All posts by Literary Elephant

Review: The Queen of the Tearling

Erika Johansen’s popular NA/adult fantasy trilogy starts with: The Queen of the Tearling, a beautiful book inside and out. I had been putting off reading this trilogy because I wanted to have them all in matching paperbacks on my shelf before I started. But this book tied for the win in my Choose My Next Read interactive post for June, so I read it by request, and I’m so glad I did.

thequeenofthetearlingAbout the book: Kelsea, sole heir to the Tearling throne, has been raised by a foster family for most of her life. 18 years have passed between the death of her mother, the infamous Queen Elyssa, and Kelsea’s own coronation. When the Queen’s Guard arrives on her nineteenth birthday at the cottage where Kelsea and her adoptive parents have been hiding on the outskirts of the Tearling kingdom, she has no choice but to go with them and rule the Tearling for as many days as she can survive. Between the assassins, her greedy uncle who wants the throne for himself, the mysterious and dangerous Fetch who takes matters into his own hands, and the powerful Red Queen of the neighboring kingdom with her sights set on making the Tearling bow down before her, Kelsea’s chances of survival are slim. The kingdom is in shambles–the bad guys want to take advantage and win control for themselves, and the good guys are so cautious about preventing further damage that unless Kelsea can prove herself a powerful force for good, she’s in danger even from the people that should be on her side. It will take a miracle to right all the wrongs in the Tearling–is Kelsea that miracle, or is she just a lost girl who’s been lied to all her life?

“The future was only the disasters of the past, waiting to happen anew.”

About the layout: the entire book is written with third person narration that primarily follows our main character, Kelsea, but also shifts to focus on other characters who are crucial to the central action of the story.

Kelsea makes a great main character. She’s not quite a “chosen one” in the typical way that a seeming nobody is plucked from obcurity and placed on a pedestal, but she is thrust into responsibility and expected to save the entire kingdom. She’s intelligent and brave, though she’s clearly inexperienced; it’s a great balance of power and naivité.

“If there was a God, he would feel like this, standing astride the world. But Kelsea was terrified, sensing that if she wanted to break the world in half she could do it, of course she could, but there was more here than she knew. Everything came with a price.”

My favorite parts of the book, though, may have been the sections that were not focused on Kelsea. Every now and then there appears a section focused on an alternative point of view, highlighting a character who’s important but standing on the periphery of the main action. These sections never fail to impress by proving that characters who could have been rather flat are actually full of personality and unique motivations. This is a multi-faceted tale that’s well-thought-out and intriguing from every angle.

Beyond the characters, this is a high fantasy trilogy that’s set in the future of the modern world, which blends fact and fiction in an interesting way. The Tearling seems like a whole new made-up land, but every now and then there are references to real places and details known from our present world. Mostly these familiar details take the form of real-life countries and places, and real-life literature. Rowling’s books get a direct reference, and Tolkien’s. They’re small details, but they give the whole book an extra shot of reality that keeps the reader a little more personally invested.

“Even a book can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and when that happens, you blame the hands, but you also read the book.”

I also appreciate the way magic works in this book. So many times in fantasy, magic is something that comes unexpectedly from within a person and it appears in fairly predictable ways–but in The Queen of the Tearling, magic is not widely understood or expected and it’s linked to the Tearling sapphires rather than Kelsea herself.Very few characters seem to understand the significance of the sapphires or their power, and Kelsea is not among them. The magic the sapphires possess is a force of its own, affected by her anger but almost a character in its own right. The power is something that Kelsea borrows rather than possesses, which is refreshing.

“She’d checked her sapphires often, but they simply hung there, heavy and cold. For today, at least, they were only jewels.”

The only aspect that I might find complaint with was the passage of time. There are a few specific deadlines that are significant in the story, mostly revolving around the “shipments” that the Red Queen demands, which make the reader want to keep track of the timeline of events in the book, but each new section of narration often jumps into the meatier parts of the action before clues are given regarding how much time has passed since the last segment. It’s not impossible to follow, but it’s a little more difficult than it needs to be.

A warning: there are some graphic scenes, and references to rape. The violence of the book is bloody and deadly, but usually takes the form of quick self-defense. The rape discussions are never actual scenes of rape, but rather stories about crimes past. None of these moments are particularly unreadable, but they’re meant to make the characters (and the readers) uncomfortable with the ways of life that have settled in the kingdoms at this time. I believe the point of the trilogy is for these wrongs (and others) to be eliminated, but in the meantime there are some of these uncomfortable elements occuring in the background.

This is a series, though, where the bad guys tend to get what’s coming to them.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I knew I would like this book, though I’d heard that there were a lot of politics to it and that always makes me hesitate. Sometimes politics bore or confuse me, but nothing about this book bored or confused me. I would definitely say that it’s advanced enough not to be a YA book, but there are probably teens who could comfortably read it anyway. I wish I had read this sooner, although I do appreciate being able to read all the books at once instead of waiting for publication dates. I’m definitely going to be reading book two, The Invasion of the Tearling, in the very near future.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like adult high fantasy with multiple perspectives, check out Brent Weeks’ The Black Prism, which is the first book in the Lightbringer series. This is also a book about a kingdom on the verge of disaster, but the villain is slippery and hard to pinpoint because everyone in the book is morally gray.
  2. If you’re looking for a fantasy book with a strong female lead in the NA age range, try Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses, the first book in a trilogy full of oppressed faeries and the mortal girl who may be able to save them all, but could very likely lose herself in the process.

What’s next: I’m going to be reading Sarah Healy’s upcoming (June 27) release, The Sisters Chase this weekend. It’s one of my Book of the Month Club picks for June, and it’s not on my official TBR for the month, but it’s what I’m in the mood for. It’s a gritty tale about two sisters whose parents have died and left them to fend for themselves–they’re fiercely protective of each other but make many questionable choices as they juggle the past and future and travel across the country.

A reminder: there are still just a few hours left to check out the July edition of Choose My Next Read and vote for a book you’d like to see me review next month!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Dorothy Must Die

I’ve been a Wizard of Oz fan since I was a young child watching Judy Garland on a home-recorded VHS tape. I watched it enough times that I could still tell you where all the commercial breaks came into the story. So when I started reading YA again a couple years ago and found out about Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die, I had to pick it up.

About the book: Amy Gumm lives in a dorothymustdietrailer home with her pill-popping mother, who seems to have tired of Amy and most everything else. She’s bullied at school, friendless, and more than a little stuck in Dusty Acres. Enter: tornado. Of course, Amy’s heard the traditional story of Oz, but when she wakes up on the roof of her upside-down trailer and scampers out just before it falls into a bottomless pit, Oz is unrecognizable. A strange boy gets her started on her way, but he leaves her with more questions than answers. So does everyone else Amy meets, for that matter. Everything in Oz is different than what she imagined because Dorothy’s defeat of the Wicked Witch of the West and return trip to Kansas was only half the story–now Amy is learning that Dorothy came back and took over Oz. She turned ruthless, and took her famous friends with her. Now the Wicked of Oz are fighting to remove Dorothy from power, but even if their plans are for the good of Oz, it’s still murder they’re considering, and they’re still Wicked. In a land where everyone seems to be tied to villainy of some sort, who can Amy trust? She’ll have to decide, because even if she knew how to get home, she might not want to.

“If this was a fantasy, it was a strange one: this wasn’t the Oz I had read about or seen in the movie. It was as if someone had drained out some of the Technicolor and introduced some serious darkness.”

Best aspect: the intriguing plot. Dorothy Must Die is not one of those retellings that’s basically the same story as the original with a modern twist–it’s a whole new story of what comes after the famous tale of Oz. It is original content full of familiar faces, though no one turns out as expected. Major points for imagination.

“Wickedness is part of Oz. It’s part of the order of things. It’s always been the Good versus the Wicked. Magic can’t exist without Goodness. Goodness can’t exist without Wickedness. And Oz can’t exist without magic.”

Worst aspect: the over-simplified narration. First, before our main character Amy goes to Oz, she’s a bullied high schooler, neglected by the adults in her life. The opening scenes of this book feel so staged, so transparent as a set-up for Amy’s unhappy life in Kansas that they come across as ridiculous. What high school girl’s popularity is re-enforced by pregnancy? When does a principal suspend a student for fighting without asking for both sides of the story? What mother voices concern about a tornado and then leaves her child alone and unsafe in a trailer? So many of these details are obviously supposed to show the reader that Amy is alienated in her community, but they’re not presented well. The characters in the early pages of Dorothy Must Die seem to exist only for the sake of being cruel. Other characters seem to have no purpose at all.

“He looked at me like I was the dumbest person alive. ‘You have to stop asking those kinds of questions,’ he said. ‘You know exactly how we got out here.’ Of course I knew. It was the same as the answer he’d given before. ‘Magic,’ I said under my breath, without even really meaning to.”

But there’s more: the narration is also full of unnecessary questions and slow acquisition of information. Amy, our narrator, pieces things together excruciatingly carefully, showing every step of the simple journey from point A to point B. She’s not the only one though, who draws things out. Everyone is keeping secrets that make the narration more convoluted than necessary. This book could seriously benefit from a good culling of excess words. Here’s an example of how long it takes for characters to get to the point:

” ‘Some magic shoes would really come in handy right about now, huh?’ I said.

‘Seriously. Maybe…’ He stopped himself.

‘Maybe what?’

‘It’s nothing. It’s just–there might be one more person who…’

‘Who?’ I asked eagerly.

‘No,’ he said. ‘It would never…’

‘Who?’

He spoke with finality this time. ‘No. It won’t ever work.’

‘Please,’ I said. ‘Whatever you can do. Please just try.’

Pete nodded. ‘Okay,’ he said. “I’ll ask. But it’s a long shot. It’s the longest shot.’

Dorothy Must Die leaves little room for the reader to make assumptions or piece together clues. It comes across to me as the sort of narration one would find in a middle grade book where readers need more guidance, but there’s some profanity, and some remarks about pregnancy and torture and other more adult themes that make the book inappropriate (in my estimation, at least) for readers of that age range.

The upside: the narration does improve eventually. The incessant questions cease, but the narration is still a little bogged down with secrets and speculations instead of concrete details. The plot contains so many shocking twists and turns throughout, but the greatness of the plot is mired down in its disappointing execution. But at least by the end of this first volume we’re seeing the characters making their own choices for their own reasons, which is a step up from where this story starts.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Although I didn’t like the way the story was told, I am still interested in the premise, and I already have the second book in the series on hand. I’m not sure at this point if I’ll buy or borrow the third and fourth books or quit early, but I will at least read book two. Eventually. This is the sort of series that feels like one story broken into episodes, rather than distinct stories, which means that there won’t be much of a conclusion to most of the plot threads until the end of the series. This is primarily why I want to read onward–for closure.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, first book (in chronological order): The Magician’s Nephew. If you’re looking for a magical story of children traveling to a troubled land, with less beating-around-the-bush in the narration, this series is a great choice for readers of all ages. In the first book, two children accidentally happen upon a gateway to alternate worlds and let a villain from one dying realm loose in another that’s just beginning.
  2. If you like retellings of familiar stories full of powerful villains and plenty of magic (not to mention a little romance), Marissa Meyer’s Cinder and the rest of the Lunar Chronicles fit the bill. Meyer’s books also feature a simple and drawn-out narration, but there’s plenty of action and emotion. In the first book, cyborg Cinder must escape her evil stepmother’s clutches to help the mysterious prince fight a deadly disease running rampant through the country and ensure her own (as well as all of humanity’s) survival.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Erika Johansen’s Queen of the Tearling, the first book in an NA/adult fantasy trilogy. Newly crowned Queen Kelsea is thrust into her leadership role and learns just how much of the politics and personal family history her adoptive family have left out of her training. She’s got a giant target on her back and nowhere to hide–and maybe no one she can trust, even in her own kingdom.

P. S. If you haven’t checked it out yet, head over to my Choose My Next Read: Round 2 post to vote for a book you’d like to see me read and review in July! Votes count until Friday.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Choose My Next Read: Round 2

It’s that time of the month again–time to plan next month’s TBR! And, like last month (and basically every month), I have too many choices. Please help me choose! Below are five books from my own shelves that fall under a common category. I do plan to read them all eventually, but these are five choices that I’m specifically considering for July, and I’ll leave the choice of selection up to your vote.

The category: Historical Fiction.

The books:

  1. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. A Lithuanian girl and several of her family members are taken by Soviets to a cold Siberian labor camp in 1941, where they must fight for survival. The girl is an artist who wants to use her drawings to convey her story to her father, who has been separated from the family and taken to another prison camp. (YA)
  2. The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Three women with disparate histories become unlikely friends in 1962 Mississippi. The three embark on a difficult and controversial project that promises to help them break the barriers of their town and era.
  3. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. Two sisters convene in France as the second world war strikes and one woman’s husband is sent off to fight. The two women must stand together through the frightening challenges of life in the 1940s, resisting the horrors of the war and learning anew the meaning of family.
  4. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. In late 17th century Amsterdam, a newly wedded woman is presented with a miniature version of her new house as a wedding gift–which she must furnish with the help of an artist who portrays unexpected truths in his tiny versions of the real-life setting at the unwelcoming home.
  5. Mischling by Affinity Konar. Twin sisters arrive at Auschwitz in 1944. As part of the Mengele’s Zoo experiment which holds special privileges and horrors for twins, the girls struggle to keep their bond and find companionship among the other child duos. Their separation marks the beginning of a hopeful but terrifying quest for the sister left behind.

choosemynextread2

The rules: please vote by commenting below for one of these five titles that you’d like to see me review in the upcoming month. All votes will count until Friday, June 23rd, 10 pm US Central Time. (This month, however, if I end up with a tie, I will be dropping the competing titles into a cup and choosing one winner randomly from the tied choices with the most votes.)

The purpose: I have a weakness for borrowing books even though I have plenty of unread titles on my own shelves. Although I am making a dent this year, I’m an indecisive creature and the choices are becoming overwhelming. I’m trying to eliminate unread books from my shelves, but I hardly know where to start at this point. Also, I’d love some input from you, my readers, concerning the types and titles of books that you’re interested in seeing me review. Choosing a category I feel in the mood to read helps dispel the chaos, but I’m at a loss to figure out how to narrow the choices further because they all just sound so darn good. I’d be happy to read any of these choices in July, and with your help, I will actually be reading one of them rather than staring at them indecisively! To anyone who has ever been unable to choose which book to read next, please, I beg you, vote below…

May the best title win!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Book of Life

I’ve been (voraciously) reading Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy this month, and now I’ve reached the end of the final volume: The Book of Life. No spoilers for book three in the review below, but please read both A Discovery of Witches (book one) and Shadow of Night (two) before continuing below.

thebookoflifeAbout the book: Matthew and Diana are running out of time–the Congregation is closing in, their enemies uniting, and the Book of Life seems more impossibly lost than ever. More secrets are uncovered, threatening to divide even trusted friends. Phillipe’s blood vow that marks Diana as a de Clermont must be recognized by her adoptive siblings or be lost forever in insignificance. With tyrannical Baldwin nosing into affairs as the head of the de Clermont family and Marcus taking lead as the grand master of the Knights of Lazarus, Matthew must follow orders instead of give them. Diana, pregnant with twins, is more vulnerable than ever, but while Matthew settles matters regarding the future of his family she must seek the book alone, both of them simply hoping against all odds for the best. If they don’t find the manuscript and secure enough support by the time the twins are born, the births may be a death sentence for them all.

“I see you, even when you hide from the rest of the world. I hear you, even when you’re silent.”

First, I want to take a break from the complaints I’ve had about these books and say that this was the story I’ve been waiting for since I opened the cover of book one. Here are some of the reasons this book seems so superior to its predecessors:

  • The dialogue is more abundant, and more excellent. All of the important characters from every scattered time and place that Diana and Matthew have been are coming together. Every conversation is rife with discord and excitement that unfolds in delicious banter.
  • There are more perspectives. Diana and Matthew are still the main focus, but we see their piece of the story as one part of the whole. Again, all of the significant characters are back, and Matthew and Diana are finally sharing center stage in a way that’s beneficial to the story as a whole.
  • The pacing has increased–by which I mean, no more long descriptions of wine and food and furniture. Instead of hundreds of pages of thoughts and planning, the events of this book move adeptly from one plot point to the next in constant forward motion.
  • Matthew is getting his protectiveness/dominance under control. He’s got more progress to make, but he’s proving that it’s possible and he’s working toward it.

“Don’t worry. Matthew won’t be able to stay away for long. It’s one thing to wander in the darkness because you know no different, but it’s quite another to enjoy the light only to have it taken from you.”

I absolutely devoured this book. The plot and characters are more exciting. There are improvements in the layout–the aforementioned multiple perspectives, as well as sections divided by blurbs about the zodiac signs that foreshadow the next chapters. Mysteries are at last being solved instead of multiplied. There’s an actual villain, rather than a vague idea of “many people won’t like this, they might get organized and become a problem.” But, alas, for all its successes, The Book of Life is not perfect.

The biggest issues I have with this final volume are threads left dangling. Though the story as a whole is concluded adequately, a few matters are left open-ended. For some books, this is a great possibility for an ending. But generally, to keep the reader satisfied, open-ended questions must be guided with clear A, B, and maybe C options so the reader can choose a side and still feel that the story has come full circle. This book doesn’t even present options for some of its unanswered questions.

For example: what becomes of Gallowglass? Something is revealed about him in The Book of Life that helps explain his willingness to aid Matthew and Diana’s quest for the manuscript. When that secret becomes a problem, he just disappears. By the end of the book, the problem has not gone away, and there’s still no sign of Gallowglass, who has become a significant character.

Additionally, there’s a big vote held by the Congregation that is supposed to decide whether Matthew and Diana are to be helped on a certain matter. I won’t give more details about the specifics of the vote, and I won’t even say which way the vote goes. But after the suspenseful verdict has been reached, there seems to be no indication of help or hindrance from the Congregation on the matter in question. What was the purpose of the vote, in that case? How will that affect all the other matters they’re still voting on at the end of the story? The Congregation and its future is left irritatingly vague.

And finally, there’s the biggest unanswered question of all: what the heck is going to happen with Matthew and Diana’s epic romance in light of the fact that one of them is immortal and the other is not? The only clear detail surrounding Diana’s mortality is the fact that she will probably not become a vampire. But is there some other way to extend her life? Are they both just going to accept that she’s going to live a few more decades and then Matthew will carry on alone? Can he even carry on alone? The Book of Life was rumored to hold secrets about the philosopher’s stone, which grants some sort of immortality. Is that a philosophical immortality alone–the answer to the continued survival of their species? Or is there some way for Diana’s longevity to be increased? There are too many questions left. Even if she’s satisfied with her mortality and everyone’s planning to let her die peacefully at the end of her mortal life, I wanted to read that answer in these pages. Instead, I’m left wondering how Diana’s longevity apparently went undiscussed through three long books in which Matthew is constantly consumed with worry about her safety. I cannot fathom why this isn’t properly addressed by the end of the trilogy. I needed more closure.

“Did you know that nothing you see on the Internet ever dies, Diana? It lives on and on, just like a vampire.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I haven’t been this obsessive about a guilty pleasure series since I read all of the Outlander books over a year ago. In a lot of ways, Harkness’ books remind me of Gabaldon’s. This third volume is by far my favorite, and I would recommend that if you have any interest in this series at all you should stick it out through the first two and be sure to pick this one up. I’m glad I did.

Further recommendations:

  1. Let me reiterate my recommendation of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander for Deborah Harkness fans. It’s got as many possible similarities as I believe two series can have while narrating different subjects. Outlander is a cross between romance, history, and magic, like the All Souls trilogy. There’s even a would-be pickpocket apprehended and turned family, like Jack. There’s torture and politics and treason and travel. If you like A Discovery of Witches, pick up Outlander. The third book in this series also is especially worth the time it takes to get there.

What’s next: I’m currently finishing up with Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die, a crazy YA tale about a backwards Oz and Amy Gumm, the second girl to leave Kansas via tornado. I’ll have a review posted soon, and it’ll be back to regularly scheduled programming from there. Meaning I’m finally back to my original June TBR after my All Souls divergence!

Do you prefer reading books of a series back to back, or with breaks between volumes? I generally prefer breaks, to savor the series more, but it doesn’t always work that way.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Shadow of Night

Despite some issues I had with Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, I was addicted enough to throw part of my June TBR out the window to binge on the series. So instead of reading anything I actually had planned for this month, I stopped what I was in the middle of as soon as I made it back to my library to check out book two in Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy: Shadow of Night. It’s a guilty pleasure read for me, and I often find it best to just gorge on those to get them out of my system, so here we are. (Warning: there are spoilers from book one ahead.)

About the book: Matthew and Diana shadowofnightare still searching for answers and fighting for the right to love each other. Book one left them on the verge of time travel to 1590, with the surprising knowledge that they might be able to conceive children together. Now, back in Matthew’s past, future Matthew has to juggle all of his 1590 responsibilities that he thinks will lead to helpful connections in their ongoing searches for Ashmole 782 and a teacher for Diana. He insists on taking the lead, and makes some questionable choices which threaten not only the pair’s survival but the peace between them. Diana sets out to make connections of her own, and finds new friends and enemies in the process. Neither of them are sure when they should try going back to their own time, or if it’s even possible with Diana’s current skill level. As past and present collide, vampire and witch are tested anew–they must decide what they can afford to lose, and fight to the last  breath for what they can’t.

Stop regretting your life. Start living it.”

About the layout: This book is divided into parts, which mostly feature Diana (in the first person) and Matthew (in the third) on their many adventures. At the end of each part is a chapter featuring a different perspective from the present (circa 2010). These sections provide clues and connections between our main characters in the past and the ongoing story line in the “future,” but they’re confusingly brief. New characters are introduced only to be shuffled out of significance for the rest of the book. Perhaps they’ll be back in the final volume, but either way the amount of page time given to each of them seems odd–I think they’ve been given too little attention if they’re going to be significant, and too much if we’re already done with them. I think there’s real potential for this series in opening up the narration to multiple points of view, but that potential goes unrealized in this volume.

“Change is the only reliable thing in the world.”

Let’s examine the mystery of Matthew’s power. I dislike instances in fantasy when a supposedly powerful being calls on the influence he’s got stored up from the past and provides little to no evidence of how he became so influential in the first place. In these first two books, Matthew is calling in old friends, using his standing and money and family sway to win victories–but how did he become so intimidating in the first place? There seems to be no indication of how Matthew earned his high status in the creature world, which makes him seem less powerful than everyone claims. It’s a discrepancy of balance that goes back to the “show don’t tell” rule of writing. The single murder he committed in book one didn’t explain to me why even vampires are intimidated. I, for one, need more proof that he can back up his threats.

“Stop worrying about what other women do. Be your own extraordinary self.”

There are times when this book seems like it wants to be a feminist kick-ass tale of a female witch mastering impressive power. I’m not sure if it’s the traditionally possessive vampire in the story or something else entirely that prevents it, but Diana doesn’t present as a strong, independent woman, no matter how often Matthew tries to insist she is. Despite the words being spoken, there are so many instances that prove otherwise–for instance, there is a scene in this book when Diana finds herself alone and threatened, and in that time she seems capable of fighting for herself–but as soon as a would-be rescuer arrives, she’s eager to give the fight to someone else. It’s frustrating that she could be strong player but is always so eager to be rescued.

“There were times when Matthew behaved like an idiot–or the most arrogant man alive.”

And there’s the truest statement in this book. Matthew is bossy and domineering, always making assumptions and decisions for his underlings. But the narration seems to understand that he’s making bad choices and acting like a pompous ass, which suggests to me that Matthew will also realize it at some point and change his ways. It would help if Diana didn’t put up with it, but I keep thinking that eventually he’s going to learn he can’t rule the world–and then he could be a pretty great character. In the meantime, he’s almost a villainous love interest, and his most compelling aspect is his horde of secrets.

Additional small annoyances:

  • Vampire servants. Why would anyone want to spend their immortality serving someone else? I’m not saying it’s not possible, but what’s the reasoning?
  • Multiple marriages. How many times can one couple be married in different ways and then say “this time we’re really married” before the reader can no longer stand it? I’m setting the limit at four.
  • Difference in life spans. This is an interesting dilemma, but I’m still waiting for the narration to address the fact that Matthew is immortal and Diana is not.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I didn’t like this one quite as much as A Discovery of Witches, though it had some different pros and cons. I didn’t meant for this whole review to become a rant about the dissatisfying aspects because I did like some things about it–spoiler things that I don’t want to mention. I have a new favorite character who appears unexpectedly in this book, for example. But in my opinion sequels are hardly ever as good as books one and three, and I think that’s the case with this trilogy. I’m still determined to read book three and hopeful that it will be an improvement. I’ll probably be delving into it sooner rather than later.

Further recommendations:

  1. Bram Stoker’s Dracula would be a good choice for fans of Deborah Harkness’ books. I hesitate to recommend books I haven’t read (yet), but this one’s mentioned within the text of Shadow of Night, and I feel confident recommending the quintessential vampire story. Dracula is my classic of the month for October, but reading this trilogy has left me eyeing the book on my shelf lately with more longing than usual, and I think it would make a perfect companion to this vampire-filled trilogy.
  2. Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses is the first book in a faerie romance series with some strong comaprisons to the All Souls trilogy. The creatures in this one are more fantastical than the traditional vampires, witches and daemons in Harkness’ books, but the characters and their fight for love and answers strike some similar chords.

What’s next: Yesterday I started reading both Harkness’ The Book of Life, the final book in the All Souls trilogy, and Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die, from my actual June TBR. Dorothy Must Die is a YA tale about a backwards Oz and a new heroine from Kansas who must set things back to rights before Dorothy gets too carried away. These will be my next two reviews, in undetermined order.

What do you do when your TBR goes off the rails? Do you push it back on the track or go wherever the train takes you?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: you can now read my review of the next book in this series, The Book of Life!

Review: White Fur

The new selections for Book of the Month Club are perfection this month. I wanted to be reading them all at once, but since I only have one set of eyes I had to choose–and I chose to start with Jardine Libaire’s White Fur. I would classify it as a romance, although it’s unlike any romance I’ve ever read.

whitefurAbout the book: Jamey and Elise are from different worlds. Jamey, the heir to a multi-million dollar corporation, has been raised with a lot of cash and little emotion. Elise, who has only ever had enough to get by and sometimes not even that, falls deeply in love with him at first sight and has enough emotion to carry them both. At first it’s a battle to prove Jamey really does love her, but the real battle comes later–when neither of their previous lives will fit them both and the only way to survive is to start over and locate middle ground. For Jamey and Elise, it’s never been about the money, but their friends and family seem incapable of overlooking the difference in their social classes and the only people who can accept their relationship are each other. Is that enough? And even if it is, how will they escape the loud opinions of the masses?

“He grew up thinking you’re supposed to work till your eyes bleed, be exhausted all the time, get money, get houses, get prestige, do good, be important, be busy, get on the board, run out of time, cancel lunch with friends, run out of gas. Why? Why did he believe them when they said that? Why did he believe anything they said?”

I must admit, the premise of this book worried me. Rich guy falls for broke girl, and tries to make uppity family accept her? There are so many ways that story has already been done, some of them with less success than others. But even though those things happen, they’re not what this story is about. Elise doesn’t want any part of Jamey’s money or power or prestige–she won’t even accept them other than to acknowledge that they’re some of the building blocks that make up Jamey’s life. Jamey isn’t trying to raise Elise’s monetary standing, to bring her up into the world of plenty–he sees good things in her character that have been lacking in his own life, and considers himself the poor party in their relationship. It’s about the money for everyone else, but for Jamey and Elise, it’s about finding where they fit in the world and finally taking the chance to choose for themselves instead of letting their families lay out their futures.

“You go through life thinking there’s a secret to life. And the secret to life is there is no secret to life.”

About the layout: the book starts in June 1987, with a single scene charged with catastrophe and heartbreak. There’s a gun. There’s love, and the questioning of love. And there’s potential for murder. From that scene, the narration goes back to January 1986. Each month is its own labeled chapter. There are further divisions within these chapters that switch back and forth in third person narrative between Elise and Jamey, and the months progress chronologically until we reach that same dangerous motel room scene in June 1987 to finally see its conclusion and aftermath. As Jamey and Elise clash and collide through the rest of the timeline in the book, much of the tension lies not in whether they will fall in love and stay together, but in discovering how they came to be aiming firearms at each other, staring down death and searching for the limits of love. For this reason, the nuances of the relationship keep the reader’s attention: every gesture and thought, every lie and truth and silent action begs to be weighed in the balance against that startling opening scene. Every kiss is a clue.

“What’s the point of anything? Why did we make it this far, she thinks, through hours in our own lives before we met, even after we met, when we were sure we were worthless, but we somehow got to the other side of those times, holding it together, ashamed to be hopeful but being hopeful, when we had no protection and no direction but we kept going anyway, and then we got rewarded, and now it’s being ripped out of my hands?”

Speaking of kisses and romance, I’d like to note that White Fur is a fairly explicit book. It’s solidly categorized as adult literature, and it’s worth mentioning that the physical side of Jamey and Elise’s relationship is often front and center. If you can’t stand reading sex scenes, this isn’t the book for you. White Fur is no Fifty Shades of Gray though. There are R-rated scenes set in bedrooms and beyond, but that’s just one part of the book. It’s the proof that prejudice and class divisions are constructions of the mind, not the heart. The sex is just evidence supporting the underlying messages of the need for equality and love’s perpetual attempt to conquer all. It’s there in abundance, but it’s not the main focus of the book.

“Nothing can ever stay strange for long.”

About the setting: I can’t offer any concrete explanation as to why this book is set in the 1980s rather than present day. I suppose the past offers a bit more anonymity, which allows the characters to move more freely through this world when they’re trying to hide from their opponents, and I suppose also that prejudices were stronger and louder then than they are today. The details of the story fit the time perfectly, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of point to the differences. I don’t think this story would have been impossible to transpose into the world of the 2010s, which made the choice of setting seem a little strange, despite being handled well.

About the characters: White Fur has quite a cast. There’s so much detail given to everyone and everything that each character feels real. I liked that about them, though I don’t think I would choose any of these characters as my friends in real life. Many of them are not bad people. They aren’t unlikable in the way I usually describe characters who seem to have been constructed to alienate the reader, and yet I didn’t particularly like them either. I remained neutrally interested in where they were headed.

“So much of life is about standing on the curb, willing to see what rolls up.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. That opening scene hooked me right away, and with that fresh in mind, the beginning of Jamey and Elise’s relationship remained pretty interesting. Some of the stuff in the middle, after the “I love you’s” and before the gun came back into the story, was much less engaging for me. It was interesting enough that I didn’t have hesitancy about continuing, but the excitement I expected after that opening scene took longer to reappear than I would have preferred. I felt a little deceived. But I don’t regret the time I spent reading White Fur, so it ended up pretty middle-of-the-road for me.

Further recommendations:

  1. Lucky You by Erika Carter is another gritty book about escaping life’s oppressive constructs, but it’ll take a certain audience to appreciate its subtle messages and futility. I think that audience will overlap nicely with fans of White Fur. It’s grimy and brutally honest, with a little romance and a lot of idealism, but it hits failure and the stickier sides of human nature in a way that takes a patient mind and a willingness to accept that not all endings are happy, or even necessarily endings.

What’s next: I started a second book while i was in the middle of White Fur, so I’ve already got another book finished and in the process of review. After reading A Discovery of Witches earlier this month, I basically threw part of my June TBR out the window in favor of continuing the series. So in addition to White Fur (hence the review coming later than I planned, sorry guys), I’ve also finished reading Deborah Harkness’ Shadow of Night, the second book in the All Souls trilogy. This one’s much like book one, plus time travel and the potential for witchy vampire babies, and if that’s not enough to intrigue you then we have nothing in common.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Mid-Year Book Freak-Out Tag

I saw this tag on quirkyandpeculiar‘s blog, and I thought, “what a great way to check in on my progress this year and get excited about the rest of 2017!” So here we are. It’s the middle of the year, and I’m (still) freaking out about books.

  1. The best book I’ve read so far in 2017: darkmatterUgh it’s so hard! I’ve already read 53 books this year, and there have been some real gems, but I think the one that has impressed me most so far is Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. I was skeptical about the “science fiction thriller” description, but I could not put this one down, and every time I thought I had a handle on my emotions, there was another crazy plot twist. I loved every page.
  2. FullSizeRender (11)My favorite sequel of the year: This one’s easy. The Magician King by Lev Grossman is the second book in the Magicians trilogy, and by far the best of the three. It has a constant sense of adventure, unforeseeable plot twists, fantastically flawed characters, magical danger, and so so much more. I’ve had a long-standing opinion of second books in a series being the worst, but sequels have definitely improved lately. I can’t wait for the episodes corresponding with this part of the trilogy to appear on Netflix.
  3. A new release I haven’t read but really want to: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. So many great books came out this May (and other months, but especially May) that I haven’t gotten around to because I’m still trying to read everything else I’ve missed in earlier years and before I was born and really one lifetime is not enough for all the reading I want to fill it with. So frustrating. Being able to catch up on my reading for the rest of eternity is the only reason I would consider vamprisim.
  4. My most anticipated release for the second half of the year: Again, so hard because there are so many, but I’m going with Ruth Ware’s July release, The Lying Game. I’ve been waiting for this one since finishing The Woman in Cabin 10 last summer and the release date is finally almost here, so this one’s high on my radar of new releases at the moment.
  5. My biggest disappointment of 2017: caraval Stephanie Garber’s Caraval. There was so much hype for this book, but I didn’t really like much more than the atmosphere of it. I had issues with a lot of the relationships (especially the one between the sisters), and the characters I was most interested in seemed overlooked. I have higher hopes for the sequel, and I didn’t entirely hate Caraval, but I was expecting greatness and I was disappointed.
  6. gosetawatchmanMy biggest surprise of the year: This one’s definitely Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. I can’t believe I managed to avoid being spoiled on the big surprise in this book because it’s pretty controversial. It wasn’t a great surprise or a terrible surprise for me, it was just a giant shock. I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and have been living with pretty solid opinions of it, but Go Set a Watchman threw everything I thought I knew into question. It was a major shock to be so uprooted about something as steadfast as a literary classic.
  7. Favorite new-to-you or debut author: I iletyougobelieve she was a debut author in 2016, but I read Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go earlier this year and loved it. At first I thought it had a slow start, but then I realized that there were clues woven into that first part so expertly that they’re almost completely invisible until things speed up. And then they never slow down again. I’ve been loving thrillers lately, and this one has been one of my favorites. I’m planning to read her newer release soon.
  8. FullSizeRender (18)My new fictional crush: I’m not sure what to say here because I don’t approach book boyfriends like lots of other girls. When I appreciate a fictional man in a book, I generally appreciate him with whoever he’s with in the book, or for whoever he should be with in his respective fictional world. Even in my fictional fantasies, I’m still me, and I need a person suited to me, not suited to the fictional girl he’s adoring. That said, I think Nikolai Lantsov from the Grisha trilogy is pretty fantastic.
  9. My new favorite character: Lucienacourtofwingsandruin from Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series. Book three, the recently released ACOWAR, lays the groundwork for a lot of the secondary characters to become major focuses in the three upcoming related books, and while several of them are quite intriguing, I think I’m most interested in getting a closer look at who Lucien is as a character and what will happen with him next.
  10. FullSizeRender (3)A book that made me cry: Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places has some pros and cons, but it did remind me of what it’s like to feel completely alone even when there are people who care. I was so sure that this was going to be a romance that I didn’t look closely enough at the upcoming disaster and was so much more sad than I expected when it struck.
  11. A book that made me happy: This may thefemaleofthespeciessound odd, but I’m going with Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species. For a hard-hitting YA book with messages about rape, trauma, and grief, this one left me feeling fiercely proud of my gender and of the progress that females have made in recent years toward becoming a strong presence in the world. Even though this is a serious story, it’s also full of hope for the future.
  12. My favorite book-to-movie adaptation that I’ve seen this year: I’m ashamed to say I haven’t watched many adaptations lately. But I did watch the entire second season of Outlander this spring, which I liked far better than its corresponding book (Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber), and the Outlander TV show has earned its current place as my all-time favorite book-to-TV adaptation so far.
  13. thisadventureendsThe most beautiful book I’ve bought/received this year: Emma Mills’s This Adventure Ends is gorgeous, and I’m partially looking forward to reading it just for an extra excuse to take some pictures of it. I’m not very good at photography, as you’ve probably noticed if you follow my blog, so I generally don’t even try until I’m actually reading the book, but here’s a picture of the cover from the internet to show you what I mean about the cover in the meantime.
  14. Some books I need to read by the end of the year: SO MANY. My TBR is back up over 300 on Goodreads again, which is higher than where it started at the beginning of the year, though I’m only 20 books away from reaching my goal for the year. But some of my top priorities for 2017 are: The Hobbit, by Tolkien, because I still haven’t read any Tolkien books and I swear this is the year. Lord of Shadows by Cassandra Clare because if I reach this point it will mean I’ve succeeded with my Shadownhunters marathon of 2017. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen because why haven’t I read this? Also I want to read it before Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, which is also on my TBR. And some upcoming releases are on my 2017 MUST-READ list, like Maggie Stiefvater’s All the Crooked Saints, Andy Weir’s Artemis, Ryan Graudin’s Invictus, Kristin Cashore’s Jane, Unlimited, and probably a lot more that I’m going to sacrifice sleep to find time for.

And a bonus question of my own:

15. A book I’ve been meaning to read in 2017 but haven’t yet: V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic has been on one of my TBRs already, and it’s been on my mind all year even when I haven’t felt up to starting what’s probably going to end up being a three-book marathon. It’s definitely going to happen soon, though. Now that all three books are out, there’s no more reason for hesitation.

That’s the end of the tag, and since I haven’t been tagged I won’t tag anyone, but please let me know if you’re participating in this tag because I’d love to see more answers! I’d especially appreciate seeing anyone incorporating my bonus question into the tag, because I think it’s interesting to see how people’s reading tastes and priorities change, even month to month, and sometimes the things we put off tell as much about our experiences as the things we achieve.

How’s your reading progress going this year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant