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Book Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Title: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Author: Suzanne Collins

Series: Hunger Games #0

Genre: Teen Dystopia

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capital, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to outcharm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute.

The odds are against him. He’s been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined — every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favor or failure, triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death. Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute… and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes.
-Goodreads

The Review: 

I’ll start with the burning question: is TBoSaS worth reading? The answer to that really depends on what you’re hoping to get out of it. If you’re looking for that same fast-paced, in-your-face, heart-stopping excitement from experiencing the games with Katness, you’re in for sever disappointment. Ballad is drawn-out, introspective, and 95% about the character, Snow. It does a decent job illustrating what life was like in the Capitol after the war ended, and provided some insight as to how the Hunger Games were shaped by influencers at the time. But it’s definitely not going to bring you the same feels as the trilogy. What it does do is show a mastery of craft and immersive character construction… but exciting it is not.

Call me a genius, but it wasn’t until the last 5% of the book where I figured out the main character is a sociopath (although in hindsight it was pretty evident from the start). Those few pages of insight were enough to rock me on my heels, putting in to new perspective everything I had just read. What was going to be a lackluster rating definitely improved, as I think what Collins did here was quite brilliant. It just won’t appeal to the masses.

I found it brilliant because of how precisely Collins stuck to her character design. Telling the whole story through the eyes of a sociopath takes a lot of subtlety and careful thought. She couldn’t emphasize her scenes with extreme emotions (which is how she appealed to me while I was in the games with Katniss), but instead had to convey the story through a creepy, impartial evaluation. Then she took it one step further by introducing a “love” interest. Only, nothing about it sat right. The relationship was just too weird. Snow viewed love as someone to be possessed. “She’s mine!” but not for any emotional appeal, but rather because possession equals power. He treated those around him with a “what can they do for me” mentality and eliminated them from his life when they could not longer offer him anything. One thing I’ve recognized about Collins is that she’s a very deliberate writer. Everything has a careful purpose and she’s brilliant at cutting the crap and getting right to the meaning of every event and scene. This stripped down story was a perfect exhibition for that skill, which I didn’t have a chance to pick up on during the main trilogy because I was too busy feeling things.

The Hunger Games themselves were a veritable shit show, and understandably so, considering the timeframe in which they were happening. However, as the competition aspect was my main draw to the series, I was disappointed it didn’t claim a little more of the page count. But I suppose it fit in with the theme and mood of the book anyway.

Recommendations: don’t pick this up for any of the action and excitement that made the HG trilogy so addicting. It’s a very introspective novel that displays exceptional writing and character construction, but it won’t leave you feeling great (not that HG was all roses (ahem…pun)), but this one’s even worse. It would be difficult to recommend, but not because I didn’t like it. Rather, because I don’t think it has what everyone’s expecting.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Battle Ground by Jim Butcher

Battle Ground by Jim Butcher

Title: Battle Ground

Author: Jim Butcher

Series: Dresden Files #17

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Harry has faced terrible odds before. He has a long history of fighting enemies above his weight class. The Red Court of vampires. The fallen angels of the Order of the Blackened Denarius. The Outsiders. But this time it’s different. A being more powerful and dangerous on an order of magnitude beyond what the world has seen in a millennium is coming. And she’s bringing an army. The Last Titan has declared war on the city of Chicago, and has come to subjugate humanity, obliterating any who stand in her way. Harry’s mission is simple but impossible: Save the city by killing a Titan. And the attempt will change Harry’s life, Chicago, and the mortal world forever. -Goodreads

The Review:

A miraculous, all-encompassing, book-long battle which involved almost every single side character we’ve met to date. It was expansive. It was action-packed. And it was well written. A truly cinematic novel of epic proportion!

You know, if you’re into that sort of thing.

I almost always enjoy Dresden novels, but I have to admit that this one required a bit more effort to get through than I’d hoped it would. As all-encompassing as the story was, in execution it was more an endless series of mini battles. The heavy hitters of this world all converged to save Chicago… one after another. You’d think with all of that constant action and excitement that I would be page flipping like mad to see what happened next. But instead I found the conflicts too repetitive to hold my focus. Reconnect with an ally; kill something. Rinse; Repeat. It didn’t offer a lot of plot variety. For me, anyway. I usually have trouble with battle scenes unless the focus is more on the overall tactics and strategy than the individual clashing of swords (or wizard staffs). This was very much the latter.

I did like the voice of the story – it’s comforting to “come home” to a Dresden novel, especially after all this time. I will say there was a very noticeable overuse of the word “freaking.” It was funny the first two times it was used, but then it got distracting from there. Even so, Harry’s a great character, made even better by the plethora of secondary personalities. Oddly, how engaged I was during any particular scene had more to do with how interested I was in the side characters within it (as it turns out, there were only three that had me completely enthralled). Butcher dramatically changed a few of the characters’ overall trajectories, which I appreciated because of the variety it added, but I’m not sure I’m on board with the direction some of them are now headed… we shall see.

Overall, for my personal tastes and expectations, I did not enjoy Battle Ground as much as I wanted to. I think the repetitive nature of it gave my brain a lot of free time to pick apart other aspects of the story I may not have noticed otherwise. I will still be continuing on in the series because when one of the books works for me, it REALLY works for me. As it stands, this one is just middle of the road in the whole scheme of the series.

Recommendations: if you’re already a Dresden fan, how could you NOT pick up this novel? My conservative rating is probably going to be in the minority, so keep that in mind. If you haven’t started the series yet, it’s a staple in the genre for a reason, but it does take a few books in before it really finds its “magic.”

I’d like to thank Berkley Publishing Group, Jim Butcher, and NetGalley for the chance to read and review an early copy of Battle Ground.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: To Sleep in a Sea if Stars by Christopher Paolini

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christoper Paolini

Title: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Author: Christopher Paolini

Series: N/A

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Kira Navárez dreamed of life on new worlds. Now she’s awakened a nightmare. During a routine survey mission on an uncolonized planet, Kira finds an alien relic. At first she’s delighted, but elation turns to terror when the ancient dust around her begins to move. As war erupts among the stars, Kira is launched into a galaxy-spanning odyssey of discovery and transformation. First contact isn’t at all what she imagined, and events push her to the very limits of what it means to be human. While Kira faces her own horrors, Earth and its colonies stand upon the brink of annihilation. Now, Kira might be humanity’s greatest and final hope . . . -Goodreads

The Review:

A decent sci-fi. I didn’t hate it. But I do have some thoughts.

Paolini has definitely blossomed as a writer. He always had the storytelling basics, but time and experience has done his craft well. I particularly liked his character construction. So many different personalities and a great dynamic between all of them. I’d be hard-presses to pick a favorite, and I love that.

I wouldn’t say the book was particularly original – I feel like I’ve read many different versions of at least the first 25%. But as the story progressed it started to get more and more creative. It eventually presented enough fun ideas and characters to keep my interest, and soon I was on board. There were one or two plot decisions that surprised me, which is always a bonus.

It is a bit of a drawback for me that it took so long to get going. While many of the scenes boasted action and a fast-paced momentum, the overall plot progression of the book was sluggish. If the scenes themselves hadn’t been so interesting, I could’ve easily gotten bored, and even wondered if I was starting to several times. There was an entire plot point (involving a blue staff) that caused a lot of story repetition. I thought it could’ve been removed completely without any negative effects (or at least merged with other sections). As it stands, I feel it drew the book out a lot longer than it needed to be.

Another criticism is the required “just go with it” attitude I needed to adopt while reading it. Particularly regarding the decisions and reactions of authority figures along Kira’s journey. A lot of what went on felt rather implausible considering what was at stake, even with the concession that most of it happened on the fringes of human-settled space. But still, a lot of things seemed too convenient and narrowly-focused to actually work. That said, it does take place during an alien invasion, so perhaps a lot can be chalked up to everyone being too busy with that to deal with this one aspect. I did appreciate that Paolini at least attempted to incorporate the on-goings in the highly populated worlds to keep me connected to the large-scale stakes of the conflict.

Recommendations: fans of Paolini’s work will likely enjoy this book for similar writing styles and voice. As far as sci-fi recommends go, it ranks somewhere in the middle for me – not the most original I’ve read, but better than many of them because of the fun characters. After compiling my “other books you might like” section, it occurred to me that despite the light adult content, the book still reads more YA (minus the romance) and would probably appeal to fans of that genre more so than scifi lovers. 

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Audiobook Review: The Original by Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: The Original

Authors: Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal

Series: N/A

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: In the near future, humans choose life – for a price. Injectable nanite technology is the lifeblood that flows through every individual wishing to experience the world through the lens of their own theme. While death from mortal wounds is still possible, life is made easier in a socially liberated society where automation and income equality allow passion pursuits to flourish over traditional work. Renewal stations are provided to every law-abiding citizen for weekly check-ins, which issue life-sustaining repairs in exchange for personal privacy. But what becomes of those who check out, of those who dare to resist immortality and risk being edited under the gaze of an identity-extracting government surveillance system? [The description was about as long as the book, so I only copied the first third of it] -Goodreads

The Review:

I was hooked from the very first sentence.

The story had a cool concept: a reborn clone of a murderer who’s sole purpose is to hunt and kill her “original.” It had a futuristic setting where a new “nanite” technology actively alters reality, tapping into your preferences and makes changes on everything you experience based on both conscious and unconscious data. I found it fascinating. It was easy to imagine how tech like that could make people lose touch with reality – highlighting the novelty of the tactile elements in a digitally-run world. The authors did a great job infusing this concept through every fiber of the story with fantastic use of sensory input description. It was total immersion. I found it especially poignant when dealing with the murder scene, as the description evoked a lot of uncomfortable and visceral feelings. All of this seamless infusion would make a great case study on world building for budding writers.

Julia Whelan was an awesome narrator. She was relatable and earnest in a way that really helped sell the story. Her POV was so perplexed… how could she possibly have committed a crime? The confusion and angst in her performance was palatable, making me think right from the start that there must be another explanation to what happened. She makes you feel the history and love between the main character and the victim. It spurred a lot of great questions and immediately hooked me for the rest of the story. I needed to find out what really happened. It was essential.

Recommendations: Overall, this was a fantastic audio production that will keep you on your toes. I especially recommend it if you’ve enjoyed some of Sanderson’s other mind-bending short stories like Snapshot and Legion. I haven’t read anything by Kowel yet, but after this, The Calculating Stars has definitely been bumped up my priority list.

I’d like to thank RB Media, Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal, and NetGalley for the chance to listen to and review an early copy of The Original.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Eragon by Christopher Paolini

Eragon by Christopher Paolini

Title: Eragon

Author: Christopher Paolini

Series: Inheritance Cycle #1

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: One boy…One dragon… A world of adventure. When Eragon finds a polished blue stone in the forest, he thinks it is the lucky discovery of a poor farm boy; perhaps it will buy his family meat for the winter. But when the stone brings a dragon hatchling, Eragon soon realizes he has stumbled upon a legacy nearly as old as the Empire itself. Overnight his simple life is shattered, and he is thrust into a perilous new world of destiny, magic, and power. With only an ancient sword and the advice of an old storyteller for guidance, Eragon and the fledgling dragon must navigate the dangerous terrain and dark enemies of an Empire ruled by a king whose evil knows no bounds. Can Eragon take up the mantle of the legendary Dragon Riders? The fate of the Empire may rest in his hands. -Goodreads

The Review:

I first picked up Eragon when I was 19 – two years after the book came out in 2003. I was reading it in anticipation for the second novel, which was one of my first ARCs as a bookseller. At the time, I’d been reading adult fantasy for a few years, but was by no means well-versed in the genre. Eragon satisfied all my basic expectations for a book of its type, and I was enamored with the fact that it was written by a teen (something I’d probably cringe away from now). I remember finding it inspiring – if he could do it, then I could too. I had a bit of trouble with pacing somewhere in the middle, but after cresting that hill I enjoyed it thoroughly until the end. My archaic, handwritten review at the time claimed, “Anyone who likes fantasy should read this. It would make a very entertaining movie one day (I should’ve specified: if done well, lol).”

Fast forward almost 10 years to 2014, I snagged an audio copy for a reread with the intention of making it beyond the second book to finish the series (…which I still haven’t done). Ten years of avid fantasy reading and a plethora of writing experiences under my belt, and I’ll admit all the things about Eragon that captured me when I was young just didn’t hold up to my aged scrutiny. The writing was clunky and, while massively impressive considering the author’s age, it was clear there were a lot of things that needed work (especially in the opening chapters). I also noted the story itself wasn’t all that original, and could name half a dozen dragon books I thought did the concept a bit better. However, I could still appreciate the appeal it had to me as a teen. It’s an inviting story for a younger audience, and great for easing them into the genre. Excitement for books like this is what drove my own reading ambitions, so I seldom discount them.

Series status: I have yet to finish the series, despite several copies in various formats at my disposal and plenty of opportunity. I finally had to admit the story just doesn’t sing to me like it did when I was younger. I really wish the wait between books hadn’t been so long because I think I’d have continued in earnest had they been published earlier.

Recommendations: Eragon provides a fun way to get the younger crowd engaged in the fantasy genre, but it probably won’t hold up to scrutiny to the more seasoned fantasy readers. Or writers. Even so, it’s now what I would consider a classic in the genre for how many kids it entertained (myself included), so I’d still mark it a good recommend.

Other (dragon) books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Tackling the TBR [61]: September 2020

tackling the TBR

It’s once again time for my favorite feature: Tackling the TBR! There’s nothing I love more than picking out which books to read next, and this slightly organized method of reading has really amped my enjoyment to the next level. Bring on the mantras!

Read the best books first.
&
Life is too short to read books you’re not enjoying.

However you put together your TBR for the next month, the goal is to reduce the amount of obligation in reading and increase the fun.


Here’s a look at how the system works:

1. Identify the titles that take top priority in your TBR.
2. Combine them all in your own Tackling the TBR post.
3. Throughout the month pick from that pile as the mood strikes you.

Here’s what mine looks like:

September 2020 TBR Tackler Shelf:

I had a wake-up call.

And I blame my Goodreads Challenge tracker. I realized all of my reading goals were completely unrealistic based on how many books I’ve read so far this year. Because I don’t think I’m going to miraculously incorporate a ton of extra reading time between now and the end of the year, it’s pretty clear that I’ll only have a chance to get through about 20 more titles. This was hard for me to absorb. After all, I have a ton of series I want to finish, and a bunch more I want to start. Not to mention all the new releases I want to dig into. But those ambitions just aren’t going to happen based on my current reading pace. 

This calls for some organizing.

I started with a template – a new note on my phone month headers and five slots to fill with titles below each month. My review obligations with Audiofile Magazine took one slot a month. That left me with four more spaces to fill. That’s not a lot of books ::sobs:: so I really had to get a clear idea what my highest priorities were. Only the elite survived the cut, and based on that list this post is my much more realistic lineup of titles for September.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is my AudioFile obligation, and Colonyside is my ARC (omg soooo excited!), and all the others are books I most want to read at the moment. I’m glad for a nice mix of genres here, and am especially glad I saved a spot for a new series. I think with such basic ambitions and such good titles, I might actually increase my reading pace enough to add a few extras, but those only get added once I’ve finished my lineup. I experimented with this system in August (after my TTT post was already live, unfortunately) and it worked tremendously, so I’m optimistic for it going forward. It also coincides with my newfound focus of digital minimalism, which I’m sure will play a factor in my reading pace as well. Things are lookin good! ^_^


Have a great month in reading!

by Niki Hawkes