Wednesday, September 6, 2017

To Look a Nazi in the Eye~Kathy Kacer and Jordana Lebowitz | Review

Title: To Look a Nazi in the Eye 
Author: Kathy Kacer and Jordana Lebowitz
Genre: Nonfiction WWII
Length: 256 Pages
Release: September 2017

I received a copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


"He didn't look evil. He didn't look like the murdering Nazi that he was accused of being. With a complete exhale of breath, Jordana thought, he looks like my grandfather."

This book tells the real story of Jordana Lebowitz traveling to Germany to witness the trial of Oskar Groening that took place in 2015. The ninety-two year old Groening was on trial for crimes committed while he was part of the Nazi war machine in Auschwitz during the second World War. While Groening never personally killed anyone, he was complicit in the murder of roughly 300,000 Jewish people. 

The book reads more like a story than an account of a trial, which I think will make it more relatable to many readers. It tells of Jordana's struggles to get to Germany for a trial that she felt passionately about. It outlines her relationships with the survivors that she bonds with while she's there, her mixed emotions about Groening, her expanding views of Germany and its people. And while it obviously touches on very dark subject matter, it never gets too dark. It would be suitable for many middle-grade readers and could be a good introduction to the history of the Holocaust. 

"I was on the ramp when the selections took place...I was there."

Groening's testimony was inserted between various pieces of Jordana's story, which worked really well. It was easy to see his viewpoint on many things, though it was hard to see where he was coming from on others. I can understand that many were indoctrinated with hateful beliefs, but how could you ever view the destruction of a group of people as right? If you were there, witnessing what was being done to men, women, children, no matter your personal role, how could you live with yourself? 

One thing that I cannot understand is how anyone can deny the Holocaust and what happened. This isn't something that happened hundreds of years ago and records have been lost. It was less than one hundred years ago. There are survivors today, telling their stories. And these are people on both sides of the situation. Groening speaks against Holocaust deniers, telling them that he was there, he saw what happened. And there are those who were inside, being tortured for experimentation or forced into hard labor, with the tattoos still marking their skin, the memories still haunting them. How can you deny the reality of what happened when there is so much evidence that supports it? It is something I will never understand. 

This is not complex or deep overview of what happened during the Holocaust or of the events of this trial, but it is the honest view of a teen's experience of this historic event. History is important, no matter how ugly it may be. It needs to be taught and learned from. If we don't make a conscious effort to prevent history repeating itself, then it will. 

I definitely recommend this to those interested in the history of this dark period in history. Jordana is a modern girl trying to spread awareness and spread goodness. You can see some of her own opinions changing within the story as she grows. Her own opinions and beliefs were skewed by what her parents and grandparents taught her, but she began to see that not everything could be so easily categorized. Nothing is simple.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Fool Moon~Jim Butcher | Review

Title: Fool Moon (Dresden Files #2)
Author: Jim Butcher
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Length: 401 Pages (Paperback)
Release: January 2001

I am really not entirely sure what to say about this book. I enjoyed Storm Front enough to want to continue. Harry was a likable and overall fun character, the mystery wasn't anything great but it was fun, and the fantasy elements were well explained. This one, however, did not improve on that for me. In fact, it tore down some of the things that I had enjoyed about the first installment. 

In Storm Front I really enjoyed Harry and found him to be a lot of fun. He was odd and made some poor decisions at times, but overall I liked him. Here, not so much. From the beginning he seemed to be making stupid decisions, some of them even acknowledged in his first person narrative, that had me wondering how he has survived into adulthood or just really irritated me. He didn't work well for me as a character here, because he didn't seem to be growing. 

This reads like a mystery novel, but doesn't have any elements that kept me engaged. It was fun enough while reading it, but I never found myself excited to continue or eager to get back to the story. It was kind of forgettable to me. There was nothing about it that really stood out to me in any way. The mystery was very predictable as well. Maybe not all of the how and why, but the outcome. 

Mister, Harry's cat, and Murphy, Harry's police officer friend, are my favorite of the characters. Mister is an interesting addition to the story and makes me like Harry at times when I'm not sure that I want to like him. And I just really like Murphy, though I can't place my finger on exactly why. 

I also wasn't a fan of the more prevalent swearing in this one. That's a personal thing that I just don't like and in the first one I really enjoyed that Harry edited out a lot of the profanities and such. Here more of that was there, so it kind of detracted from the overall enjoyment factor for me just a little bit. And that one random sex scene...I won't go into details because I want to avoid spoilers, and it's not that it was overly graphic, I just found it out of place and distracting. 

There are also a lot of hints at larger worldbuilding and more character development that we never get to see here. I know this is a long series and that more of that is likely to come in later installments, but I would like a little more from the beginning. Or even a few theories from Harry about what he's thinking would be nice. But no, there is very little in that department. 

So overall this wasn't great for me. I was hoping it would improve the series, but it did not. I plan to try one more novel in the series and then decide where I want to go after that. If I feel the same way about book three then this series will move to my DNF list.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Dire King~William Ritter | Review

Title: The Dire King (Jackaby #4)
Author: William Ritter
Genre: Paranormal Mystery
Length: 352 Pages
Release: August 2017

I received a review copy of this novel through Netgalley. 

"Jackaby took a deep breath, his face leaden. And then he made a deal with the devil."

This final installment in the Jackaby series probably sits somewhere in the 2.5 star range for me. There were things I liked and things I didn't like. 

The best part about this novel, as well as the previous three, is Jackaby himself. He has such a snarky attitude that makes him hilarious. He and Abigail have some great banter during portions of the novel. I just wish there had been more of that. More of the main characters from all of the preceding novels in general would have been nice. 

I was rather disappointed by the overall tone of this novel. The others were so much fun as Abigail and Jackaby, along with their friends, solved paranormal mysteries. All of those came together for the overarching plot, which was the focus of the novel. And I found it rather lacking. The fun of the others was not as present here. There would be bursts of the same humor and tone, but they never seemed to last long. There was also an influx of new characters that I never felt I got to know or understand. They seemed to pop up to further the plot, without having any other purpose. 

The final conclusion was satisfactory enough but I still didn't feel fully satisfied. There were little questions I had through the series that were never answered or seemed outright ignored. I had fun while reading it, but never really felt invested. 

"We do not survive because we're strong--we become stronger the more we survive."

Throughout the whole series I have been impressed with Ritter's writing, and that held up here. He really has a way with words. And it feels like an older novel, more fitting of the setting. I do look forward to trying future works of Ritter's. 

Overall this was just an ok conclusion to the series. I would definitely still recommend them, particularly the first one, but I think that Ritter could have tweaked a few things to make this a stronger ending. Still, it ended with great promise for our loved characters. All of the biggest questions were answered and a good idea was given for future events. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Rose and the Thorn~Michael J Sullivan | Review

Title: The Rose and the Thorn (Riyria Chronicles #2)
Author: Michael J Sullivan
Genre: Fantasy
Length: 347 Pages
Release: September 2013

Is it even possible for this man to write a book that I don't like? I really hope not, because I am loving that I love these books. If you are wanting to start the adventures of Royce and Hadrian, I would personally recommend that you begin with the Riyria Revelations (Theft of Swords being the beginning), and then come back for the Chronicles. These give a lot of insight into little things from that series, so I think you can appreciate them more. 

But let's stop talking about that and get into talking about this book. Because it was great, it really was. There may be slight spoilers for The Crown Tower in this. I am going to avoid them as much as possible. 
"I don't have many friends. I can actually count them all on one hand and not use all my fingers. Like anything rare, they are precious. And yes, I get mad when one is hurt."

The plot of this one is darker than that of The Crown Tower in a lot of ways. Gwen, one of our main characters from that first novel, is badly beaten by a high ranking noble for not adequately answering his questions. When Royce and Hadrian return to Medford, they are not happy, to say the least. 

Royce is by far my favorite character of all the Riyria books and I think I love him a little more after every one. He can be downright terrifying, but he's also extremely loyal if you give him a real reason to be. He's used to people being selfish, to everyone taking and no one giving, to surviving in a kill or be killed world. It can be hard to change from that mindset. 

We get to see some of the darker side of Royce here, maybe the darkest we've seen him, as he sets out to protect those he cares about. After having seen this side of Royce, it just makes you wonder what he was like before. Crossing Royce now is a gamble you wouldn't want to take, but crossing him before... Well, that would not have been a good idea. 

"He wanted to wash the blood off, but he could never rid himself of the stain."

Every coin has a two sides and the other side of Royce's is Hadrian. Where Royce is dark, Hadrian is light. He's not an innocent kid, he's made mistakes, shed blood, but he's known friendship and love, he dreams of a life where blood doesn't have to be spilled to make a living, where people are honorable and good. 

Hadrian struggles a lot in this book. He's haunted by his past and unsure of his future. Despite their differences, Royce is really the one constant he seems to have now. And reading about these two together is the best. Throughout the story, I really just wanted to reassure this guy. He puts up a good front for the world, but he can't be entirely happy, it seems. I can relate to that. 

"Never having known such admiration, or even the support of a real friend, it was as if he'd only realized he was hungry after smelling food."

I don't know why, but I was surprised to have so many of the characters from Revelations show up in here. And I was particularly surprised to have Reuben Hilfred show up as a main character. But it was a pleasant surprise. It really made his character deeper than he had been before, knowing his background and what he had been through. It also made me really sad. Hilfred did not lead a happy life. 

While I did enjoy all of Hilfred's story and getting to see the young Arista and Alric, as well as getting a better view of King Amrath, the real highlight of this side of the story was the Pickerings. I completely adore this entire family. Can I please have them? You have no idea the grin that split my face when Mauvin showed up for the first time. Sure, he was being a little bit of a punk, but he was only twelve. And he made up for it later. 

This book was a great installment in the Riyria world. It delves more deeply into my favorite characters, and also gives some nice insight into what was happening in Medford before the events of The Crown Conspiracy. There were a few times that I just wanted to tell the characters who is who and who needs to be killed now. But then, we wouldn't have the Riyria Revelations if we did that, so I guess I'll have to be content. 

There were a lot of dark and sad moments in here. There was death, betrayal, injury, humiliation, you name it. But there was also hope, love, and loyalty. The ending was satisfying and left Royce and Hadrian in a good place, on there way toward another adventure. I can't wait to read the next installment in this series, and hope that there are many more to come.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Wonder~R J Palacio | Review

Title: Wonder
Author: R J Palacio
Genre: Middlegrade Contemporary
Length: 316 Pages
Release: Feb 2012

It's unpopular opinion time.

I wanted to love this book, I really did. And honestly, I expected to love this book. Maybe that was the problem, maybe I let this get too hyped in my head and expected more than it was. Maybe it's just that I'm in a weird reading mood. Maybe the audio made me like it less than I would have otherwise, I don't know. All I know is that I didn't love this book like so many others do. 

This book follows a boy named August who, due to genetics that cannot be controlled, doesn't look like other kids. He's had many surgeries to improve the function of certain portions of his face and head, but he still doesn't look like everyone else. And that makes him odd. To some it even makes him scary. So we follow, through the eyes of six different characters, August's first year in a school with other kids. It's fifth grade (which I guess is middle school in New York) and not everyone is kind. 

I liked the premise, but I was not a fan of how the story was laid out. It's told in first person from six different perspectives, as I mentioned. Of the six, we probably get the most page time in August's head. Then we have his sister Via, his friends Summer and Jack, and Via's friends Justin and Miranda. And honestly, August was my least favorite perspective of the six. It makes sense to show his insecurities, because everyone is insecure at some point, and looking different and being noticed would obviously be hard for a ten-year-old, but August felt too sorry for himself. And that never seemed to change as the story progressed. There was too much self pity for me to connect with him. From the eyes of the others this wasn't that noticeable and I actually did enjoy his character. Jack was my favorite perspective, I had a lot of fun in his head. 

Everything in the story is focused on August. And I know that's the point of the book, to show his adjustment to school, the way that people react to him, and to highlight the good and the bad sides of humanity, but it felt too focused on him. This is a personal thing, but for me the story would have been more powerful had it not focused so much on August and instead told a story around him. Obviously the way it's written works for most people, which is great, but for me it lessened the message when it made it seem like everyone was always talking about, thinking about, and worrying about August. 

And maybe the environment that I grew up in was just very different, but I had a hard time believing that everyone would react the way that people reacted to August. Yes, bullying exists, and yes, I have seen it in action, but it was still hard to picture all of these people, adults and children alike, having to do a double take, unable to hold eye contact with him, refusing to talk to him, and calling him names. Yes, all of those things happen, but the scale seemed very heavily weighted toward that mindset in this story.

One of my goodreads friends, I can't recall who at the moment, mentioned in their review that this was too sweet, and I have to say that I agree. It's a good message to teach--not everyone is the same and we shouldn't hate because of those differences. At the same time though, this was a little over-the-top for me. Sometimes things don't go well, sometimes people don't like you, sometimes people are jerks and there is nothing you can do to change that, but you have to learn take it all, the good and the bad. 

This isn't a horrible book or a bad book, it just didn't work for me. It has a powerful message and I think that it's important to remember to be kind, no matter what. There are some things about us that we can't control, but we can decide how to act. 

I know this was made into a movie and is being released later this year, and I'm actually interested to see how they adapt it. It seems like some of my personal issues with the style of story telling might be negated in translation to film, so I'm interested to see how the two compare for me.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Crown Tower by Michael J Sullivan | Review

Title: The Crown Tower (Riyria Chronicles #1)
Author: Michael J Sullivan
Genre: Fantasy
Length: 358 Pages
Release: January 2013

"Listen to him. Trust him. That's what he won't expect. It won't be easy. You'll have to be very patient. But if you are, you'll make a friend for life--the kind that will walk unarmed into the jaws of a dragon if you asked him to."

This is the beginning of the prequel series to the Riyria Revelations, which takes us to the very beginning of Royce and Hadrian's partnership, twelve years before the beginning of The Crown Conspiracy. I haven't read very many prequels in the past. The ones that I come across never seem like they are going to add a lot to the story, so I've never felt the need to delve into them. Particularly if it's a series that I like, because I don't want it ruined. Here though, I think a prequel series makes sense. It gives the characters even more depth than the main series did and gives us firsthand knowledge of what those first encounters were like. 

I have to say it once again: Michael J Sullivan knows how to write compelling characters. If you've read the Riyria Revelations already, then the characters won't be new to you. They aren't the same, however. It amazes me how Sullivan is able to show, with just a few words and scenes, how these two have changed over time. 

"I think everyone is after me until proven otherwise."

Royce doesn't have perspective chapters until over halfway into the book, just appearing as a shadowed stranger around Hadrian. This was an extremely clever way to introduce him, as you find out a lot about his background through Hadrian, which makes him more relatable than being thrown into his head from the beginning probably would have. He's dark, abrasive, violent, and unfriendly. But he's also very misunderstood. If you've followed my reading of the Riyria Revelations then you likely already know my love for this character, and that only grew here. There is just something about him that draws me in. I don't have his background (which I am very grateful for), but I find it easy to relate to paranoia and fear. I also love to see how much he grows. Because if Royce can grow, anyone can. 

"Everyone was a stack of accumulated experiences, and seeing how that pile wobbled when it moved could reveal secrets."

It was interested seeing this younger Hadrian. With Royce it was always easy for me to imagine what he would have been like when they first met, but Hadrian was harder to picture. This colored in all of the missing pieces. He was young here, only about twenty, and already suffering from the mistakes he made. He's constantly underestimated because of his youth, which I found endearing. He's a trained killer and could probably singlehandedly take on a dozen other men, but his young face and kind demeanor give him an appearance of innocence that most cannot easily overlook. 

"You're a hero and you can see the future."

I was really excited to see Gwen get perspective portions in this novel. She was always somewhat of a mystery in the Revelations and I always wondered about her. Here we finally find out more about her story; where she came from, what she can do, how she ended up where she did and why. Her story is really sad in a lot of ways. But it's also really great. She's strong and although she is forced to make decisions she would probably rather never have to make, she doesn't let that beat her. I'm really excited to see more of her through the other books. 

"Ever notice how the word friend is only one letter away from fiend? Maybe it's a coincidence, maybe not."

This is the beginning of the Royce and Hadrian bromance that has made the Riyria books so popular. Two very different men, from completely different backgrounds, who become best friends and partners. What's not to love? 

It was great to see the first meeting between these two, to feel the dislike they had for each other. And their back and forth is fantastic, even from the beginning. It's harsher, less teasing, than later in their relationship, but just as entertaining. This is definitely a slow build friendship, which really makes it even more powerful. Isn't it nice to know that not all first impressions have to be last impressions? 

There are two main stories in this, set to converge. We follow Royce and Hadrian as they are forced to partner by an old professor, seemingly for no reason. And then there's Gwen, taking her own life in hand and waiting for the mysterious him

I've heard different opinions on whether you should start with the Chronicles or the Revelations, but I don't think you can go wrong either way. Just read them all.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Wheel of Time Series by Robert Jordan

The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan is probably the longest series I have ever read. Over the course of 2016 (and a few months of 2017) I completed the fifteen book series (this includes the prequel). With the shortest book falling somewhere around 600 pages, this was no easy task. But I made it.

There are many things about this series that have me conflicted. I'm going to try and touch on some of the things that I liked best, and the things I didn't like at all, while avoiding spoilers. This is going to be less a review and more general thoughts and impressions about the series.

Let's start off with the positives, so that I don't go into a rant and forget all the things I do appreciate about the series.

1) It's readable, almost compulsively so. After finishing each book, particularly those near the beginning of the series, I would have a hard time pinpointing anything that really made the book special for me and yet, I needed to read the next book. They were also a lot of fun to read, for the most part.

2) The worldbuilding was quite spectacular. These don't have my favorite fantasy world, but the world is fascinating. This really started becoming apparent to me in books four and five (which were both quite excellent). The expansion and exploration of new societies--the Aiel, in particular--was fascinating to me. I loved the exploration and contrast between the various cultures.

2a) While the Aes Sedai often drove me insane, the White Tower was such an interesting place. And the Warders--I want to know more about these bonds.

2b) The Forsaken, our main villains in the series, had some really interesting stories that were sprinkled throughout. There are several of them that I would like to know more about. How did they get where they are?

2c) Throughout the series there were various instances of slavery brought up and explored (to an extent). I thought this was handled in a very interesting way because we got to see it from almost every angle. We were in the heads of people forced to be slaves, those who were raised slaves, those who were freed, those who were absolutely opposed to the idea, those who inflicted this on others. I don't know how to explain this, but it was just really interesting to have this piece of the world, that is so dark and depressing, explored so fully. I don't think I've seen that done in quite the same way anywhere else.

3) The wolves. I'm not going to go deeply into this because it would be very spoilery, but I found the wolf aspect and connection in the series fascinating.

4) Androl, who was only introduced once Sanderson took over the series. I have no idea (because I haven't sought out an answer) if he was a creation of Sanderson, or a character that Jordan planned to introduce. Either way, I adored his character and wish there had been more through the entire series with this guy.

5) Lan and Nynaeve. A lot of people don't seem to like these two. And while I never loved any of the characters (except maybe Androl) these were early favorites. In fact, I think a lot of the series would have been more interesting if they had been worked in more. There was a lot of potential that I felt like was ignored. But anyway, for positives, I did enjoy these two. Lan's portions in the last few books were particularly great.

6) The overall conclusion was very satisfying to me. There were a few characters I would have liked to visit again, a few more answers that could have been revealed, but overall I was very happy with how things ended. There was enough closure to leave me satisfied, with enough left open to keep the world alive in my mind. Which is the perfect ending, in my eyes. 

Alright, now let's get to the things I wasn't so fond of. Very few of these are things that I outright hated. It's more just things that bothered me in some way.

1) The Trakand family. I'm putting them at the top of my list because I want to get them out of the way. I will talk about the rest of the characters in a minute. This family was the worst part of the books for me. Elayne became progressively worse with every book and Gawyn and Morgase (her brother and mother) were no better. Each of them may have had a few moments where I could stand them, but they were few and far between. The only one connected to their family that I liked was Galad, and he didn't show up nearly enough.

2) The writing. It's not that I hated the writing or anything, because I didn't, I just found it rather clunky. It was really repetitive at times and there were certain things that just didn't need to be written. I would read a paragraph and feel like two or three sentences could be cut entirely, because the other sentences explained everything well enough.

3) This goes along with my last point with writing, but I wanted to mention it separately. Removing the line "she folded her arms under her breasts" and other variations of this could have easily cut out a hundred pages from almost every book. No, really, I don't think that's much of an exaggeration. In the beginning I didn't notice this all that much, but then it started nagging at me. We get it! Women have breasts and, if they fold their arms, it's usually under their breasts. We don't need reminding every five seconds! Along those same lines, Nynaeve's braid tugging got pretty old.

4) The characters. Just like with the writing, I didn't hate the characters, but there were very few that I ever actually liked. In the beginning, Perrin was my favorite, then the middle books happened and he fell apart for me. Mat was my least favorite to start, then the later books happened and I found myself wanting to be in his head more and more. I've already mentioned the Trakand's, so I won't go there again. Egwene...She had her moments, but still, overall I disliked her. I was never a fan of Rand either. Don't hate me.

5) The complete lack of understanding between women and men drove me insane. Yes, we are different from each other. Yes we see things in the other that we don't see in ourselves (despite the fact that it's there), but that doesn't mean we are always at odds, completely unable to understand each other. This is a slight exaggeration, but not by much. The highlighting of the differences in thought was good in theory, but the execution of how these differences would play out did not go well.

6) I was never that into the magic system in these books. I thought it was interesting, with the various weaves and how different Ajah's in the White Tower focused on different things, but it never made sense to me. I couldn't envision it well and that prevented me from being able to really appreciate the portions of the narrative that relied on the magic. 

7) The passage of time in this was frustrating to me. I know that time does not work exactly the same way in this world as it does on earth, but I found it very unrealistic for only around two years to have passed from beginning to end. Too much happened for that to be a reasonable time frame. I constantly found myself wondering how much time had passed, only to be reminded that it had been mere months (that felt like years) since the beginning of the journey. 

In Conclusion
This series is far from being my favorite series of all time, but I am very glad that I read it. It's easy to see how this was influenced by previous works and how more recent works have been influenced by this, which is really neat to me. It's difficult to be completely original, but you can put your own spin on things, so I think this getting so much hate for being a "Tolkien copy" is very unreasonable, personally, because it does add its own spin to the story. 

Will I ever read these again? I really don't know. I may revisit them in the future, to see what I think about them after becoming more widely read. In some ways I think a reread would be a good thing because I can try to catch some of the little details that I missed the first time around. Only the future can say whether I will get back into these again. 

Despite the many things that annoyed me about this series, I did enjoy reading it. It's not for everyone, but I would urge fantasy fans to give it a try. You may not stick with it, but maybe you will love it. 

If I left out something (or even got some details wrong) I would love to know. Feel free to chat with me about your own experience with this series in the comments. 

Note: This is not a particularly thorough analysis of the series, just my overall impressions. When I read I tend to read for enjoyment, hoping to pick up things along the way, but not extremely concerned about keep track of every detail. I didn't write this as a deep look at the overall story, just my general impressions and what I enjoyed or did not.