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The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

The Emperor's BladesPremise: The kingdom of Annur is thrown into chaos when emperor Sanlitun is murdered, but his children will soon discover that it is a much deeper conspiracy than the normal power struggle. Sanlitun’s sons Kaden and Valyn have both been gone for eight years while the princess Adare has been with her father up until the day he is killed.

Valyn has been training with the elite fighting force known as the Kettral, training to fly one of their namesake giant birds to protect the kingdom from the worst of enemies. As several attempts are made on his life during the training, Valyn begins to suspect there is more danger around him than the normal training everyone else is experiencing. Valyn learns of his father’s death and is determined to reach his brother to warn him before it’s too late. Adare has been raised to Minister of Finance by her father’s decree, but with the kingdom in turmoil she is battling a religious sect who might be the ones responsible for Salitun’s death. And Kaden, the heir to the throne, has been secluded with monks dedicated to the Blank God. It is there that Kaden must learn the vaniate, an ancient ritual used to protect the kingdom from ancient enemies.

With the kingdom at stake and the Malkeenian line threatened, Adare, Valyn, and Kaden must uncover the conspiracy against their lives to protect Annur from foes from every side. There could even be a bigger threat thought long extinct that could have greater consequences than just their lives, but also the lives of everyone in Annur and beyond.

Themes: Family and legacy are at stake as Sanlitun is murdered and the lives of his children are threatened. With his children gone, there would be no heir to the throne of Annur and the kingdom could fall into chaos with no apparent leader to take control.

With many gods and religions in this world, there are many angles taken at religions in The Emperor’s Blades. Faith and devotion are seen at different levels between different religions and even between followers of the same religion.

The Emperor’s Blades also manages to examine what it means to inherit wealth and power compared to those who are born outside of it. It shares a glimpse of what it means to hold power responsibly and of those who would be less responsible with it. It also shows the machinations behind the scenes of people in power and others who would attempt to overthrow them.

Pros: The Emperor’s Blades has some incredible characters. When you don’t care about the characters and one of them dies, you won’t care about them dying. But when you care about all the characters, you want the protagonists to win and it is gut-wrenching when they lose. And those terrible characters become that much more insidious when they do those terrible things to the people you care about. All of this is to say: The Emperor’s Blades has great characters. At first I thought the magic system was too slowly revealed, until I realized I hadn’t even begun to learn what magic there really was in this story.

Cons: Because there are some mean people in The Emperor’s Blades, there is some intense stuff in it. There are some scenes that were hard to handle, containing gore and torture that caused me to put the book down a couple times. It has some sexual talk and innuendo you might find in war stories. And The Emperor’s Blades is full of profanity, although much of it is fantastical swearing using made up words or phrases to the gods in this world, such as “‘Kent-kissing” and “‘Shael take it.”

Recommendations: The Emperor’s Blades felt like it started slow, but as it picked up steam and never let up all the way through the end I realized just how big of a story was being told. In fact, I never wanted it to end, and as soon as it did I was ready for the next book to begin. With action, adventure, politics, religion, assassins, and fantasy elements that felt like they could even exist in this world, Brian Staveley is a name to watch in fantasy. With The Emperor’s Blades, he knows just what buttons to push with his characters and when to push them, but he’ll leave you wanting more. If you like fantasy, The Emperor’s Blades is not one to miss.

Brian Staveley’s website
The Emperor’s Blades on Goodreads
Buy The Emperor’s Blades on Amazon
Download The Emperor’s Blades for your Kindle
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2014 in Fantasy

 

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The Geek’s Guide to Dating by Eric Smith

The Geek's Guide to DatingPremise: Dating is hard enough these days with social media and mobile devices actually reducing our ability to have real in-person relationships. Geeks are stereotyped to be even less adept at social interactions. In The Geek’s Guide to Dating, Eric Smith has laid out tips and strategies for geeks to meet and interact with the opposite gender regardless of the end goal. But let’s be honest, the end goal is for Mario to find the Princess and live happily ever after.

Themes: Meeting people is a common challenge for people who spend much of their time watching movies, playing video games, and reading comic books. The Geek’s Guide to Dating takes this into account when trying to meet people either by using this as a strength or by suggesting new social settings to add to the arsenal when trying to meet someone of the opposite gender. You don’t have to give up being a geek in order to connect with people.

Navigating the phases of a romantic relationship can be tricky for anybody, but doing so in a field of geeky obsessions has the potential to be crippling for a relationship. In this guide there are suggestions to overcome obstacles and to emphasize the redeeming qualities that make a geek unique.

Pros: I was surprised how Eric Smith took my initial assumptions that this book was some sort of parody and almost immediately flipped them so I read this as an actual guide for people to foster real relationships. The Geek’s Guide to Dating is full of useful tips, from what clothes to get to enhance the wardrobe to how to navigate breakups. I like that in each section there are positive character traits to focus on as well as warnings that can damage a relationship now or in the future. Everything is very clearly laid out in chapters, sections, and sometimes even color-coded or assigned a key. The Geek’s Guide gives a clear walkthrough of different stages of relationships, from friendship to attraction, the sting of rejection, or into the dungeons of breakups. And everything is under an array of geek language and metaphors, most of which I understood but with a few splashes of things at a higher geek level than I have reached.

Cons: There are some instances where females might not be able to apply the given advice, but those are fairly few. I fear this might be a hangup for some women who assume it is only for men. It isn’t the case, but females might just need to stretch the analogies a little further to find the imparted wisdom for making a love connection. Geeks might also find instances where Smith encourages them to shed a little of their geekiness as potential obstacles for the opposite gender in order for them to get to know the real person. Some geeks might make the assumption that Smith is asking them not to be themselves.

Recommendations: The Geek’s Guide to Dating is a treasure trove of useful knowledge for enhancing most types of relationships, at least at a beginning level. After reading only one or two chapters of The Geek’s Guide to Dating, it dawned on me that this is actually a serious guide of dating advice for forming dating relationships disguised as humor. Eric Smith combines common sense with some practical tips to give much-needed advice not only to geeks but to everyone attempting to form a relationship with the opposite gender. Geeks will better understand the analogies, but everyone should be able to collect some wisdom from this fun gem of a dating guide, even those of us who are married but are always seeking to improve the connection with our significant other. However, consider this only the beginning and that deeper relationships require much more work than playing a video game.

Eric Smith’s website
The Geek’s Guide to Dating on Goodreads
Buy The Geek’s Guide to Dating on Amazon
Download The Geek’s Guide to Dating for your Kindle
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on December 31, 2013 in Nonfiction

 

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Heartwood by Freya Robertson

Heartwood (Elemental Wars, #1)Premise: As the people of Anguis celebrate the Veriditas, the ceremonies involved around the holy Arbor proceed even though it seems to be withering more than ever. During the Congressus, there is a surprise attack on the city of Heartwood by mysterious water warriors who lay waste to the city and many of Heartwood’s holy knights. They are repelled, but paid with many losses.

After all of this happens, a cache of lost documents reveals more about the religion and about the Arbor than the people have ever known, and it may change everything they believe. With this new information, the knights form groups to search for and activate the nodes of energy scattered throughout the land, while one group must follow the water warriors to retrieve the stolen Pectoris, the heart of the Arbor.

As the leaves begin falling from the damaged holy tree, the very life of the land is tied to the success or failure of these quests. And there are those besides the water warriors who would see their parties fail, including perhaps one of their own.

Themes: Faith is one of the main themes in Heartwood, as people have worshiped the holy Arbor for centuries, until the time when ancient documents are uncovered that negate everything the people of Anguis have believed. These documents put life as they know it into a new frame of reference, including their origins and the origins of the water people. The Arbor is still tied to what they know, just not in the way they have believed.

Unity between people of different backgrounds and geographical origins, but also between the people and the environment, are given a new perspective as they are united on a single quest to save the land. Generalizations about people from certain places are also questioned when members of these parties don’t conform to the stereotypes of their people.

Family loyalty and friendship are put to the test as character origins are uncovered, new abilities are learned, and romances begin. Dolosus learns who his real father is, but how will it effect his loyalties to everything he has known?

Pros: A few of the characters were interesting and conflicted enough to keep me engaged and there was enough stuff going on that I wanted to see how everything wrapped up (if at all). The story begins as a typical epic fantasy and dives right into the quests for the different parties. There is a lot to chew on to keep readers engaged. At least one of the main character deaths felt noble and not pointless, even if it basically adds a deus ex machina element to the story.

Cons: Heartwood has too many characters and I kept losing track of who is who and what they were doing. Because there are so many characters, some of them lack personality and I found myself not caring if some of them succeeded anyway. There were so many story arcs that I had a hard time telling who was supposed to be the real main protagonist until the very end. There was way too much telling instead of showing in Heartwood, with the omniscient narrator telling us what characters think instead of having them act accordingly. On top of everything, I could’ve done without the raping and torture scenes. The idea that questioning faith isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but to label those who hold to their faith unswervingly as out of touch or outright ignorant is in itself dismissing faith as an ideal. The entire premise of the book is based on this idea that faith can be trumped by random ancient documents that just happen to appear out of nowhere at the most opportune of times explaining exactly how to save the world.

Recommendations: Too much telling instead of showing for too many characters on too many quests made Heartwood hard to follow, hard to swallow, and lacking in the kind of depth that makes good epic fantasy excellent. Characters are everything and Heartwood relied too much upon archetypes to make me care about these characters. The idea is good and with some major changes this had the potential to be much better. There were also too many instances where things occur that just happen to advance the story in favor of the “good guys”. For a first epic fantasy it is a nice ambitious effort that falls a bit flat, especially to dedicate 566 pages of your life to. And there is nothing wrong with believing in something with only faith as your guide.

Freya Robertson’s website
Heartwood on Goodreads
Buy Heartwood on Amazon
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2013 in Fantasy

 

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A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition by Charles M. Schulz

A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a TraditionPremise: A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition is a biographical tribute to the animated television classic. With stories about how the Christmas special came together, readers will learn about producer Lee Mendelson, animator Bill Melendez, musician Vince Guaraldi, and creator Charles Schulz.

The book includes the script of A Charlie Brown Christmas, Guaraldi’s original score and publication notes for songs “Christmas Time Is Here” and “Linus and Lucy,” and original animation art from the special. Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez give their perspective of their relationships with each of the contributors and with the Peanuts characters, along with how the special came to fruition.

Themes: Charles Schultz’s comics tell grown-up problems from the perspective of children. With deep theological and cultural insight, the Peanuts kids share wisdom about life through the simplicity of their story.

A Charlie Brown Christmas shares the true meaning of the holiday in a very literal sense. In sharing in the nostalgia of this Christmas classic, the topics of life, faith, friendship, and love are brought forth through the classic Peanuts comics.

Pros: A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition told me so much about the people behind the cartoons that I didn’t know, but it also revealed to me more about the Peanuts creator. I like how they share how the cartoon eventually came to be, seemingly slapped together and lacking in content, but beloved to this day for its simplicity. I love that the book includes the full script and the original score of “Christmas Time is Here” and “Linus and Lucy.” The way the book is put together, sharing the different perspectives of the cartoon’s creators along with the artwork makes the book more than a keepsake. It really does feel more like a biography.

Cons: Knowing this was only about the Christmas special, I would have liked a more in depth look into Charles Schulz’s beliefs. I think it would have added to the meaning Schulz wanted to create through his work. And though there is a lot of original art, I would also have liked the A Charlie Brown Christmas to include more animation cells and storyboard sketches.

Recommendations: If you’re looking for biography and nostalgia, A Charlie Brown Christmas has plenty of both. I learned things not only about the Christmas special but about the people behind creating it. With a realistic view of how television shows are (or at least used to be) made, this book romanticizes how things came together to develop this classic cartoon loved by many. Great to pick up in bites or to read all the way through, lovers of the Peanuts gang and of the Charlie Brown Christmas special would do themselves well to pick up a copy of A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition to understand how it all came together.

Charles M. Schulz museum
A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition on Goodreads
Buy A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition on Amazon
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on November 24, 2013 in Nonfiction

 

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Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab by Bob Pflugfelder & Steve Hockensmith

Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab: A Mystery with Electromagnets, Burglar Alarms, and Other Gadgets You Can Build YourselfPremise: Twin siblings Nick and Tesla are sent to live with their Uncle Newt for the summer while their parents study soybean irrigation in Uzbekistan. When they arrive in Half Moon Bay they discover it’s a pretty boring place, but their uncle is far from boring. In his basement is a science lab where he performs various experiments. The incredible thing is that he tells his niece and nephew to have a ball in the lab (with several safety caveats) while he is away. Their time in Half Moon Bay is about to get interesting.

The siblings go outside to test their soda bottle rocket made from materials laying around the lab, but when it rips the necklace from Tesla’s neck as it launches things go awry. This wouldn’t be a problem if the necklace wasn’t one of the special necklaces their parents gave each child right before they were sent to live with Newt. Now they must venture onto the property of the abandoned house next door in order to find the necklace, but there are remodelers there with very large dogs who want them to stay off the property at all costs.

Nick and Tesla craft various devices to attempt to retrieve their rocket and necklace, and in the process uncover a nefarious plot in the quiet town. Along the way the siblings make new friends, learn more about their quirky uncle, and find there is more in the abandoned house than just remodelers. Nick and Tesla are also left questioning if their parents are really studying soy beans in Uzbekistan.

Themes: Nick and Tesla think they have a grasp on who their parents are, but when the siblings are sent away for the summer so their parents can do research they learn there is so much more about their parents that they don’t know. They begin to wonder if their parents really are studying soybeans or if they are even scientists.

Nick and Tesla discover there are mysteries about the house next door, its inhabitants, and its past that fall on them to solve.

Summer vacation takes on a different spin when it is spent at a strange uncle’s house. Nick and Tesla get to learn more about their Uncle Newt and his unusual inventions. With his inexperience in caring for kids and making his lab available for them to use helps to give the siblings insight into the kind of person he is.

Also: science!

Pros: Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab was way more fun than I was expecting. The science experiments not only introduce some cool concepts, but they fit right in with the storyline. The characters are unique and the story has the perfect tone for kids to be reading: lighthearted and fun. I like that Pflugfelder and Hockensmith didn’t try to add too many characters, but each one is well developed within this first book. Nick and Tesla is a complete fast-paced story, but it also leaves the reader wanting more in additional books.

Cons: One of the experiments might be a little dangerous dealing with air pressure that will probably require some adult supervision. Also, the concept of kidnapping might be a difficult concept for younger kids to grasp, especially the threats made against these kids. Contains some mild peril and the riding of small bikes down the middle of city streets in the dark.

Recommendations: Not only is this a fun read for kids and adults, it offers several science experiments kids can do with parents, including instructions and materials needed. I’m really looking forward to the next book in the series to find out more about these kids and their secretive family. I am also excited about having more science experiments to do with my kids when they are old enough to read these books. Pflugfelder and Hockensmith have introduced a neat series combining science concepts and experiments with good, lighthearted fiction. Nick and Tesla is educational and fun.

Nick and Tesla
Bob Pflugfelder’s website
Steve Hockensmith’s website
Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab: A Mystery with Electromagnets, Burglar Alarms, and Other Gadgets You Can Build Yourself on Goodreads
Buy Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab on Amazon
Download Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab for your Kindle
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on November 17, 2013 in Childrens, Mystery

 

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Imperfect Harmony by Stacy Horn

Imperfect Harmony: Singing Through Life's Sharps and FlatsPremise: Through life’s trials and disappointments, Stacy Horn found joy in in one aspect of her life: singing in a community choir. In this autobiographical account of her time spent in the Choral Society of Grace Church in New York she accounts for the constant encouragement and bliss found through singing with other people. In her constant search for companionship and happiness, Stacy’s one part of her life that regularly brings her joy is the community choir in her neighborhood. She walks to the same building every week during choral season to practice with other people in the community.

With a great amount of historical and scientific research, Stacy makes the convincing argument that singing with others in groups can not only make you feel better emotionally and spiritually, but physically as well. She also recounts her experiences, for better or worse, including insight into the music the choirs have sung and the people she has encountered because of her time at Grace Church.

Themes: Singing with others will make you feel happier and healthier. It is proven to lower blood pressure and positively affect the limbic system. Singing has been shown to cause euphoric and uplifting feelings, especially when it is done with other people. The quality of the singing doesn’t even matter. In fact, better singers have been shown to be more focused on hitting the right notes, lessening the overall positive effects than those of lower quality singers.

Singing in community can also bring you closer to those you are singing with, building friendships and relationships that would otherwise not have been there had it not been for the common interest and the action of singing in a choir or group.

Pros: Stacy Horn makes a great case for singing with other people. Stacy’s straightforward and humorous account of her years with the choir sound quite genuine, giving credence to her historical research. She backs up the historical and scientific statements with a good deal of evidence from multiple resources. Stacy lays her heart out there for everyone to examine, which makes Imperfect Harmony a very human and personal story. I can appreciate some of her favorite songs, as I have sung many of them. I can also relate to many of Horn’s experiences, especially the euphoria mixed with adrenaline when performing a heavily-practiced piece of emotional music. It is one of the greatest feelings in the world.

Cons: Stacy is very up front with not being religious, but sharing her derision for religion in this book is mostly unnecessary, especially considering it is the inspiration for much of the music she and her choir perform. Some of the songs she mentions about God’s wrath during Easter make me think their choir just needs to sing different songs. Even worse were the political infusions that really have nothing to do with the autobiographical story of music and community. The part where she talks about Barack Obama’s inauguration night is especially unnecessary, speaking about the joy of that occasion in such a way that it sounds almost like believers worshiping a deity. It really didn’t add anything to the story or even help make the point she was trying to make.

Recommendations: In spite of political and religious differences, Imperfect Harmony shares a visceral yet thoroughly-researched study of how singing with others can have a positive impact on a person’s life physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I only wish Stacy could personally experience the even greater joy of actually believing the words being sung when singing about God. In my experience singing in choirs and various a cappella singing groups I have found everything Horn says about the happiness found through singing in a community to be true. Accepting Horn’s words to be her honest perspective, singers and non-singers alike should take this book to heart and follow through; find people to sing with. Not only will reading Imperfect Harmony make you feel better, but it encourages you to sing, and that will make you feel better and happier regardless of how good a singer you think you are.

Stacy Horn’s website
Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others on Goodreads
Buy Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others on Amazon
Download Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others for your Kindle
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on November 3, 2013 in Nonfiction

 

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Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis

Not a Drop to Drink Premise: Society has crumbled and the government has become a fragmented array of city-states, but the reason for this is a lack of resources. More specifically: there is a lack of water. For Lynn, it’s not as much of an issue, since she and her mother live on a rural farm with a pond. The biggest problems are outbreaks of cholera that require them to treat their water before they drink it, hunting for food that takes them away from their guard duties on the roof of their house, and now the signs of smoke that say that there are others nearby that are a threat to their supply. Shooting people who encroach on their land hasn’t been much of a question for Lynn and Mother; it’s a matter of life and death.

But when things go terribly wrong and with winter approaching, the neighbor that has never been a threat to them is now their closest ally. With strangers roaming close to their property, Lynn must make decisions that go against everything Mother taught her: giving away supplies to others will only lead you closer to death. But what if those people can’t fend for themselves?

Not a Drop to Drink examines the ability to survive with limited resources and the lengths to which people are willing to protect them. When someone is in dire need of help, who can you trust when there are thieves and killers about? A drink of water may be all someone is asking for, and it might just be the one thing that can keep them alive.

Themes: Survival is incredibly difficult when resources are limited. Even with their stockpile of water in the form of their pond, gathering, treating, and storing make everyday tasks become a burden. Imagine trying to survive without a store of water, food, weapons or shelter. Learning basic skills becomes essential, like making shelter, fire, hunting, treating wounds.

Mother has taught Lynn not to trust anybody, which has led Lynn to shoot people in defense of their water, even as a child. Lynn is so used to considering every single person a threat, overcoming what is ingrained in her to help others makes compassion an underdeveloped emotion for her. Even Stebbs, who has lived near them as far back as Lynn can remember, is really a stranger to her. When people enter her life that have no survival skills and are in dire need of help, the decision to help is incredibly difficult for Lynn.

When society has crumbled, what shreds of decency are left when those around us are in need? How much of our humanity are we willing to sacrifice for our own survival? Or does helping someone in need benefit us when we do so?

Pros: Not a Drop to Drink really highlights the difficulty and drudgery of survival without modern amenities. It brings out how the most common of minor injuries can be debilitating or even deadly without medical treatments available to us every day. Even with the grim subject matter in a free-for-all frontier full of scavenging, injury, sickness, and death, it is refreshing to be such a fairly clean young adult novel mostly free of sex and profanity. McGinnis manages to effectively describe terrible things with sparse language, merely hinting at humanity’s ugliness through the reality of survival. The characters are pretty realistic, even the one-dimensional “bad guys” we see later in the story. We get to watch some real change in heart for Lynn through different stages of the story.

Cons: It is interesting how quickly Lynn goes from never speaking to another human to cuddling in bed with a guy, especially with the limited amount of time she knows him. I thought the plot twist reveal toward the end was an attempt to up the stakes for Lynn, but it felt unnecessary for this story. I understand the philosophical implications of fighting your past and becoming a new person, but these things were already happening with how Lynn treated people compared to what Mother had ingrained in her. With limited action, some readers might find Not a Drop to Drink to be boring.

Recommendations: Not a Drop to Drink is a chilling, gut-wrenching vision of an all too realistic future with limited resources. It is a sad yet beautiful debut novel that makes the reader think about what they would willing to do when placed in a survival situation, while simultaneously examining how much they would be willing to help someone else in need. Be ready for some intense scenes that contain deeply real emotions. While not overly flashy and action-packed, Not a Drop to Drink pushes toward redemption for a broken world through small deeds by normal folks.

Mindy McGinnis’ website
Not a Drop to Drink on Goodreads
Buy Not a Drop to Drink on Amazon
Download Not a Drop to Drink for your Kindle
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on October 6, 2013 in Science Fiction, Young Adult

 

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