Review: Of Fire And Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

Published in 2016; 389 pages; ★★★★★

My daily life remained a rehearsal for the moment I met my betrothed, and my secret seemed like a trivial thing.  I believed that as long as I followed my training, nothing could go wrong.

But some things are stronger than years of lessons.

The draw of fire.

A longing for freedom.

Or a girl on a red horse.

Summary:
Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile lands. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire—a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.

Now, Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses—and her teacher is the person who intimidates her most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine—called Mare—the sister of her betrothed.

When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two become closer, Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to Mare’s independent streak. And soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.

But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms—and each other.

(From Goodreads)

Let’s not beat around the bush:  Of Fire And Stars is right up my alley.  Princesses falling in love with each other, horses, elemental magic, a sprinkling of classic worldbuilding tropes, and a dash of sociopolitical commentary – it’s a recipe for a light, enjoyable read that I was sure to love.  Looking back on it with a bit more distance, I can see a few weak spots (most of which could have been negated had the book simply been longer) but overall, this book was so fantastically enjoyable that I choose to give it five stars anyway.

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Review: Cultural Misunderstandings by Raymonde Carroll

Published in 1987; 147 pages; ★★☆☆☆

“Of course, we are all human.  But we speak thousands of different languages, which makes us no less human, and do not find it inconceivable to learn a variety of “foreign” languages.  Yet we refuse to accept the idea that we communicate with others through something similar to languages, “languages” of which we are unaware – our cultures – despite the fact that we speak a great deal today about cultural differences.”

Summary:
Raymonde Carroll presents an intriguing and thoughtful analysis of the many ways French and Americans—and indeed any members of different cultures—can misinterpret each other, even when ostensibly speaking the same language. Cultural misunderstandings, Carroll points out, can arise even where we least expect them—in our closest relationships. The revealing vignettes that Carroll relates, and her perceptive comments, bring to light some fundamental differences in French and American presuppositions about love, friendship, and raising children, as well as such everyday activities as using the telephone or asking for information.
(From Goodreads)

This review requires a preface:  I am thoroughly aware that a lot of my perception of this book is, ironically, shaped by cultural premises.  For one thing, American standards of scholarship are different – it would be unusual to see an American scholarly book with no list of references or index.  A text lacking these acknowledgements of other research reads, to me, more like an opinion piece than true nonfiction.

With that said… fundamentally, I found there to be a kind of irony here.  On the one hand, I’m fairly convinced that Carroll wrote this in good faith; that she believes in the power of cultural analysis to resolve misunderstandings; and that she’s earnest in her desire to understand different perspectives.  On the other hand, there’s very little indication in this book that she actually sought out American viewpoints, and her analysis ended up feeling one-sided and shallow.

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Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Wayward Children, Book 1; published in 2016; 173 pages.   ★★★☆☆

You’re nobody’s doorway but your own, and the only one who gets to tell you how your story ends is you.

Summary:
Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Guests
Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.
But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.
But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.
No matter the cost.
(From Goodreads)

Every Heart a Doorway is a staggeringly well-loved book.  I’ve heard raving about it from friends and from authors I follow, and it’s been widely talked up in the asexual community as a shining example of textual ace representation.  So… it took me a day, a bit of rereading, and some talking-through to realize that I… don’t… love it.

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Revisiting: Fire by Kristin Cashore

Graceling Realm, Book 2; published in 2009; 480 pages.  ★★★★☆

The stars always eased her lonesomeness.  She thought of them as beautiful creatures, burning and cold like her; each solitary, and bleak, and silent like her.

Summary:
It is not a peaceful time in the Dells. The young King Nash clings to his throne while rebel lords in the north and south build armies to unseat him. The mountains and forests are filled with spies and thieves and lawless men.

This is where Fire lives. With a wild, irresistible appearance and hair the color of flame, Fire is the last remaining human monster. Equally hated and adored, she had the unique ability to control minds, but she guards her power, unwilling to steal the secrets of innocent people. Especially when she has so many of her own.

Then Prince Brigan comes to bring her to King City, The royal family needs her help to uncover the plot against the king. Far away from home, Fire begins to realize there’s more to her power than she ever dreamed. Her power could save the kingdom.

If only she weren’t afraid of becoming the monster her father was.

(From Goodreads)

I’m so glad I’m rereading this series.  I had a vague memory of Graceling and Fire, and remembered liking the latter much better, but I didn’t recall – or maybe, seven years ago, never noticed – the complexity of Kristin Cashore’s themes or the way these two books complement each other by approaching the same issue of self-determination from different angles.  It’s… fascinating, and kind of beautiful, and looking at it as an adult I find myself loving this series, much to my own surprise.

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Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Published in 2014; 446 pages; ★★★★★

“You cannot keep change from happening, Lord Pashavar,” Maia said sympathetically, and Lord Pashavar flapped a hand at him to get on with things.

Summary:
A vividly imagined fantasy of court intrigue and dark magics in a steampunk-inflected world, by a brilliant young talent.

The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an “accident,” he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.

Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.

Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend… and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne – or his life.

This exciting fantasy novel, set against the pageantry and color of a fascinating, unique world, is a memorable debut for a great new talent.

(From Goodreads)

The Goblin Emperor is… an experience.  It’s the kind of book that’s so wholly absorbing that it becomes a struggle to review, because no matter how I try to articulate how I loved it, I feel like I just can’t do it justice.  Additionally, Addison flouts many of the fantasy genre’s conventions of plot structure and character relationships, so it doesn’t have the same sort of ‘hook’ that many of its companions on the shelf do, and… I almost feel like all I can say is, “Just take my word for it and read this.”  But this book deserves more, so I’m gonna try to do better than that.  Bear with me.

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Revisiting: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Graceling Realm, Book 1; published in 2008; 471 pages.  ★★★☆☆

A monster that refused, sometimes, to behave like a monster.  When a monster stopped behaving like a monster, did it stop being a monster?  Did it become something else?

Summary:
Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight – she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug.

When she first meets Prince Po, Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change.

She never expects to become Po’s friend.

She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace – or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away…

(From Goodreads)

Graceling is a reread for me, but one that still managed to be better than I expected.  It was a sensation in the teen library group I was a part of in high school, in no small part because Cashore’s protagonist, Katsa, is a sharp contrast to Bella Swan.  It wasn’t until years later, long after I had read both Graceling and its companion, Fire, that I encountered criticism of Katsa as a Strong Female Character whose strength derives from being as masculine as possible.  Returning to the series with the intent to finally read Bitterblue, book 3, I expected Graceling to be cringe-worthy, didactic, and ham-handed.  And I did find myself cringing – but not about Katsa.  In fact, I found Katsa’s psychology and development to be the most nuanced part of the book.

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Review: You Just Don’t Understand by Deborah Tannen

Published in 1990; 298 pages.  ★★★★☆

“So there it is:  Boys and girls grow up in different worlds, but we think we’re in the same one, so we judge each other’s behavior by the standards of our own.”

Summary:
Women and men live in different worlds…made of different words.
Spending nearly four years on the New York Times bestseller list, including eight months at number one, You Just Don’t Understandis a true cultural and intellectual phenomenon. This is the book that brought gender differences in ways of speaking to the forefront of public awareness. With a rare combination of scientific insight and delightful, humorous writing, Tannen shows why women and men can walk away from the same conversation with completely different impressions of what was said.
Studded with lively and entertaining examples of real conversations, this book gives you the tools to understand what went wrong — and to find a common language in which to strengthen relationships at work and at home. A classic in the field of interpersonal relations, this book will change forever the way you approach conversations.
(From Goodreads)

You Just Don’t Understand is an impressively accessible, balanced analysis of gender-based differences in communication.  I went into it expecting neither of these things, and found myself completely shocked and impressed with how clearly Tannen lays out ideas and how even-handedly she addresses communication styles (sometimes to the point of being frustrating to read, as she defended styles I find personally annoying – but then again, those were the most thought-provoking moments for me).  While the book is approaching 30 years old, it still felt relevant and provided useful tools for examining gender and communication norms, and was well worth the read.

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