Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Book Review: Strange the Dreamer

Book Review: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor 

Goodreads Description: The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

My Review: Lazlo Strange is an orphan who has always dreamt of bigger things. Sarai is a godspawn with the ability to pass like a phantom through the dreams of others. Their paths eventually cross in the fabled city of Weep, which was once ruled by a handful of cruel gods who used the city’s people as their slaves. After a brutal uprising that left the city crippled, Weep’s greatest hero, the Godslayer, has traveled the world in search of the most brilliant minds to help save the city of Weep from what the Gods have left behind.  Lazlo joins up with the caravan, unsure of how to help but unwilling to miss the adventure of a lifetime, and they arrive at the city to find a monstrous problem, traumatized townsfolk searching for hope, and a secret tucked away within the city. Lazlo quickly discovers that though the gods may be gone, their offspring aren’t, when he meets Sarai one night in a dream. He wants to believe that there’s a way for them all to exist together—human and godspawn alike— but after so much blood shed on both sides, is the city big enough for humans and godspawn alike? And if not, will Sarai and the other godspawn be able to escape it alive? 

Where to start on a book like this. The only word that springs to mind when I think of this book is fantasy, as in this book embodies everything that I think of as fantasy: magic, creatures, immersive worldbuilding, creative mythologies, long histories that affect the current world, fresh cultures, wild dress and food, and with writing that anchors you in through the senses. Laini Taylor has the vocabulary and literary prowess to make this book play out very visually, and though she introduces many new creatures and cultures, her writing style makes it not only easy to visualize, but understand and relate to. This book reminded me of the movie Avatar in the way it creates an incredible world with an internal consistency that makes it hard to believe it’s not real. Even after the last page I find myself wanting to go back to this amazingly rich world. It can’t even be pinned down on one aspect of the world, but rather the tone of the world/book that whispers, “anything can happen here.”

It’s hard to find a lot of fault with Laini Taylor’s work as she’s a bit of a juggernaut when it comes to fantasy. The mystery in this book is really what seals in the tension, mainly the mystery of Weep, and I did feel a dramatic drop once this mystery is revealed at the mid-way point. At this time I did end up putting the book down for a couple weeks, but I was pulled back by that incredible world and beautiful writing. Unfortunately, I also wasn’t as enamoured with the love story in this book, which takes more of a precedent during the second half of the book. Lazlo and Sarai end up in a situation akin to “love at first sight,” and while the reasons for this happening make a lot of sense (Lazlo being the first person who can see Sarai in dreams and Sarai is attracted to being seen/validated, while Lazlo is falling in love with the magic of this world, which Sarai literally embodies), it still feels a bit forced/destined to be in a way that takes all the fun and mystery out of the romance. Perhaps I’m just getting old and jaded, as I’m sure this approach works well with teen audiences. Personally, I didn’t connect as strongly with the romance, and felt more sexual tension between Lazlo and Thyon Nero, Lazlo’s supposed rival. While I would have loved a romance between those two, we would have undoubtably gotten a very different book if it had gone in that direction.

One main concern I had with this book had to do with the climax. I’m not going to reveal any spoilers (I’m trying to get better about that!) but I will say that during the climax a major character is killed off and brought back to life as a ghost, under the control of one of the godspawn whose magic involves controlling ghosts against their will. This character is set up as having the same properties as when they were alive— can affect the physical world, seems to have a physical form that can be touched, etc. This raises questions for me as I feel like it strips the power away from death when main characters come back from the dead. As this took place right at the end of the book, we will have to wait for the sequel to see how this new ghost character affects the story. While the conflict in this scenario is great, I have some personal hang ups when it comes to ghost characters that make it hard to fully appreciate the ending. Due to these little things, I decided on four stars out of five. Though objectively I can’t point out any real problems, these personal preferences kept me from fully connecting with the book.

All in all, an incredibly rich fantasy with gorgeous prose and a mystery that sinks its teeth in you. Magic drips off these pages. It’s a book of fairy tales thick enough to break a librarian’s nose, and worth every page of it.

TL;DR: 4/5 stars. A richly delicious fantasy that drips magic and sinks its mystery deep into readers.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Book Review: My Own Devices

Book Review: My Own Devices by Dessa 

Goodreads Description: Dessa defies category--she is an academic with an international rap career; a lyrical writer fascinated by behavioral science; and a funny, charismatic performer dogged by blue moods and a perseverant case of heartache. In "The Fool That Bets Against Me," Dessa wonders if the romantic anguish that's helped her write so many sad songs might be an insurable professional asset. To find out, she applies to Geico for coverage. "A Ringing in the Ears" tells the story of her father building an airplane in their backyard garage--a task that took him almost seven years. The essay titled "Congratulations" reflects on recording a song for The Hamilton Mixtape in a Minneapolis basement, straining for a high note and hoping for a break. The last piece in the collection, "Call off Your Ghost," relays the fascinating project Dessa undertook with a team of neuroscientists that employed fMRI technology and neurofeedback to try to clinically excise her romantic feelings for an old flame. 

Her onstage and backstage stories are offset by her varied fascinations--she studies sign language, algebra, neuroanatomy--and this collection is a prism of her intellectual life. Her writing is infused with fascinating bits of science and sociology, philosophical insights, and an abiding tenderness for the people she tours with and the people she leaves behind to do it.

My Review: "But I didn't want to conceptualize myself as a quicksand pit of changing variables. I wanted something permanent, stolid-- a cinder block of self. Would I be the same me if I couldn't sing? Yes, I think so. But what if I forgot how to read, forgot my name, forgot that I like whiskey, forgot that red is my favorite color? What am I subtracting from? Is there some part that can't be ruined by violence, or time, or fatigue? Is there an apple core at the center that stays fixed?"

Rapper Dessa's first book, My Own Devices, is a series of nonfiction essays about life, love, music, science, and family. Through 17 different essays, Dessa gives us a glimpse of her life, from how she ended up as a rapper touring with a crew of guys, to recording a song for the creator of Hamilton, to writing to Geico to try and insure her broken heart. All the essays stand alone as well as build towards a greater story where Dessa takes on a project with neuroscientists to attempt to make herself fall out of love with her longstanding ex, referred to as X. 

At it's core, My Own Devices is a love story, beginning with how Dessa falls in love with X as well as rap, detailing their on-agains and off-agains, and ultimately leading her to attempt to 'reprogram' her brain to fall out of love. Throughout the book are stories of life on the road, family-- both blood and bandmates-- as well as science, philosophy, and a bit of dry humour to keep the pages crackling. Dessa has a wisdom to share that she presents quite eloquently. Any attempt I make to try and explain how beautifully written this book is fails in comparison next to the real thing. Dessa infuses just enough scientific tidbits and philosophical wonderings into her real life observations to make the book feel both deeply personal while it asks some big questions. 

The truly fascinating part of the book (IMHO) is the project Dessa takes on with a team of scientists to reprogram her brain to fall out of love with X, the man sprinkled throughout her life and essays. If you want to know the results, I highly suggest you read the book (spoilers!), but I will say the results may surprise you. Dessa isn't afraid to dig her talons into science and math to find real answers, but also writes science in a way that's enjoyable, engaging, and even funny at times. Her perspective on the intersection of science and art is also fascinating, and all of it is delivered in lyrical, easy to read prose. 

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. Eloquently written essays on life, science, family, music, and love infused with dry wit and sharp observations. 

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Reviews in Review 2018

Another year has gone past and another stack of books has been read. Every year I like to look back on the books I've read and the reviews I've written to see if feelings have changed, which books have staying power, and pick out my favourites and not-so-favourites. 2018 has not been my greatest reading year, but I fared better than previous years by getting to 17 books out of my goal of 25. I've had this goal for the past few years, which if you've been reading my blog you'll know I have yet to actually reach. I did better than in 2017 where I read 15 books, though just shy of 2016 where I read 19 books. And finally there was 2015, where I only got through 14 books. As always, I'm setting my goal for 25 again next year, and 2019 is going to be THE YEAR. YOU HEAR ME, UNIVERSE? I'M SERIOUSLY SERIOUS THIS TIME.

2018 saw a lot more contemporary novels about mental illness and gender identity. 10/17 of the books I read this year were review requests, either from publicists, publishers, or authors themselves. I tried to focus a little more on the books I picked out rather than requests, though obviously I was still leaning into the requests. My reading in 2019 will be more focused on fantasy and sci-fi, and I'm itching for books that feature diverse casts. But before we can focus on the future, let's take a look back at what really rocked or flopped this year.

Fabulously Freaky
Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter

I love, love, love this book! Though it was the first book I read in 2018, it has stuck out the hardest, mostly because of how creatively fantastical the story is. It's urban fantasy, so we're still set in the familiar, while being introduced to this wonderful world of magic that's based in Russian folklore and adapted to the modern age. The result feels original when held up against the usual werewolves, vampires, and demons of urban fantasy. I also love how surreal the story feels too; night is personified and has been kidnapped, and reality warps and changes in Babs Yagg's bedroom. It's a story of metaphors interwoven in metaphors like petals interlocking to form a rose. I love how this book pushed at the limits of the fantasy genre and brought fresh blood into a genre that tends to reheat the same story like never-ending leftovers. A lot of people seem to be put off by just how truly weird this book is, which makes me a little sad at times, but it's also understandable because this book is weird, the weirdest of weird, which is what makes it so good.

Biggest Let Down
Vengeful by VE Schwab

When I first started doing these Reviews in Review in 2015, I included Vicious on the list, the predecessor to this book, because I was blown away by it. It is still one of my all-time favourite books. I was so thrilled that there would be a sequel; I even got in on the pre-order campaign and swag contests. Then this book finally arrived in my mail and... it was not the book I asked for. I thought I was getting a sequel to Vicious, but in fact, Vengeful was more of a spin off, like hoping to get more seasons of "Friends" but instead ending up with "Joey," except 'Joey' is actually some rando character we've never met before who won't shut up about how amazing they are. I got to see some 'cameo' appearances of Victor (that's sure what it felt like) but it wasn't a sequel in the way I wanted it to be. I waited years for this book only to be given SOMEBODY ELSE'S STORY. I'm still angry about this and it's been a couple months since I've read it, so I have a feeling I'll be angry for a while. It's the ones you love that hurt you the most. And while I do love Schwab, this one hurt more than others.

Powerful Poignance
What I Leave Behind by Allison McGhee

What an incredibly beautiful book. I still find myself thinking about this book because of how much it nailed those emotional notes. The book is written in 100 chapters of 100 words long, and so every word has a very purposeful intent to it. The author gets across so much in so little time that it almost felt like the spaces between the words-- what wasn't being said instead of what was-- made the book feel so heavy. I think too I could really relate to Will's feelings of powerlessness in the face of tragedy, and the hope that comes when he starts to gain some control and autonomy over his life again. I just seriously want to hug this book all day long. It finds beauty and meaning in the details of living and uses it in impressive ways. 

Please Stop Writing For Children
Full Fusion by NJ Damschroder

Some books you read and wonder why the author ever decided to write for children. Full Fusion was definitely one of those books. At first, it appears to be like every other uncreative YA trope factory -- boring and flat characters, simple plots, ultimately a lack of tension outside of the romance, and filled with cliches-- but this book took it one step further by incorporating horrible messages throughout. There was a slew of anti-feminist and anti-woman messaging that seemed dangerous in a book aimed towards young girls. It also included the main character cheating on her boyfriend and then instantly being forgiven, and it was implied that cheating was okay since the MC and her love interest were "really in love" and "meant to be" etc, etc, cue barfing everywhere. If you're going to have a predictable piece of garbage, at least don't fill it full of toxic messages aimed at the vulnerable readers that make up your audience! This is one of those books that if I saw a kid reading it, I'd snatch it out of their hands and replace it with a GOOD angel romance story, like Unearthly. Ain't nobody got time for anti-feminist rhetoric. 

Set the Scene
The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

Historical novels can be difficult as there are so many facets of life that have changed over the years humans been around. It's easy to miss details or provide inaccurate ones, so historical fiction has always intimidated me. I'm impressed by the writers who can do it well and are able to transport readers across time. The Book of Negroes is one of those books that firmly plants you back into the 19th century and gives you a real sense for how people lived in worlds lost to us through time. Even a couple months later I'm really captivated by the settings and world-building that the author was able to get across. Little scenes like Aminata's wedding where they "jumped the broom" stood out as sweet and yet historically accurate, and allows the reader to see what living actually looked like in these environments. I wish I could bottle up this historical world-building, cause that shit is like fine wine. 

And there you have it! Another year of bad-ass books and overly long reviews to go with them. I hope you'll hang out for this year's round of reviews and discover which ones will be the stand outs for 2019. 

Here's to another year of good reads, y'all.