Category Archives: Contemporary

NEW HOGARTH SHAKESPEARE! (Among other things)

Let me begin with three quick reviews, and then I’ll gush about Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, which I literally just finished.

  1. Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier — INCREDIBLE.  Read on the recommendation of a friend who loves this book, and I totally understand.  It’s piracy and English society and just delightful.  Plus, the ending isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s perfection.  This is a book I know I will go back and read again, simply for the joy of joining Dona on her adventures with a French pirate.
  2. Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan — Short, interesting book about the last night a Red Lobster is open and the lengths to which the staff (especially the long-suffering manager) go to trying to keep the place open during a nightmare snowstorm.  It’s quick, pretty fun, full of quirky observations about people and how we do the jobs we have.
  3. The Gunslinger by Stephen King — Only picked this up because the trailer dropped for the movie starring Idris Elba and I figured I’d give it a shot.  It’s fine.  It’s also the first Stephen King novel I’ve read, so I think I was just expecting a little more.  Concept of an old-west-style gunslinger going around trying to save the world from the Man in Black is pretty cool, but I expected a little more craft in the writing.  And maybe it’s because I read an early paperback (apparently there were changes made as the series progressed, so I might have a different experience if I read the revised one), but I just wanted… more.  I’m still interested in the movie, but I won’t be reading the rest of the 8-book series.

But let me tell you about New Boy.

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$25.00 in hardcover

So I’m a sucker for most British fiction (I wrote a Master’s thesis on the masculine relationships in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Manchester novels, for heaven’s sake), but Jane Austen and William Shakespeare are two of my real weak spots.  The Jane Austen Project, which I have discussed previously, has apparently hit a roadblock of some kind because there’s been no update.  But the Hogarth Shakespeare series is still going.  I’m a little frustrated by the amount of time between releases (Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth was supposed to be last year, but has now been pushed to 2018 and Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet is currently at an estimated 2021 release), but there’s a new one said to be coming this October, though that might have been pushed back (Edward St. Aubyn’s King Lear retelling said to be titled Dunbar) and there’s New Boy that just fell onto shelves today.

And I think I’m going to put it in second place of my favorites of the series thus far.

Chevalier takes on the tragedy Othello, which is one of my least-favorite plays.  I have a hard time believing the drama of the play, but I can understand that, if the actors are chosen well and have real chemistry, it can be an amazing show.  So how do you retell Othello in 200 pages after setting it in 1970s Washington, D.C.?

The trick of New Boy is in its employment of Aristotelean unities: action, time, and place. The unity of action is a little muddled in this one, simply because capturing the Shakespearean scope requires subplots, details of the lives of the characters that are going to influence the main relationship (Osei and Dee).  Unity of time is perfectly used, limiting the action itself to a single school day and breaking up chapters by which recess it is.  Flashbacks allow character development and fill in the gaps of the time period — the racial tension is especially handled here as Osei thinks about his sister and her understanding of her African-ness after their repeated moves with their diplomat-father.  Unity of place is also neatly utilized, keeping to the schoolyard that so many readers will remember.  The girls jumprope, the boys play kickball, and all of the students in the 6th grade class wonder about next year when they go to a new school.

With the unities, the story’s tensions ramp up quickly and effectively.  Sure, there’s some difficulty believing that the playground antics of troublemaker Ian would move this quickly, and obviously there’s some tragic conclusion (because it’s not like you can just make Othello end happily every after), but this is a Shakespearean drama.  It’s not unexpected improbability.

For me, the strength of the novel was Osei’s insights into being not only the new boy, but the new black boy at a school made up entirely of white students and teachers.  From the beginning, Osei is surrounded by speculation — is he from Guinea, Nigeria?  “Africa, anyway,” the teachers say.  (He’s actually from Ghana.)  But Osei has also moved several times and recognizes the similarities in being the new kid on the playground.  He tries to fit in, tries to prove himself while not upsetting the already established social structure.  He recognizes that it’s hard to be African in America, let alone African American, remembers his experience in New York where he got beaten up at school and where his sister started exploring the politics of being black in America.

It’s powerful to have the insight into a young character who has so much on his mind.  He wants to make friends, wants to be accepted, wants to not be the odd-man out anymore.  (And it doesn’t help that he moves schools with only a few months left in the year.)  Knowing how the story must end, not necessarily with death, but at least with tragedy, it’s heartbreaking to watch Osei trying so hard when you know that Ian is going to destroy it all.

That’s why I have to give this second place, right after Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (Taming of the Shrew), and it’s only second because I like the play of Shrew more than Othello.  But it’s a tight race with these two.  Out of the five books in the series out so far, I think Chevalier has done the best job of capturing the play and retelling it with her own twist.  Vinegar Girl was fun and pretty cute and just enough of Shrew to make me happy.  Otherwise, Hag-Seed (Margaret Atwood’s Tempest) was kind of weird but great at the end, and Shylock Is My Name (Howard Jacobson’s Merchant of Venice) and The Gap of Time (Jeanette Winterson’s Winter’s Tale) were both a little beyond my literary enjoyment.  This isn’t to say that they aren’t good books — all of the writers so far have been very talented, and their work is crafted well.  I just think there’s more spirit captured in Vinegar Girl and New Boy.  But especially in New Boy.

This book gives me hope for St. Aubyn’s addition to the series — I LOVE King Lear (I’m the youngest of three daughters and I love Shakespeare’s take on history and politics, so that might have something to do with it) — because it makes me think maybe some of these retellings will keep to the parts of the plays that I love.  Chevalier has convinced me to keep waiting for the next installment, and I definitely recommend this one.

New Boy is available now from your local indie!

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I’d Die for These Books (Figuratively)

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: TODAY IS THE DAY.

9781501144349I’d Die for You has finally been released.  And if you like F. Scott Fitzgerald as much as I do, you’ve got to read this.

I’m not going to say that it’s his best writing (in my opinion, “Babylon Revisited” will always be one of the finest pieces of American literature), but it’s delightful.  This collection of short stories consists of previously unpublished works that often have the beginnings of his other writings.  While the writing itself is lovely (and very telling of his state of mind in each piece), it’s the context that makes this wonderful.

Basically, look at I’d Die for You as a Fitzgeraldian Go Set a Watchman: worthy of reading based on its own merits, but even more delightful when taken in context of its composition and its place in the author’s story.  For Fitzgerald, it’s all down to the editor of the collection, Anne Margaret Daniel, who provides insight into the stories as well as scans of draft pages and pictures from the Fitzgerald collection.  As someone who hates reading introductions first because they can spoil the work, I appreciated Daniel’s statement early on that the reader should read the story first, then go back and read the introduction just in case she includes a spoiler.

And then there are the stories.  Honestly, I don’t have a favorite from this collection because there’s so much.  Daniel has included some of the Hollywood treatments and film ideas, as well as stories that deal with more mature topics.  Instead of having a bunch of cheery jazzy love stories, there are musings on divorce, torture (in the historical story “Thumbs Up,” which might be one of my favorites), and the darker parts of society.  I mean, this isn’t to say that Fitzgerald has never dealt with serious topics, but in these stories there were definitely some moments when I was surprised by how explicit the un-jazzy bits were.

But my goodness, I loved the whole thing.

And yes, I know the whole point of this blog is to be honest, but I also say that any review is totally biased.  This is one case where I know I’m going to be biased, and biased beyond belief.  Fitzgerald is one of my favorite writers of all time, but most definitely my favorite American writer.  As I told my sister, I wouldn’t have cared if it was the worst collection of stories in the world – I think Fitzgerald’s writing alone is worth reading any number of pages, and luckily this turned out to be delightful.

12792In addition to I’d Die for You, I’ve finished Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm, and I’ve got to say that it brought me great joy.  It’s definitely the kind of book I’d recommend to high school boys who want to go out into the world and make their own way.  My dad handed this one to me because one of my Reading Challenge 2017 books was “set in the wilderness” and the fact that this guy went as a college kid to live in the wilderness for a winter… I figured it counted.

Basic idea: Pete Fromm goes into the wild for the winter to watch a river where salmon are going to be hatching.  He does this to earn some cash and to live out his dreams of being a mountain man.  He quickly realizes that being a mountain man is difficult, and that all the stories are basically lies.  It’s funny, and also has a lot of tragic moments of his understanding of civilization and nature (namely that humans wait until spring when it’s easy to march in and hunt the animals who have been a part of his world for the winter).

As a twenty-something woman, I had to tell my dad that, much as I liked it (and I really did), I can’t believe anyone would volunteer to go live in the woods for a winter when he has no experience.  And then I pointed out it must be a man-thing.  (No offense to the male population, but I can’t imagine a woman in college happily volunteering to live in a tent for five months — I’d be happy to be proven wrong if someone has done this herself, but I’m not expecting to have an overwhelming number of comments telling me I’m wrong.)  That’s why I think it’s great for the young man in your life (or if you’re like me and just want a good outdoorsy book) — this is a real man vs. nature struggle, and it’s told with great humor and writing.

So today has been a day of gloriously different reading material: the delightfully dizzying prose of Fitzgerald and the funny but poignant wilderness story of Fromm.  Both two thumbs up, both on my list of books to read again.

Because it’s Tuesday and I was having a pretty garbage day until I got my Fitzgerald, I’m going to end on a piece of Scott’s wisdom.

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Keep testing your first-rate intelligence, and happy reading!

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1 Disappointment and 1 Delight

Two more books checked off the list, and they couldn’t have been more different.  Because I like ending on a happy note, let’s start with the one that’s a solid example of literary mediocrity.

30319963Nicholas Reynolds’ Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy chronicles “Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961,” according to the subtitle.  Basically, Reynolds (who is the Museum Historian of the Central Intelligence Agency and has a military background) found some interesting papers that may connect Hemingway to Soviet spying.  Being a fan of espionage and Lost Gen writers, I had to read it.  While Reynolds presents a basic thesis that the papers he (and some other scholars) discovered suggest Hemingway may have been a Soviet spy, I’m beyond skeptical.  Much of the paperwork, when detailed, is based on Russian information curated by Russian individuals who then passed the information on to “the West.”

I’m no espionage expert, but I don’t trust any paperwork that describes a connection of a famous American with the Soviets when that paperwork is a summary of Soviet paperwork created by Soviets.  (And I’m not actually anti-Russian, but if you look at Cold War politics, it seems ridiculous to assume that the information is completely reliable.)

One of my main issues with the book is that the Soviet espionage Hemingway allegedly committed has no real evidence.  Sure, Hemingway met with Soviets, but he was also of a generation that is coming out of WWI and living during a dangerous rise of fascism that culminates in WWII and then develops into the Cold War.  Hemingway knew lots of people, and just because you communicate with someone does not mean you share their ideology.  Being anti-fascist does not immediately make you pro-communist.  Being anti-fascist makes you anti-fascist, and it’s completely understandable when you look at the historical context.

There are some interesting moments in the book about Hemingway’s career through three decades.  His return to Europe, for example, being influenced by the one and only spymaster-writer-inventor-Englishman extraordinaire Roald Dahl — that’s awesome.  Unfortunately, Reynolds limits the Dahl story to one page.  And I understand, the book is about Hemingway, not Dahl, but that’s the difference between this book and other military espionage books I’ve read.  Often, in other books, the author spends time incorporating more of the human story, whether it’s the spies involved themselves or just aspects of their lives that may or may not have influenced what happens now.  Spying is, at its core, a personal thing — especially during the 20th century, spies aren’t just machines with algorithms, but humans who place themselves in dangerous positions to gain information and in order to achieve that goal, they must form connections with other people.  Expand on the connections between people and I’m in.  That doesn’t happen here.

If I’m just looking at the history of Hemingway during this time, Reynolds does a pretty good job at relaying what’s happened.  The writing isn’t stellar, but it’s good enough.  Trying to make the connection with the Soviet spying, though, that’s where it collapses.  The Soviets only pop up on occasion and there’s just not enough there to convince me that he had any significant communication with Soviet spies.  After good chapters on Hemingway’s adventures, having really roughly established connections to the thesis about spying just brings the piece down.  Overall, if you’re interested in Hemingway during this period, you could still enjoy it.  I just think the repeated stretch to making Hemingway a sympathizer to Castro and company is less than convincing.

34117218Now, on the other side, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry — it’s been a big hit in the UK and is coming to the US in June 2017.  And it is so worth it.  Basic plot: during late Victorian period, a newly widowed woman moves from London to small town in Essex where there have been mysterious incidents that make the inhabitants think the legendary Essex Serpent may be reappearing.  Of course, there are several characters whose lives are tangled together, and there may or may not be some romance…

The great joy of reading this novel is the writing.  Perry develops her characters beautifully, and evokes the feel of Victorian writers in her style.  I just don’t know what I can say about it other than, as a fan of Victorian lit, I loved it.  The reviews compare it to Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens (bleurgh) and Emily Brontë, and I have to agree.  There’s just something in the writing that you don’t find often in contemporary fiction, and when I can sit with a mug of tea and a book during a foggy day and feel like I’m on the Victorian moors, that’s a pretty great job.

[Just in case, this next paragraph might get a little spoiler-y, although I’m trying to avoid it, so SPOILER ALERT (?)!  …  Still with me?  …  Okay, here we go.]

The plot is also just gothic enough to make it enjoyable, and not so supernatural to make me feel like I’m being forced to believe the truth is out there.  There’s death and darkness and London streets, but there’s no witchcraft or truly inexplicable monster in the story.  One review put it really well, that it’s the same feeling about reading a book in which the Loch Ness monster is part of the plot — you already know it doesn’t exist, so it’s about what you do with it after that.  This book becomes more about the hysteria that comes about when something is a mystery, and there’s a bit about the darkness of what humans can be capable of.  More importantly (as a reader of the incredible Elizabeth Gaskell), there’s a lot of the book that reminds me of the “condition of England” novels of the time, focusing characters and chapters on how poverty affects families and what options are available to make life better.  Gaskell, who I consider a champion of the “social novel,” did a lot of the same things Perry does now, namely giving characters in low social positions names and voices and stories for other characters to interact with.  By giving the lower classes names and backgrounds, the reader is connected to their crises (because all characters should face crises) and sympathizes.  It’s brilliant, and Perry does it if not subtly, then skillfully.

[End of the potentially spoilery (?) bits.]

The only bit of The Essex Serpent that I’m not in love with is the ending.  The last 20 pages were the weakest bit of the book, mainly because I expected a neater ending, but it’s not that the conclusion was bad.  The writing stayed strong, the characters were still good, the bits of storyline that I wanted to end a certain way were satisfactory.  I’m more than willing to compromise with a novel’s okay ending if the rest of the book has been exemplary — and that was the case here.  I put the book down with utter satisfaction and have already passed it on to a coworker to take on during the next rainstorm (probably sometime in the next month).  If you like Victorian novels, or gothic-y stories, or social novels, or good writing, it’s worth the read.

There’s the update – now on to waiting for Scott’s story collection next Tuesday so I can binge-read!  Until then, happy reading!

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Woman Power

I realized, when I looked at my nightstand stack of books last night, that I’m moving into a male-heavy reading load.  And not that it’s a bad thing, but all the books I want to work on are either written by or about men.  The exceptions were two books I finished last night and this morning and one book that’s been slowly shuffled to the bottom of the stack (The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, which I’m excited to read at some point when I’m in the mood for learning about probable reasons why I’m kind of a wreck).  Because both books I just added to the list of successful completions deal with women, I figured they’d fit well together in a post.  And so…

LAST NIGHT: What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons61NocdqVeQL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_

So this is a book that I’m happy to give five stars to.  It’s short (only about 200 pages) and filled with more snippets than chapters of a young woman’s life.  In this case, the narrator is Thandi, who struggles to find a place between black and white, American and not.  Her mother is from South Africa, and the family ties there are strong and history-full.  Not only does Thandi try to navigate the liminal spaces of race and ethnicity, but she also faces changes in relationships with friends, lovers, and parents.

Honestly, there’s not much plot, per se, but I think that’s one of the great strengths of Clemmons’ novel.  Thandi experiences lots of plot points, but it’s not as though there’s an epic journey across the planet, nor does she find herself to be some universe-saving heroine.  Instead, Thandi’s story is a discovery of herself as a woman who exists between two planes and searches for a space all her own.  The exploration of Thandi’s relationships is well-crafted, but especially poignant in the mother-daughter relationship that influences every other aspect of Thandi’s life.

The greatest strength of What We Lose is Clemmons’ writing.  Some of the blurbs for this book say that it’s “arresting and unsettling prose,” but I think it’s only unsettling because it feels real.  It’s written by a young woman writing in the style of a young woman searching for something beyond what she has.

While I’m not sure I want to go out and buy a copy of the hardcover, that’s mostly because I have an ARC from work and it’s the kind of book that I want to lend out, that I want to be passed on for others to enjoy.  It’s beautifully written and especially worth trying because it is the debut novel.  Clemmons will certainly be an author to watch.

(And I’m a little biased because she was at the conference we went to last weekend and she was completely sweet, despite the fact that the ARCs hadn’t arrived for her to give out.  Based on the rep’s picks and our brief conversation, I wanted to read it and I’m so glad I did.  You go, Zinzi!)

THIS MORNING: Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Women_who_run_w-330Lord have mercy, I finally finished this book.  This was the March/April pick for Emma Watson’s book club (Our Shared Shelf), and since I’ve only missed one book so far in the required list (The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson – sorry, Maggie) I wanted to make sure I got through this.  IT’S 500+ PAGES.  So nearly half the length of Ron Chernow’s Washington (which is on the long list of books I’m going to finish, dammit).

Here’s my issue: it’s like reading a book by Dr. Frasier Crane about the female mind, except instead of Frasier’s Freudian approach, it’s Jungian.  (Wasn’t Niles a Jungian?  I’m pretty sure he was…)  Knowing very little of Jungian psychology, I didn’t mind explanations of how the myths and tales fit into the archetypes, etc., but I mind very much when there’s a whole lot of author blah blah blah bits instead of real analysis.

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The idea of this book (which was first published in 1992) is to help women reconnect with their “wild” side, to learn how to be her Self in spite of society’s pressures put on most of the female population.  In order to explain the pressures and how women can avoid falling into the traps, Estés chooses stories she can analyze to get her points across.

I am a literature major.  In both my undergraduate BA program and in my MA program.  The trouble I had with the book is largely because of her analysis of the stories.  It’s not that I don’t agree with some of her points, but it’s more that I find the lack of analysis to be frustrating.  Often, Estés repeats a summary of the story she literally transcribed two pages ago and then argues her point without delving too deep into the meaning.  Either that or she goes on and on and on and on about something that I really can’t believe because I don’t see evidence of her argument.

To spend 500+ pages expecting to read some of the classic fairy tales or common myths as seen by a Jungian psychoanalyst and explore the critique of such tales, only to be informed that the 500+ pages are mostly the author going on and on about her experience as a psychoanalyst, it’s kind of disappointing.  And hey, call me crazy, but I’m not 100% onboard with any sort of “psychoanalysis.”  I’m not saying it’s a bunk field — I believe psychology in general is pretty extraordinary and can be incredibly helpful — but the way Estés talks about her work with women and discovering the unconscious thoughts the women have… I’m skeptical at best.  I think there can be a lot of good work those in the psychology-related careers can do because we should care for our mental health as much as our physical.  I just don’t know that delving into the “unconscious” is a really reliable way to sell your ideas, especially because it seems that the unconscious can be manipulated.

So if you’re like me and you pick up a “bestselling” book that has accolades from about a thousand people (and probably dating to its initial publication in the 1990s) hoping that you’ll get a lot out of intense psychological analysis of the fairy tales you know and love and want to see read in a seriously feminist light, you’re going to be disappointed.  There were also a lot of parts that seemed like Estés was arguing the differences between male and female psychology that we’ve now pretty much (dis)proven with modern science.  Not that it’s really wrong, but it’s hard to take some of her arguments seriously when we have all sorts of brain studies or scientific research that makes the argument seem dated or incorrect.

Would I recommend this?  Maybe.  If you’re the kind of person who likes Jungian theory, or the kind of person who wants to read about women’s psychology, or the kind of person who finds 1990s “calls to the wild” books attractive, sure.  If you’re a woman who wants to learn to connect to her wild self, you could try it.  But if you’re anything like me, you’ll seek out the wild in this book and find yourself skimming a hell of a lot of pages trying to get to the good stuff.

This one was for you, Emma Watson.  Glad I finished it.  Now, on to my giant stack of manly man* books…

*Manly man books currently include: Electric Light by Seamus Heaney, Cricket Explained by Robert Eastaway, Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm, Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy by Nicholas Reynolds, Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow — I swear I’ll finish it someday — , A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, and Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.  I think I should get double manly man points for Good Omens, since it’s written by two men, and, like, triple for Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy because it’s by a man about Ernest Hemingway and his secret spy career.  How much manlier can you get?

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Worth the Hype

cover_undergroundrailroad-1

Most of the time, it seems that I am on a completely different page as the people who rave about award-winning books.  I feel like I usually find them interesting, or decent, but far from what I would consider AMAZING.  And I hate to say it, but usually Oprah’s Book Club picks land among those I find fine, but un-extraordinary.

I am happy to be proven wrong by Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.  So many people have claimed it’s amazing, have said it’s a must-read, have said it should win every award and be read by every single person, blah blah blah.  I finally picked it up.

It really is beautiful.

The plot is deceptively simple: Cora, a slave in Georgia, escapes the plantation and goes North on the literal Underground Railroad, but finds herself pursued by the slave-catcher Ridgeway.  But the way Whitehead develops every character, and especially Cora, brings a depth to the story that I don’t think anyone else could have done.  And the pacing is gorgeous – the calmness of action when Cora finds a new place to stay is always shadowed by the knowledge that Ridgeway is coming for her, and the franticness of passages where the action kicks off makes you devour the pages.

Most of all, the writing is unbelievable.  I usually can read fairly quickly, and appreciate good writing where it exists, but this book made me slow down repeatedly to take in the sentence structure and the language and the way ideas are melded together.  It’s a glorious piece of literature, from the writing technicalities to the last page of the story.

I love being proven wrong.  Okay, maybe not all the time, but I do with books.  I like being told a book is one way and finding it another, or anticipating how I will feel about a book and then discovering my feelings were wrong.  This might have been the best book to be proven wrong about.

P.S. It’s still early stages, but Barry Jenkins is going to be working on an adaptation
of this at some point.  Which means it will be amazing.  So read it first.

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In order of reading, but also the first one is the least whelming.


1292826TULIP FEVER — Deborah Moggach

Ugh, period piece drama that needs to have a little more oomph to convince me it’s good literature.  Okay, sorry, it is a fun premise (Amsterdam during the tulip craze of the 1600s, unhappily married woman starts affair with the artist painting her portrait), but the way the novel is structured is underwhelming.  Each chapter changes POV, which is fine, but some of the characters didn’t need to get voiced as often as they were.  I was much more intrigued by the sections that weren’t focused on a character, but on the painting itself.  That was fun.

I read this one because it’s going to be a movie with Alicia Vikander and Christoph Waltz and let me tell you, I think the movie is going to be 200% better than the book.  It’s the kind of story that needs to be told visually because so much of the drama is based on painting.  Overall, it’s a quick read, and relatively harmless, but nothing that makes me scream “YES READ THIS PLEASE.”  It’s more like, “Oh, that’s nice.  The trailer looks good.”

(No, seriously.  The trailer looks GOOD.  Check it out.)


30688435EXIT WEST — Mohsin Hamid

Really quickly on this one, a rep brought an ARC and suggested it to a coworker, who then said I had to read it.  If this book doesn’t get nominated for some award this year, I’ll eat a bowl full of Brussel sprouts.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is a gorgeous (and brief) novel about a man and a woman who fall in love in a dangerous country, then try to escape the dangers of their home by venturing through doors.  It’s politically poignant, and simultaneously magical in the fairy-tale-like structure.  This is the kind of book you read in an afternoon but think about long after.  And seriously, it’s going to be up for an award, I’m sure, and deservedly so.


616nyvwmpl-sx316THE APPRENTICE WITCH — James Nicol

So after A Conjuring of Light and the astonishingly magical world of Kell and Lila, it’s hard for me to start up another fantasy, but we received an ARC for a new young adult novel that was getting great reviews, so I tried it.  The Apprentice Witch by James Nicol was originally published in the UK in July 2016 and is coming to the US this July.

Arianwyn is a young witch who has failed her final examination.  While her school nemesis is assigned to a special position, Arianwyn is sent to Lull, a town with doubting villagers and magical creatures.  Arianwyn makes some friends and discovers that the magic inside of her might be more than anyone believed possible, but there might also be a darker magic lurking in Lull…

Overall, this was a sweet book.  Arianwyn is a fun young witch and the friends she makes in Lull are charming.  I think my main problem with this was just that there is so much to develop but, as a young adult novel, the length is limited.  If this does become a series, I can see how it could develop and I’d be interested enough to give book two a shot.

To be fair, I also have to say that another thing that influenced by reading of it was a conversation with my manager.  I had looked up reviews online and told her that it was doing very well and that we should order at least one copy for the store; when she spoke with our rep, she ended up ordering a display of the book because it was getting great reviews and the man who got this one also signed J.K. Rowling at Bloomsbury.

Talk about high expectations.

It’s not even that anyone compared the book to Harry Potter, but the simple fact that I was told that the person who saw the awesomeness of HP picked this one taints my way of reading.  The plain truth is that it’s a delightful book and has a lot of potential, and I would give it 4.5/5 stars.

Recommended for 8-12 reading levels (but I’d lean toward 9-10ish because it’s that same kind of interest as HP — young magicians with something to prove to the world and all that), and worth a read.  I think it’s especially good that it’s due out in July because it’s a great summer-y kind of book.


And that concludes the brief wondrous blog entry of the Honest Reader.  I’m currently working on Ron Chernow’s Washington, so updates might be infrequent due to me being crushed by 900+ pages of delightfully researched and written history.  Wish me luck.

Happy reading!

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A Conjuring of Light

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Guys.  Guys.  GUYS.

It’s Tuesday, February 21st.

Today was the release date for V.E. Schwab’s final installment of the Darker Shade of Magic trilogy, A Conjuring of Light.

And right now, I’m having a hard time figuring out what to say about this book.

A Darker Shade of Magic is a delightful, fantastical romp.

A Gathering of Shadows is adventurous and action-packed and everything exciting I wanted in a story.

A Conjuring of Light is perfection.

I’ll admit, after the cliff-hanger of Gathering, I wasn’t sure what would happen in Conjuring.  I had suspicions, of course — I’d be a pretty terrible English major if I didn’t go through my catalogue of plot devices and twists while I’m reading a book — but I didn’t know how it would all play out.

And you know what?  I’m glad I didn’t guess every twist that happened.

The events of the first fifty pages or so was what I expected from the first probably third of the book, but that’s what makes it so wonderful.  The characters and their decisions are complex, and this is not a fairy tale that can be pared down to an easy-to-digest adventure.  Instead, there are more steps to defeating evil than simply joining together a trio of unlikely heroes and letting their desire for good to win.  There are betrayals and love and acts of compassion and acts of violence.  There are mysteries that can be solved, and mysteries that shouldn’t be.

And it all comes together in this novel.

Although I’ve been known to cry at a lot of things, especially movies, books take a lot to make me actually tear up.  I’ll make noises of distress or joy, and sometimes I’ll get a little tight-chested.  Harry Potter makes me weep like a child, pretty much regardless of which book I’m reading.  Tell the Wolves I’m Home brought me to heaving sobs that I couldn’t shake for a good five minutes.

Conjuring didn’t make me sob, didn’t bring tears streaming down my face, but the last twenty pages were so perfectly aligned to what I hoped would happen, what I felt would be right in the course of the plot, that I couldn’t help tearing up.

There’s a line in Darker from Lila (who is one of the most fantastically badass characters, male or female, that I’ve had the pleasure to read) that I love:

“I’m not going to die,” she said.  “Not till I’ve seen it.”

“Seen what?”

Her smile widened.  “Everything.”

In a series of books that I began based on the beauty of the cover and the promise of magical Londons, I feel that Schwab has given me a whole world into which I can dive again and again and the world she created exists as truly as Middle Earth and Hogwarts and Narnia.  It’s gorgeously done, and I feel, at the end of Conjuring, as though I have seen everything.

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A Gathering of Shadows

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Guys.  Guys.

I did it.

I finally read it because A Conjuring of Light comes out on Tuesday.

GUYS.

I’m pretty sure this is the best fantasy to be written in the post-Harry Potter world.

I’m pretty sure it’s ranking among my all-time favorite series.

Victoria (V.E.) Schwab has quickly become one of my favorite contemporary writers because the way she writes is so natural and so utterly magical.  When I read A Darker Shade of Magic last year, it was (being perfectly honest) because I thought the cover was cool.  And the description sounded okay.  And I’m a huge fan of London, so I’m willing to give most anything featuring my favorite city in the world a try.  And plus, this had multiple Londons.

But I was sold when I discovered Kell had a magic coat.

I know, it’s stupid, but it’s that kind of detail that makes me love Schwab’s writing.  Kell, as a traveler between different worlds, must fit in amongst the dwellers of Grey London, White London, and his own Red London.  So it’s fitting that he has a magic coat that can transform to suit his location.  And the fact that it works by him turning it inside out — I fell in love.  In a way, it reminds me of Doctor Strange’s Cloak of Levitation, not that it becomes a character, but that it helps the character develop in astonishing ways.

Seriously, I was sold at a magic coat and I read that book in two sittings.  I couldn’t escape the world Schwab created and I didn’t want to.  But the trouble was that I found this book when the second had just come out and the third was on the horizon.  So I put A Gathering of Shadows aside and promised I’d read it sometime, but knowing I wouldn’t touch it until the third was in sight.

Then there was a date for A Conjuring of Light.  And still I waited.

And then, yesterday, I started Gathering because this Tuesday the third and final book will find its way into my hot little hands and I will spend all day reading it because I want to get sucked into Kell’s Londons again.

It’s a hell of a cure for the book hangover I was left with after The Once and Future King.

In Darker Shade, you tumble headfirst into a world in which Kell is one of the most gifted magicians in Red London and one of the smugglers of goods into Grey London while he travels to deliver royal messages.  But then a magic that shouldn’t exist starts making its presence known, and Kell, along with Lila, a girl from Grey London, must find a way to protect his home from a London that shouldn’t exist.

And that’s putting it really terribly because it’s astonishing and exciting and full of mystery and badass women and handsome princes and lost cities and found cities and everything you could wish for in a fantasy novel.

Gathering is an extension of the true magic of Darker Shade.  Kell is facing his demons alongside his princely brother, Rhy, and Lila has joined up with… let’s say “privateers,” only because they have letters of marque.  Allegedly.  And everyone is going to come together again because it’s time for the Essen Tasch, the Elemental Games.  (Think March Madness but with magicians and three nations who all want to show off their skills.)  Trouble is, that dark magic that threatens everything Kell loves hasn’t exactly disappeared…

And dude.  So good.

There’s something for everyone: magic, pirates, romance, disguises, battles, constructive angst, brotherly love, brotherly hate, twists and turns and everything in between.

I really, seriously, honestly cannot recommend this enough.  It’s because of the first book that I picked up her teen book This Savage Song (which was also AMAZING) and the reason her novel Vicious is also on my list of “must reads.”  But this second book is the reason I will read anything she writes, because it cements my belief that she weaves magic in her words, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read a book like that.

I CAN’T WAIT FOR TUESDAY!!!

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Another Update

I feel like I’ve been making some serious progress on this Reading Challenge deal – although my thesis is still relatively un-done, but that’s okay… I still have two weeks to get a full draft of at least 80 pages completed… and I already have about 15… so that’s fine…

So, the update.  I’ve read:

  • something aloud to someone else (The Somethingosaur by Tony Mitton to my nephew, and then niece)
  • a middle grade novel (Pax by Sara Pennypacker)
  • a National Book Award Winner (Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me)
  • a book about religion (C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters)
  • a 20th century classic (The Color Purple, which was also Emma Watson’s bookclub pick for February)
  • a book set in my home state (The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mackenzie)
  • a book translated into English (Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue)

And it’s about these last two that I just want to take a moment.

See, on Goodreads, you can only give full stars.  Which is great on one hand and terrible on another.  Because these two books deserved (in my opinion) 3.5 stars.  So I rounded down and gave them both 3.  Giving a book 4 stars means I can confidently recommend it to everyone I know (that would be interested).  Giving a book 3 stars means I enjoyed it all right, but wouldn’t go out of my way to convince someone it’s the best book in the world.

The Portable Veblen is a strange book that takes place mostly in Paolo Alto and follows Veblen and her boyfriend-turned-fiance as they try to navigate crazy families and workplaces and what makes them what they are.  And it’s… fine…?  I think I enjoyed it.  But that’s the trouble.  After 100 pages, I thought I liked it.  At 200, I didn’t think I did.  At 300, I was pretty sure I didn’t like it, but I only had a little over 100 to go, so I finished.  And I think I liked it at the end.  The best part of the whole novel is the squirrel that Veblen talks(?) to that eventually gets a chapter of his own.  I told you it was strange.

It’s just a tough book to find a way to sell to someone.  Like, I’m really grateful I borrowed it instead of buying it because I don’t like it enough to pay $$$ for it.  But I’m glad I read it.  I think.  It’s just a little too off-center for me.  (There’s a reason I like my writers old and dead.)

Enrigue’s Sudden Death is, like Veblen, tough to sell, but I think I enjoyed it more.  It’s completely bizarre.  Like, seriously, try to read any reviews of it and people say it’s riveting, it’s great, it’s intellectual, it’s brilliant.  I found it strange and kind of great.  But it’s for a special type of person that I don’t think would appreciate the completely different nature of the work.  Basically, Caravaggio (yes, that Caravaggio) is playing a tennis match against a Spaniard and they’re going to “sudden death.”  But in between points, you get transported around time and continents, hearing a story about Hernán Cortés and then about Anne Boleyn’s beheading and the creation of tennis balls from her hair and then about the writer and his attempts to write this book and then some stuff about Caravaggio and you basically get wrapped up in a million short essays that are all united by this tennis match that Enrigue has constructed and it’s boggling.  There’s a chapter in there that I really liked that focused on translation and how it changes the meanings of works.  And, knowing that I’m reading a book translated into English made me read it differently.

So again, it’s a tough book to sell to just anyone because it’s pretty much a limited audience.  It’s good, and worth a read if this is your thing, but it’s weird.  And you might not understand what you just read when you finish it.

In non-challenge news, I also read Dear Pope Francis, which is wonderful because the Pope does not shy away from the tough questions children from around the world ask him, and The Warden by Anthony Trollope (which was for class, not pleasure).  I’m also working on Barchester Towers, another Trollope, and am going to have to finish it within the next two weeks because, well, it’s required reading.  It’s better than The Warden, though, so I’m finding it less troublesome than before.

In any case, I’ve lost count of my RC2016 success (I think I’m at 15/63?), but it doesn’t matter because I’m ahead of schedule and that means I have a chance to sit myself down and really get some schoolwork done.  Whoo.

As always, find a new book at your local indie – and see if they read Veblen or Sudden Death and listen to what they think.  I’m curious how anyone else has taken either, or both.

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Reading Challenge 2016: Update

Well, well, well.  Another day, another celebration of Harry Potter.  Having just survived a really fantastic (and completely packed) HP event at work, I decided I should show you just how far along in my challenge I am.  Spoiler: I’ve done 8/63.  Hooray!

  1. Eligible – see previous post
  2. Rules for a Knight by Ethan Hawke (yes, that Ethan Hawke) – Wonderful book, sweet and insightful and meaningful.  You can read it in one sitting and just enjoy it.  Seriously, get this one.
  3. My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem – The first pick for Emma Watson’s bookclub (Our Shared Shelf on Goodreads), this is pretty interesting.  It’s not thrilling, it’s not one that I necessarily think you should buy, but since I borrowed it from the library, it was worth reading.  As a young woman in America right now, it seems like one of those books I should read, even if I’m not sure I really needed to read it.
  4. King Edward III (allegedly) by William Shakespeare – Awesome.  I love the fact that this is one of those plays that people kind of think was written by Billy Boy because it fits his histories and it uses similar language.  I love pretty much all things Shakespeare, especially when it’s his histories, so I found this really interesting.  Also, who actually learns about Edward III?  Not me.  Fun, worth reading, short.  It’s a play, too, so occasionally it’s fun to read aloud to yourself…
  5. Lumberjanes (Vol. 1) by Noelle Stevenson – Fun comic series, lots of girl-power moments.  Love the illustrations and am interested in Vol. 2.  Maybe I’ll add that to another list…
  6. The Shadow Queen by C.J. Redwine – COMING FEB. 16TH.  One of my coworkers snagged the ARC for this book and said I’d enjoy it, so I borrowed it and will freely admit I read it in two days because it’s a fun teen read.  Redwine is retelling Snow White, and it’s in the style of Snow White and the Huntsman, but it’s how that movie should have been.  No mopey K-Stew. with her weird faces, but instead a legitimately badass princess who’s trying to save her kingdom.  Also love the prince in this (spoiler: he can turn into a dragon!) and how the fairytale is dealt with.  Worth a read if you’re in the mood.
  7. Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson – While it’s not as charming as A Walk in the Woods (which had me howling with laughter just about every page), it’s still Bryson, so it’s still utterly delightful.  This time he’s going around Britain, trying to see the most he can.  He has such hilarious insights into the quirks of cultures and the utter strangeness of human beings generally, plus this time it’s British, so obviously I’m going to love it.  A fun book, and worth reading especially now that the “sequel,” The Road to Little Dribbling is now available.
  8. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell – One of my all-time favorite books, and the book upon which I am writing my thesis.  Obviously, I love it.  And I recommend it.  Because it’s delightful.  As is the BBC 2004 adaptation starring Richard Armitage.

So… 8/63.  Looking pretty good for it being only February.  Notice I have not yet attempted to take on the 500+ page challenge, nor have I chosen the book that “intimidates” me.  We shall see how this goes.

Meanwhile, I’m working on The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer, the delightful wife of the completely fantastic Neil Gaiman (!!!).  It’s charming and meaningful and completely enjoyable.  It also makes me often want to say aloud, “I’ve so been there!”  I think I’m counting this as my “self improvement” book, because I’m feeling like if she’s done it, I can do it.  And by “it,” I mean survive the world in which we live.

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