Book Haul 2.18

New books for February! I set myself a hard goal this year of acquiring only 3 new books per month, and I suppose if I couldn’t make it happen in the shortest month of the year then I’d really be in bad shape. Fortunately, I persevered, and am now sharing with you my smallest book haul in over a year. I’m PROUD. (And also so very tempted to celebrate by buying new books.) But for this month, here’s what I got:

  1. King Lear by William Shakespearre. I’m on the hunt for my favorite Shakespeare play, so after a few recommendations I made sure to add this one to my list of classics to read in 2018. I was originally planning to read it in December, but I’ve changed my TBR system and I’m pretty interested in giving this one a try so I might pick it up early. In any case, I’m ready to read it now that I have a nice Pelican copy. I don’t know anything about the plot of this one, but that’s the way I like to read, so please don’t spoil me.
  2. The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller. This one is my February Book of the Month Club selection, and I did manage to read it within the month! I had my eye on four of the selections this time, and I do have borrowed copies of a couple of the other choices in my possession at the moment, but I’m so proud of myself for facing the temptation head-on and sticking to my resolution of only choosing one in my BOTM box. I’m only supposed to be selecting one per month until I’m caught up with my BOTM backlog from last year, so this month was a success in that regard, as well. Follow the link for my review of this one, I had a great time reading it! It’s a sort of sci-fi/fantasy novel with historical and feminist elements, but mostly its a whimsical, wild ride about chasing dreams.
  3. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. I guess I did buy a second BOTM selection, but not through BOTM. I bought a regular copy of this one after its release date for the cool cover details that BOTM generally doesn’t include, but also just because I was planning to get this one with a coupon through another bookseller before the February BOTM choices were announced. And I’m glad I did, because this book is GORGEOUS and will look perfect on my shelf next to The Nightingale, which admittedly I haven’t read yet. But I’m excited to read both! This one sounds like a hard-hitting story about abuse and the Alaskan wilderness, and I’ve seen nothing but good reviews. I’m planning to read this one in the next week or two.

bookhaul2.18

That’s my entire list of new books for February. It’s short, but I think I made some good choices, and I’ll definitely read all of these within the year. I’ve only read one of three so far, but I did read four previously unread books from my shelves this month, so even though two of these are still unread I am actually down one book on my owned-books TBR this month, which also feels good. Success on so many levels.

Which new books did you pick up in February? And what’s good in new YA? I didn’t see much that caught my eye for YA in February, but I’m looking forward to some March releases!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Philosopher’s Flight

I was in the mood to read something unusual this month, and Tom Miller’s new release (also a February Book of the Month Club selection), The Philosopher’s Flight, absolutely fit the bill.

thephilosopher'sflightAbout the book: Robert Weekes is a male sigrlist in a world of female sigilrists. No one knows why, but women are the dominant power in Empirical Philosophy, a brand of science condemned by many as a sort of evil magic because its drawers of sigils can do cool things like fly. Robert grew up in the shadow of his war-hero sigilrist mother and three practicing sisters who told him he was good– for a boy. But now he’s 18 and wants to join the Rescue & Evacuation division of the Corps. It’s 1917 and he wants to join the war effort as the first male Corpswoman. To do so, he’ll have to prove himself a million times over, as a student at an all-girls college, as a hoverer who can pull his weight, as a medalist in the General’s Cup, and so much more. He makes new friends, finds new causes, falls in love– but is a happy life as a good siligrist “for a boy” enough to make him give up a dream he could lose everything chasing?

” ‘Everyone ought to have a dream, Mr. Weekes,’ Addams said. ‘But the time comes when you have to put childish things away and face the world as it is.’ “

This is one of a very few episodic stories that I’ve really enjoyed in the last few years. For some reason the narrative style of stringing together lots of small adventures rather than one major plot arc just hasn’t been jiving with my reading preferences in a long while, but every now and then I still stumble across one that’s addictively compelling. The Philosopher’s Flight was one of those.

“I’ve never killed a man. But I have separated many an enemy from a fresh supply of oxygen and allowed him to breathe himself to death.”

The book starts from a future perspective, and each chapter starts with an excerpt from relevant (fictional) political writings that relate to current plot points or emotions. These details give away some answers; for instance, the reader knows who will survive the year when the characters start appearing in writings from future years. But, as with many episodic tales, the excitement is in the journey rather than the destination.

Those excerpts, despite their revelatory nature, are a great touch in Miller’s world-building, as is the appendix at the back of the book with further info on certain sigils that come into play in the narrative. I always check the page count of a book before I start, which is how I noticed that appendix, but I’m glad I did; I liked reading those sigil sections as they became relevant to the story rather than all at once after finishing the book. There aren’t reminders to match the chapters of the story to the sigil info in the back, so I had to shuffle back and forth a bit, but those extra details really made the story feel more credible, more complete, even as bizarre as the world is. Though it takes place in historical US, so much of the history is different with the addition of Empirical Philosophy that it doesn’t feel much like the real world, and every detail helps.

This book is… wacky, to say the least. It’s a little magical, a little scientific, a little historic, dips into modern social issues, and tackles every angle with a mix of humor and thoughtfulness that leaves the reader chuckling without removing some more serious undertones. The reader never knows what to expect, and Miller is clearly having his fun with creative license.

“We were a couple of dull young people in love, besotted, barely conscious of the hubbub around us. But that’s just the sort of moment when the gods decide they ought to lay you low.”

But under all the zany details, this is a book that flips the gender dynamic (women are most powerful) and keeps the reader thinking about the ways gender bias still exists in our real world. As interesting as I found that angle throughout the story, I was constantly on the fence about its effectiveness. There are some great lines that made me think, “oh yeah, that’s something I’m so used to in today’s society that I’ve hardly even noticed that it’s a problem,” but there were other lines about Robert fighting for recognition as a man that disappointed me, like even in a world when women have the advantage, the man we’re supposed to be sympathizing with is pushing to get to the top. In the end, I do think this story is advocating for gender equality rather than giving anyone an edge, and I know that’s a narrow line to walk, but there were instances when I thought it skewed a little too far one way or the other. Some of the women seemed unreasonably cruel, and Robert faces prejudice for being a male sigilrist that feels at times more like a challenge for real women to dive into the unfair aspects of a male-dominant world and fight through them, rather than an acknowledgment that such prejudices do exist and that there should be effort made on all sides of the problem.

“Devastatingly handsome men such as myself had to be on guard against city women, who were known to be brazenly forward in their attempts to corrupt the flower of American youth.”

” ‘Well,’ Ma said. ‘Maybe he’ll find himself a rich wife out there and support me in my old age. At any rate, it sounds like a grand adventure.’ “

But as doubtful as I occasionally was about the way Miller tackled the gender gap, I never came across any statements that actually turned me away from the book, and coming so close to the edge as it does kept me constantly thinking about what’s okay to accept from other people and what’s not, which is a worthwhile result for any novel.

“It’s never mattered that I can’t do it. What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I would definitely read a sequel, but I have no idea if there will ever be one. This was such a fun read, but not the sort of fun that’s insubstantial. This is the kind of book that makes me appreciate Book of the Month Club– I probably would not have heard about this book otherwise, I chose it on a whim, and it was a quality read. Weird, but in a good way. I can’t wait for next month’s selections.

Further recommendations:

  1. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians shares a lot of similarities to Miller’s new book; if you’re looking for a bizarre but engrossing novel about a magical branch of science with its own schools and applications, try Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. It takes place in the modern rather than historical world, and it’s full of plot twists and unexpected changes of direction for the reader who’s a fan of the unpredictable.

Do you prefer fantasy/sci-fi stories full of imaginative details, or more contemporary stories that relate to the real world? Some combination of both?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Crooked Kingdom

No mourners. No funerals. No spoilers. I finally, finally got back to Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology, and today I’m reviewing book 2, Crooked Kingdom. You should read Six of Crows first, though. In case you need more incentive, it’s a fast-paced YA fantasy with a great cast of misfit characters, plenty of sleight-of-hand and plot twists, and lots of feel-good one-liners about resilience and compassion.

crookedkingdomAbout the book: The Dregs want their Wraith back, they want the money they were promised, they want safety for themselves and their hostage, and they want the power to choose their own futures. They’ve been crossed, and they’ll be crossed again, but only an idiot would cross Kaz Brekker and his crew and hope to get away with it. Even as the gang becomes the most wanted criminals in the world they refuse to give up hope and they keep fighting for better days. But what can six lost souls do when Ketterdam itself seems to rise against them?

“He often wondered how people survived this city, but it was possible Ketterdam would not survive Kaz Brekker.”

“None of them really knew what Kaz would or wouldn’t do. Sometimes Matthias wondered if even Kaz was sure.”

I’m probably in the minority about this, but I actually preferred Six of Crows to Crooked Kingdom. I thought the sequel would take this duology to new heights, but where Six of Crows constantly surprised me, Crooked Kingdom was exactly what I expected. I suppose it makes sense for books in a duology to be this well matched, but I was hoping for a bit more… chaos. A bit more uncertainty about who would win. Crooked Kingdom ties the loose ends from Six of Crows together, but it’s more predictable about it.

“I would come for you. And if I couldn’t walk, I’d crawl to you, and no matter how broken we were, we’d fight our way out together– knives drawn, pistols blazing. Because that’s what we do. We never stop fighting.”

Crooked Kingdom is more episodic than its predecessor, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but I find episodic tales (especially of this length) somewhat exhausting after a fashion. The plot twists are less thrilling because you’re expecting them, and the big shocks are less shocking because you know which parts are just for show. It gets a little tiring, knowing that everyone (or at least Kaz) knows what’s going to happen next, and you (the reader) are being left out for the dramatics of the narrative. In the first book, it made sense for Kaz to play his cards close and test the loyalty of his friends by leaving out some of the details. Now, there’s no reason for trust issues and the reader knows things won’t go as planned, so why not let us in on the plans?

“Well, Brekker, it’s obvious you only deal in half-truths and outright lies, so you’re clearly the man for the job.”

Perhaps because of that deliberate manipulation of information, my favorite parts of this book were the flashbacks– the backstories about Wylan leaving home, Jesper’s relationship with his parents, Inej’s experience at the Menagerie. It’s incredible to see the things that made these characters so strong. It’s also incredible to see their dreams for the future. For a band of criminals, they have some lofty goals; their rough pasts and hopeful futures make their criminality more a matter of necessity and survival than the sort of evil bullying they want to snuff out. The characters are the best part of this duology, and seeing their humanity through the flashbacks and future goals they’re all harboring gives them so much more color than the impossible feats they’re trying to pull off in the present.

” ‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ said Kaz. ‘I don’t hold a grudge. I cradle it. I coddle it. I feed it fine cuts of meat and send it to the best schools. I nurture my grudges, Rollins.’ “

Let’s talk for a bit about fiction. About how much harder it is to believe that the Wraith can enter a room with locked doors and barred windows, can walk a high wire with no safety net, that the bastard of the Barrel can plant or pickpocket anything on anyone without their noticing, etc. when you can’t actually see the tricks. It’s easier to write about sleight of hand than to perform it– but for the most part Bardugo makes the Dregs’ tricks seem plausible; the fact that they occasionally fail helps with that. But some parts of this books till seem… fictionalized. Manipulated. Written the way that they are because of reader expectations rather than natural facets of character. I know I’m being very vague, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Let me just say that something bad happens toward the end of this book, and I hated it not because it was bad or sad or less than ideal– I hated it because it felt unnecessary. Because it felt rushed and fabricated. Like Bardugo thought the ending would be too happy without something going wrong, so she had to throw an extra punch at the victors for good measure. I would’ve found the ridiculously happy ending more believable.

“But what about the rest of us? What about the nobodies and the nothings, the invisible girls? We learn to hold our heads as if we wear crowns. We learn to wring magic from the ordinary. That was how you survived when you weren’t chosen, when there was no royal blood in your veins. When the world owed you nothing, you demanded something of it anyway.”

But don’t let my minor complaints fool you. Though I appreciated the finesse of Six of Crows more than the flash of Crooked Kingdom, the second book is still a phenomenal read. If you’re only going to read one YA fantasy set, let this one be it. It has so many good messages about finding (or fighting for) your place in the world, about demanding more than the crap the world deals you. The Grishaverse is bright and beautiful, the Dregs are dirty heroes out for justice rather than revenge, and the writing is imaginative and even occasionally poetic. This is the kind of story that inspires my own writing, and despite a few choices I would’ve made differently with Crooked Kingdom, I can’t recommend this duology enough. (Perhaps even because I would have chosen some things differently– it’s educational to read something you don’t agree with one hundred percent.)

“The world was made of miracles, unexpected earthquakes, storms that came from nowhere and might reshape a continent. The boy beside her. The future before her. Anything was possible.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had a fantastic time reading this book and I’m definitely going to pick up The Language of Thorns soon for more of Bardugo’s imaginative writing. I’ll probably keep an eye out for future Bardugo publications as well. I’m not as interested in reading her edition of Wonder Woman just because I’m not as interested in reading that whole superhero series, but the Six of Crows duology is such an improvement from the Grisha trilogy (which I though was also good, but not this great) that I’m definitely interested in seeing where Bardugo goes from here.

What’s your favorite YA fantasy?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Gwendy’s Button Box

Short Books February continues for me with Stephen King and Richard Chizmar’s Gwendy’s Button Box, a 170 page novella (of which some pages are pictures, or completely blank so that the chapters start on the right side of the page spread) that I would call magical realism. I hesitate to name an age range, but I’ll explore that more below. For now, I’ll just say I picked this one up on a whim at the library (which fulfills a slot in my reading challenge) and I think it’ll also be the last of the short books I will be reading this month.

gwendy'sbuttonboxAbout the book: The summer before Gwendy Peterson starts middle school is spent trying to rid herself of the baby fat that earned her the nickname Goodyear (like the blimp) in elementary. Every day she runs the Suicide Stairs, and she’s sworn off chocolate. But one day her final sprint up the stairs ends in meeting a strange man named Mr. Farris, who says he’s been “keeping an eye on” Gwendy, and he has something for her: a box with eight buttons across the top. The button box is a huge responsibility, but it also offers several gifts, including rare silver dollars and special chocolate treats that turn Gwendy’s life around like magic. Mr. Farris tells Gwendy very little about what the box actually is or does, but Gwendy spends the rest of her childhood finding out.

“And for a while, everything is all right. She thinks the button box goes to sleep, but she doesn’t trust that, not a bit. Because even if it does, it sleeps with one eye open.”

I picked this book up because it had Stephen King’s name on the cover, and because it I found it at a time when I wanted to read short books. I had no expectations whatsoever, which was probably a good thing because this book is… weird.

The point of the story, as best I could tell, was the discovery of the button box’s power. That felt like a weak premise right away because it’s clear that Mr. Farris knows what the box is and just isn’t saying. Personally, I find stories in which one character spends the entire length of the tale trying to discover what another character obviously knows to be a bit ridiculous, not to mention frustrating. There’s no way for Gwendy to ask Mr. Farris more questions after he disappears though, so she spends years keeping the box safe, testing its limits, and learning how deeply it affects her life even when she hides it at the back of the closet to be studiously ignored for months at a time. The end of the story, after all of Gwendy’s learning, struck me as rather anti-climactic, though the button box and even Gwendy found a bit of redemption in the final conversation.

The other “point” to the story is the so-called improvement in Gwendy’s life. The story opens with Gwendy’s concerns about surviving middle school, and as the narrative progresses through Gwendy’s school life, her concerns about fitting in are a big part of what’s driving the story, and possessing the box does change that part of her life. But Gwendy’s desire for popularity and her curiosity about the box push the story in opposite directions; the box helps her fit in, but only to an extent. She wants to use the box on the rest of the world, but only to an extent. The reader keeps waiting for the big things to happen: for the buttons to be pressed, for the box to give Gwendy so much of what she thinks she wants that she realizes it’s not really what she wants. I feel like Gwendy’s Button Box misses an opportunity in not pushing one of these boundaries farther than it does. The biggest catastrophes in the story aren’t clearly the fault of Gwendy or the box, however, and the reader is left only with Gwendy’s assumptions about the box along with Mr. Farris’s assurances that “it wasn’t that bad.”

Perhaps the most confusing point of the story though is its age range– Gwendy is never older than a college grad, and her entire college experience is wrapped up in one short chapter. Most of the book takes place during Gwendy’s childhood, through her high school years. The book doesn’t seem to be aimed at any particular target audience. The pictures seemed like the sorts of illustrations in a YA book that depict scenes from the story without revealing any further information, but some of the ideas about the power to blow up any place in the world, the difficulty in receiving exactly what you wanted no matter the effects, or the need for deception when you can’t explain where you got something or how– these are presented in more adult ways. The fact that actions and even wishes can have consequences isn’t a bad lesson for younger readers to learn, but some of the comparisons to the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the poisoned Kool-aid tragedy, etc. might be lost on younger readers, though I do think younger readers would be fine with the book even if they miss some of the finer implications of world power.

Despite my complaints and confusions, but Gwendy’s wasn’t a bad reading experience. Just confusing. It feels like one of those stories that’s really cool in conception but in reality isn’t quite carried out as well as hoped. It isn’t even the writing style exactly that holds me back about this one– I love Stephen King’s writing and his style is obvious in many details of this book. I’m not sure what was missing, but Gwendy’s didn’t make enough of an impression for me, good or bad.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This is definitely a food-for-thought book, but the particulars of the story just didn’t grab my attention. Things happened… but I wasn’t very strongly invested in any of them. I had no difficulty reading this book cover to cover in one sitting, but when I closed the book I had one of those “that was it?” moments. I wasn’t disappointed per se, but I thought that it should’ve gone farther. I’ll still be reading more Stephen King books, but for now I think I’ll stick with the ones I know more about so I have a higher chance of finding the ones that really interest me.

Further recommendations:

1. Gwendy’s reminded me a bit of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, although on a smaller scale. Gaiman’s Ocean is a beautiful little fantasy book about the magical (and dangerous) aspects of childhood, written for adults. It blurs the same reality/unreality line that Stephen King’s books often explore, but it’s utterly engrossing in a way that Gwendy‘s wasn’t for me. If you generally like Stephen King and you’re looking for something short and odd, go for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, especially if Gwendy’s Button Box isn’t quite what you’re looking for.

What are your favorite short books?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Emma

Jane Austen’s Emma was supposed to be my January classic of the month, but I ended up reading this classic romance around Valentine’s Day instead. It’s the fourth Austen novel I’ve read now, but even after experiencing three others I was unprepared for the unique masterpiece that is Emma.

emmaAbout the book: Emma Woodhouse is the highest-standing woman in Highbury’s society. She’s twenty years old, the mistress of her ailing father’s grand house, and the whole town dotes on her. She’s got reasonable talent and insight, but not enough worldly understanding yet as her governess moves out to be married and leaves Emma to her own devices. Confident that the marriage of her governess and close friend was partially her own doing, Emma sets out to make matches for others– first and foremost, a young lady of unknown parentage that Emma longs to befriend and raise in society. Unfortunately, after pulling Harriet from a promising marriage that Emma deems beneath her, Emma learns through a series of unfortunate events that she may not be as wise and helpful as she thought. Along the way, she also discovers the truths of her own heart just in time to worry that she’s lost the man she didn’t realize she’s been in love with from the start.

“Dear Papa, you cannot think that I will leave off match-making!”

While I’ve enjoyed every Jane Austen novel I’ve read thus far, it’s always been the content that impressed me most.  Although Austen’s style of writing and the charming details of bygone days are lovely to read, it’s generally the plots that stay with me in the end.

Not so with Emma. Although amusingly plotted, it’s the master crafting of this novel that stands out. Indeed, most of the plot will not surprise the reader at all because Austen allows the reader to know these characters better and sooner than they know themselves. Much of the novel consists of dialogue that reveals the characters’ secrets, motives, and duplicity. The reader is shown the disparity between thoughts and actions, between words spoken to one party and words spoken to another. The pleasure of the novel exists not in the matches being made, but in observing the various characters as they fall into their own blunders and attempt to grow out of them. Before they find their proper relationships, they must first discover themselves.

“A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.”

The power of the writing is such that the characters’ growth remains interesting to the reader even when the characters themselves are unpleasant. The novel opens on Emma as a spoiled girl with unreasonably high opinions of herself as she first enters society as an adult. Her errors in judgment are almost immediately obvious, between crediting herself with a marriage that she no more than guessed at, and pulling Harriet out of what would obviously have been a happy life befitting her station. Mr. Knightley just as blatantly refuses to accept that any opinions but his own may be valid. Mr. Elton is selfish and petulant, Frank Churchill careless and rash, Jane Fairfax suspiciously secretive, Harriet shockingly suggestible, and so on. The reader sees the characters’ faults, knows when their choices will backfire, predicts who will be to blame for the various scenarios, and yet can’t help reading onward to watch it all play out.

“A woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked, or because he is attached to her, and can write a tolerable letter.”

That said, this novel may not appeal to all of Austen’s fans. With the plot more transparent, the commentary on personality and perfecting oneself makes this book a heavier read than some of Austen’s other works. The reader must be interested in the multi-faceted conversations and nuances of perspective more than on which gentlemen will end up with which lady. Emma is, invariably, a romance, but it is so much more than that. Personally, I found the dialogue and the little ironies completely engrossing, but a reader who lives for plot will probably not be as entertained.

A side note: the beautiful vintage classics edition that I read (pictured above), which looks so nice on the shelf and is such a pleasant shape and size to admire while the covers are closed, was surprisingly hard to actually read. The spine is so stiff (and I didn’t want to crack it, obviously) and the book is thick enough that it’s a two-hand read all the way through; even then it was uncomfortable to hold and difficult to manage at times. I was disappointed that this copy wasn’t as functional as it was decorative, so if you’re looking for a good copy to read, be aware that this edition is better to look at, though reading it wasn’t completely impossible.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I wish Austen had found a way to keep the powerful writing techniques she utilizes in Emma without pairing it with transparent plotting. I never considered DNF-ing this book, but there were times when I was growing a bit bored of knowing what was coming. That’s the only thing that holds me back from giving this book 5 stars, because in all other regards the writing of this book provided me with a new level of respect for Austen’s works. While none of the novels I’ve read from her so far have seemed frivolous, this one definitely seemed more serious and mature. It’s the last book Austen saw published in her lifetime, and the experience with writing and understading her world shows more clearly in this novel than in the others that I’ve read. I’ll definitely be reading the two novels of Austen’s that I haven’t yet (Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility), though I’m not in too big a hurry because I already know how sad I’m going to be when my first experience with each of Austen’s books is behind me.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like a classic romance that also turns an eye to personal growth, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is an obvious but rewarding choice. Jane’s strength of character is steadfast and inspiring, and the love between two wise but unfortunate people is delightfully dramatic.
  2. My current favorite Austen novel is Persuasion,  a lovely reminder that matters of the heart must be decided upon first and foremost by the couple who will be most affected by them. It’s a beautiful book about making one’s own choices.

Do you have a favorite Jane Austen novel?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Novel Progress 2.18

I can’t believe it’s been a whole month and I’m still editing the same 30 pages of my book. But I don’t want my slow progress to start holding me back from updating again, and then from making any progress at all, so I’m going to talk a bit about what’s holding me back in these 30 pages and why I’m not letting it stop me.

First, a brief reminder for those who don’t know: I’m aiming for a sci-fi/fantasty story with nine chapters of 10,000 words apiece. I haven’t quite written 90,000 words yet,  but I was getting out of order and saving things in tiny separate pieces because I didn’t know where exactly to paste them in and it was time to go back to the beginning, smooth things out, put everything I had together and fill in the empty spaces. I’m calling it the “final run-through” just to force myself into finalizing it as much as I can, putting in everything that needs to be there instead of getting distracted working on whatever seems the most fun at the time and verging into chaos again. I’ll probably still do another read-through of the whole thing when I reach the end, just because I am making a ton of changes this time around. But I mentioned in my last progress update that I was working on the third chapter– and I’m still in the third chapter, a month later.

Because of the structure of my book, with its nine chapters (further divided into smaller sections, for anyone who’s worried about unreasonably long chapters), the main plot is divided into three separate arcs. So in this third chapter, I’m reaching the end of the first arc, the first third of the book. It’s been largely a set-up arc, introducing readers to my world and characters. Two major things are happening to my main characters in  the first two chapters, so this third chapter is all about bringing the pieces together, the motives, the problems, to get them where I really want them for the meat of the story. There’s a lot of characterization happening, a lot of mystery being solved in why this world is functioning the way it is, some politics and alliances and obstacles being levered into place. I believe there’s plenty of action to keep the pace rolling, but especially in this third chapter there’s a higher level of introspection, decisions that need to be made and accepted on a personal level, resolutions made. And I just kept trying to rewrite the slow parts to make them work, to build up the conflicting emotions that are forefront at this time, and in the end it just wasn’t working. It didn’t flow with the charm and surprise of the first two sections.

So I’ve been doing some cutting. Some compacting, really. I’ve been removing whole paragraphs to replace them with singular, to-the-point sentences that better fit my book. The problem with doing this is that by winnowing down my content this way, I’m not going to hit the 10,000 word mark. That’s why my progress has been so slow and reluctant this month, because I was so determined to hit that goal, when it just wasn’t working with this chapter.

Now I’ve accepted that my chapters aren’t going to be of uniform length. I already knew that to some extent, because I went over the 10,000 word mark for the first two chapters, but I didn’t think with as much as I like to draw things out and say every relevant detail that I would ever have a problem with too-few words. And I think in the end I won’t be short of the 90,000 word range, even if I have to let a couple of chapters fall below my original target goal. Which is why I finally decided that the consistency of the story is more important than a word goal I set before I was this sure of my content. 90,000 words seems to be a general target range for my genre, so once I had those nine chapters planned it wasn’t an arbitrary goal, but I think the important thing now is to let the words fall where they will, keeping an eye on that final word count goal without being too inflexible about each chapter.

I am more than halfway through the third chapter, and it’s going faster now that I’ve got a system of sifting through it. I’m getting excited about the project again instead of dreading trying to work on something that just wasn’t working. By the end of this chapter I’ll be a third of the way through my book; all the important characters will be mentioned, important places will be visited, key terms linked to their objects, major conflicts noted. I feel a little as though I’m checking these things off a list as I’m editing this chapter, so I hope they read like they’re appearing naturally, that the bones of the story won’t show as much to someone who’s got a better distance from the story. But as long as I’m working on it so closely, looking at each sentence individually to make sure that everything is strong enough to hold up in the final work, I think it’s best that I can see the underlying structure so clearly to keep an eye on how things are moving along.

For my fellow writers:

How do you know when it’s time to modify a goal? How do you know when to trust that the story is strong enough to stand in its own way instead of sticking to the constraints of your initial outline plan? How do you make it feel less like failing if you do have to change a goal?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Saga: Volumes Seven and Eight

Happy Valentine’s/Galentine’s Day, book lovers! I’m currently reading Jane Austen’s Emma, which is all about ill-conceived attempts at match-making and finding true love right under one’s nose, so it’s exactly what I want to be reading today. But before I’m ready to review that classic, I’ll tell you about something else I finished reading lately.

My “Short Books Spree” continued this month with Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s Saga comics, volumes seven and eight. In the past I’ve read Saga three volumes at a time, compiled in Saga: Book One and Saga: Book Two, but volume nine has not yet been published so I read these most recent volumes individually. No spoilers for seven and eight below, but you’ll want to have read through volume six before perusing the rest of this review.

sagavolumessevenandeightAbout the books: With their family of three recently reunited and a fourth member on the way, Marko, Alana, and Hazel make a long pit stop to refuel their tree rocket on a war-torn comet. They encounter new friends and enemies, but most interesting is the mystery surrounding the comet’s current evacuation– and once the mystery is solved, will Hazel and her family make it out in time or run into bigger trouble? The Will is ready to make new steps forward to reunite with his old friends. Squire faces a monster only he can see. A vengeful lover takes a captive. Gwen and Sophie make a bold choice. Lying Cat must take a side. A further quest involving Alana’s pregnancy is required.

“One moment, the universe presents you with this amazing opportunity for new possibilities… and then…”

So far into the series, I can’t give more than vague hints without giving any new plot developments away, but I can at least assure you that fellow Saga fans will not be disappointed by the latest installments to the series. Seven didn’t particularly impress me in comparison with past volumes, but it was up to snuff and certainly ended with a heart-wrenching bang that’s sure to keep readers invested. Eight, on the other hand, is tragic and full of love, with twists that kept me turning pages past my bedtime (though not too far past, because these books are quick and easy to read). What’s more, it brings back many of the main characters from earlier in the series with new alliances, new complications, and new promises of intrigue yet to come.

The cornerstone of this entire series is Hazel’s family. As we know, her mom (Alana) and dad (Marko) came from opposite sides of the Landfall/Wreath war and put aside their differences for a hasty romance and an unexpected pregnancy. It’s been fascinating watching their relationship evolve from that point, through separations and complications, deaths and reunions. They’ve been on the run, they’ve made a few mistakes, and now they’re facing challenges with a second unplanned pregnancy. The developments in these two volumes solidified their relationship for me. Their relationship is continually surprising and inspiring, and all the more so for their interactions with myriad other characters with their own opinions and agendas.

And, through all of the zany plot twists, Hazel narrates the whole adventure with an eye on voicing truths, and moving toward healing and righting wrongs, especially the wrongs of inequality. Saga is, as ever, an epic fantasy adventure advocating equality, kindness, and peace. It features unique creatures, magics, and technologies, a wide variety of sympathetic characters, and provocative art that speaks as loudly as the comic’s words.

“Little one, you are unlike anyone who has ever existed, and that makes you exactly like everyone who has ever existed.”

A general notice: these are (still) adult comics. I would recommend caution for younger readers due to some graphic and sexual content, but mature readers should have no problem with what’s included.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars for volume seven, and 5 out of 5 stars for volume eight. I like reading multiple volumes of this story at once because otherwise the snapshots of some of the characters just seem so brief that it’s hard to place them in the overall story line. I think it’s going to be harder for me going forward now that I’m caught up, but I have had great experiences reading the first two books and now these two volumes. I think once the entire story is finished I’d like to go back to the beginning and read the whole thing through. This is really the only experience I’ve had with reading a plot so serialized, even though there are coherent arcs through each volume that distinguish it as its own story. In any case, I am determined to keep reading this series, and while I’m waiting for volume nine I think I’ll look around for another comic to broaden my reading horizons a bit, maybe something that’s published in its entirety already. I’m just not even sure where to start at the moment, since Saga is my only recent experience with that art form.

Does anyone have any favorite comics they’d recommend?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

Another short book for you today, and maybe a short review to go with it (I know I’m not good at keeping things brief). Last year I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists; I expected it to surprise me more than it did, but I did enjoy reading the essay enough that I had to pick up more of Adichie’s work. I haven’t been in the mood for a 60-page book for a while, so as soon as that urge struck this month, Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions was one of the books I immediately picked up.

dearijeaweleAbout the book: Adichie writes a letter to a friend with a new baby girl who wanted some advice on raising her daughter as a feminist. Adichie offers two tools and fifteen suggestions on parenting from a feminist perspective (published after she herself has become a parent), touching everything from how to be a mom and live your own life, to who should do the cooking, parenting, and financial providing for a family, to encouraging the child to be her honest self rather than her most likeable self.

“Her job is not to make herself likeable, her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people.”

This book reads like a conversation, something both more accessible for the personal feel of the letter but also very specific in its target. Nevertheless, I am a reader without children at present and I found myself surprised and inspired by the content of this beautiful little book. It’s probably most relevant for new mothers, especially moms with daughters, but many of the ideas in Dear Ijeawele are more widely applicable to people in general who are interested in learning about the disparities between society’s expectations for men and women, and what might be done about those disparities on an individual level.

“What matters is what you want for yourself, and not what others want you to want.”

Sometimes I like being in the middle of a long series, and sometimes I like being able to read an entire book in the space of time it takes to finish a meal. But don’t let the brevity of Dear Ijeawele deceive you: it’s the sort of fodder for thought that stays with you long after the last pages have been turned. Equality is something that’s important to me; the world is not a fair place, but I believe we can make it fair. And the first step to doing that is understanding the current obstacles so that we can begin to overcome them. Gender inequality is one of those obstacles, and Dear Ijeawele is a letter that highlights some of the reasons behind that argument, encourages readers to change the way they think about gender right now, but also with an eye to future generations who could be spared growing up with the same restraints.

I would suggest reading Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists before Dear Ijeawele; they’re both short books of about 60 small pages each, but We Should All Be Feminists is a more general outline of feminism while Dear Ijeawele is more proactive. I recommend the both not only to mothers, or even solely to women, but to anyone interested in equality for all human beings and especially those that have close contact with children in their lives– any children. It’s good just to be aware of some of the things society says are “normal” that really aren’t fair.

Both books also reveal some aspects about Adichie’s history with Igbo culture, and her experiences in Africa and America as not only a woman but a woman of color. But even the parts that didn’t seem to quite apply to my own life were interesting to learn about, and contributed to the overall messages that Adichie is offering.

“This is the only necessary form of humility: the realization that difference is normal.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I really like these short essay-type works of Adichie’s, and I’m sad to have both of them behind me now. But I am nevertheless looking forward to picking up more works by this author– I think Americanah will be next for me. I’m also becoming more eager to pick up more books about feminism, but I’m not quite sure where to start. Some of Roxane Gay’s work is on my TBR, but I could really use some more suggestions about what’s good to read– I want books that are empowering and encouraging, not just ranting about the problem. Any suggestions for me?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Night

I picked up a few small books for February because after reading some long books last month I’ve been in the mood for stories I could finish in one sitting. That said, I’m still aiming for quality over quantity this year, so first up on my short-books agenda was a highly-regarded nonfiction work: the Nobel Prize-winning Night by Elie Wiesel.

“To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

nightAbout the book: Elie, a 15 year-old Jew from Hungary, is evicted from his home in 1944 along with his family, several members of whom he will never see again. He is taken to Auschwitz and Buchenwald and pushed on grueling travels through Germany as the situation grows more desperate toward the end of WWII. His only companion after the deportation is his father; the two fight to stay together through brutal ordeals after being forced to separate early on from Elie’s mother and three sisters.

“Don’t forget that you are in a concentration camp. In this place, it is every man for himself, and you cannot think of others. Not even your father. In this place, there is no such thing as father, brother, friend. Each of us lives and dies alone.”

I’ve read some great WWII fiction, and I’ve read Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, but nothing written about the atrocities of that time period have hit me quite as effectively as Wiesel’s Night. This book is shocking in its sense of reality, while also remaining entirely coherent and linear as a storyline, and easy to read. Not always easy to stand, but the writing is clear and compelling and propulsive.

“But we were pulling into a station. Someone near a window read to us: ‘Auschwitz.’ Nobody had ever heard that name.”

Part of my general difficulty with WWII literature is that for a topic so severe, I can’t abide any sentimentality. The gross wrongs that were done and the lessons to be learned from them are blatant enough from the events themselves that I don’t want more than a record– and that is exactly what Night is. Night is for readers who want a better understanding of the Holocaust without the added flourishes of being told why it was wrong. And it’s so short (118 pages) that there really is no excuse for avoiding reading it.

One thing that makes this book stand out to me particularly among other WWII writings is the way it talks about Judaism. Elie’s faith– and the faith of the people around him– starts out so strong that his eventual loss of it even as it perseveres in his fellow prisoners is as hard to bear as some of the physical brutalities they suffer. Furthermore, there are places in this book where it seemed to me as though Elie is showing how easily targeted the Jews were because of their tendency to trust, to believe in the benevolence of the world and the mercy of God even when all signs are pointing to their imminent deaths. I had not considered before (at least not to this extent) that the very religion these people were being targeted for could also be seen as a factor in the hardships they faced; though some maybe were saved by their steadfast belief, others were led to their deaths because their faith prevented them from seeing the evil in front of them.

“I have more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people.”

My only complaint is that the book ended before Elie could give an update on the fate of his older sisters, and a few more clarifying details about the problem with his foot. (I had to ask Google, and when I was typing in “What happened to Elie Weisel’s…” the first suggestions that popped up were “older sisters” and “foot,” so clearly I was not alone in wondering those things.)

A side note: there were two introductions in the copy of Night that I read, and while I wasn’t bored while reading them I didn’t think they had nearly the effect that the book itself did. I can’t say I highly recommend reading those (though I certainly don’t discourage it), but I did find the Nobel Prize acceptance speech at the end more inspiring and worthwhile, and I do recommend reading that if you can.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. It’s hard to rate horrible stories in Goodreads’ star system because the language for a 5-star rating is “it was amazing!” which doesn’t quite feel accurate. But the writing was more than effective, the story itself beyond powerful (especially for its small size), and once I’d picked it up I couldn’t put it down. I’m not sure if I will read more from this author, as Night is widely considered his “best” book and I don’t want to tarnish this incredible experience, but I’m definitely inspired to pick up more nonfiction, and probably to steer myself in that direction especially when reading about WWII. I can’t recommend this book enough.

Have you read it yet?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Iron Gold

*Excuse me while I rave about my current favorite series*

Iron Gold is the recently-released 4th book in (what has become) the Red Rising Saga. You do need to read these books in order for the plots to make sense, so if you don’t know who lived or died by the end of Morning Star, you probably want to catch up in the series before reading this review. No Iron Gold spoilers below, though. You can check out my review of book 1, Red Rising, if you’re just getting started with Pierce Brown’s books.

To be up front about it, this is mainly a book for the readers who’ve been addicted to Darrow’s story since Red Rising and already know they’re in this for the long haul. If you’re undecided but still hanging on, Iron Gold probably won’t make or break the series for you.

irongoldAbout the book: Ten Years after the Rising, Darrow and Virginia’s Republic is fraying. It has focused so heavily on liberation of the lowly throughout the solar system that it hasn’t been particularly attentive to the people once they’re freed, nor is it pleasing the new Senate at home on Luna. War is still raging (or simmering, in some cases) throughout the Solar System, affecting all Colors and all planets, in one way or another. There are those who would love to take advantage of the Republic’s current weakness– and a few who are ready to try. There may even be a few inside the system who are intentionally (or not) sabotaging the Republic and its resources. Our fabled heroes won’t go down without a fight, however.

This is the first book in this series with multiple narrators. There are 4 first-person perspectives in this book, but it’s hard to name a favorite because they all have something vital to add to the narrative. They span the solar system with their schemes and tragedies and divulge unique views on the political situation. It’s a good balance of introspective commentary on the aftermath of war, the struggle to build up what’s been broken, and new fights for peace. Here’s a look at the main characters:

LYRIA- This “freed” Martian Red gives readers a good look at the bottom of the ladder. Even with the old social castes upturned, Reds are still under-supplied, under-aided, under-appreciated. Lyria is only one of millions who was promised a new and better life after the Rising, but instead her family is forgotten in an overflowing refugee camp, still struggling to survive and robbed of the feeling of any nobility in the work they must now perform outside of the mines.

“I pray before I look at each new face, and feel sick as I breathe sighs of relief when it is someone else’s mother, someone else’s sister dead on the ground.”

LYSANDER- The boy king Cassius rescued from Luna has grown into a man on the run, but he’s still letting others make the important decisions– at least until their luck turns when he and Cassius get into their worst scrape yet. Lysander is quiet and wise, and never shows fear. He’s easy to sympathize with, which makes him both more deadly and more interesting as he’s pitted against other beloved characters by his past and present circumstances.

“The key to learning, to power, to having the final say in everything, is observation. By all means, be a storm inside, but save your movement and wind till you know your purpose.”

Ephraim: Here’s the criminal genius with a crippling past that you didn’t know this space drama needed until he showed up. He’s selfish and underhanded, but it’s clear his heart is in the right place though he’s been dealt a bad hand. Ephraim’s action scenes were probably my favorite in the book, between his heists and the introduction of a new cast of villains and allies. It’s difficult to say whether he’s trustworthy or not, or even which side he’s on other than his own.

“You are a world entire. You are grand and lovely. But you have to see it before anyone else does.”

These three characters are opening new doors for readers who’ve been with Darrow since the beginning, and they’re especially important at this point in the series because this war is much bigger than one person, even if that one person is Darrow, the mythologized Reaper responsible for the cataclysmic Rising. But don’t worry, even though our favorite Helldiver isn’t our only narrator anymore, he still has a voice.

DARROW- He’s 33 now, and he’s starting to feel old. The war, the Republic, the politics… the things he was once so passionate about have become a chore, a duty he’ll tend to with the best of his ability though his heart is home with his wife and son, who seem to be drifting apart from him as he pursues the war effort. Darrow’s chapters in this book show the range of Brown’s capabilities best, because though he’s still our beloved hero with plenty of tricks up his sleeve, he’s also making mistakes. Collecting regrets. The scope of Darrow’s character development throughout this series has been immense, but Iron Gold proves there are plenty of changes left for Darrow.

“I feel the trauma of what I’m doing not just to him, but both our families. It feels like the world is doing this to us. But is it the world, or is it me? The way I am built? A breaker, not a builder after all.”

Let me just note that we also see new sides of Sevro through Darrow’s perspective and it’s fresh and intriguing and makes me a little trepidatious about where he’ll stand in the next volume.

There’s plenty of action, never fear, but Iron Gold is heavy on the introspection, as well. It’s a set-up book, the bridge between the devastation and triumph from the first three books to what promises to be an epic conclusion. I wouldn’t say it ends on a cliffhanger so much as a gaping chasm for the next two books to fill, and with the fresh sparks ignited in Iron Gold, I just know it’s going to come to a crazy fantastic conclusion. And of course, it’s all written with Brown’s singular attention to detail. The descriptions are otherworldly and beautiful, the classical references are plenty, the characters are unabashedly bold.

The only let-down for me in Iron Gold was Mustang– or the lack of Mustang. In this book, she’s always Virginia or the Sovereign or Darrow’s wife. She makes only a few relatively small appearances. I missed seeing this half of the power couple at work in Iron Gold. It’s the relationships that keep me engaged with the characters, even though it’s really the epic plot twists and fast action scenes that keep me turning pages. With the way Morning Star ended, I expected to see more of Darrow’s family in Iron Gold, even if they’re not thrilled with him at the moment.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This isn’t my new favorite book of the series, but it’s not my least favorite either. I’m already majorly anticipating Book 5 (Dark Age), which is scheduled to hit shelves in September 2018. And while I’m waiting for September, I’ll be rereading all 4 of the already-published books in this series because I can’t. Get. Enough. Also because it’s been a year and a half since I read the first three books and I’ve already noticed I’m having a hard time tying some of the myriad names to their titles and backstories. There’s a lot of detail in this series, and I want to absorb every facet of it.

Any other enthusiastic Pierce Brown fans out there? What are your thoughts on Iron Gold?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant