November TBR

As the end of 2017 approaches, I’m keeping a closer eye on my reading challenge progress. I have a comfortable number of challenge books left for these last two months, except for the fact that I keep picking up new releases and other books from farther back on my TBR. So at this point, it’s possible that I can finish my reading challenge, but only if I actually stick with the books on my list. For that reason, I’m filling this month’s TBR with about half of the books I have left (and a couple extras). Even if I end up picking up some additional titles, this list should help keep me on track. These are the books I’m aiming to read in November:

  1. Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo. This is the sequel to Six of Crows, which was one of my reading challenge books. Even though Crooked Kingdom doesn’t count for that, I’m hooked on these characters and I must find out how it ends after the heist-gone-awry from book one. This is quite possibly the best YA fantasy series I’ve read all year, and the books themselves are as gorgeous as the story within.
  2. Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare. Although this one also doesn’t count for my actual reading challenge, I set myself a goal back in January to read/reread all of Cassandra Clare’s published books this year. I only have two left now, and they’re the two I was most excited for when I started my Shadowhunter quest, so I’m planning to read this one in November, and Lord of Shadows in December to meet that goal. I think these two follow Emma Carstairs and her adopted family, which I’m eager to see more of after their appearances in City of Heavenly Fire.
  3. The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen. This book is a reread and one of my reading challenge books (a book from my childhood). I haven’t read this in such a long time, but once upon a time it was one of my all-time favorites. I’m interested to see whether a reread after several years have passed will change where I stand with this one, or whether it will still qualify as my favorite Dessen novel, even after I haven’t enjoyed Dessen’s latest releases as much.
  4. The Lover by Marguerite Duras. One of my reading challenge slots is “a book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t.” I don’t technically have any books that fit in that category because reading homework was my favorite kind of homework. But this is a short novel I only had to read half of for a class in college, and I liked the first half enough that I always intended to read the rest, but just never got around to it. So I’ll be reading the entire book this month for my reading challenge. It’s a romance about a young French girl and an older man that I believe meet on a ferry in a foreign land. If I remember right, it’s a sort of star-crossed relationship, and the writing is full of unmet dreams. I remember it being kind of dark but beautiful.
  5. The Iliad by Homer. This is my classic of the month for November, and also a reading challenge book. I started reading this once in college just for fun, but I had a borrowed copy that I ended up having to return before I finished. Now I have my own copy, and as the year wraps up I’m in a finishing mood, as well. I’ll probably start the story over, but it’ll feel good to finally make it all the way through. I’m also hoping to follow it up by reading The Odyssey at some point. I’ve also read excerpts from that one, but not as much, and I do think that is the one that will interest me more.
  6. The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon. Here’s another reading challenge book, but it’s the first in a series (and an unfinished series at that), so I’ve been a little hesitant to start it while I’m still in the middle of other reading endeavors. I’ve heard this is a great YA fantasy, and I don’t know anything other than that, but I’m ready to give it a go and see how much of this series I might want to read sooner rather than later. I believe three books have been published so far, so I might come back to those sequels in early 2018 once I’ve wrapped up some more 2017 things.
  7. The Alienist by Caleb Carr. I came across this book as an extra from Book of the Month, and it’s set around the late 19th / early 20th century, which is one of my favorite time periods to read about. It’s a sort of mystery/thriller, I believe,  and an early psychologist searching for a dangerous murderer. So that sounded intriguing enough, and then I realized it fulfilled a slot of my reading challenge that I had been having difficulty filling, so it’ll be doubly great to get through this one. It’s been on the back burner for a few months now, and it’s time to pick it up.
  8. The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter. I am not reading this one for any particular reason– I saw it on the new books shelf at my library, and it had caught my attention when it first came out, so I checked it out and now I have to read it. I wish I would’ve found it a little sooner and read it in October, which is a great month for thrillers, but I think I’ll enjoy it just as much in November. I love a good scary read, even if Halloween is passed.  I don’t remember anything from the synopsis of this one, which is how I like to go into thrillers.

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(Please excuse Lady Midnight‘s absence from this TBR pic, I acquired it mere hours after taking the picture, and the lighting was no longer sufficient for a redo.)

And that’s a wrap. I know I’m still going to be unusually busy for a while in the beginning of November, and there are other books I also know that I want to be reading, but these are my highest priorities right now. I really do want to try meeting as many of my yearly reading goals as I can, and I know that November is the time to work hard on those because otherwise I’ll be too swamped in December. I’m not giving up yet, anyway.

Have you read any of these books? What are you reading in November?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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October Book Haul

I didn’t try very hard to stick to my 5 book goal this month. It was a stressful time and books make me feel better so I bought some books. Not too many (is there such a thing for a bibliophile?), but enough to fail my goal. No regrets, as usual. Here’s what’s new:

  1. The Power by Naomi Alderman. This is my Book of the Month Club selection for October. It’s about a change in the power dynamic of the modern world that occurs when women discover they have the power to zap people with electricity through their hands. It’s a strong new feminist book that’s already won awards and it’s Halloween colored. I’ve been wanting to read this so badly all month, but it just hasn’t happened yet. I’m planning to read it in early November.
  2. Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King. This was an extra I added to my BOTM box in October. I wanted to read a Stephen King book this month, and again, it didn’t happen. I had other horror books in my TBR, too. But I like to own the thick King books that I want to read because it makes me feel less pressured to read them in a hurry, which actually helps me get through them faster. This one’s about what happens to the world when women start falling inexplicably into a cocoon-wrapped sleep and can’t be woken. It sounds great and I really want to dive in, so I’m glad it’s on my shelf ready to go whenever  I am.
  3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling and Jim Kay. This is the illustrated edition of the third Harry Potter book. I don’t have a full set of matching Harry Potter books, and I’ve decided that I want this set to be my full set, when they’re eventually all published. So I added the third one to my collection as soon as it was released, and I’ve looked at all the pictures already. (I’ve read the text several times previously, so I think that counts as having read this one.) I do want to do another reread of the entire series at some point, maybe just of the three illustrated books to start with, but it might have to wait until 2018. There are so many books left on my 2017 TBR as the end of the year is approaching that rereads are not a top priority.
  4. Paper Princess by Erin Watt. I’ll go into more explanation about this one in my monthly wrap-up. For now I’ll just say that this YA/NA romance has been on my radar for about a year and I finally decided kind of on a whim that I had to read it right away, so I bought it and read it immediately. It has some mature themes for a book marketed as YA, although the story is rather Gossip Girly, so it reads like a bunch of spoiled rich kids with some absurd problems that they address with illegal activities and inappropriate relationships. I had a lot of thoughts about this one that you’ll see tsoon in my wrap-up, since I didn’t post a full review.
  5. The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo. I found a signed copy of this one on sale, and I snatched it up. It’s a beautiful book, and I want to read it really soon, but first I’m planning to finish the Six of Crows duology by reading Crooked Kingdom. Hopefully I’ll get to both CK and TLoT in November. Buying The Language of Thorns inspired me to finally start Six of Crows, and I LOVED IT. But hopefully soon I’ll be starting The Language of Thorns, which is a collection of short stories set in the Grishaverse. I believe it’s a set of legends/fairytales that our Grishaverse characters would be familiar with.
  6. Broken Prince by Erin Watt. This is the sequel to Paper Princess, and my thoughts on this one will also appear in this month’s wrap-up because I’ve read this one too. I waited until I had read the first book in this series to buy books two and three, but otherwise I did not try to restrain myself from these rather impulsive purchases. I was having a bad month. Again, it’s a YA/NA romance, with surprisingly adult themes. The main characters are high schoolers, and I would’ve been okay with reading this at that age, but I’m hesitant to recommend it for that age group. Especially this second book, but I’ll explain more in my wrap-up.
  7. Twisted Palace by Erin Watt. And here is the third book in the Royals (Paper Princess) series. I think there are actually four or five books and maybe some novellas, but I think I only want to read the first three novels. After that the secondary characters become main characters of their own stories, so it’s sort of a continuation with other characters after Twisted Palace and I’m not into this series enough to commit to all those extra perspectives. I haven’t read this one yet, but the first two went really fast for me and I want to wrap up this “trilogy” before I’m completely out of the mood for it.
  8. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. This one has been on my radar for over a year, and I’ve been on the fence about buying it because I wanted the UK cover, which was more expensive for me to buy. In the end, I decided I wanted to read it badly enough that I settled for the US cover, and I’ve decided that if it becomes one of my favorite books I’ll consider buying a second copy so I can have the cover I wanted, and I’ll donate this one. That seems like a lot of extra work, but I normally don’t care about the cover enough for that to affect what I buy, so I’m going to read the story the cheaper way before I worry any more about how it looks on my shelf. It’s historical fiction set in Russia (I’ve really enjoyed the books I’ve read set in Russia), and I’ve heard great things about Towles’s writing. I’m hoping to read this one before the end of the year, as well.octoberbookhaul
  9. Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare. This is the first of my last-minute book haul additions. I unexpectedly went book shopping just after I thought I was safe to take my haul picture for the month. I’ve been planning for months to read this one in November, but I’m so busy right now and was just starting to wonder how/when I was going to be able to get a hold placed through the library and go pick it up. And then I found this one on sale, in the edition I wanted, and it seemed like a sign. All I know is that Emma Carstairs and her adopted family are back in this first book of the new Dark Artifices series.
  10. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I really like historical fiction, especially when it’s not set around WWII. This one involves a character-driven quest to build a cathedral. It sounds unique and unexpected, and I hear that it’s written well, which is really all a good book needs. It’s set in 12th century England, and follows the lives of the people building the cathedral and/or affected by its construction. I’m really intrigued to see whether it lives up to it’s 4.29 rating on Goodreads, but I’m confident enough about its ability to suck me into a dramatic story that I also picked up:
  11. World Without End by Ken Follett. Here is the sequel to The Pillars of the Earth. There’s a third book published now also, but it’s not in a nice matching paperback format yet, and while I was brave enough to buy a second book without having read anything by this author previously, I wasn’t brave enough to buy the third yet. I’ll try these two and see how it goes. I have high hopes.

octoberbookhaul2

Those are my October books. I’m sad that I haven’t read more of these already, but I overpacked my October TBR and I’ve been really busy working. I want to read several more of these in November, and I’m optimistic about the chances of that happening.

Have you read any of these books? What’s new on your shelves this month?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Clockwork Dynasty

I don’t often read about robots or artificial intelligence. Humans are interesting enough, and even fictional revelations of humanity can be relevant in real life, while (in my life, at least) encounters with robots are all but nonexistent. Every now and then though, I like to pick up a book out of my normal range, and with Daniel H. Wilson’s The Clockwork Dynasty, I found an automaton book that actually shocked me.

About the book: In early 1700s Russia, two theclockworkdynastyavtomat are awakened. They are brother and sister, a clockwork man whose life goal is justice, and a small woman whose dedication is logic. They are meant to serve the tsar, Peter the Great, and to succeed to “eternal tsardom” when he dies. Instead, they are exiled, and will spend hundreds of years traveling the world and trying to fulfill their life goals while keeping their true identities secret. In present day US, a researcher of clockwork artifacts forces her way too close to the truth of the avtomat, and begins to learn about a secret existence hiding amongst humanity. When her course clashes with the clockwork man’s, the two reveal and seek great secrets– the long extent of the avtomat history, the reason they’re dying out now, and how to revive them– before their mysteries are lost forever.

“New frontiers are waiting to be explored, no matter what the schoolteachers say or how many books have been written. Maps are just a lie we tell ourselves to feel safe.”

The Clockwork Dynasty utilizes a back-and-forth format, alternating chapters of Peter’s (the avtomat man’s) past and June’s (the human researcher’s) present. This gives the reader a rich sense of the different time periods at play in the narration and the variety of countries involved, as well as the dual perspectives of humanity and avtomat. Peter and June both narrate their chapters in the first person, and their similarities and differences are striking.

“We came striding out of the past, yet are bones are made of the future.”

“Most people are too caught up in the present to care about the past. But when I look at something old, when I touch it, I feel like I’m reaching into another world. A place with secrets. So, yes, part of the reason I’m helping you is because I’m curious.”

Fortunately, the characters are just as remarkable individually as they are in comparison. The full cast is wide, featuring both humans and avtomat, and although the narration is limited to two perspectives, the reader is provided a clear view of several main players. Peter’s sister, for instance, stands just outside of the major plot line, but she gives the reader a fuller sense of clockwork life through which we can better understand which of Peter’s quirks are facets of avtomat and which are his own personality. The brother/sister dynamic between clockwork creatures is highly intriguing because they are not siblings in the same way that humans are. There are also friendships and enmities within the wider avtomat population, which are equally interesting, though moreso for the secrets they reveal about the avtomat history and secrets. There is no romance in this novel, though at times the dialogue leans toward innuendos that feel oddly placed for asexual creatures. I rarely seek out books without romance– and yet, there is no romance whatsoever within this novel, and it is stronger for it. Any sort of side plot featuring a love story would have felt forced and unnatural, and I found that the rest of the not-quite-human relationships provided all the emotion I needed.

“I think we are but two small pieces of interlocking machinery in the great, faceless mechanism of the world.”

This book was described to me as a “science fiction thriller,” which I suppose I would agree with for lack of a better genre to name. The pacing, however, is not what I would call typical thriller pacing. There are only a few action scenes that were full of excitement and suspense; though there is a lot of action in the book, the intricate level of detail and elaborate prose slows down the pace. The reveals don’t kick up the reader’s adrenaline and keep him/her on the edge of his/her seat, but they’re undeniably surprising and each one opens up new ways to think about this fictional world and ultimately about the real world. I don’t truly believe that avtomat have been hiding in plain sight for thousands of years, but I do believe that the past contains mysteries that are still relevant today, and that present and future advancements in science are capable of revealing what has never been known or even seen before. The novel uses ideas like these to keep the story of clockwork lives connected to reality, and it plants beautiful ideas of life and reason into the framework of the plot. So while there are plenty of battle scenes and literal races for the truth, this is a book for the contemplative reader, and the reader more tolerant of flowery prose.

“‘We fall through the years,’ he continues, ‘like dust motes through a shaft of sunlight. We dance, each of us reflecting the same brilliance. And though we spiral into darkness, the light remains.'”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I was a bit skeptical when I picked this one up, but it was definitely a risk that payed off in the end. This level of unexpected enjoyment is why I continue to pick up books that sound just outside of my normal reading range. Occasionally, I learn that I like something odd and surprising, like science fiction thrillers. I don’t know that I’ll be reading anything further from this author (although anything is possible), but I do know that I’ll be approaching books that I wouldn’t normally read with a more open mind in the future, which was the goal. I highly recommend exploring genres you don’t normally reach for, because those are the books with the greatest power to impress.

Further recommendations:

  1. Ernest Cline’s Ready player One is a faster-paced science fiction thriller. This one’s about a near future dystopia in which much of the world lives primarily inside a virtual reality instead of actual reality. There’s an on-going challenge inside this virtual oasis, a game-within-the-game, that can change everything–if only one knows enough about 80s pop culture to find the clues and best the creator.
  2. Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter is another fast-paced sci-fi thriller. The main character of this one is a scientist with the skill to solve the mystery of dark matter– and use it to explore alternate realities. The twists in this novel are mind-boggling. If you’re looking for something completely unpredictable with high stakes and high suspense, this is it. You don’t even have to know anything about science or dark matter to love with this one.
  3. The Magicians by Lev Grossman is an urban fantasy adventure story with some strong similarities to The Clockwork Dynasty. If you like the idea of a secret world hiding within the bounds of everyday reality, this is a top contender about powerful magicians, in which the magic is a science to be studied rigorously rather than the usual (and frustrating) inexplicable miracle. This is a character-driven start to a trilogy that spans worlds and prompts the reader to view reality with an open mind.

What’s next: I’m currently reading both Saga: Book One (a compilation of the first three volumes of the graphic novel series Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples) and Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, a classic serial killer thriller with the perfect amount of horror for Halloween. I’ll probably be reviewing both of these next week, but it’s anyone’s guess as to which one I’ll be finishing first.

What spooky and thrilling reads are you exploring this Halloween?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I loved Neil Gaiman’s Coraline as a child (although the other mother’s button eyes particularly terrified me), and when I read his new Norse Mythology book earlier this year I was inspired to pick up a few more of his novels. I had high hopes for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and it definitely lived up to my expectations.

theoceanattheendofthelane

About the book: A man is attending a funeral near his childhood home, and decides afterward to detour down the lane where his family used to live. Without knowing quite why, he passes the place where his parents’ house once stood and continues down the lane. As he nears Hempstock Farm at the very end, he begins to remember things from his past, about the girl who lived there at the end of the lane, who called the fish pond behind the farm house her ocean. He believes Lettie has gone to Australia, but as he visits her family and sits beside Lettie’s ocean, he undergoes a sort of daydream about what really happened to Lettie, the frightening adventure they might have shared in childhood, a dream that may or may not be a memory.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an adult novel that primarily focuses on an event from the (nameless) narrator’s seventh year. It’s a book for grown-ups about what it was like to be a kid. For that reason, I spent most of the book comparing what I would have thought of the story if I had read it for the first time as a child, and what I actually thought of it having read it for the first time just now, in my adulthood. Much like Coraline, I think that this is a book younger readers can enjoy (cautiously, because it is somewhat horrifying), although adults will find different nuggets of truth within its pages. I’m mentioning this comparison because of the magical realism aspect of this novel– it does that great thing where the reader can decide for him-/herself how much of the magic is real, and how much is a child’s nightmare, an elaborate dream-gone-wrong, a fictional elaboration of hard truths that a seven year-old would not have understood or known how to engage with. As a child, I would have taken every single detail of the narrator’s dream/memory for truth, but as an adult, I enjoyed seeing the blurred line between what was true and what a child might imagine and accept as truth. Ursula Monkton may actually be a monster, or she may just be a mean woman having an affair with the boy’s father. Maybe Lettie, the boy’s one friend, really does abandon him to live in Australia, or maybe there’s a more fantastic explanation for her absence. It’s up to the reader.

“I wondered where the illusion of the second moon had come from, but I only wondered for a moment, and then I dismissed it from my thoughts. Perhaps it was an afterimage, I decided, or a ghost: something that had stirred in my mind, for a moment, so powerfully that I believed it to be real, but now was gone, and faded into the past like a memory forgotten, or a shadow into the dusk.”

I’d also like to talk about how unique this story is. Anyone can write about monsters, but Neil Gaiman is the only author who’s ever made me wonder if I should be afraid of a piece of cloth. “The fabric of reality” is a familiar phrase, and toward the end when things start falling apart there is a sort of philosophical use of reality as a fabric, but when Ursula Monkton first appears as something resembling  a weathered canvas tent, the reader is probably skeptical. I was skeptical. And yet, it works. Children can be afraid of anything, which allows the reader to suspend disbelief, and before long the reader is frightened right along with the narrator about what this cloth-woman can do. It’s not a technique I’ve ever seen tried before, and I found myself pleasantly surprised with the payoff.

And, of course, this is the sort of Neil Gaiman book that’s very quotable. From the first chapter to the last paragraph, Gaiman has littered this novel with little gems about looking back on one’s childhood. There were times I thought these observations might be a little too direct or cliched, but somehow they worked, coming from a man’s daydream of being a seven year-old. Here are a few more of my favorites:

“Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.”

“Nobody actually looks like what they really are on the inside. You don’t. I don’t. People are much more complicated than that. It’s true of everybody.”

“Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have, like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Magical realism is often hit-or-miss for me, and the last Gaiman novel I read (Stardust) was too episodic for my taste, so I was wary going into this one. I ended up liking it a lot more than I thought I would, especially for this time of year. It’s creepy in an unexpected way. I will be reading more of Gaiman’s books after this success, but I’m not sure which one I’ll go for next. Any suggestions for me?

Further recommendations:

  1. Coraline, also by Gaiman, is a great little horror book that’s more young-reader friendly. The “other mother” in here was actually pretty scary for me as a child, but I loved it. If you’re looking for more like The Ocean at the End of the Lane to simultaneously remind you of your childhood and give you a scare, Coraline is a great pick. And if you know a young reader who likes spooky stories, it’s a good fit for him or her, too.
  2. If you’re looking for another magical tale of childhood that’s fun to read even as an adult, try C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Boy, the first novel in his Chronicles of Narnia. Gaiman mentions the Narnia books in TOatEotL, and I agree that those books would be a great fit for fans of this one. The main characters are children who travel unknowingly to a fantasy place, and accidentally set big things in motion with their explorations.

Coming up next: I’ll be reviewing Daniel H. Wilson’s The Clockwork Dynasty next, a science fiction thriller (after loving Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter I had to try this genre again). In early 1700s Russia, a pair of automata are “born,” and three centuries later their existence coincides with a researcher’s personal quest to solve the mystery of an “avenging angel.”

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Six of Crows

Spoiler alert: I bought Leigh Bardugo’s new book of short stories, The Language of Thorns. I found a signed copy on sale and it looked good, so I bought it even though I knew I wanted to read the Six of Crows duology first. I almost started reading Thorns immediately, but instead I channeled that interest into finally (finally) picking up Bardugo’s Six of Crows, which has been officially and unofficially on my TBRs since about March. And now I’ve read Six of Crows! What. A. Story.

sixofcrowsAbout the book: Six resourceful teens set out together from Ketterdam to earn a fortune by stealing someone from the most secure prison in the world. One of them is a Grisha with a debt, another of them is a professional Grisha hunter. One is a sharpshooter with certain vices, and one is a high-born hostage with knowledge of maps and explosives. One is a deadly former slave who uses her acrobat training to act as the perfect spy, and the sixth, the leader and mastermind of this scheme, is an orphaned cripple with a long con of vengeance on his mind. They’re an unlikely group, and not entirely friendly, but they may be just the crew to pull off a break-in to the Ice Court prison. Even before they begin though, they know the bigger problem will be escaping again once they’ve succeeded in getting themselves locked inside.

“A gambler, a convict, a wayward son, a lost Grisha, a Suli girl who had become a killer, a boy from the Barrel who had become something worse.”

“The mood was jittery, and their laughter had the frantic serration that came with near disaster.”

It’s almost sad to call a book with a plot this strong and intricate a character-driven book, but Six of Crows is definitely that. The reader is hooked long before the heist begins because each of the characters is infinitely intriguing and could carry an entire novel on his/her own merit. But Six of Crows is a masterpiece of perspectives with each of the six main characters leading alternating chapters. The only scene that doesn’t fit this structure is the first scene, in the first chapter, which is told from Joost’s perspective. This is not the only chapter told from outside the POVs of the six main characters, and the relevance of its events does later become clear, but this first chapter is the only one that seems superfluous to me. Joost doesn’t seem as unique and captivating as the other characters and I didn’t care about him as much as I think the book wanted me to. Everyone else is pure perfection.

“Here’s the secret to popularity: risk death to save your compatriots from being blown to bits in an ambush. Great way to make friends.”

One of the best things about these characters (and the book as a whole) is their criminality. Several of the main characters are part of a Ketterdam gang, and all of them are morally suspect. The reader is allowed to view them as good people worth rooting for, but at the same time is exposed to the grit of their lives. They are thieves– some of money, some of secrets. They are soldiers. They are selfish. Although there is a bit of romance involved (very little, wonderfully subtle), these characters are not romanticized. They are willing to do bad things to survive, and that’s not passed off as an admirable lifestyle. They may may be thieves worth loving, but the narration does not condone or encourage thievery. These are not heroes. They’re not anti-heroes either, but there is no misplaced glamour coating the destruction they leave in their wake. It’s a delicate balance written exceedingly well.

“They were like anyone else– full of the potential to do great good, and also great harm.”

“There could be no judgment from a boy known as Dirtyhands.”

We’ve covered the greatness of the characters; let’s take a closer look at the plot. First of all, a heist is a perfect outline for an adventure book. I picked up this book without knowing anything more about it than I could glean from the blurb on the cover: “Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist.” It the word, “heist” that drew me in. But there’s so much more to the narration than that. Kaz (Dirtyhands, as referenced in the quote above) is the ringleader. The mastermind. The schemer. He’s great at performing tricks and scams because he knows people– he can see what drives them, and how far they’ll go. Most importantly, he knows which parts of the plan not to reveal, to avoid leaked secrets and betrayals. He tells each member of the team only what they need to know to carry out their own parts. This is a factor that works perfectly with the narration of the book overall because it allows the reader to follow each of the characters’ perspectives and still be surprised by the plan they’re all a part of. I did wonder how Kaz could have risked all five of the others’ lives by keeping the plans to himself that way when he could have been killed or separated from them, but otherwise Kaz’s methods and the timing of the book’s big reveals work seamlessly together. Many chapters end on little cliffhangers to keep the reader going, providing just enough information for the reader to keep guessing what will happen next. But even when you guess one part right, something you never expected is waiting in the wings. This is a book that’s fun to read the first time through all the surprises, but would be equally entertaining on subsequent reads, when you know which characters are secretly scheming and where their loyalties truly lie.

The true strength of the book, however, lies not in any one of these details alone, but in the way they’re all brought together with Bardugo’s writing. I’ve read and enjoyed the Grisha trilogy, but Bardugo’s writing in Six of Crows shines with a whole new light. She knows exactly how much to say, and how much to let the reader piece together for him-/herself. There are understated subplots and backstories, enmities and friendships within the group. The fact that these six people are working together, despite all of them hoping for different outcomes from the adventure, keeps the reader on his/her toes. Anyone could be capable of anything, and Bardugo uses every detail in every sentence to her advantage, leaving clues that are faultlessly woven into the fabric of the story. It’s a masterpiece. It’s YA for all ages, my very favorite kind. It’s completely fantastical, and yet utterly believable.

“Facts are for the unimaginative.”

Bardugo isn’t just telling a good story, though. She’s also using her book to talk about real-life problems like prejudice and misuse of power. Lots of books aim for big themes like these, but Bardugo does them well. The reader is guided gently to universal truths without being hit over the head with lessons that are easier heard than carried out. Six of Crows is inspiring. It makes me want to work harder at making the world a better place.

“We are all someone’s monster.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I started reading Six of Crows for the sake of wanting to read The Language of Thorns, which I still want to do, but I didn’t expect to find a new favorite book of the year (it definitely makes the list, at least). I absolutely loved it. I must read Crooked Kingdom, the sequel in this duology, ASAP. Bonus points for Six of Crows with its black page edges. Red pages don’t excite me (sorry, Crooked Kingdom), but I loved the black. It’s a beautiful book, inside and out.

“No mourners. No funerals.”

Further recommendations:

  1. Shadow and Bone is the first book in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy. If you’ve read the Six of Crows duology and want more from the Grishaverse, this is where to go. The first book is my favorite of the trilogy, and if you (like many others) have heard that the Grisha trilogy is not as good as the Six of Crows duology, I do recommend giving at least the first book a try. The Darkling is worth reading about.
  2. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy is a fantastic next choice for fans of Six of Crows. It follows another set of characters that rank somewhere between heroes and anti-heroes, the dregs of the planet uniting to make a big change. Main character Darrow must infiltrate the elites of the social hierarchy, which involves a sort of schooling system that sets the top students against each other in deadly ways. He’ll find unexpected friends (that he may need to betray) and dangerous enemies (who may find out he’s no more than a Helldiver) at the Institute, but will he make it out alive?

Coming up next: I’m reading several books at once again, and I’ve been extremely busy with work, but I should be finishing and reviewing Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane within a day or two. It’s a fantasy story about a couple of children who see things that the adults don’t, set around a pond that the girl calls her ocean.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: Want to check out my review for the next book in this series, Crooked Kingdom? You can do that now!

Review: Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy

My Cassandra Clare marathon of 2017 continues. This month I read Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy, the second short story collection in Shadowhunter publication order. I had high hopes for this one, but honestly it didn’t impress me any more than The Bane Chronicles. This second collectiontalesfromtheshadowhunteracademy is co-written by Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson, and Robin Wasserman.

About the book: There are ten short stories set around Simon’s time at Shadowhunter Academy, after the events of The Mortal Instruments novels. You should read those first to avoid spoilers. Each story is precluded with a key excerpt from the coming story, and a page of beautiful matching graphics. And now for the stories:

“Welcome to Shadowhunter Academy” : 3 stars. Nothing happens in this one that we don’t know already from the end of The Mortal Instruments. There’s a lot of angst about Simon’s missing memories, and a lot of snobby characters. Familiar faces from TMI appear like “guest stars.” Simon is trying to make a stand against prejudices at the school, but he’s a weaker character at this point because of his unknown past, and we’ve seen these same prejudices in Clare’s previous books. I was expecting a little more flare in this first story, but it’s heavy.

“The Lost Herondale” : 4 stars. This one, at least, follows a traditional story arc with steadily increasing tension to keep the reader engaged throughout the story. It starts a little slow, and trickles off after the tension fades, but it’s stronger than the first story. Most of the characters are still unpleasant, and the prejudices are back… I keep expecting Clare to make a big show of resolving conflict between the species and it just keeps… well, not happening.

” ‘We are all what our pasts have made us,’ Catarina said. ‘The accumulation of thousands of daily choices. We can change ourselves, but never erase what we’ve been.’ “

“Every decision you make, makes you. Never let other people choose who you’re going to be.”

“The Whitechapel Fiend” : 2 stars. Here are two stories in one, in which neither story seems to have a purpose. Especially the story Tessa tells– it’s heartening to see her in this context, but the moral to her story is “problems solve themselves.” There’s a second storyline with Jace and tree falls, which also has little point. “The Whitechapel Fiend” might have made a decent chapter in one of Clare’s novels, but it does not work as a short story. Stories are supposed to stand alone. And they’re supposed to be eventful. Halloween bonus for the demon child, though. She’s creepy.

“Nothing but Shadows” : 4 stars. Another story-within-a-story. Again, I believe a story is supposed to have a purpose, and when Catarina tells Simon her story, it seems at first that she’s going to offer some insight to help him with his current situation and instead she ends it with “you have to work these things out for yourself.” Which is what he would have done without her story anyway. It was a great tale, though. I could read a whole book about Jamie Herondale.

“That is the wonderful thing about making changes and meeting strangers, Jamie. You never know when, and you never know who, but someday a stranger will burst through the door of your life and transform it utterly. The world will be turned upside down, and you will be happier for it.”

“People are afraid of anybody who is different: It makes them worry everyone else is different too, and just pretending to be all the same.”

“Do not let any of them tell you who you are. You are the flame that cannot be put out. You are the star that cannot be lost. You are who you have always been, and that is enough and more than enough. Anyone who looks at you and sees darkness is blind.”

“The Evil We Love” : 4 stars. The back-and-forth narration of this one is more successful than the stories-within-stories. Both of the tales in this one have proper story arcs with increasing tension, and they feel properly related to each other. It provides a fascinating view of Valentine’s Inner Circle, and the difficult relationship between Simon and Isabelle; both are handled well, and even though they both fit into larger plots this story could stand on its own, which is something I’m looking for in a short story.

“Sometimes first impressions were misleading; sometimes they peered straight through to a person’s inner soul.”

“Love, real love, is being seen. Being known. Knowing the ugliest part of someone, and loving them anyway. And…I guess I think two people in love become something else, something more than the sum of their parts, you know? That it must be like you’re creating a new world that exists just for the two of you. You’re gods of your own pocket-universe.”

“Pale Kings and Princes” : 4 stars. Here’s yet another way to tell two stories: book-ending one with another. In this case, the two stories are connected with a single character, and the Shadowhunter prejudices against faeries. The best part of this story, as with much of Clare’s writing, is the trick of perspective: two people (or groups of people) will always tell the same story in different ways. That’s an important reminder in the real world as well as fiction, and it strengthens this story. This one works as a stand-alone, even though it features familiar characters. Thumbs up.

“Bitter of Tongue” : 3 stars. This story is compelling and emotional, but it doesn’t have much of a purpose here. It feels more like a chapter in the Blackthorn family history than anything related to Simon, or even to Shadowhunter Academy. The tension in the story is something that began before this story started and doesn’t end with it either, so nothing is resolved. Thus, the structure feels weak, though the prose is remarkably beautiful in places.

“Fortunate are the ones who know the name of their heart. They are the ones whose hearts are never truly lost. They can always call their heart back home.”

“Some were born with abs, some achieved abs, and some– like Simon– had abs thrust upon them by cruel instructors.”

“The Fiery Trial” : 3 stars. This one seems longer than necessary for the small amount of events it contains. On top of that, the main parabatai bond discovered here is predictable. But there is some wonderfully mysterious confused reality in the middle of the story that’s incredibly compelling, even though the beginning and end are more drawn out than needed.

“Born to Endless Night” : 2 stars. This story offers a unique mix of Magnus’s and Simon’s perspectives. But again, it’s too long. I don’t mind long stories when something is happening; there is only one really notable event in this story, it happens early on, and it has little to do with Simon or Shadowhunter Academy. The rest is all about everyone’s feelings, which can be nice too, but it doesn’t feel like the meat of this story. Also, I dislike babies being named after someone else. A name can affect a person. I think all people should have their own chance to make their own name significant instead of living in the shadow of whoever made the name significant before them. I do understand the desire, I just don’t support it for the naming of human (or warlock) babies.

“I think sometimes it’s too hard to believe in yourself. You just do the things you’re not sure you can do. You just act, in spite of not being certain. I don’t believe I can change the world– it sounds stupid to even talk about it– but I’m going to try.”

“Angels Twice Descending” : 4 stars. Here is an example of a story that is predictable and filled mostly with internalized emotion, but still makes a compelling story. This one could stand on its own, but it’s also full of now-familiar characters and memories. It’s an end and a beginning. It’s a beautiful exploration of meaning and determination that readers can apply off the page, despite all of the fantasy details that also make it the heart of this fictional collection. This is the reason I read the book.

“Choosing what’s right for you, maybe that’s the bravest thing you can do.”

“The point wasn’t that you tried to live forever; the point was that you lived, and did everything you could to live well. The point was the choices you made and the people you loved.”

Simon is one of my favorite characters in the Shadowhunting world, but at times he felt like a weak character in these stories because he’s constantly dwelling on his memory loss. It makes him less certain of himself and more anxious than usual. Also the academy is a disgusting place. It’s not like Hogwarts, which is whimsical and sometimes dangerous but still essentially a good place– Shadowhunter Academy is slimy, with bad food, prejudiced professors, torturous “classes,” horrible students, infestations, and a lack of plumbing. Every new detail about the school is something equally disturbing. It seems like an uninhabitable place, not a zany and educational one. Bad environments make my whole reading experience less pleasant.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. My average rating was actually 3.3. Although Shadowhunter Academy did not live up to my expectations, I am glad that I included it in my Shadowhunter marathon because it’s likely that certain details from this collection will crop up in future novels. It also added extra closure to TMI. But… I finally get to read Lady Midnight! Most of my Shadowhunter marathon has been enjoyable, but the biggest reason I wanted to read/reread all of Clare’s books this year was for The Dark Artifices, except I wanted to read those without missing anything from the previous books. So even though most of these stories did not even meet my standard expectations of what a short story should be, this collection was worth my time.

What’s next: I’m still reading George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords and will review that as soon as I finish. But I’m also picking up Matthew J. Sullivan’s Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, an adult mystery/thriller about a book-related death.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Mini-Review: The Haunting of Hill House

I don’t usually review classics, but I couldn’t resist with this one. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a perfect October book, but it’s surprisingly little-known. I had an interesting experience with this one from the start– the copy I checked out from the library is an old hard-cover with no dust jacket, and it was not an edition logged into the Goodreads database. A mysterious start, perfect for this mysterious story.

thehauntingofhillhouseAbout the book: Dr. Montague is a studier of such “phenomena” as those that take place in haunted houses. He wants to write a scholarly book about these unnatural occurrences, and with Hill House, he believes he’s found the ideal place. It has a tragic history, a frightening facade, and no one in nearby Hillsdale will go near it or hardly speak of it. He arranges for various persons with past supernatural encounters to spend a summer at the house with him, to awaken whatever unseen spirits might be in the house and to record the events that take place. Thus four strangers meet at Hill House half in seriousness, half in jest, to discover just how real the rumors about the haunted house will turn out to be.

” ‘I think we are only afraid of ourselves,’ the doctor said slowly. ‘No,’ Luke said. ‘Of seeing ourselves clearly and without disguise.’ ‘Of knowing what we really want,’ Theodora said.”

The Haunting of Hill House is, obviously, a haunted house tale. There’s something very different about seeing a scary house film and reading about one; in a book such as this, it’s the psychological nature of the story that contains the horror, and Jackson handles that well here. It’s like a cross between Ethan Frome and The Bell Jar. From early in the book, we see Eleanor’s vulnerability, the easy shift of her mind and her willingness to lie– to others and to herself. Throughout the book there is a sort of hidden danger behind what appears on the surface to be an ordinary summer trip to a big, abandoned house. It is up to the reader to decide how much of the supernatural to believe; and if you don’t want to believe any of it, the story still works because Eleanor does, and the reader can’t deny that Eleanor is changing, no matter what is happening with the house.

“No; it is over for me. It is too much, she thought, I will relinquish possession of this self of mine, abdicate, give over willingly what I never wanted at all; whatever it wants of me it can have.”

Eleanor, one of Dr. Montague’s recruits, is the sort of well-developed character that a person can read about over and over again, and reach different conclusions every time. Her malleability is apparent in her contradicting thoughts, but most notably in her dialogue. And her supporting characters do not disappoint. Dr. Montague, ever the scientist, seems to be studying his guests as much as the house. Theodora is pegged early as the girl who says just what the other person is thinking, and selfish Luke is a causer of mayhem between the two women who may otherwise have been friends.

If you’re looking for a classic scare that’ll keep you guessing, look no farther.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I loved this book. It’s short and to-the-point, it’s creepy and weird, and it keeps the reader actively involved in the constructing of the story. It really is up to the reader how much is to be believed. I also want to read Jackson’s The Lottery at some point. If it’s anything like Hill House, I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.

What’s next: I’m still reading Martin’s A Storm of Swords but I really didn’t want to give up a whole week in October to reading that exclusively, so I’m reading it slowly in the midst of all these other books. So that review will still be coming up eventually, but I think first you’ll see my thoughts on Tales From the Shadowhunter Academy by Cassandra Clare et al. It’s the second collection of short stories between her older series and her newer ones (still in progress), and I’m getting really excited about finishing my Shadowhunter marathon so this should go quickly.

What are you reading this October?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant