Night of the Dragon Left Me Starry-Eyed

*Received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review- but the light enthusiasm is all me 😉 *

night of the dragonHappily, I’m returning to the world of Iwagoto today, to talk about the finale in the Shadow of the Fox series. With a strong opening and the promise of plenty of emotional turns to come, I settled down for a night or two of wild reading 😉. Granted, I will admit there was a bit more telling at the start in order to recap the events of the last book, but it didn’t take long for the action to get going.

As with the previous instalments, the characterisation is a massive bright spot in the story. Yumeko is as likeable as ever; Tatsumi is broodingly conflicted. I liked the touch of having Tatsumi have a slightly different tone from the last book, though it was (understandably) a little more distant at times. Both of the main characters undergo serious character development- which I particularly liked in Yumeko’s case. The reveals about her history cut deeper than a samurai sword. Most of all, however, I liked Kagawa’s execution of the slow burn romance, with its ups and downs, giving the narrative hints of darkness and delight.

Once again, the adventure aspect was strong too. Not only was the writing sharp, the action was non-stop and on point. Even better, there was a tricksy ending that I wasn’t quite expecting! Kagawa doesn’t go for the straightforward happily ever after and yet still manages to deliver something sweet- which makes for a very satisfying conclusion to the saga!

Ultimately, while it took me a little longer to get into this book, I can’t fault this series for sheer entertainment, gorgeous characters and transporting me to a fantastic fantasy land. It was a very welcome distraction and I’m tempted to reread the entire thing! 😉

Rating: 4/5 bananas

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So, have you read this series? Do you plan to? Let me know in the comments!

Facepalming at the Hand on the Wall

hand on the wall

Ahh this book is such wasted potential! As the finale in the Truly Devious series, I had high hopes, but this fell short for me. Let’s investigate what went well and what went wrong.

orangutan mystery

To be fair, this book does offer a satisfying solution to the three-book mystery and there were times when I wanted to high five the author. The Biblical reference of the title was a stroke of genius and I loved how it tied into the plot. And I enjoyed seeing Stevie and the gang again. I was also happy with how the romance turned out, even if it was unnecessarily drawn out and their arguments seemed a little circular.

So, what went wrong?

Well, for starters, there was a whole lot more politics in this book. It was barely noticeable in Truly Devious, started to get on my nerves in Vanishing Stair, yet it was so much worse here. The politics was ratcheted up to such insane levels that it distracted from the main plot- such that I was sure it had to have some baring on the main mystery… but nope- it was just an opportunity to bash Republicans. Plus, it didn’t help that Johnson went for extra woke points and threw the grammar rulebook out the window, using the third person pronoun incorrectly to create a nice muddling effect. Look, I’m never going to be a fan of inserting modern politics in books and I’m a massive fan of correct grammar, so I get it if you want to take my views with a pinch of salt- however it’s my view as a reader that unrelated subplots shouldn’t confuse the audience or take away that much of the limelight from the central story. Granted, not every detail of a narrative has to tie in to the overarching plot, but if you make a big enough deal out of something, then there had better be a damn good reason for it.

Funnily enough, I think an example of a subplot working well with a story was Stevie’s anxiety. Because, again, the tension was executed superbly. It’s just a shame the answers weren’t as exciting as I was hoping. I wasn’t tremendously wowed when I found out who the culprit was- in either case. It was nice to have answers and all, yet I felt the questions posed in previous instalments had been more interesting. The puzzle assembled itself into an acceptable picture, however the little pieces on their own didn’t thrill me: the cause of death for one particular victim was especially lame, the motive in both cases uninspiring and everything a little too neat. I hoped that the mention of a Christie novel would give us something spectacular… but the end result was far less interesting. I did like how the two timelines tied together- it’s just a shame there wasn’t more to it.

Ultimately, I was kind of disappointed by this. Disappointed that it went off track for no reason, disappointed by the incessant bickering of the characters and disappointed by the uninspiring ending. More energy could have been given to the motive and actual story than the unnecessary tangents. Don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t a bad finale, but it could have been better.

Rating: 2½/5 bananas

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So, have you read this series? What did you think of it? Do you plan to? Let me know in the comments!

The Hard Truths of Wild Swans

wild swansThere are few memoirs as lauded as Jung Chang’s Wild Swans- and for good reason. Honest, eye-opening and bold, it tells the stories of three generations of Chinese women, through tyranny and oppression. I admired so many aspects of this book and learnt a great deal from it.

From the start, Chang reveals the culture of fear and insane propaganda, that captured a nation. While it does give a glimpse into the culture and circumstances before communism, I personally took a lot from how the narrative exposes the true horror of communism. What is incredible and unusual about this book is how we get to see both sides of the Cultural Revolution. We get an inside look at the Red Guards and the indoctrination behind their actions- and ultimately see those that fall victim to it.

The constant horror is such that I grew numb to it- but I will try to articulate it as clearly as possible. Books like this make it so we cannot fail to understand the reality of communism. My experience of reading Solzhenitsyn, for instance, already made it clear that starvation is always a by-product of these regimes. This, despite noble goals: “He did not tell anyone until years later when he was ruminating over how differently things had turned out from the dreams of his youth, the main one of which had been putting an end to hunger”. And, like with the Soviet Union (and despite being an entirely different culture), there are the same monstrous results:

“it was widely known that baby killing did go on at the time”

Naturally, communism destroys the most productive people- regardless of class. The people it purports to help are often its first victims. I’ve often contended that communists do not understand the poor- and here there is evidence of that again and again. Sometimes in the mimicry of poverty:

“I put patches on my trousers to look “proletarian””

Other times in the sheer contempt with which the ruling communist class reacts to peasants:

“Peasants have dirty hands and cowshit-sodden feet, but they are much cleaner than intellectuals”

Mostly though, it is in the failure to understand the basic humanity of working-class people and the similarities that exist across social classes- preferring to emphasise difference. There is a ridiculous idea in the Communist Manifesto that working-class people don’t have families- an idea that allows people to view caring about your family under communism to be a “bourgeois habit”. Thus, throughout Wild Swans, family ties are tested to their limit. This is obviously utter hogwash- I shouldn’t have to point this out but here goes: poor people have families too. Now, obviously there are advantages from a communist perspective to disavow the importance of family- because how can you be entirely loyal to a totalitarian regime if you have other (more human) connections? Yet clearly this is also a greater issue of false empathy, a failure to understand the human condition and an inability to see that people of all backgrounds are capable of achieving greatness. But, of course, that is not the goal of communism.

“We want illiterate working people, not educated spiritual aristocrats”

Thus, the greatest irony of all is that the education offered to working class people under communism is “designed to stupefy rather than enlighten”. And thus, arises the idea (which is gaining traction in modern culture) that one must “combat privilege” and atone for one’s education:

“This process appealed to the guilt feelings of the educated; they had been living better than the peasants, and self-criticism tapped into this”

The idea being that education is the enemy. Communism designs a system that keeps poor people down- as much as everyone else. It smashes, but it does not create:

“It was only in persecuting people and in destruction that Mme Mao and the other luminaries of the Cultural Revolution had a chance to “shine”. In construction they had no place.”

Fundamentally, I hold with the Peterson view that a person’s intent is seen in the outcome of their actions. And the outcome of communism is always catastrophe.

Yet it is not just the brutality of the book that I found so significant. There were so many little oddities that made my head spin:

“Think of the starving children in the capitalist world!”

“A famous restaurant called “The Fragrance of Sweet Wind” had its plaque broken to bits. It was renamed “Whiff of Gunpowder””

“In those days, beauty was so despised that my family was sent to this lovely house as a punishment.”

The entire book is packed with such anecdotes: laws that meant people got only twelve days of marriage leave a year, exams made void at random and any number of small, dehumanising humiliations. Worst of all, children were encouraged to betray their parents, such that:

“I can see the thrill some children must have felt at demonstrating their power over adults”

All the natural order is backwards. Reading it is as reading a sci fi about an absurd, alternate reality. And here’s the thing- I have read that book: it’s called 1984. Once again, I am astounded to find how attuned Orwell was- Jung Chang herself “marvelling constantly at how aptly Orwell’s description fitted Mao’s China”. I found this most notable in her description of her father’s interrogation- it reminding me of how they broke Winston’s mind, using the trick of telling someone that they’ve already been betrayed. It is all designed to break the human spirit.

And unfortunately, it is effective in the short term. All these absurdities and evils have a human cost. We can only hope that there will be others to reveal the hard truths of these regimes- as Chang has done.

Rating: 5/5 bananas

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So, have you read this book? Do you plan to? Let me know in the comments!

Monthly Monkey Mini Reviews – March ON!

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Hello all! I’ve had a bit of an interesting, non-stop, busy month. Unfortunately, I had some computer-related-frustration- which messed with blogging (again! I’m sorry!). Fortunately it’s all resolved now and I also did manage to get round to seeing lots of family and friends and doing plenty of monkeying around…

monkey's tea party

(yes, I have just been waiting for the excuse to draw a monkey’s tea party 😉 )

In terms of reading, February started out even more slumpy, until I picked up the *earth-shattering* Wild Swans (review to come), and got my reading-mojo back! So, let’s get on with the reviews!

recursion

Recursion– I really liked the premise of people suddenly finding they had false memories and it was especially cool to see it presented as a contagious disease. Initially, I was raring to go and got sucked into the distinctive dual perspectives. Now I will admit, I didn’t feel like this momentum carried through the whole book. For me, the middle flagged as (minor spoiler) it lacked tension when I knew that the characters could go back and erase parts of the story. Fortunately, it did get exciting again towards the finale and ended on a beautiful note. Not as good as Dark Matter, but still an enjoyable read.

Rating: 3½/5 bananas

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the stranger

The Stranger– what an intense and brilliant little book. With a compact style, that captures every detail like a snapshot, Camus’ existential novel simultaneously delivers clarity and is impossible to pin down. On the surface, it allows us to see through the eyes of a man accidentally drawn into a murder. Yet, this doesn’t just present us with a guilty man, but instead shows us a man condemned for his honesty. All of this is delivered with a lightness of touch and a hint of black humour. Uniquely fascinating and refreshingly insightful, it is a short book that packs a punch. I also have to give props to the translator, Sandra Smith, because it was very well done.

Rating: 5/5 bananas

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book of atrix wolfe

The Book of Atrix Wolfe– well, I’ve finally done it- I’ve finally caved to the McKillip recommendation (courtesy of Bookstooge, among others) AND I’M SO GLAD I DID!! This is so gosh-darn beautiful. Written with such ease, there’s a magic to this style. This is the best kind of old school fantasy: it has the mythical edge and dreamlike quality I crave. Because of the fairy-tale-feel, there were times that the style felt a little distant, but I’d definitely say McKillip is something special regardless and am looking forward to reading more!

Rating: 4½/5 bananas

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winter rose

Winter Rose– obviously I wasn’t content to leave it at just one McKillip book and I was drawn to this almost immediately. An unusual tale, told in a uniquely compelling voice, I was once again lulled by the beauty of McKillip’s writing. More so even than Atrix Wolfe, there was a fairy tale element to the story- yet here it felt like there was less of a fantastical scope and more of a focus on personal stories. I will admit there were some aspects that left my heart panging, which prevented me from giving it all the bananas. Ultimately however, this emotional journey, through a wintry wood, gave me chills.

Rating: 4/5 bananas

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what the wind knows

What the Wind Knows– I was instantly intrigued by the concept of this book: a woman travelling back in time to discover her ancestral heritage… as a fan of history, romance and fantasy, it sounded very promising! But, not always having enjoyed genre-benders and being a bit of a stickler for historical accuracy, I did have some trepidation going in. Fortunately, this surpassed all my expectations. Even with the hint of magic, it’s got the historical realism down. Drawing on real life events and people, Harmon guides the reader back into an authentic and believable past. The writing was graceful and captured the Irish setting; the inclusion of Yeats’ extracts really worked to evoke the themes. I definitely felt for the characters throughout and found that everything came together in the end. All in all, well worth the read.

Rating: 4/5 bananas

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american royals

American Royals– OMG I knew I was going to have fun with this from the second I heard the concept- but this book can take a bow- cos it was even more royally entertaining than I was expecting! Set in an alternative version of the USA, where instead of a presidency, George Washington became the first king of America, this tells the story of modern-day royals. Think the Crown meets Gossip Girl. From the prologue, it promised to be a juicy read, and it doesn’t let up throughout! In a rompy, fun fashion, this packs in plenty of drama, schemes and romance. I *loved* how authentic the world felt- capturing something of the modern monarchy and American politics. And if all that sounds good to you, I highly recommend picking it up!

Rating: 4/5 bananas

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heartstopper 1

heartstopper 2

Heartstopper volumes 1 & 2– well be still my beating heart, this was exceptionally cute. This charming story does exactly what it says on the tin: gives you heart palpitations. The romance was sweet and they were quick reads- so much so that I did think that in both cases there could have been more to the plot- but ultimately, I very much enjoyed them. I also especially liked the links to Radio Silence. And, above all, the artwork was gorgeous!

Rating: 4/5 bananas

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wilder girls

Wilder Girls– It’s safe to say I went near wild for this book 😉 The writing was sharp and to the point, stripped down to the essentials in an exquisite way. Reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, rather than a direct retelling, the story presents twisted concepts that turn the girl’s school setting on its head. I loved how the subtle characterisation worked and the relationships build over the pages. Plotwise, it was gripping and thought-provoking, yet something held me back from absolutely loving the ending. I guess I liked revelling in the chaos more than some of the answers 😉 Even so, really recommend this for everyone that’s been missing YA dystopia. And I would like to take a moment to appreciate that gorgeous cover- cos *WOW*!

Rating: 4/5 bananas

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So, have you read any of these? What did you think of them? Or do you plan to pick any of them up? Let me know in the comments!

Monthly Monkey Mini Reviews – Lovin’ a Little February

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Well, January was a peculiar month for me and I’m pretty glad to be jumping into February. Been a bit busy in work/life, which meant (horror of horrors) I ended up falling into a *dreaded book slump*. And, equally bad, I just couldn’t keep up with blogging. I really want to promise that I’m going to do better this month buuuut I have family coming to stay for a week, soooo we’ll see. I do have some great posts planned- so monkey *fingers and toes crossed* that I can get to them! Okay, now all that’s out the way, let’s get to the good stuff:

art of war

Art of War– this is easily one of the best things I’ve ever read. Really, I cannot state that enough. Informative, thought provoking and surprisingly poetic, there’s no end to what you can learn from this legendary work. Every word is so valuable that I ended up highlighting everything (which, admittedly, is not the smartest thing to do, especially since it made my notes unreadable 😉). There were so many gems, which, being a fantasy dork, I enjoyed applying to random fictional battles in my mind. For instance, I really don’t think Jon Snow understood this rule in the battle of the bastards: “By holding out advantages to him, he can cause the enemy to approach on his own accord; or by inflicting damage, he can make it impossible for the enemy to draw near”. Of course, this is the kind of book perfect for anyone interested in politics or strategy- but what’s brilliant about the Art of War is how it can easily be applied to across all fields and to life in general. So, if you’re a person living in the world, then this is the book for you!

Rating: 5/5 bananas

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beautiful fran laniado

Beautiful– who’s up for a beauty and the beast retelling from the perspective of the fairy who puts the curse on the prince?! Well you should be! By fellow blogger, the lovely Fran Laniado, this retelling has a unique concept and definitely fulfils it. One of the best things about Beautiful is the consistent, fairy-tale-feel to the tone. Plus, I liked the humour throughout. There was a bit too much exposition for me personally, which slowed down the plot, especially getting to the inciting incident. But overall, I loved the original take and thought it was a great point of view to tell the story from. This was a fun, quick read for anyone who likes fairy tale retellings!

Rating: 4/5 bananas

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stillhouse lake

killman creek

Stillhouse Lake/Killman Creek– I’m going to save people a lot of bother and say that you basically have to read the two books together. Because I didn’t know that going in and felt like Stillhouse Lake was a little incomplete. That said, if you do read both books, you’ll be left satisfied. This is definitely a gripping and entertaining and intense thriller- with some wild turns! I will say that I listened to the audiobook for the first one and the narration was so good that I ended up enjoying it more, so if you can manage it, that’s the way to go!

Rating: 3½/5 bananas

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serpent and dove

Serpent and Dove– ooh this was deliciously dark. I was so glad the author decided to actually explore the concept of evil witches- it made the line between good and evil murkier. And the writing was bewitching- from the opening line I was under its spell. I also really liked how French culture and history was integrated into the world building. My one quibble with the book- which stopped it being a 5 banana read for me- was how bonkers some of the plot points were. I thought the marriage twist was a little absurd and the villain’s monologue was too much (it was the kind that actually gives the heroine a reason to fight back). For the most part though, the story was a lot of fun. Even if some ideas were obvious, there was enough here that was unique to help me fly through it.

Rating: 4/5 bananas

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uprooted

Uprooted– I’m not the first person to say this and I won’t be the last: this is a very beautiful book. Enraptured from the start, I found myself drawn to the immersive, folkloric world. I loved the characters- who felt simultaneously believable and fairy-tale-esque. I wouldn’t say this was easy going though- it’s a dense book, which takes you on many twisting journeys and feels a little disjointed at times. I did like the plot, but sometimes it felt all over the place. Still, well worth the read and I *finally* get the hype!

Rating: 4/5 bananas

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beneath a scarlet sky

Beneath a Scarlet Sky– it took me a while to get into this, because it has an unusually calm start for something set in WWII. That said, it soon gets explosive, dramatic and emotionally charged. I found the people in this book fascinating (I hesitate to call them characters since they’re based on real people). I particularly thought we were given a vivid picture of the Nazi officer. And I really liked the musical motif throughout. From Boogie Woogie to Nessum Dorma, these refrains left a lasting impression when coupled with historical events. I wasn’t wholly bowled over by the last part, where it gave a rundown of where everyone ended up, but I do understand why that was necessary to bookend the story. Ultimately, this was a worthwhile read.

Rating: 4/5 bananas

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So, have you read any of these? What did you think of them? Or do you plan to pick any of them up? Let me know in the comments!

Dark Age Makes for a *Shiny* Sequel!

dark ageBy Jove- I thought Iron Gold was a great continuation of the Red Rising Saga– but I didn’t know quite how *awesome* these sequels were going to get (though having read the previous series, I had some idea 😉 ). Action-packed from the start and full of the intense politicking we’ve come to expect, the plot doesn’t let up for even a split second. Rollercoaster ride doesn’t come close to describing it. Because bloodyhell, there were fresh horrors and twists galore! Intensely addictive, the multiple povs upped the stakes and made me feel like no one was safe!!

What I especially liked about the characterisation was how it didn’t just grave rob the previous series- there was actual, logical growth here. And even better, the new characters were just as intriguing as the old (I am an especial fan of Lysander!)

I’ve also been very impressed by the ideas behind this trilogy. *Slight spoiler for Red Rising*- this explores the world after victory, dealing with the destructiveness of man alongside how hard it is to maintain power and implement justice. For me personally (being a massive nerd) I’d say the best way to describe this is it’s the direction the new Star Wars sequel trilogy should’ve gone (which, you’ll just have to trust me on, because it’s so hard to talk about without spoiling the entire plot!). It’s just so gorydamn good.

Beyond the plot, there were so many intertextual and historically complex references, which all threaded together to make a beautiful tapestry. The writing was as quotable as ever. I had to stand back and admire it.

This was by far one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a while- I’m going to need the next one fastlike!

Rating: 5/5 bananas

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So, have you read any of the Red Rising books? Do you plan to? And are you enjoying this continuation as much as I am? Let me know in the comments!

Ten Thousand Doors of January Opened up a Wondrous World of Storytelling

ten thousand doors of januaryWhat a wildly impressive story! After seeing an amazing review on the Witty and Sarcastic Book Club, I simply knew I had to check it out… and I wasn’t disappointed! Exquisitely rendered, the world building was so stunning, I instantly got lost in whole other worlds.

And it was just this that made the book such a marvel. The narrative voice captivated me from the start. With astounding skill, Harrow draws you into her unusually layered tale. Stories are layered within stories, doors lead to more doors, until I found myself transported far beyond my bedroom.

I did like the way this drew on different time periods and cultural events in an unusual fashion. Yes, this deals with hard historical events, lending something of a modern touch to it- yet it does so in somewhat of a unique way that I still felt the authenticity within the fantasy.

Gripping and entertaining throughout, there were surprises hiding in plain sight. And even if I thought I had a handle on the twists, the story would then turn in another direction and take me on a new adventure. Not letting up for a second, I was delighted by the journey it took.

Best of all, the distinct characters felt grounded in reality and the relationships were beautifully done. Both the romance and the family dynamics were handled in an unbelievably sweet way.

In the end, this book was an absolute pleasure to read.

Rating: 5/5 bananas

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So, if you’re looking for something a little special to check out this January, why not treat yourself to this? And if you have read it- what did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!