The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMater Bujold

Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

Information

Goodreads: The Curse of Chalion
Series: World of the Five Gods #1
Source: Purchased
Published: December 2000

Official Summary

A man broken in body and spirit, Cazaril, has returned to the noble household he once served as page, and is named, to his great surprise, as the secretary-tutor to the beautiful, strong-willed sister of the impetuous boy who is next in line to rule.

It is an assignment Cazaril dreads, for it will ultimately lead him to the place he fears most, the royal court of Cardegoss, where the powerful enemies, who once placed him in chains, now occupy lofty positions. In addition to the traitorous intrigues of villains, Cazaril and the Royesse Iselle, are faced with a sinister curse that hangs like a sword over the entire blighted House of Chalion and all who stand in their circle. Only by employing the darkest, most forbidden of magics, can Cazaril hope to protect his royal charge—an act that will mark the loyal, damaged servant as a tool of the miraculous, and trap him, flesh and soul, in a maze of demonic paradox, damnation, and death.

Review

The Curse of Chalion introduces readers to a man who once held a reputation for being a good soldier and trustworthy commander, but who has crossed the wrong people and now mainly wants to live a quiet life.  The gods, however, seem to have other plans, and soon Cazaril is thrust into the dangerous court intrigue he so desired to avoid, as well as an epic battle to save his country from a curse few even know lie over it.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I began reading this novel, and I admit it took me several chapters to even start to have idea.  It is not clear from the opening pages what exactly Cazaril’s talents are.  Apparently he was a page, then a solider, then a commander, and at the start of the book he’s basically a penniless nobody—but he is quickly hired to act as secretary and tutor to one of the most important noble ladies in the realm.  And all through his exposition, which implies he’s good at basically everything, he downplays his skills and insists he’s good at practically nothing.  I wasn’t immediately sure what to do with this, or where the book would lead if the protagonist had so ambiguous a role.

Finding out is really half the story.  I think, in the end, Carazil has more talents than he gives himself credit for (though he’s certainly no Mary Sue excelling at everything), and yet what seems most valuable about him is his integrity.  His knowledge and his physical abilities are assets, certainly in the various roles he comes to play in the fate of his country, but his dedication to his country, his patron, and his duties in general are what make him remarkable.

I enjoyed following him on his journey, as well as meeting the other characters.  His student, Iselle, is a bit impetuous but eager and strong-willed.  The villains are delightfully villainous, and many of the characters in the story have more facets than they initially let on.  And, despite the pure amount of characters who show up in the story, all are wonderfully developed.  As is the history, culture, and religion of the country they inhabit.

The story is a marvelous blend of court intrigue, revenge, romance, magic, theology, and personal character development.  Some developments did seem a little strange to me—and apparently sounded even stranger to my friends when I tried to talk to my friends about what I was reading.  However, it’s unique and all ends up coming together.  The novel is a bit less complex than Brandon Sanderson, but does remind me somewhat of his books in terms of world building and thoughtful attention to human nature.

I was a bit confused by the titles/ranks the characters had and would have appreciated an appendix outlining who was higher than whom in society.  And a map would have been helpful for geographical purposes.  There are multiple editions of The Curse of Chalion, but I purchased mine in the past year, so there are certainly versions being sold today that do not have one—a definite oddity in today’s fantasy market.  However, these are details.  Overall I very much enjoyed the book and do recommend it to others.  I would also be interested in reading more works by the author.

4 stars Briana

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Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) by Christian Rudder

Information

Goodreads: Dataclysm
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2014

Summary

Christian Rudder uses Big Data to examine questions from the quirky to the serious.  The states where people bathe the least, the age of women men find most desirable, and the accuracy with which a person’s Facebook “likes” can predict their sexual orientation are all revealed in Rudder’s book.

Review

This is one of those books that I picked up without really reading the summary.  I think I had a vague idea that it was about Big Data and would reveal quirky Internet trends.  That turns out not to be entirely accurate.  For one thing, Rudder co-founded OkCupid, so most of his data comes from there and large portions of the book focuses on questions pertinent, I suppose, to singles looking to mingle.  For another thing, a lot of the information was not that quirky or fun.  It was either quite sobering or (I thought) quite obvious.

The book begins by mining OkCupid’s data (since Rudder has access to it) and the questions are what you might expect.  What age of man are women looking for?  What age of women are men looking for?  How does one’s attractiveness affect the number of messages received?  Many of these questions you could probably answer for yourself.  (Hint: Men are all into 20-year-olds while women tend to prefer men closer to their own age.  And attractive people get the most attention both on online dating sites and in interviews.  No surprises here.)  Other questions delve deeper into the online dating experience, however, showing what unconscious or unspoken racial preferences users have, exploring how the length of time taken to type a message affects the response rate, and so forth.

The book then moves on to other sites and other questions.  Twitter, Google, and Facebook all get mentions.  Rudder examines how hashtags can bring people together (or encourage them to perform what he calls an online “stoning” when someone makes a digital misstep).  He explores Google’s autocomplete and what that can tell us about our secret questions and secret biases.  He explains how math can predict the odds of a marriage lasting based on a couple’s shared connections.  Sometimes what Rudder explores is simply for fun.  Other times Rudder delights in the knowledge that Big Data can reveal attitudes that otherwise would remain unstudied.  After all, few people want to admit that they have racial prejudices while taking a survey.  But they do not think to hide their searches.

Of course, what Rudder uncovers still needs to be analyzed.  He offers analysis with varying degrees of thoroughness, but his explanations of trends typically read like speculations.  After all, he has not done research to ask WHY men in their 50s want to date women in their early 20s.  He can only guess based on what he knows about men.  Sometimes this seems like a shame.  After all, if Big Data is going to tell us some weird things, it would be fun to know why such trends are occurring.

In the end, I did not feel like I really learned much new or interesting.  If you are depressed about your prospects of dating as a woman out of your 20s, the book will only deepen your bitterness.  If you were concerned about racism, the book is only going to confirm what you already suspected: racism is still a problem.  If you think people are buying social media followers, yes, some of them are.  The difference?  What small surveys once told us, Big Data confirms on a larger scale.

3 Stars

Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore

Jane Unlimited by Kristin Cashore

Information

Goodreads: Jane, Unlimited
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: September 19, 2017

Official Summary

If you could change your story, would you?

Jane has lived a mostly ordinary life, raised by her recently deceased aunt Magnolia, whom she counted on to turn life into an adventure. Without Aunt Magnolia, Jane is directionless. Then an old acquaintance, the glamorous and capricious Kiran Thrash, blows back into Jane’s life and invites her to a gala at the Thrashes’ extravagant island mansion called Tu Reviens. Jane remembers her aunt telling her: “If anyone ever invites you to Tu Reviens, promise me that you’ll go.”

What Jane doesn’t know is that at Tu Reviens her story will change; the house will offer her five choices that could ultimately determine the course of her untethered life. But every choice comes with a price. She might fall in love, she might lose her life, she might come face-to-face with herself. At Tu Reviens, anything is possible.

Review

Note: There are no plot spoilers in this book, but I do talk about the structure and various genres of the book, so if you are the type of reader who likes to go into novels completely blind and surprised, you may wish to skip this review.

I’m a big fan of Graceling, so I’ve been looking forward to Cashore’s first novel in five years with some excitement.  I knew it would be a different type of book for her, since it’s not high fantasy; however, I was fully prepared for the unique structure and blend of genres in the book.  In the end, I think Cashore has attempted something beautifully ambitious with the structure, but I’m not fully convinced that the final product melds together in quite the way I want.

The first important point to note about the book is that it begins linearly, but after Part II, it breaks off into different narratives. The idea is that protagonist Jane is faced with the option of following five different people, and whichever choice she makes will lead her path in a different direction.  It’s basically inspired by the idea of the multiverse—that there are infinite versions of us/the universe out there, all which split off when we make different decisions in our lives.

Honestly, I quite like this idea.  We probably all have the sense that the “big” decisions we make in life matter, that our lives would have gone differently if we had gone to College B instead of College A, or that everything would be different if we had chosen to study engineering instead of art history.  However, Jane, Unlimited explores the idea that even the “small” decisions can have large impacts, that it matters whether, right now, you choose to walk down your driveway to get your mail or to stay in your house for another thirty minutes and call your mother.

My issue is that the different narratives Jane experiences got a lot weirder than I was anticipating.  The first two options are realistic (if a bit sensational), so I was not expecting the last three narratives to go hardcore horror and sci-fi.  One minute I was in the real world; the next I was in the Twilight Zone.  All of these stories are interesting, but I didn’t think the book felt as though it went together as a whole, and I actually thought the first two stories were the strongest.  I personally would have liked the book better if all five narrative options veered towards realistic contemporary fiction.

Otherwise, however, the book is strong.  I have always thought Cashore has strong prose, and she is great at characterization.  I enjoyed reading about Jane, as well as the decently large case of secondary characters.  To make things even better, there’s an adorably loyal (and intelligent) dog who sticks to Jane’s side throughout her adventures.  Add the glamourous setting of a mansion on a private island, where half the residents are art experts, and this book is really great.

I connected with the characters and wanted to know what happened next in the book; I whipped through this story much faster than others I have been reading recently.  I just hesitate to give it a higher star rating because the second half of the book seems so disconnected from the first half.

3 Stars Briana

Some of My Favorite Books Were Required Reading

Discussion Post

When we discuss required reading, the focus tends to be on the negative: students who are bored, resentful, or uninspired.  It is true that I have been assigned a fair amount of stories I cannot stand.  Ethan Frome comes to mind.  However, it is also true that I have been assigned books I would not have read myself–either because I was uninterested or intimidated–and that I unexpectedly ending up loving them.  Below is a(n incomplete) list of favorite books that I owe to my teachers who required me to read them.

Required Reading I Have Loved

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Lee’s book seems to be a staple in American classrooms.  I have yet to meet anyone who hasn’t loved it.

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

This is one of those books that was, for me, transformational.  And I got to read it for class.

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

I was reading Shakespeare on my own, but I don’t know if I’d have ever gotten around to this one if it had not been assigned to me.  Now it is my favorite Shakespeare play.

Jazz by Toni Morrison

Contemporary fiction isn’t really my thing, so, even though I have read a fair amount of Morrison’s work, it always feels like something I ought to be doing not something I want to do.  But this one I actually enjoyed!

Beowulf by Anonymous

Monsters!  Battles!  Dragons!  This poem has it all!

The Maid’s Tragedy by Beaumont and Fletcher

Renaissance drama beyond Shakespeare is so good and also so ridiculous and overly dramatic that I cannot begin to express my appreciation.

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

Yes, I really got to read this for class!

Animal Farm by George Orwell

I know that only terrible things happen in this book, so I probably shouldn’t enjoy it.  And yet I do.

I Didn’t Like Them, But I Am Glad I Read Them

Some books I didn’t like, but I have discovered that reading them was actually beneficial to me in the long run.  Here I list some honorable mentions–stories I did not particularly love or connect with, but that I ended up needing to know about anyway.  Thanks, teachers!

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Surprisingly, I have had to explain Kate Chopin’s work and historical context to more than one person.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

This is one of those books people like to reference.  Now I can nod along knowingly.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I was bored and I hated it, but I realize it’s considered important and influential.  At least I know what everyone else is talking about.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Despite not particularly enjoying contemporary fiction, I have read enough of Morrison’s books that I can talk to avid readers about her work without feeling totally lost and ashamed.

What are some books that were assigned to you–and that you unexpectedly enjoyed?

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Information

Goodreads: Hollow City
Series: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children #2
Source: Quirk Books
Published: February 24, 2015

Official Summary

This second novel begins in 1940, immediately after the first book ended. Having escaped Miss Peregrine’s island by the skin of their teeth, Jacob and his new friends must journey to London, the peculiar capital of the world. Along the way, they encounter new allies, a menagerie of peculiar animals, and other unexpected surprises.

Complete with dozens of newly discovered (and thoroughly mesmerizing) vintage photographs, this new adventure will delight readers of all ages.

Review

Note: I was sent a beautiful box set of the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children series for review by Quirk Books, as you can see in the photo above. In addition to the three books, this box set comes with a collector’s postcard featuring some of the characters, using the type of vintage photographs found throughout the books themselves. My review of the first book can be read here, and this post is just a review of book 2. Bonus content in this edition of Hollow City includes: a sneak preview of the third Peculiar Children Novel, Exclusive Q&A with Ransom Riggs, and never-before-seen peculiar photography.


Hollow City begins in medias res, right where Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children left off.  There is some minor exposition to help jog the memories of readers who might have read the first book a while ago, but mostly things start at a gallop, which I liked.  The children are on the run/on a quest to save their headmistress (odd how those two things overlap), and starting the book at a fast pace builds momentum that continues throughout the novel.

I liked that in this installment Riggs shows readers more of the world of the peculiars.  The children leave their island loop and get to visit a variety of other loops and places on the mainland.  We also get to learn more of the history and legends of the peculiars.  Some things just seemed highly convenient (you can telephone loops?), but overall seeing more is fascinating.

There’s also some more character development here of Miss Peregrine’s charges.  As those who read book 1 know, Miss Peregrine is out of commission, which means that the children are in charge.  They have to make decisions and take actions without the ability to consult an adult or the duty to obey any adults, which helps draw out each of their personalities.  Unfortunately, I still think Jacob is a bit of a flat main character (even though he is developing his peculiar abilities, which, thankfully, are more complex than I was led to believe in book 1), and I still think the romance he has with Emma lacks any chemistry whatsoever.  However, the secondary characters really shine here, and it was great getting to see more of them.

One of my struggles with the photography in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was that I didn’t think the photos Riggs chose to represent the characters always matched the character descriptions in the book.  I actually thought that his photo-picking abilities were more on point in Hollow City, though there is a shift here away from photos of people (though there still are many) to photos of things like zeppelins and horses and houses.  Overall, my feeling is still that including vintage photographs is a unique concept for a YA series, but I could really take or leave them.  A photo of zeppelins, in the end, just doesn’t add much to my experience of reading the book.

This is one of those books that, objectively, I think counts as a pretty strong fantasy novel.  On a personal level, I didn’t connect with it quite as much as I hoped, but I think others would enjoy it and feel confident recommending it. The ending also takes enough of a twist that I’m curious to see how things wrap up in book 3.

3 Stars Briana

The Fall Book Tag

The Fall Book Tag

I was recently tagged by Sophie at Blame Chocolate to do the Fall Book Tag. I normally completely forget to do tags (so nothing personal if you’ve tagged me for something and I never got around to it), but fall is my favorite season, so I wanted to make sure I did this one

The Rules

  • Link back to Bionic Bookworm, the creator of the tag.
  • Feel free to use the graphics.
  • Have fun!

Crisp Air
Odd and True by Cat Winters

Odd and True by Cat Winters

I read a lot of YA fantasy, but Odd and True is refreshing with its blend of fantasy, historical fiction, myth, and real issues.  The voice also a refreshing one for a genre where a lot of the prose starts sounding the same, and I enjoyed the relationship between the two sisters.


Firefight by Brandon Sanderson

Firefight by Brandon Sanderson

I’m pretty sure Brandon Sanderson is the master of strong endings, whether its ending a standalone satisfyingly or creating cliffhanger between books in a series.  His YA Reckoners series is no exception.   The ending to book 1, Steelheart, is gripping, and Sanderson keeps the momentum with his ending to book 2, Firefight.  No one makes me want to finish a series like Sanderson.


Witch Wars by Sibeal Pounder

Witch Wars

Pounder’s Witch Wars series is non-stop action, but all of its complete fun–even when the villains are being completely evil.   In book 1, our protagonist suddenly finds herself competing in a reality show to be the next ruler of a magic world accessed by drain pipes.  She is not prepared at all, and shenanigans ensue.


Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables
L. M. Montgomery has always been one of my favorite authors, and part of that is because, even though she can deliver biting social commentary on par with Jane Austen when she wants to, her books always seem so fundamentally optimistic. Anne Shirley has a huge heart and a huge imagination and can always see the good in the world. This book, and the rest of the series, always puts a smile on my face.


Sisters Fate by Jessica Spotswood

Sisters Fate by Jessica Spotswood
I was disappointed when Penguin switched the cover style for Jessica Spotswood’s Cahill Witch Chronicles after the first book (Born Wicked), but only because I liked the initial cover and I liked my series to match.  The redesign, however, is still gorgeous, and the final book in the trilogy has a beautiful orange sunset in the background.

Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson

Oathbringer

The third book in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives is coming out this November.  I loved the first two books in the series, Way of Kings and Words of Radiance, so this is going to be  an auto-buy for me.

I Tag

Anyone who wants to do the tag.
Briana

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

Information

Goodreads: Three Dark Crowns
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Summary

On the island of Fennbirn, queens are always born in threes.  On the day of their sixteenth birthday, the fighting commences.  The one who kills her sisters first is crowned, and the cycle begins again.  Mirabella, an elementalist, can control storms.  But she’s not so sure she can kill her sisters.  Meanwhile, Katharine is a poisoner, one who can eat anything and not die.  At least, she’s supposed to be.  And Arsinoe is a naturalist, one who can bring plants to life and bend animals to her will.  Except she’s still waiting for her familiar.  Whoever strikes first has the advantage.  But do they have the strength to do it?

Review

Three Dark Queens is one of those books that will not bear too much scrutiny.  It is really best not to ask why the sisters continually engage in this barbaric practice.  It is best not to ask why they think some of their ridiculous schemes will work.  It is best not to ask why two people can see each other once, sleep together immediately, and then “love” each other forever–even if the one is already promised to someone else.  It is best not to ask why an overly-possessive guardian would allow a lovestruck boy near her protege, and constantly leave them alone to make out.  Like she’s unaware of what they’re doing.  In short, don’t ask.  And you might enjoy the book.

Yes, most of the book is ridiculous.  Sometimes things happen for no other reason than to drive the plot forward or to make another complication.  Sometimes characters seem to act slightly out of character, again to forward the plot.  Sometimes stuff happens and it’s almost laugh-out-loud crazy and dramatic.  “Seriously,” you think.  “Did that really just happen?”  And yet, it’s the kind of entertaining fluff (if sisters wanting to murder each other can be called “fluff”) that is sometimes hard to put down.

Not every book has to be a literary masterpiece.  Some books are just funny and fun.  Three Dark Crowns is just that, even if unintentionally.  Yes, it wants to be dark and edgy, but really it’s mostly about relationships–romances and friendships–and sprinkled through with some intrigue that usually ends up nonsensical or crazy.  I enjoyed it.  Maybe that’s an embarrassing admission, but I did.

3 Stars