Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My 12 Favorite New Reads from 2013

To celebrate the end of the year, I've decided to feature a few of my favorite new reads from 2013. I've read a lot of awesome books over the last twelve months, but here are my twelve absolute favorites for the year.

Creator Class
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A smart, thought-provoking, and disturbingly plausible vision of the future that will forever color my view of the world as we know it.

Meaty Balls!
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Irreverent, charmingly offensive and awesome!

Fire Country (The Country Saga, #1)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fire Country is an outstanding, memorable story. I couldn't put it down.

Iron William and the Carpenter's Tears
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Great plot, well-researched, and above all, fun to read!

Heart of the Witch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A thrilling adventure.

Blue Hearts of Mars
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A tale of love in the face of injustice and fear.

The Ruthlessness of Cats and Dogs

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Humorous and suspenseful with a touch of romance.

The Kinshield Legacy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of those books that make me want to read everything from the author.

Eric Elmoor and The Gauntlet of Godric (Book 1)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fantastic fantasy, coming of age in a world torn between technology and tradition.

Train to Nowhere

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Outstanding! Train to Nowhere is YA Dystopian at its finest.

Finnegan's Quest

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Full length novel, but reads like a fable. Beautiful language use. Well edited.

City of Golden Shadow (Otherland, #1)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Surprising, complex, and insane...but I like it.

Want to see what else I read this year? Check out my 2013 year in books on Goodreads.

Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 A-Z Book Title Challenge

Today's topic is just for fun. This year I participated in a couple of reading challenges on Goodreads one of which being the A-Z Book Title Challenge. The goal was to read one book for each letter of the alphabet over the course of the year. My reading list developed from a combination of paperbacks I already had, but hadn't read for years, read for review books donated to me by the authors, books that looked so awesome I actually bought them, and freebees I found on Smashwords, B&N and Amazon.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Fantasy Review: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fantastic book.

The Golden Compass presents a world where humans are accompanied by an external manifestation of their souls. They call them daemons, which might bring to mind something sinister, but in this case they are not. They take on the form of animals, linked to the nature of their human companions, shifting between forms with the speed of thought until their humans reach puberty.

The world itself is similar to ours. Basically, it's portrayed as an alternate universe or alternate reality that could exist even now alongside our own. But in this reality we have the daemon companions, flying witches who live hundreds of years, and speaking bears who are fierce and proud. Yet even these fantastic things are presented in a way that they are believable within the world they inhabit.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Fiction Review: Valmont Sharp: Monster Hunter by David Raymond II

Valmont Sharp: Monster HunterValmont Sharp: Monster Hunter by David Raymond II
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great story, but needs some polishing.

Valmont Sharp: Monster Hunter is an easy read with plenty of excitement, danger, and adventure. I like the idea of the fake, real monster show, hiding true monster hunting behind special effects and showmanship. The young Chris Sharp, Valmont Sharp's son, is the main character, a bit of a surprise since the cover and title seemed to imply that Valmont would be the focus. The other characters are well fleshed out and interesting, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. I thought Chris's friends were cool and enjoyed their chatroom conversations. Valmont's inner circle is equally intriguing, especially the 30-year old suffering from a curse that ages him. And the enemies, ruthless and flawed. I won't go into any details there due to spoilers.

Those who are greatly annoyed by errors in a book might want to wait until most of the errors are addressed in a future edition. There are times the book reads like a Mad Libs game with random words in place of the ones the author most likely intended to use. Also, double words and repeated phrases pepper the work. Still, if your human autocorrect is strong and you don't mind putting it to work, I would definitely recommend this story.

I really liked this story, though it needs some serious editing and proofreading. I recommend this to folks who love a bit of adventure, battles against mystical forces, and a unique plot, particularly those who don't mind a bit of rough or missing editing.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Science Fiction Review: The Zondon by Robby Charters

The ZondonThe Zondon by Robby Charters
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good, well-researched sci fi.

The story opens with Ernie, an undermotivated guy whose twin outshines him. Growing up, Ernie experienced vivid dreams of space, a tomb in Egypt, and a multi-faceted glowing crystal. Now, when he and his brother get the opportunity to resume the exploration of a tomb their parents were forced to abandon before they were born, they jump on it, but Ernie begins to suspect he's been there before.

I found this to be an interesting book, with a good mix of real and fictional science, just enough to be plausible if not probable. As for the story, it's well-fleshed out and planned, and I didn't notice any plot holes. The origins of the aliens, both good and bad, and the tie in with the creation story,the dinosaurs, and the current events in the story are interesting and entertaining. The characters are from extremely different backgrounds, but their personalities, mannerisms and belief systems ring true, probably due to the author's research. This and the travel in the book makes this story appealing from a contemporary standpoint.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Fiction Review: Finnegan's Quest by Gloria Piper

Finnegan's QuestI was lucky to score a review opportunity for another of Gloria Piper's books on Goodreads at the end of November just as I was wrapping up my NaNoWriMo 2013 novel.

Occasionally, I'll volunteer as a back up reviewer for review rounds rather than participate in them directly, because it gives me some leeway to select books I am more likely to enjoy and helps someone out when their original reviewer can not complete their review. (For more about review groups, take a look at my Read for Reviews: Pros, Cons and Ettiquette post)

When I saw Gloria's post asking for help, I jumped right on it. I loved her Train to Nowhere, so I already knew I liked her writing style, but I wasn't exactly sure what to expect from this story. Train to Nowhere is a sci fi, dystopian; Finnegan's Quest is an allegorical coming of age story. But I must say, I wasn't disappointed. Read on for my review.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

YA Contemporary Review: Young Annabelle by Sarah Tork

Young Annabelle (Y.A, #1)Young Annabelle by Sarah Tork
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to admit that I really liked this book.

The story follows Annabelle, a slightly (very slightly in my opinion) overweight young girl whose self-image is under constant attack by her mother's obsession over thinning her down for her senior year. Though Annabelle wears only a size ten, her mother buys her clothes that are too small for her as incentive for her to lose weight, makes her wear a calorie tracking wristwatch, and makes her eat horribly unsatisfying foods in tiny quantities. Besides that, Annabelle's younger siblings are often brought in by their mother to gang up on Annabelle over her weight, making them disrespect their older sister and making Annabelle feel alone in a family who views her as less than worthy of their love and acceptance.

Already downtrodden, Annabelle finds herself in a thankless job selling lemonade at a country club. But that's when things get interesting. She meets a rather rude, but very hot boy named James who turns her life upside down. Her insecurities make her doubt everything he says, especially when he tells her she's beautiful, and she comes off pretty harsh at times. On the other hand, he's pretty self-absorbed and single minded, often coming off as a jerk.

Still, throughout the whole thing, I found myself rooting for Annabelle and James. His compliments and kinder moments seem to draw Annabelle out from the dark cloud her family has cast over her. As for Annabelle, she's a complex girl, and I totally get why she has so much trouble believing that James really likes her. I can't help but cringe when she lashes out at him, sometimes deserved, but not always.

Overall, I found Annabelle to be a relatable, insecure girl. Her rollercoaster of feelings, her struggle to please her parents, and her first encounters with a handsome boy who happens to like her are realistically portrayed if, at times, hard to take. I empathized with her and rooted for her, and even rooted for James, who had some good things going for him, too.

The story is well-layed out and well-written, though I did notice some errors sprinkled throughout, mostly words that sound like the right ones, but as spelled, don't mean what the author likely intended. The opening of the story starts at the end, not the end of this book, as I had expected, but likely the end of the series, or maybe even some way into the next book. The end leaves off at a cliffhanger kind of suddenly, and while it sets the stage for the next book, I would have liked some more resolution in this one.

Overall, I really liked Young Annabelle and would recommend it to fans of realistic, contemporary YA who enjoy reading about first loves, crazy parents, and troubled teens struggling to find themselves.

Although the author requested a review for this book earlier in the year, I found my copy on Smashwords during a free promotion.

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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Fantasy Review: The Kinshield Legacy by K.C. May

The Kinshield LegacyThe Kinshield Legacy by K.C. May
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of those books that makes me want to read everything from the author.

Let me start by saying I picked this book up mostly because it was free and because I needed a book title with a K for the A-Z reading challenge I'm playing along with this year. That being said, I was surprised to be drawn in immediately.

The hero is Gavin Kinshield, a bounty hunter or lawman for hire, who finds himself drawn to solving the Kings Runes. This is not something he desires. Instead, the runes and their solutions haunt him constantly, annoying him until he has no cure but solving another one. All this you get in the first chapter or so. After that, Gavin's character gets even more interesting. At first glance he's nothing one would consider kingly material, but the author slowly reveals there is more to him in a way that draws you in.

Another interesting character is the main female lead, a warrior called Daia, who has an interesting ability, a noble past, and a conflicted present. She finds herself alternately disgusted and impressed by him, an interesting thing in itself, and the banter between Daia and Gavin is both natural and amusing. She is also a member of an elite group of women called the Viragon Sisterhood, which battles otherwordly creatures called beyonders and hire out as protectors. This brings in another aspect I enjoyed, the portrayal of women as strong and capable.

But their prowess and strength are not enough to protect them from the evil sorcerer who seeks the rune solver for his own nefarious purpose, and they are caught up in the ever more intricate web that threatens not only Gavin, but also the entire country, for Brodas Ravenkind as king would be worse than no king at all. As the evil villain, Brodas is both despicable and powerful, scary and charismatic. Certain chapters are told from his perspective, which reveals just how awful he truly is. I loved it!

Another thing I loved about this book was the history that is revealed as the story progresses. Gavin's personal history and the Kinshield legacy, for which the book is named, are fascinating and are built slowly to allow the reader a chance to guess at what more there may be. But it is not only Gavin with a noteworthy past, Daia, Brodas, a young warrior woman Brawna, and the Farthans, Artlet and Risen Stronghammer, have their own stories to tell, all of which lead to a satisfyingly rich cast of characters with believable motivations.

As for the quality of the book itself, Kinshield Legacy is smoothly told and well-edited. It's a well polished product that I feel confident recommending to others.

Overall, I loved this book and feel it is worth reading again. I highly recommend it to folks who love adventure, fantasy, and a complex (but not overwhelming) plot. The story is just the right size, the writing is solid, and the experience is worth repeating.

I want to read the next books in the series, though the print copies run a little high for my taste. Still, as stories I'll likely re-read, the investment in paper may be worth it. Plus, I want my husband to read them, and he's not fond of e-readers. I'll probably read them all in ebook before getting the print copies.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Nonfiction Review: The Weaponless Warriors by Richard Kim

The Weaponless WarriorsThe Weaponless Warriors by Richard Kim
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love this! I've been practicing karate for a few years and know some of the related history, but this book really brings it to life. It's a mix of history and anecdotal stories of those who contributed to karate as we know it today.

Also included are photographs of several of the more recent masters and of students performing various katas (forms). Although it was interesting to look through these, I didn't find the kata photos easy to follow. They weren't numbered or captioned, and without already knowing them, I couldn't figure out what order the moves would be performed in.

I spent considerable time looking for Tatsuo Shimabuku in the geneologies, but I think they linked him in with his brother. He is the founder of Isshinryu Karate, the style that I follow, and his teachers are mentioned in the book and in a couple of cases, Choki Motobu and Miyagi Chojun, have chapters devoted to them. I also saw an Angi Uesu listed. In the binder my sensei gave me there is an Angi Uezu, and I wonder if it is the same person. If so, it's pretty cool, because he was at one point my teacher's teacher. Reading back through the geneologies and following the stories and legends all the way down to names I recognize is one of the things that I enjoyed most. It makes me feel a part of something bigger than myself.

Besides the historical value, though, the stories themselves are fantastic. The ones featuring Bushi Matsumura are larger than life, especially the one about how he earned the title Bushi, but the story about how he tried to determine whether he was a better fighter than his wife was also amusing. So, basically, this isn't just history and facts. There is entertainment value as well.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to people who practice Karate, who enjoy historical stories and legends, or who are interested in martial arts in general. I was happy to receive this book on loan from my sensei and now that I've written my review I will reluctantly return it.

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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Epic Fantasy Review: The Dragon Reborn (The Wheel of Time #3) by Robert Jordan

The Dragon Reborn (Wheel of Time, #3)The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fantastic read, previously rated 4 stars, I had to up it to 5 after this go through.

Let me start by saying I love this series. Ok, now that that's out of the way, let me tell you why I love The Dragon Reborn. For me, there are three main draws: Mat gets interesting, Perrin gets wolfish, and Elayne, Nynaeve and Egwene get into trouble. Oh, and don't even let me get started on the Aiel. Love the Aiel!

Mat has to be my favorite character in this series. He's the reluctant hero, the rogue. He's always been lucky and cocky, but in The Dragon Reborn, his luck starts going wild. He can't lose at games of chance and piles up an enormous wealth in a short time. But he's also caught in the Amyrlin's web. As the sounder of the Horn of Valere and as ta'veren, he finds his options limited more than most, but then again, his supernatural luck and the pull of the Dragon Reborn himself ensure that Mat does not stay caught for long.

Perrin, the quiet thinker among Rand's friends gets more of a spotlight in this book and he struggles against the call of the wolves, both in the waking and dreaming worlds. As he learns what little there is to know about his strange affinity to them, he begins to fear that he may lose himself entirely and actually become a wolf, in mind if not in body. This is also the book where the symbolic premonitions of Min concerning Perrin begin to become more clear. I won't go into any more details about that, but I will say it makes for an interesting read.

Meanwhile, Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve have returned to the White Tower in disgrace, everyone having thought they'd just run off. But despite spending a good deal of their days elbows deep in dishwater, the three find themselves on a dangerous quest, assigned by the Amyrlin herself. But they are, after all, still in training and they are ill equiped for the magnitude of their endeavor. A chance meeting with the Aiel brings a new element into their story and introduces Aviendha, one of my favorite female characters after Nynaeve.

And that brings us to the Aiel. In the books leading up to this one it is heavily hinted that Rand is Aiel, but who are they? The Dragon Reborn begins to answer that question, as the main heroes and heroines encounter various Aiel who are searching for He who Comes with the Dawn well beyond the borders of their own Three Fold Land (known as the Aiel Waste by most). One of my favorite things about the Aiel, besides their awesome fighting skills, is the mix between a fatalistic world view coupled with a quirky sense of humor, which most of them seem to share.

Another thing I love about this book is how prophecy, luck, coincidence, or maybe all three, conspire to draw all of the major players and threads into one massively satisfying battle royale.

Overall, a fantastic addition to the series. I highly recommend it to fans of the epic fantasy genre, especially those who enjoyed the first two in this series. Of course, those who like a book to get to the point without a lot of description or side plots may not find this series to their taste, so keep that in mind.

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Epic Fantasy Review: The Great Hunt (Wheel of Time #2) by Robert Jordan

The Great Hunt (Wheel of Time, #2)The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fantastic second installment in Robert Jordan's epic fantasy series, The Wheel of Time.

For this series, I reread all the books each time a new one is released (and sometimes for no reason at all), so I can say I've read this quite a few times over the last decade. Guess what, it's still an awesome read, even more so because I now recognize the scope of Robert Jordan's planning and forshadowing. You won't find any plot holes in this story. Even the most inane tidbit of lore or history seems to have a place in the greater scheme of things. Min's readings are much more meaningful than they seemed in the first couple of readings. All the random seeming symbols, including the ones she doesn't understand, are quite revealing to one who's read most of the other books. I can already see that I'll have to read these through again even after finishing the last book.

One of the most interesting tools of forshadowing and character development in The Great Hunt are the trips through the portal stones. During the final trip, in particular, insight is gained into all the possible outcomes Rand's life could have taken, and even the most ideal end in tragedy. With all these other possibilities. It makes you wonder just how bad his current path will be, the one where he is fulfilling his destiny. It's one of my favorite parts of the book.

Another contribution to character development is Egwene's interaction with the Seanchan. Much of the book is devoted to their attempts to break her. What she gains from the experience is the confidence and determination to be her own person, to never again allow anyone else to determine her path. It doesn't completely change her, but it sets the stage for some very interesting turns in her personality and outlook in future books.

Besides all of this, the threads of complexity become ever more dense as the book progresses, though it may not be so obvious on a first read. I'm seeing things introduced in this one that won't be put into play until book ten or later. It's quite fun to pick them out now, but the first time through they were woven into the story seemlessly. Interesting, but not distracting.

Another favorite thing about this book is the introduction of Daes Daemar, or the game of houses. When Rand and his companions find themselves in Cairhien, he discovers the locals have an unhealthy love of intrigue. To them, every spoken word, deed or nuance must mean something else, and they are quite interested in this mysterious Andoran Lord who has arrived in their city. Rand's frustration as progressively more powerful noble houses send him invitations is humorous. Refusing them makes no difference. Burning them unread doesn't either. It is a valuable lesson in managing the irrational and manipulating the powerful, though his first attempts at doing so are mostly successful by accident.

As far as the read goes, it's an easy one, but due to the size of this book and the greater series it's a part of, it takes a significant investment in time to get through the whole thing. Of course, as someone who normally devours a book in days, I like that this one can keep me entertained for weeks.

Overall, I loved this story as much as or possibly even more than the first time I read it. The story is rich and complex, the people and places fleshed out and believable. I highly recommend this book to fans of epic length fantasy, magic and strong female characters.

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