River of Stars ~ Guy Gavriel Kay

  • Title:  River of Stars
  • Author:  Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Genre:  Historical Fiction, Fantasy
  • Format:  Audio book
  • Source:  Library
  • Reviewed by: Valerie
  • Rating:  3.5 out of 5


p>Description:  In his critically acclaimed novel Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay told a vivid and powerful story inspired by China’s Tang Dynasty. Now, the international bestselling and multiple award-winning author revisits that invented setting four centuries later with an epic of prideful emperors, battling courtiers, bandits and soldiers, nomadic invasions, and a woman battling in her own way, to find a new place for women in the world – a world inspired this time by the glittering, decadent Song Dynasty.

Ren Daiyan was still just a boy when he took the lives of seven men while guarding an imperial magistrate of Kitai. That moment on a lonely road changed his life—in entirely unexpected ways, sending him into the forests of Kitai among the outlaws. From there he emerges years later—and his life changes again, dramatically, as he circles towards the court and emperor, while war approaches Kitai from the north.

Lin Shan is the daughter of a scholar, his beloved only child. Educated by him in ways young women never are, gifted as a songwriter and calligrapher, she finds herself living a life suspended between two worlds. Her intelligence captivates an emperor—and alienates women at the court. But when her father’s life is endangered by the savage politics of the day, Shan must act in ways no woman ever has.

In an empire divided by bitter factions circling an exquisitely cultured emperor who loves his gardens and his art far more than the burdens of governing, dramatic events on the northern steppe alter the balance of power in the world, leading to events no one could have foretold, under the river of stars.

Review:  Once again, Guy Gavriel Kay has immersed himself in the historical culture of ancient China, this time focusing within the 12th Dynasty. Just he did in the acclaimed Under Heaven, he slowly and methodically crafts his tale. Perhaps a little too slowly in River of Stars. There were times when story seemed to drag a bit, and yet I could not help but continuing on with the story.

Kay has a way about his story telling. In River of Stars he puts so much detail into creating the world that you almost feel as if the setting is itself a character of the book. It is clear that he spent a great deal of time researching this period of the Song Dynasty’s history. By the story’s end, the readers feels almost as if they visited that time, so long ago. Or maybe that is because they feel a compulsion to read up on some of the history on their own.

The two primary characters in River of Stars, Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan are clearly inspired by actual historical figures. Kay has a way of taking people and moments from time, and weaving a fictional account of what might have been. Within his telling, he pays homage to the existing mythology by capturing their truths of beauty, loyalty, and honor.

The characters of Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan remind me of the Yin and Yang. They are bound together and yet they are opposites. Ren Daiyan has a clear sense of his place within his time, a purpose that motivates him. Whereas, on the other hand, Lin Shan is a woman out of place in her own time and struggle to find her place in society. While they are very different, they both share an ability to recognize truth.

In addition to characters and themes, Kay incorporates much of Song Dynasty culture in this opus. In fact, while this book is often categorized as fantasy, the fantastical elements play more into the cultural superstitions of the time, making them seem more of a historical interpretation of events through the eyes of the characters. The author really seems to like the concept of fox spirits, featuring one in both River of Stars and Under Heaven. He details the prominent role of poetry and art and their cultural significance to that time. I can’t help but reflect that in our modern equivalents of pop music and movies just do not hold the same serene sense of beauty. In contrast, the battles scenes are sharp and brutal, yet equally brilliant in the telling.

I experience River of Stars in audio book format. The narration is very calm and slow. I thought that this worked well for Under Heaven, but found it frustrating for River of Stars. There were just moments that I felt would be better told with more energy. In particular, the understated vocalization did little to capture the sassy and mischievous nature of the Daji (fox woman). At times, the calming tones felt as if they might lull me to sleep.

While I enjoyed the story, I did struggle to get through the book. The entire tone of the story was so calm and methodical that it made an already long book feel even longer.

The Peach Keeper ~ Sarah Addison Allen

  • Title:  The Peach Keeper
  • Author:  Sarah Addison Allen
  • Genre:  Literary Fiction
  • Format:  Trade Paperback
  • Source:  Own copy
  • Reviewed by: Valerie
  • Rating:  3.5 out of 5

Description:  The New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Chased the Moon welcomes you to her newest locale: Walls of Water, North Carolina, where the secrets are thicker than the fog from the town’s famous waterfalls, and the stuff of superstition is just as real as you want it to be.

It’s the dubious distinction of thirty-year-old Willa Jackson to hail from a fine old Southern family of means that met with financial ruin generations ago. The Blue Ridge Madam—built by Willa’s great-great-grandfather during Walls of Water’s heyday, and once the town’s grandest home—has stood for years as a lonely monument to misfortune and scandal. And Willa herself has long strived to build a life beyond the brooding Jackson family shadow. No easy task in a town shaped by years of tradition and the well-marked boundaries of the haves and have-nots.

But Willa has lately learned that an old classmate—socialite do-gooder Paxton Osgood—of the very prominent Osgood family, has restored the Blue Ridge Madam to her former glory, with plans to open a top-flight inn. Maybe, at last, the troubled past can be laid to rest while something new and wonderful rises from its ashes. But what rises instead is a skeleton, found buried beneath the property’s lone peach tree, and certain to drag up dire consequences along with it.

For the bones—those of charismatic traveling salesman Tucker Devlin, who worked his dark charms on Walls of Water seventy-five years ago—are not all that lay hidden out of sight and mind. Long-kept secrets surrounding the troubling remains have also come to light, seemingly heralded by a spate of sudden strange occurrences throughout the town.

Now, thrust together in an unlikely friendship, united by a full-blooded mystery, Willa and Paxton must confront the dangerous passions and tragic betrayals that once bound their families—and uncover truths of the long-dead that have transcended time and defied the grave to touch the hearts and souls of the living.

Resonant with insight into the deep and lasting power of friendship, love, and tradition, The Peach Keeper is a portrait of the unshakable bonds that—in good times and bad, from one generation to the next—endure forever.

**Potential Spoilers**

Review:  The Peach Keeper is one of those book club books that I felt compelled to read. In fact, we read it as a book club selection for the local book club that I host. It was a light and quick read, definitely falling into the genre of chick lit with a hint of mystery. I had hoped the plot to be focused more on the side of the mystery, but it was focused much more firmly on relationships and romances. The book also had a bit of a mystical element that was unexpected, and that I’m not quite sure fit.

The primary theme of the book was friendship. The story centered on two women, from different sides of the metaphorical track, Willa and Paxton, whose grandmothers had been best friends once upon a time. The girls are pulled together in coordinating an open house for a club founded by the grandmothers. As Willa and Paxton bond with one another, and certain men in the lives, they uncover deep secrets at the root of their grandmothers’ friendship.

In addition to finding friendship in unexpected places and the strength of friendship through the year, the book is also a tale of self-discovery. Willa spent her youth making a statement of rebellion and in the present day is trying to contain her impulsive side to blend in. On the other hand, Paxton has spent her whole life trying to be the perfect southern belle, and longs to just be herself. As their friendship develops, both women realize that they both are victims of their own insecurities.

While not overly deep, the book does make some relevant, if light-hearted social commentary. One of the concepts that struck me the most is that no matter from which strata of society one comes, everyone struggles to balance preconceived notions of who they should be with who they want to be. There was also that suggestion that secrets breed more secrets, and once you pull the string on one, they all start to unravel.

There was one thing that I really did not like about this book. At the end, there is a flash-back chapter to tie up the loose end of what really happened when the grandmothers were young friends. This chapter felt out of place, as if the author did not know how to include this information, so it was tacked on clumsily at the end. I felt that there had to be a better to way to either include this information, or to leave it ambiguous.

The cover of the book was attractive and eye catching. The delicate font and the peach blossoms capture the whimsical tone of the story. The girl facing away touching her hair hints at that she may have a secret, as befitting the story.

This was an enjoyable book, if not overly deep. It is a good beach book for sure.

Dancing with the Devil ~ Keri Arthur

  • Title: Dancing with the Devil
  • Author: Keri Arthur
  • Series: Nikki & Michael #1
  • Genre: Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance
  • Format: ebook
  • Source: Free ARC
  • Reviewed by: DarthVal
  • Rating: 2 out of 5

Description:  Private Investigator Nikki James grew up on the tough streets of Lyndhurst and believes there’s nothing left to surprise her. All that changes the night she follows teenager Monica Trevgard into the shadows-and becomes a pawn caught in a war between two very different men. One fills her mind with his madness, the other pushes his way into her life-and her heart. Nikki knows how dangerous love can be, but if she wants to survive, she must place her trust in a man who could easily destroy her.

Michael Kelly has come to Lyndhurst determined to end the war between himself and another brother of the night. For 300 years he has existed in life’s shadows, gradually learning to control the life from death cravings of a vampire. Nikki not only breaches his formidable barriers with her psychic abilities, but makes Michael believe he may finally have found a woman strong enough to walk by his side and ease the loneliness in his heart. But will his love be enough to protect her from a madman hell-bent on revenge? Or will it drive her into his enemy’s deadly trap?

Only together can they overcome the evil threatening to destroy them both. But the secrets they keep from each other might prove to be the greatest threat of all.

Review:  I am perpetually on the look-out for exciting new Urban Fantasy series, hence my excitement at receiving a digital ARC for Dancing with the Devil. I knew this one might lean more toward Paranormal Romance than I typically like, but I was willing to take the risk. The concept sounded really good to me.

One thing that I really liked about this book was the cover. It is not trying too hard to be sexy. It is a good urban fantasy depiction of a tough looking gal with a mysterious vibe. The red color was plays well into the Dancing with the Devil title. It has great use of fonts. It really looks like a book that I would enjoy. Alas, sometimes the adage is true about judging books by their covers.

I was expecting a story with a strong female detective, instead I discovered a stupid chick with the maturity of a bean sprout. Throughout the book, Monica (the heroine of the tale) runs headfirst into danger rather needlessly. Often this was a passive-aggressive response to being angry at someone, because it totally makes sense when you are mad at someone to risk your own life in the most dangerous scenario possible. Not. For a supposed detective, she was quite incapable of getting clue. I mean, the signs that Michael was a vampire were totally obvious. How long did it take Nikki to figure it out? Can you say, duh?

So, then there is the insta-lust between Nikki and Michael. I don’t want to label it insta-love, because most of the time they did not even seem to like one another. Or maybe that was just because both characters spent the majority of the book in over-reaction mode. Sheesh, maybe they need some anger management.

And speaking of anger, Michael was a bit of an anger ball. He always get angry that she does not trust him, like REALLY angry, yet he gives her NO REASON to trust him. Did he really think his approach was going engender trust in her? Let’s check his actions against the trustworthy check list. Would you trust a guy who tells you nothing while making it obvious that he is concealing a lot of information? I didn’t think so. How about if he constantly promises not to control you, but repeatedly does so (even if it is to save your life)? Maybe not. I know, maybe you’d trust someone who would conceal his true nature from you and will lie to you about his ability to love? Not working for you? Well, maybe you should just get angry back and run headfirst into danger!

Beyond the characters themselves, the mythology seemed a little inconsistent to me. Nikki was able to open doors and break the necks of zombies using her psychic force, but she was unable to use it to open a car door? Smells kind of fishy to me. Worse, though, were all of the times when Nikki drained her power completely, yet she was always able to conveniently tap into more (unless Michael conveniently save her, making her angry).

The plot itself was kind of blah. After the first couple of chapters, the mystery is gone. We know who the bad guy is and what he wants. The rest of the book, the author seems to draw things out in a series of silly encounters. Nikki and Michael run into Jasper, Monica, and zombies, they fight, they scamper away, lather, rinse, and repeat.

I am still up in the air about whether or not I will this series another shot. I recognize that first books are not typically the best of the series. It would be pretty low risk, since I have received a digital ARC for the second installment.

*Disclaimer: a digital review copy of this book was provided to me free of charge by the publisher through Net Galley.

For J (Part Two)

Regardless of the wishes that still echo in my heart,
Despite the edge of reason that thoughtlessly cuts,
I close my eyes to still the tears that relentlessly fall.
Even though I held hope in shaking hands, forewarned
I waited for you to make your choice: this searing denouement.
How can I be so blind to still yearn, to still dream, for what is not?

For you, I cut past the fearful web of taunts,
Part my soaring barriers to the vulnerable part…
Fearing, stubborn–I raged within an ocean of emotions
That live, breathe and is a vivid existence in stark daylight.
For you, even as I tremble inside, I see clearly and write.

Dangerously easy to fall into you,
It’s been like that from the very start.
Your presence did soothe my wounded soul
Disbanding weighted tensions in companionable silence.
Bring fore an innocent faith that demands unquestioned trust,
With you, I have been my best, my worst and all that lies between: alive.

Regardless of the pain we sustained in spades,
Despite all the chaotic verbal wars exchanged,
I cannot wish for anything but the very best.
Even though we will not be the stuff of romantic dreams,
I will always love you & pray that you will gain all that you need.
How can I wish for anything else? When we have both endeared enough.

Farewell, J.

Written:  1/28/2011 ~ 1507
It doesn’t matter if it was written several years ago. It’s still true today. A part of a singular history and more memories than I will ever be able to count. ~ Link to For J (Part One)

For J (Part One)

Regardless of the wishes I whisper in my heart,
Despite the reality that is waiting to drop down hard,
I yearn to tell you what I truly feel inside—
Even though I know to do so will leave me open
To the cruelties life can tear into unguarded walls.

I am strong, firm and annoying, factual know-it-all.
A mixture of careless laughter and growling frowns.
I speak of vulnerable fears and share the shading doubts
Yet, seldom seen are my inner terrors released and unadorned.
Entwining fears dance upon my indomitable will, teasingly chanting:
No, no you never will. You can hope but it won’t be real.

For you, I cut past the fearful web of taunts,
Part my soaring barriers to the vulnerable part…
Afraid to fall deeper into an ocean of emotions
That may live, breathe and exist in rosy dream light.
For you, even as I tremble inside, I take a chance and write.

Dangerously easy to fall into you,
It’s been like that from the very start.
Your presence soothes my wounded soul
Disbanding weighted tensions with not a word.
Bring to life, an innocent childlike faith of trust:
With you lies a haven of peace like a blessing, divine.

You are quicksilver chaos, a mass of artful romanticism,
A countless list of harping hates, ruthlessly hidden inner conflicts,
Your charismatic fire blazes brightly in all your friends’ lives
Sharing, regaling, entertaining, informing, conforming from the Pulpit’s ire
As you hold your battered, longing heart prisoner from betrayal’s blazing fires.

In you I see a man of strength, numerous talents, wickedly sharp wit,
Whose fear is covered in relentless activities, leaving barely a second to reflect.
Your delusions, illusions, tantalizing tenderness, breathtaking fierce passions,
Finely honed noble traits intertwined with stark flaws that do not relent—
Make one uniquely complicated man who could hold my heart in his hands.

I treasure all that you let me see and share of yourself with me.
I hold dear the seamless peace that I feel in your company.
I hope that your dreams will find grace in spacious flight, so free.
I fear the emptiness I’d gain if our friendship falls astray.
I wish, perhaps in vain, for love to be real rather than a fading dream.

I lost count of how many times I told myself not to care.
That it’s wrong for me to want someone who’s half of a pair.
I’ve longed for you for so long and didn’t dare to push
The attraction that pulses in ebbing waves upon touch…
That made our friendship closer in more ways than one.

Regardless of the wishes I whisper in my heart,
Despite the reality that is waiting to drop down hard,
I yearn to tell you what I truly feel inside—
Even though our time together was hidden out in plain sight,
I will never forget the gentleness of your touch,
How happy I was to be with you, someone I love.

Written:  2/17/2007 ~ 0120
It doesn’t matter if it was written several years ago. It’s still true today. A part of a singular history and more memories than I will ever be able to count. ~ Link to For J (Part Two)

The Orphan Master’s Son ~ Adam Johnson

  • Title:  The Orphan Master’s Son
  • Author:  Adam Johnson
  • Genre:  Literary Fiction
  • Format:  Audio book
  • Source:  Overdrive Digital Library
  • Reviewed by: Valerie
  • Rating:  3.5 out of 5

Description:  An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.

Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.”

Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers.

**Potential Spoilers**

Review:  The Orphan Master’s Son tells the story of a simple man who dare to dream that life can be different. The premise is not so different, until you stop to consider that the main character began life effectively as an orphan in North Korea. The author has built a poignant story set within the context of his observations of North Korean culture. I cannot speak to the authenticity of the portrayal of North Korea, but I did find myself caught up in Pak Jun Do’s story.

One of the primary precepts of this book is that in North Korea it is the story rather than the truth that reigns supreme. This concept is played out over and over. Characters will present the story that they feel would be most palatable, rather than giving an accurate account of events as they unfolded. Conversely, these stories if accepted become “truth” even though it is clear that almost all players recognize that is not what actually happened.

I was never really clear if Pak Jun Do was truly the orphan master’s son who received the same treatment as the orphans that grew up with him or if he truly was an orphan who convinced himself otherwise. This distinction is largely irrelevant. His mother is gone, taken away from him when he was young, and from then on his lot in life is that of an orphan and he begins his lifelong desire to love and be loved.

I was a bit horrified at the description of the living conditions described for North Korea. At first I thought that maybe I misunderstood and this was a futuristic dystopian version. My reading of the book was timely, giving the current events unfolding in North Korea. Recent news articles have convinced me that the author got it right. I found it easier to focus on the characters and their plights rather than give this too much deep consideration to this harsh and depressing reality.

While slow-paced, The Orphan Master’s Son was a captivating story. Pak Jun Do is “just a guy.” He rises from the most humble beginnings and faces obstacle after obstacle, and yet his spirit cannot be broken. He holds on to what integrity he can while struggling to survive the twisted events that comprise his life. It was tough to call him the “good guy” because he does some awful things to survive. Yet, when considered within the framework of the story he is as good as it gets.

I know some people get frustrated by changing perspectives, so be warned that this book is told using a few distinct voices. I felt that the changing perspectives lent depth to the story. The changing perspectives also created mystery for the reader, struggling to find the “truth,” or at least what you choose to accept as the “truth.”

This was a really unique read for me and I really enjoyed it. At times, the subject matter was a bit heavy, but the richly drawn characters and the spirit of Pak Jun Do made it all worthwhile.

Cover note: The cover is simple, yet eye-catching. After reading the book and noting the tiger’s relevance, I like it even more.