Archive for the ‘eBook reviews’ Category

Reading roundup – January 29th 2017Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen
Format: eBook
Pages: 294 pages
Genres: Self Help
Buy from Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, Audible
Evelynne’s rating:five-stars

Self help is not a genre of books I read very often, but I made an exception for David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. One of my goals for 2017 was to become better organised and to be more productive. I first learned about the GTD methodology through Carl Pullein’s YouTube channel that I follow. I’ve been working on this for around six weeks now, so it’s too early to tell, but I’m happy with what I’ve learned so far.

Getting Things Done, or GTD, is a productivity methodology based on a few deceptively simple concepts. Now, I’m still very new to GTD, but this is how I see it.  One of the fundamental ideas behind GTD is that the human brain is excellent at processing ideas and being creative, but not a great storage facility.  A key part of GTD is getting all ideas, projects and commitments out of your brain and into a trusted system or external brain.

There are five activities to GDT: Capture, Clarify, Organise, Reflect and Engage. If I can take from the GTD website, this translates to:

Capture: Collect what has your attention.   For me, this means adding all my ideas, commitments and to-dos in my list manager application of choice, Todoist.  I really love this application and regret that I don’t have it at work. I try to capture everything from my doctor’s appointments, to buying cat food for Lushka to a reminder to ask my husband if we have picture hooks.  I’m planning a trip to Europe this summer, so any time I think of something like oh, I must remember to get Swiss francs, into Todoist it goes.

Clarify: Process what it means.  Here I can’t be any more concise than or as clear as the workflow diagram on the GTD website:

Gtd

Honestly, if I take away nothing more from my experience with GTD than the two minute rule (if you can do it in two minutes, do it now, otherwise delegate it or defer it) and the discipline to define the next physical action to move a task along it will have been worth it.

Organise: Put it where it belongs.  This is probably the area of GTD that’s least intuitive for me – I’m not very organised!  At the very least, I try to put any appointments on my calendar, any tasks in the appropriate section of Todoist, and potentially relevant non-actionable information in Evernote.  One interesting aspect of GTD is the use of contexts.  This means organising your tasks not by priority but by the tools, location, and/or person you need to be able to complete them successfully.  So, for example, in my Taxes 2016 list I have an item; pick up tax receipt from pharmacy.  I tagged that as “pharmacy” along with other items like pick up Polysporin and drop off new prescription.  So when I go to the pharmacy I just check that tag to be reminded of all the things I have to accomplish while I’m there.  Similarly, while planning my trip to Europe I have a context of Susanne, the friend I’m visiting.  Any time I think of something I need to ask her, I add it to that list of things to discuss next time I call or email her.

Reflect: Review your to do list and calendar frequently.  The idea here is to keep your “external brain” current with everything that you need to accomplish.  If you don’t add to it or clear our stale items, your real brain will no longer trust your system and it will break down.  Most GTDers do a review at least once a week.

Engage: Simply do.  Pick the tasks that are available to you based on your contexts and get cracking!

The book itself is very well written and the edition I have was updated in 2015 to include discussion of new technology (not specific applications) and how it impacts the GTD workflow.

if you are interested in improving your productivity and generally getting things done you could do a whole lot worse than to check out this book.

I gave Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free productivity five stars out of five.

Getting things Done by David Allen was originally published on Canadian eReader

Hachette was kind enough to send me an Advance Reader Copy of Blood for Blood by Ryan Graudin, the sequel to Wolf by Wolf.  Thank you so much, guys!  I was super excited to receive it as it was one of my most anticipated reads of 2016 and it did not disappoint in the least.  Blood for Blood is the second book in an alternate history young adult series set in a world in which the Hitler and the Nazis won World War II.  Our protagonist is a young Jewish death camp survivor with the ability to shape shift.  The series consists of the two main novels, Wolf by Wolf and Blood for Blood as well as the prequel novella Iron to Iron.

The story starts immediately after the cliffhanger ending of Wolf by Wolf and expands the points of view to three.  It continues the quest Yael was assigned in Wolf by Wolf and deals with the fallout of the events and discoveries of the book.  

What I liked

The world.  Once again I was completely drawn into the alternate history that Graudin has created.  The world felt so real and fleshed out I could easily imagine our characters trying to navigate it.  Once again, I found myself hearing the story in the voice of Christa Lewis, the narrator of Wolf by Wolf.  I certainly intend to purchase the audiobook as soon as it is available in November.  What was also nicely done was the way in which the world was impacted by the actions of our protagonists.  The world has changed by what they achieved.  I really hope we get to see more of it through short stories.

Character journeys.  I really loved the journeys that all of our main characters go on.  Each of our main three characters has a different journey and they were all beautifully developed.  Instead of the single flashbacks to Yael’s life as in Wolf by Wolf, we are shown specific moments in the past experienced in unique ways by each of our three point of view characters.  This serves to show where each of them is coming from, as well as to contrast their attitudes.  While I did prefer the Yael flashbacks from Wolf by Wolf, tied thematically as they were with the wolf tattoos, the flashbacks in Blood for Blood did serve their purpose to give some understanding of the characters’ motivations.  I very much disliked a certain character, but his actions were both logical and understandable.

Themes.  I studied German at university and one of the books we studied was Erzählte Zeit, a collection of short stories written by Germans immediately after World War II as they attempted to come to terms with the horror of the Holocaust.  These explored some fascinating themes of guilt and loss and I really enjoyed seeing similar themes explored in Blood for Blood.  

Identity.  Identity was another strong theme explored in the novel.  The characters are constantly asking themselves what it means to be a death camp survivor, or Jewish, or a Third Reich poster boy, or a loyal citizen of the Reich or son or brother.  They are constantly re-evaluating this as they progress through the narrative – beautifully done.  I’m assuming this is where the title comes from.

What I didn’t like

The only minor quibble I had was that I didn’t quite buy the logic of what they were trying to do.  I would have liked a bit more background into why they expected achieving their goal to have the effect it did.  Sorry, I can’t say too much more without being too spoilery.

Blood for Blood is a fantastic end to a great duology.  My only regret is that the series is now finished.  Can we have some more short stories please?!?   I gave Blood for Blood five stars out of five.

Blood for Blood by Ryan Graudin was originally published on Canadian eReader

So, the script for J.K. Rowling’s play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, billed as the eighth Potter story, was released on July 31st.  Naturally, I and the world and his dog rushed to pick up a copy.  Here are my thoughts.  I should point out that I have not seen the play, worse luck, and am going from the script alone.  Note that there will be total and complete spoilers, which I will hide after the cut.

First, the non spoilery section. There was a lot I loved about it, and some things that didn’t work nearly so well for me.  I loved that the same themes that pervaded the book series – love, friendship, family, loyalty – still form the core of Cursed Child.  It was wonderful seeing how Harry, Ron and Hermione coped with adult life and parenthood (being an adult myself, it was especially fascinating.). The new characters, Scorpius and Albus and their friendship are completely adorable – Scorpius really does get all the best lines.  And, naturally, it is simply wonderful to revisit the Wizarding World in any shape or form.  Rowling’s world is utterly breathtaking.  I really wish I could see how certain scenes played out on stage.

What I didn’t enjoy so much were certain plot points.  I didn’t feel they gelled too well with what we know about the Wizarding World and the characters in it.  Some character development points I didn’t feel worked too well in a play setting.  They might have worked better for me in novel format with more space to expand and develop them.  Also, while it’s not necessary to have devoured Pottermore, certain interactions do have much more meaning if you are aware of some of the character’s backstories.

All in all I enjoyed Cursed Child and gave it four stars out of five.

Now, onto the spoilery section.

(more…)

Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch is the first in a young adult fantasy series centering around Meira, a young refugee left orphaned when her country was overrun and conquered by a neighbouring power.  It focusses on her struggle to locate the missing magical Conduit of Winter and to free her imprisoned countrymen.

What I liked

The world.  I really enjoyed the world that Raasch has built for her story.  There are eight kingdoms; four Season realms, each dominated by a single season (our protagonist is from Winter) and four Rhythm, whose climate cycles through each season.   Each kingdom was wonderfully described and I loved their seasonal themes.  The tensions between the kingdoms were interesting and well described and I appreciated the political machinations that were going on behind the scenes.

The magic system.  The magic system of the Conduits was fascinating, and I look forward to reading more about the chasm of magic and the Decay in future books.  I always appreciate it when limitations are written into the magic system – often, they are as interesting as the magic itself.  In this case I enjoyed the fact that certain artifacts are limited by gender and can only be used in certain ways.  I loved reading how the various wielders of the Conduits worked within those limitations to either serve their own ends or help their people.

What I didn’t like

All the tropes.  Too often I felt that Raasch was ticking boxes to see how many YA and fantasy tropes she could fit into this book and more, that they are not subverted. Young orphan discovers she has a secret past and destiny filled future. Check.  Missing magical artifact hidden right at the heart of the antagonist’s power.  Check.  Young king struggling to meet the needs and expectations of his people.  Check.  Honestly, there are simply too many to name, and many I can’t name for spoiler reasons.  Now, I’m aware that there are very few new stories in the world. but I would have liked to see some kind of twist on these old tropes.  

The foreshadowing.  This came across as being rather heavily emphasised, which, along with the use of the tropes, made the story for me at least very, very predictable.  

The love triangle.  This seems an obligatory part of every YA book these days and Snow Like Ashes is no exception.  It wasn’t badly done, it just didn’t grab my attention at all.

Despite the predictability, the worldbuilding carried me through Snow Like Ashes and I gave it three and a half stars out of five.  I probably wouldn’t be interested enough to pay for the sequel, Ice Like Fire, but as it was available from my local library I will check it out.

Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch – Review was originally published on Canadian eReader

The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater is a young adult supernatural novel entering around Blue Sargent, Gansy and their search for Welsh king Glendower.  It is a quartet made up of The Raven Boys, The Dream Thieves, Blue Lily Lily Blue and The Raven King.  it is told from multiple points of view.

I will say that it took me some time to get into this series – at least two attempts of starting the book, and putting it down again.  This is despite a kickass opening in which the whole conflict of the series is laid out; it is foretold that Blue will kill her one true love when she kisses him, and Gansy is fated to die within the year. That is the hook to lure you into this series – you can’t help but want to know if these foretellings come true.  My initial struggle with this book is partly because, at first glance, the main protagonists are rather unappealing.  Gansy comes across as rich, arrogant and entitled.  Ronan is snarky and belligerent.  Adam is stubborn and independent to a fault and Noah is insipid.  It’s only when you get further into the books that the deeper layers of these characters are revealed and your understanding of them deepens.  After that I was very happy to continue marathoning the series.

There is a whole arc running through the series with resolutions of plot points in the first book only coming through in the final instalment.  Each book has its own theme which feeds into the major series story arc.  It is very well tied together if not overly complex. The Raven Boys is all about the setup; introducing the main driving plot of the series, the characters and the world.  The Dream Thieves is Ronan’s story and how his ability will aid his friends in their quest.  Blue Lily, Lily Blue focusses on Blue and also on deepening the relationships amongst the group and The Raven King ties everything up.  

What I liked

The characters.  The well written, nuanced and flawed characters and their relationships are the highlight of this series.  Stiefvater has developed a wonderful set of characters and the relationships that develop among them are beautiful to read.  They truly are stronger because they know each other.  The relationships are all unique; Blue acts differently with Noah than she does with Adam, and Gansy has a different relationship to Ronan than to Noah.  Additionally, the characters we meet in The Raven Boys are not the same ones we say farewell to in The Raven King – they have been changed by their experiences and each other.  That is one thing that always attracts me to a book series. It is mainly for the characters and character development that I continued reading this series.  I loved that each member of the group has his or her own strengths and weaknesses and each has a part to play in the story.

The world.  I loved the world Stiefvater created.  The kind of supernaturalness – ley lines, tarot, spiritualists/mediums – is one that always gets under my skin.  It’s superbly well done.

What I didn’t like

Not immediately likeable protagonists.  Though I was fascinated by the characters and engaged in their stories, I didn’t love them the way that I have loved some other protagonists.  Their stories were wonderful to read, but I’m not exactly sure I’d like to meet up with any of them for coffee.  After four books, I certainly felt as if I understood Gansy, Ronan and Adam a great deal better, even if I didn’t necessarily always like them.  This weakened the ending somewhat for me.

The Raven Cycle is an excellent series and well worth reading for the well written, nuanced characters and worldbuilding.  As a whole I gave the series four stars out of five.

four-stars

The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater – Review was originally published on Canadian eReader

Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon is the fourth in the time travelling historical fiction series following our protagonists Claire and Jamie Fraser as they attempt to start a new life in the American Colonies.

Weighing in at nearly 900 pages, or 44 hrs and 54 mins of audiobook, this is a real behemoth of a book.  It’s also the book on my shelf that’s taken me the longest to read.  GoodReads tells me that I finished the previous book in the series, Voyager, back in April 2015, and I started Drums of Autumn around that time.  This means that Drums of Autumn has taken me almost a year to finish.

I read it in chunks.  I would read a large section – usually when the Outlander TV series piqued my interest again – and then struggle to continue and put it aside for other books.  It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it; I simply struggled to maintain my interest to read 800+ pages over a short period.  

What I liked

The characters.  I love the characters in the book, particularly Claire and Jamie and their unconventional romance.  Gabaldon has said that she wanted to show a mature relationship – one in which the partners have been together for many years – and she certainly achieves that with Claire and Jamie.  Brianna and Roger also take centre stage in this book and that was wonderful to read.

The Jamie/Brianna relationship.  For me, this was one of the highlights of the book.  I adored the interactions between Jamie and his daughter.  They are both stubborn Frasers, with differing views of morality due to their different upbringings in different centuries and both have red headed tempers.  it was clear that things were never going to go smoothly for them.  I loved that Claire was stuck in the middle and was uncertain if she should physically separate them or let them fight it out.  What was particularly beautifully written was the way in which Jamie’s and Brianna’s past experiences created a real bond and connection between them.

What I didn’t like

Repetition.  I must admit, earlier parts of the book are rather foggy in my memory having been read almost a year ago, but I seem to remember there was a distinct pattern of Jamie and/or Claire getting into some kind of situation in which they are in mortal danger and then they are rescued.  Rinse and repeat.  Given that this is the fourth in a (likely) ten book series, there was absolutely no dramatic tension at all.  There was no way either of our two main protagonists was not going to survive.  I imagine this was intended to provide colour to show how dangerous their environment was, and perhaps to develop their relationship, but I must admit I found it a little tedious after a while.

All in all I really enjoyed Drums of Autumn and gave it four stars out of five.

four-stars

Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon – Review was originally published on Canadian eReader

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson is the first in a young adult historical fantasy following the story of Leah Westfall, a young woman from Georgia with the gift of sensing gold.  Circumstances lead her to seek her fortune in California as part of the 1849 gold rush.  This first book deals with Leah’s departure from Georgia and the first part of her journey west.

I really enjoyed this book.  I was highly invested in Leah’s story and loved the depiction of the trek across the country.  Upon finishing it I immediately preordered book two, entitled Like a River Glorious, due out in September 2016.  And can I just say, isn’t that a gorgeous cover?

What I liked

The protagonist.  I really enjoyed reading from Leah’s perspective.  She is a young woman with a good heart, and a strong mind.  It’s clear though the toll her secrets are taking on her.  I liked that Leah does sometimes does make mistakes and errors in judgement – it keeps her real.  The supporting characters are also very engaging and in many cases have significant character development.

The historical detail.  I admit that this is a period of American history about which I am not too familiar.  Carson was able to evoke a wonderfully vivid atmosphere of what life would have been like travelling West during the Gold Rush.  From the author’s notes at the end I have the strong impression that Carson did a significant amount of research when writing this book.

The fantastical.  While there is some fantasy in Walk on Earth a Stranger, it is very subtle and well integrated into the story.  The focus is very much more on historical fiction than fantasy though.

The tropes.  This was a mixed like/didn’t like.  Carson used so many tropes in this book it did get a little obvious at times.  We had the girl dressing up as a boy trope, the wicked uncle trope, the best friend as potential love interest trope, the refusal of the Call to Adventure until the Inciting Incident trope.  However, Carson makes them work very, very well together and has created a wonderfully cohesive story.

What I didn’t like

The love triangle.  This is a young adult book, so a love triangle is unavoidable.  While I did think that, at least, the third member of the triangle was convincingly written I really didn’t care for this aspect of the book.

There was very little I didn’t enjoy about Walk on Earth a Stranger.

I gave Walk on Earth a Stranger four and a half stars out of five. 

four-half-stars

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson – Review was originally published on Canadian eReader

Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare is the first in The Dark Artifices, a new Shadowhunters series set around the Shadowhunters Institute in LA.  It focusses on Emma Carstairs and her parabatai Julian Blackthorn, characters introduced in City of Heavenly Fire, the final book in the Mortal Instruments series.  This was one of my most anticipated reads of 2016 and I LOVED it.  The setup for Lady Midnight was one of the things I enjoyed most about City of Heavenly Fire and it more than lived up to its promise. I devoured this 700+ page book in less than a day.

What I liked

The characters.  Although Emma is a smart, engaging kickass heroine, I found my sympathies being drawn more to Julian – his struggles and challenges spoke to me even more than Emma’s.  I was also very interested that this time we meet some Shadowhunters who do not necessarily fit the mould of young teens, perfect in mind and body who embody the ideals of the Clave.  Particularly interesting to me was Tiberius, who is clearly on the autism spectrum.  I thought it was wonderful how he was shown to make a significant contribution to our protagonists’ quest even if it wasn’t always by going out and fighting demons.  I am interested to see how the Clave tries to handle him in the future.  We also have Mark Blackthorn, who, although technically a Shadowhunter has been strongly influenced by his time with the Fae.  In both these cases we clearly see how Shadowhunter society in general is not very accepting of those who do not fit a specific mould.

The Law.  The Law is a major theme in this book, specifically how to handle a law that seems harsh or unfair.  This is symbolised by two Latin phrases “Sed lex, dura lex” – the Law is hard, but it is the Law – and “lex malla, lex nulla” – a bad law is no law at all.  This refers mainly to the law against helping the Fair Folk, and this is used to hinder our protagonists in their quest.  We see attempts to get around this law both by diplomatic means and then by less open methods.  Of course this theme also applies to the law against parabatai falling in love, which is also a major issue for our protagonists.  All in all, it didn’t leave me feeling very positive towards the Clave and Council.  I look forward to seeing how Julian and Emma and their friends change their world for the better.

The world.  I really don’t need to say much here.  Clare’s world is absolutely phenomenal and fascinating.  What was particularly interesting this time was seeing a post Dark War world.  The struggle with Sebastian has left its mark and even five years later, the results can still be seen.  We learn of new, elite Shadowhunters and processes that have been put in place as a result of the War – processes that aren’t necessarily for the best.  I’m not sure if Clare was aiming to reflect our modern post 9/11 world in this, but that is certainly what it made me think of.

What I didn’t like

Bland, boring antagonist.  I wasn’t especially engaged by the antagonist – however, I suspect that the real villain of the piece was intended to be the rigid, inflexible attitude of those in charge of the Shadowhunters and the climate of fear that seems pervasive.  I would imagine we’ll see our heroes come into direct conflict with that later on in the series.

I gave Lady Midnight five stars out of five – when is the next book due out?

five-stars

Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare – Review was originally published on Canadian eReader

A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab is the second in the Darker Shade of Magic Series which centres on Kell, an Antari magician who has the ability to move between different worlds, and Lila, a young woman from “our” London who has ended up in Kell’s magical home world.  I really enjoyed the first book, A Darker Shade of Magic, and was very much looking forward to this next instalment.  I LOVED this book and am happy to recommend it.

What I liked

The characters.  Right from the beginning, Lila had me chuckling along with her sassy attitude and I sympathised with Kell and Rhy as they tried to come to terms with the events of the previous book.  Some new characters are introduced, notably Alucard Emery.  This is a particularly interesting new addition as both our protagonists have very different attitudes towards him.  This leaves the reader somewhat torn about how to feel about him.  He’s rather a mysterious characters – It’s clear that he’s a lot more than just the pirate – excuse me, privateer – that he claims to be.  I really hope we learn more about him in subsequent books.

The romance.  The relationship between Kell and Lila was so cute and beautifully done, especially given how little time they actually spend interacting with each other in the book.  There were so many adorable instances of Lila thinking things like “oh, that guy’s hair is almost the same shade as Kell’s”  or Kell’s seeing something pretty and thinking of how much Lila would enjoy it.  Of course, if confronted both would vehemently deny being in love.  A clear case of showing, not telling.  Brava Victoria.

Interesting pacing.  As the book blurb indicates, a significant focus of this book is the Element Games, a magical equivalent of our Olympics.  Yet, they do not provide much dramatic tension.  They are generally non lethal, and the outcome of winning is little more than achieving bragging rights.  In fact, until about 85% of the way through the book very little actually happens.   Towards the end, it was very clear that this story would not be self contained in the way that the first one was, and that I would have to prepare for a cliffhanger.  The wonderful thing, however, is that I really didn’t care.  I was having too much fun following these two crazy kids and their mixed signals romance and the magical world in which it takes place.  The last few chapters of the book really speed things up though and I can’t wait for the next book.

What I didn’t like

Lack of variety in the Element Games.  Each level of the competition follows the same format. I would have welcomed some changes in structure for the subsequent bouts.  Also I did have to suspend my disbelief at certain participants.  Did Stasion really think he could compete at Olympic level with his limited experience of magic?

Despite those minor gripes, I adored A Gathering of Shadows and it gets a well-deserved five stars out of five from me. 

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A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab – Review (minor spoilers) was originally published on Canadian eReader

Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard is the second in the Red Queen series and continues the story of Mare Barrow and her struggle to end the oppression of the non superpowered Reds by the Silvers.  

When we left Mare at the end of Red Queen she was not in a good place, both in a practical sense and emotionally.  She feels betrayed by those she cared about and many of her allies are lost or alienated.  Nevertheless, she focusses herself on the goal of rescuing those who, like Mare, are of Red heritage but display Silver abilities.  

Although that is the goal of the book, the focus is far more on Mare’s psychological distress as she attempts to come to terms with what she has experienced as well as what is expected of her.  The title is clearly a metaphor for Mare; she is a weapon, but is very fragile and could easily be shattered.  In this respect, Glass Sword is faintly reminiscent of Catching Fire or Mockingjay which also deals with the protagonist’s PTSD.

What I liked

Vulnerable protagonist.  I enjoyed that the main character is struggling to deal emotionally with the situation in which she finds herself – it feels more realistic and relatable that young teens who seem to breeze through their crises.  Mare’s psychological trauma was well written and was a natural and logical progression of her circumstances.

Some interesting plot developments.  There were a few plot developments in the novel which were unexpected and reengaged my attention at times when it was flagging.  

Strong premise.  I really enjoyed the main premise and worldbuilding in Aveyard’s world.  The Red/Silver conflict and the addition of the newbloods made for gripping reading.

What I didn’t like

Bland characters.  Yes, I know I said that Mare’s vulnerability made her more interesting, but despite that, the characters in Glass Sword are still rather bland, typical YA heroes/heroines.  Perhaps I am being unfair here; I have just started A Gathering of Shadows by Victoria Schwab and within a few paragraphs, Lila Bard had already leapt out of the page and had me completely engaged in her story in a way that Mare never did. 

New characters not fully developed.  Some interesting new characters were introduced in Glass Sword such as Nanny, Cameron and Nix, but none of them were given enough page space to be developed fully.  That is perhaps due to the first person point of view and Mare’s own emotional struggles, but I would have liked to have seen it handled better.

Despite these issues, I did enjoy Glass Sword and gave it three and a half stars out of five.  I will probably read the final book whenever it comes out.

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Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard – Review was originally published on Canadian eReader