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: Choices of One

I like that I started 2015 off with a Star Wars novel.  I find that somehow fitting, seeing as this year is going to be a huge Star Wars year, what with the amping up of The Force Awakens.

Mei-Mei suggested Choices of One (by Timothy Zahn) to me almost 1 years ago in a random post, and Null definitely mentioned it as well…so thanks to you both – it somehow ended up on my reading list!  What makes it choices of oneso spectacular that it’s my first book of 2015 is that I have a reading list that ranges anywhere from 30-40 books on it at a time and I use random.org to pick the book I read next.  I had 34 books on my list, therefore giving me a 3% chance of actually getting this novel.  Anyway, I found that interesting because I’m looking for reasons that 2015 is going to be awesome and Star Wars filled.

I liked this novel SO much better than my last Legends book (still trying not to write EU), Dawn of the Jedi.  Which is funny, because if I think about what I’m looking for in a Star Wars novel it’s generally something that happens either way before the movies or way after the movies and therefore has no connection to the main characters.  Instead, Choices of One takes place between ANH and ESB and involves the three main heroes as well.

The first third of the book was boring for me.  I struggled with getting into it and found the character interactions between Han, Leia, and Luke to be halting and didn’t flow naturally.  On the flip side, I enjoyed the scenes with the commanders on the Star Destroyer and the scenes with Mara Jade…they kept me reading when I wanted to give up.  I forgot how much I missed reading about Mara.  Though loyal to the Empire and the Emperor at this point, there are still glimpses of the woman we will see her become through her relationship with Luke.

As the novel went on, I thought our three heroes began to find their groove and Zahn did a better job of reflecting what we saw from their characters in the movie onto his paper.  Particularly, I thought he did an amazing job with Luke.  At this point, Luke is not as serious or knowledgeable of the Force as he is by the end of the OT.  He brought to life a struggle Luke had with everyone thinking he is a competent Jedi just because he has a lightsaber and blew up the Death Star, contrasted with how he feels that he knows absolutely nothing except the small training from Ben Kenobi.  I loved reading it and found it weirdly relatable as it can happen to many of us, especially if we start a new job.

When the novel started to all come together toward the end and we find out that Mara, the Hand of Judgment (a group of stormtrooper deserters), and the Rebels are all going to be at the same planet at the same time, I got a little nervous.  I was afraid of Luke and Mara having an interaction pre-Heir to the Empire and I wasn’t sure how I’d handle that.  Thankfully, Zahn threw them in a situation together where they actually do not have a conversation and only briefly glimpse each other.  It’s hard to say too much without spoiling the novel for anyone that wants to read it, but suffice it to say that my fears were unwarranted.

Pros:

  • Overall, Zahn did a good job with keeping the three heroes true to form with personality quirks and attitudes.
  • I liked that there were a lot of larger issues and questions that were brought to life and made you think. For instance, Han’s moral struggles at the end of the novel when he is incognito as an Imperial Officer.  He faced a decisions where he did not have to help the Imperials in their emergency situation and they would all die, which is a benefit to the Rebel cause, or he could help them because in a sense they were a ship full of innocent people facing a common enemy.
  • Null would be happy about this: I actually really, really enjoyed all chapters that had to do with the back cover choices of oneHand of Judgment, a band of deserter stormtroopers who are this murky shade of grey. Are they good or bad?  I loved reading personalities!  In stormtroopers!  Mind blown.  But seriously, that was something I didn’t expect to like so much and I’m actually considering adding Allegiance to my book list because of how much I enjoyed them.
  • It was great revisiting Thrawn and Mara Jade again (though separately). I was afraid of overkill on Thrawn, but he was written in there just enough that there was no overload.
  • My favorite chapters/sections to read was actually Commander Pellaeon’s storyline on the Star Destroyer Chimaera. I loved how he wanted to take everything one step further on his job and showed that there was competency within the Empire.
  • I liked the setup it played between ANH and ESB. For instance, the relationship and conversations Han has with General Rieekan explains more of ESB.  Little moments like that were a nice touch.

Cons:

  • The first third of the book dragged. I couldn’t get into it and was frustrated whenever I had to read chapters with the three heroes.  I felt like it took a while for Zahn to get into the groove of depicting them well, but it could also have been my resistance to actually reading them.
  • It was easily guessable. Don’t go into this novel actually hoping for a surprise at the end.  This is mara jade choices of oneno Game of Thrones and I had figured everything out by the halfway point.  Still, there’s something to be said that I kept reading even if I pretty much knew what was going to happen.
  • Is it just me or was Mara a little less harsh in this book? This could very well just be me since I haven’t read the original Thrawn Trilogy in 10+ years, but I have a distinct memory of her being a little less reasonable.
  • The Luke/Mara scene where they almost-meet-but-not-quite seems a liiiiiitle far-fetched. I was obviously happy they didn’t meet but it still seemed slightly unbelievable.  I also thought it out of character for Mara to just brush aside the name “Skywalker” that she references Vader was obsessively hunting.  I feel like Mara would have done a more thorough investigation on who he is if the name linked to someone Vader was searching for.

Overall, I was much happier with this novel than with Dawn of the Jedi.  It showed that I can read Legends books with the main characters and not give up entirely.  I would rate this 3.5/5 stars.  I liked it more than average, but I couldn’t love it enough to give it 4 stars.

Book Review: Dawn of the Jedi

It’s highly entertaining to me that while I was reading the first EU book in over 10 years, LFL announces that all of the EU is now referred to as “Legends” and no longer canon.  It kind of seems like a waste of my time to try to fulfill my resolution of reading one EU book per year.  Should I forget about the previous books and move forward as LFL moves forward with novels?  Or should I continue to read the books of the past?

Aw, shucks that’s a hard decision!

I’m kidding.  Of course I’ll read EU books before they were “Legends”.  As long as they’re good.

But, you know, I don’t read EU books.  I’ve discussed it many times on my blog, but this past experience was a heavy reminder of why I don’t read them.

Because this one sucked.  Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh.  I hate to say any author’s hard work “sucked” because they put a lot of time and effort into it…but LFL: Please don’t let Tim Lebbon write anymore Star Wars novels!

I chose Dawn of the Jedi: Into the Void because they had a sample of the first chapter in a Star Wars Insider last year.  I really, really liked the chapter and figured the rest of the book would be the same.  Plus, it’s about Jedi, my favorite!  Originally it was a comic book that was adapted to a novel, so I’m hoping that explains away the reasons I didn’t like it, but I don’t believe that’s the case.

*Spoilers below*

dawn of the jediIn a nutshell: This is not exactly an “origin” story of the Jedi, per se, like I was hoping for.  Instead, it was more of a sampling of the history of the Jedi, more than 25,000 BBY.  They live on a planet called Tython where there are nine temples.  In order to become a Je’daii, you need to travel between each of the temples to gain a well-rounded skill set to become a Master.  I had to look some of that up on Wookiepedia because all I remember was that there was a lot of traveling and temples.

The story focuses on a young Je’daii Ranger named Lanoree Brock, who is tasked with the mission to stop her brother, Dalien Brock (who was thought to be dead), from activating a hypergate.

The story goes between flashbacks of growing up with Dalien and trying to force him into being a Je’daii like herself and the real time of her mission to find him.  While on her mission, she meets up with a Twi’lek named Tre Sana who helps her.

Yup.  That’s the gist of it. Lots of plot. 😉

Pros:

  • Lanoree actually kills her brother at the end of the novel.  I know, strange that this is a pro.  But the whole novel is leading up to this climatic confrontation and you think she is going to “save” him from himself.  Possibly see him regret his actions and become a better person.  But nope, he remains foolhardy (I say foolhardy because he wasn’t necessarily “evil”) until the end of the novel where she has to kill him.
  • We get to see the Jedi as an organization years and years before the Prequels. Before they had lightsabers, they had swords.  They did everything lightsabers do, but were swords instead.  Not much detail on how they made the swords to have the exact same properties as lightsabers, though.
  • The novel was centered around a female protagonist.  Lanoree is practically a robot and it’s hard to feel supportive for her, but at least the main character is a female.  She is a Je’daii who can kick some serious butt and leads the story.  I always like to see books that are written entirely from a female perspective.
  • I learned that Sith were a species before they were the antithesis of the Jedi.  It was really confusing at first to be reading about Lanoree walking by Sith and not freaking out.

Cons:

  • My main problem with this novel was that I never felt attachment to any of the characters.  Lanoree is not a very likeable character lanoree brockand her brother is just annoying, not really evil.  The closest I felt for any character was Tre Sana, but even he was kind of wooden and non-likeable.  I like feeling for characters, rooting for them, and when I put the book down, I want to feel like they were my friends and I have invested my emotions into them.  I want to feel sad when someone dies (or almost dies? It wasn’t entirely clear) as was the case with Tre Sana.  Instead, I felt nothing when he died and thought the way it was written was very strange.
  • The juxtaposition between flashbacks and real time also created a very jarring novel.  I’ve read that style before, and I know it can be done well, but in this case, it made it a lot harder to read.  Lebbon seemed to want to write a fantasy novel during the flashbacks and a science fiction novel in real time.  It seemed like he was trying to mix two genres together and I wasn’t having it.   They never really matched up.  Tython and the Je’daii were the fantasy realm, whereas Lanoree’s mission with Tre Sana was sci-fi.  When Lanoree and Dalien were traveling to the different temples together (flashback) they encountered fantastical beasts, complete with beasts that could withstand the Force.  That’s fine if beasts can withstand the Force, I remember reading of such in Heir to the Empire, but by the time we got to them, it felt like the author was running out of ideas for suspense.
  • I never understood the connection Lanoree felt for her brother.  There were never any flashbacks that gave us the siblings being in tune with each other and completely loving each other.  Each flashback had a sullen, hateful Dalien, and a Lanoree who tried to push her ideals and training of the Force down his throat.  So where was this supposed connection and love coming from?  Was it just the whole “blood is thicker than water” thing?
  • The writing was horrible and there was very little actual plot.  I felt like I was reading an airport novel.  It consistently left chapters on bad cliffhangers that didn’t make me want to turn the page.  The dialogue was bland, and though there was a lot of action packed into the pages…it felt like nothing really happened.

Okay, there was more than just these points, but I feel like I would end up complaining way too much.  I think I had high hopes for this book since I liked the excerpt from Insider so much.  It’s never good when you have high hopes, because then you are bound to be disappointed.

I gave this book 2/5 stars on Goodreads because it wasn’t HORRIBLE.  But it was forgettable and it sums up why I stopped reading EU books in the first place.  When you get a bad Star Wars EU book, it’s pretty bad.

However, I’ve had some suggestions from Mei-Mei recommending Choices of One and Null recommended Darth Plagueis, and I’ve heard good things about both.  Maybe I should just start at the beginning and read the Thrawn Trilogy again…I think it’s been enough time to revisit them.

Anyone have any other suggestions?