Review: The Hobbit

I cannot even count the number of people who have recommended this book to me over the years, or even the exact number of years I’ve been putting it off. But here is The Hobbit, my 77th book of 2017 (my goal was 73, so that was a happy realization), and my first foray into Tolkien’s oeuvre.

About the book: Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit. thehobbitHe lives a happy hobbit life in his hobbit-hole home under a pleasant hill. Hobbits are not usually adventurous, but when Bilbo finds himself hosting thirteen dwarfs and a wizard for tea one day, he learns of an adventure just beginning and finds himself swept along in it. The adventure is a quest– the dwarfs want to travel back to their old homeland, overthrow the dragon that has taken residence there, and thus reclaim their palace and treasure. They are each to be rewarded for their trouble with gold and silver and precious gemstones when the treasure is recovered. That is, if they can survive the harsh landscape and dangerous magical creatures they encounter along the way.

“…and they all felt that the adventure was far more dangerous than they had thought, while all the time, even if they passed all the perils of the road, the dragon was waiting at the end.”

Here we have an adventure story, arguably the quintessential adventure story, although Treasure Island could also make a good case for that title. As with many adventure tales, this book is largely episodic in nature, meaning a lot of small plots are strung together consecutively in one long linked chain. Knowing the gist of the quest from the beginning of the story helps combat the chaos of the journey, as does the narrator’s foreshadowing in places where the story seems prone to wandering (episodic tales are generally full of chaos and wanderings, and lack the typical rise and fall of tension that begins with a single problem, is faced with obstacles, finds its climax in some sort of confrontation and then resolves, whether for better or worse. In episodic tales, the tension rises and falls repeatedly through multiple climactic moments and resolutions). The Hobbit uses a mix of both main plot types by laying the episodic adventure over a traditional plot arc with gradually mounting tension.

“Now is the time for our esteemed Mr. Baggins, who has proved himself a good companion on our long road, and a hobbit full of courage and resource far exceeding his size, and if I may say so possessed of good luck far exceeding the usual allowance– now is the time for him to perform the service for which he was included in our Company; now it the time for him to earn his Reward.”

The best aspect of The Hobbit, as I saw it, was the narration itself. The tale is told from some third-person perspective that knows future and past, can see various characters’ thoughts and motivations, addresses the reader directly, and acts as a general all-knowing guide to Middle-earth. There is a time in the book when Bilbo Baggins is said to be writing a memoir, and I find myself attracted to the idea that Baggins himself is the narrator of this tale, relying on accumulated knowledge of magical creatures and the parts of the story that must have been told to him in order to present himself as a nearly omniscient narrator.

“I may be a burglar– or so they say: personally I never really felt like one– but I am an honest one, I hope, more or less.”

I was also fascinated by Gandolf. He seems to be a fallible creature, and yet he’s always in the right place at the right time, or in the wrong place at the right time so that things work out in a certain favorable way that they wouldn’t have been able to if he were present. He speaks of prophecy to Baggins, and though not much is discussed about it, I like to believe that he was so sure of Biblo’s skill and luck and general agreeableness due to some unmentioned prophecy. There is no other explanation given for his insistence on Bilbo Baggins accompanying the dwarfs on their journey, and for his surety that the hobbit is just the “burglar” they need. I would’ve loved to learn more about him, and I hope he makes a reapparance in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (I really don’t know anything about it, please don’t spoil me).

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

The songs woven throughout the story are also highly entertaining, especially when the reader tries to put a tune to them while reading. 🙂

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I really haven’t been in the mood for episodic stories lately, but there was just enough of a traditional plot arc to get me through this one. The quest is mapped out early, so I had no difficulty reading through all the small mishaps along the way to the Lonely Mountain, knowing that there would a battle for the treasure at the end of the tale that would give the journey purpose. I highly enjoyed Tolkien’s narrative style, and am definitely planning to continue with The Fellowship of the Ring, though I think I’ll wait until I’ve finished the Song of Ice and Fire series first to keep my fantasy details straight. I found a lot of little details in The Hobbit that reminded me of details from Martin’s series, and I wasn’t surprised– I would be more surprised if you could point me to a fantasy writer who wasn’t in some way inspired by Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Chronicles of Narnia is a phenomenal adventure saga for readers young and old alike who area after fantastic journeys and magical creatures. The Magician King, by C. S. Lewis, is the first Narnia book (in chronological order, which I recommend), and it’s both easily readable and utterly engrossing.
  2. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust would be a great choice of fantasy for adult readers who are looking for something short and sweet and very reminiscent of The Hobbit. This one follows a boy who travels beyond the village of Wall to retrieve a fallen star for the girl he thinks he loves, and finds a whole world of adventure.
  3. I you’re not afraid of a long book, pick up George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. I know the size of the novels in his Song of Ice and Fire series are intimidating, but they are worth the time. There are some similar elements of world-building between Martin and Tolkien, although A Game of Thrones is much more political and character-driven.
  4. For more adventure stories without all the fantasy elements, try Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the story of a teenage boy setting off with pirates in search of hidden gold. There’s no magic in this one, but if you like the constant misadventures of The Hobbit and don’t mind learning some nautical terms, you’ll enjoy this one just as much.

Coming up Next: I’ve just picked up Cassandra Clare’s City of Heavenly Fire, the final book in the Mortal Instruments series. It’s immensely long and I won’t be finishing it by the end of the month (which is only a few hours away), but I’m eager to see how it all ends for Clace and Simon and the Lightwoods et al, so I’m predicting that it won’t take me long to finish this one.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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August Book Haul

I didn’t try very hard to meet my 5-book goal this month, but I’m satisfied with my choices nonetheless. Book Outlet had a great sale, Book of the Month Club had great selections, and I think I’m prepared now for a month full of spooky reads in October. It’s crazy that it’s almost fall here already, but there it is. At least I’ll have plenty of reading material to get me through the colder weather.

And now for the new books:

  1. Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips. A Book of the Month choice from the August selections. This one’s a suspenseful psychological thriller about a mother and her young son stuck in a zoo after hours as a murder spree is under way. I’ve already read and loved this book.
  2. The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh. Here’s another fresh Book of the Month selection that I’m also really excited about and hoping to get around to reading early next month, before my Sept BOTM box arrives. This one’s been described as a speculative modern Western, which sounds like nothing I’ve ever read and I’m eager to see for myself what this book is doing. The premise reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, which I loved.
  3. The Beauty of Darkness by Mary E. Pearson. This is the third book in the Kiss of Deception trilogy, which I have been waiting to read until I got my hands on this third book. Now I can start any time. I don’t know anything beyond the premise of book one (a runaway princess is chased by her betrothed and an assassin, and the reader doesn’t know which is which), but I’ve heard good reviews about the entire trilogy, so I’m taking a chance on enjoying the whole thing. At least the matching set looks nice on my shelf.
  4. The Once and Future King by T. H. White. This is a classic fantasy book about the legend of King Arthur, and I’ve heard the title and other versions of the tale, but I’ve never read this book. Since I’ve been reading George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, I’ve been more interested in epic fantasy, and I’ve always been fascinated by King Arthur’s story, so I’m really excited about this one.
  5. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. I’ve been getting into a few of Gaiman’s stories this year and generally enjoying them, so I keep picking them up. I found this mass market paperback size for $2, and I think this will be my next Gaiman read. It’ll be a good fit for October, I think, because as far as I remember this is a creepy story about someone dead and their spooky childhood adventures. Or something like that. I’ve also heard this one described as a modern classic, which is appealing to me.
  6. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. I saw the film of this story several years ago, but I’ve forgotten almost everything about it. I remember being impressed by the story, and I think it would be a great plot to read about before re-watching the movie. It’s about serial killer Hannibal Lecter, his disturbing habits (I think he’s the guy who takes his victims’ skin), and his penchant for escaping justice. It’ll be another great horror tale to read around Halloween.
  7. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King. This is a book of King’s short stories, complete with commentary on his ideas for and writing of each of them. Stephen King is one of my favorite authors, but many of his books are very long and it’s been a couple years now since I last read one (it was 11/22/63, one of my all-time favorite King novels). A book of short stories seemed like an easy way to get back into the mood for a long and disturbing King novel. I’m also a big fan of a great short story, and I’ve let my reading of those fall behind, as well, so it’ll be nice to get back to that medium as well.
  8. Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter. I’ve been reading even more thrillers than usual this year, but I’ve never read any of Slaughter’s books. There were several that caught my interest, but I found a cheap mass market size of this one and I picked it up to get me started. I don’t remember the premise of this one at all, but I think it’s one of those usual thriller-series books that follows the detective’s perspective through creepy crimes. I just wanted an easy introduction to the author’s writing, and I like the creativity of the crimes in those sorts of series, like in James Patterson’s 1st to Die.
  9. The Awakening and Selected Short Fiction by Kate Chopin. Here’s a classic full of shorter pieces. I’ve read a couple of Chopin’s short stories in the past and loved them, and The Awakening has been on my TBR for ages, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to have a copy on my shelf to be prepared for when the mood strikes me. Her stories are generally empowering and impactful, and the writing is engaging to read. They’re not creepy stories, exactly, but I remember a sense of foreboding pervading her pieces that I found very compelling.
  10. These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly. I haven’t read much YA of the horror/thriller/mystery sort (the most recent probably being Eileen Cook’s With Malice), but this one intrigued me. I think it’s about a girl looking into her father’s suspicious death and finding more danger than she bargained for. I’ve seen some good reviews and I think it’ll add variety to my creepy October reads to have some scary YA mixed in there with the classics and thrillers and Stephen King novels.
  11. Ruined by Amy Tintera. I have a weakness for YA fantasy. I don’t read them as often as I’d like, but I can’t resist picking them up. I believe this one’s also got a bit of romance in it, but I’ve heard good things about the world-building and the fast-paced plot, so I’m hoping there are plenty of those fantasy elements in here as well. I think this one’s a story of revenge, with maybe a royal marriage and some murder and political intrigue. That’s all I know so far, and all I want to know going in.
  12. The Muse by Jessie Burton. I still haven’t read Burton’s The Miniaturist, but I’ve heard such good things about this author and both of her books, and they both sound like my type of lit fic, so I’ve picked up this one to match the other on my shelf and I’m hoping to get around to both of them in the not-too-distant future. This one follows two time lines and a painting, and the cover is gorgeous.
  13. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. I’ve only read two of Austen’s books so far, but they’ve convinced me that I need to read them all. I’m only short a copy of Mansfield Park now, I think. Anyway, Sense and Sensibility may be the last Austen book I read this first time around because I’ve already seen a film adaptation of it. I’ve been trying to save the movies for after the books, but I failed on this one so I’m trying to forget as many details as I can before picking it up. But now I’m prepared for that day.

augustbookhaul

So those are my new books. I’ve only read one of them so far, but I’ll be ready to pick up The Blinds any day now, and a bunch of these look great for October. Most of these look like books I could see myself picking up within the year, which is what I’m going for in my book hauls even if I can’t limit myself to five. Better luck next month, I hope. It’s the sales that get me every time.

What new books did you pick up this month?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

September TBR

Here’s another try at a reasonable TBR. I tried really hard to add to my list only the absolute minimum books that I feel like I have to read this month for one reason or another, and no more. My plan is to read these books, and then have some freedom to pick up whatever sounds good at the end of the month, without feeling like I’m still racing to get to the end of a too-long list. (I tried the same thing in August and failed by picking my extras too early and giving myself an entire second TBR.)

But here is my modest TBR for September:

  1. A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin. I’ve been reading Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series lately (and finally watching the corresponding Game of Thrones episodes), and it’s been going well. I cannot wait to dive into this next (third) mammoth book in this incredible fantasy series, so it’ll probably be one of the first things I reach for this month. It’s long, but it’ll be worth it. And I mean, Winter is coming.
  2. Because You Love to Hate Me by Ameriie (and others). I needed a short story collection for my 2017 reading challenge, and even though I’ve got a few that I’m still planning to read before the end of the year, this is the one I want to count for that. It’s a book of stories by popular YA authors about all sorts of villains, and I think it’ll be a great opportunity for me to read a little more from authors I already know I enjoy and also to preview some additional authors that have been on my radar before jumping into their full-length books. A sampling, if you will. I’m imagining reading this one in pieces at a time throughout a couple of weeks rather than all at once, but we’ll see what happens.
  3. The Bane Chronicles by Cassandra Clare. Here’s another book of short stories; I hope I don’t get tired of reading those this month before I get through this second set. This one also has a wider list of popular authors, but I’ll give more details in my review because I haven’t looked that closely at it yet and I’m confident you can look them easily up if you’re really curious. All I know is that this is the next stop on my Cassandra Clare marathon quest, and unlike the other short story collection, I’m aiming to read these all at once, like a novel.
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. This is my classic for the month, and after reading Austen’s Perusasion earlier this year I have been long awaiting this part of my 2017 classics schedule. I know nothing about it except the lead male’s name is Mr. Darcy, and I’m eager to learn more. I’ve developed a bad habit of waiting until the end of the month to pick up my designated classic, but I won’t be able to do that in September because this month I’m also going to read:
  5. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. This is a modern retelling of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I’ve heard good things about both. I actually won a copy of this one in a Goodreads giveaway (you could have knocked me over with a feather. I never win things left to chance, not even BINGO), and I feel kind of bad that I haven’t reviewed it yet for Goodreads; but I knew I would be reading Pride and Prejudice in September, and I wanted to read these together. Now’s the time.
  6. The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh. I picked this book as one of my choices from the August Book of the Month selections, and I found time for my other August book but not this one. I’ve seen it described as a “speculative modern Western,” but also as a thriller, so I’m expecting a suspenseful, genre-bending good time with this one and I’m immensely curious to find out for myself how this one will go. This would’ve been my next choice in August if A Clash of Kings hadn’t taken me so long, so I’m intending to get to it pretty soon.

septembertbr

And that’s my list. I know there will be more BOTM books when the September selections are released, and sometimes that throws off my reading plan if I end up with something new that I want to read right away, but I’m hoping to stick with these 6 first and then see where the end of the month takes my bookish wanderings. As much as I love summer, I’m so ready to see some new fall releases and curl up under a warm blanket with great reads and colorful leaves out my window.

What are you planning to read in September?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Fierce Kingdom

As excited as I am about each of the books I choose from Book of the Month Club, I’m acquiring a little backlog of them. So I’m proud of myself for reading at least one of my (two) new August selections within the month! It wasn’t only satisfying to cross a title off a list, though– Gin Phillips’ Fierce Kingdom is an incredible read.

fiercekingdomAbout the book: Joan and her four year-old son, Lincoln, frequently spend their afternoons in the zoo after Lincoln’s school session. On this day, though, they’re far back in the children’s play area, completely alone, and cutting it close to make it back to the gates before closing time. Joan hears a noise she can’t place, until she sees bodies littering the ground on the path to the zoo’s exit. She spends the next three hours running and hiding from gunshots and “bad men,” trying to keep her son quietly obedient without frightening him. Animals are loose, the few straggling visitors who were trying to leave just before closing are running amok, and unexplained gunshots cut through the air near and far as night falls and the police fail to take the situation under control.

“The glass makes all the difference. A dog or cat– a domesticated thing– is totally different. A wild animal in front of you, not a pet but a real animal, is every impulse all at once. You believe it is sweet and affectionate, and this can be true, but it will also make you bleed without remorse. […] You cannot know a wild thing.”

There are a lot of great technical aspects to this book– the level of suspense worked into those three hours of panic, the focus on the psychology of the characters, the setting of the zoo, the age of the boy, the careful but not-boring descriptions of each feature of the zoo. But there are also a few details that felt weak. For instance, there are chapters mixed in with Joan’s that highlight the other characters’ perspectives. Is the purpose of these chapters to humanize the characters and make the reader more sympathetic to each of their cases? If that’s true, I think they’ve failed. Joan has such a level of observation that we learn more about these other characters, and perhaps feel sorrier for them, when we see them through her eyes. With the exception of the chapters of the gunman’s perspective, which add suspense to Joan’s terror (although they don’t give the reader much explanation of his motives, which feels like another failure), the book would’ve been stronger if it eliminated those extra chapters and stuck to Joan.

“The outside world is irrelevant. It is, somehow, clarifying to feel her shirt snagging against the bricks behind her and to feel the pain in her left shoulder where Lincoln’s weight pulls and to know that it is only the two of them, and it has been from the beginning.”

I also thought some of the plot details went a bit wonky. For one thing, there’s a time when Joan finds a supposedly soundproof room. She’s suspicious of how safe and soundproof it really is, and yet even as the girl who opens the room is talking about hearing the vibration of the vending machines through the walls, and the sound of a door opening, and the shots from the gunman, Joan never seems to pick up on these details as proof that sound passes through the room.

I was also skeptical of Joan’s inuries. She’s only in the zoo for three hours, large chunks of which are spent in stationary hiding. She’s resourceful. So it surprised me that she would be so careless about wounds– that she wouldn’t seem to mind at all when injury happened accidentally, that occasionally she would cause or exacerbate her own injuries, and that when she noticed she was injured she did nothing to care for the wounds. She seems like the sort of person who would be conscious of the dangers of blood loss or an inability to move certain parts of her body. She’s worried from the beginning about her sandal breaking, but she never takes a moment to check it and see if anything can be done to prevent that. Carelessness about her personal well-being is, to an extent, understandable while she’s so concerned with her son’s safety, but she can’t keep him safe if she’s dead. It doesn’t make sense for her to be so observant about everything around her and yet remain so blind to her own condition.

“She wonders, again, if God is punishing her for thinking her child is more important that the other woman’s child. She would do it again in a heartbeat, cannot really regret it even with the guilt weighing on her like wet wool, and she wonders, sometimes, about her ideas of God.”

Fierce Kingdom‘s strength lies in the shocking psychological layer to the thrilling tale. There is not a lot of fast-paced action, although there is some, but the real thrill originates in the shock value of what this mother will do or not do to keep her own son quiet, hidden, and safe. Would she separate from her son? Would she face a gunman? Would she face a loosed animal? How will she act toward the other people fleeing and fighting for their lives? How far will desperation drive her to go?

“This would be different if she were alone. If she had been strolling through the zoo by herself when the gunfire started. She would have run, surely. She would have hidden. But then what? She is reasonably strong and reasonably fast, and she is smart, and if she were alone, she would by now have decided that she should not be waiting around for anyone to save her.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’ve seen mixed reviews for this one, so I started out a little wary; I was pleasantly surprised. You know that tone of writing in thrillers that keeps the reader feeling like something’s off even before the action starts? This book gave me that feeling from the first page to the last one, and constantly kept me guessing even though it’s more of a race against the clock than a mystery. This isn’t a tale of a quest for answers, it’s an exploration of humanity, and it felt alarmingly plausible. Another BOTM win. 🙂

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like new psychological thrillers with an eerie atmosphere and a close look at character, check out Ruth Ware’s new release, The Lying Game. Although the plot of this one is very different (a murder mystery involving four girls who did something stupid in their days of new teenage friendship), there is also a small child in this one, with a protective mother who must stay one step ahead of the danger.
  2. Another new psychological thriller choice with high stakes and introspective focus is Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water, a well-crafted mystery of women who’ve turned up dead in the Drowning Pool. Practically everyone in town looks suspicious in one way or another, but someone knows the truth.

What’s next: I’m currently reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which is a classic fantasy/adventure that I know some small details of (Gandolf, a ring, a quest, a dragon, etc.) but not much else yet. I tend to start my classic of the month too late, but I think I will finish this one before the end of the month, and (/because) I think I’ll enjoy it.

Do you prefer classics with solid reviews behind them, or new releases you can help the book community “discover” by taking a chance before it’s proven to be great?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Exit West

There were several books on the long list for the Man Booker Prize this year that had already found their way to my TBR, and my interest in reading them was heightened by seeing them on that list. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West was one of those books, and it was the first one I decided to pick up.

“Saeed was certain he was in love. Nadia was not certain what exactly she was feeling, but she was certain it had force. Dramatic circumstances, such as those in which they and other new lovers in the city now found themselves, have a habit of creating dramatic emotions…”

About the book: Saeed and Nadia live inexitwest a war-torn country that’s increasingly dangerous to inhabit. They ward against the bombs and guns as best they can, but then the cell service is shut down throughout the country, their employers close the agencies they work for, municipal services fail. A death brings them closer together, living under the same roof though they haven’t been married yet, and the need to leave grows every day. There are debates everywhere about the best ways out of the country, but the surest method seems to be the secret doors, magical doors with the power to take a person out of one place into an entirely new one. But even if they can escape their ravaged country, there is no guarantee of safety; and when safety seems possible, they may discover that the intensity of their experience held their romance together better than peace ever could.

“She wondered whether she and Saeed had done anything by moving, whether the faces and buildings had changed but the basic reality of their predicament had not.”

The style of writing in Exit West is hard to describe, but I find it compelling. The narration is third-person, and focused generally on Saeed and Nadia’s experiences, but it also roams to other people in other corners of the world to give the reader a sense of the global state as matters expand. On a smaller level of style, the sentences run on very long sometimes, the ideas inside them separated by commas though it all falls under the same umbrella topic. It flows easily from one point to the next, and grammatically they do seem to be coherently single sentences rather than annoying run-ons, but it can be hard to keep track of where you’re at in the sentence structure if you’re not paying attention. It worked for me, but I’m guessing that less patient readers might not enjoy it as well.

“…the end of a couple is like a death, and the notion of death, of temporariness, can remind us of the value of things, which it did for Saeed and Nadia, and so even though they spoke less and did less together, they saw each other more, although not more often.”

There is no name given to the country in this book, but it feels like a very real place. Certainly in our world there are countries in which civilians live in constant fear under warring governments. There are clues in the book suggesting that the nameless country and city are very like countries and cities in the Middle East, which also gives the story more of a real feel because the details of culture are familiar from modern life. The realness makes the statements and implications of Exit West that much more powerful.

“People vanished in those days, and for the most part one never knew, at least not for a while, if they were alive or dead.”

Saeed’s and Nadia’s home city is not the only thing that goes unnamed–the groups of people are also given general titles rather than real, specific ones. They are the militants, the migrants, the natives. A good choice, because the fighting groups are not what’s important here– the war could be any war, but the fear and consequences in the lives of the civilians is a universal possibility. Though I have basically nothing in common with Exit West‘s main characters, I found them both very likable and understandable, even when they argued opposing points. The namelessness makes this a story that both teaches about others’ experiences, and also teaches the reader a bit about the humanity inside him-/herself.

“For when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

My favorite part of this book, however, is the magical realism. In my opinion, Exit West is an example of magical realism well done– the doors are the only fantastical detail of the story, and they serve a purpose in pushing the limits of war and desperation where they need to go, rather than existing just to exist. Exit West is a thought experiment, both a lesson in the results of war and inequality, and a chance to look at what might happen to the world if borders ceased to exist. With the existence of magical doors, almost any person can go almost anywhere. The characters can’t choose where the doors appear or where they lead, but they do allow for a steady flow of people from place to place. Some of the doors are guarded (as best as they can be), and some are capitalized upon, but even so they essentially remove the restrictions of borders that exist in the modern world. It’s both frightening and beautiful to see the highs and lows humans are capable of under such changed rules of movement.

“The affect doors had on people altered as well. Rumors had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country. Some people claimed to know people who knew people who had been through such doors. A normal door, they said, could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had heard about the doors and the war and the romance of this book before I began reading, and those are really the biggest points. But even knowing what to expect, I was underprepared for the strength of this book. The ideas inside it are important and timely, though mixed with enough fictional elements to lighten the heaviest parts of the story and keep it entertaining as well as enlightening. I may pick up Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist at some point, and I will certainly be checking out more books from the Man Booker Prize longlist.

Further recommendations:

  1. For more great writing set in the Middle East, try A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. This is a phenomenal historical fiction novel set in Afghanistan, also highlighting the challenges and consequences of war and the nature of love.

Coming up next: I’m just starting Gin Phillips’ Fierce Kingdom, a new thriller release about a mother and her four-year old son trapped in a zoo after hours. I believe the whole book takes place in only a short matter of hours, which sounds intriguing. I’m eager to see who will leave alive.

What are you reading to wrap up the month?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Midnight at the Electric

Jodi Lynn Anderson’s Peaches trilogy was one of the significant contemporary YA stories of my teen years. I hold it in such high esteem that I’m afraid of reading it again so many years later, in case my opinions would be different and my memories tarnished. But when I saw Anderson’s latest release, Midnight at the Electric, I thought this would be a great chance to revisit a beloved author through a new story, so I picked it up as soon as it came into my library.

midnightattheelectricAbout the book: Adri is preparing for life on Mars, to spend her remaining years building a new home for future generations. By 2065, Earth is a used-up place, but when Adri moves in with her distant cousin, Lily, for the duration of her final round of mission training, she discovers that there are still things to love about the planet she’s ready to leave behind. She and Lily find letters and a journal that connect them to a history they had never known themselves to be a part of. Through written words, they experience post-war England from the 1910s, and farm life in Oklahoma from the 1930s, when the Dust Bowl ravaged that part of the country. The three young women lead very different lives, but the stories line up to give Adri the answers she needs about her imminent trip to Mars.

“Time matters. Time matters. In nature’s calendar, midnight is the breath between day and night. It’s only at this hour that neither the sun’s rays nor the moon’s great pull can interfere with the electrical currents.”

There’s a lot going on in this book. We see a giant tortoise from the Galapagos Islands, various family dynamics, a carnival, the Dust Bowl, war heroes and pretenders, international travel, electricity, old age and dementia, the deterioration of a planet and construction of life on another, wealth and poverty, sickness, scars, the follies of youth, friendship, preparation for space travel, and so on. There are so many big themes, settings, and discussion points folded within this story, but at heart it’s a coming-of-age tale.

“Tomorrow feels like flipping a coin. Every moment I wonder if I’ve done the right thing, but tomorrow we begin to find out, and I almost can’t stand the thought of that.”

There’s also a lot going on in the formatting. Adri’s perspective is shown through a present, third-person narration that provides Adri’s actions and thoughts in “real time.” But through Adri, we also have two other perspectives in additional formats– Catherine’s sections are narrated first through a journal she kept, and then through letters she wrote after leaving her journal behind; Lenore’s sections are narrated entirely through her letters. Each section feels like the present (or recent past written from the present), though many years divide some of the characters. The formatting can be a lot to juggle, but it is all connected through Adri’s experiences.

” ‘The dust is terrible,’ he said after a long spell. ‘I know that. But… the rest of the world can be terrible too.’ “

If you can keep an eye on the raveling thread between all those areas of detail, the driving force of the story comes through the emotion in putting the pieces together. The reader learns in bite-sized snippets about life in dust storms, or after a war, or on a deteriorating planet. None of it is told exhaustively enough to become boring or overwhelming, but rather scratches the surface just enough to draw the reader’s attention, teach him/her something new, and move on to the next theme. The emotion between each is the glue that holds the story together.

“You become as strong as you have to be, don’t you think? When you’re trying to protect someone you love, you’ll do anything.”

There’s some romance (tastefully done, developing over time with each character unique and human and lovable), but there’s also heartbreak, friendship, adventure, betrayal… almost every emotion imaginable. (I realize adventure is not an emotion, but the combination of fear and excitement involved in adventure is.) In short, emotion is the thing Anderson does best here. In this coming-of-age story, with so much going on in the background, it can be hard to pinpoint a main plot. You could argue that Adri’s upcoming trip to Mars is the main plot arc, but that’s just one deadline among many. Even Adri seems to understand that the reader’s interest lies elsewhere– she’s regularly telling Lily that she needs to find the rest of the letters and records because she’s curious, because she likes to finish things, because she feels that there’s more to the story. It’s as though she’s urging the reader to keep turning pages, trying to convince the reader that he/she is curious too, reminding that there will be more to the story. A book with a strong plot doesn’t need those tricks. What it lacks in plot, though, Midnight at the Electric makes up for in emotion.

” ‘Don’t pin your hopes on something out there that doesn’t exist,’ he said, ‘or some ball of light or anything else. Pin them on me.’ “

“Grief isn’t like sadness at all. Sadness is only something that’s a part of you. Grief becomes you; it wraps you up and changes you and makes everything– every little thing– different than it was before.”

Highlighting emotion, however, introduces another problem: many of the main actions in the story happen just because the characters “feel” a certain way. They’ll have plans to do one thing, and then change their minds at the last minute because it doesn’t “feel” right. Most of the big decisions in Midnight at the Electric come down to impulse and feelings, which seems like an easy way out of rationalizing actions and fleshing out motivations.

” ‘Earth,’ Alexa finally said. ‘It’s not that great anyway.’ And they all smiled sadly. Because, of course, it was everything.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I liked the atmosphere(s) of this story more than anything else. The characters were sometimes predictable, and the tension was all over the place, but I did have a good time reading it. Although Midnight at the Electric didn’t impress me as much as I’d hoped, it also encouraged me to pick up another of Anderson’s books. I might have to check Peaches out again.

Further recommendations:

  1. In case you haven’t picked up on it already, Jodi Lynn Anderson’s YA Peaches is my favorite book by this author. If you like stories like Midnight at the Electric and are wondering where to go next, try Peaches, a story of three girls who become unlikely friends on a failing peach farm during a summer’s work that’ll affect all their lives.
  2. If it’s the crossing of characters through time that interests you (in YA), check out Ann Brashares’ My Name is Memory. This one’s about souls that are aware of their reincarnations, set on a plot that arcs over several lifetimes to culminate in one grand fight for love and life.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, from the Man Booker Prize long list. This novel is magical realism focused on a war-torn country whose inhabitants flee as a last resort, though they find that the difficulties of their country will follow them past its borders.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Clash of Kings

I can’t believe it’s finally happening. Four years after starting George R. R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire series, I’m finally continuing. I’ve read A Game of Thrones twice now, but this was my first time through book two, A Clash of Kings. No spoilers ahead.

“If half an onion is black with rot, it is a rotten onion. A man is good, or he is evil.”

About the Book: There’s a new king onaclashofkings the Iron Throne, but he’s a cruel boy. There’s also a new King in the North, a usurping king coming up from the South, one coming in from the sea, one with no real claim at all beyond a grudge at his last smothered attempt of rebellion, and one who is not a king at all, but a queen, a khaleesi, a young girl in the East fighting to win back her birthright with what little (but growing) power remains to her. With six claimants to parts or all of the Seven Kingdoms, treasons and turncoats abound. No one can be trusted, and yet no one can win the war without trusting outside help. While the major players in the Seven Kingdoms are watching their backs for enemies disguised as friends, no one’s watching the mounting trouble on the Wall. The Night’s Watch has ventured out to face the king-beyond-the-Wall, but a rebellious wildling army breaking through the Wall’s defenses isn’t their only concern– the old magics are coming back, waking from a long slumber to threaten the realm anew. And the worst of it is that no one below the wall believes in the danger; they’re so busy deciding who will rule the realm that they aren’t defending the realm against the wildling invadors– and worse.

“Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”

“It is all a game to them still, a tourney writ large, and all they see is the chance for glory and honor and spoils. They are boys drunk on songs and story, and like all boys, they think themselves immortal.”

In A Clash of Kings, we see familiar characters back again (the ones who survived), as well as a closer look at a few we only glimpsed in A Game of Thrones, but we also have some all-new characters, too. There are two new regular POVs, in addition to a new prologue character. But the biggest surprise, I think, comes from the fact that you can root for entirely different characters to win than you did in book one. I’m still not sure who I want to see win the iron throne, but my opinions have definitely changed. For the first time in the series I could name characters that I really hate, but I’ve also grown fond of others that I didn’t expect to become so important. That is my favorite aspect of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series– the perspectives are shown with equal import, so each character feels human and the reader can choose his/her own side in the battle for the throne.

“So long as there was magic, anything could happen. Ghosts could walk, trees could talk, and broken boys could grow up to be knights.”

The magic is done well in this book. There’s so little of it, and so few characters take it seriously, that when it does crop up it’s acceptable to feel doubtful at first, and then easy to embrace it. There’s one major instance of… magic? sorcery? something out of the ordinary in a seemingly ordinary scene, and when I read that scene I was shocked, and certain that there must be some other explanation. But in the end it folded neatly into the story and I loved the possibility of something so fantastic in A Clash of Kings— it was just as entertaining as the wights of book one.

“There are no shadows in the dark. Shadows are the servants of light, the children of fire. The brightest flame casts the darkest shadows.”

It’s also growing increasingly hard to know what to believe. Each of the chapters is narrated through a close third-person perspective, which gives us the thoughts, actions, and emotions of one character at a time, but it also allows for bias. In this book so much more than the first of the series, the reader starts to see conflicting details– two characters hold different beliefs about certain events or people. Someone says one thing, another says something entirely else. Sometimes it’s easily explained by the fact that news is slow to reach certain characters or locations, but other times the reader is left to wonder which version is truth, if any. We see characters lying to each other, also. I think it’s going to be more important, going forward, to be wary of trusting any of the characters too fully. The narration is not completely omniscient, which leaves room for deception. The fact that we start to see discrepancies in this book feels like a hint that the characters are fallible. Sometimes they’re wrong. They make assumptions, in the more innocent cases, but sometimes they’re scheming. Everyone’s up to something, and the narrator is not entirely reliable either. How much of it is “true”?

“There are no true knights, no more than there are gods. If you can’t protect yourself, die and get out of the way of those who can. Sharp steel and strong arms rule this world, don’t ever believe any different.”

For a series in which Houses are so significant, I also want to note that it’s hard to pick a whole house that I want to see win. It’s not unusual to hate the Lannisters and love the Starks, but there are Lannisters that don’t seem completely evil in this book, and Starks that I wouldn’t want to see on the throne. It’s interesting that the Lannisters are so commonly loathed, but there are so few POV chapters from within that house that we have to see them through secondary eyes, through already-skewed perspectives. On the other hand, almost every Stark from that House gets POV chapters, though most of them are children who don’t really know what they’re doing. It’s just as important to pay attention to the medium as the message, so I’ve been taking note of the distribution of chapters as well as the plot, though I think I need to read a bit farther before I can draw any conclusions from the combination of them.

“I will hurt you for this. I don’t know how yet, but give me time. A day will come when you think yourself safe and happy, and suddenly your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth, and you’ll know the debt is paid.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I love this series, but I didn’t fly through this second book with quite the same level of excitement I had for book one. The focus is largely on the politics in King’s Landing, but that was my least favorite part of this volume. I need to read onward ASAP, but first, a break. I know these books just keep getting longer, which is great, but I’m on new-information-overload and I need to let A Clash of Kings settle for a bit. I’ve got three episodes left to watch of Game of Thrones season 2, and then I’m putting the series down until September.

“Perhaps we are doomed if we press on… but I know for a certainty we are doomed if we turn back.”

Further recommendations:

  1. Erika Johansen’s The Queen of the Tearling (first book in an NA fantasy trilogy) is another great choice for fantasy readers who like a lot of politics, a little magic, and an intricate plot. In this one, an unsuspecting young woman ascends to the throne, only to realize that there are powerful others who will do anything to take it from her.
  2. If you’re looking for even more magic and unpredictability, try Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (first book in an adult fantasy trilogy). This one’s very Narnia-esque, with shocking plot twists and all-too-human characters who see the world on a grander scale.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Jodi Lynn Anderson’s new YA historical/science fiction novel, Midnight at the Electric. I’ve just started, so I don’t know much about it other than it follows three time lines, one of which takes place in the Dust Bowl. I’m expecting a quick, easy read that’s also going to impress me.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant