Tag Archives: Books

Mini-Review: A Christmas Carol

I have not read a Christmas story at Christmastime since childhood. For some reason, Christmas traditions have never really crossed into my reading life. But picking up Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol this year is really making me rethink what I should be reading around the end-of-year holidays, just as surely as it’s reminding me to embrace the Christmas spirit this season.

achristmascarolAbout the book: “Bah. Humbug!” is what Ebeneezer Scrooge thinks of Christmas. He has devoted his life to making money– and hoarding it. He is not interested in spending time with the remaining family he has left, and as for sharing his wealth with them, or with anyone– why shouldn’t they earn their own fortunes, as Scrooge has earned his? He frowns upon all those who take an entire day off of productive pursuits to celebrate Christmas. So he closes his office on Christmas Eve, determined to be unhappy all through the holiday. But that night, he is visited by the ghost of his late business partner, who laments his choices in life and offers Scrooge another chance. To avoid his partner’s gruesome fate, Scrooge must accept the visits of three Spirits, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. He must learn their lessons, before it is too late!

“Scrooge went to bed again, and thought, and thought, and thought it over and over and over, and could make nothing of it. The more he thought, the more perplexed he was; and the more he endeavored not to think, the more he thought.”

If I were to voice any complaint about this story, I would say only that it’s predictable. But I should also acknowledge in that case that time and the book’s status as a classic are probably the greatest contributors to its predictability. I knew going in which ghosts Ebeneezer Scrooge would see, and what effect they would have on him. But again, I think that comes down to the fact that this is such a well-known Christmas story. I remember seeing the Mickey Mouse version of it, with Donald Duck starring as Scrooge, several times in my younger years; and that wasn’t the only adaptation I encountered, though it stands strongest in my memory.

And then again, the predictability of the story also helps demonstrate what I believe to be the greatest strength of the book: that even for readers who know exactly what to expect from the plot, Dickens captivates readers with his prose and his characters’ heartfelt emotions so thoroughly that the story is still worth reading. It was not only Scrooge’s transformation that held my attention, but poor Tiny Tim’s plight, the fate of Scrooge’s wife, and the games at his nephew’s Christmas party (and the guest with a crush on the niece’s sister). A Christmas Carol is packed with smaller stories inside the main plot that run through quite a range of emotions.

Best of all is the narrative style with which Dickens presents his story. He writes easily and informally, as though telling a story to a close friend. He’s often addressing the reader directly, emphasizing the fact that the story is going on in some window that only the writer can see, and the writer is pulling the reader closer to let him/her in on the secret. It’s a great balance that gives the story a sort of raw, honest feel, though it’s also begging to be shared, or shouted from the rooftops. No film adaptation I’ve seen of this same story has interested me so thoroughly or promised to stick with me as well as the book will– and that is because no one tells it better than Dickens. If you’ve ever been intrigued about A Christmas Carol, let me tell you, reading the book is worth it (and it’s a short book, so really you have no excuse).

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I will charlesdickensdefinitely be reading more from Charles Dickens in 2018. I will be especially interested to see if the narrative voice I found in A Christmas Carol will be apparent in his other works, or if his style changes across novels. I think I’m less familiar with his other books, classics though they all are, so I’m excited to start fresh. I’m thinking either A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations will be in my plans for 2018.

Coming up Next: I’m just starting Some Luck by Jane Smiley. I’ve been having a surprising amount of fun with the dregs of my 2017 reading challenge– all the books I put off all year are finally being read, and they’ve been great. I don’t know why I’ve been putting off the titles I have, because I’ve particularly enjoyed reading them this month. I hope the trend continues with Smiley’s novel, which is the first book in a family saga trilogy that takes place in Iowa. One of the blurbs on the cover states that her writing is very Dickensian, which makes me hopeful after my experience with A Christmas Carol.

What seasonal reads are you checking out this year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Mini-Review: Macbeth

It’s been a hot minute since I last read a play, and especially a Shakespeare play. Occasionally I like one, but I can’t name a single play I’ve ever really loved the way I love a good novel. But my 2017 reading challenge urged me to try again, so I picked up William Shakepeare’s Macbeth. I even bought my own copy so that I’d have no excuse to skip over this part of my reading challenge, which turned out to be a successful move.

macbethAbout the book: Three witches appear to the recently-victorious-in-battle Macbeth, and his friend Banquo. They prophesy the two men’s futures, but Macbeth dismisses them as liars. Soon after, the king honors him with a new title as reward for his victory, and Macbeth realizes that the witches must have been telling the truth. And if they told the truth in that instance, perhaps it is also true that Macbeth will be king, as they claimed. But Macbeth is greedy and afraid, and he sets out to take the throne by removing competitors rather than securing the royal title honestly, which earns him a growing list of enemies and assures that the witches will be correct about Banquo’s future too– which doesn’t look so good for Macbeth.

“Double, double toil and trouble, / Fire burn and cauldron bubble. / Fillet of a fenny snake, / In the cauldron boil and bake; / Eye of newt, and toe of frog, / Wool of bat, and tongue of dog; / Adder’s fork, and blindworm’s sting, / Lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing – / For a charm of powerful trouble / Like a hellbroth boil and bubble.”

This is probably one of the easiest plays to understand right from the start that I’ve ever read. For some reason in plays, though not in novels or other mediums, it’s usually difficult for me to keep track of all the characters and the implications of early plot points. But Macbeth has a single plot arc, focusing solely on Macbeth and his affect on other characters, rather than weaving multiple threads together. It is easy to determine the relation of every character to Macbeth, and how they will help or impede his goals.

“False face must hide what false heart doth know.”

“By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something wicked this way comes.”

Here’s a comment more generally applicable to Shakespeare’s works than specifically for Macbeth, but it applies to Macbeth as well as to any other of Shakespeare’s plays that I’ve read. I find the inventiveness of the language so notable– the use of familiar words as different parts of speech than are typically found, and the use of familiar word pieces doctored with different prefixes or suffixes (or even morphed with whole other words) to give new meaning. I love seeing writers stretch the language. I’m talking about examples like “ravined”: made ravenous, and “incarnadine”: to redden. Unusual turns of phrase, like “water’s breach” for breaking waves, and “eternal gem” for immortal soul. To some extent, this is a product of the medium, and the time period in which it was written. But some of these examples have the same sort of whimsical and unexpectedly apt feel that Dr. Suess’s made-up words do, and I think playing with language in that way, making new connections with the bare pieces of it, is so commendable. There are footnotes in case you miss the meanings, but all of the examples I’ve listed here were clear enough in context despite my unfamiliarity with them that I took notice, and appreciated the author’s willingness to experiment.

The downside to Macbeth, for me, was that a significant portion of it seemed much like filler. There’s miscellaneous magic babble. There’s much talk about the action, but very little action seems to be going on. They’re always talking about battles coming and ending, but only part of one battle is right there in the text. The murders are talked over more than anything else, and yet they also pass fleetingly and without much struggle. At one point a ghost appears, does nothing but frighten someone with his presence, disappears, reappears, does nothing, and then is gone from the play entirely. The most exciting action moments were seen in the all-too-brief stage directions that said merely: [Dies.] I know there are some Shakespeare plays with long and impressive monologues, and I did mark some interesting passages from Macbeth, but for a story so focused on death, I was disappointed with how little fight and action actually appeared in the play. So much of it was tucked behind the scenes. But there were some interesting “last words,” at least:

“Whither should I fly? / I have done no harm. But I remember now / I am in this earthly world, where to do harm / Is often laudable, to do good sometime / Accounted dangerous folly.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’ve only read a couple of plays outside of school (although in all fairness let’s acknowledge that I took an entire class on 15th-16th century plays in college so I have read a healthy number). Maybe if I read more of them for fun, I’d enjoy more of them. I did like this Pelican Shakespeare edition, with the line art on the outside and just enough extra info packed between the covers. Maybe I’ll make a note to read more of them. Any recommendations? (I’ve only read Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, and Julius Caesar.)

What’s next: On to the next title of my 2017 reading challenge, which is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. This is also my classic of the month for December, so it’s got that two-birds-one-stone sort of productivity feel. And of course, ’tis the season. Expect another mini-review coming soon, this one featuring the ghosts of Christmas and Ebenezer Scrooge.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Mini-Review: The Color Purple

I do love a good classic, but generally I go into them knowing they’ll probably be dense and a little slower to read. I picked up The Color Purple because I needed a book from the bottom of my TBR for my 2017 reading challenge. The fact that it was on the bottom and a classic besides had me wary about how long it would take (I’m still hurrying to wrap up some 2017 goals) and how much I would actually enjoy it. But by about the tenth page, I knew: I was going to finish it within 24 hours, and I was going to love it. Thank you, reading challenge.

thecolorpurpleAbout the book: narrated through letters addressed to Celia, her sister Nettie, and God, Celia tells the story of her life in 1930’s Georgia. She’s a colored woman in a place and time that’s still very prejudiced, but she’s also found very little love in her childhood family, and in the family she was forced to marry into as an adult. She does, however, make some interesting friends after a fashion and begins to see the wrongs that have been done to her, as well as the ways in which she can rise up against them and persevere.

The Color Purple is written in dialect, meant to sound in the reader’s mouth or mind the way Celia (or her companions) would actually speak. This means the grammar isn’t perfect, the spelling is intentionally wrong in places, and the reader has to find the rhythm of the narration to read it at a normal pace. But, unlike some attempts at dialect writing, I had no trouble following this story, and I doubt many readers will struggle with the unusual style. It’s not my own dialect, so I can’t vouch for how accurate/inoffensive it may seem to others, but personally I had no complaints with it. The hardest aspect of the writing style for me to accept was the lack of quotation marks around dialogue, which occasionally made it difficult for me to differentiate between Celia’s running commentary and someone else speaking.

“My skin dark. My nose just a nose. My lips just lips. My body just any woman’s body going through the changes of age. Nothing special here for nobody to love. No honey colored hair, no cuteness. Nothing young and fresh. My heart must be young and fresh though, it feel like it blooming blood.”

Even though the reader can see from the very first page how hard Celia’s life has been, The Color Purple is not overly heavy or depressing. She’s not an intrinsically sad or angry person, so even when I should have been outraged about something bad that happens to her, I found that reaction somewhat stifled by a greater interest in what would happen next, what it would mean for Celia going forward, because she herself always seems to be looking forward rather than back. That isn’t to say that the reader can’t appreciate the horrifying nature of some of the sins committed against Celia, but Celia’s tendency not to dwell on them overmuch provides a necessary sort of pull through the story that keeps the reader from throwing down the book in inconsolable despair.

“Olinka don’t believe in educating girls she said, quick as a flash, They’re like white people at home who don’t want colored people to learn.”

On the contrary, the best thing about this book is how encouraging I found it, despite some difficult subject matter. If you’re a reader who likes to know what they’re getting into, let me warn you that there’s rape, spousal abuse, misogyny, prejudice, mutilation, displacement of native peoples and more. And yet, this isn’t a book solely for women of color, or even just for women. It’s full of positive messages about treating other people with kindness and finding strength from within. It’s about appreciating oneself first of all. It’s about righting wrongs, starting in one’s own family, in one’s own heart. There is history and culture here, but the morals they provide are accessible for all audiences, in a myriad of situations. The world needs more books like this: stories that keep the past from being forgotten, with the purpose of improving the future.

“The world is changing, I said. It is no longer a world just for boys and men.”

“Why any woman give a shit what people think is a mystery to me.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book has been on my TBR for so long I don’t even remember exactly why I put it there. I knew next to nothing about The Color Purple before I started, but in spite of my hesitation it constantly surprised and impressed me. I will definitely be recommending this one, and it’s one of the few books that I’ve really been thankful for my reading challenge pushing me to read.

Further recommendations:

  1. Toni Morrison’s Sula is another short classic novel that focuses on prejudice toward African American citizens, and especially on the strife that prejudice creates within a smaller community. It’s a phenomenal tale of friendship and betrayal, with a hint of the fantastic.
  2. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a greater-known classic that’s also very easy to read and highlights the history of prejudice in America and the need for equality. This one is narrated by a young girl who learns some hard lessons about the state of her southern community when her father goes to trial to represent an African American man accused of raping a white girl.

What’s next: It’s starting to look definitely possible that I could finish my 2017 reading challenge list before the end of the month. I’m forging ahead with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which I also know next to nothing about (maybe there are witches?) but am picking up for my challenge. I’ll have another mini-review up for this play shortly.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Wonder

Here I am, checking another last-minute item off my 2017 reading challenge with Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder.

About the book: Nurse Lib Wright trainedthewonder under the famous Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, but three years later her career has come down to spending two weeks with an impoverished family in Ireland, making sure an eleven year-old girl doesn’t eat. Anna, the “miraculous” child who claims to have been surviving for four months without food, has been generating a lot of attention. She has fans and believers knocking on the door every day, but there are skeptics as well, and even worse, the folk who accuse the family of terrible trickery or abuse. Lib and another nurse have been called in to watch over the child every moment of every day for two weeks, to set the public straight at last on whether or not any morsel of food is passing into Anna O’Donnell’s mouth. Lib expects to have discovered the trick to the ruse within a matter of hours, or days at most, but instead she encounters many surprises. As the first week turns into the second, Lib questions what she thought she knew, what her job requires, and how far a caretaker should go to ensure her patient’s health.

“How could the child bear not just the hunger, but the boredom? The rest of humankind used meals to divide the day, Lib realized– as reward, as entertainment, the chiming of an inner clock. For Anna, during this watch, each day had to pass like one endless moment.”

The narrator’s skepticism is over-the-top in the beginning. From the premise of the book alone, I knew that there was some question, some mystery, as to whether Anna was indeed a miracle. Lib is so certain that she is not, and that someone in the house is slipping food to her in a way that the nurses will easily detect, that she is completely blinded to other possibilities. It is not until her mind opens to other suggestions that Lib becomes an interesting character. Her doubt makes her more dynamic. She quickly grew on me then, though I did not particularly like her until this predictable line on page 11 (more than a third of the way through the book, my only real complaint about The Wonder):

“It was then, sitting up in the dark, that it occurred to her for the first time: What if Anna wasn’t lying?”

And yet, even in those hundred-plus pages before the characters become so much more sympathetic, the mystery of Anna’s health drives the reader forward. The Wonder is set in mid 1800’s Ireland, touches on the seven year famine of only a few years before, and makes the reader fully aware of every bite they eat while reading. It raises awareness for those people who cannot eat, who cannot afford to eat, who choose not to eat. It brushes against the history of nursing, and the legality that’s tied to healthcare. The Wonder is rooted in Irish customs, filled with historic ways of life and turns of phrase from that country’s culture, and yet its topics feel relevant today, across oceans. There are still eating disorders, parents making choices for their children, children becoming unwittingly involved in problems far bigger than themselves. Donoghue does an excellent job of grounding this novel in the past without alienating modern readers.

“That was what hunger could do: blind you to everything else.”

But the most notable element for me is the religion found within the book. The Wonder is a perfect example of a novel that deals heavily with religion– in this case, Catholicism– without becoming inaccessible or burdensome to readers of other denominations. It neither advocates for or against the religion, though it contains key characters from both sides of the debate. Even though Anna’s and Lib’s experiences with religion have shaped them and play important roles in the events of this story, the reader does not close the book with a sense that Catholicism is “right” or “wrong,” or that any of The Wonder‘s characters have been especially victimized or liberated by their religion or lack thereof. The focus lies on the characters, not their church. It’s a refreshing view.

“That had probably been the making of the man. Not so much the loss itself as his surviving it, realizing that it was possible to fail and start again.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had only read Donoghue’s Room before picking up The Wonder, which I enjoyed though it didn’t send me out immediately searching for more books by the same author. However, The Wonder came as a pleasant surprise– it’s nothing like Room, but it’s a strong novel anyway. Some authors tend to write the same worlds and stories over and over again with surface changes only, but The Wonder proved to me that Donoghue has a good range, and it encouraged me to keep an eye out for more Donoghue books I might want to check out in the future. None of her other already-published books are calling out to me, but I’ll definitely watch for upcoming releases.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like reading about women who see something they don’t like in the world and set out to change it, try Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. This one deals with racism and feminism rather than religion and health, but I think readers of either of these books would enjoy the other. They both tackle serious topics from the perspective of a woman who is used to being overlooked or looked down upon, and are packed with both history and lessons for the modern reader.
  2. If you’re looking for more Donoghue, I do suggest picking up her older novel Room if you haven’t done so already. The difficult themes handled here are rape and imprisonment, but different though Room is from The Wonder, its subjects are handled just as tastefully and powerfully. Also, the novel is narrated primarily from the young child’s point of view, which adds an extra level of intrigue to an unusual situation.
  3. If you’re most interested in Anna’s part of the story and want a YA option for further reading on negative adult influence toward the children in their care, try Robin Roe’s A List of Cages, narrated from two teen perspectives and focused on the abuse of the foster system. This one also deals with mental health in children.

Coming up next: I have several short classics coming up as I work through the rest of my reading challenge list. I usually don’t review classics, but since I’ll have more than one this month I’m going to post mini-reviews for each of them instead of longer paragraphs in my monthly wrap-up. I’m currently reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, an epistolary novel set in 1930’s Georgia and focusing on racism.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Alienist

I am making forward progress on my 2017 reading challenge! I came across Caleb Carr’s The Alienist through Book of the Month Club, and it caught my interest immediately with its premise as a grisly murder mystery set in New York’s Gilded Age. When I realized it also fulfilled one of the open slots in my reading challenge that I’d been having trouble finding a book for, I knew I had to read it.

thealienistAbout the book: New York Times reporter John Moore is pulled into an unprecedented murder investigation by his college friends Dr. Kreizler, an early American psychologist (or “alienist”), and Theodore Roosevelt, president of New York City’s board of police commissioners. The year is 1896, and society shares a distrustful view of behavioral science, at best. The idea of hunting a serial murderer who blends in with the masses and chooses his victims randomly in a city as large as New York seems such an impossible task that Kreizler and Moore are forced to undertake it secretly, as even such authorities as the police commissioners and city mayor argue that there is no use in even attempting such unconventional methods. But the killer is in the midst of a crisis, both escalating his crimes and daring Kreizler to catch him, and Moore cannot in good conscience let the murderer roam free. So begins a race to save undervalued lives, in which the hunters also become the hunted, and nothing is certain or safe.

“There are moments in life when one feels as though one’s walked into the wrong theater during the middle of a performance.”

The murder mystery portion of this book is full of details to commend it. First there are the characters: the investigative team is made up of different races, religions, and genders. One of Kreizler’s assistants is still a child himself, which helps balance the fact that the murderer’s victims are also children. All of Dr. Kriezler’s assistants are criminals; they’ve been pronounced sane, but their pasts are dark and tragic. The murders themselves are gory and sensational, with just the sort of gruesome nature one expects from a horrifying thriller. The action scenes are fast-paced and tense, the psychology is contemplative and impressive. And the victims are young immigrant boys working as prostitutes who dress as women– a category of citizen either spat upon, taken advantage of, or overlooked entirely by most of New York. Moore and Kreizler’s investigative team advocates fiercely for these boys’ right to a proper investigation; they are among the few who are outraged by their treatment and attempting to right the situation, rather than claiming, as many of their fellow citizens do, that the boys “had it coming” or that the city is “well rid of them.” It’s a surprisingly diverse and inclusive book with positive morals for the time period it presents. For all these reasons, I enjoyed The Alienist, and would recommend it to anyone looking for literature focused on the Gilded Age.

“Kreizler emphasized that no good would come of conceiving of this person as a monster, because he was most assuredly a man (or a woman); and that man or woman had once been a child. First and foremost, we must get to know that child, and to know his parents, his siblings, his complete world. It was pointless to talk about evil and barbarity and madness; none of these concepts would lead us any closer to him. But if we could capture the human child in our imaginations–then we could capture the man in fact.”

But there were also several reasons I enjoyed it less than I should have, based on its intriguing premise and well-crafted mystery.

The first is that this book seems to struggle with deciding whether it wants to be a fictional mystery, or a nonfictional account of the seediness of New York in 1896. The combination shouldn’t have been a problem, but I found that while I was wondering about who the killer of child prostitutes could be, it was rather annoying to be interrupted with very long informational paragraphs about the history of fingerprinting as admissible evidence in court. The narrator of the book does announce that he’s writing this story from a future time (for no apparent purpose other than to share plenty of these historical details once their significance has become apparent), but the writing so routinely skews toward assuming its readers know nothing of life in the 1890’s, and then explaining in depth aspects that fiction readers often need much less prompting to believe. I could have done simply with a one-sentence reminder that police do not practice fingerprinting as a regular means of criminal identification in 1896, and enjoyed the story more. I know this is a subjective aspect to criticize– some readers must appreciate a real history lesson wrapped up in their high-stakes murder stories. Usually I would count myself among those ranks, but I found the educational nature of this book excessive; it was difficult even to feel that the story was truly set in the Gilded Age, with the narrator providing so much more detail about the time period than people generally feel the need to do about their own setting. The Gilded Age felt like a fictional backdrop Moore was exploring rather than the world that The Alienist‘s characters lived and breathed.

Additionally, there’s the matter of Moore himself. He’s a very passive part of the mystery. His area of expertise is the criminal realm of New York (on which he has spent much of his career reporting), but from the very beginning of The Alienist he knows his paper wouldn’t publish anything about the sort of story he’s investigating with Kreizler– which leaves me to wonder how well his “criminal knowledge” and the murder case actually overlap. As the book unfolds, it seems the answer is: not much. He contributes to the group discussions, and does his share of the leg work in the investigation, but essentially he could be anyone. He’s just a warm body, with a specialty much less significant to the hunt than the others. This could have been a much different story from one of the other perspectives, which leaves me to wonder… why Moore?

And the final hangup, for me, was the cringe-worthy “Aw, shucks” nature of the narration. The characters seem excessively fictionalized because of their cutesy dialogue and gestures. In the midst of a serious and gruesome crime spree interspersed with heavier philosophical dialogue and mortally dangerous situations, we find lines like this:

” ‘Well, Sara wasn’t the only one trying to be professional!’ I protested, stamping a foot.”

This is a Harvard alum speaking, a reputable New York Times reporter pulled in on a special murder investigation. He’s gone off topic to gossip about a misperceived romance, speaking with another grown man, emphasizing his failure to behave professionally and trying to further his point by stamping a foot. The novel is peppered with other such corny nonsense and cliches, most notably, as happens immediately after this line, when Moore is demanding to be filled in on some detail he feels excluded from moments before the realization he should’ve had early hits him “like a brick wall.”

But now that I’ve highlighted my complaints, let me send you back to my first paragraph of review that’s full of the things I loved about this book, because those were the reasons I persisted in reading all 500 pages. I remained interested to the very last paragraph in discovering not only who the murderer would turn out to be, but why he had become such a notorious killer. As that seemed to be the purpose of the book, I must say it was a successful novel for me, even though I had much difficulty with the style of its narration. There are some valuable lessons in here, if you’re willing to look for them.

“Every human being must find his own way to cope with such severe loss, and the only job of a true friend is to facilitate whatever method he chooses.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. The Alienist is the first book in a historical fiction/mystery duology. It reads fine as a standalone, and I think the second book follows the same characters (from a new perspective) on an entirely different case. But from the synopsis and the reviews I’ve skimmed, I’m afraid the same things I found issue with in this one persist; although I’m glad I read The Alienist, I won’t be continuing on to read its sequel, The Angel of Darkness.

Further recommendations:

  1. Leslie Parry’s Church Of Marvels is set in the same place and time period, but contains much less blatant information about the era– the setting is woven beautifully into a story with connections to the city’s asylums and pleasure dens and general areas of disrepute. The mystery unfolds through alternating perspectives and proceeds at a thrilling pace.
  2. If you’re looking for more history in your murder mysteries rather than less, try Erik Larsson’s The Devil in the White City. This nonfiction book’s subject, real murderer Dr. H. H. Holmes, is the primary subject of Larsson’s Devil. Although this one’s not set in New York, it does also take place in the 1890’s, and features another burgeoning U.S. city of interest– Chicago. This is a book that reads like fiction, but makes no attempt to hide its intent to inform.

What’s next: I’m currently flying through Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder. I’m hoping to stay on track to finish my reading challenge before the end of the year, and The Wonder is my next step in doing that. It’s set in an Irish village and focuses on a girl who can apparently live without food– a miracle? The situation is further complicated when a nurse who’s traveled to see the girl finds herself racing to save the child’s life.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Saga: Book Two

After unintentionally speeding through the comic Saga: Book One (volumes 1-3), I immediately knew I had to pick up the next chapters of the story. As expected, I couldn’t put the second book down, either. I have now read Saga: Book Two (volumes 4-6) which will be covered in this review.

sagabooktwo

About the book: Hazel is growing and learning, but it’s not a safe world she’s inheriting. She’s in constant danger as her parents continue to hide from (and face) potential murderers, unexpected kidnappers, and crazed citizens. The family dynamic is further challenged by internal strife in these volumes, which lead to the division of certain family members from the group and allow for the multiple threads of the story to branch out in new directions, even as plot points from the first set of volumes begin to weave together. Don’t expect anyone you recognize from the earlier volumes to make the same impression here. There are new alliances, shocking deaths, heartwarming reunions, and so much more. The war between Landfall and Wreath continues throughout the galaxy, but Hazel’s family might find themselves much closer to home than they expected by the end of this round of journeys. And yet, even at home, they can never be entirely safe. AND THERE ARE DRAGONS.

I realize that’s a pretty vague description, but this is a sequel and I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t yet experienced it. (And if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?)

“Regardless of sex, everyone loses something in a war… but the first casualty is always the TRUTH.”

The family at the center of the story is fabulous as ever. It’s so encouraging to see a kick-ass set of parents who love each other deeply and do everything they can to keep their family together and safe. They’re an unusual family, and they’re imperfect, but that’s part of what makes them so great. It’s easy to identify with them, and they’re not just a symbol– they have unique personalities and quirks, but even though their lives are nothing like ours they’re sympathetic characters. The fact that their baby/child, Hazel, is still narrating the series also helps keep the story centered around the whole family rather than shifting into just another cheesy romance. There are more complications for them to overcome in this volume, from within the family as well as without, which means in the end that they’ll stand stronger than ever– as the most bizarre model of good parenting you’ve ever seen.

“Each new person we welcome into our hearts is a chance to evolve into something radically different than we used to be.”

The diversity in these volumes, as expected following the previous book, is great. It’s fantasy diversity, so there are creatures with stripes and creatures with horns and creatures that look like spiders and creatures with screens for faces, but the concept is the same as in the real world– the characters are inclusive and accepting; at least, the good ones are.

“We’re all aliens to someone. Even among our own people, most of us feel like complete foreigners from time to time.”

Fantasy in general provides a unique opportunity to display and correct social wrongs that are reflections of reality, without offending any real persons. Saga is about a war based on racism. It also showcases gender inequalities, homophobia, undesirable professions, poverty, and more. It shows the reader the supreme injustice of so many real-world problems, and creates in the reader a desire for peace. It shows how even small acts of kindness can make a world of difference. And it does all this in a highly entertaining and colorful way, because it’s not reality, and therefore it utilizes a special bridge between fiction and life that some readers (me) love to see used. Promoting equality is something I see a lot of fantasy stories striving for, whether with factions or districts, courts or castes; but it’s rare to see any writing that does it this well. We can all learn something from Saga.

Well, the adults can. This is definitely a story for mature audiences, as some of the language and images are undeniably graphic and/or sexual. But if you’re an adult, definitely pick this one up, starting with the first volume. And keep going. It’s worth it.

“Anyone who thinks one book has all the answers hasn’t read enough books.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Another glorious installment to the Saga saga. I’m definitely going to continue, although there is no Book Three yet, so I’ll have to read the volumes individually until I’m caught up to the amount of pages that are published. I’m already booked for December (check out my full TBR), but by January I’ll need to get my hands on volumes seven and eight. After Book Two‘s ending… stopping is not an option.

Coming up next: I’m currently finishing Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, a Gilded Age thriller/mystery about brutal murders in New York, solved in part by Theodore Roosevelt, a Times journalist, an (in)famous psychologist, and more colorful characters. I love reading about this time period, and it’ll feel good to cross another title off my 2017 reading challenge, so it’s been a fun ride. Review to come soon.

Do you read any comics? I might want to check out some other titles once I’m caught up on Saga volumes!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

November Reading Wrap-Up

November was way too busy for me to read everything I wanted to. And, as seems to be increasingly the usual case, I’m too easily tempted to swap my actual TBR books with other things, so I didn’t even come close to finishing with my November TBR. But I did read some interesting books this month, and I’m eager to share my thoughts on them. Here are the books I finished in November:

  1. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. 5 out of 5 stars. I was reading this thesilenceofthelambsone for Halloween, but I finished it early in November. I absolutely loved this book, as far as one can “love” a book of horrifying crimes. Hannibal Lecter is the perfect villain. It’s the quintessential detective novel, complete with crazy madmen and voracious detectives, with all the right clues hidden in plain sight and an intriguing psychological level under the plot twists. I must read more Thomas Harris.
  2. Twisted Palace by Erin Watt. 4 out of 5 stars. I was a little wary about trying to get back into the Royals series after royalsseriesthe disappointment of Broken Prince (book two), especially since this wasn’t anything but a guilty pleasure to begin with. But I figured I might as well get to the third book while I still remembered the plot from the first two, so I started it anyway. And I was pleasantly surprised! I’m still not calling this series anything but a guilty pleasure, but whatever it was for me, this was the best book of the series so far. It had the same unexpected details that I appreciated in the first book, but the plot was bigger than the predictable romance that started this whole thing. Twisted Palace reminded me a lot of The OC. There’s a murder mystery on top of the romance, and the answer is actually not immediately obvious, and the obnoxiously rich teens caught in the middle of it are actually forced to enter the real world of consequences, which is a nice change. This was a perfect distraction for me during a busy work week, and I’m glad I didn’t let Broken Prince hold me back from finishing this “trilogy.” (It’s a longer series, but the first three books go together.)
  3. Tarnished Crown by Erin Watt. 2 out of 5 stars. This one is actually a novella, the next book in the Royals series and the first story that follows different characters than books 1-3. I found the complete text online and decided to check it out before considering buying any more of these. It was a good choice, because this one was predictable and all over the place and discouraged me from wanting to read any further in the series. You know those books that have great sentences throughout about equality and acceptance and it seems obvious that the writer is trying to show that their characters are good, inclusive people: the strong, independent women and the generous, supportive men? But then outside of those sprinkled-in sentences there are major plot points that show otherwise, like the guy is actually stalking his love interest, and she is waiting for love to “fix” her. That happens in Watt’s books. You want to like the characters because of the things they say and think, but their actions just don’t match up and you realize that the author is trying to be a people-pleaser without actually fitting the plot to the standards they want their characters to uphold, and everything just falls apart. That’s especially apparent in this book, as it was in Broken Prince. “I will do literally anything you want,” they say, except leave you alone when that’s all you’re repeatedly asking for. I’m going to go back to pretending this series ends with Twisted Palace.
  4. The Lover by Marguerite Duras. 3 out of 5 stars. I read part of this book once for a college class, but never got around theloverto finishing it. This time around, I started over and made it all the way through. The writing is beautiful, a sort of melancholy sweetness mixed with tragedy, and that’s the driving force through the novel. As much as I enjoyed that, however, the lack of plot made this a slower read for me than it should have been at just over 100 pages. I’ll probably read it again someday, but in the meantime I think I’ll get a lot more enjoyment out of perusing the quotes I marked than combing through the book as a whole.
  5. The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen. 5 out of 5 stars. I was eleven or thetruthaboutforevertwelve when I read this book for the first time, and it immediately became one of my all-time favorites. My 2017 reading challenge gave me an extra excuse to revisit it, and I’m so glad it did. I’m sure my continued enjoyment of this book is part nostalgia, but it really is a great YA contemporary, and still one of my favorite Dessen novels. It’s inspired me to make a habit of revisiting old book loves in November, the month for being thankful.
  6. The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter. 3 out of 5 stars. This one I jumped into without knowing much about what to expect.thegooddaughter I knew it would be some sort of crime/mystery novel, and it was, but I was surprised at how character-driven the story was. It was certainly a slow-paced book after the initial crimes, which isn’t a bad thing, but I didn’t expect such heavy contemplation about humanity from a novel about a family of lawyers and their tragic past. It was very thought-provoking, which made up for the sparse plotting. I’ll be interested to see what other Slaughter novels will include.
  7. The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon. 3 out of 5 stars. I had no idea what to theboneseasonexpect from this one, and it took very few pages to realize that there was no possible way to “expect” what was coming in The Bone Season. I loved how unpredictable this book was, and how the game was constantly changing. In a fantasy world, no less, which means that it’s a novel packed full of pure creation. It’s a lot to keep up with. But as much fun as I had with the plot, I still had a tough time getting through this one because I disliked most of the characters. Some of them I liked following even while I disliked them, if that makes sense, so I am planning to continue the series. I’ll reassess after the next book.
  8. Saga: Book Two by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. 5 out of 5 stars. I was planning to read another book for my sagabooktworeading challenge at the end of November and save this one for later in December, but it came in to my library and I just couldn’t wait. I had just as much fun with these volumes (4-6) as I did with Book One (volumes 1-3), and I wish Book Three wasn’t such a long ways away. I’ll have to check out the individual volumes now as they come out, because I need to keep some of Alana and Marko and Hazel and their galactic adventures in my life.

I had 9 books on my TBR for November, and I’m sad to say there are 3 from that list that I haven’t even started yet (they’ve all been carried over to December’s TBR), plus one that I’m currently reading. But I’m happy with my 8 books this month. For as busy as I was, 8 books feels like a great number, even though some of them were short/rereads/full of pictures. That’s just the kind of reading month I needed. But I have much bigger plans for December. 🙂

Have you read any of these books? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant