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Review: The Truth About Forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Recommendations:

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: The Silence of the Lambs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary ELephant

 

Review: Saga: Book One

I’ve only known about Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s Saga volumes for about a year, but even after seeing great reviews I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if I hadn’t needed a graphic novel for my 2017 reading challenge. I think technically Saga is a comic, but I won’t even pretend that I understand the distinctions between all the forms of image-based stories. I have a lot of respect for artists who tell stories this way, but with graphic novels, etc. I don’t feel like I’m reading in the usual way that I enjoy reading, so I don’t pick them up very often. But I am grateful to my 2017 reading challenge for pushing me to pick this one up, because I loved it.

sagabookoneAbout the book: Marko and Alana were fighters on opposite sides of a galactic war. Now they’re new parents, and both sides call them traitors and offer rewards for their deaths. The baby, Hazel, is the narrator of the story, from a future perspective that gives the plot just enough foreshadowing to keep things interesting and the writing just enough insight to seem meaningful even at its weirdest moments. (It’s rated M for Mature, and rightly so, but it’s not a cheesy or vulgar romance.) The key players hunting Marko and Alana have lives of their own, things to win and lose and find along the way as they’re hunting the fugitive family. They’re all just fighting for their own survival, on whichever side of the war they happen to fall, with some surprising alliances. But it is a war, so it can’t end well for everyone.

About the format: In this edition, the first three volumes of Saga are compiled in one book, with bonus material at the end that describes the writing process of the comic from the points of view of each of its contributors. There are six chapters in each volume, but this book is set up so that it reads as 18 continuous chapters from a larger story. Each chapter has its own themes and ideas, and each volume is a set of chapters that are linked with underlying points, but beginning in the very first chapter the story moves smoothly forward, expertly connected with characters whose lives intertwine despite their own unique subplots.

The book starts with the combined narration of Hazel’s parents talking through her birth, and Hazel’s commentary from later on. Hazel is talking about the conception of ideas, and the process of bringing them out into the world into tangible things. It’s an apt comparison to have these two lines of thought going on simultaneously, and amusingly meta: Hazel’s commentary feels a lot like an explanation concerning the creation of Saga. It’s definitely a unique and intriguing start to the book, which draws the reader in.

“Ideas are fragile things. Most don’t live long enough outside of the ether from which they were pulled, kicking and screaming.”

It’s the characters who really make the story though, and keep the reader engaged through chapter after chapter. The art is beautiful (although admittedly I have little experience with graphic novels) and functional, and the writing is apt; it’s all carried out perfectly to keep the reader interested in setting and character switches. Sometimes the reader sees into the lives of the hunters, the government agents and freelancers third-party allies. These are the “bad guys,” and the reader may be surprised (or not) to end up liking some of these as much as our family on the run. Some of them are less likable (every story needs a villain), many of them are unexpected, some of their motives have yet to be revealed, but every one of them is a distinct, fully-formed person with his/her own background and morals. None of them are human. There’s a ghost, a cat (possibly my favorite), a cyclops, etc. Saga connects them all. And the main character is an infant– that’s new, even before you consider that the baby is horned and winged.

You never know who (or what) will be on the next page.

It seems obvious that this series is moving toward an argument for equality and acceptance, which is an honorable message in itself (though it’s the most predictable aspect of the whole story), but so many other great morals are woven in. The women are strong, the truth always comes out, no one is perfect (I love characters who make mistakes and try to learn from them), and anything is possible if you fight for it. Beneath the plot, it’s an uplifting and inspiring read. If I didn’t loathe cliffhangers so much (only when the next book is not yet available), I would wish for this series to go on forever.

“No one makes worst first impressions than writers.”

Except in their books. These writers have made a great first impression with Saga: Book One.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I will read more Saga, but I’m not newly addicted to graphic novels or anything. I’ll read as much of Saga as is published, but it’ll probably be a while before I pick up another comic. I love the story, but I just don’t feel like I’m reading it. It’s the same reason I don’t listen to audiobooks. I know there are great specimens out there, but I don’t find the same enjoyment in them that I find with traditional novels. In this case, the enjoyment I did find was worth venturing into an unusual (for me) medium, and I will try to keep a more open mind about my reading material as a result. I’m definitely looking forward to more Saga.

Further Recommendations:

  1. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising (and its two sequels) is a great space narrative about fighting inequality. It also sports a wide and surprising cast of characters whom the reader learns to love and loathe fiercely. Brown’s books are the usual fiction type with no images, but if you like the story of Saga, you may also enjoy this one.
  2. If your favorite aspect of Saga is choosing characters from both sides of the war to root for, you may want to try George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. It takes much longer to read than Saga, but it’s a character-driven political conflict mixed with fantasy elements that allows the reader to choose his/her own favorite side in the dispute and support different characters as their personalities develop. Again, no pictures beyond a map, but the characters are irresistible.

Coming up Next: I’m just finishing up my Halloween read, Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs. It’s very detailed as far as the criminal investigation (they’re hunting a serial killer), but it’s easy to read and there are a lot of horrifying little surprises in there that don’t feel too fictional to disturb the reader. It’s a (frighteningly) engrossing read, and I should have a review up in a couple of days.

Which graphic novels / comics / manga do you like best? Any suggestions for me?

Sincerely,

Literary Elephant

October Reading Wrap-Up

This has been a crazy month. I knew it would be, and I made it worse by setting a 22-book TBR for October. Of those 22 books, I read only 5 full books (and starting 2 others), although I read 13 books overall. It really wasn’t a bad reading month, although there were so many more things I wish I would’ve had time to read this month. I probably say that (or at least think it) every month, but I feel it especially in October because it’s one of the few months that I read specific types of books, so some of the things I didn’t end up reading are books I’ve been looking forward to reading in October practically since this time last year. But there’s always next year, I suppose. If I’m still alive (and I intend to be), I’ll still be reading. Here’s what I did finish this month:

  1. The Deal by Elle Kennedy. 3 out of 5 stars. Followed by:
  2. The Mistake by Elle Kennedy. 3 out of 5 stars. And:
  3. The Score by Elle Kennedy. 3 out of 5 stars. And then also…
  4. The Goal by Elle Kennedy. 3 out of 5 stars. These are the four novels in Kennedy’s NA romance Off-Campus series. It’s a cheesy, predictable set of books about four college hockey player roommates and the girls they fall in love with. There are a lot of sex scenes. The covers feature men’s abs. I’m kind of ashamed about having read all of these, and I don’t want to review them more fully. I was stressed and I wanted a guilty pleasure read, and it didn’t seem fair to spend whole posts complaining about the problems of these books when I knew three chapters into the first one exactly what these were. I liked them (somewhat) anyway, I’m not recommending them, I’m glad they’re behind me. For anyone who’s read these and is curious: I thought the guy in the first book was an asshole throughout the entire book, the non-hockey player guy in book two seemed like a better match for the heroine, the third book was my favorite, and I liked book four’s characters best but it had the worst plot (half of it is revealed at the end of book three, and the other half is obvious basically from page one). The best thing I got out of this series is a discussion post I wrote earlier this month about the Goodreads rating system. And now I’m moving on.
  5. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. 5 out of 5 stars. I don’t read onwritinga lot of nonfiction, but this is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. It’s targeted mostly toward beginning writers, but there’s some great advice and impressive story-telling in here for all sorts of readers. I was not intending to pick this one up right away after I ordered it, but I did and I loved every minute I spent reading it. I have never marked so many great quotes in any book before this one, and it’s going to have a place of pride on my shelf for the rest of eternity. Stephen King is a master writer, and even outside of his usual horror/science fiction genre, it shows. Highly recommend, especially if you’re an aspiring writer or Stephen King fan.
  6. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. thehauntingofhillhouse4 out of 5 stars. A classic haunted house tale, as the title suggests. This one was short and spooky, exactly what I was looking for in an intelligent Halloween-type read. I loved seeing the main character’s mind unraveling as the strange occurrences in the house increased. It reminded me a lot of The Bell Jar, and a bit of Ethan Frome. I’m counting this as my classic of the month because it’s the only one out of the three classics I wanted to read this month that I actually got around to finishing.
  7. Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy by Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson, and Robin Wasserman. 3 out of 5 stars. This was talesfromtheshadowhunteracademythe next stop on my 2017 Shadowhunter marathon, and after hearing from so many sources that this one was better than The Bane Chronicles I had high hopes. Unfortunately, I didn’t like this one more than The Bane Chronicles. It had no 5-star stories for me. But it did cover some interesting events after the conclusion of The Mortal Instruments series, so I’m glad I read it, and I’m really excited to be going on to The Dark Artifices next.
  8. Paper Princess by Erin Watt. 4 out of 5 stars. Erin Watt is actually an author duo, and half of the duo is Elle Kennedy (see 1-4 above). Apparently I’ve had a weakness this month for NA romance novels and I’m still kind of ashamed about it but what can you do. I was interested in this series (the Royals series) before I’d ever heard of the Off-Campus series, and the premise of this one sounded better. Accidentally reading all four of the Off-Campus books earlier this month made me more curious about checking out this one, and although there were definite similarities I liked this one a lot more. The characters were generally less annoying and problematic and more things happened that I wasn’t expecting. Some of the actual romance plot is still really predictable, but I cared more about the characters and the surprises in their lives, especially with the secondary characters. I would definitely recommend this one over of the Off-Campus series, and I wish I had just skipped those and gone straight to Paper Princess. It’s like Gossip Girl, but grittier and on a smaller, less overly-dramatic scale. It is technically YA, but… it’s more sexual than any YA I’ve ever encountered. Even the non-sex parts and the background details are described in surprisingly sex-related ways. I would probably put it into an NA category myself, because it’s not so much a coming-of-age sort of story as a figuring-out-life-by-reasonably-mature-individuals story, even though the main character is 17 and in high school.
  9. Broken Prince by Erin Watt. 2 out of 5 stars. I sped through Paper Princess in one day, and even though I thought it was kind of trashy I ordered the next two books in the series. Work has been pretty stressful this month, and this series gave me something really easy to read in 5-minute increments at 4 in the morning (I have a weird job, don’t ask). So those are the conditions in which I read most of this second book in the Royals series, and it was exactly what I needed at the time even though it seemed a lot more problematic than the first book (it encourages solving problems with violence, and the male love interest is uber possessive and controlling and doesn’t take no for an answer. Even when it’s not about sex, that’s not a healthy relationship.) This one was also a lot more predictable than book one and had more cringe-worthy dialogue. I’m only talking about these so much here because I didn’t think they were worth a full review, but I wanted to explain a bit about why I read them and what I liked/disliked about them. If you want to know more, meet me in the comments section.
  10. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. 5 out of 5 stars. sixofcrowsThis one was definitely a highlight of my reading year. I can’t believe I put it off for so long, because it’s absolutely a fantastic book, and I can hardly wait to delve into the sequel, Crooked Kingdom (I must found out what happens to Inej. She’s my fave). I started this one because I was excited to read The Language of Thorns, so I hope to be reading that in November, as well, even though it’s not in my official TBR.
  11. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. 4 out of 5 stars. I’ve been theoceanattheendofthelanesporadically picking up Gaiman books this year, and this one seemed perfect for October. Indeed, it was very Halloween-y. Fantasy enough to be unpredictable and fun, but realistic enough that I was left wondering about the monsters in my own life. I loved the mix of adulthood/childhood morals and the reminiscences this book invokes, and somehow the use of a child narrator made the novel even creepier. It didn’t give me weird dreams, but definitely some weird thoughts while I was reading.
  12. The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson. theclockworkdynasty4 out of 5 stars. If you kind of expect something to be a surprising favorite, does it still count as a surprise? Robots are not my thing, but I thought this book was beautiful and thought-provoking. My opinions on robots haven’t really changed, but I was pleasantly reminded of why the writing of a story is often more important than whatever subject matter it covers. I had such a good time reading this one that I didn’t even mind the robots. I also felt like I had a greater appreciation for history after reading this one.
  13. Saga: Book One by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. 5 out of 5 stars. A stunning success. I hardly ever read graphic novels, comics, manga, etc. I like art in books, but I like words more. I just don’t feel like I’m reading when there are so many pictures. But I needed a graphic novel for my reading challenge, and the premise of this one intrigued me. I’m glad I read this edition with the first three volumes in one book, because it gave me enough of the story that I’m definitely interested in reading further (I will be checking out Saga: Book Two in the near future). I’m not rushing out now to read all the comics I can get my hands on, but I did love reading this particular story. It’s weird and blunt and whimsical and it makes some valid points. Full review imminent.

Honorable Mention: I’m currently reading Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. It’s my Halloween read, but I’m so busy right now that I didn’t end up completely finishing it on Halloween. I’ve seen the corresponding film, but I don’t remember it very well so I keep picturing Scully from The X-Files as Clarice Starling, the main female investigator in The Silence of the Lambs. This is a superbly written book, it’s appropriately creepy for Halloween, and I’m having a wonderfully disturbing time reading it. Unless things go unexpectedly awry, it’ll get a high rating from me and a full review posted soon.

What a list. This October was a roller coaster of highs and lows in my reading life as well as my actual life. I wish I had read more things from my long and hopeful TBR, but I did read some great books this month (once I got past the cheesy NA romances). And I’m hoping November will be even better. 🙂

What spooky (or non-frightening) books did you read in October?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Clockwork Dynasty

I don’t often read about robots or artificial intelligence. Humans are interesting enough, and even fictional revelations of humanity can be relevant in real life, while (in my life, at least) encounters with robots are all but nonexistent. Every now and then though, I like to pick up a book out of my normal range, and with Daniel H. Wilson’s The Clockwork Dynasty, I found an automaton book that actually shocked me.

About the book: In early 1700s Russia, two theclockworkdynastyavtomat are awakened. They are brother and sister, a clockwork man whose life goal is justice, and a small woman whose dedication is logic. They are meant to serve the tsar, Peter the Great, and to succeed to “eternal tsardom” when he dies. Instead, they are exiled, and will spend hundreds of years traveling the world and trying to fulfill their life goals while keeping their true identities secret. In present day US, a researcher of clockwork artifacts forces her way too close to the truth of the avtomat, and begins to learn about a secret existence hiding amongst humanity. When her course clashes with the clockwork man’s, the two reveal and seek great secrets– the long extent of the avtomat history, the reason they’re dying out now, and how to revive them– before their mysteries are lost forever.

“New frontiers are waiting to be explored, no matter what the schoolteachers say or how many books have been written. Maps are just a lie we tell ourselves to feel safe.”

The Clockwork Dynasty utilizes a back-and-forth format, alternating chapters of Peter’s (the avtomat man’s) past and June’s (the human researcher’s) present. This gives the reader a rich sense of the different time periods at play in the narration and the variety of countries involved, as well as the dual perspectives of humanity and avtomat. Peter and June both narrate their chapters in the first person, and their similarities and differences are striking.

“We came striding out of the past, yet are bones are made of the future.”

“Most people are too caught up in the present to care about the past. But when I look at something old, when I touch it, I feel like I’m reaching into another world. A place with secrets. So, yes, part of the reason I’m helping you is because I’m curious.”

Fortunately, the characters are just as remarkable individually as they are in comparison. The full cast is wide, featuring both humans and avtomat, and although the narration is limited to two perspectives, the reader is provided a clear view of several main players. Peter’s sister, for instance, stands just outside of the major plot line, but she gives the reader a fuller sense of clockwork life through which we can better understand which of Peter’s quirks are facets of avtomat and which are his own personality. The brother/sister dynamic between clockwork creatures is highly intriguing because they are not siblings in the same way that humans are. There are also friendships and enmities within the wider avtomat population, which are equally interesting, though moreso for the secrets they reveal about the avtomat history and secrets. There is no romance in this novel, though at times the dialogue leans toward innuendos that feel oddly placed for asexual creatures. I rarely seek out books without romance– and yet, there is no romance whatsoever within this novel, and it is stronger for it. Any sort of side plot featuring a love story would have felt forced and unnatural, and I found that the rest of the not-quite-human relationships provided all the emotion I needed.

“I think we are but two small pieces of interlocking machinery in the great, faceless mechanism of the world.”

This book was described to me as a “science fiction thriller,” which I suppose I would agree with for lack of a better genre to name. The pacing, however, is not what I would call typical thriller pacing. There are only a few action scenes that were full of excitement and suspense; though there is a lot of action in the book, the intricate level of detail and elaborate prose slows down the pace. The reveals don’t kick up the reader’s adrenaline and keep him/her on the edge of his/her seat, but they’re undeniably surprising and each one opens up new ways to think about this fictional world and ultimately about the real world. I don’t truly believe that avtomat have been hiding in plain sight for thousands of years, but I do believe that the past contains mysteries that are still relevant today, and that present and future advancements in science are capable of revealing what has never been known or even seen before. The novel uses ideas like these to keep the story of clockwork lives connected to reality, and it plants beautiful ideas of life and reason into the framework of the plot. So while there are plenty of battle scenes and literal races for the truth, this is a book for the contemplative reader, and the reader more tolerant of flowery prose.

“‘We fall through the years,’ he continues, ‘like dust motes through a shaft of sunlight. We dance, each of us reflecting the same brilliance. And though we spiral into darkness, the light remains.'”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I was a bit skeptical when I picked this one up, but it was definitely a risk that payed off in the end. This level of unexpected enjoyment is why I continue to pick up books that sound just outside of my normal reading range. Occasionally, I learn that I like something odd and surprising, like science fiction thrillers. I don’t know that I’ll be reading anything further from this author (although anything is possible), but I do know that I’ll be approaching books that I wouldn’t normally read with a more open mind in the future, which was the goal. I highly recommend exploring genres you don’t normally reach for, because those are the books with the greatest power to impress.

Further recommendations:

  1. Ernest Cline’s Ready player One is a faster-paced science fiction thriller. This one’s about a near future dystopia in which much of the world lives primarily inside a virtual reality instead of actual reality. There’s an on-going challenge inside this virtual oasis, a game-within-the-game, that can change everything–if only one knows enough about 80s pop culture to find the clues and best the creator.
  2. Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter is another fast-paced sci-fi thriller. The main character of this one is a scientist with the skill to solve the mystery of dark matter– and use it to explore alternate realities. The twists in this novel are mind-boggling. If you’re looking for something completely unpredictable with high stakes and high suspense, this is it. You don’t even have to know anything about science or dark matter to love with this one.
  3. The Magicians by Lev Grossman is an urban fantasy adventure story with some strong similarities to The Clockwork Dynasty. If you like the idea of a secret world hiding within the bounds of everyday reality, this is a top contender about powerful magicians, in which the magic is a science to be studied rigorously rather than the usual (and frustrating) inexplicable miracle. This is a character-driven start to a trilogy that spans worlds and prompts the reader to view reality with an open mind.

What’s next: I’m currently reading both Saga: Book One (a compilation of the first three volumes of the graphic novel series Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples) and Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, a classic serial killer thriller with the perfect amount of horror for Halloween. I’ll probably be reviewing both of these next week, but it’s anyone’s guess as to which one I’ll be finishing first.

What spooky and thrilling reads are you exploring this Halloween?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I loved Neil Gaiman’s Coraline as a child (although the other mother’s button eyes particularly terrified me), and when I read his new Norse Mythology book earlier this year I was inspired to pick up a few more of his novels. I had high hopes for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and it definitely lived up to my expectations.

theoceanattheendofthelane

About the book: A man is attending a funeral near his childhood home, and decides afterward to detour down the lane where his family used to live. Without knowing quite why, he passes the place where his parents’ house once stood and continues down the lane. As he nears Hempstock Farm at the very end, he begins to remember things from his past, about the girl who lived there at the end of the lane, who called the fish pond behind the farm house her ocean. He believes Lettie has gone to Australia, but as he visits her family and sits beside Lettie’s ocean, he undergoes a sort of daydream about what really happened to Lettie, the frightening adventure they might have shared in childhood, a dream that may or may not be a memory.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an adult novel that primarily focuses on an event from the (nameless) narrator’s seventh year. It’s a book for grown-ups about what it was like to be a kid. For that reason, I spent most of the book comparing what I would have thought of the story if I had read it for the first time as a child, and what I actually thought of it having read it for the first time just now, in my adulthood. Much like Coraline, I think that this is a book younger readers can enjoy (cautiously, because it is somewhat horrifying), although adults will find different nuggets of truth within its pages. I’m mentioning this comparison because of the magical realism aspect of this novel– it does that great thing where the reader can decide for him-/herself how much of the magic is real, and how much is a child’s nightmare, an elaborate dream-gone-wrong, a fictional elaboration of hard truths that a seven year-old would not have understood or known how to engage with. As a child, I would have taken every single detail of the narrator’s dream/memory for truth, but as an adult, I enjoyed seeing the blurred line between what was true and what a child might imagine and accept as truth. Ursula Monkton may actually be a monster, or she may just be a mean woman having an affair with the boy’s father. Maybe Lettie, the boy’s one friend, really does abandon him to live in Australia, or maybe there’s a more fantastic explanation for her absence. It’s up to the reader.

“I wondered where the illusion of the second moon had come from, but I only wondered for a moment, and then I dismissed it from my thoughts. Perhaps it was an afterimage, I decided, or a ghost: something that had stirred in my mind, for a moment, so powerfully that I believed it to be real, but now was gone, and faded into the past like a memory forgotten, or a shadow into the dusk.”

I’d also like to talk about how unique this story is. Anyone can write about monsters, but Neil Gaiman is the only author who’s ever made me wonder if I should be afraid of a piece of cloth. “The fabric of reality” is a familiar phrase, and toward the end when things start falling apart there is a sort of philosophical use of reality as a fabric, but when Ursula Monkton first appears as something resembling  a weathered canvas tent, the reader is probably skeptical. I was skeptical. And yet, it works. Children can be afraid of anything, which allows the reader to suspend disbelief, and before long the reader is frightened right along with the narrator about what this cloth-woman can do. It’s not a technique I’ve ever seen tried before, and I found myself pleasantly surprised with the payoff.

And, of course, this is the sort of Neil Gaiman book that’s very quotable. From the first chapter to the last paragraph, Gaiman has littered this novel with little gems about looking back on one’s childhood. There were times I thought these observations might be a little too direct or cliched, but somehow they worked, coming from a man’s daydream of being a seven year-old. Here are a few more of my favorites:

“Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.”

“Nobody actually looks like what they really are on the inside. You don’t. I don’t. People are much more complicated than that. It’s true of everybody.”

“Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have, like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Magical realism is often hit-or-miss for me, and the last Gaiman novel I read (Stardust) was too episodic for my taste, so I was wary going into this one. I ended up liking it a lot more than I thought I would, especially for this time of year. It’s creepy in an unexpected way. I will be reading more of Gaiman’s books after this success, but I’m not sure which one I’ll go for next. Any suggestions for me?

Further recommendations:

  1. Coraline, also by Gaiman, is a great little horror book that’s more young-reader friendly. The “other mother” in here was actually pretty scary for me as a child, but I loved it. If you’re looking for more like The Ocean at the End of the Lane to simultaneously remind you of your childhood and give you a scare, Coraline is a great pick. And if you know a young reader who likes spooky stories, it’s a good fit for him or her, too.
  2. If you’re looking for another magical tale of childhood that’s fun to read even as an adult, try C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Boy, the first novel in his Chronicles of Narnia. Gaiman mentions the Narnia books in TOatEotL, and I agree that those books would be a great fit for fans of this one. The main characters are children who travel unknowingly to a fantasy place, and accidentally set big things in motion with their explorations.

Coming up next: I’ll be reviewing Daniel H. Wilson’s The Clockwork Dynasty next, a science fiction thriller (after loving Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter I had to try this genre again). In early 1700s Russia, a pair of automata are “born,” and three centuries later their existence coincides with a researcher’s personal quest to solve the mystery of an “avenging angel.”

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Six of Crows

Spoiler alert: I bought Leigh Bardugo’s new book of short stories, The Language of Thorns. I found a signed copy on sale and it looked good, so I bought it even though I knew I wanted to read the Six of Crows duology first. I almost started reading Thorns immediately, but instead I channeled that interest into finally (finally) picking up Bardugo’s Six of Crows, which has been officially and unofficially on my TBRs since about March. And now I’ve read Six of Crows! What. A. Story.

sixofcrowsAbout the book: Six resourceful teens set out together from Ketterdam to earn a fortune by stealing someone from the most secure prison in the world. One of them is a Grisha with a debt, another of them is a professional Grisha hunter. One is a sharpshooter with certain vices, and one is a high-born hostage with knowledge of maps and explosives. One is a deadly former slave who uses her acrobat training to act as the perfect spy, and the sixth, the leader and mastermind of this scheme, is an orphaned cripple with a long con of vengeance on his mind. They’re an unlikely group, and not entirely friendly, but they may be just the crew to pull off a break-in to the Ice Court prison. Even before they begin though, they know the bigger problem will be escaping again once they’ve succeeded in getting themselves locked inside.

“A gambler, a convict, a wayward son, a lost Grisha, a Suli girl who had become a killer, a boy from the Barrel who had become something worse.”

“The mood was jittery, and their laughter had the frantic serration that came with near disaster.”

It’s almost sad to call a book with a plot this strong and intricate a character-driven book, but Six of Crows is definitely that. The reader is hooked long before the heist begins because each of the characters is infinitely intriguing and could carry an entire novel on his/her own merit. But Six of Crows is a masterpiece of perspectives with each of the six main characters leading alternating chapters. The only scene that doesn’t fit this structure is the first scene, in the first chapter, which is told from Joost’s perspective. This is not the only chapter told from outside the POVs of the six main characters, and the relevance of its events does later become clear, but this first chapter is the only one that seems superfluous to me. Joost doesn’t seem as unique and captivating as the other characters and I didn’t care about him as much as I think the book wanted me to. Everyone else is pure perfection.

“Here’s the secret to popularity: risk death to save your compatriots from being blown to bits in an ambush. Great way to make friends.”

One of the best things about these characters (and the book as a whole) is their criminality. Several of the main characters are part of a Ketterdam gang, and all of them are morally suspect. The reader is allowed to view them as good people worth rooting for, but at the same time is exposed to the grit of their lives. They are thieves– some of money, some of secrets. They are soldiers. They are selfish. Although there is a bit of romance involved (very little, wonderfully subtle), these characters are not romanticized. They are willing to do bad things to survive, and that’s not passed off as an admirable lifestyle. They may may be thieves worth loving, but the narration does not condone or encourage thievery. These are not heroes. They’re not anti-heroes either, but there is no misplaced glamour coating the destruction they leave in their wake. It’s a delicate balance written exceedingly well.

“They were like anyone else– full of the potential to do great good, and also great harm.”

“There could be no judgment from a boy known as Dirtyhands.”

We’ve covered the greatness of the characters; let’s take a closer look at the plot. First of all, a heist is a perfect outline for an adventure book. I picked up this book without knowing anything more about it than I could glean from the blurb on the cover: “Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist.” It the word, “heist” that drew me in. But there’s so much more to the narration than that. Kaz (Dirtyhands, as referenced in the quote above) is the ringleader. The mastermind. The schemer. He’s great at performing tricks and scams because he knows people– he can see what drives them, and how far they’ll go. Most importantly, he knows which parts of the plan not to reveal, to avoid leaked secrets and betrayals. He tells each member of the team only what they need to know to carry out their own parts. This is a factor that works perfectly with the narration of the book overall because it allows the reader to follow each of the characters’ perspectives and still be surprised by the plan they’re all a part of. I did wonder how Kaz could have risked all five of the others’ lives by keeping the plans to himself that way when he could have been killed or separated from them, but otherwise Kaz’s methods and the timing of the book’s big reveals work seamlessly together. Many chapters end on little cliffhangers to keep the reader going, providing just enough information for the reader to keep guessing what will happen next. But even when you guess one part right, something you never expected is waiting in the wings. This is a book that’s fun to read the first time through all the surprises, but would be equally entertaining on subsequent reads, when you know which characters are secretly scheming and where their loyalties truly lie.

The true strength of the book, however, lies not in any one of these details alone, but in the way they’re all brought together with Bardugo’s writing. I’ve read and enjoyed the Grisha trilogy, but Bardugo’s writing in Six of Crows shines with a whole new light. She knows exactly how much to say, and how much to let the reader piece together for him-/herself. There are understated subplots and backstories, enmities and friendships within the group. The fact that these six people are working together, despite all of them hoping for different outcomes from the adventure, keeps the reader on his/her toes. Anyone could be capable of anything, and Bardugo uses every detail in every sentence to her advantage, leaving clues that are faultlessly woven into the fabric of the story. It’s a masterpiece. It’s YA for all ages, my very favorite kind. It’s completely fantastical, and yet utterly believable.

“Facts are for the unimaginative.”

Bardugo isn’t just telling a good story, though. She’s also using her book to talk about real-life problems like prejudice and misuse of power. Lots of books aim for big themes like these, but Bardugo does them well. The reader is guided gently to universal truths without being hit over the head with lessons that are easier heard than carried out. Six of Crows is inspiring. It makes me want to work harder at making the world a better place.

“We are all someone’s monster.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I started reading Six of Crows for the sake of wanting to read The Language of Thorns, which I still want to do, but I didn’t expect to find a new favorite book of the year (it definitely makes the list, at least). I absolutely loved it. I must read Crooked Kingdom, the sequel in this duology, ASAP. Bonus points for Six of Crows with its black page edges. Red pages don’t excite me (sorry, Crooked Kingdom), but I loved the black. It’s a beautiful book, inside and out.

“No mourners. No funerals.”

Further recommendations:

  1. Shadow and Bone is the first book in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy. If you’ve read the Six of Crows duology and want more from the Grishaverse, this is where to go. The first book is my favorite of the trilogy, and if you (like many others) have heard that the Grisha trilogy is not as good as the Six of Crows duology, I do recommend giving at least the first book a try. The Darkling is worth reading about.
  2. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy is a fantastic next choice for fans of Six of Crows. It follows another set of characters that rank somewhere between heroes and anti-heroes, the dregs of the planet uniting to make a big change. Main character Darrow must infiltrate the elites of the social hierarchy, which involves a sort of schooling system that sets the top students against each other in deadly ways. He’ll find unexpected friends (that he may need to betray) and dangerous enemies (who may find out he’s no more than a Helldiver) at the Institute, but will he make it out alive?

Coming up next: I’m reading several books at once again, and I’ve been extremely busy with work, but I should be finishing and reviewing Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane within a day or two. It’s a fantasy story about a couple of children who see things that the adults don’t, set around a pond that the girl calls her ocean.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant