Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Mini-Review: The Haunting of Hill House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you reading this October?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I don’t know how this happened. I had an overflowing list of books to read in October, and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft was not one of them. I ordered it in September, thinking that I would get around to it someday but not today; except when it arrived in the mail I was intrigued enough to read the first foreward, and then the second forward, and then the third, and then the next thing I knew I was laughing and crying and marking one hundred quotes that I loved and closing the book because I’d finished the whole thing. Which is rare for me with any sort of nonfiction, but that’s what happened.

onwritingAbout the book: On Writing is divided into sections within sections, some about King’s early life and writing career, some full of advice on honing your writing skills, some on questions King wanted to answer about his writing (complete with examples from his books and tales of how he came up the ideas). There’s a sample revision section, and a section full of book recommendations (in the 10th anniversary addition there’s an expanded list). There are instructions for assembling your writer’s “toolbox” and using to build a stronger writer. It’s all written with King’s usual flair, so that stories of King’s early childhood and cautions about the horrors of adverbs are equally appealing to consume.

“Some of this book– perhaps too much– has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it– and perhaps the best of it– is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”

On Writing consists of fewer than 300 pages, but it covers a lot. Each topic is kept brief enough (surprising for King) that the reader never gets bored, but the writer gives enough detail– succinct detail– that every section feels rich and worthwhile, a mountain packed into a molehill.

“A Memoir of the Craft” is a perfect description for this little book because it is most definitely a memoir, but it is also entirely focused on one man’s account of writing life. This book’s target audience seems to be the aspiring writer, the novelist as yet unpublished, and even the details of King’s life shared in this volume fit that aim: we see an ordinary child try and fail, try and rise, rise and nearly fall. King is humble about his talent, but honest in a way that new writers long to see.

Haven’t read any of King’s books before? That’s not a problem with this book. Although he does talk about his first publications and refer to some of his novels as examples when he’s giving literary advice, the reader of this memoir needs no outside knowledge of those works, in case horror and sci-fi aren’t your genres. On Writing is not about fiction and genres. It’s about being brave enough to pick up your pen and write, if that’s what you’re trying to do. It’s about making writing fun, and also taking it seriously. It’s a handbook of insightful reminders and doubt-banishing encouragements. Writing is hard. But King is here to help, no extra sci-fi reading required.

It is recommended, though. Reading, in general, is recommended. And isn’t that just what we readers want to hear?

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I still can’t believe how much fun I had reading grammar rules and suggestions, and that wasn’t even the best of the book. It’s an encouraging read– no, an empowering read. It’s easily the best memoir I’ve ever encountered (although to be honest I don’t read memoirs very often). A lot of the writing tips were familiar to me from my college writing classes, but I was surprised how much I needed the reminder of a few of them, and they were all amusing to read. I’m going to be recommending this one loudly for a long time, so get comfortable and prepare yourself for that.

Further recommendations:

  1. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, especially the illustrated edition.  Stephen King talks about this one a lot in On Writing, and for good reason. If you’re new to writing (or not) and looking to improve your techniques, this is the best place to go. It’s a non-fiction guide full of the rules for writing and suggestions on when to break them. It’s not always a fun read, per se, but it is helpful. I’ve been inspired to revisit it after reading On Writing.
  2. Anything written by Stephen King. If you came into On Writing for tips on writing, enjoyed the book, and haven’t read much else by King, you should fix that. He’a the King. My personal favorites at the moment are 11/22/63 (a time-travel book about attempting to prevent JFK’s assassination), The Dead Zone (the protagonist can see selectively into the future and must commit a treasonous crime to stop a growing tyrant), and Bag of Bones (a writer who’s just lost his wife is trying to put his life back together ends up living in a haunted house that’s maybe trying to kill him).

Coming up next: who really knows, at this point. I wasn’t intending to read On Writing, for starters, and lately I’ve been having a lot of fun reading multiple books at once (I just finished an entire four-book series that I’ll talk about in my monthly wrap-up). So I’m currently reading A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin and plan to review that soon, but I’m also starting Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. I’ll probably be reviewing one of these soon.

Have you read anything that really surprised you lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Sept. Reading Wrap-up

This felt like a slow month for me. The numbers actually look pretty average, but for some reason I felt like I was crawling through my TBR this month and just didn’t have any posts to upload. I may have been in a small slump. I think October will be very different, because I’ve been looking forward to some of those spooky reads for months, but before I get started with those, here’s a look at how I spent my reading time in September:

  1. City of Heavenly Fire by Cassandra Clare. cityofheavenlyfire4 out of 5 stars. I started this one at the end of August, but even though I felt like I was making good progress every day, and even though this was one of my favorites in the whole series, it just went on and on forever. It was a great end to the Mortal Instruments though, and it made me more eager to carry on with my Shadowhunter marathon despite its size, so even though it may have been the beginning of my little slump (series ends occasionally do that to me), I’m calling this one a success.
  2. Because You Love to Hate Me ed. by Ameriie. 3 out of 5 stars. This collection of becauseyoulovetohatemeshort stories is a pretty new release, and I got what I wanted from it, so it’s another success for me. Although I didn’t like all of the stories, this collaboration was a great way to sample some YA authors I haven’t gotten around to reading from yet, and seeing all the different writing styles did help me decide who I did or did not want to read more from. My favorite was the V. E. Schwab story, closely followed by Soman Chainani’s story.
  3. The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh. 4 out theblindsof 5 stars. I feel a little bad about my Book of the Month subscription because I love it and I’m always so excited about the selections, but I keep falling farther behind with my monthly choices. This one’s from August, which isn’t too far back, although at the time I read it I was receiving three more for September that I knew I wouldn’t have time to read all of within the month. Anyway, this was a highly intriguing read that seemed perfect for end-of-summer reading: a little creepy and weird to start out fall, but still full of summer heat and the plot’s intriguing but not too heavy. I’m surprised I haven’t seen this one around more because I thought it was really unique and well done.
  4. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. I can’t rate this one, and I dedicated a whole post twilightthis month to talking about why that is and more generally, why I reread it in the first place. I’ve been reading this book one chapter per day, only on days when I felt like picking up a chapter, over the course of several months. My opinions of this book, and of what I’m looking for when I read, have changed a lot since my first time through this book, and seeing those changes was probably the primary source of enjoyment for me in picking up this book again this year.
  5. The Bane Chronicles by Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, and Maureen Johnson. 3 out of 5 stars. Finishing The thebanechroniclesMortal Instruments with City of Heavenly Fire earlier this month put me in a great frame of mind for wanting to continue on my Shadowhunter quest. I was a little wary about this one with the additional authors, but Cassandra Clare’s writing style was still apparent, and truthfully, I think the change in medium and message was another help in refreshing my interest for continuing with the Shadowhunter books. There were  a couple of stories that I really liked, but mostly I was just enjoying the overall sense of Downworld that this book provides, and the glimpses into secondary characters from TMI and TID.
  6. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. 5 out of 5 stars. Though I found this the most predictable of the Austen novels I have read thus far, I did not predict becoming so immediately and wholeheartedly engrossed in this story. I was dragging my feet a little about finally starting prideandprejudicePride and Prejudice because I was afraid it would start slowly, like the other Austen novels I’ve read. But the very first conversation in the book amused me, and by the time Mr. Darcy was complaining about the tolerable women at the novel’s first dance, I was entirely hooked. It took me a long time to actually like Mr. Darcy, but from his very first appearance he intrigued me enough that I liked reading about him. He reminded me of Bronte’s Mr. Rochester. I think Persuasion is still my favorite Austen novel so far, mostly because the ending of Pride and Prejudice didn’t particularly surprise or impress me the way that Persuasion did, but P&P is a close second. I absolutely loved Mr. Bennet’s character, which routinely made me chuckle to myself, but Mr. Collins actually made me laugh out loud on two occasions. The whole cast was highly entertaining, and after about the fifth chapter I could not put the book down to sleep at night because I had to know how it would all tie together. For a long time I was skeptical about Mr. Darcy’s love, because it seemed he’d had so little contact with the woman in question that I couldn’t quite believe he was truly in love with her for more than her looks, but by his concluding explanations I was on board. I will definitely be reading more Austen in the future, I have already watched a film adaptation of this one, and immediately after finishing P&P I jumped straight into:
  7. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. 5 out of 5 stars. This is a modern retelling of Austen’s classic (P&P)eligible, and especially with the plot of P&P so fresh in my mind I was curious about how it would all play out in a more familiar setting. I may have loved this one even more than the original, but it’s hard to tell. I definitely think reading P&P right before Eligible heightened my enjoyment of it. P&P is meant to be funny at times, and I was worried that expecting those same funny moments would take some of the humor out of Eligible, but if anything I found it even more amusing when I already knew which characters were going to be ridiculous. I’m really interested in checking out more of the Austen Project series for more retellings, althought I’ve heard Eligible is by far the best of them. (Has anyone read the others? Are they worth reading?)
  8. Lies She Told by Cate Holahan. 2 out of 5 stars. Here is my biggest liesshetolddisappointment of the month. Toward the end of the month I was getting excited about spooky reads for October and wanted something suspenseful to satisfy my mood, but that’s not what I got from Lies She Told. I can’t even say that it was a bad book, but I was bored through most of it because I was able to guess all but one detail before it happened. The premise about the narrator’s reality starting to blend with the fictional thriller she’s writing was so exciting, but nothing inside the book impressed me as much as its synopsis. If you’re good at predicting where mysteries are going, maybe skip this one.

And that’s a wrap. Eight books in a month isn’t too bad for me, especially considering a couple of them (ahem, Cassandra Clare) were rather long. There were only 6 books on my TBR for the month, 5 of which I finished (I’m currently reading the sixth, George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords), so I feel really good about my TBR progress for the first time in a while. I felt like I wasn’t reading as much as usual, but fall is a busy time of year and I think I did well with the changes in my schedule. I have no idea what my October wrap-up will look like because I’m planning for the month very differently than I did for September, but here’s to hoping for plenty of great spooky books in the near future.

What did you read in September? Have you read any of the books that I finished this month (and what did you think of them)?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Lies She Told

It was the blend of fiction and reality in this thriller’s premise that drew me in. The blurred line between what we create with our imaginations and what we draw from our real lives is one of the most fascinating points of literature for me, so when I saw that Cate Holahan’s Lies She Told was supposed to feature a thriller writer whose latest book reveals eerie clues about a murder close to her own life, I jumped on board.

About the book: Liza and her husband, liesshetoldDavid, are trying to become parents. Liza is taking experimental fertility treatments because she wants to be a mother so badly, but David is pulling away, immersing himself in work, giving up. Liza has not given up, and is also struggling to produce another best seller to revive her dwindling book sales. She’s under so much pressure writing her latest thriller that she lives in a haze, filtered through the eyes of her fictional main character. The hormones from the fertility treatments and the extra alcohol she’s been consuming in response to an upcoming writer’s conference are further muddling her mind, so when lines start to cross between the murder committed in her novel and the real case involving David’s missing best friend, she’s more confused about the truth than anyone.

“The faithful often find themselves blindsided. They don’t suspect anything because they can’t imagine doing something so awful themselves.”

Unfortunately, the intrigue stopped there for me: with the premise. This is one of those books that seemed great in theory, but the execution of the story did not live up to my expectations. That said, I’ve seen some pretty good reviews for this book, so it’s possible that my expectations were too high.

The biggest problem for me was the predictability; I was able to guess almost every reveal before it was delivered, which made the big surprises fall flat. It wasn’t until the last fifty pages that something happened that I truly hadn’t been expecting, though at that point it was getting late and I was getting tired, and as soon as I had been given the information I could see all the clues I had overlooked. I love thrillers that have all the answers woven in before the reveals, so that the big surprises have not only surface shock value, but the shock of highlighting all the clues in retrospect. When the reader could have pieced the puzzle together, but didn’t– that’s a winning thriller, in my opinion. Lies She Told, on the other hand, uses very transparent clues that send the reader little warning signals whenever key details come up. The narrator very blatantly dismisses facts that seem odd, and thus the reader knows exactly what to pay attention to.

One aspect that seemed most promising at first is the metafiction component. Liza’s chapters about Beth, the main character of her new thriller, are interspersed throughout the novel. The back-and-forth format between Liza’s real life and Beth’s supposedly fictional murder make a nice contrast (not difficult to follow at all, though the parallels are clear and fascinating), and provide great opportunity for Holahan to write about writing a thriller. Again, this is something that I love in theory, but that fell flat for me in this novel. Somehow, it felt like a call for attention whenever narration was devoted to the writing process of a thriller, like Holahan was pointing out what her aims were in certain sections so that no matter what else was happening the reader could note that she was paying attention to the right things– not the fact that Tyler’s arms resemble kettlebells, not the cheesy, uncomfortable position shifts in the sex scenes, not the psychiatrist-falling-for-his-patient trope. Instead of fun insights, it felt like seeing the writer’s mental checklist, the mechanics behind the creativity, and those metafictional moments became magic-less moments instead of intriguing ones. The most interesting opportunities, like the one when Liza is asked where her book ideas come from, are dismissed too easily. “They’re just there.” She makes no attempt to consider the question deeper, and from that alone the smart reader knows that this, too, is an important detail.

“To be a writer is to be a life thief.  Every day, I rob myself blind.”

Furthermore, something about the writing style more generally was disagreeable to me. While I respect Holahan for her interesting and vivid metaphors, some of them felt so extremely unusual that they’d pull me out of the story or leave me thinking about something entirely separate from the plot. Take this one, for example:

“Ignorance is never bliss. It is to walk around with a cancer in your colon, one that could be cut out safely within seven years but is instead allowed to grow, undisturbed, while you focus on other matters, unaware that it is spreading to your gut, infiltrating your bone marrow, your blood, all your vital organs until it has twisted your body into something grotesque and unsustainable. Until you’re too sick to survive. I need to know.”

Vivid, right? And yet, what are you thinking about by the end of it? I, for one, was no longer thinking about ignorance or bliss. There are no primary characters with cancer in this story, or any sort of relatable sickness, and yet we have this very close image of it, in excruciating detail. It’s memorable, which I appreciate in a metaphor, but it strays from the story. It convinces me that cancer is terrifying, not that Liza can’t go on without learning what her husband may or may not be up to behind her back.

Of course, even after all of these mildly disappointing factors, my opinion of this book might still have been salvaged if it hadn’t been for the bland ending. Liza’s ending, on the one hand, is strong and eventful. But then she thinks she can do something different for Beth in her novel, and that’s where the story ends– on Beth’s very uneventful “justice.” I was expecting a punch in the final paragraph, a “just kidding, she’s been tricked, something sinister is still at work,” but instead the ends are neatly tied in the least dramatic way possible. Everyone is primed to be on their worst behavior, and somehow, nothing happens. Some people like neat endings where everyone wins, but I am not one of those people.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I wanted to like this book. I really did. I love Book of the Month and I’m always so excited about starting any of the books they’ve selected. At first I thought this one was just starting slow, as some thrillers do, but my appreciation for the book just never grew. Again, I want to reiterate that I don’t think Lies She Told is a bad book. It just wasn’t the book for me.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you’re looking for a murder mystery with domestic intrigue and carefully planted clues about what’s really going on, try Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go, a masterpiece thriller that starts slow and builds to intense suspense, with a perfectly creepy ending.
  2. If you’re looking for a mystery completely out of the norm that’s guaranteed to surprise you, try Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes, a previous Book of the Month thriller that quickly became one of my favorite books of the year due to its shocking twists.

Coming up Next: My next review will feature George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, the third book in his Song of Ice and Fire series. I have high hopes for this volume, and I’ve been doing that “saving the best for last” thing by leaving this one until the end of the month. But now, down with the Lannisters!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Eligible

The idea of a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice caught my attention before I had even read Jane Austen’s famous classic. Now that I’ve read both the original work and the modern translation (Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible) back to back, I’m even more enthused. Generally I love a good retelling, but the fairy tale trend is starting to bore me a little. Here, though, is a fresh rendering of social engagements, prickly personalities, family misfortune, and– of course– romance.

eligibleAbout the book: Liz Bennet is one of five daughters in a notable Cincinatti family that is quickly falling into crippling debt. The Bennet parents are eager to marry their daughters off to help both generations financially, but of course, nothing seems to be going as planned. The eldest, Jane, is more interested in being a mother than a wife, and is taking steps to start the next phase of her life without marriage. Liz, the second eldest, has the most stable job and income, but her boyfriend is already married to someone else. Mary isn’t interested in marriage at all. Kitty is single, but has her eyes set on someone her parents disapprove of, and Lydia seems to have found the perfect match, until an unexpected secret about her boyfriend comes to light. The sisters are reunited for the summer in Cincinnati following their father’s heart attack, but the drama of their love lives is only beginning. At a 4th of July barbecue, the Bennet girls meet the Bingleys and their friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Some of their first interactions are favorable, others decidedly not. Everything is going to change over the course of the summer, and marriage will inevitably find some of the Bennet sisters, but their relationships may look nothing like the sensible matches their parents expected for them.

“He looked, Liz thought, like a model in a local department store newspaper insert: handsome, yes, but moody in a rather preposterous and unnecessary way.”

First, I’d like to note that you can read Eligible without reading Pride and Prejudice, and find just as much enjoyment in it. You’ll even get a good sense of the classic’s plot, because Eligible is loyal to the original in many respects, despite the change in time. But I would say that if reading Pride and Prejudice (or even watching a film of it) just before picking up Eligible is a move you’re considering, you’ll probably find the most enjoyment of this retelling with Austen’s original work fresh in mind. I also believe that readers who did not like Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may like Eligible more. I recommend giving it a chance.

Next, let’s look at the narration. Pride and Prejudice uses a third person narration that focuses primarily on Elizabeth’s thoughts and experiences, but does venture to note some details about the other characters’ lives that Elizabeth would not have been privy to. In Eligible, however, the narration focuses solely on Liz, except for one chapter about Jane’s life at the beginning of the novel, and a chapter of Mary’s life at the end. Eligible‘s chapters are very short, which makes it easy to keep turning pages. Both of these structural components are good choices for the novel– Liz’s thoughts pull readers in, and the short chapters are convenient for stopping and starting (or finding excuses to read just one more).

Pride and Prejudice has its humorous moments, but I laughed out loud probably half a dozen times in the first fifty pages of this novel– unusual for me. I thought knowing the characters’ personalities fairly well from the classic would take some of the entertainment out of discovering their ridiculousness in Eligible, but that was not the case. There is something even more amusing about (albeit fictional) people from the early 1800s being planted in a modern setting and let loose– though technically Eligible‘s characters are new, they are certainly based on the old and their absurdity remains intact.

” ‘He’s a lawyer in Atlanta, and he’s very active in his church,’ Mrs. Bennet said. ‘If that’s not the description of a man looking for a wife, I don’t know what is.’ “

Even more important than the humor though, is the fact that Eligible tackles some tough topics familiar in the current day and age, and Sittenfeld handles them well. There are LGBTQ+ characters and nonwhite characters. There are difficult, prejudiced characters, who are encouraged to change their minds. Liz responds to everything life (or her family) throws at her with an open mind and a willingness to help those who need it.

A little more comparing/contrasting: Liz has so much more dialogue in this book (especially with a certain tall dark and handsome man) than in P&P, which was one of the things I loved most about this updated version. Her climactic dialogue near the end of the story is filled with less apology than in P&P as well, which I was happy to see. Apologies are a good thing in healthy relationships, but here we see characters ready to move on without rehashing every offense they’d ever uttered. A plus. Alternately, while I thought Darcy’s overheard remark at the beginning of Eligible was worse than his saying in P&P that the girls in town were only tolerable, I did like him in this novel a lot earlier on. In contrast, I thought Liz was more obviously blind to the possibility that she was making mistakes in Eligible. She seems more brash in Eligible, more impulsive and outspoken about her opinions where I saw cautious reserve in P&P despite her strong opinions. Kathy de Bourgh makes a much better character in Eligible, though her character and her role in the plot is perhaps the most changed from her place in P&P. The change is apt. And Eligible‘s main strength comes from the biggest change of all– the centralization of focus on family. Each of Liz’s sisters is crucial to the tale Eligible has to tell, complete with their own morals and wonderfully distinct from each other. It’s a great dynamic, and it only improves as the book progresses.

“Time seemed, as it always does in adulthood after a particular stretch has concluded, no matter how ponderous or unpleasant the stretch was to endure, to have passed quickly indeed.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved this book. It still had the air of a classic, but was easily readable (not that Pride and Prejudice is difficult to read, but classics generally take a bit more time to parse the difference in language usage). I want to look into reading more from the Austen Project series, which features modern retellings of each of Austen’s works (though I don’t believe they’re all published yet).

Further recommendations:

  1. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is an obvious choice for readers who’ve enjoyed Eligible (or plan to) and haven’t yet gotten around to the original classic. Even if you’re not a classic fan normally, let me highly recommend this one to anyone who appreciates a funny romance.
  2. White Fur by Jardine Libaire has a sort of crossed plot between Romeo and Juliet and Pride and Prejudice. This one’s definitely an adult story (the romance is a bit explicit in places), but it has the same sort of hate-love at the beginning, and a problematic affection between a wealthy heir and a poor independent, neither of whose families support their relationship.

What’s next: I’m just finishing up Cate Holohan’s Lies She Told, a new release thriller (and a September Book of the Month selection) about a mystery writer whose life turns into a similar mystery. As the lines start to blur between her fictional novel and her real circumstances, everything falls apart and nothing is certain.

What’s your favorite retelling?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Bane Chronicles

I wanted to read all of Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter books this year, and at first I was unsure about whether that would include the two volumes of short stories, but clearly I’ve decided not to leave anything out. I just finished reading the first of the short story books, the collaborative The Bane Chronicles by thebanechroniclesCassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, and Maureen Johnson.

About the book: Near the end of City of Heavenly Fire, Magnus Bane gives Alec a little book full of some of the most important adventures of his life. Although The Bane Chronicles is written in the third person, I assume that this is the sort of volume that Alec received. The book contains eleven short stories, all around 50 pages, that take place at various points in Magnus’ long, warlock life.

Here’s a look at the stories –>

“What Really Happened in Peru” : 2 stars. There seems to be little point to this story. It’s a wandering tale that spans centuries, and the explanation at the end of the story does not answer the question that the narration set out to answer in the beginning. Some interesting things happen, and yes, it all takes place in Peru, but otherwise there is no coherence here, and Magnus does not even seem like the familiar Magnus Bane from the novels proper. It’s a weak start for this book.

“The Runaway Queen” : 4 stars. This one does take a more traditional story form, with mounting tension and a clear beginning and end. It starts a little slow, but the rest grabs the reader’s attention in true Cassandra Clare style. Magnus seems like his usual self again and the story feels like one of those crazy Shadowhunter and co. schemes that goes nothing like planned but is entertaining along the way.

” ‘Someday,’ Magnus said, looking at the crumpled royal person at his feet, ‘I must write my memoirs.’ “

“Vampires, Scones, and Edmund Herondale” : 3 stars. I found this one much more interesting than the previous two because it is directly connected to some of the main characters from The Infernal Devices. The backstory in that regard kept me engaged in reading this story, even though again, it was a wandering sort of story more fit to be a chapter in a novel than a complete story within itself. Short stories are supposed to stand alone, even if they connect to other stories, and this one does not.

“Magnus had been alive hundreds of years himself, and yet the simplest things could turn a day into a jewel, and a succession of days into a glittering chain that went on and on. Here was the simplest thing: a pretty girl liked him, and the day shone.”

“One can give up many things for love, but one should not give up oneself.”

“The Midnight Heir” : 3 stars. This one is addictively mysterious, ties even more directly back to The Infernal Devices, and feels just like a chapter from Cassandra Clare’s books. That was the problem with this one, though– it felt like a chapter, not a short story. If you’re not familiar with The Infernal Devices characters and plot, this story will make little sense, and seems to serve more as a glimpse back into that world than as a crucial event in Magnus’ life. Also, I was a little disappointed that the strength of a Tessa/Will/Jem reunion would take attention away from the struggling child in this story– it’s nice to see them again, but… priorities.

“The Rise of the Hotel Dumort” : 3 stars. The strengths of this story are its mystery and impending sense of doom. It’s weakness is that it features two disasters that should probably be linked in some way, but do not seem to be. If there is some connection, readers are left entirely to their own devices in making it. The setting is compelling, and both disasters kept me engaged in the story, but the end was not much of an ending. I believe some information about the vampires’ possible involvement might have tied it all together, but alas, that info was sadly missing.

“Saving Raphael Santiago” : 3 stars. This one starts strong. It opens with a mystery, and with a connection to The Mortal Instruments. It has strong, evocative and emotional prose in places, and the end is satisfying. But the mystery is concluded in the first half of the story, which kills most of the tension. I think this story would’ve benefited from a shorter page count.

“Love did not overcome everything. Love did not always endure. All you had could be taken away, love could be the last thing you had, and then love could be taken too.”

“The Fall of the Hotel Dumort” : 2 stars. Again, we have a mystery of sorts concluded too early, though the drop-off of tension was better managed. Unfortunately, the big details of the story are already clear from The Mortal Instruments– I knew what ailed the vampires because I remembered a comment Magnus made about it in TMI. And one has only to look at the date of this story and of TMI to know what does (or doesn’t) happen to Camille. The worst part though, for me, was the dreary descriptions throughout the story. Much like the underlying sense of gray and rain and confusion in the beginning of Clockwork Angel, the relentless heat and sickness and griminess pervading this story gives an unpleasant atmosphere to the whole story. I wanted to like this one, but all I got from it was a headache.

“What to Buy the Shadowhunter Who Has Everything (And Who You’re Not Officially Dating Anyway)” : 2 stars. I was happy to see some of my Mortal Instruments faves again, but sadly, this story felt more like a forced reunion with them than an actual story. Why couldn’t they have been doing something fun? Seeing Malec from Magnus’ perspective just makes them seem more perfect for each other though, so that’s a plus.

“The best one could hope for from Shadowhunters, if you were a Downworlder, was to be left alone.”

“Even the Shadowhunters Magnus had met and liked had been, every one, a trouble sundae with dark secret cherries on top.”

“The Last Stand of the New York Institute” : 4 stars. This was a step back in time from the last story, but I had been waiting for exactly this story to appear so I didn’t mind the jumble in chronology. The setting is great– the attention to timely matters, particularly– and the characters are portrayed loyally from details provided in The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices. This is the first story in the book that has a strong story arc without relying on dramatic mystery, and there are some great one-liners and avenues for thought about prejudice and equality. The title of the story is a bit misleading, but this is a strong piece of the collection.

“It was one of the few things he had to believe in, the possibility of beauty when faced with the reality of so much ugliness.”

“The Course of True Love (And First Dates)” : 5 stars. Yes. Just yes. A little predictable, especially since the timeline here is in the midst of The Mortal Instruments, but this story is wacky and sweet and as much unexpected fun as City of Bones.

“The Voicemail of Magnus Bane” : 3 stars. Although admittedly humorous, this one does not read like a story at all, which disappointed me. I love when a cool format tells a good story. But there was no plot here, and nothing unexpected after having read The Mortal Instruments. I was hoping to be surprised, but perhaps the only point of redemption for this “story” was the moment Raphael had to call Simon a babelicious rock god.

My overall reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. My average rating was actually 3.1. I want to mention (miscellaneously) that the illustrations at the start of each story were one of my favorite things about this book, but also that I was sad not to see more Mortal Instruments characters make an appearance. It’s fascinating to see a closer perspective from someone outside the main Shadowhunter thoroughfare, and Magnus has proved a great candidate for that– he’s a genuinely kind person, who sees beauty in almost everything, whether it’s a man, a woman, or an elegant piece of clothing. He gives readers a whole new look at Shadowhunters that is multi-faceted and not always flattering. It provides readers a rounder view of the Shadowhunter world by leading them into Downworld, and eventually combining the two very different ways of life. I am glad I gave this one a chance, but I don’t think I’ll ever be rereading it, even if I want to revisit other Shadowhunter books in the future. I will be reading Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy, from the same authors, in the near future.

What’s Next: I’m currently reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which is September’s classic of the month for me, and which I won’t review until my Sept. wrap-up. My next full review should feature Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice that I’m planning to pick up immediately after finishing with Austen’s classic. But I’m also extremely tempted to pick up one of my Book of the Month choices for September alongside my Pride and Prejudice quest, so don’t be surprised to see an extra review of undetermined title sneak in before Eligible. 😉

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant