March Book Haul

I’ve been trying to keep my book accumulation to reasonable proportions this year, with mixed results. This month I found a good balance: enough new books for an exciting book haul, but not so many that I’m suffocating under another new stack of unread books. Other than the one I’ve already read, these are all books that I want to try to read very soon; another reason that I’m happy with this book haul is that I managed only to pick up books I already knew I was interested in. I mean, you can never have too many books, but I’m trying to avoid senseless buying just for the sake of having more. I think I accomplished that this month. Here’s what I picked up in March:

  1. A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab. Barnes and Noble was having a small sale and I decided to pick up something for my birthday–never mind that I was a month early for birthday books. I’ve been wanting to read this fantasy trilogy about alternative Londons for months now, so when I found a sale that applied to it I ordered the first book. I considered leaving it in the packaging to treat myself on my actual birthday in April since that was my excuse to buy it now, but… I just couldn’t wait…
  2. Marlena by Julie Buntin. This is my March Book of the Month Club selection, and I wanted to get around to it in March but ended up reading less than I’d hoped. The books on my TBR were a little bigger and slower than I’d anticipated, and I picked up extra library books partway through the month. But I’m still expecting to get to this one early in April before receiving my next BOTM. It’s on my April TBR already, so I have to read it soon. This one’s about a girl who moves when her parents get divorced and becomes friends with the destructive girl next door, whose life and death will affect our narrator long after she’s gone.
  3. Someday, Someday Maybe by Lauren Graham. I’m actually planning to read Lauren Graham’s Gilmore Girls memoir first, Talking as Fast as I Can, but I’ve been really curious for a few months about her fiction, too. I probably wouldn’t have picked this up now if it hadn’t been on Book Outlet for a very reasonable price, but it was, so I did. I believe it’s about a young woman trying to make it as an actress, but it’s Graham’s take on “life lessons” and finding success that really interest me about this one.
  4. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. This one looks beautiful and sounds magical and all I remember from investigating this book is that it’s primarily a tale about humanity and an unusual alliance, which all sounds good to me. It was an impulse buy, but it was on my radar already, and again it was on Book Outlet where everything is affordable so I snatched it up.
  5. In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware. I’ve already read this book, but I enjoyed Ware’s two thrillers so much last year that I had to buy the one my collection was missing, especially since I already know I’m going to buy her new release this summer as soon as it’s available. I can definitely sense a reread somewhere on the horizon (otherwise I wouldn’t have bought it), but I’m not in a hurry. It was only a few dollars on Book Outlet, so I couldn’t resist.
  6. Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi. This is really the reason I ordered from Book Outlet at all this month. I have the rest of the Shatter Me series in paperback and had been waiting for months to find the final paperback equally cheap. So when I did, I placed the order and ended up just going with the other things that were floating in my cart. They were good floaters this month. I’m glad I found this excuse to buy them. 🙂

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The problem with treating myself for good resisting of book buying is that it usually comes in the form of buying books as rewards. My Book Outlet purchase this month was a reward for only having two books to haul in March. :/ No regrets, though. I think these are all good choices!

Have you read any of these? Any recommendations for which ones I should read first?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

April TBR

March fell a little flat, but I’m ready to get back in the game–the reading game–with a new and ambitious TBR. Also, April is my birthday month and books are my favorite thing so I’m in a general good mood and ready to read. I struggled to reach 8 completed books last month, but here are 8 more I’m really excited about and planning to read within April. I also have a few extras in mind, but I’m coming off of a small reading slump (I know I’ve been MIA, but I’m catching up on my posts now, I promise!) and I didn’t want to push it, at least not in my “official” TBR. These are the main books I intend to read in April:

  1. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain / Samuel Clemens. This is my classic of the month. It’s been so convenient and fun to have the classics I’m most looking forward to reading this year planned out by month. Having this schedule gives me enough choice about when I’m in the mood for each particular book while also encouraging me to actually keep up with reading them between all of my more recent choices.
  2. City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare. Yes, this is the same Cassandra Clare book from my March TBR. I’m reading all of her books in publication order this year, and I wanted to read at least one per month, but I had to make some tough choices about which books I wouldn’t get to in March and sadly, this one was one of them. It’s one of the shortest Shadowhunter books, though, and I am really enjoying them, so I’ll definitely get to this one now in April and pick up an extra if I have time after completing my TBR.
  3. Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo. I’ve really been loving the Grishaverse so far, and even though I mostly read this trilogy because I wanted to get to the Six of Crows duology, I’m completely immersed in this story and I can’t wait to see how it’ll wrap up in this book.
  4. The Magician King by Lev GrossmanThis is another sequel to a new series I’ve started before finishing the others I’m already in the middle of. The end of the first book (and the TV show) left me needing more of this trilogy ASAP, so I’m already piecing it into my schedule.
  5. Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. The movie for this one is coming out soon, and I might want to watch it. I’ve already read Yoon’s newer release, The Sun is Also a Star, so I’m pretty curious about her first novel and I want to finish reading it in time to see the film. I needed a fun and easy YA contemporary this month and I think this one will definitely fit the bill.
  6. Marlena by Julie Buntin. I didn’t have time last month for my Book of the Month Club selection from March because I was in a little slump and grabbed extra library books halfway through the month instead, but I’m interested in checking out this tale of a teen who moves and meets a force to be reckoned with (in the form of a destructive neighbor girl) only to have her entire life upset by the experience.
  7. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. I’ve been wanting to read some Neil Gaiman for a while, and I’ve picked up his newest release as my first forray into his oeuvre. I don’t actually know much of anything about this book yet other than that it’s had good ratings. I don’t even know much about Norse mythology, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read about other mythologies and I think this will be something fun and different than what I’ve been reading lately.
  8. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. This book was a Christmas gift to myself, and now that it’s almost my birthday I don’t want to wait any longer to read it. I’ve heard it’s sad, and for some reason I’m always a little melancholy around April. Must be all the rain. Anyway, I’m in a mood for something sorrowful and it’s been a minute since I’ve read any historical fiction, so I’m ready to give this one a go this month.

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It was actually raining already when I took this picture, but I couldn’t wait for fairer weather. Getting my TBR lined up for the upcoming month always gives my reading a boost of excitement and productivity.

What makes you excited to read? And what are you planning to read next?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Siege and Storm

This is a post about the second book in the Grisha trilogy. If you haven’t read the first book, Shadow and Bone (or my review of it) yet, check that out first. I won’t spoil anything from the second book here, but as usual I’m going to talk (write) like you already know what happened in the first volume.

About the book: There is no escaping theFullSizeRender (4) Darkling’s clutches once he has someone in his sights, and now his sights have been set on Alina Starkov. It’s not her shining personality he wants her for, though–the Darkling plans to make her powerful so that he can use her for his own gains, and he plans to do it by making her the first Grisha in history with a set of amplifiers rather than just one. If Alina wants to defeat him and thwart his dastardly plans to rule all of Ravka, she’ll have to beat him at his own game, and the only way she’ll be powerful enough to do it is by finding the amplifiers first herself–with Mal’s help for the tracking, of course. Along the way she meets an enigmatic pirate/privateer who may or may not be on Alina’s side of the conflict. Even if he might be helpful, Alina is having trust issues. She seems to be hallucinating the Darkling everywhere she goes, which makes it hard even to trust her own mind. Can she accumulate enough power to face the Darkling? Even with the power, does she stand a chance?

This second book is more political and more foreboding that the first. The future is no longer quite so mysterious–everyone knows what the Darkling has in store, the only question is when he will strike, and which direction he will come from. The future of Ravka is at stake, and everyone has different ideas of what to do about it.

Have you ever noticed that a lot of fantasy books are actually an argument for equality hiding behind a magical world and colorful people and dangerous situations? No matter how different the characters are from people in our real lives,  no matter how bizarre the rules of the fictional world, many fantasy books feature someone who has used their power for evil and someone who’s been oppressed and someone who wants to rise up and put things to rights by evening the balance. (The Darkling is using his power for personal gain. The people of Ravka are oppressed and even those with means have few choices. Alina wants the three classes of Grisha–and their further subdivisions–to find equal footing and work together. She wants Grisha and non-Grisha people to be appreciated for their unique talents and treated fairly. She wants the royal family to share their wealth with the poor commoners whose only crime has been birth into poverty.) Themes like this are exactly why I love fiction; if you look past the aspects that will probably (though who knows for sure?) never be a part of the real world (like the Grisha powers), there are so many messages that translate directly to our real lives (fair distribution of wealth and equality for all, no matter their talents).

“The world is changing… We change with it, or there will be nothing left to remember us but the dust.”

Worst aspect: first, this book seemed to have a few repeats. As in the first book, it takes Alina several tries to learn the same lessons. The end of this second book looks a lot like the end of the first book did. She knows she needs to be the one to kill the second amplifier creature, and yet she hesitates again. She underestimates the Darkling’s power and the way that their powers are connected, again. Mal is used against her to make her agree to the Darkling’s plans, again.

Secondly, there’s not a lot actually going on in this book. There’s some action at the start and a lot of action at the end, but that’s all pretty condensed, and everything in the middle is just preparing and waiting. There are conversations and politics, little points of intrigue, but it feels like a filler, like watching the set change between acts. It’s a few hundred pages of Alina deciding she wants to save the world and doubting that she has the ability to do so, again. She’s my least favorite part of this series. I was hoping for some character development in this book, but if anything, I think she only becomes more selfish here.

“Is the world so very fine that you think it worth saving?”

Best aspect: the characters. Although I don’t like Alina much, I am highly interested in everyone else. Mal is a bit predictable, but I think he has a lot of internal struggle that’s apparent through his speech and actions and I almost wish he was the one narrating the story since he’s so close to it but yet less personally invested. He’s invested in Alina, not in finding power and changing Ravka and all those other details that make the main players biased. Then there’s the Darkling, who is especially intriguing; I loved that we saw a good side of him in the first book, because it keeps me guessing the rest of the time about whether that was truly all an act or if he’s a much more complex character than he’d like to show. I’m pretty sure he’s in love with Alina, and I’m hoping that’ll blow up at some point in the third book (I have no idea, so no spoilers please!). I can’t quite root for him, because he really does have evil plans, but at the same time I kind of want him to win at something just because he’s such a great villain. And then there’s Nikolai, a new character introduced in Siege and Storm, who’s probably not evil but definitely a trickster and absolutely keeps things interesting.

“I like to have powerful enemies. Makes me feel important.”

My copy of Siege and Storm also has a bonus short story called “The Tailor” (about Genya) that I read in conjunction with this book. It gives an interesting look at Genya’s past and a few perspectives closer to the Darkling’s side of things. I think it would make more sense to read this one after the first book because it takes place in that time frame and Genya has very little to do with the plot in the second book. It definitely doesn’t feel like a necessary piece to the Grisha puzzle, but it’s an insightful, quick read that doesn’t feel quite as pointless as some of the other short stories I’ve read in conjunction with a series. It’s worth the time if you’re interested in extras, but you won’t be missing anything crucial if you skip it.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Sequels are rarely as good as the first and/or third books of a series, in my opinion, and this one just had so much waiting for something to happen that for most of the book I felt like I was just marking time until the good parts arrived. That said, it ended on an intriguing note and I will definitely be reading the third and final book in this trilogy next month, not only because I’m hooked on it but because I can’t wait to finally start reading the Six of Crows duology which takes place in this same world.

Coming up Next: Today I’m finishing reading Emily Fridlund’s A History of Wolves. This is a small beauty about a girl growing up in northern Minnesota and doing her best to fit in–with the wrong people. A la The Girls, this is a tale about how impressionable young girls can be and how easily things spin out of control. Perhaps there is reason to be more suspicious of new teachers and strangers moving in next door, even in a place where everyone is friendly and trusting. Stay tuned to find out more.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: All the Bright Places

This book poked all sorts of holes in my emotions. I did not think it was going that far. Even when it really was going that far, I thought “No, no, this isn’t real, this is one of those tricks of writing where the narrator makes assumptions and then turns out to be wrong and there is still hope.” But no. It goes far enough to make a definite impact.

FullSizeRender (3)About the book: Violet’s grief over the tragic death of her sister leads her to the top of her school’s bell tower–the perfect place to jump to her death and end the misery of being the one left behind. She’s not the only one up there, though. Theodore Finch, resident freak, is also standing on the edge, wondering if his preoccupation with suicide will lead him to follow through this time. Noticing each other, though, thwarts both their plans, and they talk each other down–this will not be the day for either of them to die. This strange meeting, though, prompts Finch to choose Violet as his partner on a geography project that will send them travelling all over their home state of Indiana. The two grow close; Violet becomes braver about moving on without her sister, and Finch finds feelings and experiences worth living for. But nothing will bring Violet’s sister back, or redeem Finch’s destructive family, so the struggle for meaning and happiness is a constant one that neither of them is guaranteed to win. No matter how much help might be available, the most important fight for survival is the internal one.

“We are all alone, trapped in these bodies and our own minds, and whatever company we have in this life is only fleeting and superficial.”

Best aspect: these are great characters that feel all the more real for their flaws. Readers may not be dealing with serious depression in reality, but Violet and Finch cover a lot of important topics about popularity and family and life that many readers can relate to in some way and may have difficulty talking about out loud. The great thing about fiction is that it can say things that you aren’t quite ready to talk about in real life, and it can connect people that way without ever making a sound.

“The great thing about this life of ours is that you can be someone different to everybody.”

On another note, I didn’t fully understand Finch’s “Awake” vs. “Asleep” dilemma. Much of his narration deals with wanting to feel present and alive, but other than small comments here and there the “asleep” state he fears is never fully explained. I kept expecting to see that more closely, but even when it seems like he’s on the edge of “asleep,” we’re only seeing him through his future reflections of that time, or through other characters’ perspectives. I wish the book would have started with Finch’s “asleep” state and shown him waking up before taking readers to the bell tower scene, because seeing Finch actually “asleep” might have made the threat of his losing “awake” more easily comprehensible to those of us who don’t share that experience.

“I did what I felt I could do. Could I have done more? Possibly. Yes. We can always do more. It’s a tough question to answer, and, ultimately, a pointless one to ask.”

A warning: if suicide or even the accidental death of a loved one are difficult topics for you to read, enter this story with caution. All the Bright Places hits some pretty hard emotions, and although it certainly doesn’t encourage or romanticize suicide or death, it examines both topics closely. There are some really tough perspectives and observations here.

“What a terrible feeling to love someone and not be able to help them.”

My least favorite aspect: there were times I didn’t like Finch. I feel bad admitting it, because overall I liked his character and I literally cried over how difficult and sad his life must be, but it bothered me that he ordered Violet around. There were times he spoke to her as though he knew what was best for her and she couldn’t possibly. I agreed with his ideas of helping her by convincing her to talk about her sister’s death, and encouraging her to get back in a car, and showing her to make the most of the time she has rather than hiding and counting down what’s left, but sometimes I thought he went about it in a way that seemed like he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer; he wouldn’t listen or try to understand her point of view. He’s not the kind of guy who asks about things, he just does them. And sometimes that’s good. But sometimes it bothered me that he didn’t even pretend to ask.

Then again, no one seems to be asking Finch anything, either.

“It just feels like there’s no choice. Like it’s the most logical thing to do because what else is there? You think, ‘No one will even miss me. They won’t know I’m gone. The world will go on, and it won’t matter that I’m not here. Maybe it’s better if I was never here.’ “

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book surprised me. It surprised me so hard. Even at times when i felt like I had nothing concrete in common with the main characters, they made me feel like there must be a place where everyone belongs. Everyone must belong somewhere, because if these people can be understood and appreciated, so can anyone. I was expecting a romance in All the Bright Places, and, well–I found it, but it was the kind of romance that made my heart bleed. It felt real. And I love that. So I can’t wait to read Niven’s newest release, Holding Up the Universe. I have no idea what it’s about, and I’m not sure when exactly I’ll get around to it–I need time to heal from this one first–but I will definitely be checking it out.

Further recommendations:

  1. Much like Violet coping with her sister’s death, Faithful by Alice Hoffman features a girl named Shelby who’s best friend is killed in a car accident in which Shelby is driving in snow and breaks through a guardrail. Faithful focuses entirely on that loss and the main character’s methods of denial and moving forward. It’s also full of dogs. If you like a novel with a powerful message that’ll tug at your heartstrings, don’t miss this one. It’s adult fiction, but Shelby starts out in a very similar place to Violet, and explores more thoroughly the pain of being left behind.
  2. If you like reading about tragedy or trying to piece together the motivations of suicide (no judgment, I find both topics morbidly fascinating), check out Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why. This one’s been around for a while, and it’s soon to be a Netflix TV show, as well. It’s been years since I’ve read it, but I remember it feeling very powerful and I’ve been wanting to reread it for a while now. If you liked All the Bright Places, I definitely recommend this one.
  3. If the difficult romance fraught with modern real-life challenges is exactly the kind of relationship you’re looking for in YA contemporaries, check out Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. This one’s less focused on death, but still filled with tragedy and hardship for two teens who seem to belong together despite everything standing in their way.

What’s next: I’ve just finished Siege and Storm, the second book in the Grisha trilogy, a series I started last month. I wasn’t planning to read this one now, but I needed an escape into a fantasy world to help me find the bright places again after Niven’s book. I live for fiction that feels like nonfiction, but it’s time to recharge. I’m sure returning to the Grishaverse to discover what happens next with the mysteriously evil Darkling will turn my mood right around.

Do you choose what to read next based on your mood? I usually pick my next read based on what I want my mood to be by the end, rather than where I am at the start. Is that weird?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Magicians

Lev Grossman’s recently completed fantasy trilogy caught my attention earlier this year, and even though I’m in the middle of a couple other series right now I had to check this one out. And let me just say: WHOA.

FullSizeRender (1)About the book: Quentin is just an ordinary guy–an ordinary genius guy with genius friends interviewing for Ivy League schools and preparing for prestigious futures. But he’s bored and unhappy and can’t figure out why–until he steps through a garden and finds himself at Brakebills, secret school for Magicians, where he’s told that he’s always been a magician and he’s unhappy because he doesn’t belong in the mundane world he’s been living in. Brakebills is a five-year college program that trains America’s Magicians from upstate New York. That’s not even the weird part, though. The magical part of this book comes in the fact that Quentin’s favorite fantasy series from childhood (and beyond) is not as fictional as everyone had thought. It’s common knowledge that the Chatwin children really lived next door to the author who wrote about them, but who would ever believe that their fantastical journeys to magical Fillory were anything but the author’s fictional creations? The possibility that Fillory is a real place, though, is only one of Quentin’s many concerns. He makes plenty of friends (the Physical Kids) and enemies (students and otherwise) at Brakebills, must escape “the Beast,” a powerful and deadly creature from another realm who shows up unexpectedly in one of Quentin’s classes, and on top of all that there’s the mystery of the missing fourth years to solve and the mandatory welters tournaments to contend with. Brakebills turns out to be a challenge of survival as much as a formal education.

“Quentin knew he wasn’t happy. Why not? He had painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness. He had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices. But happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come. He couldn’t think what else to do.”

The Magicians is a mishmash of the Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, and… another element that I have no comparison for in my reading life. Something like the Heroes TV show. And yet, despite all these similarities, The Magicians is also firmly its own entity.

“But somewhere in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. It cracks, and the one flows back into the other, and the two melt together and fuse. Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.”

The characters are compelling and completely readable, even when you don’t like them or their choices. They’re not morally black and white, which makes them unpredictable and exciting. These are people you could meet on the street and have a conversation with, which is what makes the magical parts of this story feel plausible.

“Most people are blind to magic. They move through a blank and empty world. They’re bored with their lives, and there’s nothing they can do about it. They’re eaten alive by longing, and they’re dead before they die.”

There are two types of books (depending on how you categorize them): the kind with a single point of tension in the plot that’s introduced early and grows consistently throughout, leaving the reader with the same major question until the end of the book; there’s also the kind with myriad plot points that are solved one at a time, building off of each other and changing the story so greatly that the reader’s questions are always changing and there’s no way of knowing which answers to expect at the end of the book. Do you know what I mean? (Example: my last review featured Garber’s Caraval, which had a single point of tension that grew: where was Scarlett’s sister?) The Magicians fits into the second category. Although all of the little points accumulate into one big climax toward the end, the book is divided into “books” and further into chapters, each with its own questions and answers that are mostly provided one at a time until the end.

This is the most realistic format, in my opinion, and it also translates well into TV shows because the story line is easier to separate into episodes when it has all these little arcs. It has to be done carefully, though, because without a constant line of inquiry to carry the reader through the entire book, you run the risk of becoming bored while you’re waiting for all these little plot points to mean something. I did hit that sort of snag somewhere in the middle of this book, but I pushed through and the story picked up again before long.

But back to the TV show talk. I did watch the entire first season of The Magicians already, and I’m glad there was only one season on Netflix so far because if there had been more I would not have hesitated to keep going even though I haven’t read more than the first book yet. I suspect that I learned a few things that come up in later parts of the trilogy from the first season of the TV show, but really the two formats of this story are so disparate that I didn’t mind. I wouldn’t say that the story line in the show is entirely changed, but there are enough differences that even having read the book I could never be sure exactly where the show was going. That said, I was glad to already know who the characters were and what the main plot points should be before watching the show because it’s fast-paced and packed with so much magic and action and mystery that the book felt like a guide to the TV show. I think I loved the show even more than the book, but I’m glad I read the book before watching and I am also (begrudgingly) glad that I’ll have time to finish reading the series before the next season is available on Netflix. A brief warning for anyone who wants to check out the show: the first season ends in a cliffhanger that’s answered in the book, but I think the TV show will have to solve the cliffhanger in a slightly different way.

Whether you’re more interested in the book or the TV show, the characters in both–and their utterly odd lives–are absolutely captivating and will stay in your head for a long time afterward. Their world is so different, and yet…so relatable. The writing is beautiful and the points it makes are impossible to ignore. Magic is so real here, and at the same time, it feels like a metaphor I haven’t fully deciphered yet.

“In a way fighting like this was just like using magic. You said the words, and they altered the universe. By merely speaking you could create damage and pain, cause tears to fall, drive people away, make yourself feel better, make your life worse.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting from this book, but nothing I could have expected would have landed anywhere close to what I found. I immediately felt like I needed to take a breather when I finished this first book, but I’ve already got the second book on hold at my library and I started watching the corresponding TV show within hours of putting the book down. There was SO MUCH packed into this book and I have absolutely no idea where it will go next, but I’m excited to find out!

Further recommendations:

  1. If you are intrigued by Fillory, you should check out C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, first book (in chronological order) The Magician’s Nephew. There are so, so many similarities between Fillory and Narnia, and a close comparison would be incredibly interesting, in my opinion.
  2. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising is the first book in a trilogy with a similar format of small plot points that all add up to something giant rather than one huge tension arc that remains consistent through the book. The plot twists in this one are crazy, and while there’s not magic, per se, this series is set on futuristic Mars, so there’s plenty of otherworldly detail. Much like The Magicians, you never can tell who will die.
  3. The Secret History by Donna Tart is the way to go if your favorite part of The Magicians is the characters’ time at school, where the odd relationships and their consequences turn out to be just as important as the curriculum. This one, much like the Physical Kids’ group, features a small, elite group of students who spend most of their time together and thus grow together into one epic disaster.

Coming up next: I just dashed through All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven in its entirety. I was expecting more romance than tragedy from this contemporary YA, but through the highs and lows the book is compulsively readable and I couldn’t put it down. I finished reading about Violet and Finch’s excursions through Indiana and brushes with death in two sittings and I’ll have all of my thoughts on that ready to share with you tomorrow.

Do you ever read two very opposite books back to back and wonder how you acquired your literary tastes?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: you can now read my full review of the next book in this series, The Magician King!

Review: Caraval

I put a hold on this book at my library in early January before it was even released to the public, and it was already so popular at that time that it took me until last week to receive and read a copy. Stephanie Garber’s Caraval is commonly compared to The Night Circus, but you won’t see that comparison here because I haven’t gotten around to reading The Night Circus yet, even though I have a nice copy waiting on my shelf. I have, however, read Caraval now, and I have a lot to say.

caravalAbout the book: Scarlett and her sister have always wanted to attend Caraval, where anyone who has received a ticket is invited to participate in the performance. Their abusive and controlling father, however, would not allow it when the chance finally arises, so they don’t even ask for permission. Tella wants to sneak away, but Scarlett is more concerned about the danger. Tella has found a sailor passing through the isles who will take them to Caraval on Legend’s (the Caraval Master’s) private island. Scarlett refuses to go, but soon finds herself kidnapped and carted off to the show anyway. She still has the choice of only observing even after she arrives on Legend’s island, but her sister has gone missing and Scarlett is afraid that if she doesn’t participate she won’t find Tella–or will find her and be unable to retrieve her–in time to get back home for Scarlett’s arranged marriage. The sailor who helped kidnap Scarlett and bring her to the island with Tella seems to know an awful lot about Caraval, and despite regular disagreements, the two stick together as Scarlett is thrust into the game–and the search for her missing sister, who is the object of this year’s performance.

Although I can’t compare Caraval to The Night Circus (I really need to correct the mistake of putting that one off), I can tell you I found several Alice in Wonderland similarities. Caraval is full of odd little twists of reality and some direct correlations (a mad hatter, for instance, although this one’s not a rabbit). It’s a whimsical place, and Scarlett perceives things in strange ways, relating tangible objects and colors to smells, feelings, general impressions, and everything in between. The game takes place at night, and no one seems to be whom they claim. Everything is whimsical and magical and strange. This atmospheric quality is one of the best aspects of the novel

“Scarlett imagined this to be the sort of place where a person could be lost and never found.”

Although magic was clearly apparent throughout the story, the real intrigue lied with the characters. I kept trying to guess who Legend would turn out to be, and who Julian was outside of the game, and why Tella and Scarlett had become the main focus of the game–those little points of character intrigue were really what kept me reading.

Unfortunately, I do not like Tella at all. Scarlett’s a bit of a weak character herself, but Tella bothers me more. Scarlett is so devoted to finding and saving Tella, and Tella can’t even be bothered to listen to what Scarlett has to say. Tella steals Scarlett’s things, gets her into trouble, helps kidnap her for Caraval–potentially sabotaging the marriage that Scarlett is on board with–and lots of other things that she does behind Scarlett’s back that would spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t read it. And yet in the scenes where the sisters are together and conversing, it’s always Scarlett who thinks, “Okay, I love her and it’s possible that despite everything I’ve seen and been through that she’s the one who’s right,” when Tella apparently would never give her that same respect and consideration. I don’t feel that the fact that these characters are sisters is enough to explain the level of love the narration talks about–I needed to see why they loved each other, and the only demonstration Tella shows of love for her sister is something terribly destructive that Tella also benefits from; in the end, I didn’t understand what was lovable about Tella at all, which took me out of the story a bit since Scarlett’s worry for her missing sister is supposed to be the driving force of the novel. Tella just would not listen, and that’s my number one pet peeve about supposedly lovable characters.

The clues to the game also confused me a bit. At first I thought it was odd that Scarlett seemed so worried about her ability to win because people kept helping her and the clues seemed to be tailored specifically to her experience. Later she speculated that everyone was given different clues, which cleared up the specialization of them a bit, but they still felt…random. Like something that happened in her regular wanderings would suddenly be perceived as a clue without her really having to work for anything or figure anything out. Honestly, Scarlett doesn’t really do much at all in this book other than decide to walk here or there, or talk to this person or that person; she’s just whisked along for the ride as things happen to her and then she thinks about it all. There are a few notable exceptions, though. She’s not completely useless. As I said, it wasn’t Scarlett I had the biggest problem with in this book, it was her sister.

And yet, I kept reading. I really wanted to know Legend’s story. First of all, I liked his name. Lately I’ve been easily annoyed by characters whose names give away their personalities or place in the story (the Darkling, the Beast, the White Witch, etc.) but Legend doesn’t lean “bad” or “good,” it’s just mysterious and powerful and it actually sounds like something a child could be named at birth before anyone knows whether he will turn out to be evil. (This is not to say that Legend is evil, or even good. That’s still up for debate at the end of the novel. It’s just more common in my experience for evil characters to sport evil names.) This is a book of identity and change, and even the magic reflects that.

“Every person has the power to change their fate if they are brave enough to fight for what they desire more than anything.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I liked this book, but not as much as I expected. I think it was a little over-hyped. I’m actually a bit worried about my reception of The Night Circus now after hearing it lumped in with Caraval so often, but also I’m more interested in finally getting around to that one to see what I think. I am probably invested enough in this story to read the sequel when it comes out, even though I think it’ll focus a lot more on Tella and I liked her less. I’m hoping a sequel will help develop the aspects of this first book that gave me pause, while also keeping the sense of mystery that pushed me through this one. I enjoyed reading it, and Caraval does make for an intense journey, but I don’t think this one will be joining any of my favorites lists.

Further recommendations:

  1. The writing style of Caraval reminded me a lot of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, first book Cinder. This set is a futuristic sci-fi retelling of several well-known fairy tales, but there is a bit of magic involved and I think the characters of Caraval would get along well with Meyers’ protagonists.

What’s next: I’ve just finished reading another magical fantasy novel, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, the first book in the Magicians Trilogy. I actually also watched the entire first season of its new(ish) TV show, which is partially why I’ve been slacking off on posting this week. Oops. :/ Anyway, I’m already organizing my thoughts on these eccentric characters and their crazy journey through magic school and beyond, so I’ll be back to posting more regularly.

Have you read anything lately that’s completely sucked you in to another world? Or something you wanted to pull you in that failed to live up to expectations?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Before the Fall

I’ve had Noah Hawley’s mysterious Before the Fall on my TBR for a few months now, and it finally came in at my library. This was not even a high priority on my TBR but I have such a weakness for checking out unplanned books at the library, so when I saw it there I just went with it.

beforethefallAbout the book: a private plane crashes into the cold Atlantic on a routine trip from Martha’s Vineyard to Teterboro. Aboard are two mega-wealthy families–including one with children–a painter, a flight attendant, a body guard, a pilot, and a copilot. Only the painter and smallest child survive. For some, life is ended, but for the two remaining, the world they return to after a bone-chilling ten-mile swim is not the same as the one they left; Scott, the painter, suddenly finds himself a point of much public interest which is good for his art, but bad for his privacy. As his life–especially his love life–explodes in the media, some calling him a hero and some accusing him of crashing the plane himself, he must find his place in the grand order of things, save his reputation, and protect the four year-old boy he rescued from the greed of his new guardians and the harshness of everyone who can never understand what it was like to fight for survival in the middle of an ocean ready to claim them. As pieces of the plane are recovered, the crash only becomes more mysterious; the lives of each of the passengers before the crash is picked apart in search of motives or instances of victimization. What seems at first no more than a terrible tragedy becomes a complex knot of emotions and actions and connections that will reveal an entirely different story than anyone might expect.

“How any two people end up in the same place at the same time is a mystery. You get on an elevator with a dozen strangers. You ride a bus, wait in line for the bathroom. It happens every day. To try to predict the places we’ll go and the people we’ll meet would be pointless.”

Before the Fall is an examination of character and the nature of humanity. Politics and money come into play, but ultimately the focus of the novel is disaster–not just the plane crash at the center of the story, but all of the little disasters that seem so impossible until they’re happening, and even afterwards are difficult to comprehend.

“He was a disaster survivor in that he had survived the disaster that was his life.”

The writing delves deep into the human psyche, extracting nuggets of truth about people’s reactions to wealth, to hardship, to love, or to failure. Each character is complex, narrated with in-depth views of their lives on the night of the crash, and the events that led up to it all the way back to childhood. Before the Fall shows how every small moment of your life leads to the next and the next until everything is hopelessly tangled and the past can never be separated from the future.

“Life is a series of decisions and reactions. It is the things you do and the things that are done to you. And then it’s over.”

In the end, I didn’t like most of the characters, but they were described so well and so intricately that I liked reading about them anyway. I loved the idea that behind every event–in this case a deadly plane crash–are so many histories and details that are all intertwined. I adored the narration here–both its layout, and the writing that filled the structure.

One aspect I didn’t enjoy, however, was the presentation of dialogue. It seemed so choppy. I know people talk in incomplete sentences and use space fillers and incorrect grammar, but all of the characters of Before the Fall speak in these divided fragments that skip between thoughts and pause in the middle to the point where it’s almost hard to read in places. At first it seemed fun and unique, more real than all the perfect sentences we usually see in literature, but after a while it started to seem a little too exaggerated and annoying. I like fiction that feels like it could also be reality, but I don’t like it to be such a struggle to decode.

And then there’s Scott, the painter who can’t answer a question directly to save his life. I like this tactic, to an extent–I use indirect responses in my own writing pretty frequently–but he started to sound really pretentious by veering off topic even for the simplest questions; I mean so far off topic that “why were you on the plane?” turns into an “I think you’re asking me ‘what is the meaning of life’ ” conversation. That’s not an exact quote. I think his actual answer was closer to “Do you mean in the cosmic sense?”, but it expanded from there. I wanted to like Scott, but every time he opened his mouth, if he wasn’t talking to the 4 year-old, he was being slightly–even if accidentally–ridiculous.

My favorite part was the descriptions of Scott’s paintings. Art within art is usually interesting to me, and I thought the descriptions and the ideas behind Scott’s paintings were one of the most fascinating details of this book. I wish the painting he had made of a plane crash had been one of the pieces described, though.

“Art exists not inside the piece itself, but inside the mind of the viewer.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This is definitely a slow-burn story. The reader is given so much detail leading up to the crash, the politics and minutiae of everyone’s lives, but really he/she is just looking for reasons for the crash and nothing seems to be pointing in that direction for a long time. There are little details that hint at inevitable catastrophe, but until the last thirty pages or so the reader doesn’t learn anything that actually happened on the plane leading up to its descent into the ocean. There’s always intrigue, but not much of a tension arc throughout the story. I was both pleased with the realness of the ending, and disappointed that I had been required to learn so much about everyone only to discover that only a couple of the characters really factored into the crash. Still, no matter why it happened, it was interesting to see all of the lives that were ruined in the process and what it meant for all of them. They’re all important, if not quite in the same way. There are a lot of subtleties to this book, is what I’m trying to say. It takes a lot of patience and a little interest in human psychology to get through all the background information. The writing was absolutely the high point for me, which made up for the “Oh. That’s it?” I felt at the end of the plot.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore really has nothing in common with Before the Fall other than the politics and close examinations of the characters surrounding the big events. Both of these books feel meticulously researched and pain-stakingly written down to the last detail, and even though one is about disaster and one is about the (mis)invention of the light bulb, I really think that if you like one of these you’ll enjoy the other.

Coming up Next: I’ve just started reading Stephanie Garber’s new YA release, Caraval, and I can already tell it’s going to be a quick read. This is a magical mystery packed with emotion and I can’t wait to see how it ends.

Are you more a fan of fast-paced thrillers, or carefully-detailed mysteries?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant