Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best of 2014

2014 was a rough year for me. In more ways than one. I spent 11 months of the year either in severe back pain, or recovering from back surgery (in fact I'm still recovering). I didn't get as much reading done as I'd like, and I'm sure I've left a lot of good books sit on the shelf for longer than they deserve.

I think this year's Best of list is going to be shorter than normal, but there were a few amazingly stand-out books for me. Because the books list is going to be a bit shorter I think I'll include some of the excellent movies that have stuck with me, too.


Here are the book stats: (Through The Caller)
83 Read Books
39 Re-Read Books
44 New-to-Me Books

Of those 46 New-to-Me Books, there were:
11 Five-Star Reads
6 Four-Star Reads
12 Three-Star Reads
4 Two-Star Reads
11 One-Star Reads (8 of which were DNFs)

This was an incredibly slow reading year for me. I'm used to reading twice this number. And though the majority of the four and five star reads came from favorite authors there were a few surprises, too. A couple of new authors even jumped onto my auto-buy/favorite list...

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Review: Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley

Title: Providence of Fire
Author: Brian Staveley
Series: Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne, Book 2
Genre: Fantasy
Release Date: 13 January 2015

The conspiracy to destroy the ruling family of the Annurian Empire is far from over.

Having learned the identity of her father's assassin, Adare flees the Dawn Palace in search of allies to challenge the coup against her family. Few trust her, but when she is believed to be touched by Intarra, patron goddess of the empire, the people rally to help her retake the capital city. As armies prepare to clash, the threat of invasion from barbarian hordes compels the rival forces to unite against their common enemy. Unknown to Adare, her brother Valyn, renegade member of the empire's most elite fighting force, has allied with the invading nomads. The terrible choices each of them has made may make war between them inevitable.

Between Valyn and Adare is their brother Kaden, rightful heir to the Unhewn Throne, who has infiltrated the Annurian capital with the help of two strange companions. The knowledge they possess of the secret history that shapes these events could save Annur or destroy it.

I finished this book several hours ago. I feel sure that if I were to wait another year I still wouldn't have the words necessary to begin to do it justice. I struggled with the review for The Emperor's Blades, partly because fantasy is my home in genre reading, but mostly because I had no idea how my mere words could stand up to the beauty and majesty that was created by Brian Staveley. I face a similar, or worse, problem now. In The Emperor's Blades I fell in love with the Malkeenians and their world. I walked with them every step of their struggle, journey, surprise, and betrayal. In Providence of Fire I was taken several (hundred) steps further.

We see so much more of the wide world in this book, so much more of the tapestry is filled in. The travels of our main characters take us to the far reaches of the kingdom, and beyond. Every step taught us something new about the world, and about the people in it. I always had such a beautiful sense of place while reading. I could see the steppes, feel the heat from the Everburning Well, taste the glacial water, the smell of smoke wafted to my nose as I read. Every single word, description and scene pulled me further in and immersed me.

As I traveled with the characters I've grown to love so much, I was present as they faced impossible odds, terrifying obstacles, and painful decisions, along with the occasional glorious victory. I can't say much about the actual journey that is taken, the twists and turns, the compelling cases presented. Suffice it to say that I was on the edge of my seat, never sure what to believe, never sure who - if anyone - I could trust. I began repeating a litany to myself of 'Trust No One'. I'm not sure, even now, if I've been fooled once, twice, or many, many times. I have theories on top of theories, speculations that I can barely piece together, and hopes - oh so many hopes - for the third book, for everyone in these pages that has come to mean so much to me.

And there are so many characters I'm invested in. Valyn, Kaden, and Adare continue to be the primary POV characters; the ones that we're following on this mission to save the empire, their family, and their people. As I rushed through the pages of this book I was surprised - though I'm not sure why - at how much I was invested in all three of them. Though I fretted every time I left one, I was immediately anxious to see what was going on with the next. I struggled next to these three as they made decisions that weren't simply between 'right' and 'wrong' but between 'wrong' and 'less-wrong'. Sometimes there was no good answer. There's a quote in the book that I think encapsulates everything all three struggle with:

It had been a long time since he'd felt as though he had a true choice...each decision looked like the wrong one now, but at the time they hadn't seemed like decisions at all. Instead of contemplating a series of forking paths, [he] felt as though he'd been racing a treacherous track, just a half step ahead of his foes, no time to look either back or forward.

It's not just the Malkeenians, but people on all sides of the conflict that have difficult choices to make. Even when I railed against some of the decisions made, I understood why they were being made. It seems a long time since I've been able to say that there are at least a dozen additional characters that I'm truly invested in. Pyrre, Rampuri Tan, Ran il Tornja, Triste, Gwenna, Talal, Laith, Annick and a few new ones that I won't name and risk spoiling anyone's surprise. Each of them has found a place in - if not my heart, then my mind. I can't stop thinking about all of them.

Brian Staveley weaves beauty with his words, ensnaring the senses and filling the surrounding air with the world he's created. I'm in awe of his ability and I look forward to everything to come in his career. Most especially, right now, the third book in the Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne series.

Grade: A+

Now. I think I'm off to re-read The Emperor's Blades and then Providence of Fire, again.

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: Golden Son by Pierce Brown

Title: Golden Son
Author: Pierce Brown
Series: Red Rising Trilogy, Book 2
Genre: Dystopia / Science-Fiction
Release Date: 6 January 2014

With shades of The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, and Game of Thrones, debut author Pierce Brown’s genre-defying epic Red Rising hit the ground running and wasted no time becoming a sensation. Golden Son continues the stunning saga of Darrow, a rebel forged by tragedy, battling to lead his oppressed people to freedom.

As a Red, Darrow grew up working the mines deep beneath the surface of Mars, enduring backbreaking labor while dreaming of the better future he was building for his descendants. But the Society he faithfully served was built on lies. Darrow’s kind have been betrayed and denied by their elitist masters, the Golds—and their only path to liberation is revolution. And so Darrow sacrifices himself in the name of the greater good for which Eo, his true love and inspiration, laid down her own life. He becomes a Gold, infiltrating their privileged realm so that he can destroy it from within.

A lamb among wolves in a cruel world, Darrow finds friendship, respect, and even love—but also the wrath of powerful rivals. To wage and win the war that will change humankind’s destiny, Darrow must confront the treachery arrayed against him, overcome his all-too-human desire for retribution—and strive not for violent revolt but a hopeful rebirth. Though the road ahead is fraught with danger and deceit, Darrow must choose to follow Eo’s principles of love and justice to free his people.

He must live for more.

I rarely email publishers directly for review books, but I had no problem begging for this one. I was ecstatic when I came home from vacation to find it in my mailbox! Ever since first finishing Red Rising about a year ago, I was dying for this book - anxious to see what happened with Darrow next, with Mustang and Sevro and all the rest. I tried to caution myself, don't get your hopes too high, there's no way he can live up to the first book, but it didn't really work. I went into Golden Son fully expecting it to blow me away and be one of my favorite books of both 2014 (when I read it) and 2015 (when it's released).

For seven hundred years, my people have been enslaved without voice, without hope. Now I am their sword. And I do not forgive. I do not forget. So let him lead me onto his shuttle. Let him think he owns me. Let him welcome me into his house, so I might burn it down.

'Lo and behold - I was right. Golden Son left me feeling just as battered and emotionally compromised as its predecessor. I'm now even more invested in these characters, something I didn't really think was possible, and loved seeing the world further expanded. I'm not going to say too much specifically about plot and the overall arc of the story, because I don't want to spoil anyone. What I will say is that this book felt different than Red Rising. The former was very contained - within the Institute, for example - and we only got the barest bit of a peek at the wider world(s). I never felt a lack because there wasn't one, we knew everything we needed to then know, but when you get into Golden Son you realize just how small the picture you saw was. There's so much more going on. The politics are VERY prominent in this book, and there's a lot of chess-like moves happening from multiple directions.

Eo would say this is the hell they've built their heaven upon. And she'd be right. Gazing up, I see more than half a kilometer of tenement buildings before the polluted haze makes a ceiling for the human jungle. Clotheslines and electrical lines crisscross overhead like vines. This sight is hopeless. What is there to change here but everything?

The writing is just as evocative and gripping as it was in Red Rising - though again you can feel the difference as Darrow's world expands and the need for him to grow continues. I was utterly enthralled as I was reading, involved in the story and concerned about the characters and still I'd have to stop and admire a bit of beautiful writing - frequently. Pierce Brown's writing is brilliant, simply beautiful, captivating and gripping.

Reading back through my updates while I was reading this, I am reminded exactly how on edge this book kept me. Throughout reading I just wanted a moment to catch my breath. I couldn't stop, I couldn't believe it; I resented work and sleep for interfering with my reading. There was one amazing scene after another - whether that be emotionally, revelatory, or tension-filled suspensefully - I was shocked as hell more than once. Darrow has evolved into his role, thinking many moves beyond almost everyone else, he's quite simply brilliant. I loved seeing that he's still not perfect. He continues to learn, continues to make mistakes, and continues to learn from them (even if he's not able to do anything about it, he knows it's a mistake). Time and time again, I was on the edge of my seat, biting my nails, trying to avoid racing through the text to find out what happens. There are twists and turns aplenty, revelations that blew my mind, and enough building suspense to give me heart failure.

When falls the Iron Rain, be brave. Be brave.

I can't not talk about Sevro, a favorite from Red Rising and he gets plenty of showtime in Golden Son (though it felt like forever for him to actually appear the first time). He's the perfect counterpoint to Darrow. He keeps him on the level and I loved seeing their relationship develop, in some surprising new directions, too.

My OTP (one-true-pairing) is going to break me. I just know it. I resorted to nearly begging that Pierce Brown not do this to me. Already my heart is so enamoured and wrapped up in them that I...well, just read it. I still can't even talk about it. In addition to many of the characters we fell in love with in Red Rising there's quite a few new characters that showed up to pique my interest and steal my heart.

"But they ask me about you. They ask if the boy warlord is really four meters tall. Is he really followed by a wolfpack? Is he a worldbreaker?"

"And what do you say?"

"I said you are five meters tall, you're followed by a midget and a giant, and you eat glass with your eggs."

One last thing to mention - that ending. Holy.Shit. Talk about ending on a cliff-hanger. I thought I was dying for Golden Son? I didn't even begin to know what need was. I need the third book. I can't even...I just don't know....ARGH! What is going to happen???!!

Several weeks after finishing this book, I haven't stopped thinking about it. I'm getting ready to start a re-read of Red Rising and Golden Son and I know it won't be the only time in 2015 that I end up re-reading them.

Long story short: If you haven't read Red Rising, please, go buy it; if you've been waiting for Golden Son, it's a hell of a ride - I feel confident saying that you're going to love it.

Grade: A

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Review: Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews

Title: Burn for Me
Author: Ilona Andrews
Series: Hidden Legacy, Book 1
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Release Date: 28 October 2014

Nevada Baylor is faced with the most challenging case of her detective career—a suicide mission to bring in a suspect in a volatile case. Nevada isn’t sure she has the chops. Her quarry is a Prime, the highest rank of magic user, who can set anyone and anything on fire.

Then she’s kidnapped by Connor “Mad” Rogan—a darkly tempting billionaire with equally devastating powers. Torn between wanting to run or surrender to their overwhelming attraction, Nevada must join forces with Rogan to stay alive.

Rogan’s after the same target, so he needs Nevada. But she’s getting under his skin, making him care about someone other than himself for a change. And, as Rogan has learned, love can be as perilous as death, especially in the magic world.

It's hard for favorite authors, they have so much expectation to live up to. Ever since I picked up Magic Bites several years ago, I've been in love with everything I've ever read by Ilona Andrews. Some a slight bit more than others, but always absolutely enthralled and excited for more. They've built these amazingly imaginative worlds that I just want to go live in. So Burn for Me had a high bar set for it when I first started it. And it, mostly, lived up to the level of expectation I'd put on this new world and characters.

I'm just going to go ahead and get my one quibble out of the way - the world-building wasn't as solid as I was hoping. Oh, all the pieces are there; ready to be molded and explained, ready to be doled out bit by bit to make me see the bigger picture....but here, and now, I was left floundering a bit. I have questions that I felt like should have been answered. And maybe they were - maybe this is all me, and not the book (in which case I'll eat my criticism), but I stumbled a few times trying to figure out the exact rules.

You see, a serum was developed a couple of hundred years ago and it gave people magical abilities. Of course, we humans didn't think about something so trivial as repercussions. Our motto is, after all, More power. Some short (I assume anyway) time later those pesky consequences started to show up and the serum use was curtailed (I think). So now you have magic users trying to hold onto the magic, mating with other magic users, creating dynasties - or Houses - that hold the power of magic within the cities. I got the feeling that magic abilities were supposed to be fairly rare in this society, because it's been so concentrated and bred to exclusion; and yet it seemed like every person we met had some sort of magical ability. It confused me. Are the magic users rare? Or common? If they're rare, then I get the point of technology still being pretty much where we are - complete with smartphones, tablets, automobiles etc., but if they're as common as our meetings seem to suggest then I have to wonder why the heck technology has developed as much as it has. I would have thought there'd be some stronger effect on the development of our world in the last couple centuries with magic having such a stronghold on the citizens. It's one small thing, but it niggled at the back of my mind the entire time I was reading. I think that I'm right in saying magic users are rare - despite what we see - but I'd love to get a better idea of the ratio of magic-users to regular-folk.

Now onto everything I loved!

1. Nevada Baylor: She's so utterly loyal, snarky, sarcastic, grounded, and fun that I loved her immediately. When her back is against a wall, she doesn't go down without a fight. She sticks to her guns, has her morals and ethics, and is just a genuinely good person. I like her so much that her obvious specialness didn't even bother me. It was reasonable that it snuck up on her, and I'm incredibly interested in seeing how this develops in this world.

2. The Baylor Family: Ilona Andrews have always done an amazing job writing realistic relationships - not just romances, but also friends and family. The interactions between Nevada and her mother, grandmother, cousin Bern, and sisters is so utterly realistic. There is obvious love and comfort between them. The good-natured ribbing and joking made me laugh more than once.

3. "Mad" Rogan: I love him. So sue me. I know there's something wrong with me that I am so ridiculously attracted to someone that's so freaking powerful, arrogant, cocky, and borderline sociopathic (c'mon, it's not like you couldn't have seen this coming what with my love for Barrons - who is the uber-alphahole). I don't care. He's sexy, and I want more of him.

4. The Magic System: The magic history is fascinating - I simply want more of it. All the different levels of magic users, the Houses that rule...well, the world, and the different types of magic that's possible. It's so interesting. I can't wait to see everything expanded in the next books.

5. Storyline: I have to admit that I was sold from the first moment that the flames started to fly. Though we knew the antagonist for much of the book, it was clear that there was more to the story - and I was anxious to find out what was going on. I do think that the reveal at the end was slightly anti-climactic, revealed almost in passing. But it does set up the over-arcing plot quite nicely.

6. The Slow-Burn Romance: I'm a huge sucker for this romantic development. There's a bit of a pride-and-prejudice story here, enemies-to-lovers, and a whole hell of a lot of sexual tension. SO MUCH sexual tension. It's killing me actually. I need MORE. Right now there is a huge imbalance of power, but Ilona Andrews has never let me down in that regard so I'm really excited to see this relationship develop even more.

I hope the next book is coming out soon. I always anxiously await the next Ilona Andrews' book...and I can already see that this series is going to be the same. I'm clearly already obsessed. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Grade: A-/B+

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Friday, December 19, 2014

Review: Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

Title: Finnikin of the Rock
Author: Melina Marchetta
Series: Lumatere Chronicles, Book 1
Genre: (Light) Fantasy
Release Date: 6 April 2010

Finnikin of the Rock and his guardian, Sir Topher, have not been home to their beloved Lumatere for ten years. Not since the dark days when the royal family was murdered and the kingdom put under a terrible curse. But then Finnikin is summoned to meet Evanjalin, a young woman with an incredible claim: the heir to the throne of Lumatere, Prince Balthazar, is alive.

Evanjalin is determined to return home and she is the only one who can lead them to the heir. As they journey together, Finnikin is affected by her arrogance . . . and her hope. He begins to believe he will see his childhood friend, Prince Balthazar, again. And that their cursed people will be able to enter Lumatere and be reunited with those trapped inside. He even believes he will find his imprisoned father.

But Evanjalin is not what she seems. And the truth will test not only Finnikin's faith in her . . . but in himself.

This was a hard book for me to rate, and I think my expectations had a lot to do with my disappointments. There were some aspects of it that were wonderful, and others that were much less so. I'll definitely read on in the series - no matter how averse I may be to the main character (in the next book), but this didn't Wow me as much as I was expecting. I'm going to try a bullet-point review because I just don't know how else to do this without going completely spoilery, or getting derailed by tangents.

Things Marchetta does Well:

1. Emotions. Good lord, the emotions that she pulled out of me in this book. Especially in regards to Trevanion and Beatriss' romance. Throughout the book she made me feel the despair, the hope, the worry, the anger, and the love. Every moment of it was real and filled with feeling.

2. Characters. Evanjalin, Finnikin, Trevanion, Sir Topher...all of them are fascinatingly real. They make mistakes, they have fears, and hopes, they try and keep pushing. Even when I wanted to shake some of them (okay, nearly all of them at some point or another), I still felt connected to them on a very visceral level. Except...for a particular character - whom I'm not sure can be redeemed in my eyes. I did ask while reading, in a status update, if Finnikin was really that thick....Answer: Yes. Yes, he is.

3. Interactions. Everything that happens between characters feel so utterly real. And this ties into the last point, but it's amazing to me that looking back I still feel so invested in these characters and their relationships with each other.

Things Marchetta does Okay:

4. So, the fantasy aspect of this is lacking for me. The "magic" is of the plot-device variety. It's there to do what it has to do, but never really feels like a vivid part of the world. Or most of it doesn't. The dream-walking was well integrated and interesting. I enjoyed that. But the curse? Meh. It was just there as a catalyst, quickly and (a bit too) easily removed in the end.

Things Marchetta Fumbles:

5. Plot. The entire plot rests on the premise of secrets and lies. One secret after another. And while it kept me turning pages, I was kind of irritated in the end that there were lies peppered in there as well. I was irritated that the truth just wasn't good enough. If a person can't make the right choice with the truth, then should their choice with a lie be trusted?

In the end, I enjoyed the story, but I have a few problems when looking back. But, first and foremost, I'm a character reader, and Marchetta does excel in all aspects of that. They're not cardboard cutouts, they're real, with all the positives and negatives that we, ourselves, hold within us. And that's something I can relate to and love.

I almost want to do a whole section with spoiler thoughts, but I think I'll refrain for now.

Grade: C+

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review: Whisper of Sin by Nalini Singh

Title: Whisper of Sin
Author: Nalini Singh
Series: Psy/Changeling, Book 0.6
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Release Date: 25 February 2014

New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh returns to her phenomenal Psy-Changeling world as a woman in peril finds herself in the arms of a dangerously beautiful shapeshifter…

San Francisco is under threat from a violent gang…a gang that has no idea who they’re challenging. The DarkRiver pack of leopard changelings has already claimed the city as their territory, and they will fight with wild fury to protect its residents. Emmett, a lethally trained leopard soldier, isn’t about to let outsiders muscle in on his home ground—especially when they target a human named Ria.

Emmett has one word for the smart stranger with her curvy body and tough spirit: mine.

Possessive, dominant, unyielding in his demands and desires, Emmett is unlike anyone Ria has ever before met. But while the sexy leopard changeling makes her body ignite, his kisses molten and his touch addicting, she’s no pushover and she has a few demands of her own. This leopard has met his match…

"Please note that Whisper of Sin is a reissue. It was first published in the multi-author anthology, Burning Up. This is the worldwide stand-alone ebook release for those who wanted to buy only this novella from the anthology.

For those of you who have Wild Invitation, this novella wasn't in that collection." - Nalini Singh

I read this originally when it first came out in the Burning Up anthology and, as always, adored any time that we get to spend within the Psy/Changeling world.

This novella takes us back and shows how DarkRiver began to exert it's claim on San Francisco, slowly - and more importantly, subtly - eroding the control of the Psy. When Ria's attacked one night on her way home because her family refused to pay the protection money of a new gang in town, Emmett steps up. After he and Dorian rescue her while on their patrols, it's clear that DarkRiver's right to hold the city is being threatened. If they don't take care of the gang, and soon, they'll lose their right and other predatory changelings can come in, trying to take over.

Ria thinks that's all Emmett wants to be close to her for - to protect her. But he has far more delicious thoughts in mind.

I enjoyed the banter between them, the progression of their relationship, and the fact that Ria stands up to Emmett - not letting him run all over her. Emmett, for his part, is eminently sweet.

I also really love the way Nalini Singh slides in little tidbits on how the relationships work between Humans and Changelings (or Psy and Changelings, Psy/Human, etc) - things like perfume, or how to have private conversations. Small details that make everything seem so much more real.

Nalini Singh is one of the few authors that I have consistently trusted to provide me with a fun, romantic, and sexy novella. This is no exception to that rule.

Grade: B

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