October TBR

Just a heads up: this TBR is going to be out of control. There are a few series I want to continue, as well as some progress with my Book of the Month backlog, but mainly I’ve been saving up spooky books and now I have more than I can handle. I know that my schedule is going to be different this month, and I’m not sure yet what that will mean for my reading time; so instead of trying to judge how much I’ll read and shorten my TBR to match, I’m going to list all the books I’m considering reading this month and then I’ll pick and choose throughout October. Here are my choices:

  1. Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy by Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson, and Robin Wasserman. This one shouldn’t be scary, but I like a little fantasy mixed in with the thrills and chills of fall. I’m in the midst of a Shadowhunter marathon, and this is the next book (technically it’s a collection of short stories) for me in that endeavor.
  2. A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin. This is book three of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which I’m reading while I watch all of the Game of Thrones episodes. I’ve already started this one. It’s more political than creepy, but again, I like some fantasy in fall– otherworldliness in every sense of the word.
  3. Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. Here’s another series continuation; this is the second book in Johansen’s Queen of the Tearling trilogy, which I started this summer and loved, but for some reason never got around to following up with the second book. This is an adult fantasy series, so I’ll probably pick it up if I decide I need a break from thrillers and horror later in the month.
  4. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. One last series book: I read Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy earlier this year with the intent of reading the Six of Crows duology right after, but I put it off. And now I’m ready for a fantasy heist with morally gray characters, so maybe I’ll make time.
  5. Saga: Book One by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I’ve heard good things about this series, and I needed a graphic novel for my 2017 reading challenge. It doesn’t have anything to do with October really, other than it’s a fantasy story, but I’m borrowing it so now’s the time.
  6. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. I chose this book as my September Book of the Month selection, and even though I don’t think it’s spooky, I do want to read it before my October selection arrives in the mail. I think this is a sort of family drama, but the cover makes this book look perfect for fall: dark and subdued, with the implication of flames.
  7. The Girl Before by Rene Olsen. And now to start with the creepy books. This is a thriller I picked up last year and for some reason never got around to. I count thrillers as “spooky” books, mostly because of the tension and the inevitable death threats. I don’t even remember what this one’s about, but that’s how I like my thrillers and I can’t wait to find out.
  8. Dracula by Bram Stoker. Every month I read at least one classic, and I thought October was a great time for the quintessential vampire novel. I saw a film of this book a while back, but I don’t remember much and am entirely prepared to be sucked (no pun intended) into a wild Transylvanian ride of love and death and monsters.
  9. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. I’m hoping to go the extra mile with classics this month by also picking up the quintessential haunted house novel. I know even less about this one than I do about Dracula, but I expect to be terrified appropriately. I’m hoping it’ll be Stephen King-esque and make up for the fact that I probably won’t get to visit any haunted houses myself this year.
  10. Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King. Speaking of King, it wouldn’t be October without a Stephen King title. This is a brand new book that’ll soon be making it’s way to me. I believe the women in the world of this book are falling into coma-like sleep in cocoons, which is an intriguing concept. I love Stephen King’s writing, and I’ve been meaning to read something by Stephen King’s other son (Joe Hill), so this one will give a good balance. I’m sure it will be as creepy and unusual as I suspect.
  11. The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee. Here’s a mysterious sort of suspense novel related, I believe, to The Phantom of the Opera story. The phantom is a great villain, and I’m hoping for some great villains this month. I believe this one’s also a historical fiction work, so I’m not sure how spooky it’ll be, but there’s definitely a mystery and masks and that seems like the right fit.
  12. Suicide Notes From Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten. I thought it would be a good idea to broaden my horror horizons by adding some creepy YA books to my October list. This first one is a YA thriller about a girl who may have committed suicide–or may have been murdered. It should be a quick read and a nice change of pace while still falling into the “unsettling” category.
  13. These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly. This is my other spooky YA book for the month. I believe this one follows a girl who’s investigating her father’s death. She’s probably also going to find herself in danger as she’s uncovering his secrets, so it should be thrilling and spooky and everything I’m looking for.
  14. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. I can’t even tell you what genre this book technically fits into, but I’m think it’s a story about the narrator’s past with a creepy girl who’s dead now and I can’t wait to find out more.
  15. Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter. Back to the thrillers. I’ve never read anything by Karin Slaughter, and I didn’t know exactly where to start so I’m going with this first-in-a-crime-series book. Again, I don’t like to know anything about thrillers going in, so I’ve conveniently forgotten the premise since I acquired this one.
  16. Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan. Here’s another thriller that I know slightly more about: it involves a death at a bookstore, eerily desecrated books, and some sort of conspiracy. It sounds like the book lover’s perfect thriller, but I haven’t looked at any reviews yet.
  17. Vicious by V. E. Schwab. I must read some Schwab this month. I think this one’s a sci-fi fantasy about some college kids who are trying to become superheroes, or something of that sort. I’ve recently discovered that I love Schwab’s writing style, and although her books don’t seem horrifying, per se, they seem to have a good amount of thrill and tension and extraordinariness that’ll fit well with my other reads this month.
  18. Rooms by Lauren Oliver. I picked this up last November and have been waiting almost a full year to read it because it seemed perfect for October. I no longer remember exactly what it’s about, but I think it’s full of separate stories that all explore different facets of one haunted house.
  19. The Girl in 6E by A. R. Torre. Here’s one more thriller that’s been on my radar a long time and again, for some reason I’ve not gotten around to actually picking it up. It’s about a self-proclaimed serial killer (I think) who’s locked herself in her apartment and eliminated direct contact with most of the outside world to keep herself from harming anyone. Until she decides she needs to kill another potential murderer.
  20. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I’ve heard this is one of those ultimate fantasy novels, full of magic and mystery and a deadly carnival. What better time to read it than the month when disbelief is most suspended? This’ll be one to reach for when I need a break from murderers and ghosts.
  21. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I nearly forgot this classic Gothic novel that I bought after reading Jane Eyre earlier this year. I think there’s some romance in this one as well; all I really know is that the main character marries a man whose wife has died, and the dead first wife is somehow meddling (threatening their lives?) from beyond the grave.
  22. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. This is the coup de grace of my October reading list. I did watch the corresponding film several years ago, but I’ve forgotten enough detail that I think this book will not only horrify me, but surprise me all over again. It’s a creepy serial killer story about an ingenious and infamous man who (if I remember correctly) takes the skin of his victims. I’d love to watch the film again after reading this one.

octobertbr

So that’s my list. Unsurprisingly, I do not have the tiniest belief of being able to read all 22 books on this list within the month, and who can say if I’ll end up picking up something different even with all of these stellar choices to peruse. (I’ve probably even forgotten something I meant to add to this list.) I’ll learn the October Book of the Month selections on the first of the month, and depending on my choice’s spookiness, I may add that to my TBR as well.

What are you reading in October? Do you have any more creepy suggestions for me? Which of these books should I reach for first?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Lies She Told

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Eligible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

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

What’s your favorite retelling?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Why Reread?

There is always a difference between reading a great book for the first time, and reading a great book for the second, third, fourth, or even hundredth time.

But what is the difference? And why reread at all?

I recently reread Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. But when I logged on to Goodreads to tally another novel into my 2017 reading challenge, I was faced with a dilemma: what would I rate Twilight today? I certainly wouldn’t give it the same 5-star rating that I felt it deserved when I was twelve, discovering not only Twilight for the first time, but vampires, fictional romance, and the YA genre more generally. Twilight was not the first YA book I ever read, but it was a beginning. It marked a turn in literature for young adults, and a surge of popularity for the YA fantasy genre, which hooked readers of all ages and prompted authors to fill the demand with more new titles. Twilight wasn’t just a book I read one time as a kid– it was a whole experience. It was passing notes with my friends in middle school about which of the Cullens we would rather be, what we thought the movie would be like in a couple years, which of their cars we’d like to drive. It was adding fangs to all of our smiley-face doodles. It was Team Edward vs. Team Jacob.

twilightAnd that’s why I reread it this year. To remember being twelve and thirteen with my friends, pre-ordering a book for the first time (Breaking Dawn), reading in the grocery store parking lot and at bible camp and with a flashlight in the middle of the night. But how do you rate nostalgia on Goodreads?

Back in the Twilight era, rereads were a big thing for me. I didn’t have as extensive a collection of books, my school library was small, and I wasn’t old enough to drive to the public library yet. I didn’t have a job to afford buying my own new books, and access to the internet was less reliable. So I found what I liked, and I stuck with it. I couldn’t even guess now at how many times I read the Twilight books in my early teen years. But now, I reread for other reasons.

Here’s a look at some reasons I reread:

  • Review, or more precisely, to pick up details that were missed. Even if I understood the book *perfectly* the first time through, there is almost always something new in a second read.
  • Recollection. I don’t know how common this is, but I have a horrible memory for plot. I like that I do, because it means I get to rediscover my favorite books if I put them aside long enough between reads. There are times I’ve completely forgotten almost everything about a book, but I remember I loved it, so a second read gives me an almost first-time-experience all over again. Usually after two reads I don’t forget quite so extensively.
  • Culture/connection. This is a factor with extremely popular books. It’s when I reread a major hit because of the fandom and the phenomenon of it (even if it’s passing or passed, somewhere in the interwebs the fever is still out there)– surely you remember the Twilight craze. The Hunger Games. Divergent. The Maze Runner. City of Bones. Harry Potter, even, though that’s an obvious one.
  • Nostalgia, as I’ve mentioned. I’m not the same person as I was at twelve years old, and I wouldn’t want to relive that year, but there are parts of it that I remember fondly. I associate certain books with certain periods of my life, so reading those stories again feels a bit like going back in time.
  • Personal Growth. I’m very loyal to my past opinions, but people change, and their tastes change with them. Sometimes it takes a reread to realize that I’m looking for different things in books (and life) than I was, and I think it’s an important step in knowing yourself better to articulate (at least to yourself) those changes.

So I reread Twilight. It gave me a trip down that fabled memory lane, but it also gave me a chance to regroup, to rearrange my goals and opinions to better fit where I’m at now, as a reader and as a person.

I think I’ll continue the series, one chapter per day, even though my enjoyment of the plot is nothing like it once was. Twilight was just the first glimpse back toward how far I’ve come. I had such different opinions, such different loves and dislikes about each book in the series, that I think each one will give me a new avenue for reflection. I’m not in a hurry, but I think the reflection I’m finding in past favorites is worth my time.

Why do you reread? Do your thoughts on a book change the more times you peruse it?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Bane Chronicles

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

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

Here’s a look at the stories –>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Blinds

When I came came across Adam Sternbergh’s new release, The Blinds (via BOTM), I was hesitant. It’s described as a speculative Western thriller, which sounded both chaotically fun but also a bit wackier than my normal reading material. The prospect of futuristic cowboys threw me off, but Sheriff Calvin Cooper does not disappoint– considering he’s one of the biggest criminals in town.

theblindsAbout the book: Caesura, Texas– aka The Blinds– is an experiment. 48 convicted criminals have signed on to have their past crimes and traumas wiped from their memories so that they can live in the “safe” environment of Caesura, under new names. 100 miles from civilization, with only a weekly supply truck and a police-use fax machine for contact with the outside world, Caesura has been constructed specifically for this experiment. But eight years after its inception, the experiment may be falling apart. There are deaths. Fires. Vandals. Liaison officers are coming in to investigate, and the outside world is clashing with the closed-off Caesura community. What happens when 48 of the nation’s most notorious criminals who remember their criminality but not their crimes are nudged out of their comfort zone?

“This may not be a prison, and it may not be purgatory, but it’s sure as hell not a paradise, either. This is the Blinds.”

About the format: The book is divided into sections by day, Monday through Friday of one eventful week in western Texas. These sections are further divided into chapters, and the chapters are further divided into smaller sections within. The narration flows smoothly from one character’s perspective to another, sometimes between sections, sometimes between paragraphs with no clear division of where one character’s experience stops and another begins. In this way, the reader is given a sense of the Blinds on a wider scale, which also makes it harder (and more fun) to guess who’s involved in what.

Now let’s talk about the premise. The implications of the memory wipe alone is highly intriguing, but the town… a whole town of convicted criminals fenced in together who may or may not remember key details of their past activities is the perfect literary recipe for disaster. They’re even allowed to leave whenever they want– with the caveat that no one who leaves is allowed to come back. That’s what hooked me. The idea of those 48 criminals, strangers living together by choice, suddenly provoked by the outside world. But Sternbergh is not an author who wins readers with a strong premise and then leaves them dissatisfied with a boring plot– the town is a constant mystery, between the unexplained deaths inside it and the unexpected attention from its outside connections. The characters are a ceaseless surprise with how far they are willing to go, and for what, or for whom. And just when you think you’ve got it down, there’s another level of conspiracy revealed. And none of it would be possible without this unique cast of fogged villains.

“It’s hard enough to live with what you’ve done. It’s immeasurably harder to live with knowing you’ve done something, but not knowing what exactly it is you did.”

The characters are excellent. The writing style, and the present mysterious situation in Caesura, reminds the reader of each character’s humanity, vulnerability, and the promises that have been made to them about their quality of life in Caesura. No matter what crimes they’ve committed in the past, they are all (slightly muddled) citizens of a small town– neighbors, friends, assistants. They work together: the town has a nurse, a librarian, a repairman, a bartender, a commissary man… They’re all just people, looking for a break from the real world, and a fresh start. Some of them will turn out to be surprisingly evil. Some surprisingly good. They are all morally gray (at best), and yet the reader can sympathize with so many of them because at heart, they’re all just fighting to survive.

“The minds of the innocent are simple and so easily explained. The minds of the guilty, however– they are endlessly fascinating, once you really roll up your sleeves.”

I would not call this a thriller, exactly. A mystery, certainly, but the pacing is not as break-neck suspenseful as I usually expect from a thriller. There’s an interesting style used for the reveals in this book though– a little hint that someone knows more than they should about some crime or other, and then the next section of their perspective proceeds as though the reader knows about that crime and that character’s involvement, but then something further happens. The surprise is rarely ever a dramatic whodunnit moment; the surprise comes in the fact that the murder everyone’s concerned about is only the beginning– and that the characters who thinks they’re in charge are just players in someone else’s plot. The surprise comes from the “wait, there’s more?” moments, which happen repeatedly and never disappoint.

It’s not the kind of horror book that will give you nightmares, but be prepared for some criminal details that boggle the mind. There’s not much gore or senseless maliciousness described, but keep in mind that there are at least 48 criminals in this book that even the prisons didn’t want to hold on to.

“Some stories are probably better lost forever, never remembered, never told.”

But The Blinds is not one of them.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is a great read. It’s the kind of well-plotted, well-characterized book that anyone who appreciates adult literature should pick up, regardless of genre preference. I wasn’t sure about this one when I looked up its genres, but I’m immensely glad I stepped out of my normal reading zone to give The Blinds a chance. I’ll be keeping an eye on this author in the future, but more immediately I will use this experience to try stepping out of my normal reading zone more often. There are some gems out there in the rarely-reached-for genres. (Who even knew Speculative Western Thriller was a genre?)

Further recommendations:

  1. Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is another speculative fiction tale with a unique sort of “prison.” In this book, the failing U.S. economy drives whole communities into experimental towns in which the population spends six months in prison voluntarily (half at a time), which creates enough employment and resource for the other half of the town to live on. And every six months, the citizens switch, until things start to go awry…

What’s next: I’m picking up The Bane Chronicles next, a collection of short stories written by Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, and Maureen Johnson. It’s the next stop on my tour through the Shadowhunter books, now that I’ve finished The Mortal Instruments. It’s all about Magnus Bane and his warlock exploits.

Have you dabbled in any unusual genres lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Because You Love to Hate Me

Because You Love to Hate Me is a set of 13 short stories about villainy– the reasons for it, the blurred line between it and heroism, the benefits of it, and so much more. Each story explores a bit of unexpected villainy, leaving the reader to wonder who is truly evil and whether it’s good to be bad. Ameriie, the editor of the collectionbecauseyoulovetohateme, opens the book with an introduction about the appeal of villains, especially in YA literature. From there, the collection shifts between the thirteen short stories from current, popular YA authors, and the thirteen prompts and responses from the Booktubers who collaborated with the collection. The response essays take many different forms, either reacting directly to the story they follow, or addressing a broader topic of villainy. Altogether, it’s a thought-provoking book about human nature, and the gray area in our moral codes. And now for a closer look at the stories:

“The Blood of Imuriv” by Renée Ahdieh. 2 stars. The stories are arranged in alphabetical order by author’s last name, which seems fair, but this is a weak story for the book to open with. There’s backstory, speculation, contemplation… but not much action. There seem to be no stakes whatsoever until the very end, and when I did reach the climactic moment, I still wasn’t sure who I was supposed to sympathize with: the killer or the victim. Neither seemed truly “villainous.” The response essay for this one also disappointed me, although I might have liked it more if it hadn’t been the first one in the book. It doesn’t address its story at all, and tries too hard to be funny/whimsical. Further Reading Status: I am still planning to try Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn, but this story didn’t encourage me to pick it up immediately.

“Jack” by Ameriie. 3 stars. This one has a good plot twist toward the end, but again, it’s slow and low-stakes through much of the story. The writing style is so informal, and I kept thinking this author would have been better suited to telling a story aloud than writing one down. I didn’t understand Jack’s motives for repeatedly climbing the beanstalk, or the giant’s fear of looking below the clouds, though good use is eventually made of both details. I enjoyed the ending, but not much else. The essay also seemed informally conversational, but this conversation was more my style, and I liked the way it used the story to talk about villainy in literature, but also about villainy in the real world. FRS: I would read more from Ameriie only if it came in another book like this in the future.

“Gwen and Art and Lance” by Soman Chainani. 5 stars. This story is written entirely in digital messages passed between the main characters, which grabs and holds the reader’s attention. Chainani uses this medium to subtly display his characters’ personalities, fitting the format and the plot together perfectly. Additionally, he uses a great blend of the traditional and modern King Arthur details; there’s enough history to feel familiar and enough modernity to feel fun and unpredictable. The essay also uses an unusual format to good effect. FRS: I’ve seen so many great reviews about Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil, but I don’t read middle grade books anymore. Nevertheless, I was impressed enough with this story that I’m adding it to my TBR.

“Shirley and Jim” by Susan Dennard. 4 stars. I wouldn’t say this story is atmospheric, but it’s definitely eerie. The characters come across as so mysterious and creepy, holding the reader’s attention even while nothing much seems to be happening (again). The format is a letter to the main character’s best friend, which gives just enough foreshadowing to the story to keep readers engaged before anything villainous goes down. The essay is formatted as emails exchanged between real and unreal persons, which was cool in concept, but felt a bit forced and also as though it were trying to be a story itself rather than a response essay. FRS: undetermined. I’m intrigued about Dennard’s writing now. I might try the first book in the Truthwitch series from the library and just decide from there.

The Blessing of Little Wants” by Sarah Enni. 3 stars. This story is wonderfully mysterious, but the big secret is too obvious. Luckily, there’s a little more to the ending than the reveal alone. The last sentence leaves so much ambiguity; I like an ending that’s really a beginning, but I wanted to have a better sense of what this beginning was going to mean for this character and her world. There’s so much left open. But I especially enjoyed the essay for this one: it explores the blurred line between good and evil. It’s intelligently done and engaging. FRS: I don’t know if Enni has written under a pseudonym, but I couldn’t find anything else written in her name.

“The Sea Witch” by Marissa Meyer. 4 stars. This one surprised me by being the best Meyer story I’ve read to date. It’s atmospheric and odd, but also well-characterized with that human connection that makes the whole story feel strangely personal. I really wish stories of powerful women had less to do with sadness over certain men not loving them, but this is a story of strength rather than woe, for which I was grateful. I wish some of the secondary characters had been a bit clearer, though; for instance, what makes Lorindel lovable in the first place? The accompanying essay is one of my favorites in the book, fun and also provocative. FRS: The only Meyer books I haven’t read already are Stars Above and Heartless, neither of which I plan to read, although I might read something new from Meyer someday.

“Beautiful Venom” by Cindy Pon. 2 stars. This story brings modern-day rape and victimization issues to the forefront, which in theory is good, but I disliked almost everything else about this story. The main character has so little agency, and 2 of 3 times won’t speak up for herself. She wants neither of the two life paths presented to her, which leaves the reader feeling adrift and confused: what or who are we supposed to be rooting for, when it feels like there are no viable options? I was left wondering whether I should be hoping for the main character to live or die at the end. The essay leans more on the morals of the story than the way the story is presented, which was a good way to play up “Beautiful Venom”‘s single strength–its subject matter. FRS: I won’t be reading more from this author.

“Death Knell” by Victoria Schwab. 5 stars. This is the sort of story I expected from this collection– it’s mysterious, it’s fun, it’s creepy, and it makes you contemplate who the real villain is (in a good way). There’s always something gripping about Death personified, which only adds to the beautiful writing and adept plotting here. I loved every sentence. The essay is formatted as a letter to death, which was one of the most interesting story responses in this book, even if some of the comments in it were less original than others. FRS: I cannot wait to read more Victoria Schwab writing. I’m starting with Vicious (soon, hopefully), and I’m more excited than ever to start.

“Marigold” by Samantha Shannon. 4 stars. I like not knowing who to trust, which becomes a real factor as sanity starts unfolding toward the end of this one. The world-building is great, the backstory is great, the characters are distinct, weird, and surprisingly surprising. I wish I had learned more about Isaac though– who his family is and why his reputation is so important. And why is George so shady? He’s inexplicably knowledgeable in some areas, and his giant ego covers any gaps in his intelligence. But why doesn’t he seem to understand humans? The essay for this one is thought-provoking, and does a great job tying old folklore lessons to this story, and also to modern life. FRS: I am planning to read The Bone Season, and probably further.

“You, You, It’s All About You” by Adam Silvera. 4 stars. Here’s a story that’s creepy and puzzling in the best way, though also unexpectedly violent. The mind manipulation concept is fascinating, and works perfectly with the second-person narration. The last sentence left me rethinking everything, and the essay afterward opens up even more possibilities about what’s really going on. The essay is fun and psychological, and adds extra layers to the story’s potential. FRS: I’ve been vaguely planning to pick up More Happy Than Not at some point, and this story reinforced that desire.

“Julian Breaks Every Rule” by Andrew Smith. 3 stars. This story uses first-person narration, but also directly addresses the reader to bend the line between narrator and audience. This is a story that’s aware of its existence as a story, and gives very NONSUBTLE (and annoying) hints about its foreshadowing. The concept kept me invested, but once I’d reached the end I realized none of the middle action had anything to do with Julian’s decision at the end of the story. All of the information that’s provided to the reader through Julian’s accidental rule-breaking spree is already available to Julian at the beginning, which left me confused about how he reached point B from point A. The essay saved it for me though; it leaves the reader questioning Julian, in a good way. FRS: I’m on the fence. None of Smith’s books really call to me, but I do like some things about his writing style.

“Indigo and Shade” by April Genevieve Tucholke. 4 stars. I found the secret identity of one of the characters in this story much too obvious, but the writing itself and the sense of impending change kept me going. This one is a twist of the Beauty and the Beast tale, which is recognizable from practically the first sentence, but will still surprise readers with its ending. This story feels like magical realism rather than fantasy, but it works. The essay following it is compellingly passionate, and harks back to that intriguing blurred line between hero and villain. FRS: I’ve read Wink Poppy Midnight, and thought I was done with Tucholke, but now I’m thinking I should pick up Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea because apparently sometimes I really like Tucholke’s writing.

“Sera” by Nicola Yoon. 5 stars. While the opening story and essay didn’t feel like the best beginning to me, this one made a great ending. The format switches between present day and one character’s life from birth to present, giving a few different perspectives and calling attention to the problematic nature of villainy along the way. Some villains do not choose evil, but have evil thrust upon them. And maybe they’re better for it. This story is wonderfully creepy but makes realistic points about the moral gray area. The accompanying essay is a sort of (humorous) villainous pep talk that encourages readers to embrace the things that make them different, and it’s another strong ending. FRS: I’ve already read both of Yoon’s published books, but I will definitely keep an eye out for her future releases.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars overall. My average rating was actually 3.7. Though I didn’t like all the stories in this collection, and my favorites were almost exactly which ones I expected them to be, I think this book was a great idea, and I had fun sampling the different authors’ stories even when I didn’t think I wanted to read any more of their works. Reading this book was helpful in fine-tuning my TBR, and I would definitely read more like this in the future.

If you’re still reading, thanks for sticking with me! I’m pretty sure this is my longest review to date, but it’s worth the discussion. I had some great quotes marked from this book, but I’ll add them to my monthly wrap-up instead of lengthening this post further.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds, an adult “speculative Western thriller” that I chose from Book of the Month. A gunshot murder occurs in a closed environment where no one is supposed to possess firearms, which already has me intrigued.

Who’s your favorite villain?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant