Read Me

Periodically I like to share thoughts about books I’ve read and enjoyed so that you might consider reading and enjoying them too.

In no particular order, some recent favorites:

The Girl from Everywhere, by Heidi Heilig

This one caught me up with its premise (what if a girl lived on a time-traveling pirate ship and her father was obsessed with finding a map that would take him back to the moment before his wife died giving birth to her?). It pulled me in with wonderful characters and a fast-paced plot. Plus, the idea that an authentic map could take you anywhere (real or mythological) struck me as extremely cool. I think what I liked best about this book, though, was the balance Heilig managed between the fantastical elements and the more prosaic (but no less interesting) emotions and dynamics that exist within a family.

The Paradox Trilogy by Rachel Bach

This series hit every single one of my buttons. Totally fantastic, kick-ass female protagonist? Yes. Gripping plot? Check. Character-driven science fiction? You bet. I tore through these books (Fortune’s Pawn, Honor’s Knight, and Heaven’s Queen) in about a week. Bach’s protagonist, Devi, is a mercenary with ambition and recklessness to spare. That combination gets her into some unbelievable scrapes and watching her negotiate them is a delight. Bach writes action better than almost anyone else I’ve read. If you’re looking for a fun, exciting sf adventure, this series will not disappoint.

The Cold Between by Elizabeth Bonesteel

This standalone (which will become part of a series, I believe), is a lot of things. It’s a murder mystery. It’s a romance (and a pretty hot one at that). It’s a space opera. At its heart, though, I think what makes this book work is that it’s first and foremost a character study. How do different people react and respond to pressure from their personal relationships and from external (and pretty traumatic) events? How do those twin pressures intertwine and inform each other? The answers to these questions are sometimes tragic, sometimes surprising, and always interesting.

 

Book Review: Geekomancy

Geekomancy by Michael Underwood (Urban Fantasy, 2013, 284 pages).

Geekomancy pitches itself as Clerks meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This description isn’t too wide of the mark, and that is a glorious thing.

Imagine a world just like ours, except that all the genre stuff we geeks squee over (from Firefly right on down to D & D) is real. Want to fight like Buffy? Well, if you’re a genremancer, all you have to do is watch a lot episodes and you’ll be able to magically channel the Buffster – badass moves, cutting snark, and all.

Wish light sabers were real? If you have the right kind of magic — and belief — they damn well are. Secretly believe that there are Druids, and Steampunk heroes displaced in time, and trolls, and psychic paper? In Geekomancy, they’re all real, real, real.

The plot of Geekomancy revolves around a barista named Ree Reyes. While Ree is your nothing-average-about-her geek girl, her existence is pretty mundane. Until, that is, a man named Eastwood blows some trolls up in the alley behind her cafe, ushering Ree into the thrilling (and often perilous) world of magic. Eastwood enlists Ree’s help in solving a series of teen suicides with a supernatural twist and things only get crazier from there.

Geekomancy is a fun read. The pacey story isn’t the only draw, either. Testing your own geek cred against the rapid-fire genre references is just as addictive as the it-ain’t-always-black-and-white plot. The narrative wraps up with a satisfying resolution but leaves the door cracked wide enough open for what will hopefully be several sequels (there is currently a book 2, Celebromancy).

In short, if you’re looking for a quirky distraction from all the holiday festivities and family fun, and if you’re a true genre-loving nerd, Geekomancy was written for you.

Book Review: The Night Circus

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Fantasy. 2012. 528 pages)

The circus is open only at night.  It arrives without warning and is gone again just as quickly.  It is a circus of dreams, of fantasies beyond imagining.  To its spellbound visitors, the Night Circus seems magical.  This is because it is.  Literally.

Morgenstern’s debut novel (and may I just pause here and let my mind boggle at the fact that such a complexly interwoven, beautifully written book is a freshman effort) tells the story of two young magicians locked in a battle of illusions.  The Night Circus is their stage and the stakes are higher than either of them realize or can imagine.  Beyond this, though, the book tells the story of the circus itself — of the performers who call it home, the people who created it, and the visitors who love it.  This tale is whole, round, and complete.

We meet the protagonists, Celia and Marco, in their childhood, when they are apprenticed to two of the world’s most powerful and jaded magicians.  We see their training at the hands of their respective masters, cold and calculating, and are given glimpses of the incredible circus they will help create.  The story is revealed not linearly, but in swoops and arcs that circle back endless on one another.  The opening chapters of the book are instantly compelling — Morgenstern has a true gift for painting pictures with words and the world she builds is one the reader (or at least this reader) will find themselves almost desperate to spend time in.

Then, finally, we watch as the Night Circus itself takes shape.  Celia and Marco — still strangers to one another — create illusions within the circus.  Each illusion is an entry in their decades-long competition.  The things they create are fantastic.  Breathtaking.  Heartbreaking.  And soon they become love letters between the two young magicians.

As the stakes in their contest are gradually revealed — and the consequences to everyone involved in the Night Circus itself are unveiled — Celia and Marco search for a way to escape the cruel destiny their masters have planned for them.  I will not spoil things by revealing whether they succeed or fail.  I will merely say that the denouement is well worth waiting for.

The Night Circus not only tells a beautiful tale — at once sad and joyous — it also tells it with language as gorgeous as it is compelling.  Erin Morgenstern’s novel is not only about magic, it is magic.

Favorites of 2012, in no particular order

2012 is almost behind us (thank every star in the sky!), so I thought it was an apt time to do a list of favorite things from the past year.  Here are some books, movies, and music I recommend (in no particular order)…

Books

Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams.  This nonfiction gem is part travelogue, part history, part humor, and 100% delightful.  The book follows the efforts of the author to retrace the steps of the “discoverer” of Machu Picchu, Hiram Bingham III. His journey takes him on strange paths, both real (through jungle, mountains, and beyond) and historical. My favorite nonfiction this year.

Valkyrie Rising by Ingrid Paulson.  This YA fantasy is about an American teenager who discovers her Norwegian heritage on a summer trip to visit her preternaturally young grandmother.  With a likeable protagonist, beautiful setting, and realistic romance, this one pretty much captivated me from the start.  The book jacket sums the story up better than I ever could: “Deadly legends, hidden identities, and tentative romance swirl together in one girl’s unexpectedly epic coming-of-age.”

City of the Lost by Stephen Blackmoore.  A noir fantasy set in modern day Los Angeles, City of the Lost takes the recent zombie craze in an unexpected (and awesome) direction.  Ride along with the book’s antihero as he struggles to find out why he’s suddenly gone from alive to undead and how he can fix his problem before he eats another hooker.  Yup, you read that right.  Funny, but (obviously) dark too.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor.  This is probably one of the best things I read all year.  Vividly imagined, beautifully written, and utterly gripping, Daughter of Smoke and Bone tells the story of a devil who fell in love with an angel.  What more can you ask for?  Read this one right away.

Necromancer Chronicles by Amanda Downum.  This trilogy includes The Drowning City, Kingdoms of Dust, and The Bone Palace.  All follow the (mis)adventures of necromancer Isyllt Iskaldur.  Dark, brooding, unexpected, and beautiful.  Best fantasy I’ve read in a long time.

Movies

I saw very few movies in 2012 that I liked well enough to recommend, let alone remember long enough to want to put them on this list.  In fact, there are just two:

Safety Not Guaranteed.  This little charmer tells the story of a depressed, cynical magazine intern who goes undercover to do a story on a man who has put out an ad seeking a companion with whom he can travel through time.  It sounds predictable to suggest that, as a consequence, her life will never be the same…and this movie is anything but.  Safety Not Guaranteed made me happier than I can say.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.  So, yes, this movie is about the end of the world, which seems depressing.  And to claim I didn’t cry would be the fattest of lies.  Still, I wouldn’t call a movie about two unhappy people discovereing that life is worth living (even if they won’t live for long) a downer.  Loved this one, a lot.

Music

I “discovered” a few new bands this year, much to my delight.  Some of these you all probably know, but maybe some are new to you too.  Hope you enjoy them.

fun.  Their first album, Some Nights, is full of great, anthem-y songs, like this one: Carry On.  I had a kind of rough year, and fun.’s music always makes me feel happy.

Brandie Carlile  Her latest album (Bear Creek) is lovely, singer-songwriter stuff.  She has a pretty, throaty voice that’s both soothing and moving.

Of Monsters and Men.  This Icelandic band sounds just like you might imagine a group of hipsters from Iceland would (read: kooky and twee).  Here’s a video of them performing one of their bigger hits Little Talks.

And, that’s it!  What stuff did you LOVE in 2012?  Please share your favorites in the comments!

Book Review: Marianna

Marianna by Susanna Kearsley (Fiction. 384 pages. 2012)

Marianna starts with a girl and a beautiful, creaky old house in the English countryside and it ends with a love story spanning more than 500 years.  This is a very particular type of novel, in which two stories are told in an interleaved fashion — one set in the present and one in the past.  In this case, the stories belong to modern day illustrator Julia Beckett and the titular 17th century Marianna Farr.

And, of course, they’re linked (in ways I don’t want to reveal lest I spoil the delights of the novel).  These delights (and, yes, surprises) are many.  In fact, this is one of the first books I’ve read in awhile where I really didn’t see the end coming.  I even felt compelled to go back and reread the novel to ferret out all the clues I’d missed the first time around.

While Marianna holds a twist, much of the novel reads like a meandering stroll through the English countryside on a particularly fine day.  It’s pleasant and charming, but it lacks a little urgency.  No one’s life is stake.  The world doesn’t need saving.  Armies of darkness are not about to destroy all happiness and joy and extinguish light from the universe.  Rather, the story explores the connections between our past and present, the real nature of love and friendship, and the role of destiny in our lives.

So, if you’re looking for riveting action, this is not the book for you.  But, if you’re looking for a lovely holiday read — one you won’t be upset to be pulled away from when the spiked eggnog comes out but will be happy to pick back up once you’re snug in bed — Marianna is just the thing for you.

Book Review: City of the Lost

City of the Lost by Stephen Blackmoore (Fantasy/Noir, 2012, 224 pages)

City of the Lost might be summed up thusly: funny, dark, sexy, fast.

It’s urban fantasy, I suppose, but with a low-level criminal turned zombie turned unwilling gumshoe as the antihero lead.  There’s witches and demons and mysterious, possibly immortal, love interests.  There’s heart-munching undead maniacs, powerful sorceresses who really just want to do social work, and a frantic search for one very special talisman.  Plus, it’s all set against a gritty, underbelly-ish, crime-ridden L.A. that could be a movie set for the best Noir thriller ever.

There was a lot I loved about this book.  First, as the above description suggests, it blends sub-genres very effectively.  Second, despite the protagonist, Joe Sunday, being a rather unremarkable thug who turns into a zombie and starts eating dead hookers, he’s likable — very likable.  Just try not to root for him, I dare you.  Third, City of the Lost tears right along, leaving little time to catch your breath…but just enough that you don’t cast the book aside in a fit of action-sequence-fatigue.  Blackmoore’s nailed the tone and is liberal with his twists and turns.

Though it may seem a little dark for your summer beach read, I bet if you give it a chance you won’t be disappointed.

Book Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (2011. 432 pages. YA)

It’s been awhile since a book has cast such a gripping spell on me, but this one managed it (and then some).

Daughter of Smoke and Bone tells the story of Karou, a girl with a mysterious past who lives among hideous monsters who — on the inside — are anything but.  Karou’s life is unusual, sure, but through her art and her tentative friendships, she has found a way to live with one foot in the magical world she shares with tooth-collecting demons and another in the mundane (but never boring) world of modern day Prague.  That is, until a cruel avenging angel steps through a tear in the sky and rains fire and vengeance down on everything Karou knows and loves.  Oh, and he’s her soul mate.

The tag line for this book states: An angel and a demon fell in love.  It did not end well.

True, but…as always, the journey is the thing.

Karou is a wonderful protagonist and Taylor has struck a great balance between Karou’s relatable teenage angst and her sheer ass-kicking awesomeness.  The book is ultimately about Karou discovering who she is and where she’s from, but its sweep takes in eons of history, a grand theological struggle between two races who each see the other as evil incarnate, and a story of love that defies both time and logic.  It’s completely awesome.

Best of all, Laini Taylor knows her way around the written word.  Daughter of Smoke and Bone is lyrically written, lushly described, and a pleasure to read.  My only complaint?  It ends on something of a cliffhanger, leaving the wait for a sequel long and bitter indeed.

This book has been nominated for a Nebula Award and, in my opinion, it is well-deserving of the honor.

Book Review: The Drowning City

The Drowning City by Amanda Downum (2009. 384 pages. Fantasy)

Tired of fantasy novels that all strike the same culture notes, revolve around a (male) chosen one and his quest, and stretch laboriously across book after book?  If so, I recommend you check out Amanda Downum’s The Drowning City.

A delicious blend of cultural influences from across south Asia, the story is set in the titular drowning city, Symir.  Symir is a lush place — humid, veined with canals, and thrumming with violence and intrigue — and it is to this city that necromancer and spy Isyllt Iskaldur is sent by her masters to stir up rebellion.

Though Downum does a great job of making the world her story is set in feel like a vast, diverse, and sprawling place, and though she alludes to larger schemes at work, they all lie beyond the scope of the novel itself.  This is an epic fantasy in tone, but it’s set in just one place with just one story; it is self-contained and absorbing.

As Isyllt goes about her work of inciting revolution, she encounters a secretive fire mage, an out-of-her-depth would-be revolutionary, and a displaced, genocide-ravaged jungle people who’s ghosts won’t lie quiet.  The intrigues Isyllt uncovers and encourages soon prove far more dangerous than she imagined and the world of Symir positively steams with magic of all possible stripes and persuasions.

Isyllt herself is an unusual heroine — definitely one of the “dark and troubled” ilk.  As a necromancer, her magic is literally the power of death, and she wields it in interesting ways (no spoilers here, though, I promise!).  Prickly, brooding, and thrill-seeking, Isyllt is the kind of woman to plunge headlong into danger, which makes for plenty of thrilling action.

Some may find her character unlikable and her apparent death wish unsettling, but her ruthless, ends-justify-the-means exterior is just that, her exterior.  In Isyllt, Downum has created a very textured character, and one I found a fascinating guide through the story (though her point of view is not the only one relied upon in the narrative).

A final comment:  despite it’s fantastical nature, the Drowning City and it’s inhabitants feel incredibly real; Downum has grounded her tale in believable emotions and motivations.  The betrayals, sacrifices, and triumphs come twisting at you unexpectedly while still managing to seem inevitable (at least in hindsight).  Best of all, if you find this book as satisfying as I did, there are two others (both stand-alone novels featuring Isyllt) to come: The Bone Palace and The Kingdoms of Dust.

Happy reading!

Writer’s Workspace: 2/6

Good morning!  Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

What I’m working on:  Revisions to ABSENT, my archaeological time travel novel, are roaring ahead, plus I’ve started drafting a new, very exciting project (top secret, of course).  Here’s a little excerpt:

Snippet from the screen: “Daniel laced his fingers through mine.  His palms were callused and his dark skin was warm.

I sighed.  “I don’t deserve you, you know.”

“Sure you do.”

Huh.  Like I’d ever believe that. 

We sat in silence, holding hands.  Outside, the rain began to fall.  A gull shrieked as it sought shelter in the broken-down third floor turret and raindrops pelted the window, tappity-tap, tappity-tap.  They sounded like a fairy’s tiny fists knocking against the glass. 

If only.  If only magic was fairies and rainbows and wishes.”

In my mug: Mighty Leaf Tropical Green Tea, with a little honey.

On the iTunes: Keep on Tryin’ by Poco.

Keeping me company: No pictures of Mr. Ramses today.  He’s found some dark corner to hide in; probably where he’s working on his manifesto for a world free of human overseers.  Maybe I’d better go check on him…

Out the window: global warming continues to offer Brooklyn a deceptively mild winter.  Sun. 52 today.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: a few links to share.  First up,  if you haven’t been over to Adventures in SciFi Publishing recently, you should check it out. There’s all sorts of yummy book reviews, podcasts, and interviews with awesome authors.  And, speaking of book reviews, some fellow VP alums have started a new blog for that very purpose, Spec Fic Chicks.  They have in-depth, thoughtful reviews of books featuring strong female characters or written by women authors.

Okay, that’s all from me today, folks.

Over and out!

Book Review: I, Demon

I, Demon by Samuel T. Crown (Historical Fantasy, e-book, 2011)

I, Demon chronicles the life and (rather tumultuous) times of a nameless demon exiled by both heaven and hell  It is recounted in the first person by the demon himself after he is summoned (via a computer program) into a 21st century basement by a perky blonde with a mysterious agenda.  While the aforementioned mysterious agenda plays a role in the larger plot (no spoilers here), most of this story takes places in the medieval past, revealing how the demon lost his name, was freed from hell, and found himself on a globe-spanning adventure to save the world.

If that sounds like rather a lot for a novel to tackle, it is.  But Crown handles the sweeping scope of the story by grounding it in the interactions of witty, likeable characters and in exhaustive research on the Middle Ages.  The first of these two components was, for me, the most compelling.  Nameless Demon has a narrative voice reminiscent of Harry Dresden – a world-weary, cynical exterior surrounding a heart filled with surprisingly compassionate depths.  Taking a demon and making him a likeable character (while not negating his essential demon-ness) is a tricky task, and Crown handles it well.  Over the course of his adventures, we see the nameless demon do many things – some of them good, some of them bad, and many of them morally ambiguous.  Somehow, nearly all of them work to endear him to us.

As far as the plot goes, there’s plenty of intrigue, sex, swordplay, political maneuvering, betrayal, and grandiose clashes between angels and demons.  There are also lovingly detailed accounts of how life really was during medieval times and, briefly, glimpses of a terrifying universe beyond this mortal coil.  If I found one thing to complain about, it would be the middle section of the book, which drags a bit as it sets things up for the novel’s climax.  However, history buffs will probably find little to lament here, as this portion of the book also contains some of the most well-written and well-researched medieval scenes.

All in all, I, Demon is an entertaining read and a great opportunity to spend time with a character who is many things:  cerebral and venal, thoughtful and impulsive, compassionate and wicked.  Oh, and also funny as hell.

What more could you ask for?