Books of 2015 (and my lengthy reviews)

Honestly, this is one of my favorite posts to write.  Mostly because I love reading other WP bloggers posts on the books they read.  You never know when you’re going to see a book on someone else’s review and think you should read it…then it changes your life.

This year I’ve read 23 books and 9,432 pages.  This is my second highest reading year since I got married (2010) in terms of books and pages.  I guess I found a lot of time to read this year!  My record is 26 books in 2014 and 11,003 pages in 2011.

Most of the books I read this year were published after the year 2000.  The oldest book I read was The Fellowship of the Ring published in 1954.

These are listed in chronological order with the first book being what I read in January and the last book I completed.

  1. Choices of One. By Timothy Zahn.  Like I mentioned in my review earlier this year – how fun that 2016 started with a Star Wars novel.  It seemed fitting, what with a new era of Star Wars dawning.  I won’t put a real review here since you can read the longer one in my previous post.  5/5 stars.
  2. Blood and Beauty: The Borgias. By Sarah Dunant.  I don’t know much about the Borgias and their lurid mark on history, so I enjoyed this introductory novel to their lives.  It ended too early in the game for me and I’m not sure if there’s going to be a second novel about their lives.  The part that was in there though, was delicious, fun, and I liked the slant she gave to the characters.  The only part that I was truly disappointed in was how little Dunant actually spent with the main man – Pope Rodrigo Borgia.  4/5 stars.
  3. Empress of the Seven Hills. By Kate Quinn.  Kate Quinn has taken over Philippa Gregory’s place in my heart for historical novels empress of the seven hillswith romance, backstabbing, and politics.  I love almost any book by her.  Though this was not as good as Mistress of Rome or Daughters of Rome, I still really enjoyed it.  What set it apart a little from her other novels is that there was a lot of the betrayal and backstabbing, but at its core, there was a lot about loyalty and growth.  This book also had a different ending from the others, where the antagonist did not get what was coming for her, but shocker, she is not disgraced and she lives!  All the main characters lives get turned upside down and nothing ends how you want it to.  It reminded me of ESB in that way…and I loved every moment.  I would recommend this book for people who are interested in Ancient Rome but don’t know much of its history.  4/5 stars
  4. Red Rising. By Pierce Brown.  Hmmm…what to say about this novel?  Being hailed as a new bestseller about the dystopian future, I found it to be a mashup of Hunger Games + Lord of the Flies + Ender’s Game.  In essence, a little off.  The biggest problem I had is that I couldn’t remember what was going on each time I picked it up.  It was the kind of book that is great when you’re sitting down for long periods of time (like a plane ride), but not great when you read bits and pieces before you go to bed each night.  I think it was because the characters weren’t really memorable, there were too many of them, and they changed constantly.  But the ending…the ending was good.  If you like endings that kind of piss you off, you might want to give this a shot.  3/5 stars.
  5. A Mad, Wicked Folly. By Sharon Biggs Waller.  Predictable, and I got bored half way through it.  It was a typical YA novel of a beautiful girl trapped in luxury and wanting to be part of a bigger cause (she becomes a suffragette).  These books can be written well, but this one spent a ridiculous amount of time on the love story.  The main female protagonist did not feel as strong because you could never tell if she was making decisions for herself or her love interest.  3/5 stars.
  6. Chalice.  By Robin McKinley.  Yaaaaaaaaawn.  I actually was really disappointed with this novel and I like a lot of McKinley’s work.  But Chalice was so boring and really dragged.  I can’t even really tell you what it’s about because nothing happened. It was almost entirely composed of flashbacks.  If you like books that do a lot of world building, then you will like this book.  I feel like 70% of it was world building and having you get to know the environment and understanding the demesne.  30% was actually storytelling and plot.  The ending didn’t make sense either.  Needless to say, I put down the book feeling really disappointed.  When I read other reviews by readers, it seems like people either love the book or hate it.  I was in the latter camp.  2/5 stars.
  7. Secrets of a Charmed Life. By Susan Meissner.  First book I read by Meissner this year and it turned me onto her as an author.  I loved this novel way more than I thought I would.  Meissner does a great job of twisting past and present into a story.  She weaves together the lives of two sisters, Emmy and Julia, their separation due to WWII, and the guilt that follows both of them for 20 years of their life.  It’s a harsh, real look of someone who has big dreams and those dreams are snatched away because of war.  But not only does Emmy never pursue those dreams again, but it’s interesting the way it becomes Julia’s dream instead.  This story completely engrossed me.  I thought the characters were very well written; there was suspense, heartache, and Meissner combined so many styles of writing that it kept me on my toes.  4/5 stars.
  8. The Name of the Wind & The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicles). By Patrick Rothfuss.  Two mega huge high fantasy novels, both really good.  The novels follow Kvothe, the main character who seems to be a hero from stories but has changed his name and is a solitary bartender in a backwoods town.  Both books are almost entirely flashbacks, but when we go back to the present, something interesting always happens – to the point that you know the present will be important, but first we need to find out how he got there.  These books are huge so they are not for the faint of heart.  They are not fast paced either, but everything that happens is intriguing.  The worst part of these novels?  THE THIRD BOOK ISN’T OUT YET.  And there’s no news on the release date either.  This is possibly the worst thing about reading great books that are part of an unfinished series…now I have to wait.  4-5/5 stars.
  9. A New Dawn. By John Jackson Miller.  You can read my review here, but in short, I liked getting the backstory of Kanan and Hera.  I didn’t like how there was not as much about Hera or from her point of view as I was hoping.  3/5 stars.
  10. In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart. By Ruth Graham.  Written by Billy Graham’s daughter, Ruth writes about her struggles and how not to judge others and use God as a rock to help you through.    I thought it would be better is all I’m saying.  2.5/5 stars.
  11. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.  By Cheryl Strayed.  No, I haven’t seen the movie and don’t plan to.  At wild PCT trailtimes, I really liked this book, but most of the time I was bored.  Maybe it’s just me, but the parts that rubbed me wrong on this book was how it felt like a lot of whining and complaining from Cheryl.  She had plenty of moments to get her act together prior to her marriage crumbling, doing drugs, and drifting apart from friends and family.  Instead, she hikes the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) with NO experience whatsoever with hopes that it will heal her.  The funny thing is – we sit with her throughout the entire trail, but never find out if the PCT really pieced her back together.  As soon as she’s done with the PCT, we’re basically done with the book, except for a small few paragraphs about the rest of her life.  And by rest of her life, I mean, she immediately jumps 5 years later.  That was the part I was most looking forward to…how did the PCT change her life afterwards?  I thought it was an essential piece of the puzzle and we only got a slight whiff of it.  It’s a great book for those who like those introspective, figuring-my-shit-out kind of books similar to Glass Castle or even Eat, Pray, Love.  It’s a horrible book for avid hikers who dream of hiking the PCT or have hiked the PCT.  3/5 stars.
  12. The Buried Giant. By Kazuo Ishiguro.  I thought I would love the storyline when I started out, but then the style of writing really got under my skin to the point that it made it hard to concentrate on the plot.  When I began the novel, the premise was so intriguing that I couldn’t wait to keep reading it the next night.  An elderly couple (when do you ever read about that in fantasy novels?) as the protagonists realize something is very strange in the fact that this “mist” keeps robbing their memories.  So they leave their village to find their son, meet up with a warrior, orphan boy, and the Sir Gawain (yes, that Gawain, from Arthur’s round table) and get entangled in their adventures, which is also somehow tied to the mist.  Premise sounds okay, right?  Well, the writing was deliberately old fashioned and halting with random stories thrown in here and there, that I couldn’t get as into it as I would have hoped.  I got bored or frustrated and wanted to give up.  I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t, because I thought the ending was quite touching, but it didn’t make up for the rest of the novel.  3/5 stars.
  13. Failed Moments.  By Robert Allen.  The author, Allen, contacted me over Goodreads and sent me a free copy of this book in order to write an honest review.  The novel basically asked the question, “If you could go back in time to do the right thing, would you do it?” And the novel asks you to believe we have multiple lives.  My main qualms with this book is that the endings of his different lives seemed so rushed compared to the fleshing out of the story in both instances.  They almost were anti-climactic because you could see the ending before it came.  Allen took a longer time developing his characters and giving us historical context with background, but the ending always flew by and then all of a sudden, he was back at the hotel. I kept getting jarred out of the novel at times, a feeling I don’t like.  Story was good, but a little bit more work could make it great.  3/5 stars.
  14. The American Heiress. By Daisy Goodwin.  I picked up this book because some of the story had to do with the lives of the rich and famous in Newport, RI…right down the road from me and I’ve visited the mansions quite a few times.  It’s a YA novel of a fictional wealth American girl whose mothers would try to find them matches in titled English aristocrats.  The English dukes and barons needed the money and the Americans loved the title it gave them.  In this book, she marries a duke and becomes a Duchess.  Though the characters weren’t that interesting (and sometimes their actions didn’t make sense), I loved the contrast between the American “fast money” and the English “old money” and the differences between their points of views on money.  3/5 stars.
  15. The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King. By J.R.R. Tolkien.  Do I even need to write a review?  These are some of my favorite books.  It had been years since I read them, mostly because I had built it into my head that they were so long, forgetting that the last time I read them was in college.  When you don’t have papers and other reading to do – these books go by quite fast.  It was fun to reread and see what had been changed from the movies.  5/5 stars.  All of them.
  16. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. By Marie Kondo.  If you know me, I’m obsessed with organizing, scheduling, and “whenlife changing magic of tidying up book in doubt, throw it out”.  This book made me realize there are crazier people than me.  Quite a relief, actually.  That said, I do recommend this book if you are lacking motivation to clean your house.  She make some good points, such as a) if it doesn’t bring you joy, throw it out; b) Sort by category, not by room (books, clothes, kitchen utensils); c)  don’t become obsessed with fancy organizers; d) make sure everything has it’s “place” in your house; d) the more you clean out your house and keep it just to what brings you joy, the happier and more transformative your life will be.  But I warned you – she is really cray cray sometimes.  4/5 stars.
  17. The Mistress of Spices. By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.  A novel about a woman transformed by magic and tasked with using her spices in a modern day San Francisco shop to help other people.  It took a while to get used to the way Ms. Divakaruni writes with run on AND fragmented sentences but it ended up being enjoyable once I got into the flow.  The magic was different from a fantasy novel, and I enjoyed that it was different from what I normally read.  But I wouldn’t read it again and I’m not sure I would recommend it either.  3/5 stars.
  18. A Cast of Stones. By Patrick W. Carr.  I haven’t done this in a long time, but the book I wanted hadn’t come into the library so I browsed the stacks until I found one that looked good.  And this is what I came up with.  (I should do that more often)  This was a stereotypical fantasy novel plot line.  An outsider protagonist (male, of course) with no hope for a future ends up on a quest where he does not know what is going on.  He’s hopeless in the beginning but slowly learns how to fight and think.  Ends up in a place where he takes a rest and rids himself of his inner demons, as well as becomes an amazing fighter.  Moves onward with his journey after the resting point and learns about love, betrayal, greed, etc., before finally coming to the place where he was supposed to end up in the beginning.  Once he’s there, he’s reunited with his friends, there’s a climactic battle, and he becomes the hero.  Yes, it was predictable.  But, yes, I also liked it.  The book appealed to my side of wanting to go off on a quest and feeling like an outsider.  Yet it also had more interesting subplots, which is what kept me reading this novel.  Such as the stones and reading them, and trying to find out if the group he was with was really on his side or just after their own ends.  Pros for me was there was not a lot of romance, there was fighting, and a sense of intrigue and mystery.  I believe this is the first novel in a set, but I’m not sure if I’d read any more.  I’m curious, but not curious enough.  3.8/5 stars.
  19. Four Sisters, All Queens. By Sherry Jones.  Funnily, this is the second book I read on the Provence sisters.  It’s not that I meant to, I just didn’t realize it was both on the same subject.  I almost gave up reading when I saw it was the same subject line as The Sister Queens by Sophie Perinot (read it in 2014).  Where I think that Perinot’s novel was stronger, I like how Jones’ novel went into all four sisters and their lives.  Perinot only focused on Marguerite and Eleanor, the two most famous sister queens.  I appreciated that Jones wrote about all the sisters and their dynamics.  Overall, I learned a lot and enjoyed it but Sherry Jones really shied away from writing dramatic events.  Just as the chapter got really good, it would end and switch to another point of view.  You’d then return to that same sister a year later.  A good book and I enjoyed learning about that era in history…I only wish she would not have shied away from the important details.  3/5 stars.
  20. Lady in Waiting. By Susan Meissner.  Second book by Meissner this year.  I’m not a fan of modern fiction but Meissner did such a superb job with intertwining a modern day Jane going through a rough separation and Lady Jane Grey’s history.  I didn’t think they would relate, but she did a good job.  The “life lessons” were a little shoved in my face (and that’s saying something for me) but I didn’t mind it because I liked the novel.  I would recommend this book to those who enjoy historical fiction but want something a little off the beaten path. 4/5 stars.

 

My favorite book of this year (other than the LotR trilogy) would probably be a tie between The Name of the Wind/Wise Man’s Fear and Secrets of a Charmed Life.  Nothing blew me away like 2014’s Ready Player One, but the Kingkiller Chronicles surprised me with their depth and layers.  Secrets of a Charmed Life had me crying at one point, but also filled me with joy.  It was a surprisingly, satisfying read and I look for that in novels.

There you have it!  2015 in books.  If you want to follow my reading all year round, you can come hang out with me on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/3910665-kiri

What was your favorite book of 2015?  Should I put it on my to-read list?

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Book Review: A New Dawn

a new dawn book cover

First of all, if anyone wants my copy of A New Dawn, I will gladly send it your way for free.  Yup, I’ll pay for shipping too.  If I’m not going to read a book again, I like to share the love and give it to someone else who may appreciate it.  And from there, I hope the book karma continues.

A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller follows the life of Kanan Jarrus and Hera Syndulla before they had formed the crew of Ghost as we know it in Star Wars Rebels.  The novel shows how they met and how they decided to stay together as a team.  Watching SWR, I always loved Kanan and Hera’s relationship.  They have a great friendship and my hope is that Disney does not take it in the direction of a romantic relationship only because I think that it’s so rare to see examples of male/female friendships on TV and in movies…so I love seeing this one that works.  And it works so well.

But how did it get to that point?  When did they first meet?  That’s what A New Dawn goes to show us.  The novel has its moments, and I enjoyed some of it, but there were parts that really bothered me as well.

**Spoiler Warning**

We start off by following Kanan and learning that he’s kind of this lone ranger guy (didn’t see that coming).  He works hard at very standard, physical jobs but doesn’t stick around in a place long enough to make lasting friends.  At one such job, there’s a man named Skelly, a former Clone Wars veteran who knows how to build explosives and understands the workings of the planet Cynda and the damage the Empire is doing to it by mining out thorilide.  Kanan realizes it’s finally time to start leaving this planet because he’s been there too long when the Empire starts showing a special interest in its raw material and sends Count Vidian (cue bad guy music) there to make use of it.  Skelly makes a mess of things and Kanan is forced to stick around a little longer than he would have liked, and by mistake, gets attached to Skelly as the story goes on.

Hera enters the story because she is already part of the Rebellion and they want her to find out what Count Vidian’s up to.  Now, it might not officially be the Rebellion yet, but let’s keep it at that for simplicity’s sake.  As she follows around Count Vidian, she inevitably meets up with Kanan and Skelly where they have a bunch of adventures trying to stop Vidian from destroying Cynda.  Skelly dies, as does Vidian (naturally), and Kanan and Hera go off and form a team together.  Though reluctant to have Kanan as her partner, as she also operates alone in missions, Hera does eventually give in and see the advantage of having Kanan with her due to his personality, ethics, and quick thinking in tight spots.  Having the Force probably helps too.

There’s the basic story.  My real thoughts are:

Pros:

  • Kanan and Hera’s relationship stayed strictly as friends. You can tell Kanan wants something more and finds her SloaneKananattractive, but Hera keeps him at a good distance.  Going into this novel, I was most worried about a romantic back story, but none of that happened.
  • A good amount of female characters. We see a female commanding officer of a Star Destroyer in the Empire: Captain Sloane.  There’s also Hera, Lal Grallik (a woman Besalisk manager who mines thorilide), and Zaluna, a Sullustan Imperial spy, but not by choice. She ends up turning on the Empire and helping out Kanan and Hera.  She was my favorite new character in the novel.  Oh yeah, and there are female stormtroopers. Not sure how I felt about that one as I’m not sure it makes sense.  I always assumed the Empire was largely misogynistic at that point in the timeline.
  • Weirdly, you kind of root for the Empire in a strange way towards the end. Miller does a good job at showing the reader that it’s not always cut and dry, good and bad.  When Sloane plays a part in stopping Count Vidian, despite all the promises he threw to her, you cheer for her even though you have a moment of, “Oh wait – but the Empire is bad.”
  • Kanan does a good job at hiding his abilities in the Force. I think as an author, it can be tempting when you have a character with “superpowers” to bring these into the story consistently.  If I remember correctly, Kanan only showed his Force abilities 3 times in the novel, and twice would make it seem questionable to an outsider.  The last time, he saves him and Hera from impending death (of course) and it makes her see him in a new light. Though the last instance was somewhat predictable, I didn’t mind as much because I knew it had to happen eventually.

Cons:

  • Not enough time with Hera. We did get into her point of view occasionally, but didn’t find out much about her background. There was a lot more of that with Kanan and I felt that though the author could have set out to make this a Kanan/Hera story equally, it felt like there was WAY more emphasis on Kanan.  So in the end, it was a male driven story.
  • The story line as a whole seemed like it was trying just a little too hard and playing a little too safe. Miller wanted to make it as Star Wars as possible, but instead it got boring at times and felt predictable. The plot was very convenient and set up in a way that things fell nicely into place.  He wrapped it up in a nice little box that says “Star War Novel”, when instead, the stories that stand out in the EU are the ones that broke new ground and gave us something different, but felt similar.
  • Speaking of predictable, the main nemesis, Count Vidian was not that interesting. I felt like he was General Grievous all over again.  Intelligent, cyborg-ish, and ruthless.    Whenever we were in his point of view, I realized I just didn’t care.

My main gripe with this book is that I wanted more Hera involvement.  I wanted to understand her character, what drove her to ANewDawnbe so passionate about getting rid of the Empire, and what her past was like.

The best thing out of this book is getting to know a lot more about Kanan and understanding that while the Empire is evil, there are some beings within it that make it even more evil.  And sometimes you have to pick between a lesser evil and greater evil, which was what happened at the end of the novel.  You may not be able to take out the entire Empire, but maybe taking out one horrible Count is enough of a small victory.

I’d give A New Dawn 3/5 stars.  It’s a solid book and there are parts of the novel that felt really Star Wars to me, but there were also quite a few times when I thought Miller was trying a little too hard.

Want to read this book?  Let me know.  I’ll mail it to you.

Friendship Shows Us Who We Really Are

I find that I’m really liking Star Wars Rebels.  One of the main reasons I think I love it so much is the camaraderie and friendships aboard the Ghost between all the crew members.  I love Kanan and Hera’s relationship, or more precisely: friendship.  Now, I haven’t read A New Dawn yet, but it’s sitting on my night table and is next in line once I’ve finished this epic fantasy series (for those of you who care, it’s The Kingkiller Chronicle).  So if I’m bringing something up that contradicts with the book, then I apologize.

I’ve gone into this a little bit with my “Not As Certain As Being Left Behind…” post from a year and a half ago, but I was re-thinking about friendship in Star Wars over SWCA.  The Star Wars movies are lacking some real, serious, admirable friendships.

Off the top of my head, this is what I can think of for friendships in the movies:

  1. Han and Chewie. Why it’s a bad example – Chewie has a life debt on Han.  Not that I don’t think their
    Tell me you kind of died of happiness inside when this happened. YEAH??

    Tell me you kind of died of happiness inside when this happened. YEAH??

    friendship is real or one of the best in the saga, but I don’t think their friendship stemmed from something organic.

  2. Han and Lando. Why it’s a bad example – Clearly, Lando betrayed Han.  But friendships go through rough patches, just like any relationship.  It just seems like Lando and Han were always uneasy around each other from the start.  Though I believe their friendship progressed further, we don’t really get to see it in the movies.
  3. Threepio and Artoo. Why it’s a bad example – they’re droids.  ’nuff said.
  4. Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan, Obi-Wan/Anakin, Anakin/Ahsoka. Why it’s a bad example – this is a little harder.  I have no doubt that a relationship with your Padawan breeds a great friendship.  But again, I guess I’m a little hesitant because it’s not that organic of a situation.  You are both placed together in a situation where you don’t have much of a choice.  You become friends in the way that I become friends with my co-workers…there’s no one else around, so might as well be friends with them.  And some of the friendships last a long time and are really sincere, but some are just situational.
  5. Padmé/Obi-Wan. Why it’s a bad example – I actually think this is the closest we have to a real friendship inobi wan padme Star Wars…with one tiny problem: The scenes that really exemplify her friendship with him were cut from Revenge of the Sith.  Unfortunately, a lot of the greatest Padmé scenes were cut from ROTS, but that’s a story for a different time.  I think if Padmé had lived, and if Padmé hadn’t been dealt the whole Anakin-is-her-secret-husband card, then her and Obi-Wan would have been the best example of a friendship within the movies.
  6. Anakin/Palpatine. Why it’s a bad example – Duh.  Well, at first I think it was a friendship of sorts, though Palpatine was clearly using and manipulating Anakin for his own ends.  But as soon as they became the two Sith, everything changed.  It was a relationship now based on fear, not anything sincere, that’s for sure.

the crew of the GhostBut with Star Wars Rebels, I love the crew of the Ghost because they all chose to stick together and become family.  I think it’s a great example of friendship in Star Wars.  They are all there by choice.  Every one of them can leave when they want but they choose to stay because this band of misfits are a solid group of friends that became a family.

More importantly, and I hope this never changes in the series, I love that Kanan and Hera’s friendship is not romantic.  If it was romantic at some point, then all the props to them because what’s even more amazing is that they were able to move past that and stay friends (I never figured that out with my ex’s. Ever. You break up with me and you’re dead to me.  See ya.).

But let’s suppose there was nothing romantic in their past.  It shows children, and all of us, that you can have a male/female friendship without romantic entanglements.  I think that’s missing heavily in our society.  We bombard children with ads, movies, books, and a lot of it is centered on something romantic.  Either male novels will be full of silliness that the male character gets in (ages 6-9ish) and then move toward action packed books where females play small roles (ages 10-15ish).  With female novels, it’s rare that I see a male female friendship.  Either the female is off on her own saving the world (with random love storylines thrown in) or it’s completely centered on a love story. This is not just the case with novels.  Turn on the Disney Channel or Cartoon Network and you’ll see something similar.

hera and kanan star wars rebels

Kanan and Hera show us that each can be a competent, unique person in their own right, with strengths and weaknesses, but also the ability to be best friends without falling for each other.  They are hanging out because they want to hang out, because of a situation that wasn’t forced upon them.  Not only is it so important for children to see, but I also think it’s a good reminder for us.

I really think Kanan and Hera’s friendship make the Star Wars universe a better place.