Book Haul 1.19 / TBR 2.19

My January Book Haul will be my February TBR, as per my 2019 goal of reading new books before the end of the following month. I did buy some books in January that I’ve already read previously though, so I’ll list those first and then get to the unread (TBR) list.

Books new to my shelves that I’ve already read:

  1. The Dead Zone by Stephen King. I’m on a mission to read all of King’s books, as you’ll notice in this haul… but when I get to the end of them I want to reread some favorites, like The Dead Zone. I didn’t actually get the edition that I wanted for this one, so I might try again for the right one later.
  2. On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I loved the Little House series as a kid but only own about half of the books. I’ve been wanting for a couple years now to finish out my collection, and I found the titles I was missing for a good price. So I also picked up ->
  3. Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
  4. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
  5. By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder. And
  6. The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
  7. The Magician King by Lev Grossman. I loved the Magicians trilogy in 2016, but the books always seemed so expensive. Last month I found The Magicians for cheap, and this month I found the other two, which means I also have ->
  8. The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman.
  9. and 10. The Long Walk by Richard Bachman/Stephen King. This was my favorite story from King’s The Bachman Books, and it was available in the edition I’m collecting. I ended up with two copies because my first order arrived wrong and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get the right one anyway so I just kept it without complaint. In an unbelievable stroke of luck, the one I wanted came up cheap on Book Outlet soon after, so I got that and probably won’t keep the extra.

Before I move on to my February TBR books, here’s a look at my full haul this month, already-read books included:

bookhaul1.19

And now, new (unread) books for February:

  1. Rose Madder by Stephen King. As I mentioned, I’m on a quest to read all of Stephen King. I found this one cheap on Book Outlet, so I just grabbed it without even looking at the premise. I like to go in blind anyway.
  2. Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King. This is a short story collection, which fits both my Stephen King aspirations and my goal to read more short stories in 2019.
  3. Christine by Stephen King. The 2016 Gallery paperbacks are the editions I’m collecting, so I bought this one basically just because it matched and it was available. I’ve had a hard time finding some of these covers because they’ve been out of print for a couple of years. Even though I don’t think they’re a big collector item (only 9 of King’s 60+ books were published in this edition that I know of), they seem a bit scarce. So part of the reason this haul is so large is that I’ve been grabbing these editions whenever they’re available on Book Outlet and then I just add on enough other books to get free shipping. I have a collect-them-all problem. I swear this haul is not an indication of how the year will continue.
  4. Thinner by Stephen King. Another one of the 2016 editions that I just grabbed because I was afraid I would never find it again. This one sounds sort of similar to  Elevation, so I am looking forward to comparing the two.
  5. Insomnia by Stephen King. The last of the 2016 editions (in this haul). I honestly wasn’t sure I would ever get my hands on this one, but I got lucky with a used copy. This one is about a man with increasing difficulty sleeping at night, who starts wandering around town and discovers some weird things going on out there in the dark. This one sounds very intriguing to me but it doesn’t have the best reviews.
  6. Four Past Midnight by Stephen King. This is a collection of four short novels/novellas by King; I’m planning to buddy read this one, so I went ahead and bought my copy even though I know I won’t be reading this in February.
  7. Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. There are so many classics I still need to read. I picked this one up this month because I wanted free shipping, but I am very interested in reading this story about Emma Bovary’s dysfunctional marriage and subsequent affairs.
  8. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Again, I just wanted free shipping. But I read two books by Jackson last year and a short story early in January, and found a lot to appreciate in her writing and general spookery.
  9. Scythe by Neal Schusterman. I want to read more YA and more sci-fi/fantasy this year (though not necessary a lot of YA sci-fi/fantasy), and this one’s been on my radar for a while. I know that the main characters of this book are teens in training as scythes, who control the world population. I’m on board for that.
  10. The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill. Another I picked up cheap on my quest for free shipping. This one sounded intriguing (not that I remember any actual details about the premise, as usual), but it’s often promoted for fans of The Night Circus, which I haven’t read yet.
  11. The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo. This was my BOTM selection for January. Ideally, my monthly TBRs will not be this large every month and I will have time to read my BOTM choices within the month that I receive them instead of the next month. But it’s still early in the year, so I’m sticking with the system as much as I can so far. I believe this one is a historical fiction with magical elements, and it takes place in Malaysia.
  12. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I ordered this from Book Depository back in early November and it finally arrived a few days ago, along with my copy of In Our Mad and Furious City which, frustratingly, I no longer need and am not keeping. But I’m happy to have this beautiful paperback and I can’t wait to read it as I’ve heard such good things. All I remember about the premise is that it’s a family saga about Koreans in Japan.
  13. The Kingdom of Copper by S. A. Chakraborty. I just read The City of Brass and had to buy this sequel immediately. It’s an adult fantasy set in the Middle East and full of djinns.
  14. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han. I did say I wanted to read more YA this year… I half-watched this Netflix adaptation in December and found it amusing, and a friend who also wants to get into this series gave me the trilogy for Christmas. So I’ll give these a shot, even though YA romance was never my niche, even when I was primarily reading YA. We’ll see how this goes. I also have ->
  15. P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han. And ->
  16. Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han. The same friend also gifted me ->
  17. One Day in December by Josie Silver. This is an adult romance. I think the premise of this one is that a man and woman meet at a bus stop, and then don’t meet again until a year later when the woman discovers the man that she’s been thinking about for months is now dating her best friend. If I don’t get to this by the end of February, it’ll probably wait until next December.
  18. Revival by Stephen King. My friend also picked up a free (used) hardback of this title for me. I don’t actually know anything about this one, but the cover is very shiny and that’s important, right?

Here are the books that- in a perfect world- my 2019 TBR system would have me reading in February (plus Pierre, checking them out):

tbr2.19

All in all, I’m hauling an insane total of 28 books for January, 18 of which I *should* be reading in February. Since the ultimate goal of this TBR system is to read all of my new books without adding to my “owned-unread” shelves, I’ve decided I’m going to keep a stack of any TBR books that I don’t get to within the proper month to catch up on throughout the year. This could be the start of me separating my read books from the unreads, which I’ve never done before…

What I’m actually going to read in February remains a mystery. For one thing, I’m certainly not reading 7 Stephen King novels in the next month. I foresee myself reading one or two per month throughout the year, so I’ll probably intentionally hold some of these back for later months- which leaves 13 books on my February TBR. I do intend to read as many of these books as possible, but I should have a couple (five) library holds coming in soon as well.

Stay tuned for my January wrap-up on the 1st, where I’ll recap my December book haul and see how many of those books I managed to read in January!

Have you read any of these books? Where should I start?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Ghost Wall

From everything I’d heard about Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall prior to its US publication, this book sounded right up my alley. But I’ve seen a lot of variety between 5- and 3-star ratings, so I was curious to see which way this would go for me… and it did not disappoint!

ghostwallAbout the book: Silvie’s dad has dragged teenaged Silvie and her mom to a summer re-enactment of Iron Age living in the woods of northern England. The three of them are accompanying an anthropology professor and a few of his students, but Silvie’s dad is the real Iron Age fanatic. Silvie is a few years younger than the students, but her dad has prepared her well for this experiment: all her life, she’s been camping and exploring and sitting through his history lessons and speculations. He is not technically in charge, but he is the most dedicated. He wants everyone to live exactly as the Iron Age men and women did… and it’s Silvie and her mother who will pay if he doesn’t get his way.

Ghost Wall is perfectly horrifying, without any hint of the supernatural. The prologue is a gut-wrenching brief two pages about a girl who is on the verge of being ritualistically murdered, and it certainly sets a tone for the rest of the story. Though things do slow down quite a bit after that introduction, there’s no denying that something is about to go horribly wrong with the re-enactment. Hints of danger are scattered throughout the book- rocks in the cookfire that could explode, foraged foods whose poison status is determined by a guidebook, and increasing violence on the campground. There are so many possibilities that it’s impossible to see exactly what disaster will strike until it is announced… at which point the reader is filled with terrible dread as the danger approaches.

“The whole of life, I thought, is doing harm, we live by killing, as if there were any being of which that is not the case.”

But the horror of this story is not achieved through quick scares or cheap plot twists; these are characters who could live down the street from you, and their plausibility gives Ghost Wall its chill- as does the prospect that humanity has perhaps not advanced as far as one might think since the end of the Iron Age.

Though the middle part of the story is the longest and slowest- perhaps some might even call it boring, though I didn’t feel that way- it is riddled with “evidence.” Every event and anecdote reveals a bit of backstory or personality that plays a vital role in the way things turn out. Alliances are formed, quarrels begun, a power hierarchy established. This is a book about an experiment gone wrong- allowed to go wrong. There are no ghosts in sight, despite the suggestion of the supernatural in the title. It’s a book about character, and about what can happen when a group of very different characters gather outside of the eye of a moralized civilization.

Silvie is a teenage girl learning for the first time that her perception of normalcy has been skewed by her parents’ behavior. Molly is only there to pass the class, and calls the experiment like she sees it: boys having fun in the woods and heaping work on the women. The professor wants a little vacation brimming with chances to show off his book-smarts. Silvie’s mom aims to please her husband. And Silvie’s dad revels in the ability to put all of his Iron Age fascination to practical use. There’s some wonderful modern commentary about gender roles and independence, but the themes introduced apply neatly to both the present experiment and the ancient peoples being studied.

“Does he ever even ask her what she thinks, Molly went on. No one asks her what she thinks, I thought, she thinks as little as possible, what to have for tea tomorrow and will the washing powder last another week, if you want thinking, my mother is the wrong person to ask.”

And to top it off, there’s a great historical component about things found in bogs, preserved from the Iron Age. The fact that this doomed modern experiment could have so much in common with real historical practices is the most compelling and haunting facet of the novel.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I loved this disturbing little book. I finished it all in one go, which was nice but also left me wanting a lot more of Sarah Moss’s writing in my life. I will absolutely be reading more of her novels.

Further recommendations:

  • Shirley Jackson is a great writer to try if you love Ghost Wall. Her novel The Haunting of Hill House (which is nothing like the recent TV series by the same name) uses suggestions of the supernatural to weave a psychological story about a group assembled in a “haunted” house. Even Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is a great macabre tale of the dark side of humanity, entwined with a horrifying ritual.
  • And if psychological horror with a side of gore is your style, you should try Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs– a beautifully crafted book about an FBI agent trying to prove herself, working with an insane criminal (Hannibal Lecter) to catch one of the most terrifying serial killers who’s ever existed. It’s a classic (and the book is as worth reading as the movie is worth seeing).

I usually save horror reading for October, but I’m trying something new this year. What’s your favorite horror story?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Far Field

I kept up with almost all of my Book of the Month selections last year, and it felt good. But I did fall behind in December while I tried to catch up with some other reading priorities, so I made an effort this month to pick up both of my December BOTM picks. I read Severance earlier in January and now I’ve also finished Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field, which was a longer conquest.

thefarfieldAbout the book: Shalini’s outspoken mother died while she was in college. After finishing school, Shalini returns to Bangalore to live with her father, where she spends an aimless few years in an unfulfilling job of his choosing and has few meaningful interactions. When he pushes her to try harder, Shalini decides to take a trip to Kashmir, where a friend from her mother’s past had lived. She’s not sure which village she’s looking for, and she hasn’t seen the man in eleven years, but those factors aren’t enough to stop her- and neither is the precarious political state of the area.

I would primarily recommend this novel to readers looking for cultural fiction depicting recent/present India. There are so many descriptions of Indian life, both from a city perspective (Bangalore) and more rural (Kishtwar, and a smaller unnamed village built directly into the mountainside). Shalini stays with families that can barely afford to house her, a far cry from her life in Bangalore where her father’s money is always there should she need it. The reader sees Shalini approach the Himalayas for the first time, and note the different languages spoken in different parts of India. She learns to milk a cow. She eats with and sleeps near and walks among people whose lives she never understood.

At the heart of her journey, however, is the political turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir. All she has known from Bangalore are the news reports released to the public, which turn out to be only a shadow of the truths she discovers when she visits in person.

“But how can I explain to you what it was like, the time of the militancy? It was a very strange time, and one I hope I never have to live through again. It made people turn into the opposite of what they were, made them do all kinds of things they would never have otherwise done.”

In my last review, featuring the fantasy novel The City of Brass, I mentioned disappointment over my failure to learn anything about the book’s Middle Eastern setting through the customs and behavior of Chakraborty’s characters. I’m so glad I picked up The Far Field immediately after, because in the interest of reading around the world this book is a win. Vijay immerses the reader in this vibrant and unbalanced India, bringing the good and evil that Shalini finds in Kashmir (and beyond) to vivid life.

The ultimate strength of this novel lies in its depiction of ruinous ignorance- ignorance and assumptions made from it- but also how helpless misconceptions can make a person. There is utter devastation in Shalini’s recognition of how small she is, and how very powerful the adversary. Vijay handles this aspect beautifully.

But unfortunately, this book didn’t offer much beyond that brilliant cultural insight for me. Shalini is such a passive character, which may be understandable in the wake of her mother’s sudden death, but it makes for a slow and rather shiftless narrative. Shalini holds her emotions so close that it’s difficult to ascertain whether she cares about any of the characters she meets in her travels. She is kind to them and appreciative of the help they offer her, but expresses little to no attachment toward them even in her private thoughts. She follows where her companions lead, more or less. Even the idea to search for her mother’s friend is barely creditable to Shalini, and when the time comes she almost doesn’t go after all. Shalini narrates all of these events from some future point at which she has calmed, but this is used to offer an unnecessary air of mystery and a preview of Shalini’s sadness rather than worthwhile reflection. The story lacks a driving force.

“Without action, there is only waiting for death.”

Though Shalini’s journey seems an attempt to disprove these words from her father, they resonated with me throughout the reading experience. I hope that other readers will find Shalini’s emotions more reachable than I did, and that such a connection to her character would mean greater payoff.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad that I learned about northern India’s political unrest, but since I struggled so much to engage with the other aspects of the novel, it ultimately just felt much too long for its purpose. Vijay’s prose is easy to digest and her descriptions evocative, but I my motivation to keep reading flagged early on and didn’t come back until the final chapters. January is usually my ideal time to read longer, edifying fiction, but my disconnect with these characters- especially Shalini- was alienating.

Further recommendations:

  • For more reading around the world (with more gripping characters), try Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, a family saga full of tragedy set in Afghanistan.
  • Or Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, an Irish-set story about a miraculous girl who seems to have lost the need to eat.
  • Or Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44, a dark mystery about a child’s death and an exploration of Communist Russia.

Do you have a favorite culture to read about in fiction?

 

The Literary Elephant

Novel Progress 1.19

A short update on my writing life.

Book One: My goal was to finish my first novel before the end of 2018. I did succeed at that, more or less. Right before Christmas I finished editing the last chapter, and had a complete draft of a novel for the first time ever, which was really exciting! But I did not do the final pass through that I’m still planning on before I can say it’s as complete as I can make it on my own.

While I was working on this project all last year, I had the book divided by chapters so that it was easier to navigate while I was skipping around a lot and editing small pieces at a time, so my only real progress with Book One since Christmas is that I’ve got it all formatted in one document for the first time. It ended at 295 pages, and 93,940 words. My goal was 90,000 words, about 10k per each of the nine chapters, but I think the last three chapters or so came up a little short so I was glad to see that I had still reached my goal. I know the word count is not as important as the story, that was just the number that seemed like a good workable length for what I was trying to write, and I’m happy with the length and content at this point. I don’t expect it’ll change much with my final pass.

I’ve now had someone read through the draft, and I’ve got a handful of notes about paragraphs here and there that could use some adjustment, but I’m done with major revisions. The biggest change I’ll be making to this draft is to put the dates in each chapter header instead of simply numbering the chapters, but I already mapped out all of the chronology of dates for my own ease of navigation while editing, so it’s just a matter of filling them in from my notes.

I know the first month of the year is almost at its end, but my goal before the 31st of January is simply to do that full reread and make any small edits I want to based on my first reader’s notes. At that point, I will have no excuse not to start querying, so I guess it’s time to quit procrastinating and take the leap. I’m proud of myself for finishing at least, no matter what happens next.

Book Two: This related/companion novel is mainly the progress I’ll be talking about in my Novel Progress series throughout 2019. One of my goals for this year is to finish this second novel before the next Christmas, which is a faster pace than I wrote Book One, but I do want to challenge myself and I think having completed this process once should make it more familiar and manageable the second time.

I’ll probably be updating about it once per month, and for this book I want to include my word count progress, which I think will help hold me accountable to keep moving with it, and it’ll show my progress better than my simply announcing which chapter I’ve been editing lately. Since this one is a companion, I want it formatted similarly, and expect it’ll turn out about the same length. I’m still exploring it, so if it ends up being shorter or longer or turning out differently, that’s fine with me. At this stage, my goals are pretty flexible with this one because I like to write knowing the bare minimum about where the story is heading and how it’s going to get there. Which is probably why I end up doing so much editing, but that’s my process.

I was hoping to do about a 10k word chapter per month this year, with plenty of time for editing between wrapping up the draft and my Christmas deadline, but honestly I’ve been a bit drained after working so hard to finish Book One in December and coming down ill in January and I’ve been in “rest and recharge” mode instead of “work harder” mode. So my current word count on Book Two is only 1,735 at the moment, out of a hopeful 90,000. But it’s been fast and easy and so fun to write when I do actually sit down to work on it, so I think I can still make a good amount of progress before the end of the month.

I’m hoping to get back into doing these progress updates earlier in the month, and to pick up the pace with the writing, so hopefully by the time you see my February update I’ll be past 10,000.

 

And that’s all I have to say for January writing. It’ll be interesting to see how this year turns out. I’m off to a slow start, but I’m confident I can turn that around.

Do you have any writing goals this year?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The City of Brass

For some reason I didn’t really read fantasy in 2018, and I’m not sure why because I’ve always loved the genre. I’m a lot more particular these days about how tropes are used and whether plots are being recycled, but I still love the worlds and the politics and the adventures. So I’m committing myself to reading more fantasy in 2019. I started the year with Sawkill Girls, which felt a bit like Fantasy Lite, and now I’m onto also read S. A. Chakraborty’s Deavabad trilogy, starting with The City of Brass, which (as an adult fantasy with about 100 more pages) was a lot more intense. In a good way.

thecityofbrassAbout the book: Nahri lives an ordinary human life in Cairo. Well, normal except for the fact that she makes her living by stealing and conning and has an unusual talent for healing people. But all semblance of normalcy disappears when a ritual for banishing djinn from possessed bodies turns out to be less of a hoax than Nahri counted on. She accidentally summons a djinn who tells her that humanity is not her ancestral race. The two are chased back to magical Daevabad, where on the surface they are welcomed as esteemed guests of the royal family- Nahri is descended from a line of powerful and revered healers that were thought to be extinct, and her companion (Dara) is a renowned warrior of lore- but quickly find themselves trapped in a web of manipulations and deceit.

I guess I’ll start at the beginning.

When I first picked up The City of Brass, I had trouble getting into it. The writing is competent and descriptive but not at all flashy in the way that I usually expect from magical world-building. I wasn’t marking beautiful sentences because I wasn’t finding any.

Furthermore, the reason for the dispute between whether this is an adult or YA trilogy quickly made itself apparent- the two main characters who are the focus of the third-person narration (Nahri and Prince Ali) act like teenagers. One of them is a teenager. There’s no explicit content, other than a bit of scattered cursing. But the background information is very convoluted (there are two distinct groups referred to as Daeva, the words daeva and djinn seem like they should be interchangeable but are not, djinn cannot be separated from their relics but also djinn that are former slaves cannot be separated from their vessels, there was an infamous war and also a separate infamous rebellion, etc.) and much of the terminology is specific to this world. Mature teens could handle this book, but any reader who picks it up needs to be able to do some heavy mental juggling as a ton of world-building is laid out in this first volume. I actually had to use the glossary in the back of the book, which is unusual for me.

There is also a map of this magical land at the front, but I would’ve found a map of Daevabad much more beneficial.

But my biggest hang-up was worrying for almost half the novel that the story was turning out to be very trope-y and basic. I thought the writing weak when the djinn that Nahri summons waits to turn up *unexpectedly* until the banishment ritual is finished, Nahri has bribed her way into a shop, dined, and been kicked out, and is in the midst of taking a shortcut home through an enormous cemetery. Then he appears out of nowhere, just in time to help Nahri fight of the enemy that’s just about to attack with an army of ghouls. And of course, he’s very handsome and basically kidnaps her and in the course of their journey they become very attracted to each other. Meanwhile, in Ali’s perspective (who reminded me a lot of the prince from Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone), the young prince acts traitorously and makes mistake after mistake without personally taking any consequences. Early deaths lack emotional punch. Nahri feels very much like the “chosen one” and Ali feels on the brink of becoming a bland hero who always conveniently escapes real danger. An angsty love triangle seems imminent.

” ‘You weren’t so fond of me a week ago.’

He grumbled. ‘I can change my mind, can’t I?’ A blush stole into his cheeks. ‘Your company is not… entirely displeasing.’ He sounded deeply disappointed in himself.”

But about halfway through, things get interesting. Chakraborty doesn’t need flashy sentences- she’s got full command of this world and she turns it upside down a million times without letting any of her scaffolding topple. Relationships and politics are given depth and intriguing complications. People die. Secrets are outed. Unexpected alliances and enemies are made. Nahri, though she seems to be getting special treatment because of her family status, is actually being tested, and she’s failing. Dara has a lot more good and evil in him than he willingly shows. Ali faces real danger and sees real consequences. Everything that seemed simple turns out to be a mask or an outright lie.

” ‘I was also once a young warrior from the ruling tribe. It’s a privileged position. Such utter confidence in the rightness of your people, such unwavering belief in your faith…. Enjoy it.’ “

Although plot is maybe the wrong word to describe the way everything begins to unravel. This is very much a set-up book; it moves fairly slowly and is mainly focused on establishing the world, the motives of the various characters, and their connections to one another. There are few events, big or small. If you’re a reader who needs the first book of a series to blow you away, this may not be the trilogy for you. The Daevabad books require some patience, and some belief that a great payoff is worth the time it takes to get there.

I can’t end this review without talking about the fact that this is a Middle Eastern fantasy. The reason this is coming up so late here is because the cultural aspects had little impact for me. The call to prayer comes often, and at least one of the main characters is very religious, but that detail seems largely irrelevant to the story. Then there’s the fact that a prominent character states that the city’s religion (Islam) may have been adopted in Daevabad for political reasons rather than religious ones. The “tribes” are also on the verge of war with one another. As I’m fairly unfamiliar with abayas and feteers and the names for the different Muslim prayer times and traditions, their presence in the story came across mainly as just more unexplained terminology to wade through and I could only hope that their meaning would become clear enough in context. I wanted to learn about this area and its traditions while reading this book, but I don’t feel like I accomplished much of that. These details will probably have a lot more meaning to some readers than they did for me, but without a bit more explanation of their significance I fear a lot of the cultural influences were lost on me, which is really a shame.

But on another note, I thought the representation of strong women and non-binary characters was done well. Nahri leaves Cairo for a place with very different customs and expectations, and both she and her new acquaintances must find ways to accept each other and compromise where the other side won’t bend. She may not have come into her power fully yet, but she does stand up for herself. And there’s a hint of a great male-male romance on the horizon that I’m looking forward to a lot more than finding out which man Nahri is going to end up with. The straight romances revolving around Nahri seem like the weakest parts of this book, to be honest.

” ‘Don’t worry about my reputation,’ she said lightly. ‘I do enough damage on my own.’ “

I’m just so nervous about this series. It has a lot of promise, and if Chakraborty can pull it off I think these books will come to a phenomenal conclusion- but it’s going to be a tough balancing act to get there. There are a few more elements in The City of Brass that I’m unsure about, plot arcs that are just starting out now that could either go in a very good way or a very bad way, so I might have more to praise/complain about regarding this first book but I won’t know for sure until I see how it’s followed up in the next installment.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. All in all, The City of Brass was a very divided reading experience for me. The beginning was a solid 3 stars at best, and nothing that happened later has changed my opinion about the uninspired opening chapters. But the end was absolutely 5 stars and very promising as far as what’s coming next. I ordered the sequel the instant I finished reading- The Kingdom of Copper was JUST released, so I picked a great time to start The City of Brass. The jury’s still out on this trilogy for now- I have some predictions about where things are headed, and I’m definitely intrigued, but I can’t say based on this first book whether I’m invested in the entire trilogy yet. We’ll see what happens with book two. But either way, I’m fully committed to the fantasy genre once again.

Further recommendations:

  • If you like cultural fantasies that are somewhat trope-y and somewhat trop-defying, try Tomi Adeyemi’s Nigerian first-in-a-series fantasy novel, Children of Blood and BoneThis one’s YA, but I think it has a lot of similarities to The City of Brass and that fans of one will enjoy the other, and the sequel is set for release in a few months.
  • For more fantasy with fast(er) plotting and highly interesting character dynamics, don’t miss Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. If you like the juicy betrayals and close-kept secrets in The City of Brass, you’ll probably love this band of misfits and their long-con game. It’s sequel Crooked Kingdom is *almost* as good.

I’m way out of the loop in the fantasy game. Especially adult fantasy. Hit me with all the recommendations, please!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

 

 

Review: Fen

I read Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under last fall after it appeared on the Man Booker longlist, and loved it so much that I determined to read the rest of her work. So far that consists of one previous short story collection, titled Fen. As I’m making an effort to read more short stories in 2019, this month seemed like the perfect time to pick it up.

fenAbout the book: Set in English wetlands, these stories of metamorphosis overlap one another from start to finish. Each story is distinct and separate, featuring characters with their own unique desires and grievances, all featuring their own magical element. Though the rules of the real world seem to apply only loosely in this place, at the heart of each bizarre circumstance is a situation or feeling shockingly relatable- but driven to new, elaborate extremes. Nothing is as it seems as these (often young and sometimes animalistic) characters attempt to navigate what seems at first ordinary life- but turns out to be something entirely other.

There’s no denying that Fen is structurally impressive. Any reader new to Johnson’s writing will find a perfect introduction to her magical realism style as the first story takes a realistic start and winds deeper and deeper into the bizarre, finally pushing toward its conclusion as the final story of the collection closes the book. Though Johnson’s tendency to take the hypothetical very literally remains constant through Fen, each story is thoughtfully ordered amongst the others so that her tactics never quite become repetitive. After the first story introduces its otherworldly surprise at the very end, Johnson never relies again on shocking the reader with her magic in the same way. Sometimes it enters a story early and is used to explore an emotion; sometimes it comes in the middle as a catalyst for a character’s growth. Only the promise of its presence remains as a constant.

My favorite aspect of this collection is the fact that the characters (human or animal) keep coming back into play. Often it’s just a quick appearance, a familiar face in an otherwise new situation, but its fascinating to see how these people move about in each others’ lives. I’m a huge fan of intertextual references to the author’s other work. There’s even a paragraph that felt very reminiscent of Johnson’s novel, Everything Under, which was published later but clearly occupies some of the same fictional space as the stories of Fen:

“There wasn’t room on the boat for more than a few books but they’d swap them at the docks and the baby would puzzle them out, quote them, grow a language only they understood. They would not need anyone else.”

But the most remarkable aspect of Johnson’s magical realism is probably the way that it entertains so successfully on the surface even as it masks more familiar concepts moving underneath. The characters seem- if not ordinary- at least ordinarily relatable. They express the same fears and desires that will be familiar to many readers- a woman trying to save face when she’s stood up on a date, a girl who worships her wild older brother, a parent who begins to wish her perpetually-absent partner gone for good; the strangeness emerges where these usual emotions meet the fantastic that Johnson weaves through the collection. It’s an engaging blend.

But there are two main obstacles that held me back from appreciating this collection as much as I wished I could have.

The first is simply that having already read Johnson’s novel, Everything Under, her tricks with the magical realism failed to surprise me. Fen feels like a new writer exploring fresh territory that readers of Everything Under have already begun to uncover. I’m afraid I simply read Johnson’s books in the wrong order.

Second, though I loved the fact that many of these stories were left rather open-ended (which allowed for the characters to move about more freely in each other’s narratives), it did leave me with the impression that the collection was never quite finished. I wanted more from almost every single one of these stories. More length, as Johnson seems to drive her characters straight to a brink and then leave them there, but also more depth- though the characters’ emotions and motivations feel very human, the magical realism seems to accomplish little more than shock and entertainment; I think that if Johnson had allowed these pieces more pages and exploration, she could have teased out more underlying significance.

Though I enjoyed Fen and can’t wait to see where Johnson’s talent takes her writing next, this collection has not had the same impact on me that Everything Under did, and I’m finding it impossible not to compare the two.

A shoutout to my favorite Fen stories: “How to Fuck a Man You Don’t Know” (a failed romance written in reverse chronology), “A Heavy Devotion” (a son steals his mother’s memories), ” and “The Scattering” (twin boys’ fascination with chasing foxes goes awry).

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Johnson’s writing is superb even in these short pieces, but I think her prowess with both language and magic really comes out more clearly in her longer novel. Ultimately, this is a short collection that didn’t feel at all a waste of my reading time, and even though it didn’t impress me as much as the last book of Johnson’s that I read, I’m still very much looking forward to reading whatever she publishes next.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’ve read Johnson’s Fen and not Everything Under, you’re missing out. Everything Under is about a woman who grew up with her mother on a canal boat, speaking a language only the two of them understood and oblivious to the secrets of her mother’s past. This is a Greek story retelling with a dangerous magical element.
  • If you like magical realism in short stories, I can’t recommend highly enough Julio Cortazar’s “Bestiary,” in which a tiger roams the halls of the relatives’ house where the young narrator lives for the summer.
  • If you like magical realism and are willing to read something a bit longer, try Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, a short novel that also features a tiger indoors; this one is set on devouring an aging woman who is losing her sanity while a helper staying on to look after her house reveals nefarious motives.

What’s your favorite short story collection?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Dolores Claiborne

One of my friends has gotten into a Stephen King fascination, and apparently it was infectious. I’ve been reading and mostly enjoying King’s novels since I was thirteen (Pet Sematary was the first), so it didn’t take much to get me on board with reading more of his work. Suddenly I find myself on a journey through King’s entire oeuvre (because if you’re going to read 90% of his books why not just read them all, I guess). Next up on the list for me was 300-page Dolores Claiborne, written in the early 90’s.

doloresclaiborneAbout the book: Dolores Claiborne has lived all her life on the Maine island of Little Tall, where she married a no-good husband after discovering her accidental pregnancy. Years later, with her children grown and gone, she’s being questioned by Little Tall police about the suspicious death of the rich woman Dolores worked for as housekeeper; and in professing her innocence, feels she must admit to the murder she did commit to prove her innocence in the one she didn’t.

“Lookin into her eyes was like lookin at the windows of a house where the people have left without rememberin to pull down the shades.”

Though the horror level of this novel is pretty mild, it does have its unsettling moments. Of course it does, with its main character a murderer, another going senile, one just plain evil, and several unfortunate children thrown into the mix. But this is primarily a psychological study of Dolores’s eventful life, and the creepy-crawlies remain mostly hypothetical.

“She’d keep lookin past me into the corner, and every so often she’d catch her breath n whimper. Or she’d flap her hand at the dark under the bed and then kinda snatch it back, like she expected somethin under there to try n bite it. Once or twice even I thought I saw somethin movin under there, and I had to clamp my mouth shut to keep from screamin myself. All I saw was just the movin shadow of her own hand, accourse, I know that, but it shows what a state she got me in, don’t it?”

If you’ve been reading the quotes I’ve inserted so far, you’ve probably noticed that the narration uses dialect. The entire novel is written as Dolores would have spoken it, and this tactic puts the reader straight into Dolores’s mind and life.

I found the dialect itself far more useful (and tolerable) than the half-conversations where Dolores addresses one of her interrogators directly; only Dolores’s part of these conversations is shown, which necessitates some awkward rephrasing of the others’ questions and reiterating of their responses that pulled me out of the story a bit every time. I didn’t need to be reminded so often or so thoroughly that Dolores was dictating this story to someone. A one- or two-sentence explanation at the very start and maybe very end of the book would have been plenty, but Dolores is interrupted and interrupts herself rather excessively throughout the short novel.

One thing that I’m especially watching for in King’s writing this year is his treatment of female characters. After encountering a few worrying instances in his books last year (Elevation, The Tommyknockers) I’ve been interested to see how that might have changed or cropped up differently throughout his writing career. To my great relief, Dolores Claiborne was definitely a step back in the right direction.

“You’ve turned into a decent man. Don’t let it go to your head, though; you grew up the same as any other man, with some woman to warsh your clothes and wipe your nose and turn you around when you got y’self pointed in the wrong direction.”

But there are twenty pages dedicated to spiteful bowel movements, so there’s no forgetting that this is a man writing women, rather absurdly at times.

Once we’re past that hurdle though, there’s no denying that Dolores and her anecdotes are just as captivating as King’s characters tend to be.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a pretty quick read as far as Stephen King books go, and quite enjoyable. I didn’t know before I started that this book is loosely tied to King’s Gerald’s Game, which I’m much more interested in reading now but feel that I shouldn’t yet because I’m trying to dedicate myself to my 2019 TBR system. It’s the first disappointment I’ve had with my January TBR though, so I’m going to stick it out. I do have a couple of other Stephen Kings I can choose from in January, so I’ll try Full Dark, No Stars before the month is over, which is a collection of short stories/novellas. I’ve read very few short stories from King, and am looking forward to checking them out.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’re new to Stephen King and would rather lean toward the psychological than the full-blown sci-fi crazies, you should also try The Shining, Misery, or The Long Walk (written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman).
  • If you like character studies of women murderers that are amusing but also horrifying, try Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, a recent release about a woman in Lagos, Nigeria who helps her sister cover up the deaths of her boyfriends.

What’s your favorite Stephen King novel?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant