Antonia and the Big Competition by by Elisabeth Zöller, Brigitte Kolloch

Antonia and the Big Competition is the second book in the Rosenburg Riding Stables series. Originally written in German and translated into English, the series follows a 10 year old girl gifted with horses. The writing is simplistic, intended for a grade school audience, and admittedly lacks personality. I read this to my 10 year old and although it is a quick 100 page read, it also failed to capture her interest.

18406607

Story: Antonia has a special bond with her two horses, Snow White and Elfin Dance. When she is invited to compete in a prestigious jumping competition with Elfin Dance, she worries she will be outclassed. Add in a jealous rival, and Antonia will need to find the courage to show her best – for a horse magazine wishes to do a story on her and the Rosenburg stables and a lot rides on how well she does.

The heart of the story is Antonia finding courage and strength in the face of the daunting competition and her trash-talking rival jumper. Friends and family come to the rescue but ultimately Antonia finds her own balance and is able to make a good show of herself. I liked that she doesn’t have to win the competition but an unexplained event at the end just dangled and was described as ‘luck’ when it likely was meant to be a moral story about mean girls.

The book has illustrations throughout (the cover is representative of the illustration style). Oddly enough, some of the illustrations didn’t represent what was written – e.g., Antonia describes how she carefully made herself up for the competition to represent her stable well, including braided hair. But the illustrations all show her with a ponytail.  My 10 year old daughter picked up on that immediately and it did create a dissonance.

The English is correct but also lacking flavor. This may be due to the translation from German but it does read more like a textbook version of a character rather than an actual person. So while my 10 year old read it, she admitted it did get boring and flat.  I also noticed the very distinct lack of personality in all the characters.

This is a 3.5 star book for me. Definitely not terrible but a rather flavorless translation and the odd disconnect between illustrations and story did detract a bit from my 10 year old’s enjoyment.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Posted in ARC, Book Reviews, childrens | Leave a comment

Steel and Song by Ani Bolton

Steel and song was an interesting read with an intriguing pre-World War 1 alternate universe Russia combined with Sami cultural references. All within a world built on magic. However, inconsistencies in story, worldbuilding, and characters did detract from the experience for me.

22713456

Story: The Novgorod (read: Czarist Russia) have systematically enslaved the Sami people of the far North. After one hundred years of persecution, they are forced into the war with the Franks (read: France) as disposable canon fodder.  Tova is a Sami with power of the wind – an airwitch. She is conscripted against her will to pilot the warship of a Cossack noble. It’s a dangerous position that kills quickly either through Frank gunfire or depletion of life force through using too much Magic. Both the Cossack and Tova will become embroiled in a revolution that might just kill them before the Franks can.

Bolton has taken great pains to set up the world and characters. We’re given a lot of info dumps through conversations as Tova joins the army from her small village and is updated by the soldiers on what is happening beyond that village. Information about the magic system, the pseudo-Russian culture, and the war itself are well explained.  As well, the cultural references for the Sami culture are fascinating – from joiking (epic songs) to reindeer idols.

I liked the characters, which is good considering we are given two points of view.  The Cossack noble, Piers Dashkov, is suitable haunted and Tova Vanaskaya is both strong yet vulnerable. A cast of side characters fill out the story, though they do serve more as a path to info dump rather than interact with Tova or Piers.

The thing that bothered me about consistency had a lot to do with Tova being both very weak and very strong at the same time. I didn’t get a good feel for her character and a lot of her actions fall too often into the ‘too stupid to survive’ category.  She has no sense of fear or respect for her situation – which in turn means we don’t either.  As well, problems with the worldbuilding (e.g., joiking (singing) is illegal and instant death but she does it throughout most of the book without fear) became frustrating.  I would expect, for example, something as important to the Sami as joiking to be done in secret; Tova does it outloud every 5 pages regardless. I couldn’t help but feel she’d be a tombstone very fast if the worldbuilding was more logical and we actually were shown what we are told over and over.

Finally, the steampunk here is a bit off to me. I respect a unique view but steampunk to me will always be brass and copper, not steel (which starts to head into dieselpunk territory). As well, there is no steam here – it’s all magic. So we lost all that technological wonder and interest of the genre. This is definitely a lot more WW1 alternate universe rather than steampunk. Which is fine – but I do love my Victorian steampunk.

In all, I would rate this 3.5 stars and hope the next book is more consistent. There is a lot of promise in Ani Bolton’s first book and I do look forward to the second in the series.  Note: this is a novella of around 200 pages, not a full novel.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Posted in ARC, Book Reviews, Historical, Steampunk, YA | Leave a comment

Baptism of Fire (Witcher 4) by Andrzej Sapkowski

Ah, Geralt of Rivia. I can’t quite put my finger on why I enjoy this series, or rather the world they are set in so much. It is a very classic fantasy where the exploring of new places (read: questing) is a big part. But it is also a very modern fantasy with gritty undertones and imperfect protagonists. Or more accurately, the dry British humor in which the story is told – never making a joke of the world, but let the reader see the world through the characters who have a rather jaded view of everything. The translation into English by David French is excellent.

18656031

In this fourth book of the series Geralt continues the search for Ciri, his missing child of the prophesy princess-become-witcher. Whereas in the third book we got lots of Ciri’s POV and our hero spent most of his time wounded and out of action, this time the tables are reversed. The main plot could be summarized as ‘Geralt goes from one place to another in what is an ultimately useless wild goose chase’; but with many classic fantasy tales the things met along the way are what make the story interesting. There is an overarching main plot with intricate political machinations but it remains firmly in the background, much more so than in the earlier books.

The new characters we are given are good, though I did wish we could have seen more of the important characters from earlier – Triss is all but missing and I dislike what is being done to Ciri. Still the books is an enjoyable read – though more as a part of the whole arch rather than standing on its own as an individual book.

If you liked fantasy already 20 years ago, you’ll like this the Witcher books. They have enough of the old magic in them, while still being modern enough to avoid feeling dated. And as a note to writers of modern gritty fantasy – you can create a realistic, brutal world even if you do not go into excessive graphical detail. And it’s not a requirement that every protagonist is flawed to the point of being unlikable.

Posted in Book Reviews | Leave a comment

The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

First in a new series, the Emperor’s Blades gives us a world where the Emperors children have been training in very different fields for most of their lives – and the Emperor is assassinated before they are able to complete them. One son is training to be what can be best described as a Shaolin monk with more mind-over-matter than martial arts, and the other is training to be a super-ninja soldier who rides to battle on gigantic birds. Fortunately I was able to get by how silly the premise is very quickly and simply enjoyed the story.

17910124

Plot summary: we have basically the two sons POVs and then a sister who complains bitterly about being ignored for being female (a fact ironically made more poignant by the author also largely ignoring her). The monk story is the most enjoyable, though the “you must learn quickly – so we will give you physically hard irrelevant tasks – and then beat you for not learning – but not explain anything ever” style of teaching just seems silly. It might make sense when the master is trying to figure out if the student is worthy, not so much when the world is at stake if he does not learn. The ninja-on-bird is a boarding school meets bootcamp style of story with predictable bullies and authority figures who let them get away with it.

Toward the end of the book the plot lines merge and we are given more glimpses into the overarching plot, but these are among the weakest of the book. I will still likely pick up the next book, but the cliffhanger we’re given feels forced. As my personal peeve the main characters join only to separate again for no real reason, where it would make the most sense to stick together.

Posted in Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Unfettered by Various Authors

As a collection of short stories this is a bit hard to evaluate as a whole given that the entries in it vary quite a bit. There are some I did not enjoy at all and a few that I enjoyed immensely.

15832300

Of the best are: “The Old Scale Game” by Tad Williams, which is a very simple and straightforward story with a lot of heart; “The Jester” by Michael J. Sullivan which is very funny; “Keeper of Memory” by Todd Lockwood that managed to capture my imagination, and “Heaven in a Wild Flower” by Blake Charlton which is by far the most apt story for this collection and actually touches the reader.

A few authors venture to flex their literary muscle and perhaps venture too far into the style over substance result.

Unfettered has an impressive variety of stories from very recognized authors; as such, this collection works as a sampler into their works. Personally I could reorder my books-to-read pile having read Unfettered.

The price of the book is worth for the ‘sampler’ approach alone, but with the few really good stories thrown in this is almost a must buy.

Posted in Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

The Thousand Names by Django Wexler

The Thousand Names is set in a low-magic flintlock fantasy setting in a desert – think Napolenian  era soldiers in north Africa. The story is given from multiple points of view – the straight-up, honest Captain who has a bit of wear on him and a girl disguised as a man to hide in the army after escaping from a boarding school. While the latter sounds a bit of a stretch it didn’t really bother me while reading the book, and the premise is never used for comical effect such – National Lampoon this is not.

Thousand Names.indd

The beginning of the book sees the main characters stuck in a remote location where nothing ever happens – until the local government is overthrown and the Empire sends in fresh troops to restore order. In addition to the primary plot of the war agains the rebels there are nuances of interior motives for the Empire which lead on to the next book in the series.

The book shines in its description of battle and tactics. The writer goes into quite a bit of detail, but even a non-military expert such as myself did not feel overwhelmed or bored by it. I found the descriptions exceptionally clear, quite unlike many other books where large battles are very hard to follow – who is doing what and why.

The underlying personal plots are also quite enjoyable, if not quite up to par with the main plot. At the end of the book it loses a bit of cohesion as the so far barely hinted at magic becomes a big part of the plot, but it works as a great lead-in to the next book.

I’d be willing to go as far as recommending this book to people who like military fiction at large, even if they are not usually fantasy readers. For predominantly fantasy readers there are sufficient amount of fantasy elements in place so will not feel out of place.

Posted in Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Della Fattoria Bread by Kathleen Weber

Della Fattoria Bread was a pleasant surprise. What I thought would be a book full of odd artisan recipes is actually a bread making book that answered a lot of the questions I had as to why my breads seemed to come out as bricks, tasteless, or spongy. The book starts with simple recipes that are first tried and perfecedt by readers – and that leads to more complex/interesting varieties.

20673618

The book is broken down as follows: Introductions/Foreward about the author and her bread then a section breaking down and discussing the basic ingredients of every bread. Then chapters/recipes as follows: Yeasted Breads; Enriched Breads; Pre-Fermented Breads; Naturally Leavened Breads; Crackers, Breadsticks, Pizza Doughs, Flatbreads; Sources/Index.

Recipe types include: Toscano loaf, olive oil wreath, pumpkin seed campagne batard, spicy cheddar crackers, what and barley pullman, brioche dough, sticky buns, and many more. Along with the bread are also recipes for meals that go great with bread (or use bread as an ingredient): pizza, tuna melt, tomato bread soup, green salad with citronette, and more.

The book is beautifully laid out with full color photographs. The recipes are easy to use/follow, with introductory paragraphs, ingredient amounts in grams/oz/cups/tsps (depending if you prefer to weigh or measure your ingredients), then directions in paragraph bulleted form (here, I would have preferred numbers with breaks).

The directions are very detailed and there are tips in separate boxes littered throughout. Terms are also discussed, as well as equipment (e.g., cast iron pot), and techniques (such as shaping, rolling the dough).  I found the tips and techniques especially useful.

The recipes are really translating into better bread for me. It took learning about things like not using table salt nor mixing the wrong grains to keep me from making bricks. I also understand a lot better why my little portable bread maker was a complete waste of money. As such, Della Fattoria Bread is a great book for those who have been frustrated when making bread in the past.

This is one of the best bread books I’ve read. What kept it from being a 5 star book from me is that there is a LOT of fluff – mostly about the owner, her history and background, philosophy, and people she deals with in her store.  I am sure many will find those sections an added bonus but for me, it was just too much.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Posted in ARC, Book Reviews, cookbook, non fiction | Leave a comment