BONUS BOOK: The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye

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“I think I see the past more kindly than it treated me.”

Genre: Fantasy, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Vika Andreyeva can summon the snow and turn ash into gold. Nikolai Karimov can see through walls and conjure bridges out of thin air. They are enchanters – the only two in Russia – and with the Ottoman Empire and the Kazakhs threatening, the tsar needs a powerful enchanter by his side. And so he initiates the Crown’s Game, a duel of magical skill. The victor becomes the Imperial Enchanter and the tsar’s most respected adviser. The defeated is sentenced to death. Raised on tiny Ovchinin Island her whole life, Vika is eager for the chance to show off her talent in the grand capital of Saint Petersburg. But can she kill another enchanter – even when his magic calls to her like nothing else ever has? For Nikolai, an orphan, the Crown’s Game is the chance of a lifetime. But his deadly opponent is a force to be reckoned with – beautiful, whip-smart, imaginative – and he can’t stop thinking about her. And when Pasha, Nikolai’s best friend and heir to the throne, also starts to fall for the mysterious enchantress, Nikolai must defeat the girl they both love… or be killed himself. As long-buried secrets emerge, threatening the future of the empire, it becomes dangerously clear – the Crown’s Game is not one to lose.”

Review: I desperately wish that I had read The Crown’s Game before I read The Night Circus, primarily because they have shockingly similar plots but, in my opinion, The Crown’s Game is more engaging and better written. Unfortunately, however, the plot felt extremely overused and predictable since I had read The Night Circus just last month (and given that The Night Circus was published in 2011 and The Crown’s Game was published this year, I have to wonder if there wasn’t a little bit of idea-swiping on Skye’s end). I was also easily frustrated with the “instalove” that kept cropping up, not only between Vika and Nikolai but also between Pasha and Vika. Given Skye’s extensive background in Russian history and culture, I was surprised that she used such stereotypical examples to illustrate the fact that the book did indeed take place in Russia (for example, Nikolai and Pasha meet at a bar where they drink lager and vodka and eat pickled herring). On a more positive note, The Crown’s Game did benefit from a well-placed plot and I loved seeing what Vika and Nikolai came up with as they attempted to best each other in their magical duel. Whereas the duel between Celia and Marco in The Night Circus NEVER felt like a duel, Vika and Nikolai at least started out trying to kill each other. The additional plot complexities that stemmed from Nikolai’s mostly dead mother and Vika’s pseudo-father/mentor were nice additions. In conclusion, The Crown’s Game ended up being a fairly unremarkable (but also unoffensive) book and I would definitely recommend this novel before recommending the extremely dense, slow read that is The Night Circus. I think my rating would have been higher had I read The Crown’s Game first.

Rating:

Three_Star

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BONUS BOOK: The Lady in Gold by Anne-Maric O’Connor

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“Klimt’s mosaic of Jewish patrons and friends would be pried apart, piece by piece, by men incapable of creating beauty but determined to steal it.”

Genre: Nonfiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “The spellbinding story, part fairy tale, part suspense, of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer; one of the most emblematic portraits of its time; of the beautiful, seductive Viennese Jewish salon hostess who sat for it; the notorious artist who painted it; the now vanished turn-of-the-century Vienna that shaped it; and the strange twisted fate that befell it. The Lady in Gold, considered an unforgettable masterpiece, one of the twentieth century’s most recognizable paintings, made headlines all over the world when Ronald Lauder bought it for $135 million a century after Klimt, the most famous Austrian painter of his time, completed the society portrait. Anne-Marie O’Connor, writer for The Washington Post, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, tells the galvanizing story of the Lady in Gold, Adele Bloch-Bauer; a dazzling Jewish society figure; daughter of the head of one of the largest banks in the Hapsburg Empire, head of the Oriental Railway, whose Orient Express went from Berlin to Constantinople; wife of Ferdinand Bauer, sugar-beet baron. The Bloch-Bauers were art patrons, and Adele herself was considered a rebel of fin de siecle Vienna (she wanted to be educated, a notion considered “degenerate” in a society that believed women being out in the world went against their feminine “nature”). The author describes how Adele inspired the portrait and how Klimt made more than a hundred sketches of her – simple pencil drawings on thin manila paper. And O’Connor writes of Klimt himself, son of a failed gold engraver, shunned by arts bureaucrats, called and artistic heretic in his time, a genius in ours. She writes of the Nazis confiscating the portrait of Adele from the Bloch-Bauers’ grand palais; of the Austrian government putting the painting on display, stripping Adele’s Jewish surname from it so that no clues to her identity (nor any hint of her Jewish origins) would be revealed. Nazi officials called the painting The Lady in Gold and proudly exhibited it in Vienna’s Baroque Belvedere Palace, consecrated in the 1930s as a Nazi institution. The author writes of the painting, inspired by the Byzantine mosaics Klimt had studied in Italy, with their exotic symbols and swirls, the subject an idol in a golden shrine. We see how, sixty years after it was stolen by the Nazis, the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer became the subject of a decade-long litigation between the Austrian government and the Bloch-Bauer heirs, how and why the U.S. Supreme Court became involved in the case, and how the Court’s decision had profound ramifications in the art world. A riveting social history; an illuminating and haunting look at turn-of-the-century Vienna; a brilliant portrait of the evolution of a painter; a masterfully told tale of suspense. And at the heart of it, the Lady in Gold – the shimmering painting and its equally irresistible subject, the fate of each intertwined forever.”

Review: Aside from my usual nonfiction of choice (typically books about the environment in general, the ocean more specifically), I have an odd interest in, and drawing to, books about art history. Having seen the movie version of The Lady in Gold, I was eager to get my hands on a less theatrical, more detailed look at the impressive history of Klimt’s most famous painting: Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Given the subtitle of this book (“The extraordinary tale of Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece, Portrait of Adele-Bloch Bauer), I was certain that The Lady in Gold would deliver. And it did deliver, but not necessarily in the ways I anticipated. A vast majority of the book (at least two-thirds) focused on what happened to many of the people in the Bloch-Bauer world before, during, and after the Nazi regime.

“On this level playing field, comedians cheered up depressed prisoners, and a kindly grocer with a fourth-grade education became the de facto camp therapist for those who were suicidal.”

Adele and Klimt’s moments in the spotlight were relatively short-lived, which is likely just a byproduct of history; both died before the Nazi movement really gained momentum. While the first section of the book did discuss the paintings’ commission, and the final section did discuss the litigation surrounding it, the bulk of the book involved heavily detailing the lives of many different Austrian Jews and Nazi members. It was often hard to keep everyone’ story lines straight and relate those story lines back to the portrait itself. In this way, I think the book is marketed a little duplicitiously (which often leads to poor reviews from me). In this particular case, however, I think The Lady in Gold is still an excellent book in spite of its deviations from what is expected. This book gave me the most detailed window into Nazi-occupied Austria that I have ever seen. The horrors and manipulations that millions of Jews were forced to contend with left me breathless. In The Lady in Gold, O’Connor does a good job of merging many different vignettes into a compelling read. All in all, I am glad that I read The Lady in Gold and think that this book, and the story of the Bloch-Bauer family and their friends, deserves a constant spot in bookstores and reading lists.

“The Nazis had smashed Adele’s world like a mirror. But Vienna still saw itself reflected in the shards.”

Rating:

Four_Star

BONUS BOOK: Cruel Crown by Victoria Aveyard

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“There is nothing so terrible as a story untold.”

Genre: Dystopian, Fantasy, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Two women on either side of the Silver and Red divide tell the stories no one else knows. Discover the truth of Norta’s bloody past in these two revealing prequels to the #1 New York Times bestseller Red Queen.

Queen Song: Queen Coriane, first wife of King Tiberias, keeps a secret diary – how else can she ensure that no one at the palace will use her thoughts against her? Coriane recounts her heady courtship with the crown prince, the birth of a new prince, Cal, and the potentially deadly challenges that lie ahead for her in royal life.

Steel Scars: Captain Farley was raised to be strong, but being tasked with planting the seeds of rebellion in Norta is a tougher job than expected. As she travels the land recruiting black market traders, smugglers, and extremists for her first attempt at an attack on the capital, she stumbles upon a connection that may prove to be the key to the entire operation – Mare Barrow.”

Review: I have discovered, largely through this blog, that I am not a fan of collections of short stories when they act as a companion to a larger series (Exhibit A: my largely unfavorable review of Happily Ever After, companion to the Selection series, https://bannedbookbrigade.wordpress.com/2016/04/13/bonus-book-happily-ever-after-by-kiera-cass/). However, I was willing to give Cruel Crown a try because I liked Red Queen and LOVED Glass Sword. While Queen Song definitely had its merits, I found Steel Scars to be incredibly boring. The majority of Steel Scars involved a lot of scene-setting and hard-to-read dispatches between Captain Farley and her Scarlet Guard supervisors. I think Steel Scars had the potential to be successful, especially because the reader gets to see how Shade Barrow and Captain Farley first meet. But Shade and Farley (two of my favorite supporting characters in the series) managed to completely bore me every time they interacted. I almost gave Cruel Crown two stars, thanks entirely to the interesting vantage point provided in Queen Song. But Queen Song was such a small portion of the book overall and I found it very difficult to finish the much-longer Steel Scars. Not worth the read, in my opinion (which is ironic, given that the best quote from the book was, “There is nothing so terrible as a story untold”).

Rating:

One_Star

BONUS BOOK: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

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“Usually he liked the quiet; in fact, he would have happily sewn most people’s lips shut. But when she wanted to, Inej had a way of making you feel her silence. It tugged at your edges.”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price – and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager

A runaway with a privileged past

A spy known as the Wraith

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes

Kaz’s crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction – if they don’t kill each other first.

Review: I had pretty high expectations going into Six of Crows,, given the wide critical acclaim this book has accrued since hitting shelves. I haven’t read Bardugo’s popular Grisha trilogy, which was partly by design; it has largely been described to me as a very stereotypical young adult series. So while I sacrificed early knowledge of the world that Six of Crows takes place in by skipping the Grisha trilogy, I also gave Bardugo my most unbiased attention. I am happy to say that I LOVED Six of Crows and have already marked my calendar for the day the sequel, Crooked Kingdom, comes out (September 27th). The real merit of Bardugo’s work lies in her impeccable ability to create characters with actual meat on their bones. I can’t even pick a favorite when it comes to the “six of crows” that make up this heist team:

A convict with a thirst for revenge – Matthias Helvar, a Fjerdan warrior with questionable loyalties who landed in Hellgate (a Ketterdam prison) after Nina betrayed him.

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager – Jesper Fahey, Kaz’s right-hand man with a serious gambling problem and adrenaline addiction.

A runaway with a privileged past – Wylan Van Eck, son of a wealthy merchant who puts the crows up to a near-impossible heist. He has an affinity for explosives.

A spy known as the Wraith – Inej Ghafa, an acrobat turned prostitute turned spider for Kaz’s gang, the Dregs.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums – Nina Zenik, a feisty Grisha who can kill a man with nothing more than a flick of her wrist.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes – Kaz Brekker, the guarded mastermind behind the nearly impossible heist.

These characters leap off of the pages. Six of Crows truly benefits by having each chapter narrated by a different member of the heist team. I particularly enjoyed Nina and Inej’s chapters, largely because Bardugo wrote two refreshingly kick-ass, hilarious female characters. I loved this exchange between the two, which occurs while Inej is recovering from a knife injury sustained during a battle with a rival gang.

“Do not bend,” Nina snapped. “Do not leap. Do not move abruptly. If you don’t promise to take it easy, I’ll slow your heart and keep you in a coma until I can be sure you’ve fully recovered.”

“‘Nina Zenik, as soon as I figure out where you’ve put my knives, we’re going to have words.”

I couldn’t stop feverishly turning the pages, trying to figure out if and how this band of misfits would pull off the impossible task of kidnapping an imprisoned scientist from the Fjerdan fortress known as the Ice Court. This novel certainly rings true to the movie Ocean’s 11 (which I also love). It was a fast read with incredible characters and I can’t wait until the sequel is published!

“Kaz leaned back. ‘What’s the easiest way to steal a man’s wallet?’

‘Knife to the throat?’ asked Inej.

‘Gun in the back?’ said Jesper.

‘Poison in his cup?’ suggested Nina.

‘You’re all horrible,’ said Matthias.

Kaz rolled his  eyes.”

Rating:

Five_Star

BONUS BOOK: The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James

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“Jayan may have been our lifeboat in those days, but I would build a great ship of myself. I would keep the sea so calm my mother would hardly feel it shift beneath her feet. But ships take a long time to build, much longer than it takes to build a dream. In the meantime Jayan would give her no peace.”

Genre: Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “From the critically acclaimed author of Atlas of Unknowns and Aerogrammes, a tour de force set in South India that plumbs the moral complexities of the ivory trade through the eyes of a poacher, a documentary filmmaker, and, in a feat of audacious imagination, an infamous elephant known as the Gravedigger. Orphaned by poachers as a calf and sold into a life of labor and exhibition, the Gravedigger breaks free of his chains and begins terrorizing the countryside, earning his name from the humans he kills and then tenderly buries. Manu, the studious younger son of a rice farmer, loses his cousin to the Gravedigger’s violence and is drawn, with his wayward brother, Jayan, into the sordid, alluring world of poaching. Emma is a young American working on a documentary with her college best friend, who witnesses the porous boundary between conservation and corruption and finds herself in her own moral gray area: a risky affair with the veterinarian who is the film’s subject. As the novel hurtles toward its tragic climax, these three story lines fuse into a wrenching meditation on love and betrayal, duty and loyalty, and the vexed relationship between man and nature. With lyricism and suspense, Tania James animates the rural landscapes where Western idealism clashes with local reality; where a farmer’s livelihood can be destroyed by a rampaging elephant; where men are driven to poaching. In James’s arrestingly beautiful prose, The Tusk That Did the Damage blends the mythical and the political to tell a wholly original, utterly contemporary story about the majestic animal, both god and menace, that has mesmerized us for centuries.”

Review: “He would come to be called the Gravedigger. There would be other names: the Master Executioner, the Jackfruit Freak, the great Sooryamangalam Sreeganeshan. In his earliest days, his name was a sound only his kin could make in the hollows of their throats, and somewhere in his head, fathoms deep, he kept it close.” So begins the first chapter of The Tusk That Did the Damage, narrated from the point of view of a wayward, abused elephant. The reader learns early on that the Gravedigger’s life has been anything but easy. After watching his mother be murdered by poachers for the simple prize of her tail, he is captured, alongside his baby sister, and sold into a life of captivity. The chapters narrated by the Gravedigger were absolutely the best part of this novel; indeed, the main reason I couldn’t give this spectacular book a five-star rating is because the Gravedigger seems to lose purchase on narration as the book continues. Some of his chapters aren’t even really narrated from his point of view, but rather from those of his keepers. There were many questions posed by other characters (ex. Why had the Gravedigger returned to that particular area of South India after an absence of almost ten years? Why did he attack Leela? And why did he let Manu go?) that could have easily been addressed during the Gravedigger’s monologues but weren’t. In my opinion, too much time was allocated to the documentary filmmaker’s storyline and not enough was given to the Gravedigger. I appreciate the fact that the subject of the documentary, famous veterinarian Ravi, is essential to the overall storyline but I could have done without the constant bickering between Emma (the film technician) and Teddy (the filmmaker who survives on his father’s charity). Manu, whose life has been impacted by the Gravedigger in more ways than one, falls into poaching after his uncle asks him to slay the elephant that killed his son. Initially, the three storylines seem only connected by the fact that elephants play a significant role in all of them. But as the plot progresses, they become more and more intertwined. The Tusk That Did the Damage is a remarkable feat of storytelling and imagination. I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good story and fast plot. It also forced me to take a long hard look at my ideas regarding elephants in captivity. Over the past six years, I’ve become firmly immersed in the marine mammal captivity debate. But people often ask me how I feel about animals like elephants and lions being in captivity, and I never know how to respond. The perspective of the Gravedigger is obviously born of author Tania James’s own perceptions and emotions, but I can’t help but feel that she really got to the root of what it’s like to be a captive elephant. This book has certainly inspired me to become more educated on the subject of elephants in captivity, and I’m sure it would inspire other readers to do the same.

Rating:

Four_Star

BONUS BOOK: The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig

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“I bit my lip to keep it from trembling; he’d let me go a long time ago. After all, you can only hold one person tight if you’re holding on with both hands.”

Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Nix has spent her entire life aboard her father’s ship, sailing across the centuries, across the world, across myth and imagination. As long as her father has a map for it, he can sail to any time, any place, real or imagined: nineteenth-century China, the land from One Thousand and One Nights, a mythic version of Africa. Along the way they have found crewmates and friends, and even a disarming thief who could come to mean much more to Nix. But the end to it all looms closer every day. Her father is obsessed with obtaining the one map, 1868 Honolulu, that could take him back to his lost love, Nix’s mother. Even though getting it-and going there-could erase Nix’s very existence. For the first time, Nix is entering unknown waters. She could find herself, find her family, find her own fantastical ability, her own epic love. Or she could disappear.”

Review: I was drawn to The Girl from Everywhere because of A) its amazing cover and B) its EPIC “Book Jacket Synopsis.” What’s not to love about a time-traveling pirate ship with an obsessive captain and a soul-searching daughter? In the end, however, The Girl from Everywhere ended up being a really big disappointment. One thing that particularly let me down was that the crew of the Temptation didn’t spend that much time actually time-traveling. They made it to 1868 Honolulu within the first six or seven chapters and, while that version of Honolulu wasn’t quite right, their attempts to problem-solve were largely conducted from the safety of the harbor. Certain parts of the plot also ended up being really confusing (which could easily be due to the fact that this book simply didn’t hold my attention enough to help me navigate through the more intricate sections). I also felt like Heilig completely overused metaphors in her writing. Every chapter felt like a metaphor dump and very much reminded me of my middle school poetry class days, when I became fixated on metaphors for an entire year and constantly used them in my writing. But drawing a million analogies doesn’t make someone a talented writer and it actually ended up being quite tiring to read. Aside from Nix’s dad (and Temptation captain), Slate, and the colorful first mate Bee (who is convinced that her dead wife, Ayen, is still with her and constantly gets her into mischief), the rest of the characters were bland and one dimensional. I was also disappointed in the description of how Slate actually Navigates. When he finally agrees to teach Nix, the details are shockingly vague and (of course) she gets it exactly right on the first try. Despite having an amazing foundation behind it, the plot fell flat and I was happy to be done with The Girl from Everywhere.

Rating:

Two_Star

BONUS BOOK: Throne of Glass by Sarah Maas

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“Still, the image haunted his dreams throughout the night: a lovely girl gazing at the stars, and the stars who gazed back.”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “When magic has gone from the world, and a vicious king rules from his throne of glass, an assassin comes to the castle. She does not come to kill, but to win her freedom. If she can defeat twenty-three killers, thieves, and warriors in a competition to find the greatest assassin in the land, she will become the King’s Champion and be released from prison. Her name is Celaena Sardothien. The Crown Prince will provoke her. The Captain of the Guard will protect her. And a princess from a foreign land will become the one thing Celaena never thought she’d have again: a friend. But something evil dwells in the castle – and it’s there to kill. When her competitors start dying, horribly, one by one, Celaena’s fight for freedom becomes a fight for survival – and a desperate quest to root out the source of the evil before it destroys her world.”

Review: The Throne of Glass series has been on my hit-list for months now. Given that my favorite coworker constantly gushes about this book to any customer who will listen to her, I knew that I had to give the series a shot. All in all, I think Throne of Glass was an interesting start to a series that I will likely continue reading. It didn’t wow me with a truly fantastical new world or extremely compelling characters, but I also couldn’t put it down. At times I found myself frustrated with Celaena, particularly as she tried to discover who was killing the Champions (it’s painfully obvious, yet she has the wrong idea until she literally sees the culprit preparing for a kill). For being the land’s greatest and smartest assassin, she was a pretty terrible detective. She was also somehow simultaneously superficial and badass, which was perplexing. The “Book Jacket Synopsis” promised a vicious assassin, which Celaena is, but it also delivered a girl who was obsessed with her looks and whether or not the various men in her life were attracted to her. All of the different challenges that Celaena had to pass on her quest to become the King’s Champion were interesting (somewhat Hunger Games-esque) and Throne of Glass is one book where I felt like the love triangle played out fairly well (i.e., I didn’t want to strangle every character involved every time they interacted).  At this point, I’m not committed to finishing the series but I am definitely committed to finishing the next book!

Rating:

Three_Star