Review: A Discovery of Witches

I’ve always enjoyed fantasy books, and  every now and then I have a craving for vampires–they’re such tortured souls. Immortality, apparently, can be burdensome.  I found Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches at my library recently, and although it turned out not at all as I’d expected, I realized pretty quickly that I was in it for the long haul. (This is the first book in the All Souls Trilogy, each volume hovering just under 600 pages.)

It begins with absence and desire…It begins with blood and fear. It begins with a discovery of witches.

About the book: Diana Bishop is a historian. adiscoveryofwitchesShe’s also a witch. Her parents–more witches–died brutally when she was seven, an event which convinced her of the dangers of magic, and prompted her to abandon hers. As an adult witch pretending to be human, she’s researching old alchemical texts for a keynote speech in Oxford, resisting the urge to use her buried sixth sense to learn more about the ancient manuscripts she studies. But she stumbles upon one volume that practically drips magic from its seams–and in handling it, she moves one of the biggest mysteries of her world into focus. As a horde of “creatures” flock to the library–and ultimately to Diana–to learn more about the book and gain access for themselves, her lack of control over her magic becomes a problem and she’s thrust into danger she doesn’t understand and can’t fight. The first vampire on the scene, Matthew Clairmont, understands better than everyone else that to open the ancient, lost book means protecting Diana–the only person who’s been able to access it in centuries. Love between species is forbidden by law, but something much more ancient and inevitable is at work with Matthew and Diana. The unlikely pair must find answers in each other, as the world around them crackles with erupting secrets and the first signs of war between the species emerge.

About the layout: Diana, our main character, narrates most of this book’s chapters in the first person. There are also a few chapters woven in that feature third person narration and move around between focus on different characters–usually Matthew, but not always. There’s always more to his story than what he shows on the surface, which makes him compelling to read, though Diana’s lack of magical knowledge makes her a better guide for the reader through the discoveries of this first book.

Marcus knew that a vampire’s life was measured not in hours or years but in secrets revealed and kept. Vampires guarded their personal relationships, the names they’d adopted, and the details of the many lives they’d lived.”

A large portion of this book seems highly concentrated on vampires and their role within this world, even though our main character is a witch. There are four branches of “creatures,” as they’re referred to, in this trilogy: humans, vampires, witches, and daemons. They all make appearances throughout the text, but without doubt there’s more information on vampires and their habits and current standing in this world than any of the other species. Eventually, as the reader knows she must, Diana stops trying to deny that she’s a witch and the vampire stories are mixed with details of how witch magic works and how it pertains to Diana. But it’s worth noting that this is a vampire-heavy novel. I think it comes down to Matthew and Diana’s relationship–from the very beginning, she makes concessions for all his odd behaviors because he’s a vampire and he’s been that way for a long time, while she’s planted herself between a witch’s life and a human one, which leaves her on uncertain ground. Thus, we see a lot more of her emotions and her acclimating to the presence of a vampire than anything witchy because it takes so long for her to commit to being a witch at all. And while she’s not learning about being a witch, she’s asking Matthew questions about vampirism, and the focus of the book is often pointed in that direction. Luckily, Matthew’s lived enough years that his vampire secrets are interesting.

“I wasn’t the same creature then, and I wouldn’t entirely trust my past selves with you.”

On romance: love between Matthew and Diana is not one of this book’s surprises, and it’s something I wish I had known before reading. I went looking for a fantasy book, but through hundreds of pages I found myself wondering whether the novel was a romance disguised as fantasy. There’s definitely fantasy, but it generally comes second, and the romance is immediately, utterly obvious. From the very beginning, the narration is clear on what’s building between our two main characters. Diana is startled and mildly frightened at being addressed by a vampire (seemingly the most dangerous of the four species), but she takes the time to note that he’s unbelievably handsome. He invites her to dinner and hints that he might see her around Oxford in that creepy vampire way that indicates he’ll probably be stalking her and creating “coincidental” meetings between them. The first time the narration focuses on him, he admits that he’s intrigued by Diana and he wants to stay close to her, but he absolutely definitely is not in love with her. These details (and many, many more) indicate that there’s going to be romantic intrigue here. If you don’t want to read a romance, this isn’t the fantasy book for you. That said, there’s not much sexual detail in this romance, it’s almost entirely gestures and looks and conversations, so it’s not raunchy in the way I would expect of a true romance, either.

Some things I didn’t like:

  • There’s way more description of meals and teas and wines than necessary.
  • Diana is sometimes okay with being ordered around and stalked and otherwise controlled by Matthew because she loves him.
  • For someone who claims not to be (and is also told by Matthew that she is not) a damsel in distress, Diana requires a lot of rescuing.
  • For a witch, even one who doesn’t want to use her power, Diana knows remarkably little about the “creatures” of her world.
  • Everyone is concerned about or in awe of Diana’s super magical witch powers, but she can’t use/control them. There’s an imbalance in the attention and the worthiness of attention.
  • Completely coincidentally, Diana finds a new abilities she can’t harness but can use for some emergency just at the time when she needs them.

Hence, I admit to problematic elements–mostly in Matthew and Diana’s relationship, in which Matthew wants all the power. But other than all the description of food/beverages, the narration does make attempts to explain most of the problematic areas, and I was left with the impression that some of these things might be fixed in the upcoming novels of the trilogy. I believe this is a series that demands to be read in full, if you’re determined to start at all.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’ll admit this trilogy is 100% a guilty pleasure. Romances are often guilty pleasures for me because I don’t read them for the reasons I usually read other books. This one repeatedly gave me the impression: “Twilight on steroids” a few times, which was worrisome, but the story kept me engaged regardless. I’m committed to finishing the trilogy because I think some of the issues I had will be addressed going forward, and I’m curious about where the plot is going, since there are many mysterious threads and a lack of answers in this first book.

Further recommendations:

  1. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander is the first (long) book in a (long) series that’s similar to A Discovery of Witches in that it’s a mix of fantasy/sci-fi and historical fiction. And romance, of course. An intense but challenging romance that’s very similar (minus the vampirism) to Matthew and Diana’s relationship.

What’s next: I’m currently reading White Fur by Jardine Libaire, one of my Book of the Month Club choices from their June selections. After nearly 600 pages of adult fantasy I’m ready for some lit fic. This one’s a (steamy for summer) star-crossed romance set in 1980’s New York.

What are you reading to kick off the summer?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: You can now read my review of the next book in this series, Shadow of Night!

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Review: Go Set a Watchman

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in a high school English class, and was surprised even then by how much I liked it. Then, 55 years after Harper Lee’s single publication, came its sequel,  Go Set a Watchman. I bought a copy of each book for my own shelf, and set them aside until I was planning my classic reads for 2017 and decided that it was time to revisit an old love and examine what might be a new one.

“Love’s the only thing in this world that’s unequivocal. There are different kinds of love, certainly, but it’s a you-do or you-don’t proposition with them all.”

This quote rings true for me, and yet–do I love Go Set a Watchman? Do I love it? I’m not sure. I don’t feel the same about it as I do To Kill a Mockingbird. It calls for a different kind of appreciation, but at the same time it changes my view of TKaM as well.

gosetawatchmanAbout the book: Scout is grown up. Well, she’s on her way to growing up in this coming-of-age story. She’s twenty-six, visiting her family and friends in Maycomb from her current place of residence in New York. Some staple characters from her childhood have been and are being removed from her adult life by death, age, and irreconcilable difference of opinion. An automobile accident in town in which a black man brings about the death of a white man sets old memories and new problems in motion for the whole town, but especially for Scout and her family. For the first time she can remember, Scout is seeing things differently than some of the people she’s closest to–its a fundamental difference that shakes her whole world and forces her to choose sides in morality–and to see on which side of the line her loved ones lie.

“They say when you can’t stand it your body is its own defense, you black out and you don’t feel any more. The Lord never sends you more than you can bear–“

About the layout: The entire book follows Scout, mostly in her present life in 1955 but there are also flashbacks/memories of Scout’s childhood, some with reminders of what happened in TKaM, but others with new information, from later in her childhood and teen years. These glimpses into Scout’s younger life help bridge the gap between Scout’s ages and views of the world in TKaM and GSaW.

Another interesting formatting technique is that GSaW contains entire passages lifted directly or with slight paraphrasing from TKaM. Several sentences, mixed throughout the first half of the book, reveal the same information and perspective on the founding of Maycomb and how it (and the people who live in it) operates. At first I found this annoying because I had just read TKaM earlier in the week and I wanted a fresh story, not the same one. But I looked more closely at some of those passages in both books, and I found slight differences. I realized that they were revealing something about Scout: that her basic life and memories were the same between the two books, but as with all memories and perspectives, slight (or great) changes occur over time. People realize new things from old evidence. Scout’s entire perception of the events in TKaM will be turned upside down in GSaW, and these double passages serve as a reminder that our narrator is as flawed as anyone else and that no matter how sure she may be of her past, things change.

“I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference. I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty-six years is too long to play a joke on anybody, no matter how funny it is.”

About the characters: Many of the characters from TKaM seem very different in GSaW than they did in the previous book. Some of the changes can seem rather upsetting at first, for the reader, but especially for Scout. My biggest disappointment of character, though, came in the form of twenty-six year-old Scout. For the first hundred pages or so, I didn’t like her at all. She seems startlingly childish for a woman of her age, but even as a child in TKaM she was not so quick to pick fights and cause trouble. She was good with her fists, yes, and wouldn’t take an insult lying down, but in GSaW she’s defiant and independent to the point of being outright rude and mean in places where it’s unnecessary and uncalled for. She has no qualms about provoking her aunt and speaking whatever’s on her mind, and although Henry clearly adores her she’s constantly badgering him.

And on the subject of Henry, might I ask why he and Dill couldn’t have been the same character? Dill, Scout’s childhood friend from TKaM is absent in GSaW, but the reader is told that soon after the end of that book, Henry Clinton moved in across the street and was more or less taken in by the Finches. It doesn’t make sense to me that such an important character in this book wouldn’t have been present in the previous book (especially since the note at the end of my copy reveals that Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman first, and both were more or less complete at the time of her first round of publication), at the same time as a friendly face from TKaM is being removed. I would’ve liked to see the two of them melded into one character who remains constant between the books–or at the very least, to have seen Henry’s arrival in town or a hint of his upcoming importance before he becomes a major character in GSaW. The flashbacks to Scout’s later childhood with Henry help make up for his absence in TKaM, but as Henry turned out to be one of my favorite characters here, even that felt like too small an acknowledgment of his presence in Scout’s life.

“The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Once I got over the extreme shock of some of the characters’ personalities coming to new light, I did like the literary moves Lee made here and the acknowledgment of Scout’s young age and potential misperception of events in To Kill a Mockingbird. Henry was perhaps the only character I really like through and through in this book, which was a change from loving everyone in TKaM, but that seems to have been the point–Scout was generous and trusting in TKaM, and in this sequel she’s seeing the world more objectively; character flaws are coming out. Despite their flaws, though, no one in GSaW is truly unredeemable, and there’s nothing I love more than a good handful of morally gray characters.

Further recommendations:

  1. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is my recommendation for readers who like To Kill a Mockingbird best from the Harper Lee duo. It advocates for freedom and equality between races at a time when slavery was still the norm in southern US, and is as deeply emotional as some of the lessons Scout learns in TKaM.
  2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is my recommendation for readers who like Go Set a Watchman for the challenges it poses to the idea that morality is a clear path. Just as GSaW muddies the waters of right and wrong with reasonings on both sides of conflict, so too do the Southern characters of Gone With the Wind who face the end of more than slavery with the arrival of the Civil War.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, the first novel in an adult urban fantasy trilogy. It’s not what I expected–it seems more like a romance with a fantasy backdrop so far–but it’s highly addictive even though I have some criticisms.

What are you reading to kick off summer 2017?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

May Wrap-Up

At the end of each month I reflect back on what I’ve read and put all the links for my reviews from the month together so you can look back at anything interesting you missed. This month, I had an overly ambitious TBR list of 11 books, and rather to my surprise, I managed to read 10 of them. These are the books I read in May:

  1. Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls and FullSizeRender (19)Everything in Between by Lauren Graham. 4 out of 5 stars. I’ve been wanting a little extra Gilmore Girls in my life since the four new episodes were released in November, and I also needed a memoir for my 2017 reading challenge. Although there wasn’t as much insider info on GGs as I’d hoped, I was pleasantly surprised by how generally encouraging and entertaining I found this book to be.
  2. The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman. 4themagician'sland out of 5 stars. I loved C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia as a kid, and as an adult I enjoyed this Narnia-esque trilogy just as much. This final book was a magical mishmash with great concluding story arcs, and following these characters on their Fillorian adventures has been one of the highlights of the year, reading-wise. Alas, I still like book two better than this final volume, but book three did not disappoint.
  3. My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows. 4 out of 5 myladyjanestars. I had heard that this book was funny, but I only laughed once. That said, the premise itself is absolutely comical, and the characters even more interesting than their historical counterparts. Even though each book in this set will feature a different cast and setting, I can’t wait to see what will happen with the other Janes.
  4. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. 3 out of 5 stars. biglittleliesWhile I appreciated the writing style–I still can’t believe I was so drawn in to the politics of kindergarten parents–I did not like the way this mystery played out in the end. There were enough things I liked about the book though to make me interested in trying again with another story by the same author.
  5. A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas. 4 out of 5 stars. acourtofwingsandruinI had been waiting for this one for what seemed like forever, although it was probably nothing compared to the wait readers experienced if they read ACOMAF closer to its release date. When my copy finally arrived, I started reading immediately and basically didn’t look up until I reached the end of the book. While ACOMAF remains my favorite in the series (so far), I did appreciate the way things wrapped up for Feyre here and I’m hoping that the loose ends with several other characters will be addressed in the upcoming related volumes.
  6. Into the Water by Paula Hawkins. 4 out of intothewater5 stars. The important thing with this one is not to go into it expecting the next Girl on the Train. I found this new Hawkins book to be completely different than her previous release, and personally, I liked the switch because both styles appeal to me. This one’s more slow and unrelenting than fast and frantic, but the style fit well with its subject matter and the characters were well-crafted enough to keep me going even though most all of them were unlikable. I’m eager to see where Hawkins will go next.
  7. Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare. 4 out of 5 stars. This one fell into the trap clockworkprinceof middle-book syndrome: very little plot advancement happened while all the characters were being moved around the board and their emotions poked and prodded to set up for the final book in this trilogy. Even so, I enjoyed it more than the first book in this series and I’m looking forward to reading the last one. I’m invested in the fates of most of these characters (some more than others), and I think it’s interesting that so much can have happened in a prequel series–how will it end,  and how will it relate back to the Mortal Instruments?
  8. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. 5 out of 5 stars. tokillamockingbirdEvery month when it comes time to start my designated classic, I drag my mental feet because I’m rarely in the mood for it until I’m in the middle of it. Even knowing I loved this book the last time I read it (6 years ago?), I was hesitant. I shouldn’t have worried, though. Within a few chapters I was enamored with these characters and their story all over again. I like how every little thread in this book has a moral of some sort, but they’re presented as new ideas to children rather than the sort of painful moralizing that assumes the ideas are entirely new to the more experienced reader (as though he/she has never heard of racial equality or aid for the poor, etc.). I like the way Boo Radley is handled at the end of the tale, the brief conclusion to his role in the story that would have been ruined with anything more outspoken. I especially love Scout’s role as a literal ham in the town pageant. In fact, the only thing I didn’t like about this book is that despite its nudges toward equality between races and social classes, there is still a line drawn between men and women. It’s subtle, perhaps, but it’s there. The line is especially notable when Scout realizes she can’t be a juror because she’s a woman; Atticus jokes that women would make horrible jurors because they’d always be interrupting to ask questions, and Scout just kind of agrees and laughs it off, settling into the restrictions of her gender. I realize this book takes place in the 1930’s (and I just looked it up–women did not have the rights to serve on juries in all fifty states until 1973), but Scout is a child young enough to dream impossible dreams, and she seems like exactly the sort of overall-wearing, fist-fighting, book-loving child to put up a fuss about being told she can’t do something because she’s a girl. There were other little comments and circumstances that hit me the same way, with the sense that gender equality in many regards was still a far-off and even unwelcome prospect, and that bothered me more than anything else in this book. Other inequalities, at least, were addressed as such. On the whole though, I liked the perfect balance of danger and safety, wins and losses, childhood games and significant laws that filled the rest of the book. It’s a strong favorite.
  9. The Girl Before by JP Delaney. 4 out of 5 stars. Although not as terrifying as I thegirlbeforegenerally prefer my thrillers to be, I found in this book exactly the sort of mystery/thriller I was looking for this month. Even the characters who turned out to be harmless were disturbing, and there’s something about the idea of a house that learns your life and tries to give input and make changes for you that is supremely disturbing. Also, I absolutely loved the way this novel is structured–the format fits the content exactly, and I’m the sort of reader who can appreciate that sort of thing as much as an engaging plot.
  10. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. 4 out gosetawatchmanof 5 stars. I had so many different frames of mind while reading this–for the first hundred pages or so I was hardly invested at all, and then I was so shocked by the sudden change around page 100 that I had to take a break to figure out how to go on with my life, and then by the end I was sad about what had happened and sad that it was over. That was all pretty vague, but I don’t want to give any spoilers here. Full review coming soon, because this book is packed full of big surprises. Some of them were fairly upsetting, but so believable that I have a lot of respect for some of the techniques in this book, too.

Honorable mention: I spent an entire day in May skim-reading A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas after I finished reading acourtofmistandfuryACOWAR; since I didn’t read every word on every page, I’m not counting this as a full reread, but I did dedicate a significant number of hours and I read probably 3/4 of the book in total, so I thought it deserved a nod of acknowledgment, at least. Again, on my second time through it, it felt like just as much of a guilty pleasure read. My favorite part of this book is the extreme character development–several of the characters turn completely around from where we left them at the end of ACOTAR, which I appreciate. Character-driven books are the best, and I think the fact that we focus more on character than plot in this volume is what makes it stand out as the best of the trilogy. The reread didn’t really change my opinions on it in any way.

We’ve reached the end of the list. I’m pretty impressed with myself for having read so much this month, especially since several of these books were fairly long. I wish I would have also had time for A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, the only book on my TBR for the month that I didn’t fit into these past 31 days, but I knew I might not get through eleven books this month. If every month were this productive regarding my reading, I’d be thrilled.

June TBR

I wanted to do something a little different with my TBR this month. I wanted to create a short list of must-reads and a longer list of books to choose from in the reading time I would have left afterward. But the more I looked at all the time the short list would leave me and the great books on that longer list of choices, the more I narrowed them down; soon I had a full length list of must-reads and not many choices left. So below you’ll find a pretty normal TBR, although I left some flexibility in it to keep things interesting.

  1. City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare. I’m prioritizing the Shadowhunter books because I’m right in the middle of the two older series and I’m excited to get to the Dark Artifices soon, so I will definitely be reading at least one Cassandra Clare book this month. I think it’s highly likely that I will also be reaching for Clockwork Princess, the final book in the Infernal Devices trilogy (and next in publication order) later in the month if I reach the end of the list early. I won’t explain what these are about here because 1. many of you probably know about the Shadowhunter books by now, and 2. if you don’t, these are middle/end-of-the-series books and spoilers are cruel.
  2. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. This is my classic of the month (it’s about a man who can’t work because he’s turned into a bug). Since I set up a schedule of twelve classics I wanted to read this year and I haven’t ditched the plan yet, I’ll definitely be reading this month’s classic so I can keep up with my list. Although I decided months ago to read this one in June, I’ll also have a choice with this one–the actual story of Metamorphosis is pretty short, but the copy I bought also has other stories in it. I’ll leave it up to impulse whether I’m going to be reading those other Kafka stories in June.
  3. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. I’m starting another series, guys. A trilogy. Shocker. I’ve been having such a hard time choosing which series to dive into next because there are so many good ones I want to read this year, but I checked this one out of the library so I’ll definitely be reading it soon. I think it’s about a special magic book that’s been lost and is unexpectedly found by some unsuspecting soul, and there are witches and maybe vampires? I don’t remember, but it sounded fun and I grabbed it at the library to stop myself from purchasing three more books I don’t even know yet if I’ll like. I’ve made a wise money decision! I feel like an adult!
  4. A BOTM book. Here’s a bit of flexibility in my TBR. I have a small backlog of BOTM books (Swimming Lessons, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, and Since We Fell), and I don’t know yet what the June selections will be (they’re announced on the first), so by the time my BOTM box arrives I’ll have several to choose from. I’ll read one of them for sure, but who knows what it’ll be.
  5. Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige. I decided to add an extra interactive post to my monthly repertoire in May to help me decide which unread book from my shelf to read next. (You can watch for it again near the end of June–I think I’ll try it at least one more time with a fresh category to vote from.) I had fun with it, and I hope the three people who voted had fun with it, but I led myself straight into the dilemma of offering five books to choose from and no plan for a tie-breaker. Since I originally had a shorter list this month anyway, I decided just to read all three books that received a vote, and this was one of them. It’s a YA first-in-a-series book about a new Kansas girl who steps in to solve some problems that have arisen in Oz after Dorthy went a little power-crazy and turned the well-known fantasy world upside down.
  6. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Here is another book that received a vote from the unread selections I posted about in May (check out this link if you’re interested in the layout/process or want to see the other selections). I had originally planned to read this one in October, but I have too many books I want to read around then. Also, I’ve been really intrigued by this one for years and it’s beyond time I finally fit it into my schedule. It’s about a traveling magical circus, at the heart of which are two competing magicians who fall in love, but aren’t both supposed to survive the deadly “game” they’ve been pushed into.
  7. The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. This is the final book that received a vote from Choose My Next Read: Round 1. It’s a fantasy novel (first in a trilogy, because clearly I like to start a million series at once and try to juggle them) about a girl who becomes a queen and finds that leadership is not what she expected. I know there’s magic that involves a special sapphire, and an evil queen (there are multiple queens in this world) and some politics and a quest for revenge. Beyond that, I’m going in blind on the strength of the reviews and recommendations I’ve seen for this series.
  8. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. I gave myself a month away from the Grishaverse, but it didn’t feel like a vacation. I missed Ravka. I feel like this should be a low-priority book because I’m not invested in the story yet (this is the first book in a duology), and I own it, so it’s not going anywhere while I put it off; but I know in my bones that I’m too impatient to wait any longer so I might as well add it to the official list. I think it’s about a big heist that a group of misfits work together to pull off in the same setting as the Grisha trilogy.
  9. Vicious or A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab. Here’s another choice I’m leaving myself. You may remember (kudos if you do) that A Darker Shade of Magic appeared way at the end of my May TBR, but even at that time I knew I was assigning myself more books than I would probably have time for. As I feared, I didn’t manage to read it in time. I still really want to, so expect to see it being reviewed in the next month or two, but since I have several first-in-a-series books in this list already, I am considering reading Vicious for now instead. I know for sure I want to start reading Schwab’s books this month, but I’m going to let myself choose which one I feel most in the mood for later in the month, once I’ve decided how many of these other series I intend to continue juggling.

junetbr

And that’s my TBR for June. It’s pretty fantasy-heavy, and there are several new series I’ll be starting this month, which doesn’t really seem like what I was expecting for June, but it looks good. I also have several extras (with more genre variety) in mind in case I finish the list early, but nine books already looks like a full month for me, so we’ll see. Although there are nine books in this TBR photo, those are subject to change, according to the choices I left open in the descriptions above. I just like to have a visual map for the month, even if it’s a tentative one.

Have you read any of these books? Are any of them in your summer reading plans?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Girl Before

The Girl Before is a psychological thriller, and JP Delaney’s debut novel (although I believe it’s a debut under a pseudonym from an author who’s been published previously). I bought it on a whim  when it was brand new, and picked it up this month as a much-needed palate-cleansing thriller. Probably not many people consider thrillers palate cleansers, but the good ones are quick reads that run lightly through the gamut of emotions and plot devices and seem to work for me as a reset button on my reading mood, which is helpful at the end of a long month.

thegirlbeforeAbout the book: Edward Monkford is a mysterious, slightly creepy, totally obsessive architect, famed for his minimalist designs. He’s built an extraordinary house in London that can be rented cheap–which attracts a lot of attention to the space, but only a rigorous application, a personal interview, and a lot of luck can secure a new prospective tenant access to the home. There is a list of rules a mile long for how new residents are to live in the space, and the fact that the house collects constant data on its inhabitants is enough to discourage some potential renters. But Emma and her boyfriend, Simon, make the cut and take up residence at One Folgate Street, only for things to go awry very quickly. Three years later, Jane is granted permission to live in the space, and is sucked into the mystery of Emma’s unsolved death as her own life is increasingly entwined with Edward Monkford and One Folgate Street. Jane tracks down all of Emma’s old connections, finding odd parallels to her own life in places, and glaring inconsistencies in others. Her involvement–or perhaps her presence alone–sets danger in motion, and soon it’s not only Emma’s life on the line.

“It’s a fortress, I’d said to Simon. But what if the house itself decides not to protect me? How safe am I really?”

About the layout: The first hundred pages or so of this book continually impressed me. The narration starts out with two alternating perspectives (Then: Emma, and Now: Jane). These two main characters are both distinctly different and beautifully parallel. Right away, the two characters are set apart by their private circumstances, and the sections are also easily distinguishable by their dialogue–the Then: Emma sections do not use quotation marks for spoken words, a tactic that both helps set her apart and gives her sections a feel of memory rather than physical presence, which is fitting because her story has already ended several years before Jane’s starts. Once the two women are separated in the reader’s mind, however, their stories become a tennis match of back-and-forth rallies: one of the women tours One Folgate Street. The other one decides to apply for residence there, and sends off the application packet. The first woman’s application packet is accepted. The second woman moves into the apartment. Etc. There are so many similarities between what happens to the two women regarding the house and its architect that many of the sections seem to pick up right where the previous one left off. The only times both stories are narrated in full detail are to display repetition in Edward Monkford’s habits. Futhermore, the unlabelled chapters are also divided with headers featuring odd questions from the application packet that both pique the reader’s interest and pertain to the content ahead. It’s a gorgeous and effective format that’s both easy to read and logistically pleasing.

I will admit, though, that the tension is mild, at best. For the first two thirds of the book there’s intrigue and foreboding rather than anything really terrifying or dramatic. The reader learns early on that Emma has died mysteriously. The reader is also guided to believe that Jane’s story is following a similar, disastrous path. That, and Edward’s growing creepiness, are the driving forces through much of the book, rather than any immediate danger.

“I can’t go back, I say. […] When something’s gone that wrong, you can’t ever put it right.”

Seeing the ending coming a mile away is one of the biggest downfalls of a book for me, but that’s not exactly what happens here. There’s a good amount of misdirection, which leaves the possibility of surprises. If the reader can figure out which point of the story to focus on, the plot twists aren’t ground-breaking, but neither are they overt. All of the clues are given before they puzzle is assembled, which means that prediction is possible. But the narration is multi-layered enough that even when a prediction plays out correctly the reader is propelled onward to see how all of the misdirections will fall into place.

My problem with this book did not stem from predictability, but rather from a let-down with the final reveals. The climax of the story passes quickly and with few shocks. Once the true culprit is made known, the clues are obvious. Even that didn’t bother me. It was the  language usage at the very end of the book that finally made me dock a star. The narration repeatedly tries to nudge the reader into shock, using phrases like, “And then I finally told him the truth,” and “This was my intent all along,” followed by rather bland reveals that seem to matter little after death has struck. I did retain a lot of respect for the choices the characters each made at the end–the book wasn’t wrapped up too neatly, but everyone went the way their character seemed destined to go, be it for better or worse. It was the fact that the story kept trying to make me think something grand and outlandish was happening when there were only bland, minor details left to be explained. And yet, as I mentioned, I remain content with each character’s ending.

“You can make your surroundings as polished and empty as you like. But it doesn’t really matter if you’re still messed up inside. And that’s all anyone’s looking for really, isn’t it? Someone to take care of the mess inside our heads?”

It also bothers me a bit when psychological thrillers draw on the trope of dangerous men preying on women who look a certain way. (There’s definitely a Fifty Shades vibe in this book. I’m recommending adult audiences only, here). I can understand how it might be startling and strange to meet someone who looks very much like a lost loved one, but matching victims seems like such an obvious tactic.

Furthermore, secrets are unrealistically unguarded here. Everyone involved in Emma’s life is just helpful enough to provide the next clue for Jane–the psychologist, the retired cop, the ex-lovers; everyone’s willing to share a name or personal detail.  Are real people so quick to share other peoples’ private information?

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I didn’t love the characters of this book, but I was okay with that because I don’t think the reader is meant to. At some points, in fact, I was truly disgusted by some of the things they said or did or even thought. And yet the construction of the book was laid out so perfectly that I didn’t mind some questionable content. I don’t think this is a book for everyone, but for readers who look as much between the lines as at them, the style of the formatting in this book is worth any imperfections in the story itself. I believe this is going to be made into a movie, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for it, as well as for future works by this author.

Further recommendations:

  1. Whether you like The Girl Before or not, if you’re looking for a great mystery/thriller with an unbelievable ending, it’s Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough. This one has a slower, more literary start, but again, all the clues are woven in and you still won’t guess where this one’s heading. If surprises in books are your thing, this is the book for you.
  2. Megan Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger is another good recent release involving a unique home, a death, and an unexpected look-alike. This time, though, I fully support the use of nearly identical women because it makes an excellent plot point.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the recent(ish) sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird. I may or may not review it in full. I don’t usually post complete reviews of classics–my thoughts on To Kill a Mockingbird will go up in my monthly wrap-up and I’m not sure yet whether to post for its sequel or whether it makes more sense to simply review it more briefly alongside its classic counterpart. I’ll decide as I’m reading. Either way, you’ll see my thoughts on Go Set a Watchman soon. And after that, I’ll be starting a new fantasy trilogy and reviewing its first book, A Discovery of Witches, as usual.

What are you reading to wrap up the month of May? Anyone else use thrillers as palate cleansers?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

May Book Haul

I did so well this month! I actually read more books than I bought. I read as many books from my own shelves as I bought. I mean, that was my goal for every month this year, but I think this is the first time I’ve actually achieved it. And I’ve already read several of these! New books make me so happy, but I’m proud of myself for sticking to a reasonable number this month. Hopefully the smaller number doesn’t make this a boring book haul, because I’m excited about all of these.

Books I bought in May:

  1. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. This is a Gothic classic that has been intriguing me since I read Jane Eyre. I haven’t read a lot of Gothic literature, but I’ve liked what I’ve read, and this one has been recommended to me. I already have twelve classics to read in 2017, but I may even pick this one up as an extra in upcoming months. And if not, it’ll almost certainly be on my list of classics for next year. I ordered this one around the time of my birthday in April, but it took a while to ship. I wasn’t in a big hurry for it anyway, although I am growing more and more eager to read it. It’s pretty rare, I think, for a book to be both popular in its own time, and a long-standing classic, so I’m interested to see if this one lives up to its reputation.
  2. Into the Water by Paula Hawkins. Despite its overpopularity for a bit there in 2016, I did love The Girl on the Train when I read it, and I liked the movie. I appreciated that the protagonist is fallible. I’ve been in such a thriller mood lately that I thought this one would be perfect, but now that I’ve read it I wouldn’t call it a thriller at all. In any case, I had to see where this author was going after The Girl on the Train before all the hype (or the bad reviews, if it goes that way) could ruin it for me. When I saw BOTM was adding it to their extras in May, I added it to my box so fast and I almost didn’t even care what the actual monthly selections were going to be. They were good though, in case you were wondering.
  3. Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane. This was my Book of the Month Club pick for May. I was sold at the “literary thriller” description (yep, another thriller), and the fact that this is the same author of the mindwarping novel Shutter Island. If I hadn’t already had so many books in mind to read in May, I would have read this one already, so I’m hoping to get to it soon. I think I want to start leaving my monthly TBRs a little more open, so I have room for unexpected new releases and discoveries that I don’t want to wait for. I’m falling a little behind with my BOTM books, and I think it’s because I tend to plan a pretty rigid TBR for the upcoming month before the new selections for BOTM are announced. I’m still just as thrilled about the books (like this one) that I have yet to read, though.
  4. A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas. I have been waiting for this release (book three in the A Court of Thorns and Roses series) since I read book two in December. Don’t even get me started on the hellish two week wait I endured between its release date and the arrival of my own copy, when reviews started pouring in and that cliffhanger from book two was at the forefront of my mind. But I finally got my hands on this book and read it in about three sittings. Next time, I will have a better plan regarding ordering a new book in a series that I can’t stand to wait for. It’s one thing to wait for a publication date to arrive, but quite another thing to wait for a copy once the rest of the world is already reading the book.
  5. A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas. When I ordered ACOWAR (above), I had an argument with myself about whether it was better to have books on my shelf that I actually enjoy and could see myself rereading, or that look nice in a set. Meaning, I didn’t think I would want to own book one of this series, but it seemed odd to only own book three. So I ordered ACOMAF, book two, along with ACOWAR, and I’ve already skim-read it again and could maybe even see myself wanting to buy and reread book one at some point for a full series reread, maybe around the time book four comes out. For the Feysand scenes, mostly. I didn’t really like Rhysand in A Court of Thorns and Roses, though it was clear to me that he wasn’t as evil as he was depicted by Tamlin. But this isn’t a review, so I’ll leave it at the fact that I really liked ACOMAF and I’m glad to own my favorite part of this series, at least, if not the whole thing at the moment.

maybooks

I’m really happy with this haul. It feels like a good place for my book-buying to be at present. I’m going to set a goal for myself to stick to 5 books for June, just to see how it goes having a planned amount to stick to. (You’d think I would have tried that sooner, but here we are.) I’m mentioning it here to help hold myself accountable, but we’ll see what happens.

In the meantime, you can help me plan my June TBR by checking out my first ever Choose My Next Read post! There are a few hours left to vote for the selection you’d like to see me read and review in June, so go look at the list and tell me what I should read next!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Clockwork Prince

“When I think of you, and you are not there, I see you in my mind’s eye always with a book in your hand.”

I’m reading all of Cassandra Clare’s books in publication order this year, and I’m up to Clockwork Prince, book two of the Infernal Devices trilogy. This is my last Shadowhunter reread for the year, so the next five books will be all new to me and I feel like I’ve reached a milestone in my 2017 Shadowhunters journey. I was a little nervous because I didn’t like Clockwork Angel (the first book in this trilogy) as much as I expected, but I was pleasantly surprised with this second volume. No spoilers for book two here, but please read Clockwork Angel before continuing below.

About the book: The Consul has given clockworkprinceCharlotte two weeks to find the missing evil mastermind Mortmain, or lose leadership of the London Institute. Some of the Institute residents are determinedly helping her achieve this goal, but others make for surprising hindrances to her success. Benedict Lightwood wants control of the Institute for himself and will stop at nothing to wrest it from Charlotte; his leadership, of course, would leave the Institute uninhabitable for Charlotte’s friends, as well. Benedict would be enough to handle on his own, but there is also the slippery nature of Mortmain and his helpers to contend with, who always seem to be a step ahead of the Institute crew. These two adversaries Charlotte and her adoptive family must deal with at once are almost more than they can manage–but not so much to keep the teenaged orphans too busy to fall in love, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

“You are in love and you think that is all there is in the world. But the world is bigger than you […] and may have need of you. You are a Shadowhunter. You serve a greater cause. Your life is not yours to throw away.”

About the characters: in Clockwork Angel, I was put off by how rudely all of the characters seemed to be speaking and behaving toward each other. In Clockwork Prince, the reader is given explanations for some of the more deliberate cases of rudeness (which doesn’t quite excuse them from being so awful to each other, but at least it shows the reader that they’re not always cruel, soulless creatures intentionally hurting each other). Furthermore, one of the main characters’ pasts is examined much more closely in this novel, providing evidence for the fact that underneath the insults lies a caring heart.

“There is a soul under all that bravado. And he is really alive, one of the most alive people I have ever met. When he feels something, it is as bright and sharp as lightning.”

Speaking of character development… I should mention that so, so much of this book seems dedicated to a certain love triangle. SO MUCH LOVE TRIANGLE. I mean, all three of the triangle characters are fully developed and a choice is made, but there’s no getting around the triangle. I think several relationships within and surrounding this triangle would’ve been forced to a very different place if either of the two suitors had been aware of the other’s pursuit, but alas, all of the one-on-one friendships/relationships growing here seem to be occurring primarily in private. I’m guessing that the final decision of who will be with whom will have to be remade again in book three, when they’re all finally honest and open with each other and the full truth comes out. All the secrecy is unsustainable.

“I feel myself diminished, parts of me spiraling away into the darkness, that which is good and honest and true– If you hold it away from yourself long enough, do you lose it entirely? If no one cares for you at all, do you even really exist?”

While Mortmain evades capture, hundreds of pages focus instead on the characters constantly present, and all their complicated feelings. All of the “research” and “discoveries” made by the Institute’s Shadowhunters involve little to no contact with their adversaries, or even, hardly, with acquaintances who may be able to help. There are a couple of brief conversations, but overall there is little advancement in any regard but romance in Clockwork Prince.

“I had always thought one could not be truly lost if one knew one’s own heart. But I fear I may be lost without knowing yours.”

A non-romance-related writing tactic worth noting is the repetition involved in the revelation of information in Clockwork Prince. These characters are each independent, but they all also have unique relationships inside the group, in which information is revealed piecemeal. The reader will learn a bit of a character’s past, and then the narration will remind the reader that other characters do not hold the same information, and later page space will be taken up by those other characters learning what the reader has already been told. It can be interesting trying to piece together new layers to clues that are divided this way, but it’s annoying to be given a piece of information and then forced to wait patiently as the other characters continue guessing at a truth that has already been revealed to someone else. A key point of Will’s past is disclosed in Clockwork Prince, for example, and I believe I read the same information about it three times as different characters discovered it, with several incorrect guesses and assumptions mixed in between. Each instance focused on the shock of the reveal all over again, rather than presenting unique perspectives or additional layers to the information that would have provided the reader with something new to discover through the repetition.

And yet, the emotions and mysteries of the characters drive the plot steadily onward, and there is less general unpleasantness than I found in Clockwork Angel.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’m still not loving the series, but this one did improve my opinion of it and I suspect the third book will be even better. This one was definitely an improvement from Clockwork Angel, and I’m still planning on reading onward to see if it keeps improving. I first started reading this trilogy in 2012, I think, and I read Clockwork Prince for the first time right after its release, so I’m excited to finally be getting around to finishing the series. For as much as I loved all the Shadowhunter books when I first experienced them, I’ve been putting off reading the endings for an awfully long time, and I’m ready to fix that. Next up in publication order will be City of Lost Souls, and then on to the third and final book in this trilogy, Clockwork Princess. I have high hopes for wrongs being righted there.

Further recommendations:

  1. Cassandra Clare quotes lots of classics in the Shadowhunter novels, and especially in the Infernal Devices trilogy. If you like the Clockwork books, you should check out some of the novels that inspired Cassandra Clare–like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, or Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.
  2. Shakespeare also makes a few appearances in references in the Infernal Devices; if you want something a little more poetic but just as classic and inspiring, try Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a play full of magic and revenge and romance.

Coming up Next: I’ll be reading my classic(s) of the month next, both of Harper Lee’s books. I only review classics in my monthly wrap-ups, so you’ll have to wait until then to find my responses to Lee’s books. I think I’ll take a short break between them though, to read another book from my May TBR, so my next review will be of JP Delaney’s The Girl Before, a recent thriller about two girls who’ve inhabited the same apartment space and found similar disaster within.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: you can now read my full review of the next book in this series, Clockwork Princess!