Sept. Book Haul + Wrap-Up + Oct. TBR

Despite a few setbacks, I finished reading some fantastic books this month, and I can’t wait to show you what’s on the upcoming roster! Below you’ll find: the books I acquired throughout the course of the month (including a pic of my book haul stack), the books I completed in September, and my anticipated line-up for October.

New Books:

  1. Golden Son by Pierce Brown. I’d barely begun the first chapter of Red Rising when I knew I had to read the rest of this trilogy. By the time I’d finished the first book, I knew I needed to buy them, not just borrow them, so I ordered this one (the second book) and:
  2. Morning Star by Pierce Brown. The reviews for this trilogy just keep getting better as the books go on, and I’m already highly anticipating the spin-off series that’s tentatively set to have its first book released in 2017. I’ll have to find a copy of Red Rising at some point, too, but for now I’m just so excited about these imminent reads.
  3. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. I ordered this from Book Depository with the Pierce Brown books because it’s way to easy to find a great add-on to a book order. I skimmed through quite a few options before settling on this exciting thriller I’ve been debating buying for a while, and it was a relatively cheap hardcover on this site, so I figured this was my chance.
  4. Burnt Paper Sky by Gilly Mcmillan (aka What She Knew). This one was a separate Book Depository buy. I was looking at this one when I placed my first order and then a few days later it was way on sale and I couldn’t pass it up. It has the UK title and cover instead of the US one; I usually care more about the contents than the aesthetic, but I do like the look of this one better, if I had to choose.
  5. The Thousandth Floor by Katharine McGee. I shouldn’t buy books that are going to be part of a series when only the first one has been published so far. This one’s a futuristic YA book, and I don’t know much else about it yet, but the few YA books that I’ve read lately have put me in a mood to catch up in that genre and here’s a nice shiny new one to get me back in the game. As far as YA goes, I usually prefer a series to a stand-alone, because if I like them enough to continue on, they’re quick and fun, and if I don’t, I can cross a whole chunk of titles off my potential reads list. As much as I’d like to be caught up with what’s new, though, I also hate having to stop in the middle of a series because the next chapter doesn’t exist yet, so I’m not sure yet when I’ll try to read this one.
  6. The Perfect Girl by Gilly Mcmillan. This is actually the first book I heard of by this author. I thought I might like Burnt Paper Sky more, which is why I picked up that one first, but then I couldn’t help picking this one up later in the month.
  7. The Lakotas and the Black Hills by Jeffrey Ostler. I made a quick road trip with a friend this month to see some of the highlights of South Dakota, which included the Black Hills and the legendary birthplace of the Lakota (Native American) tribe, Wind Cave. I picked up this book to learn a little more about the legends of some of the places I visited and some of the things I didn’t have a chance to see yet–so I’ll be ready for next time! This should give me a healthy dose of nonfiction literature and national history.
  8. Nerve by Jeanne Ryan. I’ve been on the fence about this one for a while, but I finally decided to pick it up. It was cheap, I was in the mood, that’s it for the story with this one.
  9. The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey. When I first saw this one a couple of years ago I thought it would be perfect for my brother, but I ended up not buying it because he doesn’t really read. Now that more of the series is available and I’ve heard such great things about it, I’m going to give it a chance and then maybe try coaxing him into it. I wasn’t sure it was my type when I first saw it, but the premise has grown on me. I think we’ll hit it off, The 5th Wave and I.

septemberbooks

Although I bought some great books recently, I haven’t read any of them yet. I did surpass my goal of reading six books this month though; I finished all six of the books I’d planned to read, plus two extras. Here’s what I read in September:

  1. Red Rising by Pierce Brown. I didn’t anticipate loving this trilogy as much as I do. I picked this as my first September read thinking it would be quick and easy to get through, a nice break between my last August read (Brave New World, which was a heavier story) and all of the fun end-of-summer books I was really looking forward to delving into later in the month. But Red Rising turned out to be a surprising highlight of September and I can’t wait to continue with the series. You can find my full review of this book here. I gave 5 stars.
  2. Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs. In hindsight, I should’ve maybe reread this one’s predecessors. I read both of the first books in the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children series soon after they were released, and it became quickly apparent to me in Library of Souls that I remembered very little about their plots. Although I’m great at remembering my reactions to books, I’m horrible at recalling plot details. I had to pause in the first chapter to go back and find some spoilers online to refresh my memory, but once I’d done that the third book was quick and entertaining to finish, and I remembered how much I’d enjoyed this series from the beginning. I’d like to buy them as a set and reread them all together someday when I have the time, but for now I’m glad to have reached the conclusion of a fascinating trilogy. I love that this one incorporates real vintage photos into its story, just one of the norm-defying elements to this great YA set. I gave 5 stars.
  3. All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda. The premise of this one really hooked me–a murder mystery told backward. For the first half I thought the story was really going to disappoint me, but the plot became so convoluted and truly unpredictable toward the end that I couldn’t put it down. I may have to check out some of Megan Miranda’s other books, which are more geared toward YA, but hopefully just as thrilling. You can find my complete review for All the Missing Girls here. I gave 4 stars.
  4. The Killing Forest by Sara Blaedel. This is the second book published in English from Danish crime writer Blaedel’s series set in Denmark. I read the first book earlier this year (you can find my complete review of The Forgotten Girls here), and thought that the series held promise though the first book fell a little flat for me. This one was a definite improvement. Click here for my complete review. I gave 4 stars.
  5. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. This one was a surprising win for me. I kept putting it off, thinking I wouldn’t understand or like it enough, but I was so impressed by how much tension was crammed into a book about someone playing a video game, and I impressed myself by understanding a lot more game and 80’s references than I expected to. Definitely one of my favorite books of the year, and highly recommended. Click here for my complete review. I gave 5 stars.
  6. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I was also surprised by how much I liked this one. I had only a basic idea of the themes in this book before starting, but even as I grew more and more horrified with the subject matter and how far the plot was advancing, I also became more appreciative of the main character, who seemed to be losing his mind for his inappropriate love. This is no slow, stuffy classic; Lolita is delightfully disturbing and will change the way you look at the world, or at least some of the people in it. I gave 5 stars.
  7. Cinder by Marissa Meyer. I remember when this book first came out. I was still in high school. I probably would’ve really enjoyed reading it then, but for some reason I’ve been putting it off for years. This YA series, the Lunar Chronicles, features futuristic updates of well-known fairy tales. That was not something that appealed to me in 2012, and I thought it would be too predictable–everyone already knows how the fairy tales end. I’ve seen almost nothing but good reviews for this series, though, and I do plan to read more YA as this year comes to a close, so I thought it was finally time to give this one a try; I was pleased to discover that despite some minor issues, I was surprised at nearly every turn. You can find my complete review here. I gave 4 stars.
  8. The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane. Somehow I was lucky enough to find a gorgeous copy of this book for less than $3 in July. That bumped this novel way up on my to-read list, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed what was between the covers as much as how they were decorated. The secluded Australian coast setting lent a perfect early fall vibe to this novel–not the biting cold of Midwest US winter, but not the bustling, crowded beaches of Australian summer, either. And this story messes with the mind, which is a great sort of tale this time of year. You can find my complete review here. I gave 5 stars.
  9. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. This one had been on my radar for a few years but I was in no hurry to read it until I’d seen it referred to in conjunction with Red Rising and Ready Player One, both of which I loved earlier this month. I’m usually not a big sci-fi reader, and parts of this book reminded me why, but I did enjoy it and was glad I finally gave it a chance. I’ll probably check out the sequel at some point. You can find my complete review here.

I keep worrying that having a specific TBR is going to backfire for me, but I was continually impressed by how well it was working out for me in September. I assigned myself a lower number of books (6) than in August (10) because while reading 9-10 books a month is not completely unusual for me, it’s not typical. My average is probably closer to 5, but I’ve been so psyched for all of my book picks lately that I’ve been reading like crazy. Not only was I motivated to read everything on my list for September and work ahead a little, but the books I had assigned myself kept exceeding my expectations, leaving me even more excited about the next choices I’d planned. What I thought was a list of good books turned out to be a list of great books, and they’ve made me even more excited about planning my next reads. I’ll be forging my way through this next list starting immediately, and I’ve decided to plan a relatively high number again in case my reading streak continues. Without further ado, here’s my October TBR:

  1. Golden Son by Pierce Brown. October is a month for fantasy and thrillers–a bit of the otherworldy, and all the creepy vibes. A couple of the characters from the first book of this trilogy struck me as pretty creepy (I’m  anxiously awaiting their return in this sequel), and the futuristic Mars setting definitely qualifies it as otherworldly. Also, the cover just looks perfect for fall, dark and gold with a hint of red orange. I’m so excited to read this one, and I think this will be a great time of year for it.
  2. The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena. Speaking of thrillers, how about one where you can’t trust your own neighbors? Perfect just before Halloween. I’ve been highly anticipating this one for about a month, and now is the time to read it.
  3. The Revenant by Michael Punke. I think this one is going to be a great cold-weather read, and by the middle of October I think I’ll be cold enough. Also, I’m planning to finally see this movie next month, so I want to read it before then. It’s been a little while since my last historical fiction read, so I’m excited to dip my toes in that water again, especially as back-to-school season is well upon us (historical fiction always feels a bit educational to me).
  4. I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid. This one’s a psychological thriller dealing with a character who can’t stop thinking about ending her relationship, though there seems to be no reason to do so. I believe the couple is stuck somewhere on a trip together, which I think will be unusual and intriguing. October is a month for monsters, and what more frightening monster is there than the darkness in oneself?
  5. A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas. Here’s my YA read of the month, a true fantasy novel because I had to have one of those on my October list. I’m actually planning to pick up additional YA books this month if I reach the end of my official TBR, but I’m not sure which ones yet. This one, though, was my top YA pick for October because of the fall-colored cover, the fantasy genre, and the (rather embarrassing) fact that I haven’t ready any Sarah J. Maas yet.
  6. Morning Star by Pierce Brown. If I were a rational reader, I would drag out this trilogy a little longer, but I barely restrained myself from throwing my September TBR out the window to continue with it in September, and I know after reading Golden Son I won’t be able to put off this third book very long now that it’s in my hands. If I end up getting a little behind schedule this month though, this is the one I’ll try leaving on the back burner until November.
  7. Scarlet by Marissa Meyer. Here’s an extra YA book I am planning to read this month, though I wasn’t willing to count it is the YA pick of October since it’s a sequel. I want to continue on in the Lunar Chronicles series, but I have so many other books I want to read in October that I don’t think I’ll get farther than this second book within the month. Even so, I think Meyer’s futuristic fairy tale world will be a good fit for this time of year.
  8. Dracula by Bram Stoker. Last but not least, my most Halloween-ish pick of the month. I bought this a few years ago with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I read and loved, but I haven’t gotten around to this one yet. Despite all the new books I want to read so badly, it’s important to me to keep up with my classics list, as well, and this one jumped out at me while I was planning this TBR. I think a monster tale would make a perfect read for the end of the month, and if you’re going for vampires, what better choice than the quintessential vampire book? I can hardly wait.

What are you reading in October? Which creepy, otherworldly, or monster stories should I keep in mind for next year, or even early November? I would love to hear your recommendations! I hope you’re as excited for this new month of reading as I am. If you need me, I’ll be turning pages.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Advertisements

Review: The Night Guest

Fiona McFarlane’s debut novel, The Night Guest, is a slippery, elusive tale that will remind readers it’s probably time to call their mothers. It’s a sophisticated look at life and death, family and friends, love and trust. If you like books that make you question the bounds of reality, pick this one up pronto.

About the book: Ruth is an aged widow living on a secluded section of the Australian coast with only her cats for company. Her sons call occasionally, and visit for Christmas, but mostly she spends her days listening only to the sounds of the nearby ocean and her own voice. One night, though, something unusual happens–she wakes in the darkness of her home to the unmistakable feeling that there is a tiger in the house. She knows there can’t really be a tiger, but she sensed it there. The next day, Frida arrives. Frida claims that she is a government worker tasked with caring for elderly folk who don’t qualify for full nursing services but need help keeping their houses clean and functional. At first it’s just an hour each day, then three, but soon Frida has moved into the guest room to help Ruth around the clock for “a small fee.” When Ruth begins to trust her, she tells Frida about the tiger, but Frida’s reaction to the news is perhaps more disturbing than the possibility of a jungle cat prowling occasionally in the lounge room. Ruth begins to question her safety and her sanity in a home that suddenly feels much fuller than it has since her husband’s death. Something about Frida’s presence is menacing, but how can she pay attention to a government carer when the tiger and the complications of old age are creeping up on her?

thenightguest“Ruth’s door was ajar, and she could see light falling across the hall in a way that meant the lounge-room door was open. The tiger was there, in that light! What would it mean to actually see him? Would it hurt? The jungle pressed against the windows, not insistent; only present.”

Although the narration is presented through a third person perspective, the reader is given a close look at Ruth’s life and thoughts. The early instances of confusion for Ruth in the novel are also moments of confusion for the reader. Ruth remembers one thing, but Frida says something different. Who can be trusted? Even Ruth begins to doubt herself. McFarlane is an expert puppeteer of characters and their truths, leaving the reader to wonder where the fiction ends and Ruth’s reality begins.

“All her life she’d been afraid of believing something untrue. It seemed like a constant threat: the possibility, for example, of believing in error that Christ had died for her sins. She turned with horror from the unlikely thing. It seemed so improbable that Frida would lie…that the house could really be so hot and full of jungle noises, even once a tiger. Who would believe any of it? But it was true.”

The fact that both Ruth’s and Frida’s trustworthiness is in question fills each sentence of the book with curiosities. The most mundane details of Ruth’s past and Frida’s everyday actions must be considered carefully to check against future mentions, when they may be provided again in unexpected variations or completely refuted by new information. And then there’s the tiger. Ruth admits readily that there must not truly be a tiger, but Frida latches on to the idea, taking it very literally. There’s not quite anything about Frida that Ruth or the reader can put their fingers on, but neither can shake the feeling that Frida is after something she won’t admit to. Frida is a nagging mystery hiding in the shadow of the persistent tiger mystery–and perhaps she’s hiding there behind the tiger intentionally.

“Frida only ever did what she wanted. Ruth knew that, just as she knew that Frida was not honest and had fooled her in some important way. The clocks ticked louder.”

Side note: I kept having to pause my reading to admire the cover of this book. The colors and design are gorgeous, the artwork intricate and intriguing. This is probably one of the best sale buys I’ve ever found. I was a little worried that the content couldn’t possibly impress me as much as the cover, but the writing style flows eloquently and precisely, pulling the reader into the book effortlessly. I wish I could say more abthenightguest2out the wonders of the symbolism and plotting in this book without giving too much away, but I’ll have to settle for sharing the cover instead. Here’s the back: (note the tiger camouflaged into the bottom left corner)

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book was short and easy to read, but absolutely lovely. It’s a captivating story, a real warning, and a humbling lesson. It’ll stay with me a long time. I don’t know that I’ve read any other books by Australian authors, but I enjoyed this one so much I may have to look into that. I haven’t read many books with elderly characters either, but I found Ruth endearing, and when she wasn’t having memory trouble, I had to remind myself occasionally that she was a retired grandmother who’d already lost her husband to old age several years past. I think I’ll have to look into Fredrik Backman’s books after enjoying this one so much. Any recommendations for me among those, or otherwise based on this book? The Night Guest is the kind of book that makes me want to go out and find lots of other great books to read, so feel free to mention any that come to mind!

Further recommendations:

  1. Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is narrated alternately by an amusingly crabby old man in a nursing home and his much younger self during the months he spent running away with the circus. There’s romance, manipulation, contemplation of death, and so much circus excitement in this intriguing story. If you like The Night Guest, you should pick this one up, too.
  2. If you’re looking for something even more thrilling that features a character who begins to doubt her own sanity after an unsettling sequence of events, try Ruth Ware’s new novel, The Woman in Cabin 10. A young woman witnesses a murder on a small boat, but every other passenger denies that the woman ever existed. Click here for my complete review of this book.

Coming up Next: I’ll soon be posting my monthly wrap-up for September, with a brief overview of the books I’ve read through the month, the new books I’ve acquired recently, and my to-read list for October. Following that, my next review post will feature Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which I’m hoping will relate to a couple of the books I read and enjoyed in September–Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and Red Rising by Pierce Brown. Check back soon to see how they compare!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Cinder

The YA genre really seems to have expanded and diversified recently, even just in the five years or so since I was almost exclusively reading YA books. Especially in sci-fi and fantasy, YA has become remarkably inventive with its creative plots and unique world-building. YA isn’t just for teens anymore. I think the Twilight saga, back in its heyday, was one of the first modern YA stories to attract a wider audience, and it’s no longer uncommon to see adults shopping for themselves in the YA section at bookstores. I’m beginning to feel just past the usual age for YA books, but recently I’ve been noticing that there are still some gems there I don’t want to miss. YA fiction may have different rules of conduct than adult fiction, but I think for this reason it’s important not to overlook the category if you’re interested in taking literature to its limits. And so I’m diving back in. Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series, first book Cinder, is one of the few YA series that my small library owns the complete set of, so I recently picked this one up.

About the book: Cinder is the cyborg stepdaughter of a woman who despises her and an inventive man who has died of the letumosis plague. Set in New Beijing after the fourth world war, this story features a society desperately seeking a cure for letumosis, which has swept the globe, leaving no survivors among those who seem to have been randomly infected. On top of surviving the plague horrors, Cinder must also earn a living for her greedy family by working as a mechanic. Her booth in the marketplace is visited by an unusual guest–Prince Kai. The royal family is having trouble of its own, trying to reach a peace agreement with the Lunars, a powerful society based on Earth’s moon. The upcoming annual ball is the least of Cinder’s concerns, and even though Kai has issued her a special invitation, she isn’t allowed to attend. She isn’t allowed to do much of anything these days–maybe not even to live, especially as Cinder unearths royal and Lunar secrets that may affect her life more than she ever would’ve guessed.

There is so much about this book that is unexpected. I knew beforehand that there would cinderbe ties to the classic Cinderella story, and I knew Cinder would be a cyborg. I anticipated a typical YA love story with Cinder heading off into the sunset with Prince Kai by the end of the book, but every time I thought I had found a path through the complexities of the story, I was hit with another twist. I wasn’t expecting a deadly plague, a character more evil and dangerous for Cinder than her uncaring stepmother, or rumors about the ruling family of the moon. All of the Cinderella story details I’d expected faded into the background as the unique, futuristic elements took over. This is a whole new fairy tale:

“Cinder stared at the holograph and imagined watching herself die. In real time.”

Best aspect: world building. I’ll let Meyer and Cinder speak for themselves here:

“Cinder opened her eyes. The netscreen on the wall had changed, no longer showing her life stats. Her ID number was still at the top, headlining a holographic diagram. Of a girl. A girl full of wires. It was as if someone had chopped her down the middle, dividing her front half from her back half, and then put her cartoonish image into a medical textbook. Her heart, her brain, her intestines, her muscles, her blue veins. Her control panel, her synthetic hand and leg, wires that trailed from the base of her skull all the way down her spine and out to her prosthetic limbs. The scar tissue where flesh met metal…those things she had expected.”

Worst aspect: Cinder’s a bit of a dunce when it comes to people. She’s a great mechanic who makes intelligent plans and has the competency to carry them out, but despite her built-in lie detector, she has trouble understanding the motives of  the people she’s around. She’s constantly underestimating her stepmother, can’t quite guess what the doctor in charge of plague research is hiding from her even after the reader is able to figure out the pieces of that puzzle, and she can’t see what Queen Levana is capable of until a third party steps in to point out the obvious. Cinder is not a weak character. She’s not even unobservant. But she’s slow to realize what the reader’s already figured out. She also sees less value in herself than most of the other characters, which is saying something considering the way most people of this time period treat cyborgs.

” ‘I didn’t know how to control it. I didn’t know what was happening…It’s probably a good thing I’m in here. There’s nowhere out there I would fit in, not after that.’ “

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This book started off rocky for me; the first couple of chapters failed to impress me, but after a couple more I’d gotten the gist of the world and fell into the rhythm of the switching character perspectives and the plot hook at the end of each chapter that kept me turning pages. The story was more complex than I expected setting out, and I am definitely intrigued at how the events laid out in this first volume will continue to branch out and solidify in the next three books. I’m also excited to see the perspectives of more new characters in this futuristic world–while I enjoyed the world, the plot, and some of the characters, I didn’t necessarily love Cinder, but I need to know what will happen to her and the rest of the cast as the series progresses. I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel, Scarlet, in the upcoming month.

Further recommendations:

  1. As YA retellings of famous stories go, Meg Cabot’s Avalon High, based on the story of King Arthur at Camelot, is a long-standing favorite of mine. A teen at the local high school comes to realize she may be living a reincarnation of Arthur’s story, but she can’t accept the same fate as her Arthurian counterpart succumbed to.
  2. If you want more YA fantasy, try Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series. I actually liked the spin-off series better, but Clare’s books are best read in publication order, which begins with City of Bones. This series isn’t quite as futuristic as The Lunar Chronicles, but there are definitely more fantasy elements and the level of world-building detail is superb.

What’s next: Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest is a beautiful and powerful little novel about an old woman living on the coast of Australia, who begins to notice a tiger visiting the inner rooms of her house at night–a tiger that may or may not be real. The tiger is not the only thing moving into Ruth’s home, though, and may turn out to be the least dangerous new addition… Stay tuned to learn more.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: you can now find my complete review of the next book in this series, Scarlet, here!

 

 

Review: Ready Player One

Wade “Parzival” Watts may be a master at video gaming, but Ernest Cline, author of Ready Player One, is a master with words. I put off reading this futuristic story about elite video gamer Wade and his fascination with 1980’s pop culture because I’m a non-gamer, but it took me exactly one and a half pages to know this was book I couldn’t miss.

I mean, I played a few games in my childhood, but it’s been years. I was worried I didn’t have the expertise or even basic knowledge about which video games were out there and how they worked to appreciate the myriad references and specific lingo I expected in this book. I’d heard it was a great story, but I just didn’t think with my limited video gaming experience I’d be able to do it justice. Honesty, yes, all those references to classic and obscure video games through the ages would probably be more exciting for someone more versed in gaming, but luckily I found that just living in the world had given me enough base knowledge to at least recognize the names of big games and understand a little about their rules of play. And that was enough. Wade/Parzival, the main character of Ready Player One, narrates his story as though describing it to someone who’s not even entirely sure about humans and the planet Earth–not dumbing things down to an excruciating level, but certainly offering plenty of detail for every aspect of the book.

What it’s About: Wade is a high school senior who lives sometimes in his aunt’s place in the “stacks” (a vertically assembled trailer park at the edges of cities) in Oklahoma City, and sometimes in his private hideout (an empty van at the bottom of a mound of abandoned cars). The year is 2044, and a lack of natural resources has caused the world to deteriorate. Few seem to be concerned about this state of affairs, however, because people all over the planet spend the majority of their time plugged into the OASIS, a virtual reality immersion system in which anyone can find adventure, work for credits that serve as a world currency, communicate in real time with anyone logged on, and, most importantly, compete in the epic contest left behind by the dead OASIS creator, James Halliday. Wade has been looking for clues to solve the puzzle and win the game–and Halliday’s more than $200 billion fortune–for five years already, but something is finally about to change. All of his research into Halliday’s obsessions, which include readyplayeroneprimarily pop culture details from the 1980’s, has finally paid off. Wade throws everything he’s got into the game of a lifetime, a game that his enemies bring into the real world, as well. Death is a real possibility for Wade and his avatar, Parzival, but he must also take risks to keep safe the friends he’s met in the OASIS, even though he’s never met them in reality. Everything is changing, and the only way to come out on top is to win Halliday’s revolutionary game.

“The visor drew the OASIS directly onto my retinas, at the highest frame rate and resolution perceptible to the human eye. The real world looked washed-out and blurry by comparison.”

The characters of this book are so original and, for me, unexpected. I didn’t anticipate sympathizing so much with characters who live for games, but their attitudes and reactions to the world and the OASIS seemed frequently to mirror my own impressions of events in the novel. Wade and his friends are atypical heroes that keep the reader coming back for more–kind, funny, and somewhat cynical.

“You’re probably wondering what’s going to happen to you. That’s easy. The same thing is going to happen to you that has happened to every other human being who has ever lived. You’re going to die. We all die. That’s just how it is.”

The book is all the more interesting for taking place in two worlds–the real one and the virtual one. Predictably, we do see characters who prefer to abandon reality for the life they can create for themselves in the OASIS system, but that only adds to the tension, raising the stakes of Halliday’s game because it is such an integral part of the characters’ lives. The fact that the prize money, won inside the OASIS, can be used in reality, also helps expand the reach of the game, making it even more important in some regards than anything that could happen in the real world. For Wade, there is nothing in reality he’d rather experience than what he can find the OASIS.

“The hour or so after I woke up was my least favorite part of each day, because I spent it in the real world. This was when I I dealt with the tedious business of cleaning and exercising my physical body. I hated this part of the day because everything about it contradicted my other life. My real life, inside the OASIS.”

My Reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book held so many surprises. The premise was intriguing, the plot was fun, and the writing style was superb. There were so many sentences I had to stop and reread a few times just because I was so captivated by the wording. I really have nothing bad to say about this book. It was interesting, educational, and it made me want to learn more about relatively recent history, especially concerning pop culture. Cline definitely took a risk picking such specific elements for his first novel, but the 80’s were an iconic time and technology truly is becoming so prominent an aspect of life that both of those topics are widely accessible; if there’s even a modicum of nerd in you, you want to pick up Ready Player One. Trust me.

Further recommendations:

  1. Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde is a great YA choice for readers interested in novels about immersive simulation games. A player stuck in a virtual game must continue to tackle its challenges and beat the system in order to re-enter reality.
  2. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising is a futuristic dystopian novel that features a very real and deadly game, as opposed to a simulated one. This one also opens up a whole new world for readers (taking place on futuristic Mars) and raises the stakes by forcing one ordinary but intelligent character to the position of necessary hero. You can read my complete review here.

What’s Next: I’m currently reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita but I’m still wavering about whether to write reviews for classics. While I decide, I’ve been convinced to try reading Cinder, the first book in a YA fantasy series that incorporates fairy tales, which I’m planning to read next. It’ll be one of these two featured in my next review.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Killing Forest

I took a bit of a hiatus from reading lately for a short road trip, but I’m back and just as excited about books as ever. The last novel I read was Sara Blaedel’s The Killing Forest, the second book published in English from a popular Danish crime series. I read the first book, The Forgotten Girls (click here for a complete review), earlier this year and was, if not exactly disappointed, not much impressed, either. But it did intrigue me, so I thought after a break I’d give this second book a try.

About the book: Louise and Eik are partnered up again as a new case brings them back to Louise’s childhood home of Hvalsø and unearths old secrets tangled up with Louise’s past. This one is much more personal for her because the current case of a missing fifteen year-old boy who has been living near a sacrificial site in the forest seems to be inextricably linked with several other cases, including Klaus’ death. Klaus was Louise’s great love twenty years ago, but now Eik is beside her as they search for answers and closure before the religion-turned-cult that rules the town can cover up the truth–again. The members of a secretive Asatro circle have formed a brotherhood based on silence and lawlessness, leaving death and terror in their wake that make it difficult for Louise and Eik to pin them down for any crimes. Not only are the crimes elusive, but the rouge Asatro band also conceals its members. What began as a recognized religion for worshipping nature has become an excuse for murder, prostitution, kidnapping, and unhindered revenge. When the gang declares war on Louise and her friend, Camilla, no one is safe, especially those on the inside.thekillingforest

” ‘You don’t kill somebody for leaving a group of friends,’ Louise said. Then Klaus came to mind. ‘This is no group of friends,’ he said. ‘I thought you of all people had that figured out. This is hell. No one gets out.’ “

The downfall: I still feel like I’m missing pieces of the story. Not necessarily key details, but information about relationships, and background facts. Part of this, like my response to the first book, is that the books of this series published in English are not the first books in the Danish series. English readers are coming into the game six books or so behind–think of all that characterization lost.

Another factor, I think, may be the translation. Something about the writing feels too matter-of-fact, too uninspired. It doesn’t feel like one of those works were the author slaves over every last sentence, though I doubt Blaedel was careless or rushed in choosing her words. Sometimes in literature a single word can convey everything you need to know about someone or something, and the difference between two synonyms is crucial to the reader’s interpretation of a scene. Perhaps there are nuances lost between the two languages that gave me the impression that parts of the story were a bit dry. See, the plot is woven so well, and in this book the reader is given answers to many of the questions that plagued me in The Forgotten Girls, so that it’s hard to believe Blaedel herself is the one leaving anything wanting about these novels. The story is presented competently, but not excitingly. It feels like a translation rather than an original work.

“For a moment everything stood still. Including her heart, Louise feared for a moment. But then her rage exploded from a place inside her she’d never felt before. Her fingertips turned cold, but the colors around her suddenly grew brighter, as if her senses were no longer deadened from anxiety.”

That said, I think the plot of The Killing Forest is much improved from The Forgotten Girls. There are more personal investments for the characters, and real uncertainty about whether more crimes will be committed before the culprits are caught–or even whether the police will be able to hold the suspects in custody at all. The double layer of present and past cases gave depth to the characters, showing change over time. Camilla and her new husband, Frederick, own the land on which the forest crucial to the story stands, and their proximity leads them to direct rather than peripheral involvement, making them more essential to the story than they seem in the first book. The story is much more exciting in this one, much darker, fulfilling my dashed hopes from the first book. I was a little reluctant to start this one, with my underwhelmed impression from the first book fresh in my mind, but The Killing Forest turned out to be a quick and immersive read.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I have hopes that with future books this series will prosper, but I was impressed by the level of improvement already from the last book to this one. You may be able to read The Killing Forest as a stand-alone novel, if this one seems more interesting to you than the first book. There are a few details carried over from The Forgotten Girls that would be missed, but Blaedel does a great job of filling in the blanks on past events in The Killing Forest, reminding readers of crucial details from The Forgotten Girls and even exploring farther back in the past than the last book allowed. The Forgotten Girls opens doors to a myriad of questions, and The Killing Forest answers them. If you’ve read the first book, even if you were not impressed, I would recommend continuing on with this one. If you haven’t read either, and crime fiction is your niche, you should pick up at least this second one. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for future books in this series, as well. And if you’ve already read and enjoyed this book…

Further recommendations:

  1. As intense crime fiction goes, James Patterson is the American master. If you like Louise, you’ll appreciate her American counterpart, Lindsay, of Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series. The first fantastic book in this set is 1st to Die, and you won’t regret picking it up.
  2. Another great murder mystery writer is Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series is set in London and features an enigmatic private detective and his persistent assistant, Robin, as horrid criminals hunt them down in the city. You can read my complete review of the first book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, here.

Coming Up Next: I’m currently reading Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a futuristic novel about video gaming that incorporates 1980’s culture. I’ve been putting this one off because I’m not much into video games and I wasn’t alive in the 1980’s, but neither of those factors has been a problem so far and I’m finding the story truly captivating. It even has footnotes, which I find fascinating in fiction. Check back soon for a complete review.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: All the Missing Girls

A murder mystery told backward. That’s one I hadn’t heard before. If you haven’t tried it yet and love reading uncommon techniques, check out Megan Miranda’s debut adult thriller, All the Missing Girls. It’s a gasp-out-loud shiver-inducing sprint from cover to cover.

About the book: Nic(olette) has escaped the clutches of tragedy and suspicion in Cooley Ridge, NC–or so she thinks. Ten years ago, her best friend went missing after a night at the town fair, and the investigation–although unfruitful–poisoned the town with rumors and doubts. Nic couldn’t face staying in town with her friends and family, and immediately set on a path to get out. Her father, however, has been losing his mind and burning through his savings, which brings Nic back to town to help her brother sell their father’s house. It’s supposed to be a temporary trip, a short break from her fiance, a trial to be suffered through and quickly forgotten, but on the night of Nic’s return, a second girl goes missing and every detail of the old case is forefront news again. Nic is reunited with her old crew, secrets that have been kept quiet find new ears, and somehow, Nic knows, the two cases are connected, because the danger is brought right to Nic’s back door–which sports a broken lock that clearly doesn’t deter trespassers.

About the layout: This book is divided into three sections. The first part shows Nic at her new home in Philadelphia, with her smart, wealthy fiance and the life she built for herself away from the horrors of her childhood home. The second part, as advertised, is told backwards (pay close attention to details here–they all matter, and if you miss something you’ll be flipping back and forth trying to pin it down). The double murder mystery takes about two weeks to resolve, and is narrated with each day described from beginning to end, in backwards order. The third part shows where the pieces fall in the aftermath.

allthemissinggirlsFor the first half of the book, up to Nic’s first week in Cooley Ridge (the second week narrated), I feared the story was letting me down. There didn’t seem much benefit up to that point of a backwards structure, but the tension flies sky-high in the second half as the reader begins to realize no one can be trusted–least of all our narrator. Nic mentions a few times that she, like everyone else, hid things from the detectives in the first case ten years ago, but it’s not until we’ve seen a solid week of the second search for a missing girl that we start noting a few jarring differences between what Nic says early on in the book (late in the case), and what we see has actually happened previously. Nic is a consistent narrator throughout, though, and while she seems to refrain from lying to the reader outright, she’s remarkably adept at half-truths. This makes sense, structurally; for the reader to see the end of the search and not have the keys to unlock the mystery until the end of the telling (Nic’s first day back in town) clearly something must have happened immediately upon Nic’s arrival that she’s concealed in her future narration.

And that is what I love about this book: all of the characters–especially the narrator–have complicated backgrounds and are wholly untrustworthy, or so it seems. There are a few gems, but everyone is shady enough to bear the brunt of suspicion at some point in the book. There are no stereotypical characters here. Secrets keep their lives twined together, but the fact that they all have different secrets also isolates each one of them, adding to the possibilities for uncertainty and deception. Nic’s closest allies are all tied up in the disappearance of the first girl–when it becomes clear that she is gone forever, doesn’t it mean one of them must be a murderer? Who can she trust?

“They were people you called with news: I met a guy. I’m engaged. I got a new job. To share the highs and the lows. But friends to call for deep things, the things that live in the dark spaces of our hearts? Those people didn’t exist for me any longer.”

The best/worst aspect: Megan Miranda’s writing style. This is simultaneously the downfall and the upshot of this book for me.

Downfall because there are a few aspects that are too spelled out, comments that are too on-the-nose: especially the mentions of time-out-of-order being able to teach you something. This statement varies and multiplies throughout the story, even making it into the dialogue once, and that annoys me more than anything else in the book. I want to be able to see the benefit to learning the story out of order, rather than be promised repeatedly that there is one. I did appreciate the unusual chronology after the mystery was solved, but the book was still trying to point out that it was out of order and that that was a good thing. There are a few other comments–about the setting, mainly–that also felt a little insulting to my reading intelligence to have pointed out, but the time references are the the most cringe-worthy.

The upshot, though, is the fantastic creepy vibe of the story. The characters and the town itself are described so well and made so complex that I felt I knew each of them well, and yet still wasn’t quite sure what they were capable of. Cooley Ridge is small enough for everyone to know 2/3 of everyone else’s life, enough that surprises are pleasantly jarring but have enough wiggle room to be completely believable. At times I trusted the characters so thoroughly that the police and the unjustified rumors seemed like an unfair enemy battling good people, but there were other times I distrusted them so completely that I knew the police were eerily spot-on with their questions and their assumptions about who wasn’t as good as they seemed. The descriptions, combined with Nic’s thoughts about the fragility of life, give a skin-crawling sensation that really make the story–even at times when there seems to be no imminent danger, there is always that creeping feeling that something is slightly off. The characters, to an extent, are willing to embrace darkness. It was this tension that kept me turning pages.

“How quickly you might go from something to nothing. How one moment you can be a girl laughing in a field of sunflowers, and the next, a haunting face on a poster in a storefront window. How terrifying, empty and hollow, and then: how absolving.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. The end of this book had so many surprises that I kept guessing wrong, then reconsidering everything and guessing again. The unpredictability was so addicting that I couldn’t put the book down. Before I got to that point though, the tension from the backwards structure made things slow and awkward. I read Nic’s arrival to Cooley Ridge and wanted to know what would happen next, but was thrown into the thick of things two weeks later. I read what happened two weeks later and wanted to know further results, but was sent back to what happened in the middle. It was hard to restrain myself from picking through the book to find the specific days I wanted to read most, and that was an uncomfortable struggle I didn’t enjoy. It was minimal, and the slow parts would certainly be more interesting in a second read-through after all of the character’s pasts have been revealed, but it did disappoint me enough in this first read to keep me from giving it all 5 stars. I am glad I bought it though, to peruse the different parts of the timeline at my leisure. There’s a lot in this book worth looking at closely.

Further recommendations:

  1. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a great thriller with similar levels of mounting anxiety and uncertainty about which of the people in the main character’s small environment may be a murderer. This one also uses a non-chronological structure for some elements. Check out my full review here.
  2. For an even more haunting and gory tale (perfect for October) check out Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, another small-town thriller that hits the narrator close to home. The main character of this one also harbors an unsolved murder case in her past that is the topic of much speculation, and a present day event brings old danger to her life all over again.

What’s next: Earlier this year I read Sara Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls and finished the book with mixed feelings (you can read my review here for more info). Now I’ve got my hands on her second book in the same series, The Killing Forest, and I’m giving these characters a second chance. Stay tuned to find out whether Blaedel’s second murder mystery about Danish investigator Louise Rick hits the mark.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Red Rising

Part Hunger Games, part Percy Jackson, and part Lord of the Flies, Pierce Brown’s first book, Red Rising, packs one helluva punch. As the acknowledgement preceding the story asserts, “you’re going to bloodydamn love these books.” If you like dystopians, this one wins.

About the book: Darrow is a Red. Reds are the lowest Colors in Society, slaves to the highColors for all intents and purposes. All his life he’s known only the existence of a mine worker on Mars. If he’s not precisely happy, he’s content to be with his family and wife, Eo, and knows his place as the Helldiver for his mining group of Reds. But Eo does something that turns his world upside down and starts a quest for vengeance that changes the entire course of Darrow’s life. The Sons of Ares need his help to disrupt the unfair order of Society, and he needs their help to find justice and do as Eo wished for him–to live for more. If the only way to best the Golds is to become one and destroy the system from within, that’s what he’ll do. Only from the inside will he discover whether his birth as a Red truly makes him inferior, or whether his career as a Helldiver was the best preparation for life as a Gold that anyone could’ve asked for. Golds have to attend the Institute and compete for prestige, but Darrow is one of few who seem to understand that the deadly test is so much more than a game. Then again, he’s got so much more at stake than his new Gold friends and enemies.redrising

“I feel no pity for these students. They all murdered someone the night before, just like me. There are no innocents in this game.”

Best aspect: Darrow isn’t fighting for himself. Often in dystopian novels, the protagonist has been wronged in some personal way or has made a personal discovery that wakens dreams of revenge and a quest for their own safety and happiness. For Darrow, the choice is not made, it is thrust upon him. Eo is his motivation. She may be little more than a symbol to the reader, but she’s given Darrow a goal. He sees that revenge isn’t the answer, and the justice he seeks is not for himself–what he wanted is already gone. There are so many more layers and emotions to this story than I’ve fond in other dystopians because Darrow’s motivation is so complex. Not only is his hunt for justice more colorful because it’s someone else’s justice he’s seeking, but his reactions to the Golds are so much more intense. He has a deep hatred for the system of Society, but he sees all of the other characters as individual people–he has more sympathy for some of the Golds than some of the Reds and understands that even the Gold students competing with him at the Institute are forced through hardships or even deaths that they don’t deserve. Everything he’s been through has provided him with a uniquely objective perspective that makes him an expert at manipulating the rules and shifting the paradigm.

“Somehow she thinks we should pay, that the Proctors should come down and interfere. Most of the kids think that about this game…But the game isn’t like that, because life isn’t like that. Gods don’t come down in life to mete out justice. The powerful do it. That’s what they are teaching us, not only the pain in gaining power, but the desperation that comes from not having it, the desperation that comes when you are not a Gold.”

Although this is considered a YA book and Darrow is young and frequently admits that he’s still learning, Red Rising feels like a book for ages YA and above. A big part of the reason for this is the excellent world-building Brown demonstrates, making this a book for intelligent readers. Darrow mentions items and aspects of life that are completely alien to our present-day vocabulary on Earth. The reader needs to pay close attention and make inferences about what things are and how they function; you have to be able to fill in the blanks. I consider this a success in characterization–Darrow shouldn’t have to explain things he already knows, overthinking base knowledge of common details of his life on Mars, and the fact that he doesn’t gives the narration an impression of authenticity and reliability, as though we’ve been given direct access to his thoughts. If you’re not a reader who likes to piece a little of the puzzle together yourself, this may not be the book for you. Red Rising is not the type to pick over every detail and possibility until only the carcass is left, repeating itself in every possible variation and spelling out concepts better left to the imagination (ahem, Maze Runner, I’m looking at you). It’s a thinker, and it comes with its own language, leaving the reader to crack the code.

A note: A little background in Greek/Roman mythology comes in handy with this book. You don’t need to know much, but the life-or-death game at the Institute divides the students into Houses based on the characteristics of twelve well-known Roman gods, the Gold representatives of which watch the Houses clash from a floating Olympus. A little knowledge of the gods goes a long way in explaining some of the actions and mannerisms of the teachers and student participants. The addition of some mythological elements also allows for a comparison between Golds and gods that enhances the power struggle.

“Funny thing, watching gods realize they’ve been mortal all along.”

This book is also jammed full with big life ideas about power, human nature, what makes a life worthwhile, etc. but it doesn’t stop to examine each point in detail. It drops the hint and moves right along to the next plot-driven point. The book is definitely fast-paced and action-packed, but these little nuggets of wisdom and intrigue are what makes this book more than an addicting one-time-read. The worlds may be different, but the lessons apply. Darrow is a hero we can understand.

” ‘Steel is power. Money is power. But of all the things in the all the worlds, words are power. ‘ I look at him for a moment. Words are a weapon stronger than he knows. And songs are even greater. The words wake the mind. The melody wakes the heart. I come from a people of song and dance. I don’t need him to tell me the power of words.”

Darrow is smart. He is determined. He has relatively little regard for his own well-being. There is no doubt in my mind that he will take over the world and surprise them all.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved this book from the very beginning. Step aside, Hunger Games, there’s a new thrilling dystopian poised to set the world on fire. I’ve heard a lot of Red Rising reviews claiming that this book is too similar to The Hunger Games, but I beg to differ. There are some undeniable similarities, but I think they’re in areas that one book can’t claim a monopoly on–Brown’s world and characters are singularly different than Collins’, and knowledge of one doesn’t make the other any more predictable. I did love The Hunger Games when it was new, but not like this. This one was definitely a personal favorite, and I have already ordered the next two books in the trilogy. I can’t believe I didn’t hear of these books sooner–but I’m glad they were all published before I did. I don’t think I could survive an extended wait for the next book.

Further Recommendations:

  1. There are several YA dystopian series that have been popular in the past few years that you’d really have to try not to know about at this point–I’m talking The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc. I want to point you toward my (previous) personal favorite and often underappreciated set in this group, the Uglies quartet by Scott Westerfeld. If you like YA dystopians and haven’t read these books yet, check them out.
  2. If you want something a little more adult, check out George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series, first book: A Game of Thrones. This is another series that’s all over pop culture these days, but if you haven’t read them yet and enjoy Red Rising, you should. A lot of the world-building and characterization of Red Rising reminded me strongly of those techniques in A Game of Thrones.
  3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley would be a fascinating read for Red Rising lovers who are also interested in classics–like the Colors, the Society of Brave New World has been divided into forced castes that determines one’s career and privileges. Like the Golds, the Alphas reign with supreme and unchallenged control in the name of progress and in hopes of creating a perfect society.

What’s next: Megan Miranda’s All the Missing Girls will be the focus of my next review. This novel calls itself a thriller/murder mystery told backward, an incredibly intriguing idea. Stay tuned to find out how effectively this technique works!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: you can find my review of Brown’s Red Rising sequel, Golden Son, here.