Book Based on the Cover

Never judge a book by its cover, right? But we do. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but we still do it. In this book, they also judge a person based on their cover – tattoos on the skin, to be more exact. An appropriate book for the category, now that I think of it! It’s hard to see the details of the cover in this photo, but it’s flooded with coppery foiled images all over, much like a variety of tattoos. It’s really gorgeous and, honestly, what drew my attention to a book in a genre filled with imaginative covers.

Ink is a young adult dystopian fantasy, a genre I’m already over in so many ways. The protagonist, Leora, has just suffered the loss of her father. She and her mother are grieving but still have to forge their way through everyday life. Leora is about to graduate and has missed quite a bit of school while caring for her dying father. Her best friend, Verity, helps her with her studies and the two graduate with high marks, allowing them to obtain the jobs they’ve dreamed of for so long – Verity in the government, and Leora as an inker (aka tattoo artist in our world).

So, what’s so fancy and important about being a tattoo artist? In the world of Ink, people are marked with tattoos to recognize the events of their lives. Some tattoos are mandatory, like a name at two days old, a family tree on one’s back, lines and other symbols for accolades, accomplishments, or crimes. Other tattoos are self-chosen by individuals to reflect personal events or interests, and the inkers have to be talented and intuitive to bring all of these images together so that one’s life story can be read on the skin. It’s a really unique idea and I like that part a lot.

This is where it gets weird for me and I couldn’t shake the creepy factor for the rest of the book. When a person dies, like Leora’s father, the body is taken to a Flayer. This Flayer removes the tattoos carefully from the body and the skin remnants are stretched and bound like a page, and compiled in a book. So, the family has a book of the life of the deceased person and can remember them through the tattoos on the skin. The book as a whole is judged by the government and, if the person lived a good enough life, the book is placed in a library to be remembered. If the judgement doesn’t come out well, the book is burned and the person is forgotten. Turns out, Leora’s father is not who she thought he was and his book is brought up short in the judging process and burned. Leora finds that many people in her life are not who they seemed and she spends the remainder of the book trying to sort things out.

Because of who Leora’s father turned out to be, certain factions have been waiting for her to grow up and be used as a political pawn. The neighboring “enemy” are the Blanks, a group of people so full of shame and deviousness that they refuse to have anything tattooed on their skin and are surely working at this very moment to take over Leora’s world. So claims the government, anyway. There are the usual tropes of a young girl being plucked from obscurity and used in the name of rebellion and a 1984-style government that has fooled the people into believing everything they say. It’s done to death at this point. While I liked the idea of the ink telling the story of a life, the peeling off of the skin to be preserved in a book is just something I couldn’t get over. The end of the book was also very rushed and jumbled to me, with Leora vacillating very quickly from hating everyone who had deceived her and turning pro-government, to rebuking all of that and landing on the side of the rebellion. I just didn’t buy it and really never got on board for caring for Leora as a character. This is the first in a new series and one that I probably won’t be revisiting.

As always, read it for yourself and make your own conclusions. There are other reviews here, so you can see what others like and dislike about it. I found his link to an interview with Alice Broadway in The Guardian where she discusses her split with her faith that inspired Leora’s story, and another interview here where she discusses her writing process. I’m also including a link to some of the best in he YA dystopian genre. A few of them have been on my radar for awhile, and I’ll probably go ahead and read them despite being burned out on the category. You never know when the next great read will present itself!

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Self-Published Book

Did you play Dungeons & Dragons in high school? Maybe you’ve seen Stranger Things and watched those boys play in the basement? Or you or someone you know has played Pathfinder or any of the numerous other role-playing games out in the tabletop gamer-verse? You and your friends take on the persona of a wizard or a fighter or some other hero, roll a bunch of dice, and do battle with any number of foes in an imaginary theater of the mind. The game is directed by a Game Master (GM) who tells the story, comments on what happens when, and tries to make the playing experience as realistic as possible. You go on quests, gather gold, and sometimes wreak havoc in imaginary towns with imaginary people. When you’re done, you take your dice and go home, leaving the NPCs behind, never giving them another thought until the next time you play.

What are NPCs, you ask? Allow me to explain. Non-player characters or NPCs are key to any good role-playing game but they’re always relegated to the background; not really key to the story but they provide goods and services and the occasional bit of information that helps move a story along. Think of them as extras in a movie or the residents (and old West bad guys) in Westworld. NPCs are the tavern keepers, the merchants, the gate guards, the port workers, the bandits, the stable boys – you get the idea. You interact with them as you need to throughout the story, usually just to get whatever supplies or information you need, and then move on to the next big adventure. The NPCs just kind of … disappear. Or do they? Here’s where we find out!

So, a few guys get together for some gaming one night, don’t listen to the big clues they get from the GM, and end up dead. Really quickly. They die in a tavern from accidentally poisoning themselves. The characters as a group are slumped over the bar, dead. No reviving, no spells to cast – just dead. Did I mention how dead they are? Time to roll new characters and start a new adventure, leaving this scenario behind.

Meanwhile, in the tavern, the bartender, a local guard, the mayor’s daughter, and the tavern owner are stuck with four dead bodies. What to do? These inexperienced adventurers are coming through the town all the blasted time, making a mess, getting killed – when will they learn and what are these four NPCs supposed to do with the bodies? How rude!

That’s where the plot of NPCs takes us. Not with the players, but with the game. The players have moved on, but the NPCs have to clean up the mess. While searching the bodies, the foursome realizes the the dead dudes were on a quest for the king (barely started, but still). Afraid of taking the blame for the inept dead adventurers and incurring the wrath of the king, the four NPCs decide to take up the quest and, at the very least, move the suspicious deaths away from their small village. After all, the writ is for a rogue, a paladin, a wizard, and a barbarian. Nobody has actually met or even knows the names of the dead, so subs can easily be put in place. And so the adventure begins!

*Modest spoilers ahead about things that happen very early on in the story!*

Meet Thistle, a gnome and the tavern owner, who decides to be the rogue because he’s used to making shady deals; Grumph, the half-orc, who bartends and intimidates with his brawn and is so obvious to fill the role of barbarian; Eric, the human guard and the son of a deceased Paladin who takes on that role now; and Gabrielle, a human and the daughter of the mayor who is highly educated and agrees to be the wizard. However, when the first big fight ensues, the devout Thistle sends up a quick prayer to his god as he uses his weapon; Eric, the Paladin, is more clever and agile in fighting without his uncomfortable armor; the brawny half-orc is able to cast spells from a found spell book; and Gabrielle rages into the midst of the battle swinging a mighty axe. Stop, rewind, switch places and our crew fits more comfortably into new roles they never knew they could fill.

I liked the twist on the NPCs starting out in obvious roles but then changing places with each other into roles you wouldn’t normally expect them to play. It happens fairly early in the book, so it’s not a big spoiler. I don’t think people who haven’t played role-playing games will be lost in the story and people who do play will enjoy this immensely. One of the best early gags is that Gabrielle is kidnapped so frequently by goblins as a plot point for adventurers that she has become friends with the kidnappers. They’ve taught her to speak goblin and to hunt and track; they let her bring books along when it’s time to kidnap her again; and they have a particular horse they let her use every time they kidnap her. She looks forward to the “kidnappings” as mini-vacations from her ordinary life! Hilarious!

Again, the part of the book I described is very early on, and there is plenty of additional adventure for our crew. Who knows? It might even spark an interest for your own gaming! Drew Hayes, the author, has quite a few irons in the fire as you can read for yourself on his website. There are more books in the NPCs series, as well as some other works, podcasts, videos, etc. I’ve included an interview with Hayes here on a show called Nerdrotic that I found on YouTube and another interview on a broadcast about Sci-Fi and Fantasy marketing here. Enjoy!

Book With A Color in the Title

A young girl is pulled from obscurity to lead a rebellion – read that in The Hunger Games.

A young girl is elevated to royalty to make a difference in a dystopian future – read that in The Queen of the Tearling series.

A queen orchestrates the slaying of her king in order to put her son on the throne – read that in Game of Thrones.

I picked this book because I like the dystopian fiction genre, but also because one of the books in the series was just released and I wanted to give it a go. I wouldn’t say I disliked this book. I just didn’t find anything new or different in the genre. (It could also be the narrator on the audio version, because I did dislike her.) Our heroine, Mare Barrow, is a Red Blood, the lower caste of society. Silver Bloods are superior in every way, complete with magical powers that the Reds don’t possess (and real silver blood). As a result, the Silvers rule and the Reds are kept oppressed and deprived of privilege and opportunity. Somebody has to stand on the corner and wave as the Silvers go by, right?

Our girl, Mare, gets by as a pickpocket and thief with no valid trade in store for her. The future awaiting her is forced service in the military when she turns 18. Her father has returned home from service physically broken, and her three older brothers are also off fighting. Mare’s friend, Kilorn, thought his future was was military-free since he apprenticed as a fisherman. However, his benefactor dies suddenly and he comes to Mare with the news that he will be off to the military in a week. Desperate to escape a bleak and uncertain future, the two hatch a plan to escape.

I won’t spoil all of the events that transpire, but Mare is put into a situation where it’s revealed that she has the power to create and control energy and lightning. The Silvers are known to have extraordinary powers like creating fire or mind control, but no Red has ever shown this capability. The King claims Mare is from a long-lost noble family and betroths her publicly to his youngest son. She is brought into the royal fold and cut off from her family. Resentful, Mare plays along but gets pulled into a group planning a rebellion and is ultimately a pawn for them and the royal family.

It’s a fairly good read and I’ll probably pick up the sequels at some point, it’s just not high on my list for originality in the genre. This book doesn’t quite transcend the Young Adult genre to escape the teen angst and romance that threaten to distract from the story. Having said that, Mare has a lot of grit and determination. The author has parts of the world she created that hint at a post-apocalyptic upheaval and I’m interested to see how that plays out. If you like dystopian YA literature, there are additional suggestions here, including the City of Ember series which I loved!

Romance

I’m reaching pretty far back here, picking Fantasy Lover by Sherrilyn Kenyon. This book was published in 2002 and is also the first book in Kenyon’s popular Hunter- verse, which is a big part of why I chose it.

Now, I’m a big fan of romance as a genre, and I started reading romance probably about 7th or 8th grade. I cut my teeth on Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Mistress of Mellyn, and an assortment of Harlequins ( I remember The Winds of Winter by Sandra Field fondly). I graduated to Jude Devereaux, Johanna Lindsey, Beatrice Small’s Skye O’Malley, and Janet Dailey’s Calder series. I moved on to other genres through the years, but dipped back to Amanda Quick, Brenda Joyce, Mary Balogh, Karen Marie Moning and lots of the paranormal trends. Kenyon’s novels have been extremely popular, and I bumped this up the top of my TBR pile because I had surprisingly never read any.

The romance genre has a good mix of things I like and things I don’t like.You read romance, above all else, for the interaction of the hero and heroine and that can be anywhere on the board from sweet to steamy, Amish to medieval, mystery to sci-fi, humor to dramatic. I like a variety of all of those and had high hopes for this book because of its popularity. Fantasy Lover has some sexy sizzle, for sure, but it also has a huge dollop of cheesiness to it, and I can’t get on board with that. I try not to put spoilers in my book discussions, but this book is old enough that I may discuss some things that could be slight spoilers. Fair warning.

Where to start? Julian of Macedon is a warrior, a general, who is the son of Aphrodite and a mortal man. After a series of events, Julian displeases the wrong gods and is banished to a book for eternity, only leaving the pages when he is summoned as a sex slave. Not just any sex slave. He stays for a full month to pleasure a woman but can never find his own release. Then, he’s back in the book until his next summoning. This has gone on for 2000 years. Our heroine is Grace, a 29-year-old sex therapist who has only ever had sex once. How does that work? I’m not sure how you can do a job like that and be afraid of the physical act, but whatever. Grace’s parents were tragically killed when she was 24 and the cad who deflowers her was collecting virginities on a bet. I get that she was treated terribly and the dude was callous about the physical hurt he inflicted on her during her first time. It still seems odd she wouldn’t find other relationships to explore further, especially since she’s a… sex therapist. I have a hard time with that. Can you tell? Grace is also described by herself and other characters as plain and slightly overweight, but that’s really all we get on a descriptive. A little more on the self-esteem or body image issues might have gone a long way to convince me of her reasons for never having sex again. Of course, Julian finds her simply scrumptious as any hero worth his weight in gold should. So, Grace’s friend helps her summon Julian to help get her past her sex hang-ups and a little moonlight and wine-soaked incantations later, and Julian and Grace are set to spend the next month together.

It’s no stretch to think they will eventually want to break the curse of Julian’s imprisonment in the book. A variety of gods and goddesses make appearances and there is melodrama surrounding Julian’s feelings of self-loathing, his loneliness throughout his life, and his revulsion at being enslaved. As with Grace’s issues, these seemed forced for the sake of having some internal conflict and kind of get dumped in the middle of the narrative.

*Spoiler alert* This is more of a spoiler alert than some of the other things I mention, but part of breaking the curse requires Grace and Julian to start having sex before the stroke of midnight and stay “joined” until sunrise. No slippy-outy or all bets are off. Seriously. I mean, maybe I’m just old, but I would have to pee sometime during this six or seven hours. That would be awkward. And require some logistical effort on my part. Guess I won’t be summoning any demi-gods from ancient texts. Also, the curse can only be broken by a woman “of Alexander,” which I thought would mean Grace has some lineage to Julian’s time and add some heft to the plot. Nope. Her last name is Alexander. That’s the magic connection. Really.

All in all, it’s not the best romance I’ve ever read but it’s also not the worst. The parts that I guess were supposed to be humorous were just cringe-worthy to me. The melodrama could have been more developed or just left out altogether; make it either campy or serious but not both. The ending was a abso-fucking-lutely eye-rolling. What do you do with a Macedonian general in 2002 New Orleans when he has no birth certificate, no current employable skills, no record on the grid? Mighty Aphrodite steps in with all the answers.

There are lots of mixed reviews on Goodreads if you want to take a look at those here. Due to the popularity of the series as a whole, I’ll probably try one or two more to see where it goes. Happy reading!

Sci-Fi and Fantasy for Women – Part 2

I’m referencing the Book Riot article I mentioned in the previous post, and taking a look at some of my favorites from the last half of the list.

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear – Really a Steampunk Western, this is the story of (can you guess?) Karen Memory, a prostitute in late 19th-century Seattle Underground – an alternate universe version, of course.  Gold miners come through on their way to Alaska, but airships float in the skies overhead.  Karen and her fellow prostitutes come up against a madman with a scientific mind control machine and a Jack the Ripper wannabe who is leaving dead prostitutes on the doorstep of the brothel where Karen and her comrades ply their trade.  I would have liked more of the steampunk element, but overall it was a good book.  Not sure it would make my top 100 by women, but it was a fun read nonetheless.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley – Can you tell I have a thing for King Arthur stories?  This is another favorite of mine, ranking right up there with the Mary Stewart series I discussed in the previous post.  This take on the legend is from the point of view of the women in the story, which made it unique at the time.  Much like real history, women don’t always get the credit due to them for their influence on the course of human events.  Legends are often the same, and Bradley is a master at the take on this story.  Not to be missed, especially if you are an Arthurian enthusiast.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho – Reading it now, so I’ll have to let you know, but I really like it so far.  I know the book has received great buzz since it came out, but I didn’t research too much for this post since I don’t want to accidentally read any plot spoilers.  Huge pet peeve for me!  You’ll have to research this on your own until I finish…

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – Just a classic!  Our heroine, Meg, and her brother and mother find an unearthly stranger in their kitchen one night.  From there, the story unfolds in a way that is beyond description if I want to avoid spoilers.  (If you don’t know how I feel about spoilers, see the blurb of Sorcerer to the Crown!)  I read this many moons ago and hope to find time soon to read it again, plus the other four books in the series.

As I stated in Part 1 of this post, many of the other books out of the 100 are either on my TBR list or I’ve read other books by the authors, but not the ones listed.  It’s a still a selection of some great choices, but I would have to read all of them to say whether or not I would include them on a similar list of my own.

What’s missing or worth consideration, at least?  Here’s a few books I would throw out there that I found highly enjoyable…and are written by women.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison – Not what you think the story will be at all, and has some gender-bending plot points similar to Ancillary Justice.

The Witching Hour by Anne Rice – If we’re going there with the vampires and what not in Dead Until Dark, then let’s really go there with Anne Rice and her glorious Mayfair witches.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater – Each November, water horses emerge from the ocean and it’s up to the bravest (or most foolish) riders to try to get these bloodthirsty mounts to the finish line.  A young woman, Puck, is forced by circumstance to enter, risking her life for her family in a way similar to Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.

Sci-Fi and Fantasy by Women – Part 1

Sci-Fi and Fantasy are two of my favorite genres to read, especially fantasy.  If it’s not your thing, I get it, but I implore you to not overlook this post or this genre.  Remember, a reading list is about trying new things and you can find all sorts of comments on society in the pages of these books.  Moreover, there’s often the classic hero’s story a la Joseph Campbell; some read like historical fiction; some have Dynasty-level family drama (looking at you, Game of Thrones); some are dreamily romantic; some are downright funny.  Browse the book stores or look at Good Reads and give something in this genre a try.  I came across this great list on Book Riot of what the author of the article considers to be 100 of the “must-read” books in the genre…by women.

(Me getting on my soapbox)  I’ll get my little gripe out of the way first.  I really have mixed feelings about the codicil “by women” or any other similar categorization.  I get that people want to emphasize diversity and make sure all groups are represented and I’m all for that!  Truly!  However, I can’t help but feel that the tags also take away from the authors and their works by making them seem like they don’t stand on the same ground as works by men (or whomever) and have to be judged separately. Can’t we all just get along and say “must-read” without putting them into any other category than genre? (Me getting off my soapbox)

Anywho, it’s a great list.  I think I’ve said that.  Most of them I’ve heard of, many of them are on a TBR list that never seems to end, and some I’ve had the great pleasure of reading and highly recommend.  Here’s my favorites for the first half of the list…

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – What a great book!  I had the pleasure of having a Skype visit with Ann Leckie for a book club where this was our selection.  She was wonderful!  To overly simplify a complicated plot, the story revolves around an android who is part of a space ship – these androids act as the eyes and ears of the space ship and keep the captain informed of what’s happening in multiple places at once.  Boots on the ground, if you will.  Very Big Brother-ish or like the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  (Yes, I’m THAT kind of nerd!) Treachery happens, as it often does, with the main ship being destroyed and only one android, Breq, is left to figure out what happened to the ship and captain and seek revenge.  The truly remarkable part of this book is that Breq could be male or female – the story (and the author) don’t confirm anything. It’s not a sexual plot line, it’s just that, to Breq, male and female have no relevance (just like me on my soapbox).  The Radsch empire (Breq’s home) makes no distinction between male and female in their language, so you really never know if any given character is male of female.  It really makes no difference to the plot either, but it kind of blows your mind as you’re reading it – just when you think you have it figured out, you don’t!  I haven’t read the sequels yet, but they’re on my list, and I’m for sure going to read this one again.

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart – I loved this series! An oldie, but goodie, Stewart takes on the King Arthur saga and brings a realness and depth to the characters that makes you believe they could have existed.  This first book focuses on Merlin and his early life, mixing in historical details of Britain in the fifth century – details that make the book seem like historical fiction.  Don’t miss it or, if you’ve read it, read it again!

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris – aka the television series True Blood, this book introduces us to Sookie Stackhouse and her quirky, deadly entourage.  I haven’t read all of the books in the series, but I really did enjoy the early ones and mean to get back to them one day.  I did watch the television series through to the end and, from what I gather, the book series and the TV series diverge at some point, giving me a chance to see potentially different outcomes for favorite characters – kind of like a choose your own adventure!  This series has the swooning romance and the gruesome gore, so you definitely get bang for your buck. (Fang for your buck?)  Harris has another series I enjoyed even more about Harper Connelly, who can sense the final location of a dead person and see the last few seconds of their lives, and uses this knowledge to help bring closure to murders.  The first in that series is Grave Sight.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling – I mean, come on.  It’s Harry Potter.  Get on the knight bus and read it, if you haven’t already.  I’m still checking the mail everyday for my letter from Hogwarts.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – I fell in love with this series, right up to the very end.  It’s dark and gritty and also full of humanity.  Collins has said that the fascination our culture has with reality shows like Survivor greatly influenced the formation of this story and it doesn’t disappoint. Can we debate the ending, though?  You know what I’m talking about!  With social commentary hidden in a futuristic world, do not pass this one by and don’t think you know the book just because you’ve seen the movies.

Post to be continued…