The Stories You Tell

Rating:
Author: Kristen Lepionka
Genres: Mystery
Pub. date: Jul. 9, 2019 (read Mar. 2019)
Series: Roxane Weary #3

Thanks for Minotaur Books for providing me with a free advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This series is fantastic! I really liked the first book, but honestly, they just keep getting better and better. Roxane is such a great character and I love the balance Lepionka has found between the mystery element and the development of her recurring characters. The secondary characters change up a bit from book to book, but I love Roxane’s relationship with her family and her growing friendships with Tom and Shelby. No comment on Catherine.

Lepionka is a really great writer. I’ve said this in other reviews, but I know she’s great at connecting her readers with her characters because of the level of frustration you feel for them. The characters are extremely compelling and her plots of so relevant to today’s society. They are always, predominantly, mystery novels, but she weaves a lot of relevant social commentary into her stories that makes them so much more meaningful and relatable to her readers. She didn’t have to do anything special with these books and I think they still could have been successful, but I love that she takes the effort to make her stories diverse.

I love that Roxane is bi-sexual and I love how she incorporated some thoughtful commentary on racial justice and equality in this book. Her previous books have focused on the inequity that women face in the justice system and I like how she spent a little bit of time in this book looking at how black people are disenfranchised in the system and drawing attention to the ways in which white people don’t realize what kind of privilege they actually have.

I’m not going to get into the plot too much. At this point, the plot of the mystery doesn’t really matter to me, I’m here for Roxane. I would definitely recommend reading the series in order though because otherwise you’ll miss out on all the great character development! The only thing that wasn’t great about the book was that the transitions between scenes were very abrupt, with no break in structure to let us know the scene had changed. I think this is just a quirk of the ebook arc I had though and I’m expecting this will be changed in the finished copy.

So in conclusion, I highly recommend this series. I totally flew through this installment and read the whole thing in a single day!

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Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Julie C. Dao
Genres: Fantasy, Fairytale retelling
Pub date: Nov. 2018 (read Nov. 2018 on Audible)
Series: Rise of the Empress #2

Well, this was a huge disappointment after the surprisingly good first book, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns. I was not expecting to love the first book because I thought it was a Snow White retelling, and I’m not that into fairytale retellings. But it ended up being a retelling of the evil queen in snow white – her slow descent into evil and how she became to be so obsessed with beauty. I do love a good villain origin story, and this one was an Asian-inspired retelling full of all kinds of nastiness, so I thought it was a great twist of the classic fairytale.

In contrast, Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix was the boring Snow White retelling I thought I was getting in the first book. Honestly, you don’t even really need to have read the first book to read this one. The first book is told entirely from Xifeng’s point of view (evil queen), but this book is told from Jade’s point of view (snow white). In this book Xifeng is basically evil incarnate and Jade is the good girl out to save Feng Lu. It made me wonder why Dao spent so much time on Xifeng’s characterization in the first book if she was just going to abandon her in this book. I actually didn’t have a problem with this being a Snow White retelling, it just would have been so much more interesting if it was told from Xifeng’s point of view.

But Xifeng has basically lost her humanity in this book, so instead we get to listen to Jade’s inner monologue for 300 pages. Jade is the daughter of the late Empress Li-Wa (sorry, listened to this on Audiobook and can’t find the spelling), who Xifeng usurped in the last book. Xifeng didn’t want any of Li-Wa’s children around, so she sent Jade off to live in a monastery, thinking she would bear the Emperor new male heirs, and more or less forgot about her. However, Xifeng has been unable to produce an heir and calls Jade to the royal palace.

Up to this point, Jade had no idea that she was the lost princess, the true heir to the throne. So she struggles with suddenly being Royalty, but becomes indignant when she arrives at the palace and discovers how much her people have been suffering under Xifeng. She discovers that Xifeng is a servant of the Serpent God and has been killing women and eating their hearts to remain young, so Jade sets off on a quest to collect the dragon relics so that she can raise the lost dragon army (she is apparently the daughter of the Dragon Lord). She teams up with Ren, a young girl and warrior from the palace, and Koichi (again, not sure of spelling), who is a little person and Shiro’s son.

From there, this becomes a classic kind of fantasy quest novel. Jade, Ren, and Koichi travel around Feng Lu collecting the relics, hiding from the Serpent God and Kong, who is now Xifeng’s hunter. They meet a number of people and ghosts who help them along their journey and learn all kinds of stuff about these individuals, but honestly, I can’t remember half of it now or what the importance was, but I’m sure they would have been somewhat shocking twists had I cared at all about Jade.

That was probably my biggest complaint about this book. I just didn’t care about Jade. Okay, I was pretty into the fact that the main romantic relationship in this book involves a little person, but otherwise I just found Jade such a do-gooder that it was boring. She supposedly doesn’t know she’s a princess, but as soon as she finds out, she’s suddenly like the ultimate philanthropist and all obsessed with ending the suffering of her people. She didn’t care at all about the empire before finding out she was a princess and now she’s all incensed about it and has to like swoop in and save the world. She’s constantly trying to be this good, noble person and it was just sooo boring. Like she tries to save Ren from having to work by making her a fake handmaiden, and Ren is just like, “B*tch, don’t feel bad for me, I could kick your ass and I’m not too proud to work.” And then Jade kept trying to send Ren and Koichi away cause she just couldn’t bear for something bad to happen to them. Like, get over yourself Jade, you would literally be dead 8 times without them and this quest belongs to them just as much as it does you. Just because you’re the princess, you’re no more entitled to take down Xifeng than Ren, whose grandmother was murdered by her.

So yeah, mostly I thought Jade was just like, super boring, and I didn’t care at all about the relics or their quest to find them. Honestly, this whole book felt like it was just a lead up to the real plot. I was interested in Xifeng and the havoc she was wreaking on the empire, and I did want to see a showdown between Xifeng and Jade, but I didn’t care at all about the quest and the relics. It just all felt like filler to me and overall I found the plot disappointing. Plus, like where were the seven dwarves? If you’re going to do a Snow White retelling you should at least commit to the dwarves.

And finally, I really didn’t like the ending. The entire book is narrated by Jade, but then when she goes into her enchanted apple sleep it gets narrated by like 3 other characters in her absence and it just felt really disjointed. Plus, Dao tries to tie the ending back to Xifeng’s story with a few random twists relating to the first book. I think she was trying to make us empathize with Xifeng again, but it just didn’t work at all for me. You can’t have her be this psycho, evil queen for 90% of the book and then try and make us care about her again.

So overall, I was really not impressed with this book. I was so excited to read it and I thought the story had so much potential. I just wish it had been from Xifeng’s point of view. What is Jade like from her perspective? I don’t want to totally discount the book though because it is possible this has some important cultural aspects that I’m just missing as a white person. I also just finished The Poppy War, which is a historical fantasy about China that I’ve heard holds a lot of meaning for Chinese People. This said though, I enjoyed The Poppy War a lot more than this, even though I probably didn’t pick up a lot of the nuances that people more familiar with the culture and history would.

Fence

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: C.S. Pacat & Johanna the Mad
Genres: Graphic Novel, Young Adult, Fiction
Pub date: July 2018 (read Nov. 2018)

Disclaimer: This is a review for the first 3 volumes. However, I’ve kept it spoiler free so read on!

Why is this so good?!?! I really don’t understand, it’s just a comic about a couple of pretentious boys trying to make their high school’s fencing team, and yet I got so into it! Usually I just wait for the volumes to be released, but after reading the first volume, I had to go in search of the individual issues because it was just so good! (and I knew I would forget who all the boys were) I just finished issue #12, which encompasses the first 3 volumes, I’m just going to review them all here.

Fence is ultimately about two freshman fencers, Nicholas and Seiji, but it features an extended cast of secondary characters. Nicholas is new on the fencing scene and just really wants to be a fencer like his estranged father was. Nicholas is lacking in technique because of his lack of training, but he is very fast and has natural instinct. In contrast, Seiji has been fencing his whole life and is very technically skilled. He’s ranked 2nd nationally to fencing all-star Jesse.

Everyone expected Seiji to go to Exton, an elite fencing academy, but at the start of term, he shows up at Kings Row, expecting to win one of the 3 coveted spots on the fencing team, even though he’s only a freshman. Nicholas has won a fencing scholarship to Kings Row, but he’s only allowed to stay if he makes the team. In a surprise twist of fate, Nicholas and Seiji are roommates and quickly become rivals.

The entire first 3 volumes are just about the tryouts to make the fencing team. The boys compete in 24 matches and the top 3 ranked fencers make the school team to compete against Exton. It shouldn’t be so interesting to read 12 issues about high school fencers competing to make a school fencing team (like who actually cares about fencing these days?), but it is extremely readable and enthralling. Fence has a great extended cast that explores the rivalries and relationships that exist between all the fencers, what it means to be a good fencer, and a good sport, and how our familial relationships and support affects our abilities and psyche. There’s lots of drama between the fencers, but there’s also camaraderie. You come to like each and every one of the fencers (and the coach) and we start getting the back stories of some of the fencers.

My assumption is that after the team is established in the first 3 volumes, Pacat will expand the series to include Jesse (the #1 ranked fencer) and the rivalries between Exton and Kings Row. The first 3 volumes were fantastic and I can’t wait to see where this series goes in the future!

Lethal White

Rating:
Author: Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub date: Sep. 2018 (read Oct. 2018)
Series: Cormoran Strike Book #4

Wow, I feel like I have been waiting for this book FOREVER… pretty much because I have been. I know Rowling’s busy making movies and writing plays, but I love her writing so much, I always crave more books from her (not screenplays – totally doesn’t not count in my opinion).

Okay, so I obviously loved this because I love everything Rowling writes and I’m obsessed with both Robin and Strike, but I do have one compliant about this novel. It’s nothing unexpected, but I’m kind of tired of Rowling’s style of mystery reveal. I do think she is genius at writing mystery. Harry Potter has some of the best mystery elements and I love the way Rowling can carry a story arc (and mystery plot) through several novels. Prisoner of Azkaban is the favourite book of so many Harry Potter fans and most of what it made it so beloved for me is Sirius’ storyline. Rowling does a wonderful job misleading us to his notoriety throughout the entire book, only to completely blow everyone’s minds with like 3 chapters of plots twists at the end.

I adore this structure in Prisoner of Azkaban and I liked it at the start of the Strike novels, but I find she relies heavily on this structure in all of her mysteries, with the exception maybe of Career of Evil, which I found very refreshing in that she only had 4 (I think?) suspects for the serial killer. Lethal White reminded me a little bit of The Silkworm in that I knew I was never going to guess the mystery. There’s such a large cast of characters and their relationships are so intertwined that I knew there was going to be a huge convoluted reveal at the end that I was never going to guess (same as The Silkworm). Because I knew this, I put little effort in trying to even guess at the mystery, which takes a bit of the fun out of it. I was never going to be able to guess this one and I was just a little tired of the format of the multi-chapter reveal at the end of the book. I wish Rowling would give us a little more to go on. She always indicates when Strike has a revelation, but she almost never reveals it, leaving us in suspense until the very last minute. I would rather experience the discoveries with Strike in real time. It still leaves room for last minute reveals of motivation, but I’d prefer to get bits and pieces of the puzzle throughout rather that as a huge info dump at the end of the novel. It doesn’t work that well in a 650 page novel because that’s a lot of mystery to try and keep your reader engaged in without ever throwing us a bone.

So that’s my beef with this novel and Rowling’s writing style in general, but let’s talk about what I like about this book, because there was a lot that I liked too. Disclaimer, there are minor spoilers ahead about some of the characters, but nothing about the mystery element.

First of all, I adore Robin and Strike, as individuals and as partners. In previous novels, Strike has been the one slowly falling apart, pushing himself too hard, failing to take care of himself, making desperate decisions and poor romantic choices. He still pushes himself too hard and is as emotionally unavailable as ever, but I feel like he finally got some of his shit together. He acknowledges that he’s a bit of an asshole and that he treats his body like shit – he even takes a case for monetary reasons instead of moral ones, but he ultimately is still looking for the good in people and to set things right by exposing the truth. He also acknowledges some of his repressed feelings for Robin and I liked that he really looked out for her and her best interests.

In contrast, Robin is the one falling apart in this book and it’s about damn time. I like Strike, but Robin is definitely my favourite character. I love her passion and compassion. She’s intelligent and clever and I really felt this came across in this book. Strike gives her much more challenging assignments and I liked watching her pursue her own means of investigation. The conflict with Matthew finally comes to a head and good riddance, it’s about time. I love Robin’s anger in this book. Women are always taught to be amenable and nice no matter what the circumstances, but I loved watching Robin finally say enough is enough and finally get mad. Robin and Strike’s character development is really what makes this such as a great series. In my opinion, the mystery is only half of what matters, creating complex, flawed, but likeable characters is what makes a book great.

While I do have my complaints on the mystery structure, I love the amount of thought that Rowling puts into her plotlines. There are no throwaway comments. Every detail matters and you never know what minor comment may turn out to be a plot point of huge significance. Every character has a role to play and Rowling does a great job a crafting a complex cast of characters. This was a bit on the long side for a mystery novel, but I was pretty much on the edge of my seat for the entire second half of the book. I love that there’s just as much character drama as mystery. My only regret is that I read this way too fast and who knows how long it’s going to take for Rowling to give us another book. At least no cliffhanger this time!

Allied

Rating: 
Author: Amy Tintera
Series: Ruined (Book 3)
Genres: Fantasy
Pub Date: May 2018 (read May 2018)

I’m between 3 and 4 stars on this book, but after writing this review I’ve settled on 3 stars. Allied is the final book in the Ruined Trilogy. I won’t give a whole lot of a plot synopsis because I don’t want to spoil the first two books, but if you haven’t read the first 2 you should probably skip this post. I’ll keep this review spoiler free for Allied though if you have read the first 2.

I was pretty much trash for the first book in this series. I didn’t expect to love Ruined, but it was so fun and fast-paced that I just got totally pulled into the world. I loved Cas and Em in the first books and Olivia is straight up crazy and I was just totally flabbergasted by her character in the first 2 books. I didn’t love Avenged as much as Ruined and while I liked Allied and was excited to return to these characters, it’s not quite the series finale I was hoping for.

Let’s start with what I liked. This was still super fast-paced and enthralling. We get perspectives from a larger cast of characters and I enjoyed the addition of Gallo and Mateo to the story. What I liked so much about Ruined was that it’s not a traditional good vs. evil narrative and the idea is that there’s not really a right and wrong side. Both parties have made mistakes and harmed other people and at some point you have to start working at forgiveness and reparations instead of continually chasing after revenge and violence. I really liked Cas in this novel and I thought that his character had some really great insights.

I loved when he was reflecting on how easy and good things used to be for him, but how he had to acknowledge that while things were good then for him, they were not good for Em, and so you can’t romanticize the past because the past is painful for some people. I thought this was so relevant to America (and Canada too!) and Trump’s whole “Make America Great Again” approach to politics. Sure, America was great for rural white folks 30 years ago, but that success was also built on racism and oppression and you can’t romanticize it just because things were good for you.

I also liked that Cas and Em arrived at a point where they were able to talk about their families again. Even though their parents both did bad things, they were still loving parents in their own ways and I loved that they were able to look fondly on the memories that were positive, while acknowledging that their parents still did bad and inexcusable things.

There are things I didn’t like that much about this novel though. While it was still a fast-paced book overall, I thought the pacing was a little off in the middle. We go from battle to battle and then all of a sudden there are all these political negotiations in the middle. I thought it was super cool that Tintera basically disbanded a monarchy in favour of democratic government in this book, but I thought the location within the plot was so odd. She ramps up the reader with all these battles and escape scenes and then suddenly there’s just all this boring negotiation. It brought the plot down a little and I thought it was overdone and a bit unneccesary.

I was also a little over the romance in this novel. I’m sorry, but Cas and Em have pretty much already decided to be together before this novel and the chemistry just wasn’t really there anymore. I don’t want to be super critical because I still liked reading about them and having just read A Court of Frost & Starlight (which was way worse and a lesson in how to totally kill a romance dead), this wasn’t actually that bad. I do think the author tried to re-focus the romantic emphasis on several other characters, but they just didn’t work that well for me either. I really liked Aren and Iria, but they both just fell a little flat for me in this novel. Aren just doesn’t make mistakes anymore apparently and Iria wasn’t as moving for me in this book.

My biggest criticism is just that I didn’t think this book was clever. Characters always find themselves in these crazy situations that you have no idea how they’re going to get themselves out of and then the author writes this crazy sequence to resolve things, but that didn’t really happen in Allied. I was waiting for this epic showdown with Olivia and her cronies and things just kind of fizzle out. I feel like Tintera wrote herself into a situation that she couldn’t elegantly write herself out of and the action towards the end of the novel felt forced. I had also anticipated some plot twists and surprises from some of the secondary characters that just never materialized and left me feeling disappointed that the plot was so simple. I kept waiting for more.

Anyway, I did really like this series overall. I liked the writing and the fast-paced nature of the story. Was it perfect? no, but I did get a lot of enjoyment out of reading this series and I totally flew through each of the books.