Popular Books that Impressed Me

A couple weeks ago I started a list of popular books that didn’t live up to my expectations, and now I’d like to even it out with another list: popular books that impressed me more than I expected. I believe this will be an ongoing series; I’ll add to both lists as the titles stack up.

A lot of these are YA books, and I could say the same thing about almost all of them: I expected a light, standard YA story, be it romance, supernatural, etc. I was expecting quick, easy reads with the usual tropes and story arcs that I could check off a list and then forget about– but none of these are forgettable reads. Instead of sharing a long synopsis of each, I’m going to stick to explaining why they surpassed my expectations. If you want to learn more about any of these books, follow the links to my full reviews of each title. Without further ado, here are five popular books I wasn’t expecting to appreciate as much as I did:

  1. The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis. There’s a bit of an exaggerated focus on rape in this book, but it’s put to good use. The Female of the Species is empowering, it’s positively moralizing, it has bark and bite and grit. It’s a story about standing up against all kinds of wrongs. But it’s also about forgiveness, about finding healthy relationships and giving chances to unlikely friends. There are some great parents in this book, a cop who knows how to talk to teens, and aid for abused and abandoned animals. McGinnis doesn’t just look at the big picture, she gets all the little details right, too.
  2. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. This is a book for readers of adventures. For readers who aren’t afraid to suspend their disbelief. It’s a story of gods in which even the gods are fallible. This is a collection of ancient stories brought to new life. They’re stories that test limits: the limits of immortality, of invincibility, of impossibilities and other absolutes. The characters aren’t particularly lovable, but the end of their world is as heart-breaking as it is exciting. In this realm of gods and magic, anything is possible and the reader can never know what to expect. The lessons don’t often apply directly to life as the reader knows it, but there are valuable lessons nonetheless, and there’s something so satisfying in learning about the traditions and beliefs of long-lost times and peoples.
  3. A Million Junes by Emily Henry. This book was described to me as a romance– a retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story, to be exact. And there is that, but it’s only one small part of this masterpiece. A Million Junes is a romance, but it’s also magical realism, it’s a family history piece, it’s a testament to grief, it’s a father-daughter relationship at its best. June is reconciling her family’s past with its future, she’s finding her place in school, she’s enjoying her senior year with her good friends. And she’s seeing ghosts, and ghosts’ memories, and traveling to an in-between place where love and life collide. This is a book for anyone who’s ever lost something, or doesn’t quite know who they are.
  4. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. This book seems like it should be a romance. It starts with a girl and a curse– the boy she loves will die when she kisses him. Seems like a pretty standard forbidden-love-romance-story, right? Wrong. Blue (the girl) finds the boy she’s going to try hard not to love and kiss and ultimately kill. But then she decides to try a relationship with a different boy, same rules, just in case. Except none of the four boys she’s freshly befriended are anything close to ordinary, and for that matter neither is Blue. She comes from a family of psychics, and her new friends are on a quest to find a lost king who may or may not be dead and buried. This is more a story of friendship and adventure than romance. The quality of the magic is strange and compelling– not quite serious but not quite a joke. Here are five teens being teens, and then stumbling upon secrets larger than life. The writing is gorgeous, and the plot unfolds like nothing I’ve ever seen.
  5. City of Bones by Cassandra Clare. Good is always battling evil. Angels vs. demons seems like no exception, but this book is not so black and white. The Shadowhunters are no angels, and demons come in all shapes and sizes: full-blooded horrors and creatures much closer to human. But this is good vs. evil in a whole new way, in the midst of a war for equality between the earthen races, five teens are struggling not only with literal demons, but with the complications of their mortal lives. It’s about the bond between parents and children, the cost of secrets, the difficulties of loving the wrong person, the responsibilities on the shoulders of almost-adults who didn’t ask to be heroes. It’s a story about growing up, about judging right from wrong, about treating other groups of people fairly. It’s a world hidden inside our own, but the same lessons apply.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Have you read other popular books that surpassed your expectations? Let me know in the comments below.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Every now and then I like to pick up an Agatha Christie book, because no one writes complex murder mysteries like Agatha Christie. This time, I picked up her 1933 Hercule Poirot novel, Murder on the Orient Express, because 1. it’s going to be a movie later this year that I’m interested in seeing, and 2. it fulfills a slot on my 2017 reading challenge: a book based on a true story.

About the book: Hercule Poirotmurderontheorientexpress (world-famous detective) needs to make quick arrangements to get back to London, which lands him on the almost-full Stamboul-Calais coach of the Orient Express. What he doesn’t know is that he has hurried onto a train in which a murder is about to take place–and when it does, who better to solve it than the renowned detective? There is a doctor on board, and a director of the train line, who follow Poirot step-by-step as he interviews each of the surviving passengers on board, examines their luggage,  and uses logic to assemble a solution that sorts truth from lies–and identifies a shocking murderer… or murderers. To complicate matters, at the same time the murder was being committed, the train hit a snowbank and has been unexpectedly stopped on its track, away from stations and civilization–which means that the culprit/s must still be on board, feigning innocence and posing further threat to those remaining.

“All around us are people of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their several ways, never, perhaps, to see each other again.”

This murder features a complex but logical conclusion. Poirot is an observer of psychology, and extremely skilled in putting together clues and discrediting lies with cunning attention to single words or phrases, or the exact placement of items. Christie presents the clues… and then Poirot shows all of the characters the “obvious” solution they’ve been missing all along, the truth that’s been hiding in plain sight.

In this particular case, though, I don’t think there is any possibility for the reader to guess the final solution before it is given. Poirot discusses the clues in the narration, but he also holds back details. For instance, there’s an important grease spot in this story that is noted briefly as a clue. But Poirot does not point it out to the others on his team until he knows what it means. And until he confides its meaning to them, the reader would not be able to figure out the answer to its presence because the crucial placement of the spot is not divulged in the narration until the time when the solution is presented. Although this is only one small clue, it is a good example of withheld information– and when there is information withheld from the reader, the possibility of the reader being able to reach the same logical conclusions as Poirot decreases. It is possible that the reader could make a wild guess and be right about the murderer/s and motives, but it’s not possible for the reader to follow the clues to that conclusion. For that reason, this book will appeal more to readers who like to be led through a well-crafted mystery, but not as much to mystery readers who like trying to solve the case themselves before the solution is revealed.

“But have I not heard you say often that to solve a case a man has only to lie back in his chair and think?”

The only downfall is the wide cast of characters. Christie presents around a dozen characters with equal importance, giving only the most necessary details about each of them, one after another. It can be difficult to keep them straight throughout much of the story, and furthermore, it can be difficult to attach any sort of like/dislike to any of them when they’re all given this equal weight in the narration. If the reader can’t keep them separate in mind and maybe choose a potential murderer or two to stake a guess on, it can be harder for the reader to feel invested in the characters, and thus in their story.

Additionally–and I’m still on the fence about whether this is a strength or weakness–there’s quite a bit of diversity in this book, and it’s noted in the narration. Normally that’s a good thing, but here it’s also used as a sort of plot device. Different characters are judged in their ability to murder in certain ways by their nationality. I do not pretend to have any psychological training or skill in identifying patterns of murders, but it seemed odd to me that an Italian would be more suspect of a murder simply because it was a stabbing than an Englishman. Or for an American woman to have a more likely murderous temper than a Swedish or German woman. I appreciated seeing multiple nationalities, multiple languages being spoken, etc. but I did think that they were played upon rather oddly while Poirot and crew fished for suspects.

About the ending: there are some interesting twists in this book, but none so great as the end solution to the mystery. I was more pleased with the ending than any other part of the book, because the end is both terrifying in its implications and humorous in the conclusion that the investigators choose to accept. The book wraps up quickly, but is stronger for doing so. I wish I could say more without spoiling the book, but I will say that it’s my favorite end to a Christie novel so far.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was nearly a 5 star book for me, but I had so much difficulty keeping a few of the characters straight. There was a helpful chart with the layout of the train carriage and the passengers’ sleeping berths on it, and I did reference that repeatedly, but some sort of appendix that would’ve given me the key details on each character would’ve helped further in keeping the names attached to the right facts. But either way, this is definitely one of the best (maybe even the actual best) Agatha Christie book I’ve ever read. I was not bored or overly confused at any point, like I occasionally am in Christie’s complicated mysteries. I want to read more Christie. And I want to see the new movie adaptation for this book.

Further recommendations:

  1. Choose And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie if you’re looking for a similar mystery. This one features ten characters stranded on a small island, where they all begin to die one by one. Everyone is suspect until they’re dead–but will the mystery be solved before there’s no one left?
  2. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a great new psychological thriller with one key detail in common to Orient Express: a murder has been committed on board a ship at sea, which means that the killer is still on board. In this book, though, the journalist investigating the case finds herself also in danger of being killed, and her attempts to find the truth are further complicated by the fact that no one else on the ship will admit the dead woman ever existed.

What’s next: I’m currently reading George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings, the second book in his Song of Ice and Fire series (perhaps more commonly recognized by the name of its first book, A Game of Thrones.) Check back soon to see if the second volume is as fantastic as the first.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Stardust

After reading Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology earlier this year (and remembering how much I loved Coraline as a child), I decided I had to check out more of his books. I’ve had a few picked out, and decided to dive into Stardust this month, an adult fantasy stand-alone novel that’s short and sweet and full of adventure. It seemed like a good lead-in to The Hobbit, which I will be reading later this month.

stardustAbout the book: Dunstan Thorn sets a unique life on its adventurous course when he accepts his Heart’s Desire as rent payment from a strange and powerful man. Just shy of eighteen years later, Dunstan’s half-faerie son, Tristran, sets out past the village of Wall into the land of Faerie. He thinks he’s going to retrieve a fallen star that will win him the hand of the most beautiful girl in the village, but in Faerie nothing goes quite as planned. He meets several interesting characters along the way, some who want to help him and some that mean to thwart his plans. There’s also the matter of the fallen star possessing the form of a young lady, one who hates Tristran for his intent to trade her so he can be married. But the difficulty of Tristran’s own journey is the least of his problems– there are other creatures seeking the star, characters who will cut down anyone in their path. But even if Tristran succeeds, will the most beautiful girl in town consent to marry a shop-boy destined to be a sheep farmer in the little village of Wall?

” ‘I had thought,’ he confessed, ‘that a fallen star would probably look like a diamond or a rock. I certainly wasn’t expecting a lady.’ ‘So, having found a lady, could you not have come to her aid, or left her alone? Why drag her into your foolishness?’ ‘Love,’ he explained. She looked at him with eyes the blue of the sky. ‘I hope you choke on it,’ she said flatly.’ “

This is one of those episodic tales which, I think, require a lot more work from the author to keep the reader’s attention than traditional plot arcs. The reader must stay interested in many different “episodes” throughout the book, rather than one continuous arc, which means it’s all in the details, rather than the plot. This happens often with adventure stories, in my experience. In this case, there is the matter of the fallen star quest to tie Stardust all together, but Tristran’s search for the falling star is only one event among many. Gaiman juggles multiple characters, multiple plot lines, and many “episodes” in this one short volume.

For that reason, world-building forms the bulk of this short novel. There’s plenty going on, but it’s veiled in description of unusual place details and characters with uncommon mannerisms. The most interesting introduction for me was the addition to the story of seven brothers in the middle of killing one another in various deceitful ways, but all of the character introductions and new places are similarly packed with unusual background or sensory details to keep the reader engaged. The village of Wall and the world of Faerie seem almost tangible. Thus, the world-building is the strength of Gaiman’s Stardust.

The weakness, by contrast, is the romance. Tristran is willing to spend so much of his time and energy on this crazy quest for the girl he thinks he loves, but the reader sees from the beginning that his “love” for the beautiful Wall girl is a youthful infatuation no deeper than a preoccupation with the color of her eyes. In Faerie, he discovers that he wants something quite different for his life than manning a sheep farm with the beautiful village girl. But even when romance starts to play a role in the story for the second time, there are none of the casual little details to indicate affection; the love is necessary to the plot, and is described rather flatly, only going so far as to make its point. Books without romance can be great. Books with romance that isn’t the center of the story can also be done fantastically. But in a book like this, when romance plays such a key role in Tristran’s adventures, there need to be enough details for the love to feel as real as the world, and in that regard, Stardust fails.

But let’s talk about Tristran next.

“He was a gangling creature of potential, a barrel of dynamite waiting for someone or something to light his fuse; but no one did, so on weekends and in the evenings he helped his father on the farm, and during the day he worked for Mr. Brown, at Monday and Brown’s, as a clerk.”

Tristran is an elusive character, not especially wise or idiotic, not especially anything, really. He does take action of his own, but he is also shunted along in his journey by the actions of others. He takes things as they come, with little show of emotion. If not for his willingness to adventure, he would seem a particularly bland character. But he is willing to take chances and partake in quests and anything else required of him, and that makes him an excellent guide through a novel like this in which the reader never knows what to expect next. With such a fluid story line, the main character can’t be too rigid in his ways or the adventure won’t be possible. On his own, Tristran would be nothing more than a boring sheep farmer, but he is not on his own. He is part of Wall, and part of the Faerie realm. He is oath-bound to a fallen star. He’s capable and versatile, and ready to change the world.

Stardust feels a bit like a writer’s exercise, a foray into uncharted territory. It’s the sort of story I imagine would emerge from a writer’s hands when he/she sat down at the keyboard and decided to follow the letters wherever his/her fingers took the story, through worlds real and imagined. It could have been expanded four or five times into a thick fantasy novel if things hadn’t worked out so quickly and easily for Tristran on his quest. Personally, I would’ve followed those murderous brothers through several hundred more pages even if their story veered far beyond the point where it overlaps with Tristran’s. Instead, Stardust is a sample of fantasy– a snapshot, a tiny glimpse into the realm of the extraordinary. This one’s definitely an adult tale, so if you’re looking for an easy start into adult fantasy, Stardust would be a great way to get a feel for that genre without investing much time.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed the journey, but I was also glad to put it behind me at the end. I’ll still be reading more Neil Gaiman books, whether this year or next I don’t know, but I’m in awe of Gaiman’s range. The three books I’ve read under his name have been so vastly different that I have no idea what to expect from further books, but I’m definitely curious enough to find out.

Further recommendations:

  1. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders is an adult magical realism novel that feels similarly episodic, and follows a scientist boy and a magical girl from childhood to adulthood, through crises of varying magnitude.
  2. The Magician’s Boy, the first book in C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, is a more apt choice for readers young and old who want another easy entrance to the fantasy genre. If you’re looking for fantasy that’s fun but not strictly adult, try Narnia; I started reading these books when I was seven, and am still enjoying them now that I’m in my twenties with an English degree. Narnia is a land where anything can happen, and all seven books are quick and engaging reads.

Coming up Next: I’m currently reading Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, a classic murder mystery (from the legendary queen of murder mysteries). This one’s about a long train ride in which a passenger is killed… meaning anyone on the train could have done it, and anyone on the train could be the next victim.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Final Girls

When Riley Sager’s slasher thriller Final Girls appeared in the Book of the Month selections for July, my first thought was that it was the wrong time of year for so much gore and horror. But there’s been so much talk about it being the thriller of the year that I had to pick it up, even though it’s not October yet.

About the book: Quincy is a Final Girl. final girls.jpgDuring her sophomore year of college, she spent a weekend at a cabin with five friends, and was the only person to leave alive. How does one come back from something like that? Quincy is still figuring it out. She’s got her baking blog, her victim money, her loyal boyfriend: Jeff, and the cop who rescued her from the massacre ten years ago: her friend and protector Coop. It’s been both a blessing and a curse that she can’t recall the hour of bloody gore that ended her friends’ lives, but now it’s time for Quincy to remember. One of the other two Final Girls has been found dead, and the second just showed up at Quincy’s door, for friendship or blackmail, no one’s quite sure. Could she and Quincy be the next targets? And why is Quincy so afraid that He is still out there, the lone killer she remembers running from through the woods around the cabin, the murderer she saw shot the same day she escaped? She’s right about one thing: the danger is still out there, and no one is safe.

“I’m his creation, forged from blood and pain and the cold steel of a blade. I’m a […] Final Girl.”

You know those cheesy old horror flicks that are as funny as they are scary, where the kids make stupid choices and can’t stay upright when they’re trying to run and some crazy guy (or lady) in a mask walks around slowly with a bloody weapon and kills them all? At first, this book seems exactly like reading one of those movie scripts. It’s complete with new college students staying alone in a cabin in the woods, most of them more concerned with teenager things like birthdays and losing their virginity than with the safety precautions they laugh at. There’s love and love triangles, the ominous glimpses of a single, all-purpose knife, an illicit party with illegal substances, the inevitable ghost stories, and they’re all wrapped up in their own worlds. Enter: escaped asylum patient. Even ten years later, Quincy’s life looks a little cheesy. She’s got a bland boyfriend, a cutesy blog, a permanent Xanax prescription, and she’s most definitely not one of those Final Girls, she’s moved past that.

Except she hasn’t. Just when you think you’re in for an eye-rolling cliche, Quincy shows that all of those details are a shield, and the real Quincy is pretty messed up underneath. The reader has to think twice (at least) about what she’s capable of… and what condemning secrets are hidden in that missing hour she’s blocked from her mind. No one believes she’s really forgotten that night, except maybe Quincy from force of trying.

“I became a blur, a smudge of darkness stripped of all my details.”

Once the mystery starts, all resemblance to those cheesy horror films fades until the only similarities left are the murders themselves and the constant ominous details, the literary equivalent of the scary movie sound effects and slow pans over sharp edged objects and moving shadows. Everything is described with reminders that death is the focus of the novel, and murder is never far from the reader’s mind even in relatively safe scenes:

“I close my eyes, wishing sleep would grab me by the throat and drag me under.”

“I fall silent once I’m actually inside. I don’t want Pine Cottage to know I’m here.”

The best part of this book (and any good thriller) is the unpredictability. Almost every single character looks suspicious, with the exception, perhaps, of the bland boyfriend, Jeff. No one is who they appear, although some characters are more up-front about their true nature than others. I always make a guess about the killer when reading a mystery or thriller, and this time I was truly shocked– so shocked that I couldn’t stop reading until I knew everything, which led to my reading this entire book in one day. The balance was just so perfect–that light cheesiness at the beginning that kept the book fun and self-aware, and then the more intense plot twists and increasing danger as the mystery picked up. I didn’t love all of the characters, but I loved the story that was forged between them.

” ‘What’s that name the papers call you?’ ‘Final Girls.’ I say it angrily, with all the scorn I can muster. I want Detective Hernandez to know that I don’t consider myself one of them. That I’m beyond that even now, even if I no longer quite believe it myself. ‘That’s it.’ The detective senses my tone and wrinkles her nose in distaste. ‘I guess you don’t like that label.’ ‘Not at all,’ I say. ‘But I suppose it’s better than being referred to as victims.’ ‘What would you like to be called?’ ‘Survivors.’ “

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This has absolutely been one of my favorite thrillers this year, and you can bet that I’ll be recommending it to all my thriller-reading friends. This book was published under a pseudonym, so I don’t know if the author will stick with that and keep publishing more books like this, but I hope to see another Riley Sager thriller on shelves in the future because I know now to pick those up immediately. Final Girls has reinforced my interest in the genre, and my appreciation for Book of the Month Club. I can’t wait to read my August selections.

Further recommendations:

  1. Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes was a BOTM selection earlier this year, another thriller-with-a-twist. This one veers into another genre at the end, which would spoil the book to talk about, but if you’re looking for mysteries with shocking twists, this is the one. It starts a little slow as a sort of domestic mystery, but the pace and the stakes pick way up at the guaranteed-surprising end.
  2. Anything by Gillian Flynn would be a good fit for Final Girls fans. If you haven’t read or seen Gone Girl yet, you’re missing out on the thriller that made me fall in love with thrillers, and if you don’t want to read that one you should pick up Sharp Objects or Dark Places, both of which are fantastic and will probably scare you.

Coming up Next: I’m just finishing Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, a short fantasy novel about the place where the world as we know it meets the world of faerie. Tristran Thorn, the main character, has one foot in both worlds and needs them both as he sets out on a dangerous quest to retrieve a fallen star for the girl he wants to marry.

What are you reading for a thrill this August?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Lying Game

I’m still mentally kicking myself for putting Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood back on the shelf that first time I saw it, because when I did finally get around to reading it, it instantly became one of my favorite books of the year. I also loved Ware’s 2016 release, The Woman in Cabin 10. So of course, I pre-ordered The Lying Game and read it within the first week of receiving it, but this review will be different from those other two, because Ware’s 2017 release is a whole different creature.

thelyinggameAbout the book: Isa spent one eventful year at Salten House boarding school, in which she made three best friends who played a game of lies. The game alienated them from the rest of the girls in the school and the townfolk in the village, reinforcing their friendship. But there were rules to the game–rules about lying to each other, and knowing when to admit the truth, and those rules have been broken. Now, seventeen years later, a body has surfaced near the Mill where the four girls spent their free time before expulsion from the school, and their lives begin to unravel. Isa hasn’t seen any of her friends in years, but she packs up her infant daughter and travels to Salten immediately when she gets the message. Despite changes that might have driven the four apart over the years, they are still inextricably linked by a lie they’ve been telling since that night at the Mill… a lie that incriminates them all, but will be even more deadly when the truth surfaces.

“We have been lying for almost twenty years, the three of us. But now, at last, we know why. Now, at last, we know the truth.”

The best things about They Lying Game are 1: the atmosphere, and 2: the characters. Ware does a fantastic job drawing unique characters with complicated backgrounds, and on top of that the location feels almost like a character itself. There are dark corners, strange noises, problematic storms, and isolated spaces. The dilapidated Mill house is as much essential to the story as the people who inhabit it. The Reach they all swim in is as much a friend as a threat waiting to pull someone down into its depths. The Lying Game is full of seemingly ordinary details that are twisted just enough to turn dangerous. The main character’s mounting anxiety creates plenty of opportunity for shadows to take on a life of their own. And Ware lets them have it.

“Why didn’t I realize? Why didn’t I realize that a lie can outlast any truth, and that in this place people remember? It is not like London, where the past is written over again and again until nothing is left. Here, nothing is forgotten, and the ghost of my mistake […] will haunt me.”

The downside: this pacing is so slow. The tension is almost all internal worry with very few cues from the outside world to indicate that there really is something amiss. I would classify this as a mystery rather than a thriller, unlike Ware’s previous books. It felt a lot like the shift between Paula Hawkins’ first book, The Girl on the Train, and her new, slower novel, Into the Water. Both sorts of mysteries have their merit, and The Lying Game is still full of psychological intrigue, but I think it’s important to know which variety you’re picking up, because finding a different pacing than you’re expecting can affect your experience of the book.

Let’s also talk about missed opportunities.

First, there’s very little actual danger. The main character, Isa, has a small baby, still breastfeeding, who goes everywhere Isa goes and is never far from her mind. There’s so much focus on the baby that she’s an obvious vulnerable point for Isa. Every time Isa leaves the baby alone with someone new or leaves her sleeping alone in a different room, I thought something would happen with the baby. But on the few instances when there seems like a possibility for the baby to be in danger, the problem is solved before it even becomes a problem. I probably sound like a creep, wishing for something terrible to happen to an infant, but in any sort of murder mystery the main characters’ vulnerable points should be pushed in the narration. A missing baby or a baby held hostage as Isa gets closer to the truth would’ve really ramped up the stakes in this one, but instead baby Freya seems only to be along for the ride, rather purposelessly.

“All at once, I have a strong urge to snatch up my sleeping baby and press her into my breast, hugging her to me as if I can fold her back inside myself, as if I can protect her from this web of secrets and lies that is closing in around me, dragging me back to a decades-old mistake that I thought we’d escaped. I am starting to realize that we didn’t, none of us. We have spent seventeen years running and hiding, in our different ways, but it hasn’t worked, I know that now. Perhaps I always knew.”

Secondly, the Tide Mill is a secluded house, deteriorating on the edge of a body of water. The electricity is faltering and unpredictable, the wooden walkway leading to the house from the shore is completely covered with water in high tides, there is no reliable car on the premises for anyone to make emergency trips into town– instead, the quickest way to civilization is through miles of dangerous marsh. Eventually, the house does become a part of the plot. But none of the details that make it a great spooky setting come into play. When the main character finds herself alone in the house with a potential killer, there’s very little fear because the house is familiar and everyone inside it has been a friend to her. The Lying Game does atmosphere well– but it could have used that atmosphere once its established. Instead, it misses that opportunity.

But at least it’s not too predictable. I had it narrowed down to two choices for the killer, and even though one of them turned out to be correct, the mystery still didn’t end the way I expected.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m disappointed that I didn’t like this book more, because I absolutely loved Ware’s previous two books. It’s not even the fact that it wasn’t really a thriller that disappointed me– I love a good slow mystery as well. It just felt like there was so much unrealized potential in The Lying Game. Nevertheless, I was still drawn in by the writing and the setting, and Ware remains one of my favorite novelists. I will absolutely still be picking up Ware’s next book, whatever it may be.

Further recommendations:

  1. Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water also involves a body washing up from the water, although this one really did drown–the question is whether the drowning was intended, and by whom. This one’s also a slower psychological mystery, though the stakes are higher.
  2. Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go is an excellent mystery/thriller that seems to start slow and then increases quickly. Even that slower-paced beginning turns thrilling when the reader discovers all the secrets perfectly concealed in the first part of the book.
  3. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is full of domestic intrigue in a group of friends whose children are involved in a bullying scandal at the local kindergarten. The politics of the parent group, combined with the unsolved mystery of what’s happening in the kids’ class, keeps the reader guessing and ends with a shocking death.

What’s next: I’ve recently finished reading Riley Sager’s Final Girls, a slasher thriller also released in July that’s a lot more pulse-pounding than The Lying Game. This one’s way more than suspenseful– it’s like watching a gory horror film unravel in your mind. Stay tuned for more details.

Have you read any great mysteries lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Popular Books I Didn’t Like

When I write my regular book reviews, I try to be objective about the contents and the layout of the book, to talk about things the books do well or poorly instead of listing my likes and dislikes more specifically. Since you can find all sorts of synopses on the internet already, I do let my opinions show through the review instead of discussing at length the facts you could easily find elsewhere. But at heart, my reviews are always meant to promote the books I’ve read, because even if I didn’t like them, other people probably will and I’m a promoter of reading. Yet sometimes it’s fun to compare what other reviewers have liked or disliked without reading through dozens of individual reviews, so I’m starting a list.

I’ll probably post more lists like this periodically, alternating between popular books that didn’t live up to expectations for me and popular (or even not-quite-so-popular) books that I didn’t expect much from but they surprised me with their greatness.

A disclaimer: these are just my opinions. You might agree or disagree, and that’s valid. I’ll link each of the titles to my reviews, and you might be surprised to find that I haven’t rated many of these lowly. I rate on a 5 star scale based on the merit of the writing, and I base my personal likes and dislikes on my emotions about the book after some time has passed since reading it. I still recommend these books to readers who like similar books even though I personally didn’t enjoy them. So the fact that I don’t like them does not necessarily mean they’re bad books.

And now, as the straightforward title of this post announced, here are some popular books I didn’t like:

  1. Cinder by Marissa Meyer, and the rest of the Lunar Chronicles series. I liked the plot enough to read the whole series, but most of the characters seemed very similar and predictable to me, and I could not stand the slow, repetitive pace of the writing. There is a lot of internalized worry about what could happen instead of a lot actually happening. And as the books continued, all of the main characters, the females especially, felt like the same person inside who’d just been born into different circumstances. This is one series that I loved in concept but not in execution. My opinion of these novels might have improved, because I did enjoy the fourth volume the most, except I also read the accompanying novella, Fairest, which sealed my dislike of all things Lunar Chronicles when it failed to show how the villain of the series became villainous–instead, we had a look at the same villainy earlier in the evil queen’s life, the explanation seeming to be more or less that she was born with it. And yet it took 200 pages to make that clear. I don’t think I’ll be reading anything further from Meyer.
  2. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. This is a magical realism novel, and when I read it I thought maybe the reason I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d expected had to do with a dislike for the genre, but that wasn’t it. I liked the main characters at the beginning of this novel, when they were young and first discovering magic and science, but when magic and science and nature all crossed in the end, things got too weird for my taste. There was just too much going on, too many threads crossing at once into something so big it just seemed ridiculous and no longer plausible with any amount of suspended disbelief.
  3. Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige. Similar to Cinder, this book is a retelling of a familiar story: in this case, the Wizard of Oz. But the main character was so slow to understand things and asked so many obvious questions that even the other characters were annoyed with her inability to put two and two together. Beyond that, the main character doesn’t do much of anything on her own–she’s always following someone’s instructions instead of making her own path. Many of the characters, especially the evil ones, seemed so stereotypical and cruel for the sake of being cruel, which is the least entertaining sort of villain, in my opinion.
  4. A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas. I actually like the other two books in this series a lot, but there was not much in the first novel to redeem it. First, the part of the plot in which someone under extremely odd and unlikely circumstances must fall in love with someone in particular and then somehow they orchestrate it to happen exactly that way was too far-fetched for me. It’s the 11th hour, and in comes Feyre the savoir playing *coincidentally* right into the only loophole of a weirdly specific curse. She’s given three tasks to break it, the riddle is so obvious that it’s insulting and it was painful to see Feyre fail to answer it immediately, and oh, even if she wins, no one seems to believe the villain will even honor her word and end the curse. It just feels so fictional, and even the foreshadowing with Rhysand was obvious, though that might be the only part of this book I would ever be interested in reading again.
  5. Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare. I’ve been a Cassandra Clare fan since 2010, and I do like a lot of her other books and even some of the characters that appear in this one. But I reread this one this year and was shocked at the cruelty of the characters to one another. Some of the rudeness plays into the plot, but it felt like it went way beyond that. Jessamine seemed like an entirely unnecessary character whose presence felt like a plot device, Charlotte and Henry fall pray to that bad plot confusion where they could settle all their problems if they’d only have an honest conversation for five minutes, and the main character’s introduction to London is so dreary and unpleasant that the entire book felt dreary and unpleasant to me.

These are five books that I’ve read in the last year that I no longer like to think about much. I’ll be following these up soon with five books that surpassed my expectations.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

July Reading Wrap-Up

It felt like a slow month, but I caught some sun and read some big books so I think the fact that I didn’t come close to finishing out my TBR for the month is completely acceptable. I really liked everything I read this last month–there’s nothing rated below 4 stars, so I think the enjoyableness of my reading also makes up for the fact that I didn’t accomplish as much of it as I’d hoped. Here’s what I read in July –>

  1. A Million Junes by Emily Henry. 5 out of 5 stars.amillionjunes I started this magical realism YA adventure at the end of June, but powered through the last 2/3 of it on the first day of July because I just couldn’t put it down. There are so many categories this book fits in, but I should also mention that it’s a sort of Romeo-and-Juliet retelling. It made me laugh, it (almost) made me cry, and I will definitely be reading more of Henry’s books in the future. It was a tough choice, but I think I can officially name this one my favorite book of the month.
  2. A List of Cages by Robin Roe. 4 out of 5 stars. This hard-hitting contemporary YA alistofcagesnovel has been on my radar since January and I don’t really know why I decided July was the time to read it, but I did. It’s one of those fiction books that also teaches something about the real world. Reading this one was a lot like watching a car crash–grisly and a bit frightening, but I couldn’t look away. It was a quick but powerful read, although I liked one of the two main characters significantly more than the other.
  3. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. 4 out of 5 stars. Summer is a great time for a book full ofamancalledove laughs, and I definitely found this contemporary adult novel amusing. I read this one partially outdoors in the sun, and it was a great story for that, with some powerful messages about love and life under a whole lot of humor. I had been debating for a long time whether or not I should buy this book, but then I found it front and center on the “new books” shelf at my library so I picked it up immediately and I’m glad I did–I don’t think I would want to reread it, but I might be picking up other books by this author in the future.
  4. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. 4 out of 5 stars. I had been wanting to pick upthehateugive2this new YA contemporary since it first released in May, because the great reviews were already rolling in well before its publication. This was the first of the lengthier books I read this month, but the pages practically turned themselves, it was so captivating. I debated for a while between 4 and 5 stars, but in the end I settled for the lower option because while it’s a beautiful (and highly recommended) book, it didn’t surprise me the way I want my favorite 5 star reads to do. I got exactly what I expected from it.
  5. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. 4 out betweenshadesofgrayof 5 stars. Here’s the YA book you guys helped me choose from a selection of historical fiction choices I was considering for July. This is another case of an important story that gave me what I expected but didn’t surprise me. Sepetys writes beautifully, and there were some elements of this one I liked more than in her related novel, Salt to the Sea, but in the end I think I preferred that book to this one. I’m glad I’ve read them both now, though.
  6. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. 5 out of 5 stars. This adult high fantasy novel was a reread for gameofthronesme, but the rest of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series won’t be. Even though I already knew what to expect from my first read four years ago, this book still impressed me and I can’t wait to continue with A Clash of Kings in August. I’ve also watched the entire first season of the TV show now, and I love that as well. Politics are not always headache-inducing, as this book reminded me. It was my longest read of the month at 807 pages, but well worth the time.
  7. Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare. 4 out clockworkprincessof 5 stars. Here’s one book I’m glad to cross of my TBR because it also means the end of a hefty trilogy. This was another long book, at 568 pages, but I liked it significantly more than the first two books in this trilogy. I’m glad to finally be seeing some progress in my Cassandra Clare reading goal for the year, and hopefully next month I’ll get to announce that I’ve also reached the end of the Mortal Instruments series. But for now, I’ve got an eye out for the spin-off trilogy starring these characters which starts hitting shelves in 2018. This one was a YA urban fantasy/steampunk/historical novel featuring Cassandra Clare’s signature Shadowhunters.

And an honorable mention: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. I’m still in the middle of this one, because I’m developing this bad habit of picking up my classic of the month as my last book of the month, with less time to read it than I actually need to finish. But I like pirates and I like classics and the copy that I own is full of annotations and illustrations that are keeping me fully engaged in the story, so I should be finishing soon. Tonight, I’m hoping. I’ll post my review of this one in August’s wrap-up, because that’s where I post my reviews of classics. Not having finished this book by the end of the month is the only thing I really feel bad about in regards to my monthly TBR, but I am really enjoying the read and will probably also rate this one highly, so keep an eye out for that next month.

All I can do is try harder next time, because July is officially over, and a new month is upon us.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant