Tag Archives: romance

Skewed Goodreads Ratings

“One learns most clearly what not to do [when writing] by reading bad prose.” -Stephen King (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

The thing about Goodreads ratings is that they’re not accurate. They are not the opinions of random, objective readers. Almost every single person who contributes a review or star rating for any given book has picked up that book for a reason and went into it with expectations that will affect their concluding opinions of it. Have you noticed that ratings for books in a series tend to be rated higher as the series goes on, even though the overall ratings are fewer? That’s probably at least partially due to the fact that the readers who make it that far in the series are readers who’ve already found something they liked in the first book and know they’ll find what they’re looking for in subsequent novels. There are exceptions, and of course it is possible that the books in any given series do actually improve, but I think it’s also worth noting that the people who read (and rate) book 2 are usually people who liked book 1. And by book 3, even more readers who were on the fence have been weeded out, thus driving ratings up even more.

That’s just an easy example. We also have people who rate books they’ve DNF’d (unfair, in my opinion), people who rate books before they’ve read them, people who know the author, or have been given a free early copy, or had to read a book for a class and wound up letting their feelings about the class show in their review of the book. No matter how it happens, anyone who checks for reviews on Goodreads before picking up a book should be aware that almost every single person who’s left their opinion in the reviews section has been biased in some way. They believed the Booktube hype, or have read something else by the same author, or found the title on a list of reputed “good books”, or are in love with a particular genre. Most of those readers aren’t people who saw the title in a bookshop, picked up the book without knowing anything at all about it, and reviewed it completely impartially. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but it’s not the norm.

Don’t be fooled: I love Goodreads. I check the ratings there before I pick up a book, often. But it’s important to note that sometimes books are rated highly not because they’re good, but because they contain whatever their readers were looking for when they picked them up. Case in point: Elle Kennedy’s Off-Campus series.

I’ve been highly stressed lately, and in times of stress I reach for guilty pleasures. I often go for something I’ve already read and know will be a guilty pleasure, but this time I picked up something new. In the Off-Campus series, Elle Kennedy has written four NA romance books. They’re pretty short and easily readable–I read all four in four days. I’m talking about these here because they’re rated highly on Goodreads; every single book in this series is rated above 4 stars, and they’re not good.

That’s not to say they’re all bad. I’ve read worse. I gave each of the books in this series (The Deal, The Mistake, The Score, and The Goal) 3 stars for my enjoyment level, which is certainly not my lowest rating. They’re cheesy, predictable, somewhat sexist books with transparent plot mechanics. But even though the plot is obvious and feels fictionalized, it is a functioning plot. It makes sense, at the very least. The mechanics are in working condition, even if they are more visible than they should be. Even though it’s clear from the first two chapters who’s going to end up with whom and which major obstacle they’ll have to overcome, there’s emotion in there. There are abundant sex scenes, if that’s your thing. And that’s why I think these books have been rated so highly. The people reading these ab-covered books are the people looking for predictable bodice-rippers starring college hockey players who believe they’re God’s gift to women. The abs on the covers attract a certain audience. There are some topics these books handle well– every main character has something difficult in their present or past: a rape, an abusive parent, a sick parent, a dead friend, an unexpected pregnancy, etc. These details are dealt with carefully and respectfully. It’s the “puck bunnies” I have a problem with. The use ’em and lose ’em mentality of the men in this book. And that’s why I’m not posting full reviews for each of the books in this series. They’re all very much the same and I had the same complaints about them all. Admittedly, I liked them enough to read all four, but I think it’s like Stephen King says: we learn what not to do in our writing by reading bad books, and that’s as important a lesson as reading examples of what we should do.

Sometimes you just have to read a bad book or two. Or four. There’s nothing wrong with reading whatever the heck you want, literary merit be damned. I just wanted to use this opportunity to talk about the Goodreads rating system, because I was shocked that the third book in this series is rated higher than some books well-known for their goodness. The Score, an NA romance novel about a horny hockey player who falls in love with a girl who’s ashamed she had a one-night stand with him, is rated higher on Goodreads than Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s important to keep in mind when using Goodreads that it’s not a tool for rating literary goodness. It rates enjoyment. Sadly, those are two very different categories. And further, enjoyment levels are affected by the fact that readers always, always have expectations of the books they’re reading.

The reading world would be a different place without Goodreads. A lonelier place. But, like any other tool, we must use it wisely.

How do you feel about the Goodreads rating system? Also, does anyone have any better NA reading recommendation for me?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Advertisements

Review: A Million Junes

I wanted to read all three of my new Book of the Month books in June, but for some reason Emily Henry’s A Million Junes sounded the least exciting so I saved it for last. But I was wrong, so wrong to neglect it because this is now absolutely one of my favorite books of the year.

About the book: June O’Donnell has amillionjunestwo rules: Stay away from the falls, and Stay away from the Angerts. The rules are both more and less important now that June is eighteen and her dad, writer of the rules, has been dead for ten years. Both rules are turning out to be harder to stick to than ever before, but even considering breaking them feels like an insult to her dad’s memory. Even if she develops an instant crush on the enigmatic Saul Angert when they run into each other (literally) at a town event, everyone knows there’s bad blood between the Angerts and O’Donnells. Bad things happen when their paths cross; June has seen proof of that. As her feelings for Saul deepen, however, June is also receiving what she believes to be messages from her dad. The O’Donnells live in a magical place, a thin place where the borders between worlds is weak, and through the gaps June slips into memories of her family’s past that might finally explain why the Angerts have been enemies of the O’Donnells for generations–but she doesn’t know whether finding the answers will end the feud, or drive her and Saul apart forever.

“I think life is about learning to dance even when you’re sitting still. You learn to dance when you cook and clean, when you bite into cherries, and when you lie in clean sheets. It’s easy to believe that if you could do it all over, you’d do everything different.”

This book is a mystery. It’s a romance. It’s magical realism. It’s an exploration of grief. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s a ghost story. And it does all of those things well.

“This is rapidly becoming a bad teenage retelling of a Shakespearean comedy.”

I laughed so much while reading this book. June and Saul’s flirting is hilarious. There are serious moments, and sad moments, and triumphant moments, but the first half of the book makes great use of humor to pull the reader in and lighten what might otherwise be a very tragic tale. And yet it’s all about balance. I stayed up late, reading for the funny banter, but I marked many quotes about what it means to grieve and move on when someone you love is gone forever. This is a fun read that’s also full of strong messages, and those messages are the part that will stick with me and keep this book in my list of favorites for a long time.

“I wanted to forget this feeling forever. The feeling of being ripped into two people: the you of before and the one you’ll always be once you know what it is to lose something.”

A Million Junes is sophisticated YA. It’s YA for all ages. It’s YA because its main characters are 18 and 20 and coming-of-age, but it’s a great choice for any age group because it’s not lewd or crass, and covers some hard topics that are widely applicable.

“I am very small, and don’t find myself wishing I were any bigger. All I want, with my one tiny moment, is to love you. If you remember anything about me, remember the truest thing: I will love you after all the stars have burned out, after the sun has died and ice has covered the earth, after the last human has taken her last breath.”

There’s an interesting female-female friendship in A Million Junes, as well. June and Hannah are supportive and kind to each other, even in situations when they might be interested in the same boy, or one of them is getting the other one in trouble. Often in books (especially in YA) girl friends can be uniquely cruel to each other and quick to hate, but June and Hannah sort things out calmly and stick together. Of course, since this book is focused on the turmoil in June’s life, we see Hannah routinely asking if June’s all right and what she can do to help, but their friendship is such that I’m sure June would give Hannah just as much love and attention if the situation were reversed; as it is, June’s problems dominate their conversations, but there is textual evidence of June’s compassion and consideration in the friendship, as well, even if it’s mostly internalized. It’s a great example of a literary female friendship.

And did I mention the phenomenal father/daughter relationship? Sometimes books have great dads, but this book realistically addresses the ups and downs of the relationship–realizing that no one is perfect no matter how much you love them, and that even death can’t take them away completely. June’s dad seems a lot like I imagine Ronan’s dad (from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle) would have been like, magical dreaminess and all. If I had to pick a single purpose of this book, it might be June’s reconciling of the fact that her father’s dead and not who she thought he was, but she will always love him anyway.

“Maybe some people die gradually, move away from their bodies over time, but others–the people who shine–go in an instant. You can see their souls in their eyes until the last possible second, feel the gap in the world the second they’re lost.”

I was expecting a simple elegance to the ending after the rest of the book ran so smoothly, but the answers to A Million Junes‘ mysteries are convoluted. I had to do some serious mental juggling to keep straight which Jack O’Donnell is which (June is technically Jack O’Donnell IV, which means there were three others before her, plus the original Jonathon O’Donnell nicknamed Jack a few generations earlier) and what “the curse” means for different individuals, before I finally got it all straightened out. If I had to name a complaint about this book, it may be the multi-faceted layering of those final answers about the family feud, especially when all those secrets lead to such a simple choice for our main characters. It felt a bit like the plot was digging itself into a hole that Henry was determined to pull it back from at any cost, but I suppose even if it turned messy the plot survived the struggle.

My reaction: 5 out 5 stars. As I mentioned above, this one’s going straight to my best-books-of-2017 list. I was not expecting to love this book nearly as much as I did, and those are the best sort of reading surprises. I’m ecstatic to also have Emily Henry’s The Love That Split the World unread on my shelf because I NEED more of this wonderful writing in my life. My July TBR is already overfull, but expect a review on Henry’s first publication in the near future.

Further recommendations:

  1. Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun is a contemporary YA that also addresses the death of a parent and the ups and downs of other close relationships–mainly the bond between twins, but also in friendships and young love. No magic here, but plenty of art and family history intrigue.
  2. For another compelling YA book that’s important for readers of all ages, try Mindy McGinnis’ The Female of the Species. There are some great friendships and parents in this one, teens standing up against rape, a little romance, and a coming-of-age story for a group of high school seniors learning strength and morality.

Coming up next: Robin Roe’s A List of Cages, a beautiful YA novel about foster sibling love and coping with mental illness. This is one of those heavy-hitting YA books that covers a myriad of difficult topics meant to raise awareness of real life problems, and despite its easy readability it packs a powerful punch.

What are your favorite heavy-hitting YA books?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Book of Life

I’ve been (voraciously) reading Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy this month, and now I’ve reached the end of the final volume: The Book of Life. No spoilers for book three in the review below, but please read both A Discovery of Witches (book one) and Shadow of Night (two) before continuing below.

thebookoflifeAbout the book: Matthew and Diana are running out of time–the Congregation is closing in, their enemies uniting, and the Book of Life seems more impossibly lost than ever. More secrets are uncovered, threatening to divide even trusted friends. Phillipe’s blood vow that marks Diana as a de Clermont must be recognized by her adoptive siblings or be lost forever in insignificance. With tyrannical Baldwin nosing into affairs as the head of the de Clermont family and Marcus taking lead as the grand master of the Knights of Lazarus, Matthew must follow orders instead of give them. Diana, pregnant with twins, is more vulnerable than ever, but while Matthew settles matters regarding the future of his family she must seek the book alone, both of them simply hoping against all odds for the best. If they don’t find the manuscript and secure enough support by the time the twins are born, the births may be a death sentence for them all.

“I see you, even when you hide from the rest of the world. I hear you, even when you’re silent.”

First, I want to take a break from the complaints I’ve had about these books and say that this was the story I’ve been waiting for since I opened the cover of book one. Here are some of the reasons this book seems so superior to its predecessors:

  • The dialogue is more abundant, and more excellent. All of the important characters from every scattered time and place that Diana and Matthew have been are coming together. Every conversation is rife with discord and excitement that unfolds in delicious banter.
  • There are more perspectives. Diana and Matthew are still the main focus, but we see their piece of the story as one part of the whole. Again, all of the significant characters are back, and Matthew and Diana are finally sharing center stage in a way that’s beneficial to the story as a whole.
  • The pacing has increased–by which I mean, no more long descriptions of wine and food and furniture. Instead of hundreds of pages of thoughts and planning, the events of this book move adeptly from one plot point to the next in constant forward motion.
  • Matthew is getting his protectiveness/dominance under control. He’s got more progress to make, but he’s proving that it’s possible and he’s working toward it.

“Don’t worry. Matthew won’t be able to stay away for long. It’s one thing to wander in the darkness because you know no different, but it’s quite another to enjoy the light only to have it taken from you.”

I absolutely devoured this book. The plot and characters are more exciting. There are improvements in the layout–the aforementioned multiple perspectives, as well as sections divided by blurbs about the zodiac signs that foreshadow the next chapters. Mysteries are at last being solved instead of multiplied. There’s an actual villain, rather than a vague idea of “many people won’t like this, they might get organized and become a problem.” But, alas, for all its successes, The Book of Life is not perfect.

The biggest issues I have with this final volume are threads left dangling. Though the story as a whole is concluded adequately, a few matters are left open-ended. For some books, this is a great possibility for an ending. But generally, to keep the reader satisfied, open-ended questions must be guided with clear A, B, and maybe C options so the reader can choose a side and still feel that the story has come full circle. This book doesn’t even present options for some of its unanswered questions.

For example: what becomes of Gallowglass? Something is revealed about him in The Book of Life that helps explain his willingness to aid Matthew and Diana’s quest for the manuscript. When that secret becomes a problem, he just disappears. By the end of the book, the problem has not gone away, and there’s still no sign of Gallowglass, who has become a significant character.

Additionally, there’s a big vote held by the Congregation that is supposed to decide whether Matthew and Diana are to be helped on a certain matter. I won’t give more details about the specifics of the vote, and I won’t even say which way the vote goes. But after the suspenseful verdict has been reached, there seems to be no indication of help or hindrance from the Congregation on the matter in question. What was the purpose of the vote, in that case? How will that affect all the other matters they’re still voting on at the end of the story? The Congregation and its future is left irritatingly vague.

And finally, there’s the biggest unanswered question of all: what the heck is going to happen with Matthew and Diana’s epic romance in light of the fact that one of them is immortal and the other is not? The only clear detail surrounding Diana’s mortality is the fact that she will probably not become a vampire. But is there some other way to extend her life? Are they both just going to accept that she’s going to live a few more decades and then Matthew will carry on alone? Can he even carry on alone? The Book of Life was rumored to hold secrets about the philosopher’s stone, which grants some sort of immortality. Is that a philosophical immortality alone–the answer to the continued survival of their species? Or is there some way for Diana’s longevity to be increased? There are too many questions left. Even if she’s satisfied with her mortality and everyone’s planning to let her die peacefully at the end of her mortal life, I wanted to read that answer in these pages. Instead, I’m left wondering how Diana’s longevity apparently went undiscussed through three long books in which Matthew is constantly consumed with worry about her safety. I cannot fathom why this isn’t properly addressed by the end of the trilogy. I needed more closure.

“Did you know that nothing you see on the Internet ever dies, Diana? It lives on and on, just like a vampire.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I haven’t been this obsessive about a guilty pleasure series since I read all of the Outlander books over a year ago. In a lot of ways, Harkness’ books remind me of Gabaldon’s. This third volume is by far my favorite, and I would recommend that if you have any interest in this series at all you should stick it out through the first two and be sure to pick this one up. I’m glad I did.

Further recommendations:

  1. Let me reiterate my recommendation of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander for Deborah Harkness fans. It’s got as many possible similarities as I believe two series can have while narrating different subjects. Outlander is a cross between romance, history, and magic, like the All Souls trilogy. There’s even a would-be pickpocket apprehended and turned family, like Jack. There’s torture and politics and treason and travel. If you like A Discovery of Witches, pick up Outlander. The third book in this series also is especially worth the time it takes to get there.

What’s next: I’m currently finishing up with Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die, a crazy YA tale about a backwards Oz and Amy Gumm, the second girl to leave Kansas via tornado. I’ll have a review posted soon, and it’ll be back to regularly scheduled programming from there. Meaning I’m finally back to my original June TBR after my All Souls divergence!

Do you prefer reading books of a series back to back, or with breaks between volumes? I generally prefer breaks, to savor the series more, but it doesn’t always work that way.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Shadow of Night

Despite some issues I had with Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, I was addicted enough to throw part of my June TBR out the window to binge on the series. So instead of reading anything I actually had planned for this month, I stopped what I was in the middle of as soon as I made it back to my library to check out book two in Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy: Shadow of Night. It’s a guilty pleasure read for me, and I often find it best to just gorge on those to get them out of my system, so here we are. (Warning: there are spoilers from book one ahead.)

About the book: Matthew and Diana shadowofnightare still searching for answers and fighting for the right to love each other. Book one left them on the verge of time travel to 1590, with the surprising knowledge that they might be able to conceive children together. Now, back in Matthew’s past, future Matthew has to juggle all of his 1590 responsibilities that he thinks will lead to helpful connections in their ongoing searches for Ashmole 782 and a teacher for Diana. He insists on taking the lead, and makes some questionable choices which threaten not only the pair’s survival but the peace between them. Diana sets out to make connections of her own, and finds new friends and enemies in the process. Neither of them are sure when they should try going back to their own time, or if it’s even possible with Diana’s current skill level. As past and present collide, vampire and witch are tested anew–they must decide what they can afford to lose, and fight to the last  breath for what they can’t.

Stop regretting your life. Start living it.”

About the layout: This book is divided into parts, which mostly feature Diana (in the first person) and Matthew (in the third) on their many adventures. At the end of each part is a chapter featuring a different perspective from the present (circa 2010). These sections provide clues and connections between our main characters in the past and the ongoing story line in the “future,” but they’re confusingly brief. New characters are introduced only to be shuffled out of significance for the rest of the book. Perhaps they’ll be back in the final volume, but either way the amount of page time given to each of them seems odd–I think they’ve been given too little attention if they’re going to be significant, and too much if we’re already done with them. I think there’s real potential for this series in opening up the narration to multiple points of view, but that potential goes unrealized in this volume.

“Change is the only reliable thing in the world.”

Let’s examine the mystery of Matthew’s power. I dislike instances in fantasy when a supposedly powerful being calls on the influence he’s got stored up from the past and provides little to no evidence of how he became so influential in the first place. In these first two books, Matthew is calling in old friends, using his standing and money and family sway to win victories–but how did he become so intimidating in the first place? There seems to be no indication of how Matthew earned his high status in the creature world, which makes him seem less powerful than everyone claims. It’s a discrepancy of balance that goes back to the “show don’t tell” rule of writing. The single murder he committed in book one didn’t explain to me why even vampires are intimidated. I, for one, need more proof that he can back up his threats.

“Stop worrying about what other women do. Be your own extraordinary self.”

There are times when this book seems like it wants to be a feminist kick-ass tale of a female witch mastering impressive power. I’m not sure if it’s the traditionally possessive vampire in the story or something else entirely that prevents it, but Diana doesn’t present as a strong, independent woman, no matter how often Matthew tries to insist she is. Despite the words being spoken, there are so many instances that prove otherwise–for instance, there is a scene in this book when Diana finds herself alone and threatened, and in that time she seems capable of fighting for herself–but as soon as a would-be rescuer arrives, she’s eager to give the fight to someone else. It’s frustrating that she could be strong player but is always so eager to be rescued.

“There were times when Matthew behaved like an idiot–or the most arrogant man alive.”

And there’s the truest statement in this book. Matthew is bossy and domineering, always making assumptions and decisions for his underlings. But the narration seems to understand that he’s making bad choices and acting like a pompous ass, which suggests to me that Matthew will also realize it at some point and change his ways. It would help if Diana didn’t put up with it, but I keep thinking that eventually he’s going to learn he can’t rule the world–and then he could be a pretty great character. In the meantime, he’s almost a villainous love interest, and his most compelling aspect is his horde of secrets.

Additional small annoyances:

  • Vampire servants. Why would anyone want to spend their immortality serving someone else? I’m not saying it’s not possible, but what’s the reasoning?
  • Multiple marriages. How many times can one couple be married in different ways and then say “this time we’re really married” before the reader can no longer stand it? I’m setting the limit at four.
  • Difference in life spans. This is an interesting dilemma, but I’m still waiting for the narration to address the fact that Matthew is immortal and Diana is not.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I didn’t like this one quite as much as A Discovery of Witches, though it had some different pros and cons. I didn’t meant for this whole review to become a rant about the dissatisfying aspects because I did like some things about it–spoiler things that I don’t want to mention. I have a new favorite character who appears unexpectedly in this book, for example. But in my opinion sequels are hardly ever as good as books one and three, and I think that’s the case with this trilogy. I’m still determined to read book three and hopeful that it will be an improvement. I’ll probably be delving into it sooner rather than later.

Further recommendations:

  1. Bram Stoker’s Dracula would be a good choice for fans of Deborah Harkness’ books. I hesitate to recommend books I haven’t read (yet), but this one’s mentioned within the text of Shadow of Night, and I feel confident recommending the quintessential vampire story. Dracula is my classic of the month for October, but reading this trilogy has left me eyeing the book on my shelf lately with more longing than usual, and I think it would make a perfect companion to this vampire-filled trilogy.
  2. Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses is the first book in a faerie romance series with some strong comaprisons to the All Souls trilogy. The creatures in this one are more fantastical than the traditional vampires, witches and daemons in Harkness’ books, but the characters and their fight for love and answers strike some similar chords.

What’s next: Yesterday I started reading both Harkness’ The Book of Life, the final book in the All Souls trilogy, and Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die, from my actual June TBR. Dorothy Must Die is a YA tale about a backwards Oz and a new heroine from Kansas who must set things back to rights before Dorothy gets too carried away. These will be my next two reviews, in undetermined order.

What do you do when your TBR goes off the rails? Do you push it back on the track or go wherever the train takes you?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: you can now read my review of the next book in this series, The Book of Life!

Review: White Fur

The new selections for Book of the Month Club are perfection this month. I wanted to be reading them all at once, but since I only have one set of eyes I had to choose–and I chose to start with Jardine Libaire’s White Fur. I would classify it as a romance, although it’s unlike any romance I’ve ever read.

whitefurAbout the book: Jamey and Elise are from different worlds. Jamey, the heir to a multi-million dollar corporation, has been raised with a lot of cash and little emotion. Elise, who has only ever had enough to get by and sometimes not even that, falls deeply in love with him at first sight and has enough emotion to carry them both. At first it’s a battle to prove Jamey really does love her, but the real battle comes later–when neither of their previous lives will fit them both and the only way to survive is to start over and locate middle ground. For Jamey and Elise, it’s never been about the money, but their friends and family seem incapable of overlooking the difference in their social classes and the only people who can accept their relationship are each other. Is that enough? And even if it is, how will they escape the loud opinions of the masses?

“He grew up thinking you’re supposed to work till your eyes bleed, be exhausted all the time, get money, get houses, get prestige, do good, be important, be busy, get on the board, run out of time, cancel lunch with friends, run out of gas. Why? Why did he believe them when they said that? Why did he believe anything they said?”

I must admit, the premise of this book worried me. Rich guy falls for broke girl, and tries to make uppity family accept her? There are so many ways that story has already been done, some of them with less success than others. But even though those things happen, they’re not what this story is about. Elise doesn’t want any part of Jamey’s money or power or prestige–she won’t even accept them other than to acknowledge that they’re some of the building blocks that make up Jamey’s life. Jamey isn’t trying to raise Elise’s monetary standing, to bring her up into the world of plenty–he sees good things in her character that have been lacking in his own life, and considers himself the poor party in their relationship. It’s about the money for everyone else, but for Jamey and Elise, it’s about finding where they fit in the world and finally taking the chance to choose for themselves instead of letting their families lay out their futures.

“You go through life thinking there’s a secret to life. And the secret to life is there is no secret to life.”

About the layout: the book starts in June 1987, with a single scene charged with catastrophe and heartbreak. There’s a gun. There’s love, and the questioning of love. And there’s potential for murder. From that scene, the narration goes back to January 1986. Each month is its own labeled chapter. There are further divisions within these chapters that switch back and forth in third person narrative between Elise and Jamey, and the months progress chronologically until we reach that same dangerous motel room scene in June 1987 to finally see its conclusion and aftermath. As Jamey and Elise clash and collide through the rest of the timeline in the book, much of the tension lies not in whether they will fall in love and stay together, but in discovering how they came to be aiming firearms at each other, staring down death and searching for the limits of love. For this reason, the nuances of the relationship keep the reader’s attention: every gesture and thought, every lie and truth and silent action begs to be weighed in the balance against that startling opening scene. Every kiss is a clue.

“What’s the point of anything? Why did we make it this far, she thinks, through hours in our own lives before we met, even after we met, when we were sure we were worthless, but we somehow got to the other side of those times, holding it together, ashamed to be hopeful but being hopeful, when we had no protection and no direction but we kept going anyway, and then we got rewarded, and now it’s being ripped out of my hands?”

Speaking of kisses and romance, I’d like to note that White Fur is a fairly explicit book. It’s solidly categorized as adult literature, and it’s worth mentioning that the physical side of Jamey and Elise’s relationship is often front and center. If you can’t stand reading sex scenes, this isn’t the book for you. White Fur is no Fifty Shades of Gray though. There are R-rated scenes set in bedrooms and beyond, but that’s just one part of the book. It’s the proof that prejudice and class divisions are constructions of the mind, not the heart. The sex is just evidence supporting the underlying messages of the need for equality and love’s perpetual attempt to conquer all. It’s there in abundance, but it’s not the main focus of the book.

“Nothing can ever stay strange for long.”

About the setting: I can’t offer any concrete explanation as to why this book is set in the 1980s rather than present day. I suppose the past offers a bit more anonymity, which allows the characters to move more freely through this world when they’re trying to hide from their opponents, and I suppose also that prejudices were stronger and louder then than they are today. The details of the story fit the time perfectly, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of point to the differences. I don’t think this story would have been impossible to transpose into the world of the 2010s, which made the choice of setting seem a little strange, despite being handled well.

About the characters: White Fur has quite a cast. There’s so much detail given to everyone and everything that each character feels real. I liked that about them, though I don’t think I would choose any of these characters as my friends in real life. Many of them are not bad people. They aren’t unlikable in the way I usually describe characters who seem to have been constructed to alienate the reader, and yet I didn’t particularly like them either. I remained neutrally interested in where they were headed.

“So much of life is about standing on the curb, willing to see what rolls up.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. That opening scene hooked me right away, and with that fresh in mind, the beginning of Jamey and Elise’s relationship remained pretty interesting. Some of the stuff in the middle, after the “I love you’s” and before the gun came back into the story, was much less engaging for me. It was interesting enough that I didn’t have hesitancy about continuing, but the excitement I expected after that opening scene took longer to reappear than I would have preferred. I felt a little deceived. But I don’t regret the time I spent reading White Fur, so it ended up pretty middle-of-the-road for me.

Further recommendations:

  1. Lucky You by Erika Carter is another gritty book about escaping life’s oppressive constructs, but it’ll take a certain audience to appreciate its subtle messages and futility. I think that audience will overlap nicely with fans of White Fur. It’s grimy and brutally honest, with a little romance and a lot of idealism, but it hits failure and the stickier sides of human nature in a way that takes a patient mind and a willingness to accept that not all endings are happy, or even necessarily endings.

What’s next: I started a second book while i was in the middle of White Fur, so I’ve already got another book finished and in the process of review. After reading A Discovery of Witches earlier this month, I basically threw part of my June TBR out the window in favor of continuing the series. So in addition to White Fur (hence the review coming later than I planned, sorry guys), I’ve also finished reading Deborah Harkness’ Shadow of Night, the second book in the All Souls trilogy. This one’s much like book one, plus time travel and the potential for witchy vampire babies, and if that’s not enough to intrigue you then we have nothing in common.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Discovery of Witches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some things I didn’t like:

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

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

What are you reading to kick off the summer?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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

Review: A Court of Wings and Ruin

Aaaagh it’s finally arrived! I will admit this series (Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses series) has been a guilty pleasure for me from book one, but just like everyone else who read ACOMAF in 2016, I had to find out what was going to happen in book three, this new May release, A Court of Wings and Ruin. As usual, no spoilers ahead for book three, but you should check out A Court of Thorns and Roses and A Court of Mist and Fury before reading further, as it’s pretty impossible to do a series book justice without mentioning things that have happened earlier.

About the book: Feyre is spying on Springacourtofwingsandruin Court, pretending to have preferred Tamlin all along, with Rhysand and the rest of the Night Court’s Inner Circle preparing for war back home and worrying about their new High Lady. The snags in Feyre’s plan come in the form of Lucien’s suspicions about her lies, and Ianthe’s outright evilness and determination to ruin everything for Feyre. Plus, of course, there’s Tamlin, who’s trying to be less controlling but still has too many strikes against him. Feyre does have an opportunity to get closer to some key players in Hybern’s army, though, who are using the Spring Court as their portal both to Prythian and, through the wall bordering it, into the mortal realm. But even if she can pull it off and escape the dangers Spring Court poses for her, will the information she gleans be enough to give the Night Court an edge in the coming battles? Hybern’s forces are enormous–the Night Court will need all the allies it can get, and deciding who to trust presents a whole new set of risks and challenges. Deals must be struck. Bargains must be upheld. Monsters must be unleashed. Hybern’s people fight for a single cause, while the High Fae would rather be at each others’ throats than stand together for their common interests. And nothing–absolutely nothing–can prepare Feyre for the war set in motion, and the losses it will bring.

There’s a lot of pressure for greatness on A Court of Wings and Ruin after the phenomenon that was ACOMAF. Without making this too much of a comparison between the two, I’ll attempt to answer whether ACOWAR lives up to the challenge.

First, a note on the layout: I didn’t feel that there was much to gain in the sections at the beginning and end of this book written from Rhysand’s perspective. Rhysand’s chapter at the end of ACOMAF felt more vital to that story–he was in a different place than Feyre, and was telling his Inner Circle something new pertaining to the plot. But in ACOWAR, though it was nice to see how Rhysand’s thoughts lined up with Feyre’s and with the things that he told her, they felt like…gold foil, some extra decoration on top of the real substance of the book, and I, personally, would always rather have the gritty substance than the gilded fluff on top of it. Is that just me? Am I the only one who skims superfluous detail, all the place description and the clothing and material objects, to pick out the kernels of plot and character? Either way, I don’t think Rhysand gives the reader anything new with his narration in this book.

Next, I’d like to acknowledge that this is basically a whole book about a man (okay, faerie) saying, “I want women to be equal to men, starting with you, you can do whatever you want,” set in a fantasy world (albeit with equality between humans and faeries also up for debate). And yet, even with all that promotion of female power, there is definitely not as much character growth in this volume as in the previous two (thought the characters are still just as irresistible). I would even go so far as to say that the potential character growth I expected to see in this book with a lot of the secondary characters feels postponed. I think it’s important to keep in mind while reading this book that there are three more books expected in this series; although those next three books will be presented from other characters’ perspectives rather than through the eyes of the now-familiar Feyre, there are a lot of loose ends left in ACOWAR that suggest to me those next three books are going to be more coherent to the main plot than traditional companion novels. Of course, I don’t know anything for certain about the future books, but I hope that those next books in this series are going to answer some questions about Feyre’s family and friends because none of their stories are resolved by the end of ACOWAR.

But back to the main plot. I thought it was funny that basically everything I’d heard about this book before I started reading revolved around Feyre spying at Spring Court, pretending to Tamlin that her time with Rhysand was a lie. She’s spying and sewing seeds of discord and doing all her Feyre things, sans Rhysand, but that only lasts about100 of the 700 pages. She’s at Spring Court for a quick matter of weeks, and then she’s thrown back into the preparations for war she began with Rhysand and the Night Court in book two. By the time I got to the end of the book, it hardly even felt like those first hundred pages were part of book three because so much else was going on afterward. Basically, all hell breaks loose, but it’s difficult to talk about without spoiling the survivors and the battlefield surprises. In the end, this is a book of war, of fighting for equality and freedom and safety, and the strength it takes to win those battles.

“Even for an immortal, there was not enough time in life to waste it on hatred. On feeling it and putting it into the world.”

“Remember that you are a wolf. And you cannot be caged.”

I was worried that after ACOMAF this one would let me down. I tried to manage my expectations. While I didn’t like ACOWAR enough to call it a new favorite, it didn’t disappoint me, either.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I believe that’s the same rating I gave A Court of Thorns and Roses, but without a doubt I would say I liked ACOWAR better than book one. And neither of them compare to book two. But…I am completely on board for book 4. It’s going to be an easier wait than the wait for ACOWAR was, but I’ll be ready to pick it up as soon as it’s published. And in the meantime…I may even pick up Throne of Glass. I’m under the impression that the Throne of Glass series is not quite as beloved as Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses series, which makes me hesitant. Should I read more Sarah J. Maas? Or just wait patiently for the next ACOTAR release in 2018? (Patiently, ha ha, what a joke. This is why I prefer to read the entire series at once, usually starting right before the last book is published when it’s really popular still but I won’t have to wait.)

Further recommendations:

  1. Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy kept creeping into my thoughts as I was reading ACOWAR, and I think it would make an interesting read in comparison with the first three ACOTAR books. I was surprised how many similarities I saw–are all the fantasy trilogies so alike nowadays? Anyway, these first three books in Bardugo’s Grishaverse (starting with Shadow and Bone) feature a girl thrust into a new world of power who must form new alliances while preserving old relationships, and fight for her own independence as well as the salvation of the man she loves. If you’re a Sarah J. Maas fan who hasn’t read Leigh Bardugo’s books yet… what are you waiting for?

What’s next: Now that I’ve finished rereading all the good parts of ACOMAF (basically all the parts, to be honest) and put Feysand away, finally, I’m starting my other much-anticipated May release, Paula Hawkins’ new thriller, Into the Water. I’m excited to see where the popular The Girl on the Train author is going with this new novel.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant