November Book Haul

My 5 book goal is going to be a bit of a wash for the rest of the year, I think. I haven’t been doing very well about sticking to it the last few months (or ever, really), and I don’t have high hopes for sticking to it in December. Merry Christmas to me. 🙂 But there’s always next year, right? I have some serious book goals for 2018 in the works, but as long as it’s still 2017 and I’m failing anyway, might as well buy all the books. These are the new titles on my shelves this month:

  1. Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich. This was my BOTM selection for November. This one’s narrated through letters and/or journal entries, if I’m remembering right, which sounds unusual and interesting. I like books that are narrated in uncommon formats. It’s also an end-of-the-world story, which I haven’t read in a while so it must be time to try that again. It was the only selection I hadn’t heard of in BOTM’s November list, so it caught my interest.
  2. Artemis by Andy Weir. An extra BOTM pick for me. This is the first BOTM selection I regret buying, and I haven’t even read it yet. I’ve seen some negative reviews for this book (and some positive ones, but I fear I won’t be one of those), and I think I was just so busy at the time I picked it that buying new books was a stress-reliever and I just didn’t have the time and energy to actually look into it properly before I made my choice. In the end, I think what I actually wanted to read was The Martian, which was also an extra BOTM selection this month, but I chose Artemis instead because it was new.
  3. The Martian by Andy Weir. After seeing yet another bad review for Artemis, I realized that what I really wanted to read was The Martian. So I decided to go ahead and buy a copy of the one I actually wanted, to boost my book-buying spirits. I’m much more confident about enjoying this one, but I might still read Artemis first; if it’s newness is the only thing propelling me to read it, I better utilize that while it lasts because I do still want to check it out for myself and not leave it unread on my shelf forever. Also, I like to save the best for last.
  4. Death Note: Black Edition Vol. 1 by Tsugumi Ohba, Yuki Kowalsky, and Takeshi Obata. I needed a graphic novel for my reading challenge this year, and I ended up choosing Saga. I don’t read much that’s full of pictures. It’s just not my preferred medium. But I am willing to try something different every now and then, and I did like Saga, so I bought a manga that looked promising from my initial list of potential graphic novels. I got the black edition, which is actually the first two volumes in one book (I always choose more story in one book, when that’s an option), and I’m excited to check it out. I think there’s even a TV series.
  5. Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel. This is the sequel to Sleeping Giants, which I bought last year and still have not read. It’s at the top of my list for 2018, and the covers are so cool that I couldn’t resist. I’ve read the synopsis a few times, about a girl who finds a giant hand and people realize it’s only part of a whole, and the whole book is narrated through interviews and other unusual mediums for a novel, which again, sounds right up my alley. And Pierce Brown blurbed the first book. And the covers are so neat. So when Black Friday sales rolled around, I picked this one up. (It never seems to be cheap enough, otherwise.)
  6. Pines by Blake Crouch. Another Black Friday grab. This one is part of a series that I want to read in 2018. Crouch’s Dark Matter was one of my favorite reads of 2017 from way back in January, and I wanted to try another one of his books in 2018 as a result. I’ve heard this one’s weird and thrilling and completely mysterious, which sounds perfect. I think the main character is some sort of journalist or investigator who gets trapped in a strange town where nothing makes sense and death might be the only means of escape.
  7. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North. This one’s a thriller/mystery about reincarnation, I believe. I read the synopsis so long ago, so I barely remember the details of what it’s about. But it’s been a while since I’ve read about reincarnation, and that’s an interesting topic in itself. I’m cautiously hoping North hits the mind-bending side of it and not the cheesy “let me try this same thing over and over again because my life only has so many possibilities and this is the one thing I can change” tactic. But it seems more promising than the usual tropes.
  8. Macbeth by William Shakespeare. I picked up one of the Pelican editions with the cool covers around Black Friday discount time. I’m not a huge Shakespeare fan, and I probably wouldn’t have bought this if it wasn’t the play I wanted to read for my 2017 reading challenge. I forgot to hunt for the Shakespeare anthology at my library, and as the end of the year approaches I was suddenly unsure of when I would be back to get it and whether that would leave me with enough time to read it. (And whether I wanted to lug a giant Shakespeare anthology around while I was Christmas shopping.) So I bought my own copy, just to make it easier to pick up the story whenever I have a moment to fit it in. If I like this one, I might branch out and try a couple more with the covers from this collection. And it’s nice to have at least one book on my haul list that I know I’ll be reading soon.

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I’m really excited about this list. I know I won’t get to much of it before 2018 because my December TBR is already pretty crazy, but I’m setting some great reading goals for 2018 that I think will really help me clear some unread books off my TBR shelves. Almost every one of these books is from a genre I don’t read super frequently (Sci-fi, a play, a graphic novel), which is exciting. I’m ready to step outside of my comfort zone. I want to be surprised.

Have you read any of these? What should I pick up first?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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December TBR

This is another overly ambitious list, but it’s my final chance to fit in the remaining books I wanted to read in 2017 and I’m going to TRY. SO. HARD. There were so many more books that I just know I’m not going to end up getting around to before the end of the year, but here are my top priorities for December reading:

  1. The Alienist by Caleb Carr. This is a book for my reading challenge. I’ve already started this one, as it was on my November TBR as well, but November was just too busy for me to finish everything I wanted to. I should be able to wrap this one up pretty quickly in December. It’s about a psychologist (or “alienist”) trying to catch a murderer at the turn of the 20th century.
  2. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. Another book for my reading challenge. I’ve only read Donoghue’s Room, so I’ll be interested to try another of her books. I believe this one takes place in Ireland, and there’s a girl who’s a miracle… I don’t remember much, but the synopsis did catch my eye at the end of 2016 and I’m glad I found a way to fit it into my reading challenge.
  3. The Color Purple by Alice Walker. A book for my reading challenge. If I get really desperate, this one could fill two categories for me, so I want to get to this one soon just in case I can see that I’m not going to make it through my list by the end of the month and need to count this one twice. I don’t actually have my hands on a copy yet, but I’ve got a hold at the library so I will have it in my hands soon.
  4. The Iliad by Homer. A reading challenge book, carried over from my November TBR. I’m ashamed that I haven’t gotten around to this one yet, since it was also my classic of the month for November. I was so busy though, and home so little, and I didn’t want to be carrying around the giant edition of this book that I own, a collection that also includes The Odyssey. I miss Greek mythology from my Latin classes at school, and I have read part of this story before so I think it’ll go much faster than it looks once I get started.
  5. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Here’s my December classic of the month, which also fulfills a slot in my reading challenge. And also, it’s almost Christmas. I want to be reading a Christmasy book. You can’t go wrong with the ghosts of Christmas, right?
  6. Some Luck by Jane Smiley. I had to amend one of the categories of my reading challenge slightly, and this is the book that will fit the edited slot. I don’t know much about this one other than that it’s the first novel of a trilogy about a family in Iowa. And I once had the opportunity to meet Jane Smiley but I failed.
  7. Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Another book for my reading challenge. I had better get to this one within the month because I ordered my own copy just to make it easier to pick it up after I forgot to hunt for a copy at my library. I mean, I did get it on sale, but I really only bought it to help me through this reading challenge. And surprisingly, I know very little about this play. I believe there are witches? I’m going to find out.
  8. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer. Here’s the final book for my reading challenge. I might not actually read this one. I’m not in the mood for WWII historical fiction, and I know it’s going to be iffy whether I’ll actually get everything done for my reading challenge anyway. And if I count The Color Purple for two categories, as I mentioned above, I don’t technically need this one. It feels like the lazy/cheating route out of completing my reading challenge, so we’ll see how it looks toward the end of the month. I will try to get around to it if I can, but I don’t even have a copy of the book in my ownership right now.
  9. Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare. I made it my mission to read all of Cassandra Clare’s books this year, and I’m so close. I have two left, and I already own a copy of Lady Midnight. If I don’t get back to the library to check out a copy of Lord of Shadows this month (I’m waiting to buy my own copy until the matching paperback comes out), I do want to at least get through this one before the end of the year since it’s already on my shelf, and because it was already published when I decided to read all of Cassandra Clare’s books this year. Lord of Shadows was not, so I’m willing to give it a pass until 2018.
  10. Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo. I’ve read the entire Grisha trilogy earlier this year, and Six of Crows more recently. I enjoyed them all, but Six of Crows was definitely my favorite, and I’m dying to read the sequel. If it wasn’t for my reading challenge, I would have read it already, but here we are. I really want to wrap up this duology before the end of the year, because it’s nice to wrap things up in December (except I’ll still want to read Bardugo’s Language of Thorns in January) and also because I must find out what happens next!
  11. Aesop’s Fables, by Aesop. I’m not entirely sure when I started reading this, but I think it’s been about a year now. I was just reading a few of the fables every day, but at some point I got too engrossed in whatever novel I was reading to keep going and now I’m still only halfway through the collection. I just want to wrap it up because it’s December and I want to start 2018 fresh instead of in the middle of things. This one’s a lower priority but I am planning to get back to reading a few fables every day to see if I can finish it pretty easily within the month.
  12. A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin. I started reading the A Song of Ice and Fire series this year without big hopes of finishing it in 2017, so when my fall work schedule got so busy I paused this one to come back to it when I had a better chance to give it my full attention. I was really liking it before I put it down, but I lost momentum by setting it aside and now I’ve got so many other things to read before the end of the year that I just haven’t picked it back up. If it’s at all possible, I do want to get back to this one in December, and back to the Game of Thrones TV series as well.
  13. The Power by Naomi Alderman. This was my BOTM pick for October, right in the midst of my busy fall schedule and my sudden realization that I might not make it through my reading challenge if I don’t work harder at that. I’ve got a little stack of BOTM books I haven’t gotten around to yet, but neglecting this one threw me off for November as well, and who knows what I’ll do about December’s selection. I want to read all of my BOTM books (I’m considering making January a BOTM catch-up month because I’m planning to do another year of BOTM and I don’t want to keep falling behind), but this one’s at the top of the stack and I feel like reading it will get me unstuck. Also, the story sounds so intriguing: a change in the power dynamic of the world as women discover they have the power to physically shock other humans with their hands. I’ve seen it compared to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which I enjoyed, so I’m looking forward to it.

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So there we have it. Thirteen books sounds unlikely, but not impossible, so we’ll see what happens this month. Your guess is as good as mine, at this point. If you’re interested in my reading challenge progress, you can check out my last update, and/or stay tuned for the final results, which I’ll post at the end of December or early January. In the meantime… happy reading!

What are you reading in the last month of 2017?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Bone Season

I’ve read enough YA fantasy that it’s starting to all look the same, but this one fulfilled a slot on my reading challenge so I picked it up anyway. And what a shock I found. Most of this novel– especially the world it’s built in– is so utterly unique. I’ve read a lot of books, but never anything like this.

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About the book: Paige is a criminal. All of the “unnaturals” are, just by existing. And in 2059 London, unnaturals have 3 choices: to work the black market under constant threat of death, to spend 30 years rooting out unnaturals hiding in society, or to be scent to Sheol I. But the only people who know about Sheol I are the officials who support its continued existence, and the kidnapped unnaturals who are forced into slavery there– and, of course, the Rephaim, inhuman creatures with a long-term world-domination plan. The Rephaim, like the unnaturals, possess gifts that span the realm between life and death. They can use their minds, their spirits, to connect to the aether– the dimension where souls exist without corporeal form. But the Rephaim, unlike humans, are frighteningly powerful and nearly impossible to kill. Paige has a rare gift, a rare form of clairvoyance that allows her not only to sense changes in the aether, but to cause them. Even this coveted ability, however, may not be enough to level the playing field between Paige and her captors.

This plot is weird, and intense, and I mean both of those descriptions in the best possible way. This could have been a great story with half the amount of detail layered into it, which means at the very least that the world is well-developed and the plot is constantly evolving, entirely unpredictable. The narrator, Paige, starts us out in a dystopian world that’s already significantly different than the real world we live in, but then things get crazy when she’s kidnapped and transplanted inside another little world that she didn’t even know existed. But it’s not just the alien nature of this other world and the creatures that inhabit it that make the book interesting– there are new elements constantly thrown into the mix: impossible tasks, terrifying monsters, battles between powerful beings, new technology, death threats. Every time Paige (and the reader) thinks she’s grasped the rules for survival, the game changes.

” ‘Normal’ and ‘natural’ were the biggest lies we’d ever created. We humans with our little minds. And maybe being normal wouldn’t suit me.”

There is a lot of new terminology in The Bone Season, lingo specific to the world of this series. Rest assured, there is a glossary at the back of the book (at least in my copy there is), but even that doesn’t cover all the new words. You have to pay attention just to keep up with the language, and the plot doesn’t slow down to let readers catch up. The Bone Season is not a quick read. It is not easy. But it is powerful.

“We are the minority the world does not accept. Not outside of fantasy, and even that’s blacklisted. We look like everyone else. Sometimes we act like everyone else. In many ways, we are like everyone else. We are everywhere, on every street. We live in a way you might consider normal, provided you don’t look too hard. Not all of us know what we are. Some of us die without ever knowing. Some of us know, and we never get caught. But we’re out there. Trust me.”

A sticky spot: Paige’s reaction to her enslavement. From her speech and her fight to help others who are oppressed, the reader can see that Paige does not agree with or support slavery in any way. There are occasions when she fights her own “keeper” as well, but she’s also shockingly obedient. Even in her thoughts she refers to her captor by his chosen title, Warden, rather than his name. In some things, she’s very careful not to cross him. She thinks and says, repeatedly, “It’s not like I have a choice,” when the choice of refusal is always there. There may be consequences for refusal, of course, but for someone so willing to fight and so opposed to slavery, it’s infuriating at times how easily she accepts Warden’s leadership. Even in moments when they seem to have found equal footing, she remains the underling until he announces their equality in the matter. Their relationship is odd, at best.

“I looked at him in silence, waiting for his judgment.”

Best aspect: the friendships and loyalties. Shannon is an author who’s not afraid to kill beloved characters, and she’s also not afraid to make her readers care about them first. Paige can feel like a very solitary character at times, with her unique gift and situation, but she does have a great support system and she can be just as supportive. In SciLo (futuristic London) and in Sheol I, Paige develops strong alliances. There are enmities, as well, and neutral conversations, but the scenes that tug the most at the reader’s emotions are the ones in which Paige is risking herself to help someone in need. When she’s doing something kind, no matter the cost. Sometimes her help is not enough, but that never keeps her from trying.

“I had no weapons– but I did have my gift. No longer my curse. Tonight it would save a life, not take one.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. The only thing that help me back from loving this book was its density– there’s so much packed into these pages that it’s easy to get lost in the actions and the politics of it. But I will definitely read the next book in this series. I don’t like all of the characters and all of the details, but the unusual world and plot is undeniably captivating. I can’t say yet whether I’ll read the entire series, but I am curious about where it’s going next.

Further recommendations:

  1. Red Rising by Pierce Brown is a great choice for YA and adult readers who like dystopian/fantasy/sci-fi that takes plot twists to a whole new level. Nothing is predictable or boring, no matter what else you may think of the story. In the Red Rising trilogy, a lowly Red is taking on the unjust hierarchy by fighting the Golds from within their own system– on Mars. The plot keeps getting better as the books continue, and the characters never disappoint.
  2. Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows is another book for YA and adult readers alike who are looking for an action-packed ride full of crime and betrayals, as well as a little bit of magic. If you like powerful characters from the underbelly of humanity, working together against the odds and with opposing aims, check this one out.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, a novel for my 2017 reading challenge (a book from the year I was born) set in the turn of the 20th century. It involves an early psychologist, or alienist, trying to catch a gruesome murderer with science. I’m also reading Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s Saga: Book Two, the continuation of Hazel’s story as her parents fight for survival and safety in the midst of a war where they’re being hunted by both sides. Full reviews on both are imminent.

What are you hoping to finish reading before the end of the year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Good Daughter

I’ve been vaguely wanting to try one of Karin Slaughter’s books for a few months now, so when I saw her newest release, The Good Daughter, on the New Books shelf at my local library, I picked it up on a whim even though Spooky Books Month (aka October) has passed.

thegooddaughterAbout the book: When Samantha (Sam) and Charlotte (Charlie) were young, their lives were ripped apart. Two men in ski masks with a debt to settle came to their door, looking to cause some trouble with their father, Rusty Quinn, hated lawyer and protector of the hideously guilty. Rusty wasn’t home at the time, but that didn’t stop the bad men from taking out their anger on the rest of the family. Twenty-eight years later, the two Culpepper men that Charlie identified as the culprits are 1) dead, and 2) on death row. But a school shooting at the local middle school brings the remnants of Charlie’s family back together, and a single, unexpected thread ties this shooting to the horrors of Charlie’s past. In both cases, the truth seems obvious from the start, but the truth will turn out to be messier than anyone expected.

“You could only ever see a thing when you were standing outside of it.”

This book is not a thriller. It’s barely a mystery. You might call it horror, if heinous fictional crimes horrify you. At it’s core, this novel is a sort of extreme family drama, an exploration of unusual characters and the rough sides of their lives. It’s a slow-burn crime novel for the reader who’s more interested in the madmen and their survivors than in the endless twists and turns of a fast-paced plot. The Good Daughter is a long novel, and it focuses primarily on the gray area of morality.

“The hairs on the back of her neck rose up. She always felt this way when she came into the Holler. It wasn’t only the sense of not belonging, but the knowledge that the wrong turn, the wrong Culpepper, and physical danger would no longer be an abstract concept.”

Because the novel is so character-driven, it relies on intrigue rather than suspense to propel the reader through the story, and the ease with which the reader keeps turning pages depends on his/her interest in the main characters– the Quinn family members. This made the book a little harder for me to work through because I didn’t like Charlie. You know those characters in horror movies who run in the wrong direction and then fall down a lot for no apparent reason? And when they finally get out of the danger zone they stupidly run back in? That’s what Charlie’s like. I know fiction is boring if nobody ever does what they’re not supposed to, but I just can’t like a character who makes the wrong choice every time, knows it’s wrong, and can’t offer any explanation other than “I had to.” The secrets of Charlie’s past do eventually shed some light on her recent behavior, and there were certainly moments when I felt utterly pitiful about the tragedies of her childhood, but it was never quite enough to reconcile me to the complete ridiculousness of some of her actions.

But the plot is engaging, and the writing is engaging. Even before it’s clear what the mystery is, the reader feels the pull to know more because it’s clear something isn’t right, even if we’re not sure how it’ll play out. The blurred line between “good” and “bad” makes everyone in the novel infinitely more interesting; it’s so hard to know who to trust, and which characters are not as they first appear. Legality and morality do not go hand in hand. The good guys are corrupt, the bad guys walk free, and Rusty stands in the middle, forgiving everyone and confusing the reader’s sense of right and wrong.

“A trial is nothing but a competition to tell the best story. Whoever sways the jury wins the trial.”

The twenty-eight years between The Good Daughter‘s key crimes allow for an even richer sense of characterization. We see some people grow and change, we learn things about the people that are gone that weren’t revealed earlier, and we see a progression of motives. Almost every character undergoes significant alteration in the course of the novel, which gives this book its sense of realness and keeps the reader going even when the plot stalls. Again, let me point out that this is a book you read for the characters, because the mystery wrapped up in their lives is only something to be stumbled upon as the subjects piece themselves back together.

“Their adult selves might very well be strangers, but there were certain things that age, no matter how cunning, could not wear away.”

On a final note, there are a lot of repetitions in this book– repeated words and phrases, whole passages lifted from one chapter and planted in another. In my opinion, there’s value in showing the same scene from multiple perspectives when each telling shares something new. But there’s also a point, especially in a book I’m reading for the first time, when I get tired of feeling like I’m already rereading before I’ve even reached the end of the novel. The sort of parallels and contrasts that become apparent in scenes that require repetitions are most interesting to the readers who will notice a repeated scene with only a couple of key words to go on. The plethora of regurgitated words in this book feel like an insult; the author does not trust the reader to make connections, and is trying to do too much of the reader’s work instead of trusting the reader to make the necessary connections. This is the biggest flaw of The Good Daughter, and is especially noticeable because it’s the only real problem with the writing style. Slaughter has a wonderful sense of detail, always sharing just the right things to offer insight into character and hiding the clues that’ll come back later with just enough misdirection. The crimes she describes and the ways they fit together are completely engaging and virtually unforgettable. The only issue with the language is that the repetitions cause striking descriptions to become stale after frequent use.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. One of the big reveals I guessed, but one I missed completely. In the end, I know that the details that will stick with me from this novel are the secrets that will take the fun out of a reread. Other than the repetitions though, I did like Slaughter’s writing, so I think I’ll try again with another of her novels and hope that it’ll be an even better experience.

Further recommendations:

  1. Gillian Flynn writes great suspense novels with The Good Daughter‘s sort of horrifying grit. I suggest Sharp Objects or Dark Places, especially if you appreciate Slaughter’s characterization of Charlie. These are novels that are both character-driven and fast-paced, with suspenseful plots on the surface and a depth of more challenging themes and developments running beneath.
  2. Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water is a great choice of character-driven mystery for the serious crime reader who’s more interested in intricate weavings of character history and motives than fast-paced twists and reveals. This is a book for the reader of unlikable characters and the stickiness of truth and power.
  3. The Lying Game by Ruth Ware is another slow-burn mystery that’s more insightful than frightening. It also features two related crimes, one from years past that is dredged up by a recent catastrophe. This one is also very atmospheric.

What’s next: I’m just starting Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season. It’s been a busy month for me so far, which means my reading has been slower than usual, but I think it’ll pick up now as the holiday season approaches. All I know about The Bone Season so far is that it’s a fantasy novel at the beginning of an ongoing series, and it will fulfill a slot in my reading challenge. I’ve heard good things about the world-building, so I hope it will surprise me with its greatness. I need a great, quick book to get me back in the swing of things.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Truth About Forever

I could have chosen a picture book from way back to fill the “book from your childhood” slot in my 2017 reading challenge, but why go the easy route, even this late in the game? So I decided to reread my first ever Sarah Dessen novel, The Truth About Forever. I was 11 or 12 the first time I read this, and I did read it multiple times in those first few years, but it’s been a long time now. I wanted to find out if it was still one of my favorites. The verdict: it definitely is.

About the book: Macy saw her dad die. thetruthaboutforeverShe was there. If she had been with him just a few minutes earlier, she might have been able to get him help in time– or at least she might have had one last conversation with him before the unexpected end. That was over a year ago, but Macy and her family still haven’t learned how to cope. Macy and her mother strive for perfection and control in the aftermath, to keep themselves busy and to prevent any more horrible surprises. But when Macy takes over her perfect boyfriend’s perfect job for the summer while he’s gone, things really start to unravel. The job, it turns out, is not perfect for Macy. The one that is comes out of nowhere, in the form of a catering company. At first glance, Wish Catering is a disorganized mess, but its employees just might be able to guide Macy through her twisted path of grief with their whirlwind of controlled chaos.

“I am not a spontaneous person. But when you’re alone in the world, really alone, you have no choice but to be open to suggestions.”

This is a book that never gets old for me, apparently. I loved it for the story line when I was younger, and now that I’m wise enough to see through to the mechanics of the book, I still like what I see. There’s no single fantastic element I can point out that makes it so great; it’s just one of those books that has all the right pieces in their proper places. Everything works as it should, and it’s a worthwhile picture once it’s all together. Each of the characters is unique and important in their own way. The villains are human and sympathetic, and even the good guys make mistakes. All of the details mesh together, from the “Gotcha!” game to the Armageddon discussions, to the used-parts sculptures and the refurbished ambulance. Nothing feels like a cheesy and obvious plot device, although it’s all working toward the same themes.

“I just think that some things are meant to be broken. Imperfect. Chaotic. It’s the universe’s way of providing contrast, you know? There have to be a few holes in the road. It’s how life is.”

I think the biggest success in The Truth About Forever is the focus on coping with grief. Readers are rooting for the romance, but that’s crafted carefully under the umbrella of taking new chances, appreciating what used to be, but building something new from what’s left. Macy’s fear and sadness after losing her dad, and the struggle with perfectionism that grows from those emotions, are always at the forefront; when Macy befriends the male lead, there’s real substance in their conversations rather than a corny, forced romance. Love is secondary, and that’s what makes this one so strong.

“Grief can be a burden, but also an anchor. You get used to the weight, to how it holds you to a place.”

“That was the thing. You never got used to it, the idea of someone being gone. Just when you think it’s reconciled, accepted, someone points it out to you and it just hits you all over again, that shocking.”

I also think Dessen makes a wise decision with the level of honesty in this book. There are lies, of course, because any book about truth needs that balance, but it’s so refreshing for teen characters to be honest instead of playing games. Well, I mean, the honesty is part of a Truth game, but after the first round or two of the game, it feels like an excuse to talk openly rather than a real challenge. What I mean is, no one’s trying to impress their crush by pretending to be someone they’re not. I’m partial to that sort of blunt reality, especially in romance.

It’s like Gilmore Girls, wholesome but not in a cheesy and/or boring way. There are great messages in here for grieving teens, for perfectionists, for anyone struggling to accept who they are and take a chance on being themselves. And it’s fun uncovering them.

If there’s anything I might complain about with this book, it’s Macy. Now that I’m past high school senior age, she no longer seems much like a high school senior to me. (Or soon-to-be senior, I suppose, since the book takes place over the summer). She’s supposed to be a smart girl, and she is, but she’s also confused all the time. Many of her conversations include at least one instance of her needing to ask for clarification on what the other person is talking about. If she lacks strength at times, the reasons are apparent, but I will never fully understand her delusion of thinking that the way her mother treats her at times is an acceptable form of parenthood. There isn’t always a lot a child can do about bad parenting, but for a child of this age she should at least understand that her mother is doing it wrong. Especially if it’s a change as a the result of a recent grief, which suggests that most of her childhood was different. It wasn’t quite enough for me to find Macy truly annoying this time around, just… a little less impressive than I remembered.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I just love the Wish Catering crew. They’re funny and wise and… ordinary. They’re awkward and weird, they make mistakes, and they just feel more real than most secondary characters do. This book is the reason I’ve read almost all of Dessen’s books, and continue to pick them up, even though I’m past the age where YA contemporary/romance really appeals to me. I’m so glad I reread this one, and I will definitely read it again. Maybe I should reread a Dessen book every year. Or maybe I should just reread any old favorite once a year– around Thanksgiving, like this one was, to appreciate past loves and my reading growth. Rereading The Truth About Forever was too fun an experience to let go without establishing a new tradition.

Further Recommendations:

  1. If you’re looking for more Sarah Dessen, I suggest some of her earlier books more strongly, like This Lullaby, Keeping the Moon. Just Listen is probably the best contender if you like The Truth About Forever, because it has that same sort of mild romance under dealing with a past trauma, although the story is entirely different (as far as I remember. I really want to reread this one now, too).
  2. If you’re looking for more YA about dealing with grief– and especially with a missing father– try Emily Henry’s A Million Junes. This one is brand new in 2017 with a magical realism twist, but the main characters’ banter is hilarious, the messages are powerful and relevant, and the plot is certain to surprise. I’ve never read a book with a stronger father/daughter relationship that also feels so realistic.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Karin Slaughter’s latest mystery/thriller The Good Daughter, which is my first Slaughter novel. Parts of it feel pretty fictional to me so far, but the events are completely captivating and the writing style keeps pulling me back in. There have already been several murders and a girl buried alive, so at least it’s not boring. I can’t wait to see where it’s going. Stay tuned.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Mini-Review: The Lover

It’s crunch time for my 2017 reading challenge, so I’m trying to pick up as many books as I can to complete the challenge in the next two(ish) months. My latest challenge book has been Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, a book I started for school and never finished.

theloverAbout the book: A fifteen year-old French girl from a poor and hateful family meets a wealthy Chinese man on a ferry crossing the Mekong River in the early 1940’s. He claims to have fallen immediately in love with her, and she is in want of his money; so begins a year-and-a-half-long affair. The girl is narrating this time from a future point in her life, and mixed up in the telling of her first confusing love is the fate of her family and personal aspects of her transition to adulthood.

About the format: The girl becomes a writer after her affair, and is narrating her own story. She does so disjointedly, in block paragraphs separated by white space. Each paragraph is its own little story, sometimes reflecting on one character and jumping to another, often jumping in time, occasionally switching perspective between what it was like for the fifteen year-old girl in her present and what she thinks about herself and her lover when she looks back at that time.

This is not a book for the lazy reader– it is emotional and character-driven, with little plot and a lot of beautiful reflections on love and life, poverty and death and girlhood. There are gems here, for readers willing to mine for them. Great lines are not difficult to find, but putting the story together that connects the paragraphs, finding the common threads and noting juxtapositions between the paragraphs is more of an effort.

“The story of my life doesn’t exist. Does not exist. There’s never any center to it. No path, no line.”

One of my favorite things about this book is the way the tone of things change as the novel progresses. We see at first a poor but close family, but as the narrator’s “disgrace” grows as a result of her transparent affair, we learn that her mother is irresponsible and depressed, her elder brother cruel and selfish, the younger brother admired but insubstantial, and soon gone. At first we see the narrator accepting love as a means for money, but before she will even admit to herself that she can’t keep her fifteen year-old heart separate from the affair the reader sees that there’s more to her relationship with the Chinese man, as well.

“Very early in my life it was too late.”

My other favorite aspect of this book is that the beauty lies not in the plot or surprises of the novel, but in the telling of it. The narration is blunt and makes no effort to hide truths about what has happened to her, what will happen to her, and what she feels about it all. The beauty comes in the way she connects the affair to the ruin of her face, the loss of immortality, the severing of ties among her family that will begin soon after she leaves the lover. We see her learning and growing from the very first page, and the way Duras manages to convey both an understanding of the growth and a willingness to let the reader create his/her own morals from the hard lessons is magnificently done. Unlike Nabokov’s Lolita, the emphasis of The Lover is not on the morality of an affair between a young girl and an older man, but on its effect, both immediate and eventual. It’s sympathetic in its emotion.

“It’s while it’s being lived that life is immortal.”

“I’ve never written, though I thought I wrote, never loved, though I thought I loved, never done anything but wait outside the closed door.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Although I was absolutely drawn in by the rich and insightful prose, and marked many lines and perspectives that I’ll certainly revisit, the lack of plot made this a slower read for me. Generally plotless books seem to me to have little point; I would not say that The Lover has no point (it has many), but it was easier for me to read in snippets than altogether at once, despite its brevity. At barely over 100 pages, I didn’t need much actual reading time to finish this one, but I did need breaks to digest it between sittings. I wish my class in school had read the entire novel and discussed it more, because even though I absolutely enjoyed reading this book I feel that I could still learn more from it.

Coming up Next: I’m currently reading two books, one a reading challenge book (Sarah Dessen’s The Truth About Forever, a book I’m rereading from my childhood) and one not (Karin Slaughter’s The Good Daughter, a library book). The former is YA contemporary, a mild romance that deals more with grief and self-acceptance than love, and the latter is a mystery-thriller about a traumatized family learning the truth of an attack that left someone dead, when another attack occurs nearly thirty years later.

What are you reading as the year winds down?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Silence of the Lambs

This year I picked up Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs as my Halloween read, but I ended up being so busy working the whole week that it went a little long. I watched the film once in high school, but most of the details didn’t stick, so almost everything in the novel seemed new and surprising to me.

About the book: FBI agent Jack Crawford is thesilenceofthelambshunting a serial killer that takes his victims’ skin. It’s taking a lot of time and effort from the FBI, but help comes from an unexpected source. Clarice Starling, FBI trainee at Quantico, is pulled aside to make a routine call on Dr. Hannibal Lecter. She’s not the first to be sent to him for answers about his crimes, and no one expects much from the visit. She’s supposed to be able to say she went, she spoke, she wrote up the report on the likely one-sided conversation. Except Dr. Lecter, nick-named Hannibal the Cannibal, former psychiatrist and evil manipulator of the human psyche, does have something to say to Clarice. He tells her something about the serial killer Crawford is hunting. When it becomes clear that Dr. Lecter knows who the killer is and the FBI doesn’t, Clarice’s involvement with Lecter and the current case increase, just as things begin to spiral out of control…

“Starling put her head back, closed her eyes for one second. Problem-solving is hunting; it is savage pleasure and we are born to it.”

About the format: the narration is third person omniscient, although it most often follows Clarice Starling. She is the link between Lecter and his vast knowledge of humankind, and Jack Crawford with the power of the FBI behind him. There are, however, several chapters dedicated to Crawford’s life, to Lecter’s, and even to Buffalo Bill’s skin-seeking endeavors, as well as his latest victim. These sporadic changes of pace keep Clarice’s search from becoming dull.

The Silence of the Lambs is a fantastic mystery. It’s weird enough to capture the reader’s attention, technical enough not to be dismissed as overly fictional, and bold enough that the reader never knows what’s coming next. Unless you remember the film, of course. Harris uses an exquisite level of detail, some for characterization, and some to lay the groundwork for plot twists ahead. There’s enough of both that the plot twists remain unpredictable and the characters feel real and sympathetic. Everything is a clue– whether it’s a clue as to how someone will act, or a clue for catching the killer.

The only things that felt odd to me in this novel were the author’s continual use of full names long after the reader had a solid grasp on the main characters. Jack Crawford is almost always Jack Crawford, rarely Crawford and even more rarely Jack. Clarice Starling is occasionally Starling, but the narration always introduces her fresh in each chapter as Clarice Starling. Dr. Hannibal Lecter gets his professional title as well as both first and last names. This one, at least, remains intriguing because it reminds the reader that Lecter is both a frightening criminal and a renowned intellectual. He’s evil, but the reader can’t help rooting for him a little. And then there’s Buffalo Bill, who has several names, some more real than others. But this is only a minor detail, and at least the reader can be assured of never forgetting who is who, or which character is being observed at any given moment. The only other small detail that bothered me was the sentence fragments at the beginnings of the chapters. Harris uses these often to set the scene, but then moves back into full sentences as he goes back to plotting and characterization. His full sentences are so well-crafted that the fragments confused me almost every time, leaving me wondering where the other half of the sentence was hiding. Again, this is a small detail, a stylistic choice that doesn’t affect the story greatly.

On the other hand, I’d like to talk about my favorite aspect of the novel: the technical descriptions. The level of detail about the moths, the prison cells, the motives and methods for removing human skin, the workings of the FBI, Crawford’s medical care for his wife, the appearance of the body of one of Buffalo Bill’s victims. Harris certainly knows what he’s talking about, and by providing so much detail beyond the bare minimum that the reader needs to understand the basic workings of the plot, he gives this novel such a sense of reality. And reality, of course, is what makes a horror book so terrifying. Anything can happen in a book, but it’s the fear that there really are deranged humans out there who might kill for skin that keeps the reader gripped in the tale. Harris doesn’t let the threat of death carry the story– so many stories involve death. There’s something about the human body being harvested for its materials, regardless of who is inside the skin, that Harris conveys to the reader and persuades him/her to be frightened of. It comes off as way more than a plot device because through the details we see Buffalo Bill as a person, as much as anyone can; we see his obsession with moths, his love for his poodle, his longing for his mother. “The devil is in the details,” they say. And yes, he is.

“You’ll have to earn it again and again, the blessed silence. Because it’s the plight that drives you, seeing the plight, and the plight will not end, ever.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is quite possibly the best mystery/detective book I have ever read. I need to read more Thomas Harris, particularly the original trilogy about Hannibal Lecter. The Silence of the Lambs is actually the second book in the series, so I think I’m going to go back and read book one. Lecter is highly intriguing as a villain, made all the more complicated by the fact that he’s not always a villain in The Silence of the Lambs. I’m eager to learn more about him.

Further recommendations:

  1. Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm, book two of the Cormoran Strike trilogy. I enjoyed all three of the books in this detective/murder series, but I found book two particularly grisly and horrifying in a way that Thomas Harris fans may appreciate. Book three, Career of Evil, may also be of interest as it delves into the mind of the mysterious killer.
  2. If you’re looking for less detective work and a little more straightforward horror, try Stephen King’s Bag of Bones. I know Halloween has passed now, but it’s never too early to start planning for next year, and this ghost/haunted house story is a perfect fit for any time of the year that you’re looking for a scare.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading one of my reading challenge books, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. It’s a romance between a young French woman and an older Chinese man (it’s no Lolita though), and it touches on some beautiful and devastating facets of impossible dreams and unchangeable fates. It’s really short, so I hope to have more details for you in a review coming soon.

Sincerely,

The Literary ELephant