Staff Reviews

Tessa’s New Book Review: City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett misses the high mark

In 2014 Robert Jackson Bennett published City of Stairs, an amazingly drawn and vivid world build with a story that was equal parts fantasy, mystery, espionage and character studies. The plotting was well-paced and intriguing, with multiple storylines that are clearly defined while still unfinished at the end of the first book. city-stairsAfter finishing City of Stairs, I knew I would want to follow the great characters in the next entry, City of Blades.

Unfortunately, Bennett’s second book almost goes out of its way to earn the term sophomoric. While entertaining, the book is predictable, the characters somewhat stiff, and the plot so much less than amazing. I enjoyed the main character, General Turyin Mulaghesh, yet I felt her role was more narrator than actual participant in the events. The book lacked the mesmerizing quality of the first, partly because we already know what to expect of the continent and its dead

Also, I missed the first book’s main character, Shara Thivani, and was saddened by the few glimpses of her we were given. For her to survive the huge difficulties in the first book just to be found weary, harried, and cornered as she is in this one was a severe disappointment. I can only hang on to small threads of interest, believing that Bennett will bring her back in the third book, as canny and fortuitously prescient as ever.

Finally, and this is a warning to the sensitive, I rate this one as extremely violent. The violence is intensely graphic, as well, and several times there were anachronistic fighting methods and means. The author uses some of these to make very pointed analogs to recent Middle Eastern involvements by the US. They caught me by surprise and ruined the reading for a while. I had to get my head around these, fume about it for a while, then get back to the book. Not that I disagreed with him, not sure about that, just that they were so blatant in the middle of a good story. Quite jarring.

All in all, a pretty good read, but very disappointing in light of the first, masterpiece that it was. If he follows the usual arc, the next one will be better albeit still not equal to the first. But I’ll be waiting for it. Recommended, but with several reservations. ~ Tessa March 2016 3.5 out of 5 stars

Tessa Recommends Entertaining Biography–Born Round: the secret history of a full-time eater by Frank Bruni

Unlikely as it seems, a food memoir by a gay man is one of my favorite reads recently. I picked it up towards fulfilling a reading challenge list, and I immediately found Born Round engaging, funny, refreshing, and fascinating. Frank Bruni was born to an Italian environment that encouraged family, food, and festive times. Frank took to that enthusiastically, and his mother noticed pretty early that little Frank loved his food. His appetite launched the odyssey of a man not much younger than myself who endured years of secret trauma obsessing over his weight.

The Brunis were very competitive, and that helped Frank throughout his life. From high school swimming champion to Outward Bound to a Morehead Scholarship at UNC Chapel Hill and beyond, Frank worked hard. Unfortunately, he did that in private, too, using Metamucil, speed and purging to keep the weight off.

His will and drive take him beyond his weight, however, from the Detroit Free Press, to the NYT reporter assigned to the Bush presidential campaign, to Rome as bureau chief, and finally back to NYC as the New York Times’ restaurant critic. The disguises and efforts needed to outwit the restaurateurs are hilarious and amazing. Who knew?

Don’t read this expecting outrageous behavior or graphic scenes (except for the food)—Bruni has dignity, discretion, and is most kind. He is proud to treat wait staff well in a restaurant; he does the same to friends and partners throughout this biography.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t funny or captivating! Fun ranges from descriptions of one roommate who yells out the apartment window for his cat and kills the aquarium crayfish for murdering the fish, to Bruni and his sister harassing their mom with fictional book titles such as “My Mother and Other Christian Martyrs.” But most of all, this is a book about food and Bruni’s obsessions with it. Most people will find much to enjoy here.

Frank Bruni takes you on adventures into his Italian upbringing, across the globe, and into the streets with this embodiment of what it means to be a journalist and a food critic. Highly recommended. ~Tessa 4 stars out of 5 February 2016

New fantasy novels mirror old: like an old mirror with the paint backing chipping off










Queen of the Tearling, Blood Song, The Goblin Emperor, Traitor Baru Cormorant, The Red Queen…are all kind of the same. Substitute a young boy given to a brutal school; for a goblin, abused from childhood and suddenly thrust into the role of emperor; for a new queen, young and bereaved, but with amazing powers; for a savant lesbian imperial accountant ripped from her family; for…some other young adult embroiled in an alien world of political intrigue, conspiracy, and rebellion.

These are all well-written: some better, some worse. But I really couldn’t find much to choose between them. I wanted to, but they are mostly echoes of each other and of masters who have gone before. Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish series, Cherryh’s Foreigner series, Dune, Brandon Sanderson, and others have done all these things before, and, usually, with more imagination, better writing and exquisite creations.

Of the five new ones mentioned above, I think that Traitor Baru Cormorant and Blood Song are the best. The others weren’t too far behind. For most originality, I would have to go with Blood Song or possibly The Goblin Emperor.


The Goblin Emperor really failed, however, to make the most of its uniqueness. Here’s hoping Addison’s next book will discover the rich potential of her emperor. Traitor Baru Cormorant shocked me, but I think I must not have been paying attention—any reader ofDune should be well prepared for this book’s ending, if they don’t give up out of boredom during the battles. I know, it’s hard to believe, but the battles became quite tedious. Fantasy and science fiction is supposed to be edgy and original, not emulative and old hat. New worlds, not old tropes. Give Blood Song by Anthony Ryan and Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson a try, but the rest are simply optional. ~Tessa Various ratings March 2016

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