Saturday, December 24, 2011

Wishing you all Happy Holidays/ A Quick Video Countdown of Best I've Read in 2011

Just wanted to check in to wish all my followers a very merry Christmas/ happy Hanukkah/ whatever it is that you celebrate around the winter solstice!  I hope you all receive lots of wonderful books and give a few wonderful ones as well.  :)

This is a short Animoto video I made featuring some of the very best books I read this year, but may or may not have had a chance to review on the blog:

The song is "I'm Reading A Book" by Julian Smith, and you can check out the original video on Youtube here.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Review: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Genre: urban fantasy
Pages: 370 (paperback)
Published: 1996 by Avon
Recommended for: fellow Neil Gaiman fans; enthusiasts of a good urban fantasy

Synopsis (from Goodreads): Under the streets of London, there's a world most people could never even dream of. A city of monsters and saints, murderers and angels, knights in armour and pale girls in black velvet. This is the city of the people who have fallen between the cracks.

Richard Mayhew, a young businessman, is going to find out more than enough about this other London. A single act of kindness catapults him out of his workday existence and into a world that is at once eerily familiar and utterly bizarre. And a strange destiny awaits him down here, beneath his native city: neverwhere.

My Take:

This review comes with a inherent disclaimer, that disclaimer being that I personally consider Neil Gaiman to be something of a god in the world of fantasy literature.  The thing about Gaiman's books which captivated me when I was younger, and which still does now, is that as a writer he has the rare ability to make a reader feel like they've slipped through the cracks of the mundane, every-day world and found the extraordinary in the most unremarkable places along with his characters.  Urban fantasy can be fantastic-- ie American Gods, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, The Magicians, any of Holly Black's books-- , but it can also come across as flat and totally unbelievable.  Neil Gaiman's books have a brand of witty dark humor which makes them really enjoyable to read, every last one of them, and his characters are unique and intriguing, even though I think most of his novels are overall very plot-driven.

Neverwhere isn't my favorite Gaiman book, but I did really enjoy it and found myself thinking back to the storyline and the characters long after I turned the last page.  All in all, the mostly unpredictable plot twists and mad-cap characters-- the inhabitants of London Below, an underground London which is as dangerous as it is fascinating-- are what made reading it such a wonderful experience.  I've always wanted to visit London, but if I do it's now going to be very tempting to chat with a few homeless people or random mice in hopes of their telling me a way into London Below... maybe I'll even try drawing a door on an alley wall.  For anyone who's a fan of urban fantasy, Neil Gaiman, or fantasy in general, I'd definitely recommend Neverwhere

As far as my sparse (to say the least) posting schedule goes, I'm really hoping to have a new home computer and get a few opportunities to post and visit blogs over Christmas break.  Merry Christmas to my readers in advance, if any of you are still visiting occasionally! 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Review: Out of Breath by Blair Richmond

Genre: YA paranormal romance
Pages: 268 (paperback)
To Be Published: October 31st, 2011 by Ashland Creek Press
Recommended for: paranormal romance fans; health buffs
Disclaimer: I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
My Take:

The book begins with Kat-- a teenage girl who is a life-long runner and vegan and has been on the run from her home in Texas after her parents' death-- 's arrival in the small Oregon town of Lithia, a 'quaint' little town and a birthplace she barely remembers.  The action gets off to a slow start as Kat, homeless and alone, chances to find a temporary job in a runner's shop and a place to stay.  She meets Roman, an enigmatic actor, at the local theatre where he portrays Hamlet, and Alex, a charismatic shop boy and self-proclaimed tree-hugger.  As a complex love triangle forms around the three, Kat begins to wonder if Lithia is more than it seems.  When Alex reveals the truth to Kat at last, she can scarcely believe it (though most readers will have realized what's going on from the initial chapters).  The town of Lithia is home to vampires both peaceful and carnivorous, and Kat's new friends are among them.  The only question is, which of her vampiric suitors has her best interests at heart... and which of them may or may not be responsible for the terrible attacks which occur in the local woods?

I have overall mixed feelings about Out of Breath.  On one hand, it is essentially well-written-- Kat has a distinct narrative voice, even if she is not the most unique or likeable protagonist.  (She's got a heck of a great name, though ;)  ) Paranormal romance is not generally my cup of tea, so I try to be very objective when reviewing the genre.  I saw many similarities to Twilight, in that the protagonist is torn between two guys-- one handsome, mysterious, and questionable, and the other a likeable local who becomes as much a friend to her as a boyfriend.  Lithia was also a very similar setting to Forks.  So, you know, small-town vamps.  There is definitely an environmental element to Out of Breath, and Kat's being a vegan comes to be far more important than I anticipated.  Roman was a character I had a hard time liking, despite the strength of Kat's attraction to him, though his friend Victor definitely had potential.  (I tend to like the maniacs who live in castles best when it comes to vampires, as some of you probably know.)  Alex, I did like-- he's a genuinely nice guy who obviously has a lot in common with Kat, so why she debated between him and Roman, who knows.

I liked the mystery aspect to the "bear attacks" in the woods and those little nerve-wrecking moments when Kat is running through the woods and thinks she hears something...  Overall, this was a very quick read and a fairly enjoyable one.  The pro-environmental themes are strong, but not so strong that they drown out the rest of the story.  There's a stunning little revelation about Kat's past in the end which promises a sequel.  Out of Breath isn't a book I felt passionate about personally, but it's definitely one I would recommend to paranormal fans.

Writing: 3/5
Premise: 4/5
Characters: 3/5
Story: 3/5
Overall Rating:

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin

Genre: epic fantasy
Published: 1996 by Spectra
Pages: 835 (Mass Market paperback)
Recommended for: most all readers, particularly those who aren't intimidated by the prospects of wading through this tome

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister forces are massing beyond the kingdom's protective wall. To the south, the King's powers are failing, and his enemies are emerging from the shadows of the throne. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the frozen land they were born to. Now Lord Eddard Stark is reluctantly summoned to serve as the King's new Hand, an appointment that threatens to sunder not only his family but also the kingdom itself. A heroic fantasy of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and evildoers who come together in a time of grim omens.

My Take:

I love epic fantasy.  The elves and dwarves, long-lost dragons and mages, evil overlords and swords with positively ridiculous names-- I confess to adoring 'em all.  What I can't stomach is poorly-executed epic fantasy... so thank the gods of the Seven Kingdoms that A Game of Thrones is one of the best fantasy epics I've ever read!  The usual fantasy cliches and archetypes are all present, but George RR Martin works wonders with material which, at first glance, seems like a scenario we've all read about before. 

I began this first book in the Song of Ice and Fire saga because the HBO series kept calling to me tantalizingly, with its ridiciously cool tagline "Winter is coming..." and released screenshots of lords and ladies garbed in medieval-esque attire.  I don't like to watch a movie before reading the book (so I can kept ticked off at everything the directors/ cast got wrong, of course), so I picked up a copy of A Game of Thrones at Walmart of all places.  Unfortunately, the series is no longer available on Demand to HBO subscribers, so I barely got to watch two episodes of the show-- but what I saw was fantastic, captivating, and impressively close to the book.  But this is a book blog, so onto the book...

A Game of Thrones has a large cast of characters, all members of various royal houses whom at the novel's beginning appear to be engaged in an uneasy peace.  But all too quickly subtle court politics and hidden treachery erupt into full-blown war-- both on and off the battlefield.  Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark of Winterfell is billed as the protagonist, but the book actually has many-- a dozen strands of third-person narrative intertwine throughout the novel.  Everyone seems to have their favorites, but I have to say I was flipping forward to see when Daenary-- the exiled Targaryen princess--'s next chapter was.  Though the world of the Seven Kingdoms is as sexist and womanizing as most epic fantasy settings are, I was pleased to find that we have quite a few strong, dynamic female characters here.  Arya, Lord Stark's young daughter, and his wife Catelyn are both clearly intelligent and bold women who defy the stereotypes of their time.  Of course, on the other hand we have Arya's sister Sansa (played by a very pretty and talented girl in the series, but am I the only one who wanted to slap her??) and the treacherous Queen Cersei.  The dwarf Tyrion Lannister has to be one of my favorite characters as well-- he's charmingly clever and rude, with the impertience of a man three times his size.  As for the specifics of the plot, I'm going to remain silent-- it has too many twists and turns for me to even attempt to provide a spoiler-free summary.

Being a history nerd, I noticed quite a few similarities between this "game of thrones" and the War of the Roses.  Like the House of Lancaster's historical ensigna being a red rose, and Lannister House's in the book being a scarlet lion.  Also, the Targaryen king before King Robert went mad before being murdered, like King Henry VI.  Another thing... the vanished race of people who live(d) in the northern woods are called "The Others".  I wonder if JJ Abrams and the LOST writers have read these books?

All in all, I encourage anyone who's been considering whether or not to read this book to go for it-- you won't regret reading any of the 800+ pages and, like me, you'll clamor for the sequel, A Clash of Kings.

Premise: 4/5
Characters: 5/5
Story: 5/5
Overall Rating:

Thursday, October 13, 2011

I'm Still Alive...

Right?  *checks pulse*  Oh yeah, false alarm-- I'm definitely still alive, no worries.  So where have I been these past two months?  Actually, I've been doing a lot of reading...
And this would be fantastic, of course.  If the stacks of books I've been pouring over didn't have titles like Ultimate SAT Study Guide and Test Preparation, Introduction to Human GeographyWriting Your Perfect College Essay, and let's not forget Spark Notes.  Yep, school is officially in session and it's the dreaded senior year.  Thankfully, I've also had the chance to crack the spines of a few non-school related page-turners which I can't wait to review once I finally snag the time.  The Graveyard Book, The Good Fairies of New York, Haunting Violet, Game of Thrones, and even my old favorite Interview with The Vampire have been gracing my desk alongside the boring stuff, keeping me semi-sane. And let's not forget a couple of Halloween-related posts which I'm just dying to write...

All of you who haven't given up on this blog and have even popped in for a few visits (I was truly touched and astounded by how many people have despite my total lack of activity)-- I'd like to thank you a billion times over!  You guys are awesome; you're why I love blogging so much.  More than anything else, I miss reading and commenting on your reviews and posts about what's going on in the blogging world.  With any luck I'll be able to do a bit of that very soon, once college applications are in, and I hope to see all of you around.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Review: Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

Genre: dystopia/ thriller
Pages: 614 (paperback)
Published: 2009 by VIZ in the US; first published 1999 in Japan
Recommended for: adult fans of the Hunger Games and those who don't mind violence

My Take:

I feel like a real push-over lately when it comes to reviewing books.  First I reviewed the Wolves of Mercy Falls series, which is extremely good, and then I posted a total fangirl gush-fest about Fullmetal Alchemist.  I know I'm going to be trying to do the incredibly phenomenal masterpiece that is The Magicians justice pretty soon, so I'll try to be objective in reviewing Battle Royale.

This notorious Japanese novel has become something of a pulp classic in its native land, and its premise will sound eerily familiar to those of us caught up in the Hunger Games craze.  In an alternative, oppressive Japan, forty-two junior high students are selected to take part in the Program: a bizarre government-run social experiment in which they are set loose on a deserted island and instructed to kill one another until only one student survives.  Good-natured, brave Shuya is the star of his school's Little League team and athletic, but in no way is he prepared or willing to kill off the classmates he has grown up with.  He teams up with a small group of fellow students who attempt to defy the game and the entire Republic by attempting to sabotage the secluded set-up of their island playing field...

OK, here's me being objective: this book was a little cheesy.  Somebody dies in virtually every other chapter, so there's no shortage of gore and violence.  The way the Program was introduced-- literally, the kids wake up in a strange classroom where their 'instructor' Sakamochi informs them they've been selected for the Program and must kill each other-- was so dead-pan.  It was almost too much, almost funny, but I kind of liked the way the horror was so under-stated.  Imagine going to school and being told by your teacher, 'OK, students, for today's assignment you'll each be given a random lethal weapon and sent onto the grounds to murder one another.'  That idea that the Program was already established, that the kids already knew how it operated, worked in the same way the Hunger Games work in Suzanne Collins' books.  Now, here's what didn't work: I don't think the translation from Japanese to English was as good as it could have been.  Japanese and English are drastically different as far as languages go, but quite a few things kept jumping out at me which I think were mere errors of the translation.  For example, there was a minor character who appeared in like two chapters who was gay and-- even though it was completely irrelevant to the plot, which was him wandering around on his own with a shotgun-- every time this guy was mentioned, he was called 'this queer boy'.  Like an abrupt switch to a distant, objective point-of-view 'this', 'this'-- it must be something with the original language.  To be honest, it was hard to take this kind of writing seriously.  I saw this same error several other times and certain words were repeated over and over, too.  Particularly 'gun', and the sentence structure was off occasionally.

Overall though, I have read much worse translations and wasn't too incredibly bothered.  Battle Royale is such a thrilling, startling read.  I didn't catch many of the huge plot twists and was able to connect and understand the backgrounds of many of the characters, despite the fact that so many of them died early on.  A lot of the reviews I read on Goodreads said the Japanese names made keeping characters straight difficult, but I didn't really struggle too much beyond the first few pages.  (Except with Yumiko and Yukiko, but I think that was intended by the author.)  I was a bit skeptical of junior high students who knew how to operate guns-- though most of them didn't, a few did-- and drive.  But the way the action unfolded was amazing and the characters have branded themselves into my mind.  I do think it may have partially inspired the Hunger Games (seeing as the book inspired a cult classic movie), but I also think the two books are very different and cannot be said to be the same material at all.  Battle Royale is an action thriller which follows many different characters, and the Hunger Games is Katniss' more personal fight to survive.  The dystopian worlds have a completely different feel, too.  All the same, I think HG fans will probably enjoy this book.  The writing is somewhat like Stephen King... Stephen King if he was a Japanese writer whose work was translated not-so-brilliantly into English.  But for all my complaints, I did enjoy this memorable, intense novel.

Cover: 4/5 (okay)
Premise: 4/5
Characters: 4/5
Story: 5/5
Overall Rating:

Friday, August 26, 2011

Mega Manga Review: Fullmetal Alchemist

Artist/Manga-ka: Hiromu Arakawa
# of Volumes in Series: 25 released; 2 still to come
Genre: steampunk/ shounen/ action-adventure
Recommended for: everyone

I recently finished the 16th volume of FMA (universal nickname for Fullmetal Alchemist) and was going to review it.  Then it occurred to me: most readers won't bother reading a synopsis for a review of the sixteenth volume of a manga series they don't know the plot or premise of, and who could blame them?  So, instead of writing a typical review for that specific volume, I've decided to undertake a review (READ: total unapologetic gush fest) for Fullmetal Alchemist in general.
No spoilers follow, only lots of awesome.  You have been warned.

 My Take: 

For me, stumbling upon a tattered copy of the first volume of Fullmetal Alchemist at the local library was akin to finding a gold mine between those creased cover pages.  I devoured the manga in an hour, then passed it along to my picky sister Pinky, of guest reviewing fame, who proceeded to devour it in about ten minutes.  (Pinky reads manga FAST!)  We've since watched the anime series-- which is nearly as good, and would be as good but for the fact that it is television and we all know TV can never compete with the written (or illustrated) word.  Though FMA is one of the most popular manga series in the US and Japan, if not the world, it's also one of those mangas which can be enjoyed by readers who don't usually like graphic novels, graphic novel fans who don't usually like manga, even people who normally don't like to read at all.  It's that good, that addictive.  FMA is the most suspenseful, perfectly-crafted manga I've ever read.  Its material is often dark, yet our heroes Edward and Alphonse bring much-needed light humor and determined optimism into the mix, therefore rendering it pretty much perfect. 

the Ouroboros.. a mysterious symbol
The basic premise of Fullmetal Alchemist goes a little like this: Amestris is a country run by the military in a war-torn world which resembles a steampunkish England around the time of the Industrial Revolution.  Alchemy, advanced and complex science which seems like magic to ordinary people, is wielded by the military to keep control and protect the borders.  Brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric are only children when they first discover their innate talents for alchemy.  After the sudden death of their mother, the boys use alchemy's most forbidden art in an attempt to resurrect her using alchemy.  But the first law of alchemy is equivalent exchange: you must sacrifice to obtain.  The brothers' alchemical ritual goes horribly awry.

Edward loses his leg in the process and is forced to sacrifice his arm in order to save Al from being lost altogether in the darkness beyond the mortal world.  He binds Al's soul to the only available host-- a suit of metal armor-- and hires his childhood friend Winry, an automail engineer, to forge him a new, fully automated arm and leg made of steel.  The brothers burn their small town home and set off for Central, capital city of Amestris.  Ed is determined to become the youngest-ever State Alchemists in order to find out more about the Philosopher's Stone, a mythical substance believed to give the alchemist who wields it great power.  The brothers are determined to restore their damaged and lost bodies to normal... but at what great cost?

The cast of characters in this series is beyond awesome.  In particular, we have so many people who we have so much reason to hate or dislike yet somehow worm their ways into our hearts.  We have State Alchemists who brutally murdered thousands in the name of the military; we have Scar, a refugee-turned-serial-killer who makes use of his own destructive brand of alchemy while trying to make sense of his muddled past.  And then there are the homunculi-- mysterious human-like creatures created via alchemy, convincingly human but for their lack of a soul... and their bizarre physical abilities.  The homunculi are so damn cool.  Very occasionally in fiction a villain comes along who is totally despicable, yet somehow you want to see more and more of them.  The manga-ka of FMA does an excellent job holding the identities and abilities of the homunculi over our heads, offering only occasional tantalizing glimpses of them.  And if the villains are great, the heroes are even better.
  Ed's the best.  He's easily aggravated, especially when it comes to his small stature and refuses to consume milk in any form (lack of calcium is probably the reason for his vertically-challenged condition ;).  He's stubborn, holds a grudge, and is a child prodigy convinced he can do absolutely anything.  Yet he's also incredibly haunted by his past, hindered by his auto-mail limbs, and suffers a ton of guilt over what happened to Alphonse.  Altogether, I pretty much love Ed to death. (So does Pinky, I feel compelled to add-- she wouldn't want anyone claiming to be a bigger Ed fan than her.)  His brother Al is in some ways the perfect contrast: Ed's genius without the infamous Ed ego, I guess.

I can see this fangirl post has definitely ran a bit long, so I'll just hastily add that Winry Rockbell, Ed and Al's neighbor, Lt. Riza Hawkeye, and her dog Black Hayate are a few of my other favorites.  If you're a fellow FMA fan, I'd love to hear from you, and I hope the rest of you will consider checking out the first volume in my favorite manga series of all time! 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Review: Forever by Maggie Stiefvater

 (Wolves of Mercy Falls #3)
Genre: YA paranormal romance
Pages: 390 (hardcover)
Published: July 2011 by Scholastic
Recommended for: anyone who enjoyed the previous books, or anyone who thought Shiver was just okay and wondered whether the series was worth finishing
Thanks to: Liz for letting me borrow her copy  :)
Warning: very mild spoilers follow

My Take:

Forever picks up soon after Linger left off: Grace has finally become a wolf and is now running through Boundary Woods along with the rest of the pack, most of whom will never again get to spend their summers as humans.  Meanwhile Sam longs for the days when his Summer Girl will get to stay with him.  As the weather warms up and Grace occasionally changes back to her human form, he finds that losing her so soon and suddenly is perhaps as painful as never having had her at all.  Cole St Clair, jaded-with-the-world young rockstar, is experiencing the sudden changes from wolf to human, too.  But for once he finds himself struggling to remain himself.  He sets out to control the scientific circumstances which force the change from human to wolf, using himself as a test subject.  The standoffish and lovably haughty Isabel Culpeper is still uncertain about her feelings for Cole-- and indeed everything else.  But as her father, who loathes the Boundary Woods wolves for causing the death of her brother Jack, gears the small town of Mercy Falls up for one last extermination of the pack, Isabel knows one thing for certain-- she must stop him at any cost.

Forever is a fantastic conclusion to the Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy.  Since Shiver, the characters have grown so much, and yet they are at heart the same people we fell in love with.  Isabel is still the smart-ass; Cole is still eccentric and jaded; Sam is still the slightly melancholy, ultimately lovable teenage boy.  Of all the characters, Grace has changed the most, having defied her negligent parents and given up all aspects of her old life.  Yet, for me, it was Cole and Isabel who stole the show.  I'm not personally a fan of love-at-first-sight sorts of stories, though Sam and Grace's relationship is more real than that.  But Cole and Isabel's is a very different, darker brand of love-- a practically unrealized love, at that.

The lyrical prose and slower pacing of the last two books is familiar here, yet the pace is slightly faster, since the most immediate major plotline of the series-- that of the wolves being hunted by the town and Isabel's father-- is finally coming to a shattering realization.  Yep, it's finally happening.  I would like to take this opportunity to say, while my random brain is replaying the awesomeness that was that final climax scene, that I hate Shelby.  So, so much.  Anyway, I would say that if, like me, you enjoyed Shiver but didn't love it enough to read the next book, that it's a fair bet you will end up loving the rest of the trilogy.  Shiver is good; Linger is great; Forever is even better. 

Cover: 5/5
Premise: 4/5
Story: 4/5
Characters: 5/5
Overall Rating:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Teaser Tuesday (#1)

This is my first time participating in  the Teaser Tuesdays meme.  I always love reading the teasers on other blogs-- even though they're very hard on my ever-growing TBR!  This week I've been reading a book which has endless suspense and plenty of potential for tantalizing teasers, so I thought I'd join in.  

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

From Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey.... 

"I'm sure it's just a coincidence," I insisted.  "A one-time aberration.  A reaction to the sun, maybe.  Or bad marmalade."  I couldn't very well tell her the truth, which was that I had seen a ghostly Rowena, but that wasn't the real problem.
The real people was that I didn't actually believe in ghosts. 
But they clearly believed in me. 
-- Page 64

I'm really liking this paranormal book and its Victorian setting.  Be sure to check it out sometime, and leave me the links to your Teasers so I can return the visit!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Series Review: The Icemark Chronicles by Stuart Hill

Book #1: The Cry of the Icemark
Genre: YA fantasy
Pages: 512 (paperback)
Published: 2005 by Chicken House

My Take:

Today I'd like to share a trilogy of books which I've loved and been impressed by for a long time.  I read The Cry of the Icemark in seventh grade, and the third book, Last Battle of the Icemark, only last week.  The series is aimed at MG and YA readers, but the books really do have something for everyone: magic, romance, war, and most importantly, hilarious and endearing characters.

Thirrin Freer Strong-in-the-Arm Lindenshield is the thirteen year old princess of the Icemark, a tiny snowbound country surrounded on all sides by enemies and harsh mountain wilderness.  When the powerful Polypontian Empire, led by the conniving General Scipio, turn their enormous eye on the unprotected Icemark at last and her warrior king father falls in battle, Thirrin must search for allies among the most unlikely of the Icemark's former foes.  She meets an unexpected ally in Oskan Witchson, a young warlock whose power and empathy perfectly complement Thirrin's impulsiveness.  Together, the princess  and her new adviser risk their lives as envoys to the mysterious Wolf People who roam the mountains, a tribe of Amazon-like warriors, a nation of mythical  snow leopards as big as horses and with twice as many teeth.  Thirrin even ventures to the infamous Land-of-the-Ghosts and attempts to forge an alliance with Their Vampiric Majesties-- a pair of sangfroid immortals who have lorded over their fellow vampires for untold centuries.  But as the Icemark and their new-found mythical allies prepare to face the scientifically-based Polypontian Empire in an epic battle for the Icemark's capital, it occurs to Thirrin that the time of freedom and coexistence among creatures in the north may have already ebbed and waned.

Author Stuart Hill writes battle scenes fantastically-- the only writer I can think of who captures the intensity and chaos so perfectly and captivatingly is JRR Tolkien.  The first book remains my favorite of the Icemark Chronicles.  There are a lot of proper nouns and names at first, but readers will quickly grow to love these unusual (to say the least) characters and their funny quirks.  Flame-haired Thirrin is a true warrior-at-heart and I loved her chemistry with Oskan despite their vast differences and conflicting backgrounds.  My favorite of Thirrin's allies are her most reluctant ones: Their Vampiric Majesties.  Their biting sarcasm and adherence to the laws of actual vampires (no sparkling or feeding upon mountain lions) is entertaining and refreshing.
Book #2: Blade of Fire
Pages: 640 (paperback)
Published: 2007 by Chicken House

This sequel to Cry of the Icemark could well be called Icemark: NG-- Icemark: The Next Generation.  I was skeptical at first when I saw that this book skipped ahead twenty years and picked up just as a new battle with the Polypontian Empire and the vicious General Scipio Bellorum was about to be waged for the Icemark.  Bellorum is accompanied by his teenage sons, Sulla and Octavius (Ring a bell, much?  Yep, the Polypontian Empire are more or less the Romans.),  tactical geniuses like himself who are equally bloodthirsty.  Queen Thirrin and her beloved Oskan have children, too: three sons and two daughters.

As war approaches, Thirrin sends her son Sharley, crippled long ago by polio, to the Southern Continent as a diplomat.  Sharley, angry at being sent away like a child, takes the reins of his own destiny and travels to befriend new allies in the form of the Desert People and their Crown Prince.  As Bellorum attacks the outskirts of the Icemark with a new fleet of terrifying airships and defeat for the allies seems inevitable, the teenage princess Medea broods alone in her tower rooms.  Alone of Thirrin's children, Medea has inherited her father's magical power.  But unlike Oskan, Medea is intrigued and enthralled by the Dark.  As her warrior brothers and sisters prepare to make their last stand, Medea prepares for the betrayal which she hopes will set her above her hated family forever.

Blade of Fire very nearly improved upon the first book.  The story is one which makes it impossible to put down and the new glimpses we get of this world's magic are beyond cool.  Thirrin and Oskan are still very much major characters despite their children taking the stage.  As in the first book, there are quite a few devastating deaths among major characters.  One death scene in particular I will always remember-- it was beyond sad.
Book #3: Last Battle of the Icemark
Pages: 480 (paperback)
Published: 2008 by Chicken House

In this final book in the Icemark trilogy, Thirrin and her myriad of allies face what may be the greatest challenge to their nation yet: a brutal warrior Queen whom commands a legion of hoards into the realms of the Icemark and the Polypontian Empire.  (Think the Mongols invading Europe.)  Meanwhile Medea is caught in the limbo realm of the Darkness and plotting her revenge against her family and her father Oskan, whom she has come to loathe as much as she adores.  She joins forces with Cronus, embodiment of evil and... her grandfather.

Fewer new characters and nations are introduced than in previous books, though the cast list still grows several names longer.  The Icemark and the Polypontian Empire joining forces against Erinor (the warrior Queen) was very much unexpected-- yet everything which occurred made for the perfect conclusion to this fantastic trilogy.  The beginning of this third book, unlike the other two, was just a little bit slow, but things picked up fairly quickly after that.  Seeing as I read this book years after the others, it was a lot like being reunited with old friends.  I love it when you discover a sequel to an old book or series which you'd half-forgotten about.  Medea becomes a major player and a major force of evil, and I loved seeing more of her sister Cressida as well.  Her awkward relationship with Leonidas, the son of a Polypontian General, was hilarious (largely due to everyone trying to set them up together), and just meant to be.  I HATED the invading queen, even more than I hated General Bellorum, so as a villain she was perfectly written.  The subplot with their Vampiric Majesties, without giving anything away, was amazing and more than any fan could have hoped for.  Once again, a major beloved character dies, one I didn't expect to die... but the ending does a lot to soften the blow.  Loved this book as much as the previous ones.

Overall Series Rating:

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Cover VS Cover: Vampire Academy

Cover VS Cover is a semi-weekly meme here at A Myriad of Books that I started because I've long been fascinated with the different international covers of the books we all know and love to read.  This week I'm taking on a pretty extensive series, which makes for the longest Cover VS Cover post yet: the Vampire Academy books by Richelle Mead.  I always try to feature every book in a series for these posts, but in this case I've decided to split the feature in half because of the sheer volume of covers out there.  This week we're looking at some of the many, many faces of the first three books-- Vampire Academy, Frostbite, and Shadow Kiss. 

The two sets of US covers are very similar, yes.  I think the second set with the expanded gates is newer.  Those are the covers I have, so I personally prefer them.  The only major difference is Dimitri's presence on the third cover.  

The first covers are so close to identical to the US covers, except for the swirly black backgrounds.  The red UK covers may be my personal favorites, because I'm just a sucker for covers with emblems or symbols on them.  Particularly like the snowflake on the Frostbite cover.

The German covers definitely have a darker feel to them.  St Vladimir's looks like Count Dracula's castle in the background there.  They're alright, though. 

Tsk, tsk.  When will these Swedish cover designers learn: you can't transpose the same image of a girl's face onto all three books in a series, change the colors around a little bit, and call it a unique design?  (See the Swedish covers for the Hunger Games.)

I kind of like these covers... but don't really see what most of them have to do with Vampire Academy.  Maybe it's been too long since I read the first few books, but I don't remember any butterflies or girls with swords facing down very friendly white wolves.  Ah, well, at least they're eye-catching.

Reminiscent of the US covers... I like the computerized look of the model, for some reason.  The pose on the third book is an odd one, but the other two seem to work.  Meh.

Well, this girl doesn't resemble Rose, nor Lissa.  And what's with the bat tattoo?... I thought Rose had marks on the back of her neck for each of her Strigoi kills.  Now that would make a cool cover for Blood Promise, the fourth book: the Strigoi marks tattooed into the back of a girl's neck.

Gee, I didn't realize Dimitri was Edward Cullen's long-lost, Russian brother.  They blatantly switched models for him, too.  And Lissa's (??) eyes on the first cover are weirdly sunken in.  She looks like a Buffy vamp with her game face on.  Not really a fan of these.

The manga art style on Japanese covers is something I'm personally always a sucker for... but here Rose and Lissa look about eight and half Dimitri's height.  Oddly enough, anime Dimitri is closer to how I imagined him.  Except for, you know, the whole manga-ized thing.  I think these covers could have been a lot better.

So, that's 32 covers from 9 different countries.  I did find several more international covers for the Vampire Academy series which I didn't include due to how long this post was getting.  If you want to check out the Dutch and Italian editions, you can at -- that's where I get 80% of these covers.  Hope you guys enjoyed looking at all the VA covers, and as always, let me know what you think! 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Review: Linger by Maggie Stiefvater

Genre: YA paranormal romance
Pages: 360 (paperback)
Published: 2010 by Scholastic
Recommended for: everyone who enjoyed Shiver
Warning: mild spoilers follow...

My Take:

After the events of Shiver, Sam feels hesitantly hopeful about his future, but more concerned than ever for Grace.  The werewolf bite she received ten years ago as a child seems to finally be taking its toll on her. As spring approaches, Sam tries to come to terms with the wolf he was and the human he is now, even as Grace struggles to deny the signs of her seemingly inevitable transformation.  Meanwhile the newest member of the Mercy Falls pack, a wolf called Cole, fights to remain a wolf as Minnesota warms up.  Eccentric and dangerously impulsive, the last thing Cole wants to do is face his human past, even if being human means he gets to see the equally standoffish Isabel Culpeper.

The Wolves of Mercy Falls series is one of the few paranormal romances I've really enjoyed.  As a reader, I tend to lean more towards complex magic systems and sci-fi worlds, lots of action and less romance.  But in Linger's case, the beautiful simplicity and bittersweet lyrical tone of Maggie Stiefvater's story made for the perfect beach read this past week.  This series is simply a fantastically-crafted and intensely addictive love story.  I remember Shiver fairly well considering it has been a year since I read it, and overall I think I liked Linger, still fresh in my mind, just as much.  The slower yet captivating pace of this book nevertheless kept me hooked, and the four first-person perspectives from which the story is told was much less disorienting than I feared it might be at first.

We have two new narrators in Linger: Cole, aforementioned mysterious and impulsive new werewolf, and Isabel, Grace's friend who previously had been a more minor character.  Cole's voice surprisingly became the most distinctive, and I really grew to love him.  He's blunt, possibly suicidal, and on the run from the reality of his life-- so what does the fact that I felt I could relate to him more than any of the other characters say about me???  Cole's more like a mish-mash of personalities and qualities: sarcasm and anguish paired with egomania, regret, flaws, and unexpected genius.  In a way, he's more like a real teenager than any of the others who are more predictable-- not flat characters, exactly, but they're nowhere near as absolutely spherical as Cole.  I've always liked Sam more than Grace, but Isabel grew on me, too.  There are quite a few funny one-liners in her conversations with Cole; they were so enjoyable to read.

I always appreciate how different the werewolves in these books are from your average Werewolf John Does... or Jacob Blacks, as the case may be.  ;)  My one major complaint is the barest hint of Middle-Book Syndrome which became evident towards the end... important things happened and the story progressed, yes, but not nearly as much as in Shiver and Forever, which I've already read thanks to a friend who let me borrow her copy.  (Thanks, Liz!)  Overall, Linger is a strong sequel and has definitely proved to be the ideal beach read.

Cover: 5/5
Premise: 4/5
Characters: 5/5
Story: 4/5
Overall Rating:

Friday, August 12, 2011

Manga Review: Black Butler Volume 1

Japanese title: Kuroshitsuji
Genre: shounen;historical fantasy
Manga-ka/Artist: Yana Toboso
Pages: 192
Published: 2010 by Yen Press in the US

My Take: 

Twelve-year old, tragically orphaned Ciel Phantomhive is nevertheless a young Earl and head of the world's most successful toy company.  He's also inherited the Phantomhive distinction of being the Queen's 'watchdog' in London in these times of Victorian deceit and brutality disguised as kindness.  Ciel's household servants are less than competent: every attempt of the gardener to make the enormous Phantomhive estate look presentable goes comically awry, and the cook and maid experience similar epic fails.  Luckily for Ciel, he has his faithful, immaculate butler Sebastian Michealis on hand at all times to ensure that the household runs smoothly... and that any devious adults and criminals who try to take advantage of a child Earl will find themselves on the wrong end of neatly polished silverware.  Of course, Sebastian is also a demon whom Ciel has promised his soul to, in exchange for Sebastian's assistance in helping him complete a series of yet mysterious tasks... including, perhaps, revenge on the arsonist who murdered Ciel's parents.

In Japanese, so I'm told, the kanji for 'butler' and 'demon' can be used as a kind of play on words.  Similar to how, in English: words like 'saw' and 'duck' have multiple meanings.  Go figure, right?  Anyway, I really enjoyed both Sebastian and Ciel's characters.  Ciel is a brooding, possibly even disturbed little boy-- terribly clever for his age and somewhat cynical.  Still, there's nothing he likes better than sweets, and nothing he hates more than losing at games.  Sebastian... I love his enigmatic smile and gangly grace.  He's definitely crush-worthy, despite the fact that he's, you know, an avenging demon/butler.  He's fantastic in the first chapter, when he salvages a ruined kitchen and lawn (courtesy of those pesky servants) into a fine, exotic dining experience for one of Ciel's guests.  And when Ciel is kidnapped, we get to see Sebastian in action for the first time when he rescues his master, just in time to save the carefully prepared dinner back at the manor.  Another character I liked was Elizabeth, Ciel's young betrothed, who upon visiting insists on throwing a frilly dance party at the manor house. 

I'm not sure if I would categorize Black Butler as shounen-- it's really more shojo, as I think girls and women would be more intrigued by the humor in the story and the beautiful Victorian period costumes.  I definitely recommend this series and am looking forward to finding out more about Ciel's past and the deadly deal he made with Sebastian.  I don't think Black Butler will become one of my all-time favorite manga series, but I really enjoyed Sebastian's character and the spectacular art.  My favorite Victorian manga will probably remain Godchild by Kaori Yuki.

Art: 5/5
Premise: 4/5
Characters: 5/5
Story: 3/5
Overall Rating:

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Poison Study by Maria V Snyder

Genre: fantasy
Pages: 409 (paperback)
Published: 2005 by Mira
Recommended for: not just fantasy fans-- pretty much any reader will find something to enjoy in this one

My Take:

Poison Study has a lot in common with those USA spy shows which they run marathons of every week or so.  Even the people who consider themselves immune to the mind-numbing powers of drama TV for the most part *waves hand*, will doubtless fall prey to the absorbing formulaic plot and constant action, and end up watching the entire episode no matter how they try to get away during commercial breaks.  There were a lot of elements in this novel I'd definitely seen before in fantasy: lots of court politics (minus the king, who'd been murdered long ago), gossipy kitchen workers, Smelly Dungeons, and a Seemingly Ordinary Girl who in fact is an Innately Potent Magician and perhaps also a Lost Heir.  (If you're ever up for a laugh, read Diana Wynne Jones's Tough Guide to Fantasyland).

Yelena has spent the past year rotting away in a dungeon, awaiting her execution for the murder of a General's son.  A murder she does not even deny committing.  When Yelena is roughly wrenched from her prison at last, she expects to encounter the noose, but instead she is brought before Valek, the Commander's most expert and trusted ally.  Valek informs her that the Commander's previous food-taster has died, and by law, the next prisoner to be executed-- her-- must be offered the position.  Desperate to escape the noose, Yelena agrees.  She begins to train under Valek, for it seems there is more to being the Commander's official food-taster than taking a bite of his meals and waiting to see if she keels over.  Yelena learns the precise and deadly art of poisons and of physical combat, from a couple of friendly soldiers, even as the circumstances surrounding her crime are brought violently into the light by enemies of the Commandeer, including the father of the man she killed.  Meanwhile, Yelena cannot help but be drawn in by Valek.  Dangerous and unknowable as he is, she dares to believe that she has discovered a hidden kindness in this apparently cold and business-like assassin...

Yelena was an intelligent protagonist, and I really grew to like her despite the fact she tended to get in a hell of a lot of trouble every few minutes.  (Really, the woman broke a record for Most Injuries Received Over the Course of 400 Pages!)  Valek was my favorite character by far.  He was ninja, in a word.  I also loved how he showed that he cared for Yelena in very small ways at first-- so much that we were never quite sure he returned her equally subtle affections, but strongly suspected it.  I can't wait to read more about these two... must get Fire Study, the sequel.  There were a few plot twists I saw coming, and one I never would have guessed in a billion years.  Poison Study is a great read-- not the most unique fantasy ever, but a fascinating and very well-written one nevertheless. 

Cover: 4/5 (there are a ton of different covers-- I don't like this one the best, but it was the cheapest editon ;)
Premise: 4/5
Characters: 5/5
Story: 4/5
Overall Rating:
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