Review: Shadow of Night

Despite some issues I had with Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, I was addicted enough to throw part of my June TBR out the window to binge on the series. So instead of reading anything I actually had planned for this month, I stopped what I was in the middle of as soon as I made it back to my library to check out book two in Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy: Shadow of Night. It’s a guilty pleasure read for me, and I often find it best to just gorge on those to get them out of my system, so here we are. (Warning: there are spoilers from book one ahead.)

About the book: Matthew and Diana shadowofnightare still searching for answers and fighting for the right to love each other. Book one left them on the verge of time travel to 1590, with the surprising knowledge that they might be able to conceive children together. Now, back in Matthew’s past, future Matthew has to juggle all of his 1590 responsibilities that he thinks will lead to helpful connections in their ongoing searches for Ashmole 782 and a teacher for Diana. He insists on taking the lead, and makes some questionable choices which threaten not only the pair’s survival but the peace between them. Diana sets out to make connections of her own, and finds new friends and enemies in the process. Neither of them are sure when they should try going back to their own time, or if it’s even possible with Diana’s current skill level. As past and present collide, vampire and witch are tested anew–they must decide what they can afford to lose, and fight to the last  breath for what they can’t.

Stop regretting your life. Start living it.”

About the layout: This book is divided into parts, which mostly feature Diana (in the first person) and Matthew (in the third) on their many adventures. At the end of each part is a chapter featuring a different perspective from the present (circa 2010). These sections provide clues and connections between our main characters in the past and the ongoing story line in the “future,” but they’re confusingly brief. New characters are introduced only to be shuffled out of significance for the rest of the book. Perhaps they’ll be back in the final volume, but either way the amount of page time given to each of them seems odd–I think they’ve been given too little attention if they’re going to be significant, and too much if we’re already done with them. I think there’s real potential for this series in opening up the narration to multiple points of view, but that potential goes unrealized in this volume.

“Change is the only reliable thing in the world.”

Let’s examine the mystery of Matthew’s power. I dislike instances in fantasy when a supposedly powerful being calls on the influence he’s got stored up from the past and provides little to no evidence of how he became so influential in the first place. In these first two books, Matthew is calling in old friends, using his standing and money and family sway to win victories–but how did he become so intimidating in the first place? There seems to be no indication of how Matthew earned his high status in the creature world, which makes him seem less powerful than everyone claims. It’s a discrepancy of balance that goes back to the “show don’t tell” rule of writing. The single murder he committed in book one didn’t explain to me why even vampires are intimidated. I, for one, need more proof that he can back up his threats.

“Stop worrying about what other women do. Be your own extraordinary self.”

There are times when this book seems like it wants to be a feminist kick-ass tale of a female witch mastering impressive power. I’m not sure if it’s the traditionally possessive vampire in the story or something else entirely that prevents it, but Diana doesn’t present as a strong, independent woman, no matter how often Matthew tries to insist she is. Despite the words being spoken, there are so many instances that prove otherwise–for instance, there is a scene in this book when Diana finds herself alone and threatened, and in that time she seems capable of fighting for herself–but as soon as a would-be rescuer arrives, she’s eager to give the fight to someone else. It’s frustrating that she could be strong player but is always so eager to be rescued.

“There were times when Matthew behaved like an idiot–or the most arrogant man alive.”

And there’s the truest statement in this book. Matthew is bossy and domineering, always making assumptions and decisions for his underlings. But the narration seems to understand that he’s making bad choices and acting like a pompous ass, which suggests to me that Matthew will also realize it at some point and change his ways. It would help if Diana didn’t put up with it, but I keep thinking that eventually he’s going to learn he can’t rule the world–and then he could be a pretty great character. In the meantime, he’s almost a villainous love interest, and his most compelling aspect is his horde of secrets.

Additional small annoyances:

  • Vampire servants. Why would anyone want to spend their immortality serving someone else? I’m not saying it’s not possible, but what’s the reasoning?
  • Multiple marriages. How many times can one couple be married in different ways and then say “this time we’re really married” before the reader can no longer stand it? I’m setting the limit at four.
  • Difference in life spans. This is an interesting dilemma, but I’m still waiting for the narration to address the fact that Matthew is immortal and Diana is not.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I didn’t like this one quite as much as A Discovery of Witches, though it had some different pros and cons. I didn’t meant for this whole review to become a rant about the dissatisfying aspects because I did like some things about it–spoiler things that I don’t want to mention. I have a new favorite character who appears unexpectedly in this book, for example. But in my opinion sequels are hardly ever as good as books one and three, and I think that’s the case with this trilogy. I’m still determined to read book three and hopeful that it will be an improvement. I’ll probably be delving into it sooner rather than later.

Further recommendations:

  1. Bram Stoker’s Dracula would be a good choice for fans of Deborah Harkness’ books. I hesitate to recommend books I haven’t read (yet), but this one’s mentioned within the text of Shadow of Night, and I feel confident recommending the quintessential vampire story. Dracula is my classic of the month for October, but reading this trilogy has left me eyeing the book on my shelf lately with more longing than usual, and I think it would make a perfect companion to this vampire-filled trilogy.
  2. Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses is the first book in a faerie romance series with some strong comaprisons to the All Souls trilogy. The creatures in this one are more fantastical than the traditional vampires, witches and daemons in Harkness’ books, but the characters and their fight for love and answers strike some similar chords.

What’s next: Yesterday I started reading both Harkness’ The Book of Life, the final book in the All Souls trilogy, and Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die, from my actual June TBR. Dorothy Must Die is a YA tale about a backwards Oz and a new heroine from Kansas who must set things back to rights before Dorothy gets too carried away. These will be my next two reviews, in undetermined order.

What do you do when your TBR goes off the rails? Do you push it back on the track or go wherever the train takes you?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: you can now read my review of the next book in this series, The Book of Life!

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Review: White Fur

The new selections for Book of the Month Club are perfection this month. I wanted to be reading them all at once, but since I only have one set of eyes I had to choose–and I chose to start with Jardine Libaire’s White Fur. I would classify it as a romance, although it’s unlike any romance I’ve ever read.

whitefurAbout the book: Jamey and Elise are from different worlds. Jamey, the heir to a multi-million dollar corporation, has been raised with a lot of cash and little emotion. Elise, who has only ever had enough to get by and sometimes not even that, falls deeply in love with him at first sight and has enough emotion to carry them both. At first it’s a battle to prove Jamey really does love her, but the real battle comes later–when neither of their previous lives will fit them both and the only way to survive is to start over and locate middle ground. For Jamey and Elise, it’s never been about the money, but their friends and family seem incapable of overlooking the difference in their social classes and the only people who can accept their relationship are each other. Is that enough? And even if it is, how will they escape the loud opinions of the masses?

“He grew up thinking you’re supposed to work till your eyes bleed, be exhausted all the time, get money, get houses, get prestige, do good, be important, be busy, get on the board, run out of time, cancel lunch with friends, run out of gas. Why? Why did he believe them when they said that? Why did he believe anything they said?”

I must admit, the premise of this book worried me. Rich guy falls for broke girl, and tries to make uppity family accept her? There are so many ways that story has already been done, some of them with less success than others. But even though those things happen, they’re not what this story is about. Elise doesn’t want any part of Jamey’s money or power or prestige–she won’t even accept them other than to acknowledge that they’re some of the building blocks that make up Jamey’s life. Jamey isn’t trying to raise Elise’s monetary standing, to bring her up into the world of plenty–he sees good things in her character that have been lacking in his own life, and considers himself the poor party in their relationship. It’s about the money for everyone else, but for Jamey and Elise, it’s about finding where they fit in the world and finally taking the chance to choose for themselves instead of letting their families lay out their futures.

“You go through life thinking there’s a secret to life. And the secret to life is there is no secret to life.”

About the layout: the book starts in June 1987, with a single scene charged with catastrophe and heartbreak. There’s a gun. There’s love, and the questioning of love. And there’s potential for murder. From that scene, the narration goes back to January 1986. Each month is its own labeled chapter. There are further divisions within these chapters that switch back and forth in third person narrative between Elise and Jamey, and the months progress chronologically until we reach that same dangerous motel room scene in June 1987 to finally see its conclusion and aftermath. As Jamey and Elise clash and collide through the rest of the timeline in the book, much of the tension lies not in whether they will fall in love and stay together, but in discovering how they came to be aiming firearms at each other, staring down death and searching for the limits of love. For this reason, the nuances of the relationship keep the reader’s attention: every gesture and thought, every lie and truth and silent action begs to be weighed in the balance against that startling opening scene. Every kiss is a clue.

“What’s the point of anything? Why did we make it this far, she thinks, through hours in our own lives before we met, even after we met, when we were sure we were worthless, but we somehow got to the other side of those times, holding it together, ashamed to be hopeful but being hopeful, when we had no protection and no direction but we kept going anyway, and then we got rewarded, and now it’s being ripped out of my hands?”

Speaking of kisses and romance, I’d like to note that White Fur is a fairly explicit book. It’s solidly categorized as adult literature, and it’s worth mentioning that the physical side of Jamey and Elise’s relationship is often front and center. If you can’t stand reading sex scenes, this isn’t the book for you. White Fur is no Fifty Shades of Gray though. There are R-rated scenes set in bedrooms and beyond, but that’s just one part of the book. It’s the proof that prejudice and class divisions are constructions of the mind, not the heart. The sex is just evidence supporting the underlying messages of the need for equality and love’s perpetual attempt to conquer all. It’s there in abundance, but it’s not the main focus of the book.

“Nothing can ever stay strange for long.”

About the setting: I can’t offer any concrete explanation as to why this book is set in the 1980s rather than present day. I suppose the past offers a bit more anonymity, which allows the characters to move more freely through this world when they’re trying to hide from their opponents, and I suppose also that prejudices were stronger and louder then than they are today. The details of the story fit the time perfectly, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of point to the differences. I don’t think this story would have been impossible to transpose into the world of the 2010s, which made the choice of setting seem a little strange, despite being handled well.

About the characters: White Fur has quite a cast. There’s so much detail given to everyone and everything that each character feels real. I liked that about them, though I don’t think I would choose any of these characters as my friends in real life. Many of them are not bad people. They aren’t unlikable in the way I usually describe characters who seem to have been constructed to alienate the reader, and yet I didn’t particularly like them either. I remained neutrally interested in where they were headed.

“So much of life is about standing on the curb, willing to see what rolls up.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. That opening scene hooked me right away, and with that fresh in mind, the beginning of Jamey and Elise’s relationship remained pretty interesting. Some of the stuff in the middle, after the “I love you’s” and before the gun came back into the story, was much less engaging for me. It was interesting enough that I didn’t have hesitancy about continuing, but the excitement I expected after that opening scene took longer to reappear than I would have preferred. I felt a little deceived. But I don’t regret the time I spent reading White Fur, so it ended up pretty middle-of-the-road for me.

Further recommendations:

  1. Lucky You by Erika Carter is another gritty book about escaping life’s oppressive constructs, but it’ll take a certain audience to appreciate its subtle messages and futility. I think that audience will overlap nicely with fans of White Fur. It’s grimy and brutally honest, with a little romance and a lot of idealism, but it hits failure and the stickier sides of human nature in a way that takes a patient mind and a willingness to accept that not all endings are happy, or even necessarily endings.

What’s next: I started a second book while i was in the middle of White Fur, so I’ve already got another book finished and in the process of review. After reading A Discovery of Witches earlier this month, I basically threw part of my June TBR out the window in favor of continuing the series. So in addition to White Fur (hence the review coming later than I planned, sorry guys), I’ve also finished reading Deborah Harkness’ Shadow of Night, the second book in the All Souls trilogy. This one’s much like book one, plus time travel and the potential for witchy vampire babies, and if that’s not enough to intrigue you then we have nothing in common.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Mid-Year Book Freak-Out Tag

I saw this tag on quirkyandpeculiar‘s blog, and I thought, “what a great way to check in on my progress this year and get excited about the rest of 2017!” So here we are. It’s the middle of the year, and I’m (still) freaking out about books.

  1. The best book I’ve read so far in 2017: darkmatterUgh it’s so hard! I’ve already read 53 books this year, and there have been some real gems, but I think the one that has impressed me most so far is Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. I was skeptical about the “science fiction thriller” description, but I could not put this one down, and every time I thought I had a handle on my emotions, there was another crazy plot twist. I loved every page.
  2. FullSizeRender (11)My favorite sequel of the year: This one’s easy. The Magician King by Lev Grossman is the second book in the Magicians trilogy, and by far the best of the three. It has a constant sense of adventure, unforeseeable plot twists, fantastically flawed characters, magical danger, and so so much more. I’ve had a long-standing opinion of second books in a series being the worst, but sequels have definitely improved lately. I can’t wait for the episodes corresponding with this part of the trilogy to appear on Netflix.
  3. A new release I haven’t read but really want to: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. So many great books came out this May (and other months, but especially May) that I haven’t gotten around to because I’m still trying to read everything else I’ve missed in earlier years and before I was born and really one lifetime is not enough for all the reading I want to fill it with. So frustrating. Being able to catch up on my reading for the rest of eternity is the only reason I would consider vamprisim.
  4. My most anticipated release for the second half of the year: Again, so hard because there are so many, but I’m going with Ruth Ware’s July release, The Lying Game. I’ve been waiting for this one since finishing The Woman in Cabin 10 last summer and the release date is finally almost here, so this one’s high on my radar of new releases at the moment.
  5. My biggest disappointment of 2017: caraval Stephanie Garber’s Caraval. There was so much hype for this book, but I didn’t really like much more than the atmosphere of it. I had issues with a lot of the relationships (especially the one between the sisters), and the characters I was most interested in seemed overlooked. I have higher hopes for the sequel, and I didn’t entirely hate Caraval, but I was expecting greatness and I was disappointed.
  6. gosetawatchmanMy biggest surprise of the year: This one’s definitely Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. I can’t believe I managed to avoid being spoiled on the big surprise in this book because it’s pretty controversial. It wasn’t a great surprise or a terrible surprise for me, it was just a giant shock. I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and have been living with pretty solid opinions of it, but Go Set a Watchman threw everything I thought I knew into question. It was a major shock to be so uprooted about something as steadfast as a literary classic.
  7. Favorite new-to-you or debut author: I iletyougobelieve she was a debut author in 2016, but I read Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go earlier this year and loved it. At first I thought it had a slow start, but then I realized that there were clues woven into that first part so expertly that they’re almost completely invisible until things speed up. And then they never slow down again. I’ve been loving thrillers lately, and this one has been one of my favorites. I’m planning to read her newer release soon.
  8. FullSizeRender (18)My new fictional crush: I’m not sure what to say here because I don’t approach book boyfriends like lots of other girls. When I appreciate a fictional man in a book, I generally appreciate him with whoever he’s with in the book, or for whoever he should be with in his respective fictional world. Even in my fictional fantasies, I’m still me, and I need a person suited to me, not suited to the fictional girl he’s adoring. That said, I think Nikolai Lantsov from the Grisha trilogy is pretty fantastic.
  9. My new favorite character: Lucienacourtofwingsandruin from Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series. Book three, the recently released ACOWAR, lays the groundwork for a lot of the secondary characters to become major focuses in the three upcoming related books, and while several of them are quite intriguing, I think I’m most interested in getting a closer look at who Lucien is as a character and what will happen with him next.
  10. FullSizeRender (3)A book that made me cry: Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places has some pros and cons, but it did remind me of what it’s like to feel completely alone even when there are people who care. I was so sure that this was going to be a romance that I didn’t look closely enough at the upcoming disaster and was so much more sad than I expected when it struck.
  11. A book that made me happy: This may thefemaleofthespeciessound odd, but I’m going with Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species. For a hard-hitting YA book with messages about rape, trauma, and grief, this one left me feeling fiercely proud of my gender and of the progress that females have made in recent years toward becoming a strong presence in the world. Even though this is a serious story, it’s also full of hope for the future.
  12. My favorite book-to-movie adaptation that I’ve seen this year: I’m ashamed to say I haven’t watched many adaptations lately. But I did watch the entire second season of Outlander this spring, which I liked far better than its corresponding book (Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber), and the Outlander TV show has earned its current place as my all-time favorite book-to-TV adaptation so far.
  13. thisadventureendsThe most beautiful book I’ve bought/received this year: Emma Mills’s This Adventure Ends is gorgeous, and I’m partially looking forward to reading it just for an extra excuse to take some pictures of it. I’m not very good at photography, as you’ve probably noticed if you follow my blog, so I generally don’t even try until I’m actually reading the book, but here’s a picture of the cover from the internet to show you what I mean about the cover in the meantime.
  14. Some books I need to read by the end of the year: SO MANY. My TBR is back up over 300 on Goodreads again, which is higher than where it started at the beginning of the year, though I’m only 20 books away from reaching my goal for the year. But some of my top priorities for 2017 are: The Hobbit, by Tolkien, because I still haven’t read any Tolkien books and I swear this is the year. Lord of Shadows by Cassandra Clare because if I reach this point it will mean I’ve succeeded with my Shadownhunters marathon of 2017. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen because why haven’t I read this? Also I want to read it before Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, which is also on my TBR. And some upcoming releases are on my 2017 MUST-READ list, like Maggie Stiefvater’s All the Crooked Saints, Andy Weir’s Artemis, Ryan Graudin’s Invictus, Kristin Cashore’s Jane, Unlimited, and probably a lot more that I’m going to sacrifice sleep to find time for.

And a bonus question of my own:

15. A book I’ve been meaning to read in 2017 but haven’t yet: V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic has been on one of my TBRs already, and it’s been on my mind all year even when I haven’t felt up to starting what’s probably going to end up being a three-book marathon. It’s definitely going to happen soon, though. Now that all three books are out, there’s no more reason for hesitation.

That’s the end of the tag, and since I haven’t been tagged I won’t tag anyone, but please let me know if you’re participating in this tag because I’d love to see more answers! I’d especially appreciate seeing anyone incorporating my bonus question into the tag, because I think it’s interesting to see how people’s reading tastes and priorities change, even month to month, and sometimes the things we put off tell as much about our experiences as the things we achieve.

How’s your reading progress going this year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Discovery of Witches

I’ve always enjoyed fantasy books, and  every now and then I have a craving for vampires–they’re such tortured souls. Immortality, apparently, can be burdensome.  I found Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches at my library recently, and although it turned out not at all as I’d expected, I realized pretty quickly that I was in it for the long haul. (This is the first book in the All Souls Trilogy, each volume hovering just under 600 pages.)

It begins with absence and desire…It begins with blood and fear. It begins with a discovery of witches.

About the book: Diana Bishop is a historian. adiscoveryofwitchesShe’s also a witch. Her parents–more witches–died brutally when she was seven, an event which convinced her of the dangers of magic, and prompted her to abandon hers. As an adult witch pretending to be human, she’s researching old alchemical texts for a keynote speech in Oxford, resisting the urge to use her buried sixth sense to learn more about the ancient manuscripts she studies. But she stumbles upon one volume that practically drips magic from its seams–and in handling it, she moves one of the biggest mysteries of her world into focus. As a horde of “creatures” flock to the library–and ultimately to Diana–to learn more about the book and gain access for themselves, her lack of control over her magic becomes a problem and she’s thrust into danger she doesn’t understand and can’t fight. The first vampire on the scene, Matthew Clairmont, understands better than everyone else that to open the ancient, lost book means protecting Diana–the only person who’s been able to access it in centuries. Love between species is forbidden by law, but something much more ancient and inevitable is at work with Matthew and Diana. The unlikely pair must find answers in each other, as the world around them crackles with erupting secrets and the first signs of war between the species emerge.

About the layout: Diana, our main character, narrates most of this book’s chapters in the first person. There are also a few chapters woven in that feature third person narration and move around between focus on different characters–usually Matthew, but not always. There’s always more to his story than what he shows on the surface, which makes him compelling to read, though Diana’s lack of magical knowledge makes her a better guide for the reader through the discoveries of this first book.

Marcus knew that a vampire’s life was measured not in hours or years but in secrets revealed and kept. Vampires guarded their personal relationships, the names they’d adopted, and the details of the many lives they’d lived.”

A large portion of this book seems highly concentrated on vampires and their role within this world, even though our main character is a witch. There are four branches of “creatures,” as they’re referred to, in this trilogy: humans, vampires, witches, and daemons. They all make appearances throughout the text, but without doubt there’s more information on vampires and their habits and current standing in this world than any of the other species. Eventually, as the reader knows she must, Diana stops trying to deny that she’s a witch and the vampire stories are mixed with details of how witch magic works and how it pertains to Diana. But it’s worth noting that this is a vampire-heavy novel. I think it comes down to Matthew and Diana’s relationship–from the very beginning, she makes concessions for all his odd behaviors because he’s a vampire and he’s been that way for a long time, while she’s planted herself between a witch’s life and a human one, which leaves her on uncertain ground. Thus, we see a lot more of her emotions and her acclimating to the presence of a vampire than anything witchy because it takes so long for her to commit to being a witch at all. And while she’s not learning about being a witch, she’s asking Matthew questions about vampirism, and the focus of the book is often pointed in that direction. Luckily, Matthew’s lived enough years that his vampire secrets are interesting.

“I wasn’t the same creature then, and I wouldn’t entirely trust my past selves with you.”

On romance: love between Matthew and Diana is not one of this book’s surprises, and it’s something I wish I had known before reading. I went looking for a fantasy book, but through hundreds of pages I found myself wondering whether the novel was a romance disguised as fantasy. There’s definitely fantasy, but it generally comes second, and the romance is immediately, utterly obvious. From the very beginning, the narration is clear on what’s building between our two main characters. Diana is startled and mildly frightened at being addressed by a vampire (seemingly the most dangerous of the four species), but she takes the time to note that he’s unbelievably handsome. He invites her to dinner and hints that he might see her around Oxford in that creepy vampire way that indicates he’ll probably be stalking her and creating “coincidental” meetings between them. The first time the narration focuses on him, he admits that he’s intrigued by Diana and he wants to stay close to her, but he absolutely definitely is not in love with her. These details (and many, many more) indicate that there’s going to be romantic intrigue here. If you don’t want to read a romance, this isn’t the fantasy book for you. That said, there’s not much sexual detail in this romance, it’s almost entirely gestures and looks and conversations, so it’s not raunchy in the way I would expect of a true romance, either.

Some things I didn’t like:

  • There’s way more description of meals and teas and wines than necessary.
  • Diana is sometimes okay with being ordered around and stalked and otherwise controlled by Matthew because she loves him.
  • For someone who claims not to be (and is also told by Matthew that she is not) a damsel in distress, Diana requires a lot of rescuing.
  • For a witch, even one who doesn’t want to use her power, Diana knows remarkably little about the “creatures” of her world.
  • Everyone is concerned about or in awe of Diana’s super magical witch powers, but she can’t use/control them. There’s an imbalance in the attention and the worthiness of attention.
  • Completely coincidentally, Diana finds a new abilities she can’t harness but can use for some emergency just at the time when she needs them.

Hence, I admit to problematic elements–mostly in Matthew and Diana’s relationship, in which Matthew wants all the power. But other than all the description of food/beverages, the narration does make attempts to explain most of the problematic areas, and I was left with the impression that some of these things might be fixed in the upcoming novels of the trilogy. I believe this is a series that demands to be read in full, if you’re determined to start at all.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’ll admit this trilogy is 100% a guilty pleasure. Romances are often guilty pleasures for me because I don’t read them for the reasons I usually read other books. This one repeatedly gave me the impression: “Twilight on steroids” a few times, which was worrisome, but the story kept me engaged regardless. I’m committed to finishing the trilogy because I think some of the issues I had will be addressed going forward, and I’m curious about where the plot is going, since there are many mysterious threads and a lack of answers in this first book.

Further recommendations:

  1. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander is the first (long) book in a (long) series that’s similar to A Discovery of Witches in that it’s a mix of fantasy/sci-fi and historical fiction. And romance, of course. An intense but challenging romance that’s very similar (minus the vampirism) to Matthew and Diana’s relationship.

What’s next: I’m currently reading White Fur by Jardine Libaire, one of my Book of the Month Club choices from their June selections. After nearly 600 pages of adult fantasy I’m ready for some lit fic. This one’s a (steamy for summer) star-crossed romance set in 1980’s New York.

What are you reading to kick off the summer?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: You can now read my review of the next book in this series, Shadow of Night!

Review: Go Set a Watchman

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in a high school English class, and was surprised even then by how much I liked it. Then, 55 years after Harper Lee’s single publication, came its sequel,  Go Set a Watchman. I bought a copy of each book for my own shelf, and set them aside until I was planning my classic reads for 2017 and decided that it was time to revisit an old love and examine what might be a new one.

“Love’s the only thing in this world that’s unequivocal. There are different kinds of love, certainly, but it’s a you-do or you-don’t proposition with them all.”

This quote rings true for me, and yet–do I love Go Set a Watchman? Do I love it? I’m not sure. I don’t feel the same about it as I do To Kill a Mockingbird. It calls for a different kind of appreciation, but at the same time it changes my view of TKaM as well.

gosetawatchmanAbout the book: Scout is grown up. Well, she’s on her way to growing up in this coming-of-age story. She’s twenty-six, visiting her family and friends in Maycomb from her current place of residence in New York. Some staple characters from her childhood have been and are being removed from her adult life by death, age, and irreconcilable difference of opinion. An automobile accident in town in which a black man brings about the death of a white man sets old memories and new problems in motion for the whole town, but especially for Scout and her family. For the first time she can remember, Scout is seeing things differently than some of the people she’s closest to–its a fundamental difference that shakes her whole world and forces her to choose sides in morality–and to see on which side of the line her loved ones lie.

“They say when you can’t stand it your body is its own defense, you black out and you don’t feel any more. The Lord never sends you more than you can bear–“

About the layout: The entire book follows Scout, mostly in her present life in 1955 but there are also flashbacks/memories of Scout’s childhood, some with reminders of what happened in TKaM, but others with new information, from later in her childhood and teen years. These glimpses into Scout’s younger life help bridge the gap between Scout’s ages and views of the world in TKaM and GSaW.

Another interesting formatting technique is that GSaW contains entire passages lifted directly or with slight paraphrasing from TKaM. Several sentences, mixed throughout the first half of the book, reveal the same information and perspective on the founding of Maycomb and how it (and the people who live in it) operates. At first I found this annoying because I had just read TKaM earlier in the week and I wanted a fresh story, not the same one. But I looked more closely at some of those passages in both books, and I found slight differences. I realized that they were revealing something about Scout: that her basic life and memories were the same between the two books, but as with all memories and perspectives, slight (or great) changes occur over time. People realize new things from old evidence. Scout’s entire perception of the events in TKaM will be turned upside down in GSaW, and these double passages serve as a reminder that our narrator is as flawed as anyone else and that no matter how sure she may be of her past, things change.

“I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference. I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty-six years is too long to play a joke on anybody, no matter how funny it is.”

About the characters: Many of the characters from TKaM seem very different in GSaW than they did in the previous book. Some of the changes can seem rather upsetting at first, for the reader, but especially for Scout. My biggest disappointment of character, though, came in the form of twenty-six year-old Scout. For the first hundred pages or so, I didn’t like her at all. She seems startlingly childish for a woman of her age, but even as a child in TKaM she was not so quick to pick fights and cause trouble. She was good with her fists, yes, and wouldn’t take an insult lying down, but in GSaW she’s defiant and independent to the point of being outright rude and mean in places where it’s unnecessary and uncalled for. She has no qualms about provoking her aunt and speaking whatever’s on her mind, and although Henry clearly adores her she’s constantly badgering him.

And on the subject of Henry, might I ask why he and Dill couldn’t have been the same character? Dill, Scout’s childhood friend from TKaM is absent in GSaW, but the reader is told that soon after the end of that book, Henry Clinton moved in across the street and was more or less taken in by the Finches. It doesn’t make sense to me that such an important character in this book wouldn’t have been present in the previous book (especially since the note at the end of my copy reveals that Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman first, and both were more or less complete at the time of her first round of publication), at the same time as a friendly face from TKaM is being removed. I would’ve liked to see the two of them melded into one character who remains constant between the books–or at the very least, to have seen Henry’s arrival in town or a hint of his upcoming importance before he becomes a major character in GSaW. The flashbacks to Scout’s later childhood with Henry help make up for his absence in TKaM, but as Henry turned out to be one of my favorite characters here, even that felt like too small an acknowledgment of his presence in Scout’s life.

“The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Once I got over the extreme shock of some of the characters’ personalities coming to new light, I did like the literary moves Lee made here and the acknowledgment of Scout’s young age and potential misperception of events in To Kill a Mockingbird. Henry was perhaps the only character I really like through and through in this book, which was a change from loving everyone in TKaM, but that seems to have been the point–Scout was generous and trusting in TKaM, and in this sequel she’s seeing the world more objectively; character flaws are coming out. Despite their flaws, though, no one in GSaW is truly unredeemable, and there’s nothing I love more than a good handful of morally gray characters.

Further recommendations:

  1. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is my recommendation for readers who like To Kill a Mockingbird best from the Harper Lee duo. It advocates for freedom and equality between races at a time when slavery was still the norm in southern US, and is as deeply emotional as some of the lessons Scout learns in TKaM.
  2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is my recommendation for readers who like Go Set a Watchman for the challenges it poses to the idea that morality is a clear path. Just as GSaW muddies the waters of right and wrong with reasonings on both sides of conflict, so too do the Southern characters of Gone With the Wind who face the end of more than slavery with the arrival of the Civil War.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, the first novel in an adult urban fantasy trilogy. It’s not what I expected–it seems more like a romance with a fantasy backdrop so far–but it’s highly addictive even though I have some criticisms.

What are you reading to kick off summer 2017?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

May Wrap-Up

At the end of each month I reflect back on what I’ve read and put all the links for my reviews from the month together so you can look back at anything interesting you missed. This month, I had an overly ambitious TBR list of 11 books, and rather to my surprise, I managed to read 10 of them. These are the books I read in May:

  1. Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls and FullSizeRender (19)Everything in Between by Lauren Graham. 4 out of 5 stars. I’ve been wanting a little extra Gilmore Girls in my life since the four new episodes were released in November, and I also needed a memoir for my 2017 reading challenge. Although there wasn’t as much insider info on GGs as I’d hoped, I was pleasantly surprised by how generally encouraging and entertaining I found this book to be.
  2. The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman. 4themagician'sland out of 5 stars. I loved C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia as a kid, and as an adult I enjoyed this Narnia-esque trilogy just as much. This final book was a magical mishmash with great concluding story arcs, and following these characters on their Fillorian adventures has been one of the highlights of the year, reading-wise. Alas, I still like book two better than this final volume, but book three did not disappoint.
  3. My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows. 4 out of 5 myladyjanestars. I had heard that this book was funny, but I only laughed once. That said, the premise itself is absolutely comical, and the characters even more interesting than their historical counterparts. Even though each book in this set will feature a different cast and setting, I can’t wait to see what will happen with the other Janes.
  4. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. 3 out of 5 stars. biglittleliesWhile I appreciated the writing style–I still can’t believe I was so drawn in to the politics of kindergarten parents–I did not like the way this mystery played out in the end. There were enough things I liked about the book though to make me interested in trying again with another story by the same author.
  5. A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas. 4 out of 5 stars. acourtofwingsandruinI had been waiting for this one for what seemed like forever, although it was probably nothing compared to the wait readers experienced if they read ACOMAF closer to its release date. When my copy finally arrived, I started reading immediately and basically didn’t look up until I reached the end of the book. While ACOMAF remains my favorite in the series (so far), I did appreciate the way things wrapped up for Feyre here and I’m hoping that the loose ends with several other characters will be addressed in the upcoming related volumes.
  6. Into the Water by Paula Hawkins. 4 out of intothewater5 stars. The important thing with this one is not to go into it expecting the next Girl on the Train. I found this new Hawkins book to be completely different than her previous release, and personally, I liked the switch because both styles appeal to me. This one’s more slow and unrelenting than fast and frantic, but the style fit well with its subject matter and the characters were well-crafted enough to keep me going even though most all of them were unlikable. I’m eager to see where Hawkins will go next.
  7. Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare. 4 out of 5 stars. This one fell into the trap clockworkprinceof middle-book syndrome: very little plot advancement happened while all the characters were being moved around the board and their emotions poked and prodded to set up for the final book in this trilogy. Even so, I enjoyed it more than the first book in this series and I’m looking forward to reading the last one. I’m invested in the fates of most of these characters (some more than others), and I think it’s interesting that so much can have happened in a prequel series–how will it end,  and how will it relate back to the Mortal Instruments?
  8. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. 5 out of 5 stars. tokillamockingbirdEvery month when it comes time to start my designated classic, I drag my mental feet because I’m rarely in the mood for it until I’m in the middle of it. Even knowing I loved this book the last time I read it (6 years ago?), I was hesitant. I shouldn’t have worried, though. Within a few chapters I was enamored with these characters and their story all over again. I like how every little thread in this book has a moral of some sort, but they’re presented as new ideas to children rather than the sort of painful moralizing that assumes the ideas are entirely new to the more experienced reader (as though he/she has never heard of racial equality or aid for the poor, etc.). I like the way Boo Radley is handled at the end of the tale, the brief conclusion to his role in the story that would have been ruined with anything more outspoken. I especially love Scout’s role as a literal ham in the town pageant. In fact, the only thing I didn’t like about this book is that despite its nudges toward equality between races and social classes, there is still a line drawn between men and women. It’s subtle, perhaps, but it’s there. The line is especially notable when Scout realizes she can’t be a juror because she’s a woman; Atticus jokes that women would make horrible jurors because they’d always be interrupting to ask questions, and Scout just kind of agrees and laughs it off, settling into the restrictions of her gender. I realize this book takes place in the 1930’s (and I just looked it up–women did not have the rights to serve on juries in all fifty states until 1973), but Scout is a child young enough to dream impossible dreams, and she seems like exactly the sort of overall-wearing, fist-fighting, book-loving child to put up a fuss about being told she can’t do something because she’s a girl. There were other little comments and circumstances that hit me the same way, with the sense that gender equality in many regards was still a far-off and even unwelcome prospect, and that bothered me more than anything else in this book. Other inequalities, at least, were addressed as such. On the whole though, I liked the perfect balance of danger and safety, wins and losses, childhood games and significant laws that filled the rest of the book. It’s a strong favorite.
  9. The Girl Before by JP Delaney. 4 out of 5 stars. Although not as terrifying as I thegirlbeforegenerally prefer my thrillers to be, I found in this book exactly the sort of mystery/thriller I was looking for this month. Even the characters who turned out to be harmless were disturbing, and there’s something about the idea of a house that learns your life and tries to give input and make changes for you that is supremely disturbing. Also, I absolutely loved the way this novel is structured–the format fits the content exactly, and I’m the sort of reader who can appreciate that sort of thing as much as an engaging plot.
  10. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. 4 out gosetawatchmanof 5 stars. I had so many different frames of mind while reading this–for the first hundred pages or so I was hardly invested at all, and then I was so shocked by the sudden change around page 100 that I had to take a break to figure out how to go on with my life, and then by the end I was sad about what had happened and sad that it was over. That was all pretty vague, but I don’t want to give any spoilers here. Full review coming soon, because this book is packed full of big surprises. Some of them were fairly upsetting, but so believable that I have a lot of respect for some of the techniques in this book, too.

Honorable mention: I spent an entire day in May skim-reading A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas after I finished reading acourtofmistandfuryACOWAR; since I didn’t read every word on every page, I’m not counting this as a full reread, but I did dedicate a significant number of hours and I read probably 3/4 of the book in total, so I thought it deserved a nod of acknowledgment, at least. Again, on my second time through it, it felt like just as much of a guilty pleasure read. My favorite part of this book is the extreme character development–several of the characters turn completely around from where we left them at the end of ACOTAR, which I appreciate. Character-driven books are the best, and I think the fact that we focus more on character than plot in this volume is what makes it stand out as the best of the trilogy. The reread didn’t really change my opinions on it in any way.

We’ve reached the end of the list. I’m pretty impressed with myself for having read so much this month, especially since several of these books were fairly long. I wish I would have also had time for A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, the only book on my TBR for the month that I didn’t fit into these past 31 days, but I knew I might not get through eleven books this month. If every month were this productive regarding my reading, I’d be thrilled.