Saturday, 8 April 2017

Review: Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

UK Book cover of Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
I finished the second book in this duology, Crooked Kingdom, literally about five minutes ago and I have to talk about this series immediately. I feel sad, nauseous and a little bit giddy, all at the same time. This series, especially the second book, is the best I've read in a long, long time.

Plot summary: Criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker has been offered wealth beyond his wildest dreams. But to claim it, he'll have to pull off a seemingly impossible heist:Break into the notorious Ice Court
(a military stronghold that has never been breached)

Retrieve a hostage
(who could unleash magical havoc on the world)

Survive long enough to collect his reward
(and spend it)

Kaz needs a crew desperate enough to take on this suicide mission and dangerous enough to get the job done - and he knows exactly who: six of the deadliest outcasts the city has to offer. Together, they just might be unstoppable - if they don't kill each other first.

I was dubious about starting this series as I did not like the Grisha books. The Shadow and Bone series wasn't bad exactly, but there was nothing particularly unique about it and it wasn't written overly well. I'm not sure if I finished the first book, but I definitely didn't carry on to the second. This series, written by the same author and featuring the same world, did therefore not exactly recommend itself to me.

Then Charlotte, whose opinion tends to echo mine in a lot of bookish things, read Six of Crows (review here), and she ended up buying it for me as a Christmas gift. Turns out that I'm really, really glad I didn't avoid these books just because I didn't like Leigh Bardugo's original serie, or I'd have missed one of my favourite books of the year so far. Admittedly it's only April, but I'm confident it'll stay a firm favourite.

I'm a sucker for books about close knit groups of wildly different people, all working towards a shared objective, bonding and bickering along the way. It's why I loved A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet so much, and other books like Theft of Swords. Six Crows and Crooked Kingdom do that perfectly. The way the relationships develop and change is so perfect and so subtle - I'm not sure I've ever seen characterisation performed so beautifully. The characters are so different, but the way their personalities interweave is wonderfully crafted.

My favourites were Kaz, the criminal mastermind with his own special brand of neuroses, Inej, the gentle but talented wraith and Wylan, the quiet demolitions expert scorned by his Father. However, and unusually for a book with changing perspectives, I was interested in every single one of the six characters. All of them. They were so wonderful and their perspectives so unique, that for once I didn't mind from whose viewpoint I was reading. It alternates every other chapter and, considering that means six perspectives, it's a difficult feat to stop the reader from getting frustrated.

Normally I hate romance in books like these - it's usually unnecessary and shoehorned in for the sake of it. Here though, it's more of a subplot of a subplot. It's so subtle and non-attention-grabbing that I actually felt the story was better for it, which is something I never actually thought I'd say. The end result of the relationships was never straightforward and yet it was always suited the couple involved to the nth degree. So, so perfect.

The story itself is wonderful too. Six of Crows is a simple heist (well, not so simple at all, but the premise is straightforward at least - 'steal some stuff') and Kingdom of Crows is a more complex plot where the characters have to deal with the less than ideal consequences of the aforementioned heist. Each book has so many twists and so many turns that I lost count of the time I wanted to gasp at how Kaz Brekker tricked me (and everybody else) again.  

The writing style is completely different to the original Grisha trilogy, to the point where I wouldn't have believed it was written by the same author. It's adult, it's complex and parts of it are simply beautiful. I don't know what happened between that series and this one, but it worked. 

Charlotte told me that Crooked Kingdom was even better than Six of Crows, but I didn't really get on board with that until close to the end. Because I read them so close together, they sort of merged into one book for me. Well, until the end of Crooked Kingdom. I CRIED. I actually sat there and properly cried. It's an actually perfect ending that suited all the characters. I loved that it wasn't perfect, that not everybody got a happy ending and that it wasn't what I had hoped would happen - it was better than that. It was brave and awful and amazing and... ARGH. It's perfect, for all the characters.

A third book hasn't been announced and, strictly speaking, the story has been concluded. However, there is scope for another book (or another hundred, fingers crossed) and I cannot wait for that day. I swear, the second that book is announced, I'm on it.

For a series I didn't even want to read, it's amazing. Hell, for a series I did want to read, it's still amazing. The prose is beautiful, the characterisation is masterful and I absolutely didn't want to put this series down for a second.

And look - I found a shop on Etsy that sells Six of Crows themed candles! You can buy a Matthias candle or a Wraith candle, and Novelly Yours have kindly offered to give all you lucky readers 10% off! Just use the code TAKEOFF10.

What has your favourite book of 2017 been?

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Top Ten Books I Liked More Than I Thought I Would

1) Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

I decided to write this post almost entirely because of this book.

I do not go for romance stuff and I do not go for YA stuff, and I most especially do not go for romantic YA stuff. I wanted this book on a whim way back in 2011 and a friend bought it for me, because she's nice.

It languished on a shelf for, oh, six years, until Saturday, when I shoved it in my bag as a quick read and to finally get it off my shelf. I started it last night... and finished it last night.

I know, I know. But it's surprisingly good. The main character stood up for herself and the romantic lead wasn't a colossal arse. It's already surpassed my expectations for YA. I wouldn't really want to read any of her other books, but I liked this, alright?

2) War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Time to claw back some credibility.

I ran a read-a-long for this the year before last (good Lord) and I think we all found it to be surprisingly accessible. I mean, it definitely doesn't need to be as long as it is and some of the Russian politics went over my head, but I did end up enjoying it.

Will I reread it? Probably not. But did I want to claw my eyes out constantly? Nope.

Chalking that down as a win for Tolstoy.  

3) Cinder by Marissa Meyer

I've just realised that the majority of this post is going to be YA.

I feel sort of vindicated with Cinder though, because Charlotte bought it on my recommendation during the Bookshop Crawl and she's already read it and bought the rest of the series.

I think I liked the rest of the series, Scarlet, Cress and Winter, more than Cinder, but the series as a whole completely defied my expectations. It doesn't really need the fairytale link (which I ranted about in every. single. review.) but I really enjoyed the time spent with the characters of the Lunar Chronicles books.

4) All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

This book completely blew me away.

I'd grabbed a book to read at work in a hurry one morning, without really paying too much attention to what it was. I think I actually thought this book was a western, despite the giant-ass poppy on the cover. I know, I knew.

But I started it reading it at lunchtime and then had to stop because I couldn't handle it. It completely and utterly spaced me out and I spent weeks thinking about this book. It talks about the innocence of war in a relatable way that brings homes the true, genuine horrors without ever preaching or reaching for shock value. It's truly amazing.

5) The Godfather by Mario Puzo

I only read this in the first place because somebody at work had asked me if I wanted to borrow it and I panicked and said yes. The only fuzzy memory I had of it was falling asleep whilst watching it with my boyfriend, and he being less than impressed with my appreciation of alleged cinematic masterpiece.

I really liked this book, aside from the three pages that detail vaginal surgery in absurdly graphic detail. It's weird. Obviously. But aside from that, the characters are brilliant, the story is good and it was surprisingly easy to follow.

I'm still not likely to sit down with the film any time soon, but I do recommend the book.

6) Lord of the Flies by William Golding
I'd lost count of the people who told me how much they disliked this book before I actually got round to reading it. Apparently it's on the school syllabus in some places (which is a strange idea), but even the people I spoke to who hadn't studied it still hated it.

I therefore expected it to be dry, monotonous, boring and yet also full of mindless violence, but it ended up being none of those things. I've read it twice now, in 2012 and 2016. 

It's atmospheric and exciting, and is probably symbolic of the potential ruin of society by mankind when chaos takes over, but I choose to take it as demonstrative of the fact that children can't be trusted.

7) We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Whilst I expected to like this book, I wasn't prepared for the impact it would have on me.

It's powerful and amazing and awful, all at the same time. It took months, literally, for me to get over it. It's not scary and it's not a horror book, but it's certainly haunting.

I read this in 2014 and I still can't bear the thought of rereading it. I loved it, but I'm honestly, honestly just not ready to put myself through that again.

If you haven't read it, do. It's the most powerful piece of fiction written this century.

8) The Selection by Keira Cass

And now, on a completely different note...

I think I can count on one hand the amount of girl-in-pretty-dress books I've read. In my defence, that is a very pretty dress.

This is essentially a YA, dystopian version of The Bachelor. It has its faults and it's not exactly high literature, but I really did enjoy reading this series. I haven't bothered picking up any of the newer books because I was happy with the ending supplied by The One.

I'd be very surprised if this didn't ended up as a Netflix TV show before too long.

9) Any Sarah J. Maas book
Objectively, I know that I love this series, I do. But every time a new installment comes out, this happens:

*buys immediately*
"Oh, but I don't like fairies. Or Aelin. Or the romantic sub-plots. Ugh."
*puts off reading*
*gets nagged into reading by Charlotte*
*reads a month later*
"Oh my God, this book is AMAZING!" 

This has honestly happened every time for at least the last three books. You'd think I'd learn. 

10) HHhH by Laurent Binet

It confuses me when I see this book in the fiction section of Waterstones. It's blatantly non-fiction - it's about the Czech parachutists who executed Reinhard Heydrich in 1942.

It's written in a very chatty, informal tone that meant I ended up absolutely loving this book, but it's still definitely non-fiction.   

I was expecting a run-of-the-mill but still interesting, informative book, and instead I got a chatty discussion on Czech history, but also about how the author came about writing this book as well.

What books did you like more than you thought you would? 

Monday, 20 February 2017

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers series #2) by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit book cover Becky Chambers
This book is the sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. I'd borrowed that book from the library on a whim and ended up absolutely loving it. It's a great, space-themed novel about a group of misfits of different space races on a long haul journey through space. It's great. Go read my review. A Closed and Common Orbit, whilst good, just didn't have the same punch to it for me.

Plot summary: 'Lovelace was once merely a ship's artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who's determined to help her learn and grow.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.'

The reason I loved the first book, for those readers who have neglected to read my review, is because of the characters. There's a full ship of people, all of whom are different species, races and genders, and all these people have their own POV chapters. They're distinctly separate entitities with personalities and flaws, and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is about how they interlink and their developing relationships. It's not really about space at all, it's about people and it's amazing.

This book, however, has more of a Point. An AI system designed to run a ship suddenly finds that she has a  body to manage and she's struggling with the limits of her new human-shaped form. These chapters, which I'd say is the primary focus of the book, are alternated with the point of view of Jane, a genetically engineered human who was produced for an austerely run factory but is now struggling to survive in a wasteland with only an AI for company.

The thing is, there's no story really. There are circumstances - Jane needs to survive and Sidra/Lovelace doesn't like her body - but not much actually happens.

There's no people. There are no relationships. All those things that made the first book great just aren't present. Instead of six vastly different points of view, we essentially just get a human woman and an AI pretending to be one. Neither of these women interact with other people, to a large extent anyway, so it's mostly both of them musing inside their head about not a whole lot.

It's fine. It's written well, the prose is good and the dialogue flows well. The problem is that the over-arching plot doesn't really become clear until the final few chapters. When it appears, it's great. I loved it and I was really moved, but I think I'd have been more interested in the book as a whole if I'd have known what the end goal was - i.e. what Pepper trying to achieve.  

It just wasn't very interesting, to be honest, not right until the end. I did like it, but I loved the first one so much that perhaps it was inevitable that A Closed and Common Orbit would be a bit disappointing.

Read my review of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.     

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Top Ten Books of 2016

Better late than never, right? Also, check out my favourite books from previous years:

Wow, I've been doing this longer than I thought...

As always, I'm going to start with the Gold Books, the books that I always knew would make it onto this list - the ones that stand out without me needing to check my LibraryThing list.

In no particular order:

1) All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

I didn't even particularly want to read this but it completely blew me away. I remember being sat at my desk when I read the few pages, and I was just stunned into silence. I needed time to process everything I had just read. It's quite simply awful. But brilliant.

'Every second that I was not reading All Quiet on the Western Front, I wanted to be. It's simultaneously really easy to read and really difficult. It's quite obviously not a happy story. There are no chirpy evacuees, no whirlwind romances and no duck-shaped gas marks. This is solely one soldier's experiences of life at the Front and it is brutal.'

2) The Collector by John Fowles

It seems I only read depressing books his year and only in the red Vintage editions...

The Collector deserves to be on this list purely due to the masterful characterisation and shifting perspectives. Somehow you end up loathing both abductor and abductee equally in a way that's quite disturbing. 

'I wasn't sure about the ending, but it's been going round and round in my head since I finished reading and I don't think it could have ended any other way. It just fit the theme perfectly. Speaking of, the theme of 'collection' is hinted at throughout the book, but in an oh-so-subtle way and it's very clever. The final paragraphs are appropriate and haunting, and I LOVE THIS BOOK.'

Something a little lighter at least. This is a futuristic, sci-fi novel that takes place almost entirely on board a spaceship, but it's more than that. It's about the small crew on board and their fractious yet affectionate relationships. 

The world building is simply astounding with a variety of different races, worlds and politics, and I can't wait to immerse myself into the second book.

'The book is more about those little sub-plots than the overarching storyline about building the hyperspace tunnel.They embark upon a long journey across space to get to where construction can begin, and that is more the subject of the book. We stop off at secret hacker planet for semi-legal ship modifications, visit the home planets of the some of the crew and deal with moral issues relating to medical treatment and consent. It's way more interesting than a travel tunnel!'

4) The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey 

I don't really read a lot of contemporary fiction, although I don't have anything against it. It's just that I tend to go for fantasy or classics and don't really have time for anything else. 

The Cranes Dance might just have prompted me to branch out though. I loved this book and couldn't get it out of my head for days afterwards. On the surface it's about ballet, but it's really about family relationships and the voice inside your head. 

'What made this book for me is Kate Crane. She is possibly the most relatable, the most believable and the most real character I have ever read. It was honestly like she was inside my head. She has flaws, but not those exaggerated traits that fictional characters are often given to pad them out a bit. She was so, so real. She was likeable, for the most part, but those parts where she wasn't so perfect just made her relatable.'

5) The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Charlotte hosted a read-a-long for this book, partly due to the sheer length of it. I thought I'd reviewed it, but apparently not.

It's a wonderful book. Twists and turns galore, and it's written beautifully. Whilst I couldn't say I liked any of the characters, they were all written perfectly. Shame about the awful, lazy ending. I still wonder if the TV show ended in the same way.

'My favourite thing is the odd second person thing. Normally I'd hate that but it's so subtle. I didn't mark down any quotes because I essentially wanted to quote the entire book, but it says thing like 'our story follows Sugar, so don't bother following Caroline. It'll be warmer where Sugar's going anyway, so let's walk with her into the brightly-lit doorway.'

I mean, it's better written than my feeble attempt, but you get the idea. It's not like that 100% of the time or it would drive us bad, but it's just enough.'  

6) The Chronicles of St Mary's by Jodi Taylor

This is a light-hearted series about a group of historians who travel back in time for research purposes. I've reviewed the first one, but I've actually just finished the fourth. 

They definitely have their faults (although the writing is getting better as the books continue), but they're so much fun that I really don't mind.

'There is actually a detailed over-arching plot, which impressed me. I expected Just One Damned Thing After Another to be a sort of set-up book for the series, just sorting out the Institute and how Max got her job, etc. I suspect this storyline is convoluted enough to last throughout the entire series (seven books at time of writing) and it surprised me that such an idea was implemented halfway through Book One.'  
The books below are the books that do still deserve to be on the list, but aren't quite as good as the books above. They're still in my Top Ten, but I had to go looking for them.

7) Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good by James Davies
This is a non-fiction book about the development of psychiatry, medication and diagnostic criteria. It's really accessible and well-written, by an author who really seems to care about his subject.

It deals with the over-diagnosis of emotions (like classing bereavement as a mental disorder), unnecessarily medicating children and the politics involved in something as simple as diagnosing illness.

It's worth a read if you have even a passing interest in mental health.

8) Empire of Storms (Throne of Glass #5) by Sarah J. Maas

It's funny, I never actually want to pick these books up when I've bought them. I always think that I won't enjoy it so I put it off and put it off... even though I've done this so many times that I know it's not true. It's just that I loved the first few books, when they were simpler and before the fairies and elves and things were introduced, and now they're just... different. 

Anyway, I loved this book, as I always do. There were some brilliant twists and an absolute shocker of an ending, even if it did go on a tad too long and the unecessary pairing-everybody-up isn't necessary.

I know I'm not being convinving that I liked this book, but I really did!  

9) Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine by Dr Paul Offit

Another non-fiction. This one is absolutely fascinating. It discusses.variety of topics from a close examination of Christian Science, televangelists, child abuse, abortion, etc. It's a well-balanced book with case studies, excerpts from the Bible and also scientific studies, which results in a discussion, not a rant.

'Bad Faith is heart-breaking and shocking. I finished this book whilst getting a train to York to see a show, and I couldn't get it out of my head during the train ride or the show itself. Some aspects hurt me, some angered me and others just caused bewilderment at how anybody could think that was acceptable.' 

10) Scarlet, Cress and Winter (Lunar Chronicles series #2, 3 and 4) by Marissa Meyer

I read these way back in January 2016 and they nearly slipped my mind!

The first book, Cinder, was okay-ish, but then the series really improves from there. I'm still not sure it needed the fairytale links, but it's well worth a read regardless.

'I thought it was actually a pretty fitting conclusion. Not as simple as it could have been, which I give Marissa Meyer full credit for. I've said it in my previous of reviews of this series - it's a good plot. There's a convulted political history and intricate delicacies that stop juuuuuuust short of being too much.' 

What were your favourite books from 2016? 

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Year of Reading Whatever the Hell I Want - How Did It Go?

Very well, thank you.

You may remember that in January 2016 I made a revolutionary change (or what amounts to one for us book bloggers) in my reading habits. The whole post is here, but the gist is that I was so sick of reading for challenges and TBRs, and feeling guilty about reading new books, that I just decided to not bother. Crazy, right?

This year has been great.

As a comparison:

2016                                                  2015

Books read: 71                                     Books read: 63
Rereads: 15 (21%)                                  Rereads: 9 (14.3%)
Pre-2016 books: 27                              Pre-2015 books: 25
 Non-fiction: 11                                       Non-fiction: 5
Average date of publication: 1992           Average date of publication: 1952 

On one hand, it's clear that I've read a lot fewer classics than I would have if I were monitoring my reading more closely, which is strange as I didn't have any challenges going for date of publication or classics, in particular. I have read some this year, but I've read a lot of books from the nineties (Terry Pratchett, etc). Oh well, it's hardly the end of the world.

I've clearly read more books than I did in 2015. I do remember the days when I could easily read 100+ books in a year, but that was before my hectic schedule kicked in - boyfriend, Scouts, language classes, sewing classes, WI, career... Probably shouldn't have put career last, but there you go. I think I just need to get on board with the fact that my life just simply doesn't allow me to read that much anymore.

That makes it even more important that the books I do read are good ones. Another reason is the following:

The above is part of my car after I had a could-have-been-worse-but-still-quite-serious accident on the M62. The Police shut the road and the paramedics arrived and it was all quite stressful, to be honest. I was fine, bar moderate whipash and an inability to sleep, but it shook me up quite badly. For some reason it bothered me an awful lot that I could have been reading a book that I didn't want to be reading. It's twee, but life is genuinely too short to do things you don't need or want to do.

The thing I've enjoyed most about this year is being able to read linked books. For example, I read Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, which is set in the same place with the same characters as the first Poirot book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which I'd read in 2008. It felt wonderful to be able to reread that book right after finishing Curtain, just to round off the whole experience. I didn't feel guilty, or like I should be rereading something new to whittle down my TBR.

Another example was after I finished The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey. It's an amazing book about a ballet dancer currently in the midst of dancing Swan Lake. That made me want to reread The Black Swan, which is a retelling of Swan Lake by Mercedes Lackey. So I did.

This year I've felt so free to read. I was surprised that I hadn't read more, but that doesn't matter. I plan to do exactly the same in 2017 - I'm going to read what I want, regardless of TBR, date of publication, author origin, story theme... I'm just not going to care and it's going to feel great.

Will you be monitoring your reading this year? If so, how?      

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