Here There Be Dragons

Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen

An unusual murder brings together three strangers, John, Jack, and Charles, on a rainy night in London during the first World War. An eccentric little man called Bert tells them that they are now the caretakers of the Imaginarium Geographica — an atlas of all the lands that have ever existed in myth and legend, fable and fairy tale. These lands, Bert claims, can be traveled to in his ship the Indigo Dragon, one of only seven vessels that is able to cross the Frontier between worlds into the Archipelago of Dreams.

Pursued by strange and terrifying creatures, the companions flee London aboard the Dragonship. Traveling to the very realm of the imagination itself, they must learn to overcome their fears and trust in one another if they are to defeat the dark forces that threaten the destiny of two worlds.

I met the author of this book (and the subsequent other titles in the Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica series) a few years ago at Superstars Writing Seminars in Colorado Springs. I’ve heard the story of this book’s publication a few times and it never fails to both impress and move me to tears. But only recently did I get around to reading the first book in the series.

It proved to be another perfect quarantine pick. Imaginative, fun, charming – the perfect antidote to long days of worry about the world, cabin fever, and growing wanderlust.

To me, Here, There Be Dragons is a wonderful nod to classic children’s fantasy by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carrol, L. Frank Baum, and many others. I admit to not being super well-versed in all of the classic children’s fantasy titles – I’ve never read A Wrinkle in Time or A Wizard of Earthsea. But I’ve read enough to say that if you enjoyed the above authors and their stories, you will love this book. Even as an adult coming to this series for the first time, I found much to love here and knew I would have been obsessed with this series as a kid.

Growing up, we had a small, highly-stylized globe that bore the inscription “here, there be dragons.” I love that this series used this classic cartographic feature as a jumping off point – that “here, there be dragons” literally means, dragons, and also that sailing into uncharted waters brings you a world of myth and magic and fantasy – and also dragons.  I don’t want to reveal a few of the twists that occur in the story, but I will say they were all absolutely delightful and everything I could have hoped for and more.

Finally, it should be noted that the author is a supremely talented illustrator and both the cover and the artwork inside the book (there’s an illustration that heads each chapter) are the work of the author.

I am looking forward to acquiring the next volumes in the series and continuing on with the Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica!

The Diviners

The Diviners by Libba Bray

Evie O’Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City—and she is pos-i-tute-ly ecstatic. It’s 1926, and New York is filled with speakeasies, Ziegfeld girls, and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is that she has to live with her uncle Will and his unhealthy obsession with the occult.

Evie worries he’ll discover her darkest secret: a supernatural power that has only brought her trouble so far. But when the police find a murdered girl branded with a cryptic symbol and Will is called to the scene, Evie realizes her gift could help catch a serial killer.

As Evie jumps headlong into a dance with a murderer, other stories unfold in the city that never sleeps. A young man named Memphis is caught between two worlds. A chorus girl named Theta is running from her past. A student named Jericho hides a shocking secret. And unknown to all, something dark and evil has awakened.

I loved Libbra Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty series when it came out, but I haven’t really kept up with her other books over the years. I can’t remember if I found The Diviners series because I stumbled on the series while looking for comp titles on Amazon or an IG post from author Roshani Chokshi inspired me to check out, but both together ultimately motivated me to order the first book in the series.

I usually keep my reviews on Isle of Books positive these days and only review books I thoroughly enjoyed. And I DID thoroughly enjoyed this one, but I have to say I did not like the way Evie spoke. I DO think her voice is very true to the time…I just personally don’t like the way people spoke at that time in American history. I find it grating and I have a hard time watching old movies for the same reason. So while I’m commenting on this to say that the main character does have a distinctive voice that didn’t appeal to me…the story and series is so darn good and intriguing I read it anyway. And I already bought the next book. That should give you an idea of how strong I think this book is overall that I’m still recommending it despite having a personal beef with the main character’s voice!

This book does an excellent job laying the groundwork for what I think will be a unique, immersive, and addicting series. The first book is rather lengthy, but it does an extraordinary amount of world-building, introduces us to a big cast of characters, opens the door to what I think will be a series-spanning arc of solving a cataclysmic problem, and combines the best of many different genres into one neat package (History! Paranormal! Horror! Mystery! Young Adult! Steampunk!) The Diviners feels like the start to a boldly ambitious series and I. Am. Here. For. It.

I will note that I’m not a big fan of horror because I’m easily scared…and this book creeped me out in places. It’s definitely on the more horror-y side of things. And still I kept going because I was intrigued by the characters and the story, both the plot that spans the pages of The Diviners and the larger plot that we just get a taste of in this book.

As I mentioned above, I already bought the second book in the series and am excited to dive back into this quartet of books!

The Girl With No Face

The Girl With No Face by M.H. Borosan

It’s the end of the Nineteenth Century. San Francisco’s cobblestone streets are haunted, but Chinatown has an unlikely protector in a young Daoist priestess named Li-lin. Using only her martial arts training, spiritual magic, a sword made from peachwood, and the walking, talking spirit of a human eye, Li-lin stands alone to defend her immigrant community from supernatural threats.

But when the body of a young girl is brought to the deadhouse Li-lin oversees for a local group of gangsters, she faces her most bewildering—and potentially dangerous—assignment yet. The nine-year-old has died from suffocation . . . specifically by flowers growing out of her nose and mouth. Li-lin suspects Gong Tau, a dirty and primitive form of dark magic. But who is behind the spell, and why, will take her on a perilous journey deep into a dangerous world of ghosts and spirits.

Not too long ago I raved about how much I enjoyed The Girl With Ghost Eyes. Well, The Girl With No Face managed to be even BETTER.

The second in the Daoshi Chronicles series, The Girl With No Face took everything that I loved about the first book and paired it with even stronger character development for Li-Lin and other returning characters. In particular (and this is a slight spoiler) the relationship between Li-lin and her father is a standout in this book.

What this series does really well I think (but it often isn’t mentioned in reader reviews and I didn’t mention this myself when I reviewed the first book) is it presents a strong female character that also feels contextualized to her time and culture. So yes Li-lin is a kickass heroine, but she doesn’t feel wildly anachronistic. She feels like she belongs in 1899 San Francisco and that makes her struggles and character development feel believable. There are also some nice gendered cultural touchstones in this book that are very, very well done (in particular, a conversation about foot binding and a conversation about why Li-lin’s father wanted a boy, not a girl).

The other thing it does well is present Chinese culture in a way that doesn’t feel Westernized or watered down. I would say I have an above-average knowledge of China, her history, and her culture (compared to the average American which is, I know, a super low bar), but a lot of the stories, figures, and cultural practices are things I’ve never heard of or even have the glimmer of a memory that maybe I learned about it in the past. Obviously I can’t comment on the accuracy of everything that’s used, but wow am I learning a lot by reading this series.

If you liked, but didn’t love the first book in the series, I would recommend continuing on to this one because it raised the bar on the series and I’m very, very excited for the next to come out (whenever that is).

The only thing I actually don’t like about The Daoshi Chronicles series is that I’m discovering this when it’s only two books deep. I could use about ten more of these right now haha.

I also want to note this series would be a great quarantine choice. They’re fun, fast-paced, magical, transportive, non-depressing, and they’ll teach you something if you’re open to learning, but you’re not at all required to do deep, meditative thinking.

 

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

I first saw mention of The Ten Thousand Doors of January online, but it really piqued my interest when I visited Mysterious Galaxy bookstore last summer and saw it on the shelf as a staff pick. I still didn’t buy it, but a few moments after that it was suggested as our February book club pick and I enthusiastically backed it.

I loved, loved, loved this book. The writing is absolutely fantastic. The story rich, detailed, and imaginative. This world is one I hope we get to revisit again and again in subsequent books. It’s no wonder this debut had so much buzz around it and a Hugo and Nebula nomination to back it up! Incredibly well deserved in my opinion.

I don’t want to talk specifics because it’s easy to give away plot twists and the magic of reading this book for the first time. You should really just experience it for yourself. But I will say that if you read the back cover copy and think you know what this book is – you’re wrong. This is a book that surprises just as much as it enchants.

Definitely don’t miss this one!

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

One day, Lori Gottlieb is a therapist who helps patients in her Los Angeles practice. The next, a crisis causes her world to come crashing down. Enter Wendell, the quirky but seasoned therapist in whose office she suddenly lands. With his balding head, cardigan, and khakis, he seems to have come straight from Therapist Central Casting. Yet he will turn out to be anything but.

As Gottlieb explores the inner chambers of her patients’ lives — a self-absorbed Hollywood producer, a young newlywed diagnosed with a terminal illness, a senior citizen threatening to end her life on her birthday if nothing gets better, and a twenty-something who can’t stop hooking up with the wrong guys — she finds that the questions they are struggling with are the very ones she is now bringing to Wendell.

I like getting book recommendations from other people because sometimes it leads to a book I really enjoy that I never would have picked up on my own.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is that book. The premise of “a therapist, her therapist, and our lives” revealed didn’t necessarily hook me. But a strong recommendation led to me opening up the book and getting hooked on the first few pages.
In her book, Gottlieb not only chronicles her work as a therapist, she tells the story of the evolution of a few different patients and her own time spent in therapy. I think anyone who’s done any type of therapy themselves will appreciate this book, as the actual act of therapy in the book is comfortingly familiar, even if the individual narratives that unfold are not.
I do wonder how Gottlieb went about selecting the patients to include in her book. She did a good job picking a group that had both wildly different issues, but no less engaging personality quirks. In particular the lonely old woman who’s planning to kill herself before her next birthday, the young woman dying of cancer, and the television writer with the asshole personality really stood out to me.
Lori Gottlieb has a really accessible writing style that lends itself well to this type of storytelling. The kind of writing style that manages to be both dense, detailed, and highly engaging. I could have easily read this book in a sitting or two. But since I designated it for my morning reading (I try to read either a chapter or about fifteen minutes of a non-fiction book every morning), I read it in small pieces. Which meant each time I returned to it with a hunger to pick up the threads where I left off. Since the story jumps around in a way that wasn’t always linear, it meant I often had to read through chapters to get back to where I “left off” with a person to see what happens next for them. This didn’t bother me, but it might bother some people.
I would definitely recommend this book to someone looking for a new memoir-type read that is addictive and engaging. It’s definitely not a beach read as this book did make me cry in a few spots, but it’s a great book to get lost in and help you emerge with a more nuanced, considerate view of those people in your life you have written off as damaged or difficult.
As the saying goes, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

I am a big fan of the Russian classics. I’ve read a good amount of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chesnokov. I even took a Russian literature class in college focused exclusively on Chesnokov. So in my opinion, The Bear and the Nightingale is everything you love (or maybe love to hate?) about the Russian classics, reimagined for the modern reader.

The Bear and the Nightingale is an incredibly atmospheric novel. It puts you deep into the snows of rural Russia, into a world where Christianity is warring with the old gods and old traditions. Where patriarchy is alive and well and women have little choices beyond marriage or taking the veil. In the midst of this is Vasilisa – Vasya. A strong-willed teenage girl with witchy magic who’ll do whatever it takes to save the ones she loves.

As I mentioned, this novel is incredibly atmospheric and feels like an old Russian novel reincarnated. That means the story at times is languid and utterly unhurried. The names are very Russian and difficult to follow if you’re not familiar with patronymics and the many, many nicknames each person accrues over a lifetime. But the writing is stunningly beautiful, the plot concept inventive, the setting immersive, and Vasya absolutely the kind of heroine you can root for. Also, can we talk about the gorgeous cover art?!

The first of three books, I have the sense that The Bear and the Nightingale may serve as a lengthy prologue for the story Arden is weaving. At the end of this first book, most plot points are not so much resolved as they are cracked open. A door to the real story Arden wishes to tell. I am looking forward to reading the next two books in the Winternighttrilogy and seeing if my prediction is correct!

Have you read the Russian classics? Have you read The Bear and the Nightingale? Let me know what you think below!

The Girl With Ghost Eyes

The Girl With Ghost Eyes by M.H. Borosan

It’s the end of the nineteenth century in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and ghost hunters from the Maoshan traditions of Daoism keep malevolent spiritual forces at bay. Li-lin, the daughter of a renowned Daoshi exorcist, is a young widow burdened with yin eyes—the unique ability to see the spirit world. Her spiritual visions and the death of her husband bring shame to Li-lin and her father—and shame is not something this immigrant family can afford.

When a sorcerer cripples her father, terrible plans are set in motion, and only Li-lin can stop them. To aid her are her martial arts and a peachwood sword, her burning paper talismans, and a wisecracking spirit in the form of a human eyeball tucked away in her pocket. Navigating the dangerous alleys and backrooms of a male-dominated Chinatown, Li-lin must confront evil spirits, gangsters, and soulstealers before the sorcerer’s ritual summons an ancient evil that could burn Chinatown to the ground.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been on the hunt for possible comp titles for Shadow of the Magician in historical fiction. That means I’ve been deep diving on Amazon and Goodreads to find atypical novels of historical fiction to read and consider.

Of course, saying The Girl With Ghost Eyes is an atypical novel is the understatement of the decade. The Girl With Ghost Eyes is a wonderfully weird, intoxicating blend of Chinese myths and legends, ghosts, kung fu, and female empowerment set in San Francisco’s Chinatown at the turn of the 20th century.

This book was a fun ride from start to finish. I had to put it down when I went to Colorado for Christmas since I chose to bring (and finish!) Kingdom of Ash instead, but once I was back home, I could scarcely stop reading it. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read and is absolutely delightful. I really hope someone makes it into a movie or tv show in the near future.

But aside from being a lot of fun, the history feels real, visceral, and well-researched. Reading through the author’s note at the back, I get the sense the author knows his stuff and so bends the facts of history/story/culture with a careful, precise hand to tell this compelling story.

I’ve already picked up the second book in the series to read, The Girl With No Face, which just came out in October. I’m looking forward to tucking into that as well, though after that’s done I’ll be stuck waiting for the next one to come out!

Kingdom of Ash

Kingdom of Ash (Throne of Glass #7) by Sarah J. Maas

Aelin Galathynius has vowed to save her people―but at a tremendous cost. Locked within an iron coffin by the Queen of the Fae, Aelin must draw upon her fiery will as she endures months of torture. The knowledge that yielding to Maeve will doom those she loves keeps her from breaking, but her resolve is unraveling with each passing day…

With Aelin captured, friends and allies are scattered to different fates. Some bonds will grow even deeper, while others will be severed forever. As destinies weave together at last, all must fight if Erilea is to have any hope of salvation.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit how long it took me to finish this book.
A LOT embarrassed actually.

I started the book after I got it in October 2018 and finished it….on the last day of 2019.

Yes, it took me over a year to finish this book.

No, it wasn’t because I didn’t like it. I think it was partly not wanting to finish the series, partly the fact the book was almost a thousand pages long, and partly because Sarah J. Maas’ writing often makes me stay up reading way past my bedtime. Since sleep was at a premium this year, I didn’t often pick up Kingdom of Ash to read before bed.

But I DID finish it.

And I loved it. It was a great end to the series and I was utterly satisfied with the way all the major storylines and arcs wrapped up. It’s a big job, concluding a series this large and sprawling. But Sarah J. Maas delivered!

If you’re on the fence about starting this series, I recommend giving it a try if you can commit to reading the first three books before stopping. The third book is where the story really took off for me personally and from that point forward, I knew I’d be finishing the series. It is a lot of books and a lot of pages, but it’s worth it. There’s a reason so many people are obsessed with this series!

2019 in Review

This year I read a grand total of fourteen books. Fourteen! So while I am sticking with the same year-end format I’ve used every year since I started this blog way back in 2011(!), for some categories I chose not to give an answer because I had so few options I felt like my answers would become default answers.

I had a tough year on a lot of levels and since I usually read before bed, a lot of that time got ditched for actual sleep. Which is very important! But little reading happened this year as a result.

Maybe unsurprising though. Whenever I have a major life change to deal with, I pretty much stop reading while I try to figure my life out. So I’m hoping that 2020 is the year things will get a bit back to normal! I’m setting my goal for 2020 at 24 books…a modest two books a month!

Here’s to a New Year and a new decade!!

HOW MANY BOOKS READ IN 2018?

–14 books

FICTION/NON-FICTION?

–  10  Fiction /    4 Non-Fiction

MALE/FEMALE AUTHORS?

–    6  Male /   10 Female

OLDEST BOOK READ?

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936)

NEWEST BOOK READ?

Kado: Lost Treasure of the Kadohadacho by E. Russell Braziel (November 2019)

LONGEST BOOK READ?

Kingdom of Ash by Sarah J. Maas (984 pages)

SHORTEST BOOK READ?

Saved as Draft by N.D. Chan (123 pages)

ANY IN TRANSLATION?

Not this year!

BEST BOOK READ IN 2019?

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

MOST BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN BOOK IN 2019?

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

MOST SURPRISING (IN A GOOD WAY!) BOOK OF 2019?

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. I didn’t know at all what to expect, but I really enjoyed it and got captivated by the writing style.

MOST THRILLING, UNPUTDOWNABLE BOOK IN 2019?

Kingdom of Ash by Sarah J. Maas

BOOK THAT HAD THE GREATEST IMPACT ON ME IN 2019?

BOOK THAT HAD A SCENE IN IT THAT HAD ME REELING?

Several in Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson and Kingdom of Ash

BOOK I MOST ANTICIPATED IN 2019?

MOST MEMORABLE CHARACTER IN 2019?

Lee Westfall in Walk on Earth a Stranger and all the main characters in Kingdom of Ash.

HOW MANY RE-READS IN 2019?

None

BOOK I READ IN 2019 I’D BE MOST LIKELY TO REREAD IN 2020?

BOOK I RECOMMENDED TO PEOPLE MOST IN 2019?

The Rules of Civility to everyone who liked A Gentleman in Moscow

FAVORITE NEW AUTHORS I DISCOVERED IN 2019?

Rae Carson!

MOST BOOKS READ BY ONE AUTHOR THIS YEAR?

FAVORITE COVER OF A BOOK I READ IN 2019?

FAVORITE PASSAGE/QUOTE FROM A BOOK I READ IN 2019?

“If we only fell in love with people who were perfect for us…then there wouldn’t be so much fuss about love in the first place.” – Amor Towles, The Rules of Civility

“People value shiny stones and lucky charms, but they forget that the most powerful talismans of all are the stories that we tell to ourselves and to others.” – Kate Morton, The Clockmaker’s Daughter

DID I COMPLETE ANY READING CHALLENGES OR GOALS IN 2019?

Not even close!

BOOK I CAN’T BELIEVE I WAITED UNTIL 2019 TO FINALLY READ?

Kingdom of Ash because I actually started it when it came out in 2018…yes that is crazy, I KNOW. Full review for the book and why it took me so long to actually finish it coming soon!

Walk on Earth a Stranger

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

Lee Westfall has a strong, loving family. She has a home she loves and a loyal steed. She has a best friend—who might want to be something more.

She also has a secret.

Lee can sense gold in the world around her. Veins deep in the earth. Small nuggets in a stream. Even gold dust caught underneath a fingernail. She has kept her family safe and able to buy provisions, even through the harshest winters. But what would someone do to control a girl with that kind of power? A person might murder for it.

When everything Lee holds dear is ripped away, she flees west to California—where gold has just been discovered. Perhaps this will be the one place a magical girl can be herself. If she survives the journey.

I’ve been interested in reading this series ever since I first heard the premise. But I moved it up many spaces on the TBR list after I decided it might possibly be a comp title for my book.

As a nineties kid who remembers playing Oregon Trail on the school computer, I really enjoyed this book. While not about the Oregon Trail, the plot follows Lee as she navigates a dangerous cross-country migration from her home in Georgia to California, the land of gold and plenty. The story is immersive, full of rich details, and peril around every corner. The fact that this historical fiction story has a touch of magic to it is just icing on the cake.

Lee is a great heroine: tough, smart, and willing to do whatever it takes to save herself and those she loves. It’s no surprise to me that this book was nominated for and won several awards. Lee is exactly the type of female character we still need more of in young adult literature. Not a spoiler per se, but for a section of the book, Lee travels alone with only her horse and a gun to protect her. If that’s not the type of kick-ass woman our kids and teens need to be reading, I don’t know what is!

If you’re looking to pick up a young adult book that doesn’t make use of the “chosen one” trope – this one is for you. Yes, there’s magic, but only a touch. It’s not history-inspired fantasy or alternate history. It’s just a great work of historical fiction that happens to have a bit of magic to it.