February Reading Log

I think I hit a new high for books read in a month: 10. They were all paper or ebook save one. I spent a good chunk of February sick, first with what I thought was the flu, then with epiploic appendagitis. Turns out it was all related, and now I’m down with a wicked gallstone. I can’t catch a break.

Health issues aside, here’s my 10 books for February.

The Jewel – Amy Ewing

This is one of those books that has an absolutely beautiful cover. The book inside isn’t beautiful. It’s okay, but not beautiful.

Violet, so named for her violet eyes, lives in The Lone City, which is an island that’s been turned into a city. She was raised on the outer ring, The Marsh, until it was discovered she had the Augeries. Because she has them, she’s taken to a school to learn how to use them, so she can be a surrogate for the citizens of The Jewel.

Only the wealthy and influential live in The Jewel, the innermost ring of The Lone City. For reasons unknown, they’re unable to conceive children of their own, and must rely on the surrogates from The Marsh to carry their children. Violet is sold at auction to the Duchess of The Lake, and taken to her manor. Once there, she has to accept her complicated relationship with the Duchess, the doctor, and all the other members of the household.

The story is okay, but not great. It felt like the author borrowed a lot of pieces from other books, and cobbled them together. For example, before Violet is auctioned off, she has to be made presentable. While there’s no group working to make her beautiful, there is one man who applies her makeup and does her hair. He reminds me of Cinna, especially when he offers to help get her out of The Jewel later on. The surrogates are given scores, from 1 to 200, to reflect how valuable they can be to their new home, much like the tributes in The Hunger Games are given scores. Violet is given beautiful dresses and a shy maid, like in The Selection. She’s also a musician, playing the cello, echoes again of America in The Selection.

Overall, I wasn’t super impressed with the book. Violet is beautiful, perfect, and smart enough to realize something’s up. She makes friends with her maid immediately, intimidates the Duchess’s niece, and is an excellent cellist. She’s boring. The only thing she does that’s even remotely interesting is fall in love with the companion, Ash, that the Duchess has hired to keep her niece busy until she can be married off. They fall in instant love, which is both unbelievable and really damn boring. Then, the book ends on a cliffhanger, which is one of those things that traditional publishing has been doing lately, and it drives me crazy.

The White Rose – Amy Ewing

The sequel to The Jewel, this is a better book, but still not great. Violet is stuck in her room after being discovered with Ash, on the night she was supposed to fake her own death and escape The Jewel. Instead of that plan, she has to take an alternate way out of the city, and ends up bringing Ash, and her friend Raven along.

The Cinna knockoff from the first book orchestrates the escape, which is actually the best part of the book. They have to get out of the mansion, then out of The Jewel, into The Bank, which is where what we’d consider the middle class to be. There, they run into some snags, and it takes a bit for them to leave The Bank for the factory section. In the factory section they run into trouble, but end up getting to The Farm. From there, they go to The White Rose, a secret inn.

Once there, Ash, Raven, and Violet set up shop with a woman whose name I can’t remember. She’s gruff and not used to dealing with people, so there’s conflict. She teaches Violet about the people who lived on the island before it became The Lone City, which is the key to the Augeries the surrogates manipulate. They craft a plan to overthrow The Jewel and retake the island for everyone, aided by a rebellion that’s been going on since Violet was a kid, but no one ever talks about. Then, the book ends on another cliffhanger, and not a very good one.

The most interesting parts of the book happen in the beginning, where they have to escape the city. They had carefully laid plans, but of course they go haywire, and so they have to improvise. During their escape, we learn more about Ash and the life he lived before becoming a companion, and what he had to do once he was in training. We also see a friend of Violet’s, and learn more about Raven.

The rest of the book is boring. They’re stuck at the White Rose, while Violet learns how to use her powers. She is reveling in them, but Ash is bored, and the other girls she ends up having to train may or may not be useful. The rebellion seems pretty convenient, since they never had much of a plan for overthrowing the royalty. And the cliffhanger at the end? It doesn’t make any sense. Sure, it prompts Violet to act, but when you think logically about what’s required in it, it just doesn’t make any sense.

Gamers – Thomas K. Carpenter

I read this one while avoiding reading another book. I picked it up on Bookbub as a box set of the books, for a cheap price. It’s set in the future, in a world where everyone has a high tech computer in them, allowing them to project an appearance, and to see the world as it’s been created, not as it stands. Here, the only score to matter is your LifeGame score: it determines who gets into college to become a coder, and it determines promotions and quality of life once you’re past it. To Gabby, it’s everything. And to her best friend, Zaela, it’s a pain in the ass.

I’ve read a few books involving the idea that normal activities can be turned into games in a virtual world, but this was a take I hadn’t read before. The idea that a LifeGame score counts as an adult is nice touch: it explains why Gabby’s parents are pretty out of touch with what Gabby wants or does.

Another thing I liked was the use of tropes in the book. Not the “parents too concerned about their own lives to watch their kid” trope or the “knowledgeable person outside the system” trope, but the discussion of tropes in general. Gabby’s final to get out of school is a raid, where she groups up with other classmates to work through an adventure game. They recognize certain tropes used, like the stranger sending them on a quest, etc, and deconstruct them to get through to the end boss. It was enjoyable, not only to see them deconstructed, but to see how the characters recognized that some tropes are necessary.

I was not wildly fond of all the characters in the book, especially one of the Frags, and the man set up to be the “big bad” of the trilogy. Milton, one of the frags, just rubbed me the wrong way. I am guessing it was his way of coping with the situation, but I just didn’t like it. And the Big Bad. is like a cartoon bad guy. I realize this is a world where people can be anything they want to be, but the Big Bad was just really over the top.

Frags – Thomas K. Carpenter

The book to follow Gamers, Gabby has fled from the safety of her home and town to live with the Frags of the first book. Their goal is to get to the Freelands. Once there, they’re sent on a chase to discover where Zaela is, and what needs to be done to save her.

This one had more interesting plot points than the first book, and I think I enjoyed it more. After escaping to the Freelands, Gabby and the Frags learn that life’s a lot different out there. People can claim territories for themselves, and set up rules, which you must obey in order to stay there. Some places aren’t so bad, others are terrifying. All the places were interesting to read about, and see how Gabby and the others would interact with their inhabitants.

I didn’t care for their time in Double Eagle. It’s a town that values personal liberty and privacy to the extent of everything else, and Gabby and the Frags encounter trouble there. The ever annoying Milton gets his external skin transformed into a buxom woman’s, and there’s no end of his being lecherous. They encounter a lot of stubbornness in the town, as well as a plot point I still find annoying. The ending of Frags is reminds me of the ending of Crossed by Ally Condie, the sequel to Matched. To be fair, Frags was written before Crossed, so I should swap those, but I read Crossed first.

Coders – Thomas K. Carpenter

The final Gamers book, this one has a lot of action in it. Gabby has to trust someone she actively distrusted in the first book, and half of the second, and rely on her wits, and the help of a friend, to find Zaela. She’s without the Frags as well, since they’re still free, and she’s agreed to return home.

I think there’s almost too much going on in the book, too quickly. Gabby goes from nearly getting kidnapped in an ambush to being sent to the Southlands as a spy, where she ends up in someone’s territory, worshiping him and spending her days playing games to accomplish whatever chore he sets out. Then, after that, she ends up in another territory, where all hell breaks loose. She gets reunited with with Frags, and her friend who went to the Southlands, and she tries to plead her case to the Red Queen. The Red Queen makes her and her friends play a game, which turns out to be something else, and well, there’s just a lot going on.

The other problem I had with the book is the last few chapters. Everything falls too neatly into place, too quickly. The Southlands went to war against Gabby’s country, but it turns out the idea was conceived of and executed in less than a year. At the end of the book, two characters who didn’t know each other well are engaged. The world as they know it is in ruins, but people from Gabby’s country are easily able to travel to see her at the end of the book, to set up meetings, and get the two war torn countries to function again. It’s just too quick, and too perfect.

Patient Zero – Jonathan Maberry

Audible had a “get started in a new series for $4.95” sale in February. Bored, I went looking through, and Patient Zero popped out at me. I’d been considering re-listening to World War Z, but I decided a different zombie book would possibly be just the thing.

Turns out, it was a better book than I thought it would be, although it’s certainly not the book I would read. It’s kind of a Tom Clancey style book, which isn’t really my thing. It’s very much a military action thriller, and while I enjoy some thrillers, the military part usually isn’t my thing. Joe Ledger’s wisecracks, and an excellent narrator make it for a good listen while I’m at work.

Joe Ledger is a Boston cop, and a few weeks away from going into the training program at Quantico. He’s approached by a department in the US Government called the DMS: Department of Military Sciences, and asked to join them. He goes through their test, signs on, and for his first mission, he’s tasked with tracking down zombies. Yes, zombies.

Joe reminds me of Tony Stark in the way he is always full of wise cracks and sarcasm. He’s also a hero with a tortured past, and a desire to see the bad guys lose, so pretty standard hero stuff. Joe comes with a cast of characters as diverse as he is, and they all have their own voices within the book, including dialects and words choices.

The book was pretty engaging, and I enjoyed listening to it. However, a couple things bothered me about it. First, the chapter headings. They always give the date, time, and location of the chapter. I can handle the location and date to help me know where in the story each one fits, as some things are told out of order. The time annoys me. I don’t need to know chapter X and Y are 9 minutes apart. I’m not one of those people that remembers numbers well. If you want me to understand numbers, write them down. So, the times just confused me as I tried to remember them.

The other thing I didn’t like also deals with numbers. Joe is apparently a guy who doesn’t hesitate, and solves problems quickly. When trying to decide who would lead Echo team, Joe handles it in 8 seconds while dealing with 6 other guys, by beating the crap out of them. It doesn’t strike me as realistic. There’s another scene, earlier in the book, where he realizes a threat, and then neutralizes the two guys that are the threat in about a second. The speed at which he operates seems too fast to be human.

Bard’s Oath – Joanne Bertin

I have been waiting for this book for almost 15 years. No, not an exaggeration. The Last Dragonlord was one of my favorite books in college, and while Dragon and Phoenix wasn’t great, I still enjoyed it. I knew there would be a third book to round out the trilogy and I waited a long time.

I was so disappointed.

This was not the book I was expecting. Instead of a story about Otter, the Bard I assumed would be the one from Bard’s Oath, we get a cast of hundreds, and a story about another bard entirely. The bard was mentioned briefly in Dragon and Phoenix, but who’s going to remember that when the books were published 12 years apart?

The book takes place in multiple locations: the roads leading to a horse fair, at the fair, at the Bardic college, the town the Bardic college is in, at an herb gather’s guild, and in the wilderness. Keeping up yet? Okay, so the book’s told from the points of view of: Leet, the bard we all forget about. Otter, another bard, Linden, Mauryanna, and Shima, the Dragonlords; Raven, a horse trader and friend of most of above; Conor, a beast healer; Poe, an apprentice beast healer, Tirael, an obsessed noble; and Merrilee, a young noblewoman. I am sure I am missing a couple, but it’s a big cast.

The story is extremely slow. It takes until halfway through the book for the plot to really get moving. Before that, it’s just setting up the players and pieces so everyone is in the right spot when the plot moseys in. Then, the plot wanders around confused, setting everyone up, until the last 50 or so pages, when the Dragonlords save the day by flying all over hell and gone to collect answers. It isn’t until the end that we find out all the pieces, which are neatly packaged up like the end of a Matlock television show.

I was really disappointed in the book. The characters have just changed so much, that they’re not the characters I knew and loved from the first books.

The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster

I read The Phantom Tollbooth as a kid, and I liked it. Milo, who was bored all the time, but didn’t have the desire to do anything, and his little electric car were fun to watch go on that adventure. I loved Tock, the dog who goes tickticktick, and I liked the Humbug. The illustrations were neat, and I had a good read of it.

I think I enjoyed the book more as an adult. Maybe it’s because I’m older, but I understand the puns better. For example, above is Officer Shrift, who was 2 feet tall and at least twice as wide. I’d never heard of the shirt shrift until I was an adult, so that joke went right over my head. Same with the Island of Conclusions. It’s a magical place that looks beautiful until you get there, and can only be reached by jumping there. Reminds me of the movie Office Space, where one guy wants to make a “Jump to conclusions” mat.

The Phantom Tollbooth is a lovely read, and not a long one. It starts off with Milo, who really doesn’t do much in his day to day life. He goes to school and comes home, and exists, because sometimes it’s too much work to care, or invest the energy in doing things, or even noticing the people around him. One day, he comes home from school to find a large blue box sitting there, with a card. The card says, simply “FOR MILO, WHO HAS PLENTY OF TIME.”

I’d spend days writing out a synopsis, so I’ll keep the rest short: Milo takes his electric car through the tollbooth and find himself in another land. He ends up in Dictionopolis, meets king Azaz, and learns about his sisters: Sweet Rhyme and Gentle Reason. They’ve been banished by King Azaz and the Mathemagician. The two brothers are always fighting about which is more important: numbers or letters. Milo agrees, with the help of Tock, and the Humbug, to go rescue the princesses from their castle in the air. He has many adventures along the way involving word play, and rescues the princesses.

The book is extremely well written, and the puns and takes on words are excellent. Juster writes them in a way that makes them fun to read. The illustrations by Jules Feiffer are also a lot of fun. They’re simple sketch drawings, but they add so much to the book.

Cake Wrecks: When Professional Cakes Go Hilariously Wrong – Jen Yates

I’m a fan of the Cake Wrecks blog, and always wanted to read the book. I managed to pick it up super cheap, so I spent one day reading it when I felt unwell (the story of my February). It’s a fun read, and a quick one. It’s like the blog, but I didn’t get eyestrain on my computer looking at it.

If you’ve seen the Cake Wrecks blog, you’ve seen a chunk of the book. There are photos that aren’t on the blog, which was neat to see, and Jen gets a few pages to write about the cakes and the wrecks and other related items. She’s a good writer, so it’s enjoyable to read.

Write to Market: Deliver a Book that Sells – Chris Fox

Several author friends suggested this book to me, so I gave it a go. The premise is pretty simple: if you want to write a book that sells well, you need to write something readers will want to read. Not just write in a popular genre, but hit the points that people expect from that kinds of book. If the the best selling books in that genre have a male lead with a troubled past, then write a male lead with a troubled past.

It was a quick read, and I think Fox has some good points. People don’t always want different. They often want the same thing, just changed around a little bit. It explains why the Twilight ripoffs were so popular to the point of being called “Twilight with Werewolves/Aliens/Indian Myths/Etc.”