Slightly Subpar Sequels

There’s nothing better than getting sucked into a series where you just want to keep reading book after book.  But for every series like Girl of Fire and Thorns, where I found the second book to be a huge improvement on the first, there is also a series where the quality dips after the first, or the story goes off in a completely different direction.  I read a couple of books recently that, while perfectly fine books, did not live up to their predecessors in my mind.

36300671

Dragonshadow

By Elle Katharine White

I enjoyed the initial book Heartstone (billed as Pride and Prejudice with dragons) earlier this year; however this follow up went in a bit of a different direction and lost my interest.

For a series where the first entry adhered almost completely to the plot points of P&P, the second book takes a hard left and, aside from the characters of the previous book and an occasional “sir,” has no relation to Austen or the Regency whatsoever that I could tell.  The closest connection I could make is Northanger Abbey, both involving a visit to a mysterious house of secrets, but since everything that Aliza imagines at Castle Selwyn is actually true, the lesson seems to have been lost.

As much as I wasn’t crazy about the slavish adherence to P&P in the first book, without the Austen connection the sequel lost one of the things that drew me to the series and became just a decent generic fantasy. (I did like that it incorporates further mythological creatures instead.)  Another issue is that without the P&P backbone, this story is not as tightly plotted and seemed like it was stretched out to make a trilogy. It takes the entire first half of the book for Aliza and Alastair to get where they are going, which seemed like a very slow start to me.

But as a last note, it does take a serious and mature look at some difficult aspects of married life that I think is great for a YA novel to explore.
34499243

Suitors and Sabotage

By Cindy Anstey

This YA Regency intrigue was entertaining but kind of forgettable. I discovered the first two books when I was on a Regency romance kick, and really enjoyed them, but I didn’t really feel anything special about this one. Perhaps the formula is getting old for me? (Though these 3 books are similar, they are more companion novels than a series; there is no overlap in characters and no overarching plotline.)

I think the level of tension and drama was not quite up to the level of the first two books.  For comparison, the first book Love, Lies, and Spies begins with the heroine hanging off a cliff; this one starts with a lovely picnic among some scenic ruins.  It was also less epic in scope, nothing to do with international espionage or even kidnapping, just some vaguely threatening events.

 

Overall, I’d give these two sequels 3/5 stars, while I probably would have rated their predecessors around 4 stars.  While I enjoyed reading them, I doubt I’ll continue with either series, or ever revisit them in the future. On to better books!

Advertisements

Review: The Pillars of the Earth

As an elementary school student, I read a wonderful book called A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver and promptly fell in love with Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Middle Ages, and Abbot Suger’s idea that beautiful things could give glory to God.  In his case, “beautiful things” included the first church in the Gothic style at St. Denis in France in the 1140s.

Segovia Cathedral

I did not get to see Gothic cathedrals myself until many years later, when I first visited Europe as a university student.  I am still mad about them.  I have seen many Gothic churches in several countries (though my favorites are in Spain).

Salamanca’s New Cathedral, late Gothic

From my Spanish art history course, I learned about the architectural transitions from Romanesque to Gothic, then to Plateresque in the late Gothic period and on to the Renaissance.

Ciudad Rodrigo Cathedral, transitioning from Romanesque to Gothic

So it’s no surprise that I would love a novel about the building of a Gothic cathedral. But The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is more than that. This behemoth has hidden depths, and it made its way onto the top 100 list for the Great American Read for a reason.

The novel works on several levels.  At its most basic, it is a family drama, chronicling the struggles and joys of life over several generations.  Tom the builder, his stepson Jack, the earl’s daughter Aliena, and the new earl William all deal with matters of life, love, and death, all watched over by Prior Philip, the leader of the Kingsbridge monks.

The setting of a village in England in the 1100s adds another layer of historical fiction, with such details as how cloth was felted, what people ate and how they celebrated holidays, and the hierarchy in religious institutions like a priory.

Lastly, it fits neatly into the epic narrative of English history, weaving in connections to events of the civil war between Empress Matilda (Maud) and her cousin Stephen, the ascension of Henry II, and the murder of Thomas Beckett.

Sevilla Cathedral

The cathedral itself is particularly interesting.  Each architectural element of the Gothic style is developed and explained organically as the story progresses: the pointed arches, ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, and stained glass windows.

Pillars is inspiring not just because it shows a beautiful creation dedicated to God, but because it also shows that here on Earth, justice is possible and worth fighting for, whether it is the result of a curse by a “witch,” meted out by bishop or king, or at the hands of the mob/public opinion.  Though the Catholic Church obviously features prominently, it is not an overly religious book.  Also, the supernatural and the divine are presented as two sides of the same coin, which feels natural to the time period.

Aix Cathedral, Aix-en-Provence, France

Follett’s prose is not the best I’ve read, but the twists of the story held my attention and kept me on my toes.  I was surprised how invested I got in the details of the story and how all the events stayed with me. I’m sure somebody is going to have problems with the two main female characters, but I liked them both.  I’m looking forward to reading the sequels which take place in the same area, jumping ahead several generations.

Nave of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, modernisme style based in Gothic. Yes, this blog post was just an excuse to post all my pictures of churches.

After all the hours I put into reading this book (for perspective, the audiobook version is about 40 hours long), I can say it was time well spent.  I can easily see why many people name the informative but engaging Pillars of the Earth as one of their favorite novels.  It has certainly stuck with me, and I look forward to continuing with Follett’s Kingsbridge series.

Spring 2019 Reading Wrap-Up

Here are some brief reviews of what I’ve been reading so far this year.

Wayward Children series

Seanan McGuire

25526296The Wayward Children series consists of four novellas, starting with Every Heart a Doorway, which is set in a boarding school for young people who went through various magical doorways to other worlds and then came home again (shades of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland, but with less whimsy and more therapy.)  The other novellas tell a bit more about the adventures of the various characters in the other worlds.  

I tried reading the Hugo-winning Every Heart a Doorway a year ago and had trouble getting into it because I felt it was too dark.  But it’s really not all that dark, considering that the plot revolves around murder and mutilation of corpses (also I was post-partum at the time and reading at odd hours of the night).  It actually has a really nice ending with a theme of being true to yourself. It has a great cast of characters, including several LGBT+ characters, which really adds an extra dimension to the themes about self discovery and belonging.  I’m reading through the rest of them now, and I’ve been enjoying picturing Jack, one of my favorite characters, as looking like Moonbyul of the K-pop group Mamamoo.

Related image
I couldn’t find any pics of Moonbyul wearing gloves. But lots of her in suits!

 

Heartstone

Elle Katharine White

31290944This book is billed as Pride and Prejudice with dragons, and that is exactly what it delivers. In fact, it starts out as a beat-for-beat retelling of P&P (same characters, scenes, conversations, etc.), which was a bit boring, but as it continues it deviates further and gets more interesting.  Its strength is its world building of dragons (and dragonriders) and other creatures. 

I’m waiting for the sequel Dragonshadow on hold at the library now.

The Other Einstein

Marie Benedict

28389305This was a book I wanted to like more than I did.  On the surface, I was thrilled to read the story of a female scientist, Mileva “Mitza” Marić, the first wife of Albert Einstein.  But I struggled with several aspects.

I am a bit uncomfortable with the use of recent historical figures as the focus of a fictional novel.  I applaud the author’s intent to shine light on Mitza, but I personally would have chosen another way to do it. (This is the kind of thing that alternate history fantasy was made for.)

The book wants to treat Mitza like a Madam Curie figure, when in reality she failed her undergraduate final exams, never achieved a degree, and never worked professionally as a scientist. I say this not to disparage Mitza, who was clearly a brilliant woman (also dealt a bad hand by society), but to emphasize that the book is fiction.  Though she undoubtedly collaborated with Einstein on his early works, there is precious little evidence that Mitza had a significant role in formulating the theory of relativity.

It makes for a good story, though.  It very nearly reads like a tragedy, but the book injects some hope right at the end.  There was nothing particularly beautiful about the prose, but it did have a good sense of drama.

I realized partway through that I would rather have just read the letters between Mitza and Einstein; the author helpfully provides the link to them here: https://einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu/. (You can in fact read all of Einstein’s papers and correspondence.)

Also, have you noticed a trend in historical fiction covers recently?

Vengeful

VE Schwab

26856502

I was very excited to get my hands on this sequel to the supervillain revenge story Vicious, which I loved last year.  However, I hit some roadblocks in that until recently, my library only had the audiobook, not the ebook, thanks to a targeted campaign by the publisher (my library did not happen to have a print copy either).  I have been trying halfheartedly to get into audiobooks, and I did not think this one was great. The narrator sounded perpetually wistful, and I was not impressed with his female voices (though his accents were good).  It is also not a linear story, so I didn’t like that I couldn’t just skim back a few pages to the chapter break to check where in the timeline I was.

The story itself however was nearly as good as the original, just maybe not quite as tight.  It went in a different direction than I expected, and I enjoyed the journey. Victor and Eli’s roles are a bit switched in this one, plus there are some great new female characters including the powerfully ambitious mob wife Marcella Morgan and the mysterious June.  The book once again has a satisfying ending but with enough threads left hanging that there could be another installment (yes, please!). So if you really like grey characters or stories that make you root for sociopaths, I highly recommend this series.

What have you guys been reading recently?

A selection of canon Star Wars books that you should read

I have read the vast majority of the Star Wars books published up until 2014, which were previously called Expanded Universe (EU) and are now called Legends.  I even slogged all the way through to the end of the Fate of the Jedi series. For evidence, please see my bookshelves.

For some reason, I have not read nearly as many Star Wars books since they became canon.  Probably a couple of things are contributing: less time for reading, less patience for bad books, moving on to other series like The Expanse.  Plus I’m just not as invested in new characters as I was in EU mainstays like Mara Jade.

But I’m slowly starting to get into more and more of the canon books.  Here are some I’ve read that I thought were worthwhile.

25067046Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

This was the first new canon book that got a lot of buzz.  It was published as part of the “Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens” initiative in 2015 leading up to TFA.  Technically it is classified as Young Adult (Gray is a YA author, and the characters are young) but don’t let that deter you.  (Luke is only 19 in A New Hope after all, and no one worries about that being YA.)

It tells the story of two star-crossed lovers, one belonging to the Empire and one to the Rebellion.  I liked seeing the perspective of everyday Imperial citizens, and it helps the reader understand why young people might join the Empire even though it’s evil.  The story takes place mostly during the Original Trilogy but also goes all the way up through the Battle of Jakku (so that we can find out why there is a Star Destroyer crashed on the planet in TFA).

Thrawn and Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn

31140332I remember how excited I was when they announced at Celebration 2016 that not only would Grand Admiral Thrawn, the best antagonist of the entire EU, be appearing in Star Wars Rebels, but also that Timothy Zahn, his creator and one of the best EU authors, would be writing new novels about him.  The result is two solid new canon books that will appeal to new readers and EU fans as well (and particularly those who have enjoyed The Clone Wars and Rebels).

Thrawn serves as a kind of origin story for the future Imperial officer, showing how he initially came to serve the Empire.  I was disappointed that Pellaeon does not appear; instead his role is essentially filled by a new character, Eli Vanto.  There is also an interesting side plot regarding Governor Pryce of Lothal and Colonel Yularen, and a cameo from EU character H’sishi, a Togorian.

36385830Thrawn: Alliances also has some good payoffs for EU fans, including a joke about Force-sensitive animals (but no actual ysalamiri or vornskrs).  The flashbacks where Thrawn teams up with Anakin and Padmé to take out a Separatist operation feel like a good episode of TCW. It also provides an interesting contrast to the tentative partnership of Thrawn and Vader much later as they follow the Emperor’s orders to investigate a disturbance in the Force. (Plus we get a Noghri assassin!) Both storylines take place on/around Batuu, and specifically Black Spire Outpost, which will be featured in the upcoming Disney Star Wars theme park area, Galaxy’s Edge.

My only complaint about T:A is that it was difficult to read casually.  Because the story jumps between two time periods, and also occasionally between characters, it was sometimes hard to pick up the thread of the story when I was only reading a chapter at a time.

The conclusion of Zahn’s new Thrawn trilogy will be out later this year.

Darth Vader and Doctor Aphra by Gillen, et al.

Disney launched a bunch of new lines of comics with the new canon, and these two series feature the first breakout non-movie character of this era: Doctor Aphra, a mercenary archaeologist with two homicidal droids in tow.

Aphra seems like a new take on Indiana Jones, except as a queer woman whose illustration implies a mixed race heritage.  She ends up working for Vader and forming an interesting quasi-partnership with him, which is the most interesting part of the Vader story line.  (The less interesting part involves some Force-based science experiment characters that seem like they came from the bad part of the EU.)

Plus, did I mention the homicidal droids? BT-1 (“Bee Tee”) and 0-0-0 (“Triple-Zero”) may seem like an astromech and a protocol droid, but they actually are programmed for assassination and torture.  For me, they recall HK-47 from KOTOR, which is always welcome.  Plus it’s just nice to see snarky droids, whatever their allegiance or alignment.

Aphra eventually got spun out into her own series, plus a short story in the From a Certain Point of View anthology.  I look forward to seeing where she goes from here!

Star Wars Block Book

sw block book

This is the Star Wars book I currently read the most.  Every day, in fact. Sometimes multiple times.  My 1.5 yr old loves this book and can recognize Darth Maul (“Maul Maul”), the Death Star, Darth Vader, and R2-D2.  I am a proud mama!

But seriously, this book is beautiful with lovely cutouts and illustrations.  Plus it’s sturdy enough for toddler fingers.  It covers the prequels, OT, Rogue One, and TFA.

Have you guys read any of the new canon books?  What would you recommend?

National Poetry Month: Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver, who passed away this January, remains one of this country’s most popular poets.  She won both the National Book Award for Poetry and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.  On a more personal level, I feel a connection to her work because she was born in northeast Ohio, near where I live.

20190405_224303Oliver frequently uses themes of nature in her work, so it is not really a surprise that she has an entire book of poems about dogs.  Published in 2013, Dog Songs contains many poems about canines in general as well as some specific dogs in Oliver’s life.  There are also beautiful sketches of dogs throughout the book.

Her simple, unadorned structures and word choice fit the topic very well.  You can easily see her familiarity with and love for dogs coming through. From the very first poem I could see how she uses the motif of dogs to discuss issues of identity, love, living well, and even what it means to be human.  

One of the poems that spoke to me immediately was “Her Grave,” as I am also dealing with a recent loss of a pet.  The lines that really struck me:

She roved ahead of me through the fields, yet would come back,

or wait for me, or be somewhere.

 

Now she is buried under the pines.

Specifically, it’s that “be somewhere” that got me.  It seems to me that the essence of grief is distilled into those two little words.  Jolee, my cat, used to be somewhere. He existed. And now he is not, does not. As simple as that.

I may have cried a bit while reading some of these poems.  But that’s good. I think poetry is one of the most powerful tools for processing emotions, both reading and writing it.  I’m happy that reading this book made me get up out of bed in the night and find pen and paper to write a poem myself before it slipped out of my head.  (You’ll be reading that one a little later this month.)

If you are not familiar with Oliver’s work, now is a great time to check it out since April is National Poetry Month.  Let me know which poem of hers is your favorite!