Brief Book Reviews, Fall 2018

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the novels I’ve been reading recently.

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The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas

I read this one for Banned Book Week back at the end of September.  I just wanted to give it another mention because it deserves it.  Aside from the relevant topics of police shootings and race relations, I really loved the depiction of Starr’s family.  Starr’s parents are not perfect people, but they are good parents.  Her family life can be messy, but it is loving, and I think that’s a great thing to show in a YA novel.  Also, I really want to know Starr’s reaction to her favorite player LeBron moving to her hometown Los Angeles!

Vicious

VE Schwab

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Don’t you just love a book that gets you to root for the sociopath?  After loving Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic series, I picked up another of her books and was blown away.  If ADSoM had a weakness, it was the villains, and this series avoids that neatly by having all the characters be villains! 

Well, that might be overstating it a bit, but I love a good “grey” character, and this book is full of them.  It centers on Victor and Eli, who were college roommates studying EOs: people with ExtraOrdinary abilities caused by near death experiences.  Ten years later, Victor is out of prison and going after Eli.  I loved the way the story unfolded in both time periods, picking up a strong supporting cast.

It was also a great read for the Halloween season, having some of the same themes as Frankenstein.  Plus it starts and ends with the characters digging up bodies in a graveyard.  Can’t ask for better atmosphere than that!

I read this in anticipation of the sequel Vengeful, which is out now, so check back soon for my thoughts on that one.

Into the Bright Unknown

Rae Carson

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A solid conclusion to the Gold Seer trilogy, a YA historical fantasy series.  After an Oregon Trail scenario in the first book, and a more standard conflict with the main villain in the second book, this one switches it up with a heist story.

While I appreciate the effort to show the contributions of women and minorities to American history, I did find it a bit funny that these books were apparently trying for the title of most woke series ever.  Some examples:

  • Only the villains own slaves.  Even the closest thing we have to grey characters, some prospectors, make sure to mention that they are from Ohio and therefore abolitionist.

  • A villain deliberately misgenders our protagonist Lee as an insult.

  • The male lead asks for affirmative consent before kissing Lee.

  • A random white male bank clerk in California is sexist, then a few pages later also racist.

  • Lee is rebuked several times for playing white savior

This kind of black-and-white morality is a not quite subtle enough for me, but I think it serves YA fiction well.  Overall, I’d recommend the series to anyone who likes YA light fantasy and the Wild West.

The Rose Legacy

Jessica Day George

36314263This book is for all those little girls (or former little girls) who are horse crazy!  It’s a charming light fantasy, middle grades story of an intrepid girl and her horse companion who get involved in secret plots affecting the whole kingdom.  I didn’t find it quite as strong as the author’s other books, but still enjoyable.

The opening of the book reminded me of a favorite, The Blue Sword.  As an orphan, Anthea has been bounced around between family and now goes to join relatives past the wall in the north of the kingdom, where there are rumors of secret magic things (like horses).  The story has some interesting twists, and the characters are pretty good, especially one that reminded me of Mrs. Coulter from The Golden Compass.  The ending could have been tighter, but there will be a sequel coming next year.

The Potion Diaries

Amy Alward

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You may have seen this one under a previous title, Madly.  This cute fantasy adventure would be a great beach read, a fun mix of princes, puzzles, and pharmaceuticals.  I liked the magic and the characters were fun, but ultimately it was on the forgettable side.

 

 

 

 

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The Frankenstein Chronicles

If you guys are looking for something spooky to watch this Halloween, check out The Frankenstein Chronicles on Netflix.

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Sean Bean stars as John Marlott, a London investigator tracking down the origin of a disturbing creation: a corpse that is actually an amalgamation of multiple children.  Does it have something to do with the Anatomy Act that the Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, is trying to pass?  Or with Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and theories of galvanism?  The show has wonderful atmosphere and suspense.  I really liked the twists in the first season, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes in the second season, which is now available.

The science of the show is pretty hand-wavey, but that’s forgivable given the show’s strengths.  It does incorporate several real historical figures and events, including Peel, Shelley, and William Blake.  It is set about ten years after the publication of Frankenstein, which was a great choice because not only can we see the impact of the novel on society, but it also gives the show a more steampunk vibes, being closer to the Victorian era than the Regency.

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The show is clearly inspired by Frankenstein itself, and I think this interpretation is preferable to another straight adaptation of the novel.  It gives a great perspective on the monster!  When Marlott reads the novel in the show, it inspired me to finally read the classic story, which is very different than the popular conception of it.

Here are some Frankenstein Facts:

  1. This year is the 200th anniversary of its publication.
  2. Mary Shelley was only 18 when she conceived of the idea for the novel, after a suggestion by the poet Byron that he, Mary, and her future husband poet Percy Bysshe Shelley each write a ghost story as a kind of party game.
  3. It is an epistolary novel, written as a series of letters and journal entries.
  4. Its subtitle is “The Modern Prometheus,” after the Titan that helped create man, then gave them fire in defiance of Zeus (only to be sentenced to an eternity of solitary torment).
  5. It was ranked #43 on the Great American Read list.
  6. Popular conception of the story comes from the Universal Pictures 1930s series of movies starring Boris Karloff as the monster, as well as the later Hammer Films series of movies starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
  7. It is considered one of the progenitors of the science fiction genre.

As a novel, I found Frankenstein mildly underwhelming.  I’m not sold on the framing narrative involving an Arctic explorer writing letters home to his sister, and the prose lacks the wit of my Regency favorite Jane Austen.  However, as a forerunner to modern sci-fi, its importance cannot be overstated.  At its heart, science fiction is not about spaceships and plagues, but about society.  Frankenstein deals with scientific inquiry, or more specifically how far it should go.  Just because we are capable of doing something, should it be done?  Is it ever okay to “play God?”

In this way, the story is similar to another sci-fi favorite, Jurassic Park (#52 on the GAR list).  Holly at Nut Free Nerd has a great comparison of the two stories as part of her Classic Couples series.

 

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What are you reading and watching for Halloween?

 

Great American Read Wrap-Up

Have you all been participating in the Great American Read?  I first wrote about it back in May, and since then I’ve been reading some books from the Top 100 list, voting for my favorites every day, and watching the weekly specials on PBS that highlight some of these favorite novels of the American public.

It was all leading up to Tuesday night, when the winner of the voting was announced.  You can see the full list of results here. According to the GAR votes, here are the five best-loved novels in America:

5. The Lord of the Rings (series)

4. Pride and Prejudice

3. Harry Potter (series)

2. Outlander

1.To Kill a Mockingbird  

To Kill a Mockingbird

My guess prior to the announcement was that it would be To Kill a Mockingbird, but even I was a bit surprised how overwhelming it was: it started out at number one and never wavered once over the months.  TKAM is a wonderful book with broad appeal, but I think it remains so popular because it is quintessentially American.  It’s a coming-of-age story of a young Southern girl; it deals with race relations; it shows the merits and flaws of our justice system; it provides an enduring role model and hero in Atticus Finch.  And it doesn’t hurt that it’s taught so frequently in schools that probably most Americans have read it (certainly the ones voting on PBS programs).

I really enjoyed the GAR and hope PBS will do similar events in the future, perhaps for American authors or nonfiction, plays, or poetry.  I now have a whole lot more books on my to-read list as well! I had already read 32 of the 100 on the list, and I read three more during the course of the GAR.  Here are some brief thoughts on these three novels.

Rebecca coverRebecca by Daphne du Maurier

This novel had been on my to-read list for a while, so I picked it up to read over vacation…yeah, it’s not really a light beach read.  It’s a gothic suspense story featuring the new, young wife of a widower with many secrets, especially regarding his late wife, Rebecca. I loved the atmosphere and very much enjoyed the twists and the ending.  I’m looking forward to reading it again, because I think this is one that improves upon closer acquaintance. I also watched the TV adaptation of Jamaica Inn by the same author and loved it; you can find it on Netflix.

The Alchemist by Paulo CoelhoThe Alchemist cover

I’ve heard wonderful things about this inspiration novel, which tells the story of a Spanish shepard who journeys across Africa to find his Personal Legend.  I enjoyed reading it and it made me think, but in the end it didn’t strike me deeply. The plot and characters were too vague and archetypal for my taste; if I’m going to read allegory, I’d prefer it to have some more personality, like the Chronicles of Narnia. I also felt like it didn’t have much to say to women; I can only remember one named female character, and we aren’t very interested in her self-actualization.

Bless Me, Ultima coverBless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

I don’t know how I missed this book all these years!  I had even mentioned it in a 2014 blog post for Banned Books Week, because it made the Top 10 Challenged list for the previous year.  Yet not only had I not read it, I knew nothing about it. It’s a wonderful coming of age story from a Chicano perspective in the southwestern US, where Antonio feels pulled between different family expectations as well as traditional and modern cultures as he tries to find his place in the world. I related to it very personally because I also come from a Catholic family, and I really enjoyed the meld of Christianity and the traditional practices of the curandera, or healer.

Have you guys read any of these?  Which of the 100 books did you vote for?  I voted mostly for Pride and Prejudice, but I voted for many others along the way, including those in the top 5.  I was really pleased with the choices for the top 5–how about you?

If you still want to get involved in the Great American Read, you can:

Choose Your Own Adventure for Grown-ups

Photo by Sushiesque on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Did you read these as a kid?  I had one that was about a mystery in a horse stable (Google tells me it was #127, Showdown.)  These type of books are sometimes called “gamebooks,” because the narrative structure allows you to participate in the story by making choices.  There are multiple plot threads and endings to the story, which can be “good” or “bad.” It can even end with you dying!

These books were targeted at young teens, but I read two books recently that update this concept in a more mature fashion, though each in a distinct way.

Jane, Unlimited

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This novel, the latest release by Graceling author Kristin Cashore, was originally written in the second person as a choose-your-own-adventure with five different possible endings.  However, in the revision process the protagonist developed into the titular Jane, and the different endings, which split off about a quarter of the way through the book, should be read in order to get the most out of them.

The story begins with Jane being invited for a visit to the island mansion Tu Reviens; her late beloved Aunt Magnolia curiously made her promise to go there if she ever got the chance.  At Tu Reviens, Jane’s curiosity gets her embroiled in a number of mysteries, and each of the different ending spin out of which one she chooses to tackle first.  Though she’s struggling to find her place in the world, Jane is a fun and quirky protagonist; she likes Doctor Who and Winnie-the-Pooh and makes umbrellas as a hobby.  She also reads as bisexual, though the romance aspects are relatively minor.

In short, don’t judge this one by the ugly cover.  It’s one of the most creative books I’ve read this year.  Though the endings build on each other, each one also takes on qualities of a specific genre: heist story, spy drama, psychological thriller, sci-fi, and fantasy.  I don’t want to say too much else, just be ready to hold on and enjoy the ride.

One neat concept that is threaded through the endings, and is in fact tied to the choose-your-own-adventure format, is the idea of a multiverse: summed up by one character, “everything that could conceivably happen does happen, somewhere, in alternate universes across the multiverse.”

“…every time something happens, everything else that could have happened in that moment also happens, causing new universes to break off from the old universe and come into being.  So there are multiple versions of us, living different lives than the ones we live, across multiple universes, making every decision we could possibly make.  There are versions of us we wouldn’t even like, and some we’d barely recognize.”

It’s a great concept, and one that makes me want to re-read Jane, Unlimited to really appreciate its depth.  Is each ending taking place in a different dimension?  Is one of those dimensions “ours?”  There is some evidence that says yes…and some that says no.

Lastly, this book owes a lot to two classic Gothic stories of “orphan comes to a house of mystery:” Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, which has inspired me to read and re-read them, respectively (they are both also selections for the Great American Read).  There are a few other interesting literary and artistic references as well.

My Lady’s Choosing

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This entertaining book is billed as an “interactive romance novel.”  It reminded me greatly of the old Choose Your Own Adventure format.  You begin the story as a penniless companion to Lady Craven and can go on to have any number of adventures including getting kidnapped in the Egyptian desert, delivering a foal in the Scottish Highlands, visiting a London brothel, and staying at a creepy Gothic manor.

There are four main love interests that you can end up with: Lady Evangeline, Lord Craven, Sir Benedict, and Captain McTaggart.  Each has several storylines and endings, plus there are a few other “side” endings you can also choose.  My favorite was ending up with Kamal, the nerdy curator of Lady Evangeline’s Cairo museum of artifacts.  We also have “many adorably studious children.”

This is not a serious romance book, but rather a bit of a satire of one.  It pokes fun at Regency romance tropes, including using a plethora of terrible puns and creative euphemisms in the sexy parts.  I found it absolutely hilarious, possibly because I read a lot of Regency romance.  If you would laugh at phrases like “a vision of Scottish virility” and “You kiss as though you are discovering islands off each other’s hidden coasts,” plus a mansion named “Manberley,” you are in the right place.

The “choose” points come up pretty frequently, and have hilarious little flavor text such as:

What, did you actually think you could fight off four enormous henchmen single-handed? Come on now.  Think of a better plan and turn to this page.

I was reading this on a Kindle which was an interesting experience for a choose-your-own-adventure.  It was nice because of the automatic links at the choose points that immediately direct you where you want to go.  But the links also mean there is no easy way to go back one choice and try a different path, which I used to do in the print versions by holding pages.  You’d have to keep making and deleting bookmarks or something.

I read through many of the endings because I was having so much fun.  I don’t think I would buy this book to read again, but it was definitely good for a few hours of entertainment.

A Darker Shade of Magic

After I had my kid last year, I was kind of in a reading slump.  A good 80% of my reading was being done only on my Kindle between the hours of 11pm-6am while feeding the little Jedi, and I was reading mostly Regency romance novels.  There is nothing wrong with romance novels; it is simply a very uncharacteristic choice for me, a habitual reader of fantasy and sci-fi. In any case, I felt like I was missing something.  I guess I was missing the way I used to read.

A Darker Shade of Magic was the book, and then the series, that released me from my slump.  From the first chapters I knew it was going to be special, just as countless other bloggers and readers had told me.

Kell is one of the last Antari—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black. (Goodreads)

As an ambassador (and the adopted son) of the king of Red London, Kell is tasked with visiting both the brutal monarchs of White London (and their Antari Holland) as well as George III of Grey London.  But he also runs an inter-world smuggling business on the side, and when a hand-off goes wrong he gets mixed up with Grey London street thief Lila Bard and a magical conspiracy that spans all four worlds.

This series has many strengths (world building and a neat magic system, an exciting and suspenseful plot), but to me its biggest asset is its characters.  Kell and Lila are so well crafted they feel real, and the supporting cast has wonderful depth as well—particularly Holland, Kell’s brother Rhy, and the pirate Alucard.

Kell with red coat

A Gathering of Shadows Final
Lila with knives

Kell is probably my favorite character, and he reminded me strongly of another favorite character of mine: Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist.  Both Kell and Ed are completely dedicated to their brothers, willing to do anything to protect them.  They both have serious personalities, their default expression generally being kinda frowny.  They both do magic by drawing circles.  And of course, they both have awesome red coats.

Edward Elric from FMA

Lila is another fun one.  Her dream in life is to have a ship and be a pirate, and she prefers wearing men’s clothes.  I pictured her in my head looking a bit like Tilda from Into the Badlands because of her hair and knives, but her personality is really more like MK, impulsive and a bit immature.

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Tilda with sharp objects

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You should watch this show, too.

I loved the pacing of the trilogy, because a lot of the plot structure remind me of the Star Wars original trilogy.  Vitari and Osaron kind of reminded me of the first and second Death Stars.  The Essen Tasch in the second book was like Lila’s version of Luke’s Dagobah training.  And the cliffhanger ending of that same book, where Lila rushes off to help a captured friend, is straight out of The Empire Strikes Back.  I loved that cliffhanger, which is such a weird thing to say when normally people hate them.

My only real complaints about the series are that I didn’t get a real “Regency” vibe from it, especially Lila who’s from our London but doesn’t use any thieves’ cant or anything, and also that perhaps the last bit of the third book was not quite as tight as the rest.  But I felt satisfied with the ending.  I’m already planning to buy the series so I can see those beautiful covers sitting on my shelf and relive the magic whenever I want.