Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: The Raven King

I did not expect to love the Raven Cycle when i picked it up. I thought, “I don’t know about this whole YA thing, but I want to know what people are talking about.” Now I’ve reached the end of Stiefvater’s final book in this series, The Raven King, and I want to talk about it too, because I’ve been completely hooked from the first book and the last one still hasn’t let me go.

About the book: Blue and her Raven Boys must theravenkingspeed up their search for Glendower as Cabeswater begins to decay. Something on the ley line is causing terrible damage to all things magical near Henrietta, and it’s only a matter of time before the destruction travels from dream-like Cabeswater to the teenagers who’ve tied themselves to it.

“They were so close to the situation it was difficult to tell whether or not they were the situation.”

I cannot express enough how great the dynamic between Blue and the Raven Boys continues to be. Sometimes they fight, because they’re human, but they’re so supportive and understanding of each other that they make an impenetrable team. It’s not only the group as a whole that’s fantastic, though; each character is unique and interesting on his/her own, and it’s wonderful to be able to see each of the pieces so closely before the entire puzzle is assembled. No assembled puzzle looks like this one. The group is hit with impossible truths over and over, and yet they can adjust and stand together. Obstacles make them stronger instead of tearing them apart. As it should be. Everyone should have friends like that. And if you don’t…well, then have these friends, in this book.

“They were all growing up and into each other like trees striving together for the sun.”

I did think it was a little easy for most of the parents to be simply out of the picture in this series, but the parents that are around are great. Each one is distinct in a way parents usually aren’t in YA novels–the kids get the story, the parents are necessary background; but here, Ronan’s mom is completely different from Gansey’s mom, who’s completely different from Adam’s mom, who’s completely different from Blue’s mom. Although few of these characters appear regularly, it was great to see the adults of the story as fully developed people with some influence in their kids’ lives. I especially liked the relationship between Blue and Maura, which reminded me a lot of Rory and Lorelai’s relationship in Gilmore Girls. On a lot of scales, they measure as equals, but Maura is always ready with advice and comfort when it’s really needed. Well, unless she’s gone missing. But Blue cares enough to spend a whole book searching for her–not because she needs adult protection and assistance, but because she loves Maura. It’s a great message that people who aren’t the same age as the reader are often just as significant to the story. And some people who are the same age are rather irrelevant–where did Henry Cheng come from?

One thing I particularly enjoyed about this series is that there’s enough of an undertone of romance to keep things interesting, but not enough to ever feel cheesy or unnecessary. Although i thought Stiefvater took a rather easy way out of explaining how Blue’s true-love-killing-kiss actually worked, I fully appreciated that the romance in this book was always an undercurrent instead of an over-the-top drama. There’s definitely love. But the narrator’s not going to smack you in the face with it.

“The head is too wise. The heart is all fire.”

I also especially loved that this entire series is not afraid to go a little dark. Things have to look seriously bleak for victory to feel rewarding, and–especially in this final book–Stiefvater makes it clear that she’s not going to veer away from death and destruction. It wouldn’t feel real if everyone made it to the end unscathed, so I appreciated there being moments that felt truly unsettling or even shocking. Without those moments, this would be a bland series of happy coincidences that induce eye-rolling. Instead, we have suspense.

“He had nothing to trust but the ravens and the feeling of rightness. All of his footsteps had led him to this moment, surely. He had to believe the light wouldn’t go out before he got there.”

But my favorite part about Stiefvater’s books is the quirky writing style. Tangible things break the laws of physics. Intangible things take on a life of their own. Repetitions are used to draw parallels and points of emphasis in a way that makes the reader chuckle. But my favorite line in this book was an instance when Gansey is comparing himself to the final pages of a book–a fitting comparison that addresses the reader’s emotion about the end of the series in an unexpectedly direct way:

“He was a book, and he was holding his final pages, and he wanted to get to the end to find out how it went, and he didn’t want it to be over.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This fourth book has been my absolute favorite of this quartet. I enjoyed every book, but after the second and third books failed to replace the first as my top choice, I wasn’t sure what to expect with the final volume. I wanted it to go onward and upward (excelsior!), and to my great delight, this one did. I may be looking into reading The Scorpio Races at some point in the future when I need a little more Stiefvater in my life, but I don’t think her Shiver series sounds like my cup of tea. Really, I had such a good experience with the Raven Cycle that I would like to end on a good note rather than reaching too far for more that’s not there. What did you think of Stiefvater’s other books, if you’ve read them?

Further recommendations:

  1. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders is a magical realism book that Stiefvater fans may enjoy. While I would consider the Raven Cycle more supernatural than magical realism, there are definitely similarities between the genres. All the Birds in the Sky is an adult book, but the main characters are children for much of the novel and I think it’s not so far off YA base. If you like reading about ordinary teenagers who stumble upon magic and spend their lives learning what it means for them and their world, you should give this one a try. There’s good, evil, an assassin, a two-second time machine, and an irreversible vow of silence in these pages.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park and loving it. I read Attachments last month and enjoyed it, but it didn’t stand out to me the way this one does. Something about the prose here is much more riveting. Check out my complete review, coming soon.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Hag-Seed

Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is a must-read for Shakespeare fans, readers who enjoy retellings, and, frankly, for fiction lovers in general. Atwood writes beautifully, and I’ve realized this is the second year in a row I’ve read one of her books in January–I sense a tradition in the making.

hag-seedAbout the book: Felix Phillips, a master of the arts, has been banished from his theater domain in Makeshiweg. His trusted co-worker has risen from beneath in order to gain a political advantage, and in lying about Felix’s desire for retirement, has also closed off any further career opportunities for the grieving man. Felix moves into a ramshackle house away from civilization, where he can pretend his dead daughter is lively and present once more. He accepts a teaching position at nearby Fletcher Prison and uses the literacy program there to teach convicts how to properly read and perform Shakespeare plays, all the while dreaming and planning his revenge on the man who disrupted his prestigious career.An opportunity presents itself for Felix to make his vengeful move from inside the prison, and Felix finally decides to direct the play that had been interrupted by his ousting–The Tempest.

“…didn’t the best art have desperation at its core? Wasn’t it always a challenge to Death? A defiant middle finger on the edge of the abyss?”

Like Shakespeare’s original play, Atwood’s Hag-Seed features a sort of play within a play, a multi-layered scheme for revenge with myriad parallels between the play itself, the convicts’ interpretation of the play, and the actual events of the novel that unfold with many similarities to the play’s plot. None of it, however, would work without the character who ties all of the threads together–the talented and devious Felix Phillips.

“Foolish lads, thinks Felix: never trust a professional ham.”

The characterization in this book is great. Some of the names are obviously similar to their Tempest counterparts, but others reveal comparable personalities through their mannerisms and attitudes, allowing the reader some easy connections, and some food for further thought even after the final page has been turned. Even before Felix shows his hand, however, he’s a uniquely addictive character. I couldn’t put this book down, and it wasn’t because of the scintillating plot. From the very beginning, Felix captures the reader’s attention with despair, cunning, sheer force, and sometimes even humor:

“His last stop is at a women’s swimwear boutique. ‘I’d like a bathing cap,’ he says to the elegant middle-aged woman who’s presiding. ‘Blue, if you have one.’ ‘For your wife?’ says the woman, smiling. ‘Going on a cruise?’ Felix is tempted to tell her it’s for a convicted criminal inside a prison who’s playing the part of a magic flying blue alien, but he thinks better of it.”

In addition to the great plot and the Tempest comparison intrigue, Atwood’s writing style is simply irresistible. She digs to the core of every emotion, bringing her world to life with well-crafted opinions unique to distinct personas, and juggles every detail with the practiced maneuvers of a true jester. There are very few women in this book, but the women that are present are arguably the most important characters (alongside Felix), and they are certainly represented well. The rather helpless Miranda of Shakespeare’s Tempest is a whirlwind force shared by two characters in Hag-Seed who make her one of the strongest persons of Atwood’s cast. The original Miranda is a target that needs protecting, but this new Miranda is all but invincible–seeing as one of the characters who represents her is already dead, and the other is a powerful actress who could probably kill any man who offends her with her ninja dance moves. Despite the male-heavy plot of the Tempest, the female voice is certainly not overlooked in Hag-Seed.

“There are so many rejections, so many disappointments, so many failures. You need a heart of iron, a skin of steel, the willpower of a tiger, and more of these as a woman.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. You don’t need to read The Tempest before this book; there is quite a bit of description about the nature of the characters and the important plot points woven into the book, and there are also a few pages at the end of the book that condense the story of the play into a bite-sized piece to make sense of anything you missed–or you can read it before diving into the rest of the story, now that you know it’s there. I think the story is immersive in its own right, but truly, in the end I think it’s much more rewarding to read following the original play. It’s fun to be able to compare your interpretations of the play and its pawns to the way it is presented in this book, which would be difficult to do if you’re only discovering the play for the first time within this transformed, modern version of it. Atwood notes differences in how the play has been performed, takes introspective looks at each of the main characters, and even discusses some of Shakespeare’s tactics at a logistic level, which are details that made me feel as though I were discussing my own thoughts on the play with someone else. I enjoyed that experience, and I don’t think I would’ve picked up on as many of the interesting opinions if I hadn’t already been familiar with the original Tempest.

Further recommendations:

  1. Shakespeare’s The Tempest, obviously, would make a good choice for Hag-Seed fans, or even potential Hag-Seed readers. Reading it before the play would be the best choice, perhaps, but I’m thinking I might read it again now that I’ve finished it. It’s a great story for anyone who’s interested in plays–especially magical ones.
  2. The Heart Goes Last is another favorite Margaret Atwood read of mine that takes place partially in a prison. This one’s a dystopian in which a whole community is formed by a group of people who are willing to jumpstart their economy on a small, private level by spending 6 months of every year in prison voluntarily. Of course, when this system is threatened with corruption, all hell breaks loose.
  3. Hag-Seed is a novel about revenge. If that’s your thing, you should also read Michael Punke’s The Revenant. If you’ve seen the movie and think the book isn’t worth your time, think again. The movie and the book are different stories, and no one has ever been so intent on revenge as Hugh Glass in The Revenant, novel version.

What’s next: I’ve just finished reading the final book in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, The Raven King. I’m sad to be saying goodbye to this YA supernatural series, but it’s been a scintillating journey and I love where this one ended. Stay tuned to find out whether this last book about Blue and her raven boys is as irresistible as the first three!

Which great books are you reading this January?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: All the Birds in the Sky

I don’t have much experience with magical realism, but I’ve loved the stories I have read from that genre. Charlie Jane Anders’ 2016 novel All the Birds in the Sky had been on my radar for a while, but I finally picked it up to start off the new year with something a little out of the norm. This book certainly hits that mark.

About the Book: Science expert Laurence and magical allthebirdsintheskyanimal-speaker Patricia meet as children and form an unlikely friendship based largely on their shared experiences as outcasts in middle school. Laurence is the nerd with the two-second time machine, and Patricia is the freak who believes a bird led her to a riddling tree. They stick together because it’s better to have someone than no one, but they both know that if there’s a way out of the mess they’re in, they’d leave each other in a heartbeat if a better chance for friendship and popularity came along. Then they encounter an assassin, a torturous military school, a grudge-bearing cat, and a magician who can never wear the same face twice. In other words, life moves on, and the pair seems to grow apart. However, fate–or artificial intelligence–has other plans for them that lead to  battle between science and magic that puts the whole world at stake. Or at least, this is what the assassin saw when he looked into the future and decided he must kill Laurence and Patricia for the good of the planet.

“And then he’d stared into the ornately carved Seeing Hole in the floor of the Shrine, and he’d seen a vision of things to come that still replayed in his nightmares. Death and chaos, engines of destruction, whole cities crumbling, and a plague of madness. And at the last, a war between magic and science that would leave the world in ashes. At the center of all this were a man and a woman, who were still children now.”

This story seems a little slow at points, and I think that’s because it appears to be one of those stories where there are a million small, separate events rather than a million interconnected pieces leading to the same climax. Of course, the events of All the Birds in the Sky are connected and they do converge in a major climax, as happens in most books, but there’s not some major problem on the horizon that keeps the tension connected and growing. Of course, the reader learns early on that a disastrous war might be on the horizon, if the assassin is to be believed, but until 3/4 of the book has passed, none of the plot points seem to be leading in a related direction. This book is like a dot-to-dot puzzle where the points are numbered but not yet connected, so the reader must jump from event to event building his or her own bridges while completely unaware of what the final outcome might look like. It is undeniably chaotic, though it seems that’s exactly what the narration is aiming for.

This book would be impossible if the characters weren’t so enjoyable. But Laurence and Patricia are presented as highly unique, compelling characters, and their lives so unusual that I had to find out what happened to them. It wasn’t whether they were together or successful or even alive that mattered, but how they would end up wherever they were headed. Both main characters are intelligent people on vastly different paths in life, but their paths keep crossing and bringing conflicting forces dangerously close. Despite their differences, however, Laurence and Patricia keep realizing that each is the only person on earth who seems fully capable of understanding the other.

“You know…no matter what you do, people are going to expect you to be someone you’re not. But if you’re clever and lucky and work your butt off, then you get to be surrounded by people who expect you to be the person you wish you were.”

The best part of All the Birds in the Sky is that the reader never knows what to expect. In a world full of predictable plot lines, this book has something bizarre and unforeseeable in every chapter, if not on every page. Sometimes, the crazy scenarios will even make you laugh.

“All this time as a mad scientist, why didn’t he have a shrink ray or stun gun in his closet somewhere? He’d been wasting his life.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I wanted to love this book. The best part of magical realism, in my opinion, is that the magical parts of the story can’t be easily denied because so much of the story is set in realistic, irrefutable scenes, but so much of this book felt alien that it came off as much more magical than realism; the imbalance made this a more difficult read for me to keep interested in. There are some great elements to this story, and the characters are unlike any I’ve seen before, but the tension is weak due to the scattered plot and every section of the book is a whole new battle. It didn’t turn me off from magical realism, but I do wish this hadn’t been my first read of the year.

Further Recommendations:

  1. Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest is a much milder sort of magical realism. There is only one aspect of the novel, a reappearing tiger that the main character of the story senses inside her house, that comprises the otherworldly aspect of this book. The fact that everything else in the story seems entirely possible makes the tiger even more fantastic and intriguing.
  2. I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid is another great choice for magical realism fans, though I’d call this one something more like paranormal realism. It has those strange elements just outside of reality that must be imagined, but are presented in such a plausible way that it’s nearly impossible to see what’s really going on–in a good way.

Coming up next: I’ll be reviewing Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed next, a recent release that’s a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest set in a prison. Two of those elements sounded irresistibly appealing to me, and I’m hoping this book will warm me to the third. I’ve barely begun reading and I’m already hooked. Check back early next week for my complete review.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I hadn’t been a big fan of Sherman Alexie’s writing after studying excerpts of his work in school. But when a friend recommended his YA book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I had to give him another try. I’ve always believed Alexie had important things to say, and while I’ve appreciated his points, his writing style gave me a headache. However, once I picked up The Absolutely True Diary, I simply couldn’t put it down. Not only did I read the entire book avidly in two sittings, but I began to think I should go back to some of the pieces I hadn’t liked years ago and try them again. It’s that good.

absolutely-true-diary-of-a-part-time-indianAbout the book: Arnold Spirit, an aspiring comic artist and known on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington state simply as Junior, is a 14 year-old boy who comes up against the expected path for the rest of his life and and decides to fight for something more. He faces the poverty, discrimination, and alcoholism that affects most of the families on the rez, but Junior also has unique struggles related to brain damage that began for him at birth. He learns how closely love and hate are related in his closest friendships. An outcast in every sense, Junior meets opposition from every side when he decides to work towards leaving the rez. Even the people who love him don’t quite know how to show their support. Being a teen is hard enough, but can Junior manage to prepare for adulthood as a brain-damaged Indian teen whose tribesmen believe he’s betraying them by seeking a different life?

“I feel important with a pen in my hand. I feel like I might grow up to be somebody important. An artist. Maybe a famous artist. Maybe a rich artist.”

This is a book written for teens, but appropriate for a much wider audience. In fact, I’m not sure I would have appreciated it as much as a teen as I did reading it this winter. There are themes of overcoming adversity and persisting through challenges that are encouraging for younger readers, but having seen and learned a little more of the world than I had been aware of at 14, I was much more receptive to the underlying details of the harshness of life on a reservation. The Absolutely True Diary is an eye-opening experience for readers of all sorts.

“And no matter how much you learn, you just keep on learning there is so much more you need to learn.”

I want to say this is a book for all ages, but I would advise a little maturity for Absolutely True Diary Readers, despite the adolescent (but highly entertaining) graphics. This book includes mature language and references, and some of the aspects of Indian life, while very real for the young characters of this book, should be handled responsibly. There are many alcohol-related deaths on Junior’s reservation, there’s a child who is physically harmed by his parents, there are physical altercations and bullying in schools, among other details. While I think it is important for readers–especially young readers–to understand that these darker parts of life exist, and that living with them is certainly much more difficult than reading about them, they can be hard to stomach even in fiction. That said, for as many negative aspects of the world this book addresses, it also acknowledges some pretty great parts of life too, like friendship, family, a quality education, perseverance, dealing with grief, and much more.

“If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing.”

While this book shows a little of what it’s like to be a young Indian, it also shows a lot of what it’s like to be a teen. Although the lessons may not specifically apply, the morals are broad and far-reaching. Alexie teaches not how to be a decent Indian, but how to be a decent human being. You never know what the people around you are going through, and the best way to deal with any situation is to be the positive influence in it. The smallest actions can be far-reaching and make a world of difference, whether you’re a 14 year-old reader, a 24 year-old, or even an 84 year-old.

“Do you understand how amazing it is to hear that from an adult? Do you know how amazing it is to hear that from anybody? It’s one of the simplest sentences in the world, just four words, but they’re the four hugest words in the world when they’re put together. You can do it.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book was such a surprise for me. I’d thought I didn’t like Alexie’s writing much, and I’d thought I wasn’t in the mood for the sort of YA book with drawings in it, but I absolutely adored this story from the very beginning. The humor and willingness with which Arnold “Junior” Spirit approaches the battles in his life make the difficult topics covered in this book manageable and compelling. The combination of heavy material and a light narrative tone full of optimism and strength keep the reader learning without becoming overwhelmed. I’m so glad this book was recommended to me, and I can’t recommend it highly enough for readers of all but the youngest age brackets.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like the style of middle grade / YA books that use pictures as a necessary part of the story, I’ve read bits and pieces of James Patterson’s Treasure Hunter series with my younger brother and I find them entertaining. Four very unique siblings travel the world on a ship, searching for their missing parents, dodging troublemakers, and taking the world by storm.
  2. If you’re interested in reading more about the struggles of modern Native Americans, try the adult novel Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. Although I don’t recall which tribe this book follows, it shares many of the adversities we see in The Absolutely True Diary–discrimination, poverty, alcoholism, etc. It’s another heart-tugging educational read that’ll change the way you see the world.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading (and preparing to review) Charlie Jane Anders’ new magical realism book, All the Birds in the Sky. Our main characters in this book are unpopular children with unique struggles that I’m finding surprisingly comparable to the way Arnold/Junior is presented in The Absolutely True Diary. Stay tuned for more specifics about this magical world and its peculiar inhabitants.

What’s your first book of 2017? I hope your year is off to as grand a start as mine!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Missing, Presumed

Susie Steiner’s new detective mystery, Missing, Presumed was published in summer 2016, but it makes a better winter read. This story takes place primarily in the cold months of December and January, so it coincides perfectly with the season.

missingpresumedAbout the book: Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw is 39, still single, at odds with her remaining family, and a committed police officer of Cambridgeshire. When a high-risk missing person becomes the biggest case of the year, Manon doesn’t want it to become her whole life, but she has little else to occupy her time. All the leads seem to point to nowhere, however. She’s also trying internet dating in her spare time, but that’s not going well either. Davy is dating the wrong girl, Harriet is married to her job, Bryony has a man but worries it’ll go wrong, and Edith… Edith is missing, and none of the people who love her have any idea what’s happened to her. Did her boyfriend have something to do with her disappearance? Did her girlfriend? Her prestigious family? The friendly ex-convict? The young man who turns up mysteriously dead around the same time? Manon doesn’t even know whether the team should be looking for a live girl or a dead one. Her private life, however, offers little respite from the search.

“Nature doesn’t know quite what to do with a childless woman of thirty-nine, except throw her that fertility curveball–aches and pains combined with extra time, like some terrifying end to a high-stakes football match.”

Best aspect: I love these characters. They’re all flawed, they all do great things, and then have a bad day and do things that make the reader cringe in pitying embarrassment. They feel like real people, with real problems, and seeing the minutiae of their days makes reading this book–especially at the same time of year as the story is taking place–feel like a real-life news piece to which the reader has an inside track. The narration is quirky and unexpected, giving such a layer of detail to every action and idea that the simplest statements turn into elaborate explanations that help the reader connect to each and every character.

“She smooths out the pillow and duvet where he’s been and pushes her feet down under the covers, reaching out an arm from the bed to switch on the radio, with its sticker reminding her it remains ‘Property of Cambridgeshire Police.’ A cumbersome bit of kit, and no one at detective sergeant rank is supposed to have one at home, but it is not a plaything. It is the method by which she overcomes insomnia. Some rely on the shipping forecast; Manon prefers low murmurings about road and traffic accidents or drunken altercations outside Level 2 Nightclub on All Saints Passage, all of which she can safely ignore because they are far too lowly for the Major Incident Team… The clicks, switches, whirring, receivers picked up and put down, colleagues conferred with, buttons pressed to receive. To Manon, it is the sound of vigilance, this rapid response to hurt and misdeed. It is human kindness in action, protecting the good against the bad. She sleeps.”

I don’t want to say there was any “worst aspect” to this book, exactly, but I noticed a couple of elements that could have gone smoother.

One, is the use of myriad abbreviations. Although these feel like bits of authentic English police jargon, I wasn’t familiar enough with them for each abbreviation to stick after only one brief mention early in the story. I tend to start reading new books at night, starting with about twenty pages to get a feel for the style before spending more time with the story the next day. So I read the beginning of Missing Presumed one night before I fell asleep, and by the time I picked it up the next day, I’d forgotten what most of those capitalized letters stood for and I wasn’t given any reminders. Luckily, the context was helpful enough that even without remembering exactly what everything stood for, I could understand what was going on without any difficulty. I could’ve flipped back to earlier pages to refresh my memory, so the confusion over this felt like my fault more than the book’s, but still worth a mention. Pay attention to those abbreviations, because this book definitely makes it the reader’s job to keep them all straight.

Secondly, this book is told in the present tense, from a close third-person perspective–most of the time. There are some instances where a character will think back on past events and the tense will switch. This threw me off every now and then, but it is done well; the rather uncommon style just takes a little getting used to. On a related topic, there is one character (I’ll refrain from describing whom to prevent spoilers) that is given a first-person narration. There are only a couple of sections in the entire book in which this choice makes an appearance, but I wished it hadn’t been done that way. The third-person narration that follows every other character goes deep enough into the lives and thoughts of everyone that there isn’t anything gained by the use of first-person narration when it appears. Furthermore, by the time this character takes the lead in the story, he/she doesn’t feel like the major character. The reader becomes more concerned with knowing how the investigation will turn out for all the characters who are given more page time up to that point, and so the choice to lend this particular character a first-person narrative feels random and unnecessary.

None of these factors actually detracted from the story for me, though; they were merely small details I noticed that I would have done differently if I’d played a role in the editing process. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist Steiner’s writing style and word choices, and can’t wait to see more of her work.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had thought this book was going to be a thriller, but it turned out to be a more straightforward mystery. I enjoyed the story regardless, but it took me a little longer to read than I would’ve planned for a thriller. That said, it was an immersive book. I loved the real-life feel, the depth of each character, and the voice of the narration. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for more books published in what appears to be an ongoing detective series, and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next for the characters I’ve become acquainted with in Missing, Presumed.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling) is a great choice for readers who enjoy England-based detective mysteries. Here, again, the characters feel real and likeable despite their flaws, and the mysteries of this trilogy are completely engaging. For more info, read my complete review of the first book here.
  2. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is another stellar read for mystery lovers. Set on an island, ten unique characters realize a killer walks among them and must try to figure out which of them is the murderer before they’re all dead. For more info, read my complete review of this book here.

Coming up next: I’ve just started reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I want to finish this book before the end of the year to count it towards my Goodreads challenge (which I’ll also be posting about within the next few days), so I should have a review ready soon. I’ve read a few books lately that I’ve decided not to review, but I will also be sharing my monthly wrap-up soon with details about every book I’ve read in December, and I’m planning lots more reviewable books in the near future, so fresh posts are imminent!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Winter (+ Fairest)

Winter weather has struck, and I’ve found an appropriately titled book for the occasion:  This month I read both the final novel in the Lunar Chronicles by Maggie Stiefvater, Winter, as well as the companion novel to the series, Fairest. If you want to check out my thoughts on the first three books, you can follow these links: Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress. Otherwise, find my thoughts on the final volume of the Lunar Chronicles below.

About the book: With Emperor Kaito now on Cinder’s side, the Rampion crew sets out on a winternew mission to thwart Levana. This time, as Queen Levana wages all-out war on Earth in response to the delay of her marriage, it’s an all-or-nothing scheme that brings all of Levana’s enemies together, building their strength in numbers. Princess Winter, a new focus in this novel, also becomes involved in the effort to overthrow Levana. She’s not the sort to condone fighting, but when Levana decides she doesn’t want her beautiful stepdaughter to exist anymore, Winter has little choice but to side with those who want to help her rather than hurt her. Still, though the ragtag group of rebels is growing, can they ever be strong enough to face Levana and all her powerful minions? And even if Levana can be overthrown, how can Cinder be with Kai when they would be leaders of countries thousands of miles apart? How can Thorne be with Cress if she wants to explore Earth but he can’t part with his Rampion? How can Scarlet be with Wolf when he has a chance to reunite with his previous life on Luna, or when he has become so animalistic that he may not be safe company? How can Winter be with Jacin when Levana and her head thaumaturge are so determined to kill them? And what will happen to Luna and Earth if Levana wins supreme control?

I have a lot of things to say about Winter, but let’s start with the things I appreciated most in this novel.

First, we have a great balance of characters and perspectives. The reader is presented with a 3rd person narration that alternates between close focus on eight main characters. The transitions between them are easy to navigate–each section leaving the reader wondering what will come next for that character, but equally eager to move on and find out what’s happening to the others who left us hanging. Almost every chapter ends in a mini cliffhanger that keeps the reader going, but there’s no jarring switches because every character’s story is equally exciting. This is the same format we’ve seen since Scarlet, but in Winter, it finally works perfectly.

Secondly, we have an action-packed plot that keeps moving from start to finish. Something that annoyed me in earlier books was that there seemed to be so much sitting around and reflecting on the situation while the narration seemed to be waiting for something to happen. In this one, there’s hardly a chance for anyone to stand still at all, and that eliminated a lot of my problems with the narration. The plot has always been interesting, but in Winter, we have so much plot that there’s no room for repetitive worries about what might happen.

Thirdly, we have all the romance this series has been waiting for. It bothered me a little that all of the main characters were neatly paired off in relationships where the biggest problem always seemed to be pining during separation, but this book puts true strain on each relationship that makes every victory in love more intense. It’s great that each female character is able to do something important on her own–there may be “princes” involved in each fairy tale story, and sometimes the “princesses” need help, but sometimes it’s the princes that need help, and each female is strong enough to stand on her own. The love stories may be cute in a predictable way, but each individual character is an interesting and capable person; they don’t depend on each other, but they make each other happy. I think that’s a positive way to portray any relationship.

“Act natural? Act natural? When her legs were made of noodles and her heart was about to pound right out of her chest and he’d said that he loved her, at least in a sense. What did it even mean to act natural in the first place? When had she ever in her life known how to act natural?”

And fourthly, my favorite part of Winter is Winter herself. Although the narration remains in third person throughout the series, we now have a close look at a character who’s a little mentally unstable. Winter has refused to use her Lunar gift, which makes her a little crazy. It’s so much fun to read about her life and have to separate what’s real from what’s imagined in her head. She’s an unpredictable character, which is wonderful. Winter is just the princess this series needed to pull everything in the plot together.

But let’s also look at the aspects that didn’t jive.

“Levana had been living with her excuses for a long time.”

Levana felt like a drastically different character to me between Fairest (the companion book about Levana’s past) and the Lunar Chronicles proper. In Winter and the rest of the main novels, Levana seems intentionally malicious, someone who enjoys hurting people for the sake of hurting them, whether physically, emotionally, or mentally. In Fairest, I did not have that impression at all. Although the narrator of Fairest describes an event in Levana’s childhood that could have caused a mental breakdown and the turning of her character from a sweet little girl to an evil one,that was not the impression I was left with. Levana seemed never to hold any remorse or true understanding of the pain she was inflicting on her victims, as though she was born missing the sympathetic gene. She could do hateful things with dire consequences, using flimsy excuses that she seemed to believe whole-heartedly, but she did them because she thought something could be gained for the betterment of Luna. She was often wrong, but she believed she was helping. In the main books of the series, however, including Winter, Levana acts vengefully. If a character displeases her, she lashes out, not for the betterment of Luna but to hurt that character. She doesn’t seem like a character who grew up without an understanding of sympathy, she seems like she enjoys cutting down every enemy, and when those are gone, creating more enemies to cut down. Although Fairest gave some helpful background information on the Lunar royal family tree, the whole book felt largely like a discrepancy. The most significant reveals were also uncovered in Winter, and after finishing both books, I felt that I hadn’t gained anything by reading Fairest at all. But back to Levana:

“No, Levana was a monster, but it wasn’t because of the face she’d kept hidden all these years. Her monstrosities were buried much deeper than that.”

Are they though? Does Levana really even know that what she’s doing is monstrous? Also, there was definitely undue attention to the “monstrosities” of Levana’s face. It really bothered me throughout this series–and especially in Winter where the matter comes to the forefront–that Levana’s ugliness could be her worst flaw. She’s more concerned with being known as a beautiful queen than a good queen, and it seems that everyone who sees her true appearance says or thinks that she’s catastrophically hideous. I know that in the familiar story of Snow White, the evil queen is obsessed with the fact that the mirror claims her stepdaughter is more beautiful, but I think this series takes the queen’s desire to be beautiful in a bad direction. See, it’s Levana’s scars that make her ugly–scars that were inflicted upon her as torture when she was a child. It felt very wrong to me for so many characters to hold her appearance against her when her scars were the result of the same sort of victimization by manipulation that the rest of them all fear from Levana.

I think the revelation of what happened to Levana as a child had the potential to make the queen a very interesting character with more depth, but instead Meyer took only Levana’s appearance into account and made her a victim again, sending the wrong messages to young Lunar Chronicles readers–that beauty can be more important than fairness or kindness, and that it is acceptable to judge someone based on their appearance, no matter what may have caused the disfiguration.  A little vanity would have been understandable and perhaps even excusable. But when Cinder wants to show everyone on Luna what Levana truly looks like to win more people to her own side, although the point may be to demonstrate the extent of Levana’s lies, the idea seems more like a call to raise arms against Levana because of her ugliness. Fighting because you don’t like the way someone looks is, again, not a good message to be sending impressionable readers.

Speaking of bad messages, there were also a few that stemmed from the narration around Jacin’s character. He was often disheartened or outright upset about how things were playing out for him, leaving him cynical and somewhat hopeless, but he gave the reader some really bad lines. Although in context, the narration makes clear to the reader that his opinions are wrong and come from a place of depression, there are a few things he says that I didn’t want to read, ever, in any context. Things like, “Dreams are for people with nothing more important to do.” There was also one that stood out to me about hope being pointless. I don’t know the wordings of these quotes for sure. I didn’t mark them to look back on. That’s my point–whenever I read any book, I mark passages that are inspiring or well-done, quotes I want to remember later. I think this is something many readers do. I don’t want to read things that would ever make me feel bad about dreaming or having hope, and I don’t think those sorts of statements should be in a book like this at all–maybe in any book. So I didn’t mark them as I read, but they stuck with me. I understood Jacin was feeling particularly down on his luck, and I didn’t have a problem with that, but I think the narration expressed it in a bad way.

That’s not to say the narration was all bad, though. Here’s a quote I did like:

“One should never save cake for later when it can be eaten now.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Various aspects of this series have bugged me on and off from the very first book. There was not a single book in this series that I really loved enough to completely overcome my reticence for some of the narrative maneuvers, but obviously I enjoyed them enough to read the entire series. Indeed, Winter was my favorite book of all four. I’m glad that I didn’t quit early, because the series definitely had more to offer than was made apparent in Cinder or Scarlet. I don’t completely understand why this series is so popular, but it certainly has its merits.

What’s Next: I’m currently reading Tom Rob Smith’s Agent 6, the final volume in his Russian Child 44 trilogy. You can find my review of that book here if you’re interested, but since I didn’t create a post about the second book in the series, The Secret Speech, I probably also won’t include one of Agent 6. After that, I intend to read and post about Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed, a thriller about a girl who is presumed dead, and the policewoman who’s investigating her case. Also, I’m planning some changes and additions to my blog for the coming year, so although I may not share much for the end of December, there’ll be new excitement in January!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: And Then There Were None

Agatha Christie is a staple of the mystery genre for a reason. I recently read one of her best-known stand-alone novels, And Then There Were None, which did not disappoint. This one’s a thrilling classic.

About the book: Ten people have been lured to Soldier Island, all under false pretenses of andthentherewerenoneemployment or a summer holiday vacation. By the end of the very first night, however, they discover that they’ve all been lied to, that some of them have kept secrets from each other, and that the systematic elimination of every one of them has already begun. The next morning, after a thorough search, the already-dwindled party realizes that they are in fact alone on the island–if there really is a murderer, he or she is hiding in plan sight, posing as one of the potential victims. Can they discover who it is before it is too late?

“He said: ‘Oh, yes. I’ve no doubt in my own mind that we have been invited here by a madman–probably a dangerous homicidal lunatic.’ “

The characters–the heart of any novel, in my opinion–have been expertly crafted. Not a single one of them is lovable, and yet they are all uniquely colorful and curious beings. Every single one of them is accused of murder; some of them admit freely to killing, and yet, they are all so afraid to die. There is something wonderfully freeing about meeting morally suspect characters: they seem perfectly capable of doing absolutely anything, from making the most heroic sacrifices to the darkest betrayals. The characters of And Then There Were None are not necessarily good people, but they are good to read–wild cards one and all. The most chilling aspect of the tale is that under the premise of the killer hiding among the others, he or she must necessarily be acting the part of a frightened victim as well as the truly terrified ones. He or she must be crazy enough to set up an elaborate ten-murder scheme, but also sane enough to remain undetected even as everyone begins to look at each other suspiciously.

” ‘Many homicidal lunatics are very quiet unassuming people. Delightful fellows.’ “

As for the technical aspects of the story: the narrator is an omniscient third party, who focuses on one character at a time and can describe that target so closely that his or her very thoughts are exposed. This is a precarious technique for a story in which the murders are ongoing and the narrator must not reveal which character is the culprit. Christie handles it fantastically. There are times when this narration allows for the reader to make guesses as to the killer, and times when it helps the reader by supplying information to eliminate one. Christie keeps readers on their toes by seeming to close all the doors of possibility, and then pointing out a window that has been left open. This mystery would not be possible without the narrator Christie gives it.

I am also particularly fond of the format Christie employs in this novel; the chapters are further divided into distinct subsections. The action frequently flows without break from one into the next–even in the middle of a conversation–and the subsections are relatively short, which together make the book easy to read and read and never stop. There’s nothing especially unique about this layout, but it’s my personal favorite: a nearly continuous stream, presented in bite-sized pieces.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This one had been on my TBR for a little while, but I was in no hurry to read it. Then out of the blue a friend lent me her copy and I decided it must be time. I’ve read some Agatha Christie stories prior to this, and enjoyed them, but none of them have stuck in my mind. This one, I think, won’t be leaving any time soon. I was completely caught up in the story, and the plot was masterfully crafted. The reader sees each character’s thoughts and actions, and still cannot deduce who is the culprit. I can’t resist that. I’ve heard of a YA book entitled Ten that is supposedly very similar to this one, and I think it might be interesting to check that out in conjunction with this one. Perhaps in the next month or two while this one’s still fresh in my mind I’ll find a copy for a comparison.

Further recommendations:

  1. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a 2016 thriller in which a woman goes missing on a small boat. The only passenger who believes the woman existed at all is a journalist who realizes the killer must be one of the other passengers. As she persists in seeking the murderer–convinced that anyone aboard might be next to die–it becomes apparent that the journalist herself may be a target.Check out my complete review here.
  2. Robert Galbraith’s (J. K. Rowling’s) The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first book in a modern mystery series set in London. A detective down on his luck, along with the secretary who’s more of a partner despite the fact that he can barely pay her, sets out to work against the police and popular opinion to find a murderer from a cast of seemingly innocent characters. No one could have done it–but yet, one of them did. Check out my complete review here.

Coming Up Next: I’m currently reading the final book in the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, titled Winter. I’m looking forward to seeing how the myriad plot threads from the first three books finally come together here–and how the story will look after reading Fairest, a companion novel following the villain’s perspective. I’ve already read Fairest and will include my review of that book and how it relates to the series along with my thoughts on Winter.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant