Tag Archives: series

Review: The Bride Test

Last year I read Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient in a rare romance mood, and though I had a few qualms with it about miscommunication and lack of consent, I thought it showed a lot of promise and immediately added The Bride Test, Hoang’s second (and related) novel, to my TBR. I managed to get my hands on a copy early this month.

thebridetestIn the novel, Esme (or Mý) is working a steady- if somewhat undesirable- cleaning job at a Vietnam hotel to support herself, her mother, grandmother, and small daughter. At the hotel, she meets a bold woman who is wife hunting for her grown son, Khai, who lives in America and has no idea what his mother is planning. Esme isn’t sure she’ll manage to convince anyone to marry her, but she does want to go to California to search for her long lost father, and decides to take a chance. Then she meets Khai- a kind, autistic man who doesn’t believe himself capable of love. Their families seem eager to push the two of them together, but can they admit their feelings for each other in time to wed before Esme’s travel visa expires?

“She wasn’t impressive in any way you could see or measure, but she had that fire. She felt it. That was her worth. That was her value. She would fight for her loved ones. And she would fight for herself. Because she mattered. The fire inside of her mattered. It could achieve and accomplish. People might look down on her, but she was making her way with as much integrity as she could with limited options.”

Right off the bat, I knew I was going to appreciate the exact same things about this book that I did with The Kiss Quotient; it’s wonderful to encounter a romance that offers such great representation- the man is autistic, he is American but his family is from Vietnam, and the woman is fully Vietnamese, unmarried with a child. I’m not a huge fan of romance books in general, so I like to be able to pick up a book from that genre that’s also going to offer insight into aspects of life that I’m not so familiar with. My list of elements to admire in this one included: seeing Esme learning to navigate a US airport without full grasp of the English language; seeing Khai’s perspective on how autism affects his emotions; seeing Esme care for Khai with the same enthusiasm both before and after she knew about his diagnosis, without letting him use the autism as an excuse when he does something hurtful; and seeing Quan look out for his younger brother (Khai) in a patient and considerate way. The Bride Test is a love story, but it’s also so much more.

“Everyone deserved to love and be loved back. Everyone. Even her.”

But in spite of the positives, I had more issues with this novel than I did with The Kiss Quotient, even though I liked the premise of The Bride Test more.

First, I had the same qualms as with Hoang’s first book- consent is not always asked for or given before things get physical, and, I thought a lot of the climactic tension could have been resolved (or at least lessened) if the characters had taken a moment to communicate with each other instead of walking off alone with their hurt feelings and assumptions. I understand that there’s a bit of a language barrier between Esme and Khai- she prefers to speak in Vietnamese and he prefers English; they understand each other but continue to converse in different languages. I also understand that Esme doesn’t really know what autism is or how it might manifest in Khai’s behavior or thought processes, but I do believe she knows him well enough that she would understand where he’s coming from if they would’ve had an honest conversation instead of being stubborn.

But my biggest problem with this book is simply that the entire major conflict made me uncomfortable. Admittedly, I don’t know much about autism or how to help an autistic person understand something that they seem hardwired against believing, so it’s possible that everything happening here is the “correct” way of going about it. But Esme and Quan, literally making Khai sick while trying to change his viewpoint on the matter at hand was hard to stomach. What bothers me most is that the truth was plain for everyone to see- they only pushed him because they wanted him to admit the words aloud. This is probably just a personal opinion, but I don’t think that what something is called matters as much as what something is. Esme and Khai butting heads over semantics in the final days before the deadline of her visa was not cute and angsty for me; it was torturous seeing Khai squirm between a rock and a hard place. I could see why Esme wanted Khai to say what she was asking him to say, but I couldn’t bring myself to sympathize with her. I agreed with most everything she thought and said, and yet I did not completely agree with her behavior.

“If he didn’t love her, someone else would. She wasn’t going to settle for a one-sided love. Not in this lifetime. Not ever.”

Perhaps most problematic to my reading experience, I was never quite convinced by Esme’s character. From the way she’s described by the other characters and the personality she presents in her own chapters, it seems like there’s absolutely nothing to dislike about her. She’s sunny and optimistic, nice to everyone, and smoking hot besides, of course. She’s worried that she’ll be turned away because of her family’s poverty or her young daughter, born out of wedlock. Unfortunately, these are real possibilities in life, but it’s obvious to the reader- and should be obvious to Esme- that they bear no significance with Khai. Furthermore, I don’t think The Bride Test is promoting very healthy practices between new couples by allowing Esme to get away with concealing her daughter from Khai’s family for almost the entire novel- that’s just not something you should wait to introduce to a potential partner until the day of the wedding, no matter the circumstances.

But The Kiss Quotient won Hoang a lot of fans, and I’m sure The Bride Test will as well. It’s funny, it’s steamy, it’s got some quality commentary about minority experiences. Esme’s situation (well, before the mail-order bride bit) feels plausible and worth the attention it receives here, as does Khai’s. Matt and Stella are given a couple of honorable mentions that’ll please past Hoang readers, and despite my criticisms, I am still completely on board for the next novel in this series, which looks to be Quan’s chance to shine. (It is not necessary to read the entire series or to read these books in any particular order, though of course you’ll not catch the references to previous MCs if you haven’t read the earlier books.)

All in all, there’s plenty to recommend about The Bride Test and The Kiss Quotient, and even if they aren’t perfect, they’re a step in the right direction for the genre (and literature) as a whole; I’m so excited to see more authors jump on this trend in the future and make this genre more inclusive and irresistable. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying with Hoang.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was an incredibly quick read for me; even in the moments I completely disagreed with what was happening, I couldn’t seem to put the book down. I’m glad I picked it up, and I’m sure parts of it will stick with me, but I’m also glad I decided to check this one out from the library instead of purchasing immediately. I’m really looking forward to the Quan book, though! Before that one hits shelves, next up for me in romance will probably be Casey McQuiston’s Red, White, and Royal Blue, but I’ll warn anyone anticipating my review of it that it might be a while before I pick it up, simply because I’m not a frequent romance reader.

What’s your favorite romance novel? Have you read either of Helen Hoang’s books? I’d love to know what you thought!

 

The Literary Elephant

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Review: A Storm of Swords

It took me 15 days to read all 1,000+ pages of George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, but I stuck with it. In all that time, I wasn’t sure whether I would end up posting a review for it, spoilery or non. But after spending half of my reading month on one book, I’ve finally decided that I do want to talk about this one, whether or not anyone is interested in following my (slow) progress.

A disclaimer before we get rolling: I’ve only read books 1-3 at this point, and I’ve only watched through half of the third season. PLEASE DON’T SPOIL ME! This will be a mostly non-spoiler review, in which I’ll talk only about the third book, but expect that I’ll be mentioning some events (vaguely) and characters who are still alive in the third book; if you want to avoid even that much info, please don’t read any further. If you’d rather check out my (also non-spoiler) reviews for A Game of Thrones or A Clash of Kings in the meantime, please do!

astormofswordsIn the novel, the Lannisters retain control of the Iron Throne in Westeros, doing their very best to knock other contending kings out of the running. Robb Stark has lost no battles, but can’t seem to hold his allies and lands. Stannis Baratheon has suffered a major defeat on the Blackwater, but refuses to relinquish his claim. The Greyjoys have made their move rather uncontested, but lack support. Across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen builds an army and watches her dragons grow. Tywin Lannister, official Hand of the King, plots to keep these enemies at bay, but even in King’s Landing chaos reins. King Joffrey’s commands win him no friends. The Tyrells and Martells could be powerful allies for the Lannisters, but are at each other’s throats instead. The Lannister children war with each other. No one is safe, and no one can be trusted. Meanwhile, Beyond the Wall, another king is on the move with plans to invade, and all of the Watch’s pleas for aid seem to be going unanswered…

” ‘Is it all lies, forever and ever, everyone and everything?’

‘Almost everyone. Save you and I, of course.’

I’ve already raved about the complex characters, politics, and world-building in my previous Song of Ice and Fire reviews (linked above), and those opinions hold steady through the third book, as well as my dislike of the way most women are represented as objects to be raped and/or stolen, and their general lack of rights. It feels redundant to examine them at length again, so I won’t be sharing more about those aspects in this review. Which will perhaps be more of a reflection.

What I do want to talk about are a few trends I noticed in this book that may be new elements, or may simply have been new observations of old elements that I wasn’t able to pick up on while reading books 1 and 2 (it’s been over a year since I read the earlier books in this series, in which time both my reading tastes and my critiquing abilities have changed).

The first is that there were far fewer surprises for me in this book than I remember discovering in the previous two volumes. To some extent, this may be due to mild spoilers I’ve been subjected to over the last year, and especially during the run of the final season of the corresponding TV series. Another explanation may be that this is such a middle-of-the-series book, and it shows; the scene has been set in the first two books, but it’s too early for anything climactic, so book three felt like Martin marking time, slowly moving his pawns a few short spaces across the board in preparation for bigger events to come. But ultimately, I think the biggest factor for fewer surprises stems from the fact that I’m growing accustomed to Martin’s writing. I can spot his foreshadowing a mile away. I can’t help noticing threads left mysteriously dangling, no matter what other distractions he provides in the foreground.  I’m familiar with the way he plays on the reader’s emotions or expectations by building up scenes or particular character dynamics right before he plans to upset them. I love trying to “crack” each author’s code in this way, but with at least two books (and hopefully four, in the end) left to read in this series, it’s also a bit disappointing to find predictability through familiarity with the writer’s style.

Which of course isn’t to say I saw everything coming, because I didn’t. In addition to quite a bit of foreshadowing, Martin does like to drop the occasional bomb that can’t be seen coming. The combination of both tactics keeps things interesting even for readers like me who begin to suspect they’ve cracked the code. I can’t say I experienced much boredom while reading, despite the sheer enormity of the book and the weeks I spent reading it exclusively. Each chapter adds something new and significant to the overall narrative, though like any book, some are certainly stronger and more memorable than others.

“Why won’t they let me be? I just need to rest, that’s all, to rest and sleep some, and maybe die a little.”

Which brings me to another frustrating trend I found in this book, for the first time while reading this series: some plot arcs, for some characters, have begun to feel rather unnecessary to the overall scheme of things. Of course I have plenty of pages left to read in the final books so it’s possible I’ll find more sense in some of these choices later on, but for now I’m confused. I’ll give one example (skip to the end of the paragraph if you want to avoid vague hints about one character’s plot line): Jon’s time Beyond the Wall. I was so excited when this plot arc began at the end of book 2 because of all the possibilities for nuanced alliances and betrayals, secrets he might learn, acts of sabotage he might commit… but then he reaches the wall again and Martin has not capitalized on any of those opportunities. Rather than nuance and fresh character dynamics, I felt as many of the other characters seemed to: that Jon was a poor actor who’d accomplished little other than survival in a situation where much more than his own life was at stake. He is able to issue a warning, but his knowledge of the enemy’s numbers proves irrelevant and he hasn’t gained any insight into their tactics. So much could have been made of this journey, but instead it felt like mere shuffling from one setting to another, and then a shuffle back to start. There were a couple of other situations I felt similarly about, but in the interest of not spoiling or confusing anyone with my vague rants I’ll keep them to myself for now.

One more trend, on a bit of a more positive note. This book, more so than I remember in books 1 and 2, is full of assumptions. What I mean is that Martin feeds different characters different bits of information, or no information at all, and lets them all reach their own conclusions. Some staunchly believe so-and-so to be dead, some staunchly believe so-and-so to be in such-and-such a location, etc. Martin often allows the reader to know when a character is expressing opinion rather than fact, but not in every case. I particularly enjoy this level of irony (and mystery), so this was a fun element for me.

“There is much confusion in any war. Many false reports.”

Of course, this is all compounded by an intriguing layer of magic. I do quite love the bits of magic infused throughout this world, though I will admit that a couple of times in A Storm of Swords it began to feel like a cop-out response to a difficult situation. I hope that impression does not continue.

Otherwise, I could go on and on about my favorite and least favorite characters, events I liked and didn’t, theories for what comes next, etc. But I think I’ll save more spoilery thoughts for a full series discussion when I’ve reached the end of the books- or at least, as many are published so far.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series that I have not given 5 stars, mainly for the reasons listed above: finding the foreshadowing is getting a bit overly obvious, and feeling that the book is overly long for the amount (or lack) of important twists occurring. But I’m still fully invested in this series, and looking forward to continuing. I’m currently watching season 3, and I intend to finish season 4 as well before I continue on to A Feast for Crows. Here’s a handy chart I’ve been referring to in order to help me decide how many episodes to watch, at what point in the reading process, if you’re interested in trying a similar approach or simply enjoy comparing the differences between the story’s mediums.

Do you watch / read the Game of Thrones / Song of Ice and Fire series? What are your (non-spoilery!) thoughts so far?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The City of Brass

For some reason I didn’t really read fantasy in 2018, and I’m not sure why because I’ve always loved the genre. I’m a lot more particular these days about how tropes are used and whether plots are being recycled, but I still love the worlds and the politics and the adventures. So I’m committing myself to reading more fantasy in 2019. I started the year with Sawkill Girls, which felt a bit like Fantasy Lite, and now I’m onto also read S. A. Chakraborty’s Deavabad trilogy, starting with The City of Brass, which (as an adult fantasy with about 100 more pages) was a lot more intense. In a good way.

thecityofbrassAbout the book: Nahri lives an ordinary human life in Cairo. Well, normal except for the fact that she makes her living by stealing and conning and has an unusual talent for healing people. But all semblance of normalcy disappears when a ritual for banishing djinn from possessed bodies turns out to be less of a hoax than Nahri counted on. She accidentally summons a djinn who tells her that humanity is not her ancestral race. The two are chased back to magical Daevabad, where on the surface they are welcomed as esteemed guests of the royal family- Nahri is descended from a line of powerful and revered healers that were thought to be extinct, and her companion (Dara) is a renowned warrior of lore- but quickly find themselves trapped in a web of manipulations and deceit.

I guess I’ll start at the beginning.

When I first picked up The City of Brass, I had trouble getting into it. The writing is competent and descriptive but not at all flashy in the way that I usually expect from magical world-building. I wasn’t marking beautiful sentences because I wasn’t finding any.

Furthermore, the reason for the dispute between whether this is an adult or YA trilogy quickly made itself apparent- the two main characters who are the focus of the third-person narration (Nahri and Prince Ali) act like teenagers. One of them is a teenager. There’s no explicit content, other than a bit of scattered cursing. But the background information is very convoluted (there are two distinct groups referred to as Daeva, the words daeva and djinn seem like they should be interchangeable but are not, djinn cannot be separated from their relics but also djinn that are former slaves cannot be separated from their vessels, there was an infamous war and also a separate infamous rebellion, etc.) and much of the terminology is specific to this world. Mature teens could handle this book, but any reader who picks it up needs to be able to do some heavy mental juggling as a ton of world-building is laid out in this first volume. I actually had to use the glossary in the back of the book, which is unusual for me.

There is also a map of this magical land at the front, but I would’ve found a map of Daevabad much more beneficial.

But my biggest hang-up was worrying for almost half the novel that the story was turning out to be very trope-y and basic. I thought the writing weak when the djinn that Nahri summons waits to turn up *unexpectedly* until the banishment ritual is finished, Nahri has bribed her way into a shop, dined, and been kicked out, and is in the midst of taking a shortcut home through an enormous cemetery. Then he appears out of nowhere, just in time to help Nahri fight of the enemy that’s just about to attack with an army of ghouls. And of course, he’s very handsome and basically kidnaps her and in the course of their journey they become very attracted to each other. Meanwhile, in Ali’s perspective (who reminded me a lot of the prince from Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone), the young prince acts traitorously and makes mistake after mistake without personally taking any consequences. Early deaths lack emotional punch. Nahri feels very much like the “chosen one” and Ali feels on the brink of becoming a bland hero who always conveniently escapes real danger. An angsty love triangle seems imminent.

” ‘You weren’t so fond of me a week ago.’

He grumbled. ‘I can change my mind, can’t I?’ A blush stole into his cheeks. ‘Your company is not… entirely displeasing.’ He sounded deeply disappointed in himself.”

But about halfway through, things get interesting. Chakraborty doesn’t need flashy sentences- she’s got full command of this world and she turns it upside down a million times without letting any of her scaffolding topple. Relationships and politics are given depth and intriguing complications. People die. Secrets are outed. Unexpected alliances and enemies are made. Nahri, though she seems to be getting special treatment because of her family status, is actually being tested, and she’s failing. Dara has a lot more good and evil in him than he willingly shows. Ali faces real danger and sees real consequences. Everything that seemed simple turns out to be a mask or an outright lie.

” ‘I was also once a young warrior from the ruling tribe. It’s a privileged position. Such utter confidence in the rightness of your people, such unwavering belief in your faith…. Enjoy it.’ “

Although plot is maybe the wrong word to describe the way everything begins to unravel. This is very much a set-up book; it moves fairly slowly and is mainly focused on establishing the world, the motives of the various characters, and their connections to one another. There are few events, big or small. If you’re a reader who needs the first book of a series to blow you away, this may not be the trilogy for you. The Daevabad books require some patience, and some belief that a great payoff is worth the time it takes to get there.

I can’t end this review without talking about the fact that this is a Middle Eastern fantasy. The reason this is coming up so late here is because the cultural aspects had little impact for me. The call to prayer comes often, and at least one of the main characters is very religious, but that detail seems largely irrelevant to the story. Then there’s the fact that a prominent character states that the city’s religion (Islam) may have been adopted in Daevabad for political reasons rather than religious ones. The “tribes” are also on the verge of war with one another. As I’m fairly unfamiliar with abayas and feteers and the names for the different Muslim prayer times and traditions, their presence in the story came across mainly as just more unexplained terminology to wade through and I could only hope that their meaning would become clear enough in context. I wanted to learn about this area and its traditions while reading this book, but I don’t feel like I accomplished much of that. These details will probably have a lot more meaning to some readers than they did for me, but without a bit more explanation of their significance I fear a lot of the cultural influences were lost on me, which is really a shame.

But on another note, I thought the representation of strong women and non-binary characters was done well. Nahri leaves Cairo for a place with very different customs and expectations, and both she and her new acquaintances must find ways to accept each other and compromise where the other side won’t bend. She may not have come into her power fully yet, but she does stand up for herself. And there’s a hint of a great male-male romance on the horizon that I’m looking forward to a lot more than finding out which man Nahri is going to end up with. The straight romances revolving around Nahri seem like the weakest parts of this book, to be honest.

” ‘Don’t worry about my reputation,’ she said lightly. ‘I do enough damage on my own.’ “

I’m just so nervous about this series. It has a lot of promise, and if Chakraborty can pull it off I think these books will come to a phenomenal conclusion- but it’s going to be a tough balancing act to get there. There are a few more elements in The City of Brass that I’m unsure about, plot arcs that are just starting out now that could either go in a very good way or a very bad way, so I might have more to praise/complain about regarding this first book but I won’t know for sure until I see how it’s followed up in the next installment.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. All in all, The City of Brass was a very divided reading experience for me. The beginning was a solid 3 stars at best, and nothing that happened later has changed my opinion about the uninspired opening chapters. But the end was absolutely 5 stars and very promising as far as what’s coming next. I ordered the sequel the instant I finished reading- The Kingdom of Copper was JUST released, so I picked a great time to start The City of Brass. The jury’s still out on this trilogy for now- I have some predictions about where things are headed, and I’m definitely intrigued, but I can’t say based on this first book whether I’m invested in the entire trilogy yet. We’ll see what happens with book two. But either way, I’m fully committed to the fantasy genre once again.

Further recommendations:

  • If you like cultural fantasies that are somewhat trope-y and somewhat trop-defying, try Tomi Adeyemi’s Nigerian first-in-a-series fantasy novel, Children of Blood and BoneThis one’s YA, but I think it has a lot of similarities to The City of Brass and that fans of one will enjoy the other, and the sequel is set for release in a few months.
  • For more fantasy with fast(er) plotting and highly interesting character dynamics, don’t miss Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. If you like the juicy betrayals and close-kept secrets in The City of Brass, you’ll probably love this band of misfits and their long-con game. It’s sequel Crooked Kingdom is *almost* as good.

I’m way out of the loop in the fantasy game. Especially adult fantasy. Hit me with all the recommendations, please!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

 

 

Review: Mr. Mercedes

I fell so far behind on book reviews since the beginning of October… I’ve been keeping notes so that I can try reviewing with my usual thoroughness, but it has been a hot minute since I read many of the books that I’ll be reviewing this month, so I might keep catch-up reviews a little briefer and stick to what I remember most strongly.

To start, I read Mr. Mercedes in early October with a buddy– we both wanted to get into this series (the Bill Hodges series, which is a sort of prequel to King’s 2018 release, The Outsider) and now we’re hooked. I’ve been too busy to continue the series immediately, but I have ordered the next book and am looking forward to it! My buddy reader is in the third book now and still loving the series, so I have high hopes.

mr.mercedesAbout the book: Detective Bill Hodges is retired, but a few unsolved cases continue to nag at him even though he’s not supposed to work on them any longer and has lost his access to police resources. When he receives a letter from Mr. Mercedes, the unknown culprit of a terrible hit-and-run case that left eight dead and another four wounded, he knows he should turn it in as evidence, but can’t shake the feeling that starting a private dialogue with the killer will provide more leads. Meanwhile, Mr. Mercedes continues to watch Hodges’ house, hoping that his gloating, accusatory letter will be just the thing to convince Hodges to commit suicide– adding another tally to Mr. Mercedes’s body count and eliminating the detective who lead investigations into his biggest crime. But if Hodges’s death doesn’t pan out, Mr. Mercedes has some other deadly ideas, and his recent conversation with Hodges might hold the only clues to stopping his plans.

“The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.”

I’ve seen Mr. Mercedes classified as mystery, thriller, and yes, horror, but I would say it’s a pretty straightforward crime novel. King always excels at characterization, and above all else, this book is an examination of character– of a heartless killer and of the bizarre cast of accomplices trying to thwart him. Often mystery novels that feature a whimsical band of misfits chasing a notorious criminal seem overly fabricated to me– the fact that these unique mystery solvers came together in the first place feels so constructed and unlikely (see Night Film). But Hodges’s friends are another story. Jerome is Hodges’s neighbor and already a friend before Mr. Mercedes comes along. Janey and Holly’s interest in the case makes perfect sense as they are relatives of one of Mr. Mercedes’s victims. Even the people Hodges interviews for clues act like real people, rather than the overly chatty sources of necessary info-dumping that mysteries often rely on. Each character and their motives are clear and distinct– including the killer’s.

That’s right, one of the highlights of Mr. Mercedes is that King provides plenty of perspective chapters direct from inside the mind of the killer. This is why I hesitate to call this novel a mystery or thriller; seeing this man’s side of the story takes out a high percentage of the guesswork and fright for the reader. We know where he is and what he’s doing. But I thought Mr. Mercedes’s sections of the book were highly engaging and indeed the most interesting parts of the book, so I didn’t mind learning early the identity of the killer. In my opinion, King does an excellent job of balancing the how’s and why’s, which lets him get away with offering the who’s and what’s at the front and center.

The only flaw for me was the increasing thinness of Hodges’ excuses for refusing to involve the police. What seemed a bad but understandable decision in the beginning eventually turns toward the unreasonable. When things really start going bad, he keeps going basically on momentum alone, and even though all the signs point to needing professional help and reinforcements, Hodges keeps refusing to do that. With more lives at stake, his excuses make less sense, and believability definitely takes a hit when his “assistants” start spouting their own flimsy excuses:

“Speaking carefully, enunciating each word as if to make up for what has probably been a lifetime of mumbling, Holly says, ‘No one can catch him but you.’ “

But those excuses come late in the game, and by that point I was almost too invested in the story to care why the “heroes” close themselves off so entirely. Perhaps with a little more attention to this question, King would’ve been able to provide a more satisfactory answer– the problem seemed more like an oversight than the product of poor planning or writing. Overall, this book was a fun time with a fascinating(ly dark) plot unlike anything I’ve encountered before, even in previous King novels.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This one isn’t going to be joining my all-time favorites list, but it is on my list of favorite King novels. It was a fast, interesting read that held my attention 100% from start to finish. I’ll definitely be reading on, though it might take me a couple of months to get around to it. October was a great time of year to start this series though, and I’m glad I finally picked it up. This one’s been sitting on my shelf since… probably 2013, so I’m glad I finally picked it up.

Further recommendations:

  • Robert Galbraith’s Career of Evil is actually the third book in what is currently a 4-book series by J. K. Rowling (Galbraith is a pen name). Unless you’re really into the will-they-won’t-they dynamic between the detective and his assistant, there’s really no reason to read the first two before this one, which was by far the strongest of the three that I’ve read so far. It also features interesting chapters from the killer’s perspective.
  • Caroline Kepnes’ YouAgain, if you like getting Mr. Mercedes’s whacked perspective, this is another fascinating story from the eyes of the deranged.

What’s your favorite Stephen King novel?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Emigrants

I probably won’t be able to generate much interest in this book, but I’m going to talk about it anyway.

My grandma, whose family is originally from Sweden, lent me this 4-book series, Vilhelm Moberg’s Emigrant Novels, about a family emigrating from Sweden to America in the mid-1800’s. The series is a fictional account written by a Swedish author in the 1900s after a fourth of Sweden had emigrated. I’m going to be reading the entire series, but this will be my only full review, featuring book one: The Emigrants; the rest will be mentioned only in my wrap-ups.

theemigrantnovelsAbout the book: The Nilsson family has lives on a small farm in Sweden. Karl Oskar’s father wore out his health clearing stones from the land over many years in the hopes that his sons would inherit better land than he had, and Karl Oskar begins his adult life as a farmer. He and his wife and their young children put every effort into the farm, but they have several bad years that it seems they’ll never be able to return from. Meanwhile, Karl Oskar’s brother, Robert, is employed as a farmhand elsewhere because Karl Oskar’s land cannot be further divided. But his employer is cruel and Robert ends up on the run. Both brothers dream of starting over in America, but they have little reliable information about the New World, and the dangerous sea voyage can take several months, if the ship manages to arrive. Everyone but the two brothers is against the move– but the Nilsson brothers are determined.

“His emigration was taken as a reproach, an insult even, to the parish as a whole and to each individual: the community and the people here were not good enough for him.”

This first volume is not a complete story in itself. It covers life in Sweden for the Nilssons, their decision to emigrate, and their sea voyage. The end of the book is just the end of a chapter (though an important chapter), and it’s necessary to read the entire series to take in this story. I know that’s a big commitment for someone without personal history involved. The writing is a bit dry in places, as it covers a lot of information rather than a lot of action (though there is plot), and it can be long-winded and repetitive. This is writing meant to evoke a time and place, so some interest in that setting is required for enjoyment.

“And he wondered if it were worthwhile to live, if he must remain a farmhand.”

So what’s to love? Well, American history. Swedish history. There are the major events of national history taught in schools, and then there’s one’s personal history. The Emigrants is full of characters that feel like my family.

And this is why I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be convincing many new readers to pick this up. It’s the familiarity that pulls me through, and I know that’s specific to me and to my family’s history. (Also other families in my area, I live in a Swedish/Norwegian area.) The names are familiar to me, the way they farm is familiar to me, their big noses and personalities and values are familiar to me. I know their religion. Even the climate seems very similar. My great-grandparents and their parents lived through journeys like the one described here. I’ve never had a reading experience like this before, and it’s been incredible.

“Here ships have sailed for thousands of years, but on this path wanderers leave no footprints.”

I often find that books about farming are boring. I don’t know why, because farming itself doesn’t leave one with enough time to be bored. There’s just something about manual labor and leaving one’s fortune to the whims of the weather that just doesn’t seem to translate well into literature. But Moberg brings these characters to life in a way that propels the narrative through layers of description. Each character has his/her own distinct relationship to farming and opinion of emigrating. They bear the emotional struggles of losing a child due to poverty occasioned by drought, and of losing to fire the entire season’s harvested grain, and taking responsibility for the lives of one’s family in the decision to risk the months at sea. Some characters are considered insane for trying to break with their community church to follow their own beliefs. One farmhand is ridiculed by his employer, another is injured. Everyone must leave something behind. Despite the heavy detailing of day-to-day life on the farm and on the ship, Moberg also infuses this novel with emotion and psychology, humanity that the reader can relate to even without personal experience with Swedish farms and sailing. It’s a beautiful documentation.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Though I’m loving the personal connection I feel with this story, the writing is not the most stimulating. There are some very engrossing life-or-death moments, but otherwise this was a slow read for me. I’m determined to read the series, but it still seems a bit daunting. I think I’ll have a greater appreciation for the storyline as a whole once I’ve read the entire set.

Further recommendations:

  • A Man Called Ove is a great novel set in Sweden, by Swedish author Fredrik Backman. This one’s a more modern tale, and more humorous, but also captures a piece of Swedish life. Specifically, this novel follows a man who’s wife has died and whose decision to follow her to the afterlife is interrupted and derailed.

Which books do you enjoy because you feel a personal connection to the story?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Illuminae

I’m a little late to this train, but I’ve been meaning to read Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae Files (first book: Illuminae) for ages, and I’ve decided to get around to them while the last book in the trilogy is still fresh. I have now finished book one and can confirm that I’m interested in reading the entire series.

illuminaeAbout the book: In the year 2575, Kady and Ezra have just broken up on their home planet, Kerenza, when mega-corporation BeiTech tries to take Kerenza for itself by flattening its current inhabitants. Kady and Ezra escape– separately– onto different ships of the Alexander’s fleet. As BeiTech pursues the Alexander to eradicate the last witnesses to its crimes, Kady and Ezra adapt to life in a state of emergency aboard their respective ships, and eventually resume contact with each other. As one of the Alexander fleet’s three ships is ravaged by a mutating zombie-like disease, another experiences deadly difficulty with an insane Artificial Intelligence system, and the third, which was never meant to traverse space alone, struggles for survival after its crew has been gutted to aid the other ships. Ezra is recruited as a pilot and Kady finds a mentor in coding and hacking; both throw everything they have left into surviving, even if that means keeping the entire fleet alive by themselves.

“I’m sorry I didn’t write you back. I should have. I mean, when you say ‘I’m never going to speak to you again,’ you don’t think your planet’s going to be invaded that afternoon.”

First, let me rave about the layout. Illuminae is formatted as a file, a set of documents compiled on the Kerenza/BeiTech incident and its aftermath. The entire story is narrated through emails, reports, communication logs, online journal entries, data stream, online journals, etc. It utilizes different fonts, backgrounds, graphics, and more on the visual spectrum. There are no “chapters,” per se, but each document section is a sort of chapter unto itself, and they’re all delivered in addictive bite-sized pieces that flow easily from one to the next and make the book nearly impossible to put down– a bad case of the “one more chapter” excuse going on into infinity because there’s always such a short and intriguing section coming up next.

“She is a thief. A whisper. Melting through curtains of code and shadow like a knife through black water.”

Beyond it’s unique narrative style, I enjoyed the plot and characters immensely. What I didn’t love: the way this story felt dumbed-down in places, my biggest pet peeve with YA lit. For example, the surveillance camera footage documentations. There is so much extra commentary and guiding of the narrative being done on top of reporting what is actually taking place on screen that those sections felt totally inauthentic to me and not at all visual. Another example– the briefing notes. These little guide maps through the story felt like a way for the authors to hold the reader’s hand through the story, to shine their laser pointers on the details we’re meant to notice. (Note this time stamp. Remember that this person has appeared in this earlier scene. See how reaction X to event Y means Z.) Very little interpretation is left up to the reader, to which I say: YA fiction should not be approached by writers as watered down adult fiction. A younger target audience does not mean that readers can’t follow a story and make their own inferences.

And then there’s the AI system, AIDAN. I think we all know by now that “computer goes haywire, thinks it knows best, and kills a bunch of humans” is a tired plot line. I was worried when it seemed at first that Illuminae was headed in that direction, but AIDAN was a pleasant surprise. I actually disliked most of AIDAN’s data stream/narration because it didn’t feel much like glimpsing inside the thought processes of a super computer, but I liked that the book left AIDAN ambiguous– maybe it is acting for the greater good when it massacres thousands of people. Maybe it isn’t. That’s entirely up to the reader, which is a great move on Kaufman and Kristoff’s end.

“They are beyond me. These humans. With their brief lives and their tiny dreams and their hopes that seem fragile as glass.”

More I liked: the body count is incredibly high in proportion to the number of characters introduced in the story. Important characters die, which makes the constant threat of impending doom feel plausible and amps up the tension. Another YA pet peeve of mine is that teen heroes often put very little work into learning/leading and yet somehow they are the ones to outsmart and outlast the wisest of elders, without the reader ever really doubting that they’ll somehow save the day. Illuminae isn’t like that. It’s teens aren’t “chosen,” they work hard, and they seem to be at real risk.

“The universe owes you nothing[.] It has already given you everything, after all. It was here long before you, and it will go on long after you. The only way it will remember you is if you do something worthy of remembrance.”

It’s definitely a YA book, a little overly dramatic in places and full of flirting at times you’d think the characters would be more interested in fighting for their lives. But Illuminae is also a well-plotted story with a great layout, and if you’ve got any interest in YA sci-fi (or just YA or sci-fi) and haven’t read this series yet, I do recommend it. It’s a fun (but tense) experience.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I docked one for the narrative hand-holding, but I did really love reading Illuminae. I have a (maybe irrationally) low tolerance for zombie stories, but even when I realized halfway through this novel that the mysterious sickness strain was turning people into zombies I stayed hooked. I will definitely be reading books 2 and 3, hopefully soon but my to-be-read-immediately pile is really stacking up. I’ll probably be reading Gemina (Illuminae Files #2) within a month. All I know about the next book is that it maybe doesn’t feature the same characters, which I find myself surprisingly okay with despite the cliffhanger in this one.

Further recs:

  1. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, especially for readers who are straddling the YA/adult lit line. If you like a good space drama, you can’t miss this one. Brown’s readers are currently awaiting book 5 in this series and let me tell you the books just keep getting better. Cool tech, twisty plot, plentiful battle scenes, a little romance and a giant fight for equality– what’s not to like?

Have you read the Illuminae series? What did you think? Are books 2 and 3 as good as book 1?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

On Changing Your Mind About a Book

It’s almost my birthday, and as I’m reflecting on another year gone, I thought this would be the perfect time to also stop and consider how I’ve grown as a reader. This is going to be a weird and maybe unpopular way to do it, but I’m going to use a spoiler-ish review of Stephenie Meyer’s New Moon to explore those changes. (To anyone who’s cringing right now: I promise I have a juicy adult lit fic review coming tomorrow and you’re welcome to wait and read that instead.)

newmoonWhy reading growth? Why New Moon? Well, I’ve been rereading the Twilight saga for about a year now, and I’ve just finished the second book, New Moon. It’s taking so long because I’m not as interested as I once was, and I’ve been proceeding at the rate of one chapter per day, only on the days I feel like tackling one. I’m doing this because I know my reading tastes and opinions have evolved so much, and it’s been an enlightening experience to relive a past love and really make myself think about why it might have worked for me before, and why it doesn’t now. You can check out my reaction to rereading Twilight if you missed it, but here I’m delving deeper into my changed opinions on the series and particularly on New Moon.

Yes, I did say “past love.” I was one of those twi-hard fans back in 2007 (I was 12) and I have no regrets about that– it was the first YA fandom that I felt like I was part of right in the height of its coolness and I remember that experience fondly even if the story itself makes me cringe now. I was addicted. But even when I loved the series I hated New Moon.

I hated it because I was Team Edward in the novels (but Team Jacob in the movies) and I was so disappointed that Edward went AWOL in the book. I read New Moon immediately after Twilight, when Eclipse was imminent but had not been released yet; I needed more Bella and Edward and New Moon has only that one “good” Bedward chapter at the end. I spent much of that first read trying SO HARD not to skip ahead to make sure Edward wasn’t being written out of the series, but I did not care about the budding friendship with Jacob at all.

That was the first thing I thought would be different this time around. I thought New Moon would be my favorite reread of the series now that I don’t like Bedward anymore– also I’ve really been enjoying literary breakups in the last few years. Especially in YA. The breakups feel more real and interesting than the instaloves and drawn-out angst, which was definitely not the way I felt about YA romance in 2007. But New Moon is not designed for readers to enjoy the Bedward breakup. Readers even have to fight to like Jacob– every time he’s mentioned Bella thinks something along the lines of, “Well, I like him, but only because I’ve lost the best thing I ever had and I’ll just have to settle for liking what’s left.” The reader is constantly reminded that Edward is basically a vampire god and even as a werewolf Jacob will never be cool enough. I have never liked Bella less.

New Moon is still my least favorite book in the Twilight saga, but not for the same reasons I initially disliked the book.

My first time through, I probably didn’t see anything wrong with Bella and Edward’s relationship. Honestly I don’t remember much of 2007, but I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed the series as much as I did if I had seen something wrong with their relationship. The second step for me was to see that Edward was wrong to be so controlling, though I made excuses for him. Sure, it’s bad to make other people’s decisions just because you’re stronger and can force things to be a certain way, but he’s got a unique set of circumstances and he means well, blah blah, that’s what I thought as the issues with the Bedward relationship became more public and I was forced to acknowledge that the Twilight saga maybe had some flaws. Step three: At some point in high school I reread the series and was shocked to find that once I’d familiarized myself with the arguments against Edward I really didn’t like him much at all. I still didn’t like Jacob much as a character, but I could see he was the healthier option. And the final step: I’ve been rereading these books again, trying to decide whether nostalgia is a good enough reason to keep them or if it’s time to replace them on my shelf– and this time around it’s Bella I can’t stand. She always seemed to me like an adult’s version of a teenage girl, but I liked her ordinariness. Her subpar-ness, even. But now she seems more like a doormat and I’m more frustrated at Bella putting up with Edward’s absurdness than at Edward for being absurd. I know not to blame the victim, but Bella goes above and beyond and hurts a whole string of friends and family in her lost-love misery and I don’t forgive her for it.

I can’t believe I ever cared about such a weak and misguided character. Even assuming she loves Edward beyond reason, where’s her self-respect? The Twilight saga was probably the closest thing to romance I had read by the time I encountered the Twilight saga, which might have been why I liked it. Genre exploration is a good thing, I still believe that. I still like reading love stories, and actually I still like reading about vampires on occasion as well.

But I think my changing opinions reflect more on my mental state through the last eleven years. Looking back at my 4-step realization of New Moon‘s poor characterization, I can make a personal map: At step 1) I wanted a relationship so badly i didn’t care if it wasn’t a particularly healthy one, there was no point even making that distinction because I would rather have something than nothing. 2) I wanted a healthy relationship but was willing to settle. 3) I understood that I deserved a healthy relationship as much as the next person, and finally 4) I currently believe that life’s too short to put up with anybody’s crap for any reason and it’s better to be alone than in a bad relationship.

Bella didn’t seem to think so, but I’ve moved on.

The biggest change for me since my first read of New Moon in 2007 is that I expect more from a book now. I’ve read more, I’ve lived more, and I’m less tolerant of what’s not working in a book. If this had been my first time through the series, I don’t think I would’ve even finished New Moon. There’s just nothing happening except the preservation of a bad relationship at the cost of a potentially better one. But even though Jacob might be the better choice… he’s so boring. Whether it’s the writing or just me, I just can’t get excited about Jacob. I guess that’s my one opinion on New Moon that hasn’t changed in the last eleven years. He’s got all the potential, but New Moon reads like Meyer didn’t want readers to side with him and I can’t get past that.

I also rewatched the film to cap off this New Moon experience, and I think it’s safe to say the only thing I appreciate about the Twilight movies at this point in the game is the music. I had some good laughs, at least.

My reaction: New Moon was an amusing if frequently unpleasant reading experience. I am planning to finish my reread of the series, one chapter per day. We’ll see if Eclipse takes six months like the first two did. And when I’m done… I think I’m done with these books altogether. It’s been interesting to unearth some truths about my growth as a reader, and I don’t think the experiment would’ve worked with something I’ve consistently loved through the years, like Harry Potter. But I’m ready to take what I can get from this series and lay it firmly to rest in my 12 year-old past, where it belongs.

Have you ever changed your mind about a book you used to love (or hate)?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant