Strange The Dreamer by Laini Taylor

We all know I’m a fan of a pretty book, but Strange the Dreamer was at a whole other level on the scale of book porn. My specific edition is a gorgeous hardcover with these beautiful illustrations on the title page, signed, and has blue-sprayed edges. And to top it all off? It was a fantastic book as well.

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photo credit to my own instagram (plug plug) as I’m usually terrible at taking pretty book photos

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

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I knew almost nothing before going into this book, but had seen a lot of hype about it on social media. All I knew was that it was a beautiful book that was fantasy, so imagine my sheer delight at finding it was about gods, goddesses, magic, and a protagonist who is a hardcore bookworm. I imagine most of us who like to think themselves bookaholics and writers would proudly accept the epithet of ‘the dreamer’, so to have your main hero be a lover of books and fairy tales? A joy to read.

‘His nose was broken by a falling volume of fairy tales on the first day of the job, and that, they said, told you everything you needed to know about strange Lazlo Strange:head in the clouds, world of his own, fairy tales and fancy’ 

High fantasy at its best, this is a book that I just didn’t really expect. I’ve not had the pleasure of reading Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, but it’s definitely on my TBR list now. Her writing flows so beautifully, and her descriptions are inspiring, poetic, and, without doubt, pretty darn magical. I didn’t expect to get invested so quickly, and as a wannabe fantasy writer myself I kept on thinking “How can this be so good?”. I kept on having to put it down and sigh, wondering why I even allow myself to fantasise about writing something myself, but then had to pick the book back up again because I really needed to know what happens.

A great start to a new series, and although there was some serious world-building that Taylor included, I can only hope she was just laying the foundations of what is to come as there is so much more of that world that needs exploring. It’s the kind of book that completely transports you into a different world and you soon forget that you’re reading, devouring word after word until you’re on the edge of your seat because of the drama going on. There were several plot points and ‘twists’ that I personally found slightly predictable, but the only reason they were predictable was because the author gave you the hints to reach that conclusion only moments before the other characters did.

Enjoyable, fun, endearing characters, and a fantastic, fantasy tale that will leave you ready to read the sequel as soon as you finish it – and once you do, you can join the rest of us in the waiting game, which I’m sure will be the best kind of agony.

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Magic Monday: Caraval, The Night Circus, and The Crown’s Game

I recently finished Caraval by Stephanie Garber, and since finishing I keep describing it by relating to other books – in particular, The Night Circus and The Crown’s Game, the first of which I’ve reviewed previously. The clear correlation between all of them is magic, but with the added element of spectacle and ties to the circus. Clearly something works with the format, and instead of doing a standard review for Caraval I’d rather look at all three books and see what it is about their magic and setting that makes them great reads.

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So let’s look at a brief overview of each book, starting off with one of my all-time favourites The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. This enchanting book is based on a circus which arrives with no warning, opening at sunset and closing at dawn. The circus is no ordinary one however, filled with secret magic and mystery. In case any of you haven’t read it and don’t want too many spoilers, I’ll be brief in saying that there is another huge plot line in the book which follows two people, both with their own kind of ‘magic’, who must compete against one another. There’s love, there’s adventure, there’s beautiful descriptions and imagery, and of course a ton of magic. You read this book for the ‘aesthetic’ I think. You read it for those incredible descriptions of the various spectacles at the circus, for the beautiful imagination the author has and the world she weaves. This book definitely stands out as an all time favourite just because of it – and after all, circus’ are meant to enrapture you.

The next book that I read out of the three was The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye, which had me completely hooked for days on end. The heart of this story follows that of Vika and Nikolai, both somehow born with magic that should only be granted to one. The Russian tsar needs an enchanter at his side, and so the two compete for the position in what is known as ‘The Crown’s Game’, a magic duel to the death that spans across several days where each enchanter must create some kind of illusion or spectacle, putting on a show for their large audience. There’s incredible imagination, brilliant characters that make you want to jump straight into the pages with them, and once again brilliant magic. This one left me with a serious book hangover that I’m still feeling today.

And finally, we have Caraval by Stephanie Garber which I finished in just a few days, reading late into the night to finish it. We meet two sisters, Scarlett and Tella, who are desperate to escape out from under their father’s thumb and go to the mysterious Caraval, a legendary game where the audience participates in the show. Tella manages to get Scarlett to the grand location of the game, but is soon taken by the master organiser Legend – if Scarlett wants her sister back, she has to find her in order to win the game. Fast plot, a dark element, a love interest and plenty of twists to finish it all off, and once again, you got it, magic.

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So at the centre of all of these books, there is that element of competition. With NC and CG, two individuals are competing against each other with magical duels, whereas Caraval is about a competition with many participants. Something about this plot line adds a layer of excitement and anticipation, but also gives the novels a structure that is easy enough to follow. Yet in my reading experience of all of them, the pacing was very very different. NC was like a slow-burning candle, with the same intensity imagination and awe throughout, but one that you take your time with to let it all soak in. CG and Caraval however were like quick bursts of flame, ones that I had to finish as soon as possible before the fire went out. I think out of all of them, I enjoyed CG the most in terms of the actual reading of it, finishing it in a few days and absolutely loving it. For long term however, NC is one that I always think back to just because of it’s amazing descriptions and I always use it as an example of how to create a beautiful book which although has a great plot, it has a slow pace which works for it. Comparing CG and Caraval, both of which are different to NC as they are part of a series, I feel far more inclined to read the sequel of CG because I still think about that ending that had me screaming along with my adoration of the characters.

Which brings me to my next point: characters. It seems each book sacrifices something out of pacing, characters, and world. NC of course has the best world out of all of them but slow pacing, CG has the best characters with a less imaginative world, and Caraval doesn’t have the best character development. CG for sure has the best balance between the three, as it is a fantasy novel based on Russia and the Ottoman empire, imagining if magic was present in the time. Caraval, although having brilliant pacing and a great setting, didn’t have the characters to back it up. It starts off great – we have two sisters, a ruthless father, and a charming sailor. Yet there isn’t much development, and starts off as slightly stereotypical; one sister is the responsible ‘boring’ one who just wants to save her sister, whereas the other is more adventurous, flirtatious and reckless. A pretty classic format that the author doesn’t really try to deviate from until the very end, so hopefully that means the sequel will have some serious character development. I’ll admit, the ending puts a new spin to what has happened throughout the book which adds to the overall effect, but I wish there had been something more sooner.

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I gave all books 4 stars and above, as let’s face it: the competitive magic format just works. I loved all three and each of them has shown me different ways a great book can be – and all three have stunning covers. NC with it’s great colour way and character detail, CG with its dramatic crown, and Caraval with it’s secretive design underneath the dust jacket, of which there are four different designs that you can get. I’d recommend them all to anyone who is a fan or who wants to try a new fantasy, depending on what you love. For fast pace, magical fun with plenty of twists, go with Caraval. For a slower and more imaginative read, with stunning descriptions and characters that will take your heart, go with Night Circus. And finally, for a plot that will make you scream at the ending and and characters that make you lose your mind, go with The Crown’s Game.

 

October Wrap Up

Considering the month of October included university work unlike the likes I’ve ever seen, a trip to the US, and continued working on the weekends, I’m surprised I managed to read anything at all. Yet somehow, my Goodreads account claims I’ve read one more book than I thought I had. As I’m unsure where I’ve messed up, and don’t particularly want to go through all 2016 wrap up blogs alongside my Goodreads logs, we’re just going to pretend there’s no mistake whatsoever.

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So first up I read Frostblood by Elly Blake, which was far bester than I expected it to be. I actually received the book back in the July Fairyloot box, but just hadn’t picked it up yet. I had just finished The Crown’s Game, mentioned in my previous wrap up, and was still riding that fantastical high. A book about people controlling fire and ice sounded like fun, and although I wasn’t expecting much, Frostblood had an interesting setting, a great build up, and a surprisingly great ending – although the ‘big twist’ wasn’t much of a shock. I expect there will be a sequel, and in that I hope Blake manages to develop all of the characters even more – especially the secondary ones, which I don’t think were always used to their full potential – although I personally have no idea where she’s going to take the plot from here on out, so I look forward to seeing what she does.

Next I finally finished the audiobook for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which I once again loved. I’d completely forgotten some of the details of certain characters and events, especially towards the end, so there were still moments that were completely new to me. There’s a lot that wasn’t included in the films, which I expected, but honestly I love coming across these little pieces of new information and plot. I especially love everything to do with Hermione’s S.P.E.W and the ghost Peeves, who I wish could have been in the films.

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The third and final book I finished in October was The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, which I read for my dissertation. I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would, mainly due to Campbell’s beautiful writing style. There were passages that I had to write down, just for his use of phrase and imagery to encapsulate the world of the ancient hero. If you have any interest in ancient classics, mythology, or the hero trope, I highly recommend it.

So even though I’ve also read about two thirds of another book in October, I’m happy with these three – especially as I mentioned in my last wrap up that I just needed to read three books a month in order to get to my goal. I’ve also, unsurprisingly, read a couple of Kindle books in the past month, so in terms of overall reading I’ve managed to get through a lot. As I’ve told myself that I just don’t have the time to participate in NaNoWriMo this year, which I’m very unhappy about despite the fact that it’s for my own good (head over to my writing blog alwayslovetowrite.wordpress.com to read more), this means that I should have some more time for recreational reading. I did count Campbell in with this month, even though it was for university, and I should have another university book in November’s wrap up – so maybe next year my goal will be books not included for uni, although that may be a bit cruel to myself.

Anyway, thanks for reading, and here’s hoping that we’ll reach our reading goals!

September Wrap Up

In my head, I thought September was an ok reading month, but now looking back I see that I actually read some fantastic books and – after spending hours last night finishing a book that I literally couldn’t put down – it seems like my reading is picking back up again.

So first off we have Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. By the time I reached the end and had some time to think about it, I liked it far more than I thought I would. A combination of prose and poetry, it looks at grief within a family throughout the eyes of those who are left behind along with the strange character of the Crow, inspired by Ted Hughes’ poem, that has a very Tim Burton vibe. There was a good balance of dark humour along with beautiful passages and, although I was confused by a lot of it, I did love it in the end.

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Then I read the spectacular sci-fi novel, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. The world building took up most of the book, and it was incredibly well done, but it was the characters that kept me reading. I absolutely loved how we saw their relationships play out, and how everyone was very distinct. Even when something terrible happened, I felt like it was happening to someone I know – and that’s when you know that the author has really succeeded in writing.

After that was The Problem with Forever by Jennifer L Armentrout, an author who I usually read on kindle and love – she has this way of writing which is just effortless to read, and I’ve always bought her books from the Lux Series beyond. Her New Adult books are usually my favourite, and although this one was perhaps a little younger it was still a lovely read. The secondary characters, and this goes for all of her books, remain to be my favourite.

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Then came the usual mid-month Kindle extravaganza, with Retrieval, Drive, The Boss, and Machine. As usual, they were light, easy-reading, and great flicks.

The final book I finished this month was The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye, which I’d heard some great reviews on and, honestly, they weren’t lying. I adored this book, and the magic within it was perfectly done. Like the other books of this month, it was all down to the characters once again, and I am honestly desperate for the sequel. Like seriously – I need it immediately. What was that ending? What happened? I literally spent hours online searching for someone who knew the answers I’m sure only the author knows, so basically I need the sequel because I need to know what happened.

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On that note, for my physical books that brings me to 43/50! I am just seven books away – and with October already under way, I’ve already finished a book (as mentioned previously, due to the late-night-can’t-stop-reading phase). It’s so exciting as the year goes on to actually see progress, and to think that from October-December I need to have read 7 books I’m even more motivated. If I read three books a month, I will pass my  goal – and although university is kicking off and the work is piling on, I hope that I’ll make sure I find the time to read, read, read.

August Wrap Up

I know I’m a bit late, but I’ve been enjoying the Sun and didn’t fancy sitting inside with my laptop. August was a very interesting month and, although it feels like I’ve read more than ever, that isn’t reflected in this Wrap Up. I was at a publishing internship for two weeks where I was trying to read two or so manuscripts every day – so, a lot of reading. Yet as I had to skim a lot of them and they’re unpublished scripts, I haven’t included them in this month’s blog. However, despite feeling like my eyes were drier than ever, I managed to read a good amount for August. I think.

 

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First up was Medea’s Curse by Anne Buist, which I had to do a final proof-read of for the publishing house which was fun. It definitely took me a lot longer to get through however, as any sentence that I thought didn’t read entirely right had me re-reading it for a few minutes. Overall I thought the main character was different and interesting with a lot of different components to make up her personality, but the book really picked up as the thriller part of the plot started to amp up.

Then I finished Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, and I don’t think I’ve read a book as stylistically good as this one since A Little Life. Just wonderful writing, very character-driven, and wonderful observations. The ending was absolutely perfect, and I loved the layout of the book as well – some passages were just so simple but powerfully evocative, that it just made reading it a wonderful experience.

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Past the midway mark for the month now, I breezed through two kindle books – Neighbour Dearest and Anti-Stepbrother. The latter I far preferred, written by Tijan whose books I really enjoy, although this one wasn’t my favourite. Still, they fulfilled their purpose in providing some escapism and easy fun to flick through.

Then, then, I read a book that I did not expect to love as much as I did, and I think I’ll need to post a full book review because I have far too many feelings from this one book. Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff was simply a masterpiece, with such a fantastic, engaging format. Not exactly written in your standard prose, this sci-fi book was a mixture of reports, diagrams, scripts – oh, it was just so good. Was concerned about the YA aspect, but that barely featured; I laughed, cried, felt sick, and just can’t wait until the next one. Five stars, without doubt.

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Finally for this month I read A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan, which I did enjoy. It was a new and interesting take on the dragon genre, and we all know that I adore anything to do with dragons. It takes a very scientific approach and maintains that clinical perspective, which I found slightly slow in some areas, but the final few chapters were far more engaging with a faster pace that I loved. So although I’m not bursting to buy the sequel, I am curious enough that I’m not opposed to the idea.

And so concludes this month’s wrap up! Two more kindle books to add to the pile, and for the physical books I’ve read that brings me to 39/50 – so I’m getting really close to my target now, which is so exciting. So if I can try to hit three books a month, I’ll definitely reach my goal. It’ll be sad if I’m not able to complete it, but I suppose university is about to start again and the workload for my final year is going to be ridiculous. Oh well, fingers crossed for a good September and good luck to anyone else facing a new year of work work work!

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The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest

My exams have just finished, and what better way to celebrate than doing a book review? (Don’t answer that question). I realise I haven’t done a book review in bloody ages, so it’s about time – and I have a few reviews to catch up on! If you follow me on goodreads (goodreads.com/Stammydodger) then you can keep up with what I’m reading (at the moment I’m deciding whether to start something fun or something for the dissertation -sigh), and I’m happy to receive book review requests – either on something you see that I’ve read, or just a book that you’re desperate to see someone talk more about.

Enough babbling, let’s get to Kate Tempest.

It gets into your bones. You don’t even realise it, until you’re driving through it, watching all the things you’ve always known and leaving them behind.

Young Londoners Becky, Harry and Leon are leaving town in a fourth-hand Ford Cortina with a suitcase full of money. They are running from jealous boyfriends, dead-end jobs, violent maniacs and disgruntled drug dealers, in the hope of escaping the restless tedium of life in south-east London the place they have always called home.

As the story moves back in time, to before they had to leave, we see them torn between confidence and self-loathing, between loneliness and desire, between desperate ambition and the terrifying prospect of getting nothing done.

In The Bricks that Built The Houses Kate Tempest explores contemporary city life with a powerful moral microscope, giving us irresistible stories of hidden lives, and showing us how the best intentions don’t always lead to the right decisions

This was a very interesting read for me, as I had not read any of Kate Tempest’s poetry before this – her debut novel – so it was interesting to see how it compared to other books that I’ve read. First of all, can we just point out that we have yet another beautiful cover on our hands? I was firmly on the ‘it is what’s on the inside that counts’ camp, but I think I’ve permanently moved to the ‘give me that pretty cover’ team. This book was recommended to me by a colleague, so I gave it a chance – and I’m glad I did.

Overall, I think what perhaps ruined this book for me was that I was reading odd chunks every now and then over the month of May whilst trying to revise, so when I did read it I was either not fully focussed or not entirely able to appreciate all that is Kate Tempest. But actions speak louder than words in my case, so the fact a planned half-hour reading break turned into almost three hours because I just had to finish the book and find out what happens, says it all.

The writing was unlike anything else I’ve read before. You can definitely tell that the author is a poet with how beautifully crafted her sentences are, the similes and metaphors feeling completely original and fresh. I liked a few lines so much that I immediately wrote them down, simply because I felt they was just perfect. Just perfect people.

Silence approaches the table like an overeager waiter. Hovers around making everyone feel looked at.

David catches her smile and pins it to his chest like a Year 6 swimming badge.

These lines, from the same page in the book, were further into the book and devoured in the 30-minute-turned-three-hours reading sprint, and I can’t help but wonder that maybe if I’d been able to read the whole in book in more sizeable, consistent chunks in a shorter space of time, I might have been jotting down quotes left right and centre. There were definitely more that left me agog, wondering how on earth someone can write something that just fits that moment entirely.

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I realise I haven’t said much about the book itself, but I’m not sure whether that would be wise or not. I went in knowing very little (see my comments on blind reads for more information) and it was a very interesting way to go. The first few pages set a scene, but then for the remainder of the book you’re transported back a year to see how everything leads to that scene – and what a journey it is. I’d definitely recommend picking up the book and just reading those first few pages, see if they reach out and grab you like they did me.

Outside the beautiful style and just classic Tempest-writing, one feature of this book I adored was the exploration of every single character. They all have their moments to shine, with their past and their story shared. Yes, Harry, Leon, and Becky are our main characters, but it seemed there were so many characters that I was able to get an insight into. Nobody felt surplus to the story, or just there for a few moments, and that was something completely novel and wonderful to me. There were stories of other characters that I wanted to hear more about, which was wonderful. And each story had that common thread that runs throughout the book, which for me was that really everyone is in the same boat, looking for themselves and their purpose and trying to get out of loneliness.

A beautiful book with beautiful writing, beautiful characters, and one heck of a beautiful cover. If you’re up for trying something new, then go for this one. You never know, you might be using the word ‘beautiful’ four times in one sentence because of it.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Sometimes you can forget just how much power a book can have – at least, that’s how I felt after reading A Little life. A story about love, friendship, and life – which sounds completely vague, but it’s hard to go into detail without breaking down into tears. I finished this book on the first day of this year and finally I can post a review.

When four graduates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome – but that will define his life forever.

 

 

Hanya Yanagihara made the Man Booker nominations with this novel, and it’s easy to see why. From the very first page she offers up beautiful descriptions and some great lines, but what drives this story is the extraordinary character development. The book follows a group of four friends: Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm. We follow them through their lives, starting when they’re in their early twenties, and it’s difficult not to care about them when you spend over 700 hundred pages with them. Even now when someone mentions the name Willem or starts humming ‘Hey Jude’ by the Beatles, my heart hurts.

Willem is the handsome, wannabe actor that you fall in love with, JB the outspoken artist who will offend you yet still manage to charm his way in, Malcolm the uncertain architect, and finally Jude, who is the real mystery. You watch them as they make their way through the spectacle that is life, dealing with jealousy, success, relationships, and more. Jude is the only character who is entirely closed off, with an unspeakable past which will have you guessing – and, let me tell you, when you find out the details you’ll wish you could turn back the pages and not know. You want them all to have their happy ending, and you never know whether or not Hanya is going to give it to you.

There are few bits that might irritate you – such as the lack of insight to any female character whatsoever. There are a few secondary characters that happen to be female, but they are not at all necessary for the main story. As much as this irritates me, it’s hard to dislike being so completely immersed in the lives of these four men. I would have liked to see some stronger female characters, as every female character in the book is normally partnered up with a man who has a much bigger role – it definitely shows when I can’t remember a single female character name now, but I still can name Harold, Ezra, Richard, and more. You get the idea.

Harrowing, desperate, utterly heart-breaking – just a few words I’d use to describe this whirlwind of emotions. It’s painful, but brilliantly so. The book tears you down just to put you back together again, only to tear you down even more than the first time. It brought me to tears, made me smile, made me laugh, made me want to put it in the freezer and run far, far away where it can’t hurt me. You’ll want to scream at these characters, hug them, laugh with them and, yes, sometimes punch them in the nose. I’d forgotten how much a book could make you feel and can safely say that this was an experience unlike any other, I can’t recommend it enough. I would advise though that you carve out time for this book and make sure that you’re in a very happy, stable state when you start it because you’re going to need strength to get through it all.