Moonlake’s Book Discoveries- September 2020

Tower of Thorns by Juliet Marrillier

I’m not disappointed with the second book in this standalone series and is very glad to find out the backstory to Grim. Overall, a satisfying read for me, with the same blend of magic, intrigue and compelling character background as book 1. I have book 3 on my to-read list.

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

I think it’s a solid work (and closely follow the historical events and main characters, at least in terms of archetype) but I think because I’m a Chinese and know of the historical context a bit better than potentially other readers, I have slightly different expectations of the book which turns out to be met. The main one was that I expected the book to somehow have both Kuni and Mata as main characters and focus on the conflict between the two. This was further complicated by the fact that my sympathy seemed entirely taken up with Mata at first (perhaps that’s because I never really liked the charming rogue archetype that’s Kuni and I was reading another novel at the same where Xiang Yu, the historical inspiration behind Mata, was the main character). That got corrected some way past the opening chapters. But then towards the end I still feel like I want a more nuanced Mata (that departs from the historical archetype) to make things harder for Kuni.

The other thing is that I feel like Kuni is a bit of a ‘weak’ main character in that he is often pushed into certain key events in the story by sidecasts. Perhaps this is an artifact of the story being an epic (which does tend to make sidecasts strong, something I’m used to) but I think I don’t really enjoy keeping track of the changes in all the key characters in this story so much. Perhaps, this is again due to me knowing the actual history and so it’s like reading a book crisscrossed with spoilers for me. Still, I do enjoy some of the historical bending in this story and I think they are what keeps the story engaging for me.

Serial Reader

Perhaps it comes with the genres I read but I mostly read series, something you probably all know if you’ve read my Moonlake’s Book Tastes series. 

So why do I lean that way? Foremost are two factors: I like familiarity and I like immersion. In some ways, the two are linked. While familiarity is more to do with risk avoidance and comfort loving, it also allows greater immersion into the same setting or the same set of characters. 

I also have a particular quirk in terms of series length. I can read up to n books of the same mystery series (given that they are all standalones essentially, just different cases with the same detective) or standalone fantasy series but my norm is usually just 5 books for a single cohesive fantasy series (i.e. all books in the series need to be read in order to form a single story). At the same time, I can read multiple interconnected fantasy series based on the same world. For example, I had read Raymond E. Feist’s Midkemia series all the way from Riftwar to Darkwar which is like about 15 books in total. I’ve also read most of R.A Salvatore’s Drizzt series even though I keep describing his writing in that series as mediocre. I’ve just grown fond of Drizzt as a character and I read about him for comfort. 

And that’s it for today. Feel free to drop a comment if you want to share your little reading quirks for a series. 

Fantasy Pet Peeve

For all that I love fantasy, I have a single pet peeve with it: all wars eventually trace back to Gods. 

First, for the sake of putting things in context, let me recap in rough chronological order my foray into fantasy (back in those days, nobody cared about subgenres as far as I’m concerned and it was probably only a few years that I started specifying subgenres. Before that, I’ve just been telling people that I read fantasy. Full stop.). 

My first ever fantasy series was the Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I really liked it and from that point on, fantasy became my main staple for reading. After that came David Eddings, Terry Brookes (I only read the original Shannara series, I think, not all of them. I couldn’t really remember my impression of him. I think I neither loved it nor hated it.), Raymond E. Feist…. And then I found the Hobbit and LOTR (actually I don’t know I read Feist first or Tolkien first but both are among my 5-stars. I prefer Tolkien if I have to strictly choose but that’s personal taste.). Forgotten Realms came a long way after that. 

Regarding my pet peeve, I think half of the books I recounted in the last paragraph have wars that trace back to Gods. To be honest, I don’t think it became my pet peeve until it emerged into the books by Raymond E. Feist (pretty late at that, after the 4th or 5th series, I can’t remember anymore. But my recommendation is really that only Riftwar and Serpentwar Saga are top-notch. And then the standalones Prince of the Blood, the King’s Buccaneer and perhaps Honoured Enemy) that previously had only wars driven by mortals. All of a sudden, I felt like I wanted to roll my eyes. Why couldn’t mortals have their own wars driven by greed and whatever mortal concerns? Why do wars have to be ultimately driven by immortals? Those were my thoughts. 

To be honest, I think why this happened was because why I was drawn to Feist in the first place was his motivation for the Riftwar that differed from the normal good/evil struggle. So to have it emerge later that actually wars ultimately could be traced back to Gods took away that appeal for me. And the other reason could be that his series had also lost a lot of the original appeals for me by the time the ‘new reveal’ happened. As wont to happen for a multi-series based on a single setting, you no longer can read about many of the side characters that you were once very attached to. So all in all, I decided to say farewell to Feist, who still remained as one of my 5-stars with his previous works. 

Now, how about all of you? What are some of your pet peeves with fantasy?

Moonlake’s Book Discoveries- June 2020

Desecration by J.F Penn

I think it’s a solid work, with a clipping pace and it’s a nice plot-driven detective mystery which is always to my preference. The book delves into a very dark theme but that’s okay, I can handle it.

A murder was announced by Christie Agatha

As a Christie Agatha mystery, I think it’s a solid work. That means short chapters, a clipping pace and a classical plot with a twist. And I think that’s enough said. 

Terrier by Tamora Pierce

I read Bloodhound first and liked it and always meant to read the rest of the series and that’s how I came to pick this up- book 1 of the Beka Cooper series. I’m not disappointed with Beka (somehow I only like about half of Pierce’s main characters, Beka happens to be one of them) and the diary structure works fine with the book.

Taken by the Flood by Christie Agatha

I’m a bit dumbfounded as I’m writing this because now my impression of this book is completely taken up by how apt this book is titled- the original quote from which the title is taken is explained in the story (quite naturally) and that’s all I could think of now. But overall I liked the story. 

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu 

I am still reading this right now. This is my second go at it- when I read it last year, the Japanese sounding character names made me jump out of the story and I could not quite get into the main character for the series (my interest lay in the other key characters). I think to sum it up, I felt alienated, as a Chinese who knew about the rough historical details on which this book was based, reading it. 

This time I started by skipping over the first couple chapters that I’ve read before and I think I’m fine. I still get bored for about 1 chapter early on where the events in the novel completely coincided with real history with only a minor spin on it to suit the story. But I think the story grew on me as it unfolds. You will get to hear more about the book in my Sept book discovery.

Sidecast Fascination

Personally, I have got a fascination with sidecast, sometimes even more than the main characters. This is true whether I’m reading/writing a book or watching a TV series. But I will focus on books for this post since I exclusively watch Chinese TV (used to be Hong Kong TV cos that’s where I came from, now mainland Chinese because HK TV had become so crap, rant for another day) even though I live in Australia. 

Now, in terms of my sidecast fascination, I’ve realised that it seems to be predominantly with particular characters archetypes as opposed to specific characters (well, occasionally I like a few that doesn’t fall into the pattern below due to the writer’s skills, I presume). They are, in order of preference:

  1. grumpy female mentor figures (what I come to call auntly): Examples include Aunt Pol (Polgara) from David Eddings’ Belgariad and Malleorean and Rosethorn from the Circle Universe setting of Tamora Pierce. For my own work, I had an aunt/mentor figure that I was particularly fond of for that Genghis Khan novel that I abandoned. 
  2. The charming rogue trope: to be honest, I don’t like to read stories where the charming rogue is the protagonist. I don’t think I had ever really bonded to any rogue protagonist ever. But I definitely remember liking a couple of this well-used trope in fantasy, most notably Jimmy the Hand from the Riftwar and Serpentwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist and Silk from David Eddings’ Belgariad and Malleorean. For my own writing, I haven’t yet written a story featuring such a sidecast yet. 
  3. The quirky character: I like them as protagonists as well as sidecasts. I might be remiss but the only example I could remember is Nakor from Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar, Serpentwar etc. 

Now, what about everyone else? Who are the most fascinating sidecasts you’ve read to date? Let me know in comments. 

Moonlake’s Book Discoveries- March 2020

I’ve been slacking off in reading published books due partially to the ease of phone reading on the train but also due to some weird conflict between fantasy reading and writing that’s unique to me. Besides the completed reads, I also tried to read The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu but decided I would have a second try this year. I also did not finish the Dragonbone Chair and the associated trilogy as I had intended. I don’t yet have plans to have another go at it in the immediate term. But I do think it’s worth returning to eventually. 

Anyway, below is what I’ve read between July 2019 to now:

Death at the Wychebourne Follies by Amy Myers

I didn’t guess the culprit so that’s good. Otherwise, a little on the cozy side which is not really my thing but overall, solid work.

The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

This is my 2nd Battle and I still like it a fair bit, not as well as I like my first but it’s still got an interesting lead and I didn’t guess the ending which is always what I’m looking for.

Dreamers’ Pool by Juliet Marrilier 

I almost thought I picked up the wrong genre (romantic fantasy or fantasy romance) again. But actually, while it is a fantasy where romance figures heavily into the main plot, I am relieved and pleasantly surprised that it went beyond that. In fact, this is the ‘perfect’ book of light reading for me featuring magic and mystery and a strong female main character that I can relate to.

Moonlake’s Fascination with the Fantasy Genre

Fantasy is my main staple in terms of reading and I only write fantasy. Why this fascination with fantasy, you ask? And what’s so fascinating about fantasy? 

My answer for the why is simple: this is just the genre that I’m most drawn to. Now, if I drill down to the underlying causes (as I am wont to do, I have a philosophical streak in me as you can probably tell if you’ve read about my personal reflection spell), there are two types of attraction for me. The first is a form of escapism from mundane reality. I’m a routine person and excitement doesn’t happen that often in my life and when it does, I don’t always like it. So in a way, reading fantasy is the best of both worlds for me, allowing me to experience excitement and adventure from a safe distance. The second is that I like stories with deep themes, that help me reflect on life, on one should view things, on how one should behave or react to particular situations, on what to believe in etc. So fantasy, or I should say epic fantasy really since I predominantly read epic and occasionally mix it up with sword&sorcery, just happens to be one genre abounding in stories with deep themes. 

Besides deep themes, I also often find the fantasy setting, or more specifically the lore, fascinating. In this way, Lord of the Rings remains my firm all-time favourite and I’ve stuck with Raymond E. Feist for too long than I should. Don’t get me wrong, I still think he’s an outstanding writer for his earlier Midkemian series. But… I’ll rant about it another day. I’m fascinated with lore because this is how the child in me who believes in magic and adventure lives still. Actually, I have never believed in magic as a child but I definitely believed in adventures. My fascination with lore, though, seems to be inexplicably tangled up with magic for reasons not quite clear to me. Perhaps without magic, I don’t feel like the setting is actually a fantasy setting and it doesn’t provide as good an escape from reality? I cannot say for sure. 

And that’s it, why and what I find fascinating about fantasy. What about you? Let me know in comments. 

The Oriental Fantasy Reading Year- Infinitely Extended

So last year I said it was to be my Oriental Reading Year. But plans change. I don’t know why that is but fantasy reading and writing seems to be conflicting enterprises for me. Like, reading fantasy would have adverse influences on my writing. I didn’t notice that before but perhaps that is because before I’ve never invested so much time into a single writing project. 

Therefore, given this, I am going to draw out my Oriential Fantasy reading year to, well, infinity as the title indicates. I also think I would cut back on my Goodreads goals every year from 20 to 10 and reserve 4 spots for fantasy every year and 2 spots for the broadening horizon reads. The other half of the quotas would probably go towards mystery which I read faster.  

Things might change but tentative on my reading list for this year are:

  • A few Agatha Christie/James Patterson for light reading
  • The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu: I actually attempted to read this last year but didn’t finish it because I was pulled out by the characters having non-Chinese names despite being clearly inspired by Chinese history but I wanted to give it another go because I was just interested to see how the story mirrors the actual history
  • The Twilight of Gods by Scott Oden: This is book 2 of a standalone series starring an “orc” protagonist Griminir, I reviewed book 1 as part of my book discoveries last year and after reading the sneak peek chapters on the author’s blog, I’m ready to follow Griminir’s further adventures. 
  • Dreamer’s Pool by Juliet Marillier- I didn’t like her prose when I read her short story collection but I figured that might be the difference between short story and novel (I don’t like short stories as a rule, well, compared to novels that is). I also found the blurb interesting and it’s fantasy/mystery (I think I’ve mentioned this before but I’ve always liked cross-genre books that mix two or more of my 3 main reading genres: fantasy, mystery and historical fiction (strictly in that order). 
  • Operation: Jaguar by Lyman Rate- this is to be one of my planned broadening horizon reads for 2020, it’s military fiction, a genre I had never read before. 
  • Desecration by J.F. Penn- this is my other planned broadening horizon for this year. It’s a religious thriller, which is a sub-genre within the mystery/thriller genre that I had never known before. 

I am still missing one fantasy for this year. I would prefer a standalone. Any suggestions? 

Moonlake’s Book Discoveries- June 2019

I tried to read Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series but because the book was so thick I ended up delaying it to July when I would get a one week break. As of the time this is published, I am reading book 1 of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn quartet- The Dragonbone Chair. I rather enjoy it- the ‘old school’ feel and everything. I am moving slowly through it though so I expect this quartet would probably occupy my next quarter.

Death on Demand by Jim Kelley

To be honest, I should say that I am completely neutral about this book i.e. I neither like nor dislike it. That is not to say that I’m meh about this book, as is usually the case when I say that. Rather, I think it’s solidly written but somehow it just didn’t elicit a response from me, whether that’s on an intellectual, personal or emotional level.

It’s my first time reading a police procedural unless you count Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series but I think that was before the sub-genre of police procedural ever arose (or maybe I’m just ignorant). So perhaps my reaction is shaded by this. But overall, I think the plot is solid- the author had two main plots and they were woven together successfully in the end. There are also moments where I don’t know what’s going to happen next, a feature I always look to for the mystery genre (although I did guess one of the culprits early on). Perhaps it’s the characters who did not quite catch on for me or the pace (I mean, it’s not like a cozy mystery which I felt to be too slow but it’s not fast-paced either. It’s kinda like a light reading with shortish chapters where you can put down and pick up anytime. And well, I was looking for something to ease me back into reading after my long holiday when I picked it up but perhaps I was looking for something a little more fast-paced, something more similar to my own conventional conception of a murder mystery than this).

Merry Chirstmas, Alex Cross by James Patterson

In general, I think this book lives up to the JP formula of a fast-paced, light reading. Alex Cross continues to endear himself to me in the way he shows himself to be a man of high morality. However, this book also has mild doses of what I came to call ‘cheap dramatics’ that I came to expect of JP’s work. Nothing intolerable but I just personally never like books where I felt like the author was deliberately trying to ‘game’ reader reactions in a certain way.

Moonlake’s Book Discoveries- March 2019

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

Firstly, as an ethnic Chinese reading this novel, I commend Kay on his research and besides minor quibbles, I really think his fictional Northern Song Chinese setting came across as authentic and compelling.

I had never read him or Chinese historical fantasy before so I had little expectations of what I will be getting. I was pleased to learn that this is a tale where Kay re-imagines history in a fantasy setting even though the fantasy element is on the slight side. Nevertheless, since my one true love in reading remains fantasy and I know of the major history events that this book relates this does capture my interest. I’m also satisfied with the open-ended ending which leaves me with some hope that Ren Daiyan, the fictional equivalent of Yue Fei, potentially did not meet his bad end (I doubt it given his character but at least the ending dangles some hope in front of you). There was one point where I hoped the ending would be more positive towards Ren Daiyan but I think the current ending fits the book better so I’m content.

Overall, I think Kay is a writer that I will want to add to my list of favourite authors. I think he has a good handle of the omniscient voice even though it made the opening (specifically chapter 1, I definitely started getting into the book after chapter 2 when Lin Shan appeared) a bit slow and at times I felt like the omniscient voice was interference (but other times it felt insightful and deep). I also appreciate his prose- lyrical and full of imagery. However, the main characters (Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan) are only a part of this epic tale, small vehicles in some sense. I do like epic tales and I like this aspect of this book well enough but this does stop me from bonding with the characters and does take away from this book.

Songs of Insurrection by JC Kang

I DNFed this book, the start of the Dragon Songs Saga. I got to the half way mark and then I just didn’t feel like I have the patience to keep on reading it. Perhaps because I came to this straight after River of Stars, I had high expectations of a Chinese fantasy series written by a fellow ethnic Chinese. But I think why I DNFed it was partially this high expectations, partially I was the wrong reader for this series and partially I just had issues with various aspects of the story or the writer’s way of doing things.

Firstly, I didn’t feel like this story really needed to be set in a fictional ancient China and in fact, this story was more like ancient China and a bunch of ethnic Chinese characters shoved into the conventional fantasy setting than an authentic Chinese fantasy story like River of Stars. Specifically, I felt like the conveyance of Chinese elements were primarily delivered through scattered Chinese terms emphasised via italics and sometimes the interchangeable use of specific Chinese terms and their meaning in English just seemed completely random to me. Perhaps that’s my unique experience as a Chinese and this book is really targeted at the ESB market so I’m just the wrong audience for this.

The other aspect in which I think I’m mismatched with this book is that the portrayal of the female protagonist Princess Kaiya mainly resulted in my boredom and disbelief. I felt like perhaps this book should be labelled under romance as a large part of the first half of the book seemed to concern Princess Kaiya being smitten with this foreign prince. This does have a narrative purpose in making readers question whether her actions are really decided by her or she was under undue influence but an unfortunate side-effect was that she was always feeling like her stomach was full of butterflies or other similar wording which really got to the point of being repetitive. Also, Princess Kaiya came across as a sheltered wall-flower who kept second-guessing her own actions and then stick to them anyway. I do get it on one level- it’s a reflection of her being a teenager and/or the Chinese upbringing where you have a fear of going against rules. But again it gets repetitive when she keeps doing that. The same goes for her emotional range-she’s forever fluctuating between determination and doubt/apprehension, even when she’s supposedly drunk (I don’t drink alcohol so I have no first hand experience to relate to but I felt like her thought pattern is the same whether she’s sober or drunk which just doesn’t seem right. I also feel like in this story she fluctuates between being sober and drunk within the span of three or four hours or that’s the way it appears to me). So all in all, whenever we arrived in a chapter in the princess’s POV, I felt an urge to skip it except for the event of the chapter. The pacing of the chapters is nice and quick, that’s the main merit I see in this book and why I stick to the half way mark. That and the other story line with Tian and Jie who were portrayed a bit better in that I couldn’t find direct fault with them but there was nothing to endear them to me either.

The above were my main disconnect from this book but some other nitpicks I also have included: the tendency for readers to get confused when a scene contains multiple sidecasts and the author’s attempt to make them distinct through coupling names and physical attributes don’t always work; world building tidbits like there being three moons and their usage in time measurement that came into the story and then had little narrative functions and sometimes only caused confusion or just in general diverted attention from the story.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

Picked this up for my overseas holiday read and I think it’s a good choice- The chapters are short enough that I can breeze through it. As for the story itself, I do think it has all the qualities of a classic. While the omnipotent voice creates distance compared to contemporary novels, I am still captivated by the anti-hero of the story enough to look him up and learn that he is completely fictional. I am also impressed by the depiction of the sense of smell that is central to this novel which then branches out to the other senses. Overall, a good choice for long time readers of the mystery genre looking for a high quality light read.