Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Stardust

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

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

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

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

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

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

But let’s talk about Tristran next.

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Final Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

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

What are you reading for a thrill this August?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Lying Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s also talk about missed opportunities.

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

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

Have you read any great mysteries lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

July Reading Wrap-Up

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Clockwork Princess

I’m on a mission to read all of Cassandra Clare’s books this year, and after months of feeling like I was stuck in the middle, I have reached an end–not the end, because I still have two collections of short stories and three full novels to go, but I have officially reached the end of the Infernal Devices trilogy. Although I had read the first two books of this series previously, this was my first time through book three, Clockwork Princess. This will be a spoiler-free review, but you should read Clockwork Angel and Clockwork Prince before continuing below.

clockworkprincessAbout the book: Mortmain’s evil plans are coming to fruition–the automatons are now nearly unstoppable and countless in number. All he’s missing is Tessa, the final piece toward completing his scheme, and he won’t be missing her for long. Charlotte and the other residents of the London Institute are preparing to end things once and for all–if they can manage it, with only nine fighters. More likely, they’ll fight to the death and make no more than a dent in Mortmain’s army. Defeat would mean disaster for all shadowhunters, but the Consul is looking for any excuse to remove Charlotte from power at exactly the wrong time–no one else will help her now. With Jem and Tessa and Will all tangled up in conflicting love and honorable intentions, there are threats of broken hearts on the horizon, as well as the potential end of all Shadowhunters.

” ‘There must always be a first,’ said Jem. ‘It is not easy to be first, and it is not always rewarding, but it is important.’ “

I would easily say this is the best book of the three. The action starts right away, but without the momentary confusion of coming into the middle of a scene. From the beginning there’s a wider range and more equal distribution of character perspectives presented than we’ve seen in the earlier Infernal Devices books–Will, Tessa, and Jem are still our main characters, but the reader also sees secondary points of view early and often throughout the book. Sophie, Charlotte, Cecily, the Lightwoods…

“We see our better selves in the eyes of those who love us.”

First of all, there’s a plot hole here. In this volume, the reader finally learns about Mortmain’s “creation” of Tessa, and what he’s planned for her. But even if he played a role in her existence, how does that explain his knowledge of her unique shape-shifting talent? This is a question for anyone who’s already read this book–if Tessa’s the first of her kind, how could anyone (Mortmain included) have known what specific power she would display, even before Tessa knew?

But back to the review. My only real complaint about Clockwork Princess, and to a lesser extent, the other books in this trilogy, is its length. I do not mind reading long books, but I think most of the issues I had with Clockwork Princess could have been resolved on their own if Clare had been restricted to a shorter page/word count. First we have Jessamine, a largely pointless character. This trilogy failed to make me sympathetic to her case, and her reappearance in this volume provides only a reiteration of information. She does very little to further the plot throughout the trilogy. Secondly, we have annoying repetitions, which I mention in more detail in my review of Clockwork Prince, but which also appear in this book. The reader follows multiple perspectives, which I enjoy, except for the parts where the characters discover the same things at different times and the reader is forced to read a repeat of the same information. I wish Clare would have found a way around that. I also wish some of the Jem/Will/Tessa angst had been left to the reader’s imagination. Because thirdly, we have nonstop angst. It was clear from book one that they all love each other, and the looks and gestures between them would’ve been enough to convey the difficulty of that situation without each character describing their love and pain in every chapter. Will’s curse from book one and Jem’s and Tessa’s engagement from book two (and something else I won’t describe from book three) are the only real changes between the three of them, and yet we are given hundreds of pages of reasoning as to why each of them shouldn’t be in love with the other but is anyway.

That’s a hard point to criticize though, because the overly drawn-out love triangle angst is basically the purpose of the book. The mystery with Mortmain could have fit inside one book if all the relationship drama were removed from the trilogy; after the first book, he’s barely present. We don’t see him at all in Clockwork Prince, and in this book he makes one big play for total control of the Shadowhunter world, which is significant, but hardly takes up 568 pages. I’m not sure it even takes more than 100. Clearly the tension between Jem and Will and Tessa is the majority of the book. And just below that is the romantic tension between the secondary characters…

” ‘Life is a book, and there are a thousand pages I have not yet read. I would read them together with you, as many as I can, before I die–‘ “

Not all of Cassandra Clare’s books are that way. There’s always angst, but this trilogy in particular is full of the complications of love. Others are much more plotty. Clare writes some great plot twists, but very few of them can be found in Clockwork Princess. What can be found, though, is a sort of elegant exploration of love and all its complications. And through that, the largest weakness of this book–its overstated romantic tension–also becomes its main strength.

“Life was an uncertain thing, and there were some moments one wished to remember, to imprint upon one’s mind that the memory might be taken out later, like a flower pressed between the pages of a book, and admired and recollected anew.”

And if you’re only reading for the love story, you’ll appreciate this ending. The last 80-100 pages of this book lay plot entirely aside to explore how things turn out for our main characters after everything settles down.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Personally, I could have done with a little less angst. But the story between all the heartache was well done, and even the heartache had its moments. I admit I was wary of this trilogy when I read Clockwork Angel this year–I didn’t like it as much as I’d remembered, and I was afraid the rest of the series would feel the same; but the three books steadily improved, and I think the rocky start was worth reading just for this third volume. I believe there’s a spin-off series (also by Cassandra Clare) starting publication in 2018, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for that. I’ll also be continuing onward through the rest of the Shadowhunter works, including a read of City of Heavenly Fire in August, which will be another satisfying end, I hope.

Coming up next: I’m presently reading my classic of the month, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Classics reviews only appear in my monthly wrap-ups, so you’ll find my thoughts on Treasure Island there, and my next full review will feature Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game. Ware’s book features a group of boarding school friends who’ve grown up and are dealing with an unexpected death, and the uncovering of lies they’d vowed not to tell each other.

Do you like starting a great series, or finishing it? There’s such a big difference between the anticipation of a great first book and the satisfaction of concluding the last one. While I liked the conclusion better in this trilogy, I think generally I’m a fan of first books–they excite me. Which do you prefer?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Game of Thrones

I’ve embarked on a fantastical journey. This is not the first time I’ve read the first book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, nor, I hope, will it be the last, because there are many things to love about it. But it’s been four years since my first trek through A Game of Thrones, and since I intend to continue onward this time, I figured I was due to revisit book one.

About the book: The Hand of the King gameofthronesis dead. Some might say he was murdered. Either way, Winterfell’s Lord Eddard Stark sets things in motion when he accepts the position offered by his friend, the king. While he’s away at King’s Landing, the rest of his family must step up to leadership roles on behalf of the north and Winterfell, but other houses in the Seven Kingdoms want to use the Stark family’s new vulnerability to gain more power for themselves. Some wish to be the Hand of the King–and some, with secrets and schemes laid years ago, want to be king (or queen). The slippery and ambitious Lannisters, loathed by many, seem to have the closest claim to the throne if only they can get the king out of the way. But while allegiances shift and families grapple for the throne, there’s new trouble beyond the Wall–the white walkers are closer than ever before, killing men and raising wights from the dead. If ever there was a time the Seven Kingdoms needed to band together, the growing threat past the Wall is proof that this is it. And yet all the major houses of the Seven Kingdoms are too busy at war over the Iron Throne…

“Every noble house had its words. Family mottoes, touchstones, prayers of sorts, they boasted of honor and glory, promised loyalty and truth, swore faith and courage. All but the Starks. Winter is coming, said the Stark words.”

A Game of Thrones is the first in a seven book series (five published so far, with no news on which decade the sixth book might eventually appear in). It’s high fantasy, but there’s not a lot of magic. There are old stories of the magic that used to be in the lands, but very few characters brush anywhere close to it in this first novel. There are hints of the supernatural. Some might argue there’s a bit of romance. But first and foremost, this is a political series, an exploration of characters and their alliances and the powers they wield or lose.

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

About the writing: you don’t read A Game of Thrones for the writing. You just don’t. George R. R. Martin’s writing style is competent. It’s wise in its choice of detail and in the seamless flow of present action and backstory. It includes some great lines. But the narration is primarily matter-of-fact, concerned with the inclusion of every necessary detail in its proper place rather than beauty of metaphor. There are some clunky sentences, moments when the pronoun doesn’t refer to the last name mentioned and other little issues that are not indecipherable but do cause occasional confusion. But it’s okay, because you don’t read A Game of Thrones for its pretty sentences.

You read it for the characters.

“Never forget who you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”

The best part of A Game of Thrones is that it’s not a tale full of “good guys” vs. “bad guys.” Who even are the good guys? There’s not even a main character. Everyone in A Game of Thrones is (arguably) as important as everyone else, be they man, woman, or child. Readers can choose a different favorite for the throne every hundred pages. Even just on my second time through the same first novel, I have different favorites than I did the first time, though my most-hated characters haven’t changed. In this first novel, the reader follows nine POVs, all in the third person. The chapters are titled only with their lead character’s name. But it’s all connected. The major players appear in each other’s chapters, or their relatives do, or their friends, or their secrets. Martin is a master of plucking individual story lines out of the whole, making each of them distinct and compelling without losing sight of the bigger picture and its interconnectedness.

“I swear to you, I was never so alive as when I was winning this throne, or so dead as now that I’ve won it.”

This was an interesting book to reread. There’s a bit of mystery, some questions that are answered within this first volume and some left for future novels. That made it fascinating to read back through, with some idea of what was coming ahead but gaps still left to motivate reading on. There’s so much detail packed into this one shortest novel of the series that I felt the reread was completely worthwhile, even though I did recall the big reveals that took place. I was able to look more closely at the little hidden truths that are folded into the writing, but I don’t know enough yet to see through everyone’s secrets.

“The heart lies and the head plays tricks with us, but the eyes see true. Look with your eyes. Hear with your ears. Taste with your mouth. Smell with your nose. Feel with your skin. Then comes the thinking, afterward, and in that way knowing the truth.”

I don’t want to talk too much more about plot, but I will say it’s intense. You need to have a strong stomach to read through some of the details in this book. There’s rape. Murder. Battle scenes. Direwolves. Humans reanimated after death. Harsh punishments and cruelty. Incest. Betrayal. A child pushed off a tower. And you never know who’s going to live or die. I learned my first time through this book not to get too attached to any one character, because Martin likes to build sympathy for them just to lead them to their deaths. If this was a spoiler review, I’d talk about some of my theories, but it’s not, so I’ll just say (for anyone who’s read this already or watched the first season) that Tyrion is my favorite Lannister, Arya is my favorite Stark, and Daenerys is currently my favorite character. I thought Jon’s chapters were most fun to read, and Catelyn’s the least. But no matter who you favor, A Game of Thrones is utterly captivating and 100% worth the time it takes to read an 800-page book.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Same as last time. I still find politics a little exhausting to read about so extensively, so I’m aiming to take about a week’s break before starting the next book. But I will watch season one of the TV series in that time. My plan is to read the five books published so far, and then watch the corresponding episodes for each book as I complete them. I suppose when I reach the end of the fifth book I’ll carry on with the episodes and just read the remaining two novels when they’re eventually published. (Please, George R. R. Martin, publish those last two books.) Waiting for the series to be finished is one of the reasons it has taken me so long to dedicate myself to reading it.

Further recommendations:

  1. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is not really the same as Martin’s books at all, but I think there’ll be some overlap between the two fan bases. Outlander is a sci-fi/romance/historical fiction/fantasy mishmash about a time-traveling woman who falls through a circle of standing stones in Scotland and stands up in the same circle two hundred years in the past. And it has a phenomenal TV series that’s about to get really good in September, so now’s the time to read it.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare, the final book in the Infernal Devices trilogy. Because as fun as it is to start a new series with 1000+ page books, it’s also a relief to finish what I’ve already started. Clockwork Princess is a Shadowhunter novel set in Victorian London, featuring an evil mastermind with an army of mechanical monsters and a tragic love triangle.

Are you a series reader? Which one’s your favorite?

P. S. If you haven’t voted yet, there’s still time to help choose a book I’ll read and review in August if you follow this link!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant