Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Year I Met Critical Role; or: How I Fell in Love with D&D and Why My TBR Hated Me In 2017.

So I haven't properly reviewed anything in a loooong time.  2017 was *not* a great reading year for me, and here's why.

Last February, I discovered something that absolutely decimated my 2017 TBR before it even got off the ground. It's a "little bitty" web series in which a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors play Dungeons and Dragons...and I spent the rest of February through early October binging 115+ episodes averaging about 3 and a half hours in length...and loving every minute of it.

(Fair warning. This post will be completely full of CR and other nerdy gifs. I'm sorry not sorry in advance).

Since this group has been streaming their game for about 3 years now, I had a LOT to catch up on.  But this also means that I watched over 400 hours of a group of people I don't know playing D&D in less than a year, which not only cemented my eternal love for and undying loyalty to the fandom and community, but also made me want to play ALL OF THE DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS.

I sometimes feel awkward with certain aspects of my geekery.  For the most part I let my nerd flag fly and often, but secretly I've held in my heart a desire for more, and always considered D&D to be one of those *super* geeky things that only the *REALLY* hard-core peeps go in for, but also one of those things that I always kind of wanted to learn how to play (MtG being another, and also LARP. I WANT TO FREAKING LARP, OK?!).  

So when I clicked on Episode 82 of Critical Role when it popped up on my YouTube subscription list one night when I had run out of videos on my "Watch Later" playlist, I didn't really know what to expect.  I think that the typical person's expectation of Dungeons and Dragons is the stereotypical Stranger Things-style scene: basement-inhabiting pre-pubescent boys who are so socially awkward that they choose to pretend they're in another world fighting monsters instead of going to the Snow Ball.

This wasn't like that at all. This was grown-ass ADULTS (in my age range and older) letting the world see what they had so far only been doing at home--imagining and acting out existence in another world, fighting monsters and becoming heroes.  I mean, they were (spoilers) FIGHTING A FREAKING DRAGON (end spoilers) for goodness' sake!  There were miniatures, and little stands to show depth (because some of the characters were FLYING),  and players who not only clearly loved their characters but were passionate about the story (and are some pretty amazing actors, to boot).  I realized about an hour and a half in that it had started 82 episodes ago, and I 100% needed to stop watching this episode RIGHT NOW and go right back to the beginning.

Now, to those who aren't into things like this, the idea of D&D (and rpgs in general) may seem a little strange or escapist, but for a reader like me who intakes approximately 85% fantasy literature (and let's be honest here, it's probably closer to 95%), this was like taking my favorite books one huge step further.

Have you ever read a book and wanted to be a character in the world or story? (I know for a fact if you're into Harry Potter, you TOTALLY want this. The Wizarding World? Your Hogwarts House, wand core, and Patronus? I mean, COME ON, RIGHT!?)  DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS CAN DO THAT FOR YOU, MAN.  I literally just straight-up ripped off the character Elora Danan from the 80's movie Willow, and created a character based on what I think she would have been like grown up (Human Warlock with a Fae Pact, just like in the movie, amiright?)

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Critical Role looks a little like this:

When I tried to explain to my befuddled sister what I was watching, I described it like this: Critical Role is like a really amazing and detailed audiobook that comes with a different voice for every character and also real-time reactions of those involved in the story.  Basically, if you combined an audio book and a live-action movie, just with fewer visual sets and more going on in your imagination.  From the outside, it's watching people sitting at a table, occasionally using props and minis, but mostly just talking.  From the outside, it seems like it could be fairly boring if you just walked by someone else watching. But oh, man.  It really is so much better than that. It makes me feel ALL OF THE FEELS--everything ranging from stress and sadness (so much sadness) to hilarity and elation (so much hilarity--both in story and out).  

So for me, the natural progression here (which I reached about halfway through my year-long binge) was to try and find some way--ANY way, really--to play D&D myself.  When searching through some online venues led to nothing I felt super comfortable with as a new player, I enlisted my sister and some friends who seemed willing to play.  Since I had the most "experience" with the game, it sort of fell to me to step into the roll of DM (dungeon master, or dungeon mistress, if you want, I guess). We play Sunday evenings and after a few different random one-off adventures, I think we're ready to start an actual campaign (which I am STOKED about!).  

But seriously, after watching the amazing adventures of the Vox Machina crew, how could I not want to play? I mean, there's:



Pretty much all girl could ever want, basically.

As of January 8th, they've started a new campaign, with all new characters (which I adore so far), a new setting, and new intriguing storyline created by Matt Mercer, who is probably one of the world's most fantastic DMs.

In the meantime, while I was going on an adventure or two, my 2017 Goodreads goal--initially at a low-for-me 80 books, had to be pared down to 60, which I only *just* managed to squeeze in right before the ball dropped on New Year's Eve.

The good news is that since I'm now caught up to the livestreamed episodes, I can take my viewing time down to 1 episode a week, and catch up on all of the books I *haven't* been reading, and all the reviews I most definitely have NOT been writing.  

That being said, I am going to try to make it my goal to write at least one review a week.  This may not work out super well, as I tend to read at pretty erratic paces (for example: I had read 3 books by the 7th of January and then have been reading the book I started after that for WEEKS now), and so I may not have a book newly finished to review, but I will certainly try to stay consistent with posting.

*That* being said, 

Friday, September 1, 2017

Book Review: Toward a Secret Sky by Heather Maclean

**I received an e-ARC of this book from NetGalley for review**

What it's about: 
     Soon after Maren Hamilton is orphaned and sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Scotland, she receives a strange journal that reveals a secret about her parents--they were part of a mysterious international organization that now wants to recruit her.  When strange things begin happening to the animals and then the people in the small Scottish town, she and a strange warrior called Gavin work together to uncover the mystery and fight to find a cure to the strange ailment that is running rampant across the countryside.

What I thought:
     Firstly, I think this story did have a LOT of potential, and toward the end of the book, I was a little more involved in the story and what was happening.  The landscape and the place where Gavin lives is such a neat idea, and the whole connection thing was also really cool. 

     However, one thing that put a wrench in my enjoyment was that it felt like the characters were more concerned with the romance of the story than the actual problem in the story.  Like...creepy zombie demon people are coming after you, and you're worried about whether or not you're falling in love with this dude who clearly knows more about this situation than he is letting on!?! GET AHOLD OF YOURSELF, WOMAN!  It felt rushed and kind of fake, and a little Edward Cullen-esque with the whole "Let me watch over you while you sleep, girl. But I have to be on your roof, because we can't fall in love and CLEARLY if I'm in the room while you sleep, that means we're gonna fall in love?"
     Don't get me wrong. Once the actual action started and more of the mystery unraveled, I got more invested and involved with the story.  The ending was probably my favorite part, because it set up some really interesting events to come in the next book.

Overall, I didn't love this book, but I thought there were some decent parts and I will probably read the next one to see what happens next!

Rating: 3.5 stars.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Book Review: A Million Junes by Emily Henry

What it's about:
     Ever since Jack O'Donnell IV can remember, her parents have warned her to stay away from the Angerts.  Their families are linked from way back, and when members of each clan cross paths, bad things happen.  Like her father's mysterious and sudden death.
     When Jack (known also as June, Junior, JuneBug, etc) runs into Saul, the youngest member of the Angert family (who has been gone from town for years), she expects the worst--but nothing bad seems to happen.
     As the two grow closer, the magic of the O'Donnell's family farm and the mystery surrounding the curse shared by their families is slowly revealed--changing what they thought they knew about their entire lives.

What I thought:
     I ADORED this book.  The first thing I thought when I started reading about June's dad and his stories was the movie Big Fish--a dad who tells these really crazy magical stories like they actually happened--and maybe they did, maybe they didn't happen the way he says.  This book is what you would get if you took Big Fish, Romeo and Juliet, and the Hatfields and McCoys, stuck them in a blender, poured them into a glass, and sprinkled them with a bit more magic. And I couldn't be more pleased with this strange combination.

     The writing in this book is poetic and beautiful and very dreamlike--while also staying true to the story of June in the present. It kept me completely riveted and wanting to know more. I read Emily Henry's previous book, "The Love That Split The World", which I liked, but I really loved this one so much more.
     The entire first half of the book--as I fell in love with the characters and the strange circumstances surrounding this big DO NOT GO NEAR THE ANGERTS mystery--I kept waiting for something truly awful to happen.  That feeling of dread *almost* hindered my capacity to become entirely smitten with Saul (kudos to the author, by the way, for making the name Saul seem super attractive in this day and age), but I was able to overcome and totally got into the romance that blooms between the children of the warring families.

     Once the mystery begins to be solved, the story takes a real turn emotionally.  From a sweet forbidden romance, it becomes something much deeper in both depth and meaning, leading the characters through the grief they've felt for a decade, and that which has followed both of their families for generations. The writing is *so* poignant and touching, I found myself not sobbing with sadness, but consistently finding tears leaking from my eyes.  My heart ached along with June and Saul as they uncovered more about their family histories in both the present and in the past.

     I don't want to give too much away, because I really think this is one that's better when you go into it not knowing a whole lot of details. I loved trying to guess what was going on and found that a lot of my hunches were correct, which sort of added to the entertainment of reading it!  I will say that this is definitely a book I'm going to be grabbing a hard copy of to take its rightful place on my bookshelf!

Rating: 5 stars.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Book Review: Four Kings by M.D. Elster

Four Kings by M.D. Elster
**This book was provided to me for review through NetGalley**

What it's about:
     Anaïs Reynard wakes up in a 1940's New Orleans sanitorium with no recollection of how she arrived there.  Her doctors tell her she was a witness to the shooting of her stepfather, but she doesn't remember anything from that night.  A young black man has been arrested for the crime and Anaïs is the star witness for the trial, though through the fog of her mind, something tells her he is *not* the shooter.
     One night, a strange encounter with a bizarre fox-like man leads Anaïs to an adventure in another world--one that seems similar to the events occurring in her own.  

What I thought: took me a while to start reading this book.  It took me a little bit less time to get into the story, but oh man, once I did: 

This story is just so....magical. Magical in a very serious and intense way, a la Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.  The different stories (The Land of the Four Kings, Anaïs' past leading up to now, and Anaïs' current amnesia-riddled story) blend together surprisingly well, and I found myself unable to decide which part I was looking most forward to.

The mystery surrounding the stepfather's shooting was fun to try to work out based on the clues Anaïs remembered.  Getting to understand the dynamic between Anaïs and the people in her life based on the memories of her past was really interesting and showed the reader more connections than originally let on.  I enjoy reading about the WWII era so the fact that her early life took place in Europe during this time period was of bonus interest to me.

I think my favorite parts of the story were the scenes that took place in the Land of the Four Kings.  While this story does seem to be akin to stories like Alice in Wonderland or the Wizard of Oz, it definitely has its own flavor, characters, and world.  All of these seem to correspond to the events in Anaïs' own world, but I do think that the Land of the Four Kings could be a place that could stand on its own, and I would love the possibly seeing more of the stories that are still laying in wait in that setting.  

Overall, I would definitely recommend giving this book a read if you enjoy any of the aforementioned stories. It's got a Alice/Dorothy feel set in a strange and sometimes creepy world, but it's definitely worth the reading time!

Rating:   4 stars.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Book Review: Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

What it's about:
     To cope with the death of her mother, Juliet writes letters and leaves them at the cemetery.  When someone (spoiler: it's Declan) finds one of them and writes BACK, she's at first angry, then intrigued.  Thus begins an anonymous correspondence in which the person writing to her may have more in common with Juliet than she thought. Being able to bare all in such a personal yet impersonal way seems to have a strong impact on both parties, but reality has a way of impeding even the most private of exchanges, and secrets start to seep through the cracks and into their real lives.

What I thought:
     I picked this book up at a publisher's booth during BookCon on a whim.  I was with a friend, and when we read the inside cover, it seemed like something we'd like. It also came *highly* praised by the girl who rang us each out a copy.  The plan was to read it together (we do buddy reads all the time).  It had been sitting on my TBR shelf for almost 2 months when the other day my friend texted me, asking if I wanted to start the read. I wasn't super into any of the other books I was reading at the time, and said "Yeah, sure!" 

That was yesterday.  My friend hasn't even started it yet (Sorry, Court. Please forgive me.)

I've been going through a bit of a YA Contemporary Romance phase (yes, it's waaay out of my comfort zone--the proof is in my "Read" list).  So when I grabbed this one off my shelf last night and reread the jacket info, it was like...fate.  I had just run out of the few YACR books that were in my radar, and suddenly, without even knowing it, my past self went and bought my present self a...present.

That's exactly what this book was for me.  Don't get me wrong--this book is pretty emotionally rough to get through most of the time--the main characters are heartbroken and hurt and hiding that fact from most of the people in their lives.  When they get a chance to anonymously open up and spill each of their secrets, it feels a little like a hand reaching into your chest and squeezing really hard.  The emotions come through vividly and feel very very real.  

I'm not going to lie--this book overall probably won't make you feel very good.  Parts of it are cute, and feel pretty good, but it's decidedly *not* your typical cutesy YACR.  But the growth that Juliet and Declan go through to get to the ending is raw and authentic and gripping.  If I hadn't had to do life things like...sleep and work, I would have downed this thing in one sitting.

I'm not saying it didn't have a few downfalls. The characters themselves can get a bit cliched and some of the scenarios were a tad dramatic, but when they're stuck into the story and given these huge impactful backstories and really great secondary characters (my complete and utter favorite being Rev, Declan's best friend), all that cliche and drama seems a bit *less* cliche and more on the "Oh ow, that hurts. This isn't even happening to ME, why do I feel this pain?" side of things.  

Honestly, my biggest problem with this book will be deciding how to reorganize my "favorites" shelf to fit this one in.  


Rating:  5 stars.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Book Review: Etched in Bone by Anne Bishop

What it's about:
     The fifth and final book in the Others series, this book follows the paring down of human civilization and the small factors that help the Elders decide how much human they really want to keep in Thaisia.  Meg, Simon, and the beloved cast of terra indigene and human packs in and around the Lakeside Courtyard must deal with a threat much closer to hearth and home than they ever have before--and how they react will impact the entire world.

What I thought:
     I completely and utterly adore this series, and this last book was no exception.  The Others of the Lakeside Courtyard have become some of my favorite characters of all time, and the way they learn to deal with and adapt for the "good" humans just makes me so happy.  The characters have evolved in more ways than one and they and the story are just written *so well* that it feels like this could be a real world with real consequences.

I don't want to go too far without a spoiler warning, but if you are at all interested in reading a fantastic urban fantasy of the shifter vein, give this series a try. It has become one of my favorites and now holds a prized spot on my bookshelves!

Spoilers follow, because I can't help but mention some of my favorite parts.

  • Meg yells at the Elders in the Courtyard for being rude puppies and demanding wolf cookies.
  • The Wolves catching a giant turkey for the human pack, and delivering it still warm, resulting in:
  • The Human/Wolf potluck dinner and:

I have to stop reading on the train.

Rating: 5 stars.

Book Review: Geekerella by Ashley Posten

**This ARC was provided through NetGalley for an honest review--Thanks NetGalley!**

What it's about:
     Geekerella is a modern-day retelling of the classic Cinderella fairytale, but with a massively geeky twist.  Elle Wittimer is a super fan of  Starfield, the show her dad introduced her to as a kid. Her fandom is thrown into chaos when teen heartthrob Darien Freeman is cast in the lead male role in the film reboot of the beloved show.  When a cosplay contest is announced at the Starfield convention, Elle sees it as her chance to get away from the horrible stepmother and bratty stepsisters who have ruined her life.

What I thought:
     This book made my geek heart happy.  If at least part of it takes place at a convention, I'm sold.  Even better, when the show is made up but sounds like something I'd DEFINITELY be into (think Star Wars/Star Trek/Battlestar Galactica vein), and the fandom sounds like the fandoms I'm in? Done and done!

One of my favorite parts of this book was that even though it's clearly a retelling when you stop to think about it, the story was so engaging and really delved so deep into the lore and obsessions of the Starfield fandom that I often found myself forgetting that it was also Cinderella.  

Don't get me wrong--if retellings are your thing, this doesn't disappoint.  Downtrodden but still hopeful main character, dreamy prince, a few different characters that could be considered "fairy godmothers", and an evil, awful stepmother who, to be honest, rivals the OG stepmother, Lady Tremaine.  

Throw in a few mysterious text conversations, some of the prince's POV, and a cosplay ball to end all cosplay balls, this book was an imaginative and unique retelling that is sure to grab readers of retellings, convention-goers, and good old fashioned fairy tale lovers.

Rating: 4.5 stars (Reach for the stars...aim...IGNITE!)