form my own opinion.  I’ll be honest, when I finished the book, I didn’t understand what all the commotion was about.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a decent book, but I didn’t think it was particularly special or outstanding.

The main character, Rachel, is an alcoholic who is close to hitting bottom.  Her husband left her for another woman, she lost her job (for showing up drunk after taking a 3-hour lunch), sometimes she blacks out during her drinking binges, and she sometimes contacts her ex-husband or his new wife when she’s drunk.  She rides the train every day to keep up the pretense that she has a job so that her roommate/landlady won’t be worried about her not having money.  The train ride takes her past her old home, the one she shared with her ex-husband, who is now living there with his new wife and their baby.  A few doors down from her old home lives a couple about whom she has created a fantasy.  She imagines the perfect life and a loving marriage for this couple – the kind of life that she wants to have.

One day, she sees “Jennifer,” the fantasy woman, kissing another man and is shocked.  A while later, “Jennifer,” whose real name is Megan, is reported missing.  Rachel was  around at the time Megan was last seen, but she was drunk and can only remember bits and pieces of what happened.  Rachel contacts the police to tell them about how Megan had been having an affair, but she’s considered an unreliable witness and is told to leave her ex-husband and his new wife alone.  She’s considered a pathetic, lonely, alcoholic stalker.

Rachel herself isn’t sure if she did anything, but she did wake up bloody.  She believes it is because she fell, but she can’t be sure.

I won’t say anymore to avoid any giving away any spoilers.

I got frustrated with Rachel and  I felt sorry for her roommate who showed way more compassion and patience than I would have.  I suppose that’s what people who have alcoholics in their lives deal with.  It’s exhausting and tiresome – and you can’t help them unless they want to be helped.  Unfortunately, in a book, it’s just irritating.  If you want to read a book on alcoholism, read You Owe Yourself a Drunk.  Rachel wasn’t the only character in this book that was disappointing.  I didn’t care for any of them.

I just saw a trailer for the movie last night.  They have Emily Blunt cast as Rachel.  I like Emily Blunt, but I can’t help thinking that this is totally miscast.  Rachel is supposed to be overweight and not very attractive, in other words, NOT Emily Blunt.  I was picturing someone who looked more like the old Melissa McCarthy.  I’ll be skipping the movie.

Book review: Sting by Sandra Brown

Sting is the first book I’ve read by Sandra Brown.  It has an interesting premise – a woman named Jordie Bennet is kidnapped by Shaw Kinnard, who hopes to use her as a hostage to get access to $30 million from her brother.  It was an odd book … when I started reading it, I was expecting a suspense-type book, a la Lee Child and John Sandford.  Then the book took an X-rated turn.  Now, I’m not a prude by any means, but the descriptions were pretty explicit.  It was something I’d expect in a romance novel … I didn’t have a problem with the explicitness of it, but I found it a little unbelievable and I felt like it took away from the pace of the plot.

The book felt long, with not much happening plot-wise other than people arguing and the sexual tension/sex between Jordie Bennet & Shaw Kinnard.

Warning: spoilers ahead …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m supposed to believe that Jordie has the hots for a guy who murdered someone in front of her, kidnapped her, and is threatening to kill her?  Maybe if he hadn’t been presented as a hitman in the beginning … and maybe if they had spent a couple weeks together, but not in the few days they spent in the garage.  And they have a major sex scene just after one of the cops on the case was seriously injured and is in intensive care?  I just didn’t buy it.

I also had trouble with the ending of the book where they finally find the bad guy.  There was a plot twist, but it felt like a plot twist for the sake of a plot twist and, again, just wasn’t believable.

It was a so-so book – I didn’t find it as enjoyable as the books by Lee Child or John Sandford.  Read it if you want to read a romance book with a little more plot than the typical romance.

book review: Phoenix Island by Charlotte Paul

This book started out a little slow, and the characters were pretty dreadful so I didn’t think I would like this book.  However, after the tsunami hit, things got quite a bit more interesting.  Phoenix Island by Charlotte Paul is a modern day cross between Robinson Crusoe and a little bit of Lord of the Flies.

I loved that this book was realistic about the nature of its characters.  None of them were perfect people, or even good people, but they each brought a different set of skill sets and they managed to work together to survive.   The main characters include: Andrew Held (a scientist known for supporting the development of nuclear power), Felicia Held (Andrew’s estranged wife), Carlo (an entertainer hired by Andrew), Donald Campbell (Andrew’s hired assistant, who has a shady past), Diana (a girl hired to help guests), Rolf (Diana’s boyfriend), Warren (a famous sculptor), and Blake & Norma Mansfeld (an upper middle-class married couple from New York).  The book showed how the characters grew as people when they are stripped of modern day conveniences and defensive mechanisms.  For example, Felicia’s defensive mechanisms were her coiffured looks.  Her appearance made her seem unapproachable to some people, like Donald.  People like Andrew, Felicia, and Blake and Norma probably would avoid someone like Donald and wouldn’t think twice about Diana and Rolf.  However, on the island, they see how the Diana’s background led to her useful skills.  On the island, they lose the society-made class barriers.

I love survival stories – I love learning about the edible plants and ways they found substitutes for soap and shampoo.  The author must have done a lot of research for this book.

This book, though, is much more than an adventure story.  It’s a statement about society.  The characters represent a cross section of our society as a whole and how everyone is needed.  The book presents a utopian view in that the characters become a family, learning from each other and learning to work together, and they all improve, both in character and physically.  The characters become better people when they are a family, willing to open up to each other and to care for each other.  The author seems to be making a statement about how, even though we are all so different, we rely on each others’ skill sets to survive.  It’s our differences that are our strengths.

The 9 characters deal with crucial issues such as finding water and food, but they also deal with non-life-threatening, though nonetheless essential, issues such as crime and punishment.  The way they face the issues help define their society.  Will they be forgiving or will they be vengeful?  How can they enforce their punishment(s)?

Warning: spoiler ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It probably comes as no surprise that the person who commits the first major crime on the island is Donald.  Once the group decides to banish him for 1 month, Donald turns animal-like, threatening to lash out.  There are couple crucial moments.  The first is, just as he is about to leave the group, when the takes the group’s only knife (his jackknife originally).  Andrew explains that all of their personal property were given up to the greater good and the knife was no longer Donald’s.  However, Andrew looked at who had the greatest need for the knife – the group or Donald – and felt Donald should be allowed to take the knife, not because it belonged to him but because he had the greatest need for it.  This incidence gives an insight to the author’s idea of what contributes to a utopian society.  You need leaders who recognize that desperate individuals will do desperate things … and someone who will treat people fairly, looking at the greatest need.  The other incident concerning Donald’s punishment comes into play when he flees, leaving behind a small bag of dried foods.  The group decides to show leniency and mercy by gathering up the small bag and bringing it to Donald.  In addition to the dried foods (which wouldn’t last him for the 30 days he was banished from the others), Rolf adds some fishing hooks so that Donald will have a means of finding more food.  This showed that, though they knew that he needed to be punished, they wanted him to survive, to come back to them.  Their punishment was a necessity to prevent anarchy and to protect those who might be physically weaker.  Their punishment wasn’t spiteful.  In fact, during his absence, several members of the group missed Donald, as evidenced when the author described how they remarked upon his empty spot and how they went to the woods to yell a reminder that there were only 6 days left of his exile.  Two of the members also went to hunt for the wild dogs in an effort to find and kill the dogs so that Donald would be safer on his own.  The group treated Donald as a member of their family.  Despite what he did wrong, they still cared about him.  The author is telling us that perhaps, if we treated each other as family, our “family” members, even after they have done something wrong, will return and be a contributing member again.  Temper your punishments with mercy and caring.

Read the book as an adventure story or read it as the author’s chastisement of our society or read it as a utopian look at what society could be.  Just read it.

book review: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

The Art of Racing in the Rain is the story of one family, as told through their dog.  I wonder if Garth Stein read Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones, which is a book also told by a dog.  In the Art of Racing in the Rain, the dog, Enzo, is first adopted by his owner, Denny.  Denny then meets and marries Eve and they have a daughter, Zoe.

The best part of the book is, of course, that it is told from Enzo’s perspective.  Enzo is a unique dog who believes in an Australian legend that says that dogs will become human in their next life.  Enzo would love to become human so that he could freely communicate with his family.  While his family is away during the day, he watches television shows and old car races.

He learned to love racing through his owner, Denny.  From Denny, Enzo learns tips about race car driving.  Many people can drive when the weather is nice, but rain makes the roads slicker, which makes driving more difficult.  Being able to handle your car in the rain well is a crucial trait for great race car drivers.

The metaphor, of course, ties into navigating through life.  When the roads are dry, it’s pretty easy because life is going your way and you’re just coasting along.  The true test is when the roads are slippery and you could spin out at any moment.  How do you handle yourself?  Enzo helps his family through their rainy driving with his patient, loyal love.

I don’t want to give too much more away, but I would definitely recommend the book … and it reminded me that I need to write up a review for Dogsbody, too.