Jade Dragon Mountain

When I looked at my TBR list the other day and realized that I am into my September ARCs already, I sat back onto my heels a bit. How are we already this late into the year? This weekend marked our one year anniversary in Dallas. We have been here for a WHOLE YEAR! What a ride it has been.

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I’ve had Jade Dragon Mountain in my queue for a long time…for some reason I received it way in advance. It felt strange to finally pick it up. This is Elsa Hart’s debut novel, and she has done a pretty decent job with it.

The story takes place in 1708 during the Qing Dynasty. Kangxi Emperor is passionate about astronomy and has calculated that an eclipse will be visible in Dayan. A festival is being prepared for his arrival. Li Du, an exile and imperial librarian, must visit his magistrate cousin on his way to Tibet, and arrives during the preparations. While he is there, a Jesuit priest is murdered, and Li Du sets out to find the killer before the emperor arrives.

Jade Dragon Mountain is part historical fiction, part Sherlockian mystery. I was fascinated by the Chinese lore and history–although most of the actual characters I think were made up, excepting the Emperor himself, the facts about the Jesuits and Kangxi’s fascination with astrology, all of that were real. A festival like this could have really happened. We are discussing this in my Coursera class–the art of historical fiction requires the author to stretch the truth just enough to convince the reader to believe the lie.

The mystery portion of the story was a bit of fun as well. It loops around and around, providing the bits of science and historical context, all while giving us a Sherlock/Watson kind of banter between Li Du and Hamza. Hamza is even a storyteller…which, hello, today he would TOTALLY be a blogger! *wink* Ok, maybe that part is a bit of a stretch, but I couldn’t help but make the jump. Fellow Johnlockers will understand.

Jade Dragon Mountain comes out September 1 and is bound to interest any fellow historical fiction lovers. It’s a great debut for Elsa Hart and I’ll be interesting to see what she comes up with next!

 

NetGalley provided this ARC for an unbiased review. Releases September 1.

 

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Reading as an Experience

When I approach a new book, I often know very little about it.

Many have been on my TBR for years–recommendations from acquaintances long forgotten–“Oh, you should read this!” Any one who finds out how much I read has a book for me, so it goes on The List. Bestsellers often end up on there, popular books making the rounds on Tumblr, and of course, the Boxall 1001. The List is over 3,000 titles long.

I will usually read a brief description of an ARC before I request it, but even then, it’s a month or two before I actually read it, since I prefer to wait until just before release to do the review. I have a general idea of most of the popular classic novels, but just an outline or topic. Only in the rare occasion that I really love the author and have been anxiously waiting a release, or it’s a book with a huge publicity push will I actually have a strong knowledge base before beginning.

Why do I do so little research about the books I read? Two simple reasons.

  1. I read almost a book a day. At that volume, it would be impossible for me to read pre-reviews on every single book. Nope, can’t do it.
  2. The biggest reason, though, is that I’d much rather go into a book blind. That way, every twist and turn is new, every character I meet is unexpected. It’s the same reason I often don’t watch every movie trailer anymore. I want to experience the book fresh. Sometimes with ARCs I hardly even pay attention to who the author is. I take notes with my reactions, mark down quotes, etc. With difficult books, I will often Wiki it, to make sure I am understanding what is happening–though I don’t usually do that until later in the story, or afterwards, unless I am really confused.

Reading for me is an immersive experience, and I try to get as much out of it as possible. It is enjoyable, but it is no longer just a hobby. I learn a great deal from the books I read, and so I have expanded the breadth of what I am taking in.

I’ve discussed this multiple times here before–how much I read, what I read, how I do it. I won’t get into that now. But learning is important to me, and I get really excited about it.

 

However, I’ve had a few conversations about reading as an experience this week. Not everyone reads the same way I do. And you know what, THAT IS OK!

I had one conversation where we geeked out about the toxic relationships in Wuthering Heights and analyzed the perception of that novel as a romance vs what the book really is. We talked about how we think all classics are well-written because the language is so much different than modern day English, but in reality, the authors fought with each other about their writing style as much as we do now.

But you know what also makes me really excited? Talking to someone who struggled with reading for years, hating it because they had trouble with dyslexia or any other reading disorder. But then someone gave them Harry Potter (or Twilight or Percy Jackson or INSERT BOOK HERE) and it opened up words for them. And it may take them a month to read one book but now they can do it and we can geek out together about our favorite stories. And it has nothing to do with the great masters of writing or the state of the world. It’s just words on a page that fit together to make a story that we all can share.

 

My point is this–read what you like. For years I read Nora Roberts and Rachel Gibson smut. I read every JD Robb In Death book in order for like 4-5 years. Maybe longer. That’s no longer my thing, but if it’s yours GREAT! If you’re an adult who loves YA, thumbs up. If you’re a kid who likes adult fiction, YES! Comics, newspapers, magazines, shampoo bottles? Done.

I’m kind of joking about the shampoo bottles, but I can’t say I haven’t done it when there’s nothing else in the bathroom.

Paperbacks, hard covers, ereaders, audiobooks. All valid sources. Guys, let’s stop arguing about what people like to read, and get excited about everyone who loves it as much as we do. Bookworms have gotten made fun of since the beginning of time. Let’s not beat up on each other too.

I firmly believe that reading is a process. It starts with that first book we fall in love with, and we just keep going. Every next book drags us a little further down the line. Maybe one day we step out from our normal genre into something new. Maybe next time it’s a bit more advanced than what we are used to. That process can be fast, or it may take a long time and be really gradual–and it may change hardly at all. My grandfather read Westerns his entire life…until the last year or two when he started reading Amish Christian fiction. So don’t let me or anyone else pressure you to step outside your comfort zone, but I do encourage it, when you’re ready.

There is a whole world of books out there! And you know I have a full List of recommendations for you!

Happy reading everyone!

Bradstreet Gate

Graduating from Harvard often means that you will be starting a life of wealth and high pillars. The 1%. For the last four years, you’ve worked hard, studied hard…and of course, probably partied a little hard too. Graduation should be a celebration, you’ve done it! Life can begin.

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However, for Georgia, Charlie, and Alice…things didn’t quite go that way. Bradstreet Gate is the story of how their graduation year at Harvard went very wrong, when a classmate was murdered, allegedly by a professor they trusted.

My first thought when I started reading this book was, “Ok…this sounds an awful lot like How to Get Away with Murder.” And since I love that show…I was ok with it. Really though, it’s not at all the same plot, except the creepy teacher/student love affair thing.

Robin Kirman is going to be an author to watch–she writes characters brilliantly, on the same level as Gillian Flynn. There are two people here that I want to open their brains and just rummage around, to see what is going on. One is a textbook novel sociopath. That person is perfection–one that you love to hate immediately. The other will have you guessing the entire book. I am not going to tell you which is which because the kicker of these two characters is…which one actually committed the murder?

Bradstreet Gate‘s subtle creep factor just nails it the whole time. The story itself is wonderful, and then interwoven is this nagging feeling that you are being watched and studied. I kept thinking, “Why is this called a thriller? It’s really not that thrilling?” And then a chill would run down my spine out of nowhere. Oohhh, there it is.

Great debut, Robin Kirman. I’ll be looking for more from you!

 

Blogging for Books sent this to me for an unbiased review.

 

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The Deerslayer

Did you know that The Last of the Mohicans is actually a series? We see series all the time now, but we don’t think about them much back in the 1800s. Maybe they happened more than I realize. I’ve seen books with multiple volumes and one title, but this is the first I’ve seen in an actual series like this.

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James Fenimore Cooper wrote The Leatherstocking Tales about an adventurer called Natty Bumppo–a white man who was raised among the Delaware Indians in the what is now New York. Even though he was raised among the Native Americans, he loathes the idea of harming his own kind. He hunts (giving him the nickname of Deerslayer), but he does not like the idea of war. He crosses paths with two white men, Hurry Harry and Floating Tom who have taken up scalping for trade, and try to convince him to do it with them. He tries to convince them to stop, but they don’t listen and are trapped by the dangerous Huron tribe.

This book…I just…have really mixed feelings.

I liked Bumppo’s character. He’s a good man, and he just wants to be left alone in the woods. Also, he’s asexual. He has a chance to marry the beautiful girl, and he says, “Meh…no thanks, I think I’ll go back and head off back in the trees, but thanks. Let’s just be friends, k?” He joins the fight because he has to get the idiots out of danger, but I got the idea that it was really really complicated and was just messing things up for him. Towards the end, Judith asks him if he wanted to fight and he tells her that while he can now claim the title of Warrior, he hates it and fights only out of necessity.

Also, the descriptions of the land are beautiful. This is written by someone who has spent a great deal of time in upstate New York. My Coursera professor added this to our historical fiction syllabus–which is why I am reading it now–and he showed us a picture of the lake Cooper references. The details are perfect, down to the exact spherical boulder on the shoreline.

However, I struggled a great deal with the racial context. I think sometimes it is hard for me to remove myself culturally from what I know now about the struggles/pain white men have caused in this country. I’m not even sure if that sentence made any sense. But even though I know in my head that Cooper was using the terminology that his characters would have called “injins” and “red men,” it still just makes me cringe. Bumppo and Hurry Harry have a pretty heated debate about the differences between white men and red men–Bumppo is trying to convince Harry that all men are equal, even if culture and tradition is different–and it just gets really ugly. It hurts my heart to know that I could pick that conversation up, take out “red” put in “black” and drop that conversation pretty much anywhere in the US right now, and it would still fit exactly.

I don’t talk about that subject much, mostly because I don’t know what to say, and what I mean will never come out right. But that part of the book really got to me, and I couldn’t leave it out.

There isn’t much else–the book is a little hard to follow at times. It is pretty chaotic. People have multiple names and there isn’t a whole lot of setting buildup. This is one that I read Wiki before I reviewed to make sure I understood what I read. I’m not ashamed to admit it, people!

This isn’t really a book I’d recommend, unless you really like old adventure stories. But, I know I’m going to have to read The Last of the Mohicans at some point for the Boxall 1001, so I stuck it out.

Seriously though, I am going to make someone else write my TBR for September. Why did I do this to myself? WAR WAR WAR DEPRESSED WARWARWAR DARK WAR

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The Banished of Muirwood

I don’t know if you have noticed but I have been reading some pretty HEAVY stuff lately. Four of the reviews I’ve done this month have had the word “dark” in them. Two of the others have been about war. Whoa, Haley. I think it’s time to back read something lighthearted, and soon.

You guys ok, out there? Sorry for all the doom and gloom! It wasn’t on purpose, I promise!

I’d love to tell you this review is better…but, it’s another book of war. *grimaces* Sorry….but it is a magical war, so that has to count for something. Stick with me.

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Jeff Wheeler apparently woke up from a dream one night with a girl in his head. He luckily had paper in his nightstand and ferociously began scribbling about her evil father and the man hired to protect her. Since then, he’s written stories about his world of Muirwood, but is finally releasing Maia’s story.

Maia is born princess to a king who doesn’t quite know how to handle his own power. He’s almost a Henry VIII kind of guy, and banishes her mother so he can take on another queen and thus another kingdom. In doing so, he must banish Maia and disown her, even as he claims he loves her. Along her path, Maia finds herself with a great deal of magic, and even greater trouble.

While this is definitely fantasy, Wheeler built his world of Muirwood upon a base of real ancient history references. Or, at the very least, references to places from real authors. There is a character, “the kishion,” which when I Googled, pointed to Kadesh in Galilee. Another reference, “aurichalcum” is a metal Plato references when he talks about Atlantis (obviously that one is more about the author than the place). There’s a few more things that build upon ancient Greek culture or works. I mention this because while the premise for the story came from a dream, and there were certainly made up places, names, and language in the book–it was obvious to me while reading that Wheeler had done quite a bit of research before sitting down to write. I would be so interested to see his notes. It fascinates me how authors create and build their ideas and from where they pull inspiration.

I will say, that at first I was unsure about the writing. Maia was banished, running, in obvious danger. Then she just shows up at a random inn and the hunter she needs is at that exact place (very Strider from LOTR), and she just gives him her full name, title, problem, all of it. And he agrees to help her with no suspicion or confirmation whatsoever. Well, ok then! There were a lot of holes in the first 10% of the book. It made me a little weary.

However, shortly after I made that note in my journal, the book picked up and I started getting answers pretty quickly. Maia is still pretty naive, really throughout the whole book. But, I think that’s more of a character flaw than a writing issue, once I got into the meat of the story. Give it a chance past the first 20%, it’s a slow starter, but it does become a valid fantasy after that. I’ve added the rest of his Muirwood history to my TBR–I am wondering if those would help the beginning holes at all. Sounds like he’s also working on a second book to Maia’s story, woot!

NetGalley provided this ARC for an unbiased review. To be released on August 18.

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Cyropaedia

Have you guys checked out Coursera yet? If not, you definitely should. It’s a website solely devoted to providing quality online college courses from real professors from real colleges for free (you can pay for certificates if you want/need them). I’m on my second class now–a class about historical fiction called “Plagues, Witches, and War.” Sounds super interesting, right?

Because it’s a class on fiction, there’s a pretty substantial reading list, and the class is “Go At Your Own Pace.” Now, the professor told us we don’t have to read everything on the syllabus but…come on, you guys know me well enough to know I’m sure as hell gonna try. Or at least the ones I can get for free on Kindle and Google Books.

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First on the list is Cyropaedia, an ancient book written by a student of Socrates. Composed around 370 BC, it is supposedly the first historical fiction novel–a political romance.

The eight books follow Cyrus the Great of Persia from his early beginnings as a rambunctious teenager until he is old and dying. During his lifetime he builds a magnificent empire in what today is the Middle East. He did this not just by conquering nations, but by also gaining the love and trust of his people and soldiers, and thus made many allies.


Image credit:  http://syria.ewas.us/

I never quite understood the “romance” part of the book, though I’m sure it’s buried in there somewhere. However, this book is very much a war epic. I kept wondering if this was required reading at West Point or during any Officer’s Training, because if not, it should be. The military strategy discussed is probably ancient and outdated for use with our technology now, but the motivational speeches made by Cyrus and his generals are some of the most epic I’ve ever read. I did run out of steam towards the middle because of the battle descriptions, as I tend to do with this sort of thing, but otherwise, the characters are absolutely captivating.

Xenophon is not an author we hear about much (ok, at all) in the literary world today, at least for those of us average folk. Plato, Socrates, Cicero, Homer, sure. Xenophon is never mentioned. But this book was excellent, for what it was. Perhaps not to my usual tastes, but it was captivating from beginning to end.

 

Buy it here!

Half a King

High fantasy. Seems like it’s everywhere now, since Game of Thrones became popular.

I dunno, maybe it was everywhere before that, but it’s one of those things where you don’t notice it until you do, and then it’s everywhere.

Either way–I’m glad, because I love it. I mean, I don’t foresee anyone writing as hardcore and complicated a world as George RR Martin’s, but there is a lot of great stuff out there.

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Today’s selection was Half a King by Joe Abercrombie, and it did not disappoint. Yarvi, a second son, is set to take his minister’s test, when his father and brother are killed. Suddenly he is thrust into kingdom and all it’s responsibilities. He is quickly betrothed to his brother’s promised wife, and coronated. However, his uncle sees the opportunity to take the throne. I don’t want to give you any more, because, spoilers, but the book is essentially Yarvi’s fight for a kingdom he wasn’t supposed to have.

If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say this is based in Viking/Norse history. The names have sort of a Scandinavian feel to them, and the lifestyle is based around the sea and oarsman powered boats. Besides that, the world is fairly simple in it’s structure, at least in this first book. The characters are well written, and everything flows well.

I especially liked the banter between the oarsmen (and women). As you’d expect, they were an ornery, dirty lot, but good-natured and hearty. Once they got out of captivity, I loved how they banded together into a family group. Oh, and the author sneaks in a Homer-esque joke in there, so watch out for that. Definitely got a smirk out of me!

Something else important about this story–the hero of this book is disabled. While everyone else gives him a world of crap for it–like thinking him the lesser prince, for instance–he never lets it slow him down. If anything, it makes him smarter and stronger.

I just added the second book to my TBR, which is about as great a compliment as I can give any series. If it’s good enough for me to pick up the next one, you know you’ve got a winner in my heart! Now, let’s see how soon the library will take to get it to me.