Tag Archives: series

on Mantel and Cromwell

Before 2020, the name Thomas Cromwell meant very little to me. My knowledge started and stopped with ‘advisor to Henry VIII,’ and all I knew about Henry VIII was ‘the one with all the wives and beheadings.’ I’ve not been particularly interested in the British monarchy until recently (I’ve also been watching The Crown this year) and I wasn’t following book prizes when Mantel won with the first two books in her Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. But because I followed the prizes in 2020 and because many expected to see Mantel walk away with another win for her Cromwell finale, The Mirror and the Light, I decided to give this sweeping historical saga a go. Everyone seemed to be loving it! But alas, my own experience with these books was not quite as enthusiastic.

If you’re brand new to these books and avoiding all spoilers, you can safely read my thoughts on Wolf Hall; very mild spoilers will be included in discussions of the latter two volumes. However, this series is really more about the journey than the (well-known) historical events, so I don’t think reading all three reviews will ruin the read for anyone. Your choice though, of course! And a last note: it is best to read the books in order if you want to read them all, as they feature the same characters and build off of previous events and character dynamics.

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)

In Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell serves Cardinal Wolsey, a powerful Catholic figure in England, a formal advisor and close friend to reigning King Henry VIII; Wolsey is in as high a position as any man other than the king could be, so long as he keeps the fickle ruler happy. Staying in the king’s good graces means bending the rules when they don’t fit Henry’s desires, though the Cardinal’s role within the church limits his ability to bend, particularly in the matter of the divorce Henry seeks from his first wife. Cromwell, Wolsey’s devoted right-hand man, is able to learn from his work with Wolsey how England’s hierarchy of power protects itself, with the help of legal trickery; this understanding makes him a prime candidate to serve the king as Wolsey falls out of favor. And hovering in the background, awaiting the king’s freedom from his marriage: Anne Boleyn.

“Beneath every history, another history.”

Wolf Hall was hard for me to get into. It’s slow, dense, and sprawling, and for someone without much idea of the specific history, the tension of the novel felt uneven to me, without a clear sense of what the threat actually was or where the narrative was headed. The cast is huge, and even Mantel acknowledges that far too many of the characters are named Thomas; instead of delivering nicknames or using distinguishing features or some other narrative trick to help readers differentiate, Mantel seems content to leave the reader to puzzle out who is who with only context to go by. There is a list of characters, but I found the accompanying definitions for each name too sparse to be of much help in remembering who’s been involved in what, and on which side. Furthermore, Mantel often elects to refer to Cromwell often simply as ‘he,’ as though he is god, perhaps; it’s an interesting characterization tactic that forces Cromwell always into the center of the tale, but I found it confusing, having spent my reading life learning that pronouns generally refer to the last person named, which does not hold true here.

“He hears her calling, Thomas, Thomas… It is a name that will bring half the house out, tumbling from their bedside prayers, from their very beds; yes, are you looking for me?”

But despite being a tedious read for me, I’d be lying to say that I found Wolf Hall unimpressive. It is intricately layered and detailed, the harshness and beauty of this world writ large. Cromwell- and most everyone else- feels well enough imagined that it seems he could walk straight out of the pages. It may be a book I appreciated more after closing the cover than while reading, but once I understood its direction and purpose I did appreciate how deftly Mantel illustrated the turning tide, the gradual shift of politics that would end lives and utterly change England. The years of this novel are a portent of what’s to come, and they are milestones in themselves, for the monarchy, for law, for Christianity.

I suppose my main complaint of this book is that Cromwell is not himself much of a key player, this story is in many ways happening to him here rather than at his own hands; these are the events that set his prosperous career with the king in motion, and yet this is largely Wolsey’s story, viewed from a distance. It is nonetheless a story worth reading.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This is not a book I would have bestowed with a literary prize, but it is a very promising start to what is clearly a remarkable series. I can’t even imagine how much research must go into a book like this, and it has my respect for that reason even if I didn’t love the read quite as much as I expected, based on the immense hype.

Bring Up the Bodies

In Bring Up the Bodies, Henry VIII has broken with Wolsey and with the Catholic church. Rather than a cardinal at his side, Henry has instead a lawyer, one who is able to angle the law to give the king what he wants: that man is Thomas Cromwell. Unfortunately, what the king wants continues to change. He grows tired of Anne Boleyn and has his eye instead on a new prospective bride. Can Cromwell succeed where Wolsey failed, finding a way to free Henry from his second marriage to make way for a third?

“He has always rated Anne highly as a strategist. He has never believed in her as a passionate, spontaneous woman. Everything she does is calculated, like everything he does. He notes, as he has these many years, the careful deployment of her flashing eyes. He wonders what it would take to make her panic.”

This second installment was an improvement for me. Instead of spanning years, it focuses on about two weeks of Cromwell’s life, and rather than sowing slow seeds of discord it narrows in on one particular problem, which swiftly ends with a dramatic event. The cast shifts a little, but most of the prominent characters are repeated, and Cromwell’s tendency to reflect on his past makes this story easier to sink into from the start.

Furthermore, Cromwell’s characterization soars to new heights here. The entire world and cast is still impeccably detailed, but Cromwell in particular is in fine form. He’s got agency, and he’s on the rise; up and up and up the ranks he goes, and no one is closer to the king. He is crafty and quick, and he is reaping the rewards. But he is also at a moral crossroads. Cromwell is now in a position to destroy the king’s enemies; when backed into the same corner as Wolsey, Cromwell must choose whether to push ahead, damn the consequences. The events of this volume will haunt him, and yet he will gain further favor for them with the king. He is doing both the right thing and the wrong thing at once, and because Cromwell does nothing in halves, he manages to destroy a few of his own enemies along the way.

It’s a complex and horrifying story brimming with death, and perhaps the most unsettling thing about it is that it feels inevitable. It doesn’t matter whether Cromwell is a good or bad person, and indeed it is hard to tell here how black his heart really is- the position that he is in gives him no choice but to dirty his hands for the king, or lose everything. He has already seen Wolsey, his true master, lose. But Wolsey had to listen to the Pope, and Cromwell would rather see religion put into the hands of the people, with the printing of an English Bible, than continue to give Rome that authority. He is, in many ways, a perfect match for the king, though it is necessarily a difficult, delicate relationship.

“‘It was a bad moment for me. How many men can say, as I must, “I am a man whose only friend is the King of England”? I have everything, you would think. And yet take Henry away and I have nothing.'”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This sequel, while slightly shorter and more compact than its predecessor, was still somewhat too long and dense for my personal interest level in Cromwell et al; this seems like a good time to remind readers that I rate based on my own enjoyment/appreciation rather than objective merit (if such a thing can be said to exist in any art form). This is the one I would’ve happily given awards to, if that had in any way been my choice!

The Mirror & The Light (Thomas Cromwell, #3)

In The Mirror and the Light, Cromwell is reaching the end of his rope. The unfortunate demise of Henry’s beloved third wife is a blow for England, and as foreign allegiances shift against Henry and his blatant disregard for Catholicism, it puts Cromwell in the tough position of needing to find Henry a new bride that will bring allies for England. Further complicating matters, rumors against Cromwell inspire civil unrest, several prospects vie for the throne and expect Cromwell’s help to get there, and Cromwell’s own religious and political interests become entangled with his advise to the king, limiting Cromwell’s viable paths forward much as Catholicism limited Wolsey. A misstep is all it will take for everything Cromwell has built to come crumbling down.

“This is what Henry does. He uses people up. He takes all they give him and more. When he is finished with them he is noisier and fatter and they are husks or corpses.”

In case history (and Mantel’s previous work in this series) has not made it clear, even the synopsis tells the reader straight out that The Mirror and the Light will follow Cromwell through his final years- and so we know what is coming at the end of this tale, and if we know anything about Henry VIII at this point, it is that those who lose his favor do not meet pretty ends. The gradual downward slope of things gone wrong builds a wonderful hold-your-breath tension here; as in Wolf Hall I found the wider scope of years and events to be a bit too long and meandering for real cohesion, though having a better sense of what the narrative was working toward this time around did make it a better reading experience for me than Wolf Hall, even if not as tight and sharp as Bring Up the Bodies.

“‘I am in awe of myself,’ he says. ‘I never know what I will do next.'”

For prose, I would probably say that The Mirror and the Light is Mantel at her best. She is in full command here, her writing insightful, poetic, measured. We even get ‘he, Cromwell’ usage here in place of the all-confusing ‘he,’ which is a vast improvement in clarity. But she makes one particular move with language that just didn’t work for me: repetition. Even in the first book, Cromwell was in the habit of recalling his past and reflecting on changes that have come into his life, but here Mantel recounts whole scenes, interrupting the flow of the “present” to remind the reader where Cromwell stood in the past. Perhaps because I read this volume immediately after the second book rather than years after it, as more loyal fans who’ve kept up with her publications will have done, I found the continual dredging up of moments already covered to be too much padding in an overly long tome. I can see the method working better for other readers: the laying of two images side by side for stark comparison, but for me I found the constant reminders insulting to my memory of the character. No one is picking up The Mirror and the Light without having read books one and two, are they? Mantel’s working of small observances into the story that turn out later to have been clues woven subtly into the plot are far more to her credit, showcasing a mastery of detail and timing that Cromwell’s clumsier dips into memory lack. I would also exclude the memories that reveal new insight from this criticism, though I found these to be few.

There was one other choice made in the narration of this story that didn’t quite suit me: the final characterization of Cromwell, the tone that the book’s last chapters end on. What I’ve loved most about this trilogy is the moral complexity, the sense that Cromwell has simply been a cog in a machine ever rolling forward, destined to follow the dark path he is set upon by the royal figure who for all intents and purposes cannot be blamed (at least not by his contemporaries) for the wrongdoing he incites. But The Mirror and the Light, in my opinion, undoes that somewhat, asking the reader to see Cromwell as good, as sympathetic, and sadly lost in the end- drawing on his love for his wife and daughters, his devotion to keeping promises, his penchant for helping poor folk who are down on their luck. There’s an air of martyrdom infused in the way this book approaches the death of Cromwell, accused of a crime that evidence must be invented for in order to secure a conviction; while I don’t know enough about the real history of Cromwell to argue against the authenticity of this bid for pity, and of course he would have been as human as any of the rest of us, this choice of characterization just wasn’t what I was looking for from this read. I was much more drawn into the earlier painting of Cromwell as a sort of necessary villain. The martyr bit has already been done with Wolsey, and I was hoping to see Mantel take Cromwell’s peril to new heights.

“He has lived by the laws he has made and must be content to die by them. But the law is not an instrument to find out truth. It is there to create a fiction that will help us move past atrocious acts and face our future. It seems there is no mercy in this world, but a kind of haphazard justice: men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I think Mantel may have fallen victim here to a fear of leaving anything good out, at the cost of including more than necessary. But nevertheless, and in spite of my quibbles, I was rapt from cover to cover, finished the book feeling haunted by Cromwell, and am walking away far more aware of and piqued by this chapter of history than I ever have been, which I have to call a resounding win.

If you’re still with me, thank you; having read over 2,000 pages in order to write this post I’m letting myself indulge a bit (which is perhaps how Mantel felt, having obviously waded through massive amounts of research to bring us this trilogy).

Because I read The Mirror and the Light primarily in relation to the book prizes I followed this year, I’d like to wrap up with some final prize-related thoughts.

As regards the 2020 Women’s Prize: The Mirror and the Light was both longlisted and shortlisted for this year’s prize, and I stand by that. In my longlist wrap-up earlier this year, I ranked the 15 books I’d read; having now read all 16, I’d say that Mantel ranks 6th on the list for me, near the bottom of my 4-star reads from the longlist. In that spot, I don’t have any complaints about how far The Mirror and the Light went with the WP. And, though I know it’ll upset a few of my followers to hear it, I’m still happy with Hamnet taking the win over Mirror even now that I can properly compare the both- Hamnet managed to excite me more. But Mantel does have one major thing going for her with Mirror– this is the only WP nominee from the 2020 longlist that isn’t primarily focused on motherhood and family. Gold star. This year’s list was in desperate need of more variety, and Mantel should be commended for providing that.

Oh, and just for fun, my WP wrap-up included a few quotes from longlisted nominees that felt eerily timely given this year’s pandemic, and I’d like to add a snippet from Mirror to that list:

“But now there are rumors of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces.”

As regards the 2020 Booker Prize: Mirror was longlisted but not shortlisted for the Booker prize, much to everyone’s shock after Mantel’s previous Booker wins with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. To be honest I’m also shocked this volume was excluded from this year’s shortlist; it is, in my opinion, a stronger offering than Wolf Hall, and if not quite as impressive for me as Bring Up the Bodies, Mirror did, in my opinion, deserve a spot on this year’s shortlist. It would’ve ranked 3rd on the shortlist for me, and 5th on the longlist. I found this year’s Booker winner, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, more immediately engaging and enjoyable to read, so I don’t begrudge Stuart his win and wouldn’t necessarily have wanted Mantel to take that slot instead, but in all fairness I’m sure Mirror will live on in my memory much longer than Shuggie, so it certainly rates right up there for me.

In conclusion, Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy was a somewhat ponderous and trying reading experience for me, but ultimately a journey I’m glad I’ve taken and would not hesitate to recommend to history buffs and anyone interested in character-driven political dramas. It’s an incredible collection of work, and Mantel’s dedication to doing the subject justice and inciting curiosity in a shady long-dead figure is plain on every page. Though the trilogy requires some patience, it is, truly, a masterpiece.

The Literary Elephant

Review: Ninth House

Today’s review is a catch-up post featuring a book I started reading back in May: Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House.

ninthhouseIn the novel, Alex is found as the sole survivor on the scene of a homicide, and from there is plucked from her seedy life and given a full ride scholarship to Yale based on her ability to see ghosts. In exchange for her Ivy league education, she must work as an important member in the network of Yale’s secret societies: she’ll be the leader of the house that monitors the uses of magic performed by the eight magical societies. She is supposed to have a mentor for the first year while she learns the ins and outs of the magic and her responsibilities, but something goes awry and Darlington goes missing. Soon after, a girl is killed. When Alex digs for the truth, she finds herself up against some powerful enemies and a whole lot of corruption.

“You should never look into the face of the uncanny, but had he ever been able to turn away? No, he’d courted it, begged for it. He had to know. He wanted to know everything.”

I was immediately drawn in by this book’s main characters: Alex is a kickass take-no-shit heroine whose time among addicts and abusers and whose ability to see the world of the dead alongside the world of the living colors her experience with elite academics. Then there’s Darlington, her Lethe House mentor, whose longing to learn anything and everything (especially when it comes to magic) is both his salvation and his downfall. But the trio wouldn’t be complete without wise Dawes, runner of Lethe headquarters, keeper of knowledge, assistant in all sorts of scenarios Alex would never have dreamed she’d find herself in. The three make an incredible team; they all work together well enough, but each have their own one-on-one relationships which ultimately make them stronger as a set. The only downside is that Darlington is physically absent for the duration of the novel; we see him only in memories and glimpses into the past.

Also notable is Ninth House‘s thorough world-building. We see Yale, down to the architectural styles of its buildings and the names of the streets dissecting campus. We see the town beyond, both its legacy and its layout. We’re given eight secret societies in addition to Lethe House which oversees them all; each society has a name, a location for meetings and magic, its own rituals and rules of operation, and important members. There’s also insider slang, to further complicate the terminology.

Though I loved the attention to detail, the book loses a lot of momentum in laying this all out. The plot becomes tangled up in explanations of the magic system governing it. There’s a sense of waiting for the pieces to come together, for Alex to be able to move freely and confidently through this magical world, and ultimately that doesn’t quite happen in a satisfactory way before the end of the novel. But the groundwork is now laid, and I think it’s entirely possible- even likely- that in the sequel we’ll see this magic realized in a more appreciable way. Perhaps whatever Bardugo is planning to do with all of this detail will play into an exciting plot that’s free of heavy worldbuilding minutiae in the second book. If that doesn’t turn out to be the case, I’ll have to reevaluate my stance, and I know that not every reader will be interested in sticking with a series that’s more concerned with a longer narrative than individual installments, which is totally fair as well. But as I’m optimistic that the ground is being laid for a complex sequel that piggybacks directly off of Ninth House, I think Bardugo does the best one can with such an excess of info; between the back-and-forth format of the fall and spring semesters and the way that Alex’s investigations provide a reason for her (and the reader) to seek intel on each of the societies, Bardugo largely manages to avoid clunky exposition. With the exception of the villain’s dramatic monologue on their evil deeds.

While the pace is slow and the doling of info ponderous at times, there are other reasons to enjoy the read even if you’re not sold on continuing the series. The plot may require some work from the reader, but it does play into interesting deeper themes. Alex is an observant and critical protagonist who uses the scenes she witnesses to comment on the self-serving actions of the rich, the nepotism and favoritism involved, the ease with which abuse of power can be concealed by… further abuse of power. Yale is presented as a dark, exclusionary place, and the societies present as a sort of (fantastical) microcosm of the wider Ivy institution. Alex notes that the only thing that sets the secret society students apart is that someone let them into the club, often based on family or other close connections. The magic here is available only to a few, though essentially anyone could do it- the magic is ritual-based and learned rather than innate. Of course the adults who return to benefit from the magical rituals are the previous members of the societies as well- the rich helping the rich get richer. It’s a closed circle, for no reason other than that those who found power closed the door to it, and granted access only to those who would keep the secrets among themselves and use them primarily to members’ advantage. Because long-standing traditions are involved, there are other prejudices at play in the system as well, including misogyny.

“Did she seem depressed? She was distant. She didn’t make many friends. She was struggling in her classes. All true. But would it have mattered if she’d been someone else? If she’d been a social butterfly, they would have said she liked to drink away her pain. If she’d been a straight-A student, they would have said she’d been eaten alive by her perfectionism. There were always excuses for why girls died.”

Last but not least, I can’t end without mentioning the graphic content in these pages. There are a couple of rape scenes, including rape of a child, and uses of magic as a means to manipulate people (mostly women) into doing things they wouldn’t consent to, including sex. There are also murders, drug and alcohol use, and poor parenting, including abandoning a child. It seemed to me that the intent of these scenes and details was primarily for characterization and furthering the commentary, and in several cases the perpetrator is repaid for their actions. There is no explicit or implied message that abuse is acceptable in any circumstance, though Bardugo perhaps misjudges in places how much of a scene the reader needs to see to get the gist. Is it all necessary? Maybe not, but it’s not handled lightly either. It’s worth remembering that while Bardugo has written primarily for YA audiences in the past, this is an adult fantasy, and there is some disturbing content. If you have any further questions about triggering content that I’ve mentioned here or want to be sure a trigger I’ve failed to mention isn’t actually here, please talk to me in the comments!

“She was relieved when she realized he was dead. A dead man in the girls’ bathroom was a lot less scary than a living one.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I think the next book in the series will see a higher rating from me, because most of my complaints with this one are things that will likely be resolved naturally with the simple progression of the overall plot as the series continues. I also think my rating might have been a little higher for this one if not for Six of Crows… it seems unfair to judge one of the author’s works against another, but that book was such a favorite for me that I can’t forget what heights Bardugo is capable of taking me to, and Ninth House just wasn’t on that level. I did enjoy this read though, and am eagerly awaiting the next installment!

 

The Literary Elephant

Mini-Reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 9 (Plus Series Ranking!)

This has been a long time coming! If you’re new-ish here, you might not even know that I spent last year reading 29 of the 30 individually bound Faber Stories, a series of collectible short story editions published by Faber & Faber. There have been 30 volumes released between two batches- whether the series will be growing further in the future has not been announced, though I believe the intent was to celebrate their 90th year of publishing, which is now past.

When I reached the end of the first batch (which included 20 stories) I ranked them all here in order of favoritism; now that I’ve finished the rest I figured I might as well update that list! But first, I’ll go over the four stories I haven’t reviewed yet. Three I read back in December, intending to read the last in January… your guess is as good as mine as to why this took me until May!

 

Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver. 3 stars.

An old Cherokee woman who ran from Cherokee lands with a new husband just in time to avoid the US government’s forced relocation of Native American tribes is now a great-grandmother whose ancient culture lives on only in her heart and through the stories she impresses upon her granddaughter. Her oblivious American descendants take her to visit her birthplace, but the modern town they find in her tribe’s old place is no more than an inauthentic tourist trap.

This is a lovely and sad little piece about culture stolen from native peoples, and that culture living on as best it can through memories passed down to further generations. It is also a scathing critique of Americans’ irreverence for native history. That said, between the blurb on the jacket mentioning the disappointing trip to the Cherokee town, and the first two-page “chapter” providing the concept of culture living on as a seed inside living descendants, the reader has the entire formula of the story already within grasp just 5% into the read. I didn’t find much payoff in reading the rest, with the Point and the method of making it laid out so early, even though the writing is propulsive enough. Furthermore, I did have a fair grasp going in on the unfair and atrocious fates forced upon native tribes by US settlers, which made this story feel a bit predictable.  In any case, it’s a worthwhile point that Kingsolver is making, and she makes it well- it just wasn’t new to me at this point, which is no fault of hers.

Upon further inspection, this story was actually first published in 1989, so perhaps the trouble is simply that it’s a bit dated and would’ve had more punch for earlier readers.

” ‘I guess things have changed pretty much since you moved away, huh Great Mam?’ I asked. / She said, ‘I’ve never been here before.’ “

 

The Cheater’s Guide to Love by Junot Diaz. 2 stars.

In this volume, a Dominican-American man is going through a breakup; his girlfriend has discovered he’s been cheating on her (to an extreme extent), and dumped him. His best friend advises that the best way to get over the heartbreak is to find another woman- both struggle to find and maintain healthy relationships with women.

If there is anything positive to be found in this story, it eludes me. The MC and his friend have little respect for women, including those they supposedly love. When their misbehavior does lead to heartbreak (and complicated parenthood), they pity themselves without taking any responsibility for their mistakes or putting real effort into ditching bad habits. Yunior (the MC) does try exercise as a coping mechanism and distraction, but when it leads to injuries the story seems to be suggesting that there is no point in trying to resist cheating and objectifying women, it only leads to further punishment. I kept waiting for this to turn into a commentary on how awful this sort of behavior and mindset is for everyone involved, but right up to the final sentence it seems instead to be a wistful longing for being able to cheat in “monogamous” relationships without facing consequences. The men of the story seem to expect to sleep with whoever they want, when they want to, drop those women whenever it pleases them, and pop in to see any resultant children only when it suits them. I found the humor contemptible, felt no sympathy for these men, and gained nothing from this story.

hope I’m missing something. The only upside was that it was a quick read, at least.

 

Giacomo Joyce by James Joyce. 3 stars.

Only a story in the loosest sense, this little book is full of poetic vignettes about a man (clearly modeled after Joyce) in the midst of an affair with a student he teaches.

I think there’s going to be a very particular audience for this story, and I wasn’t it. There are a lot of references and similarities to other Joyce works, which I wouldn’t have noticed, not having read any others through- but nearly half of this volume is actually dedicated to pointing out and explaining these many ties. As a Joyce novice these didn’t have much meaning for me, though perhaps  someone better versed in Joycean lit would find them more appealing. The prose is beautiful, though very dense and somewhat impenetrable. Poetry connoisseurs might also have better luck.

Ultimately I thought this was lovely, though a terrible place to start with Joyce’s work as a relative beginner. If ever I were to become more knowledgeable and interested in Joyce’s life and work, I’d want to revisit this story to see if it would have more to offer me at that point.

 

Shanti by Vikram Chandra. 3 stars.

Set in India, this is a set of stories within a story within a story, set in the wake of WWII in 1945. The main characters are a man whose identical twin has died, a woman on a futile search for her missing fighter pilot husband, and a couple of their friends.

The jacket copy claims that this is “a spiraling tale of loss, and two wounded people becoming something new.” Without that hint of direction, I’m not sure I would have found the themes of this one out at all; there are so many layers to this tale and so many details given; it felt both elaborate and strangely empty. By which I mean, the biggest obstacle for me here was simply the fact that despite reports of how these people were dealing with their grief, I never felt a hint of emotion. And thus, no matter how each of the individual narratives might have worked for me, it never quite came together to a meaningful point or payoff. I believe the innermost level of narratives is meant to capture some of the characters’ unspoken emotions, but the fact that this is all told through a friend of this man and woman rather than either of them or even a neutral 3rd-person narrator puts the action too far distant to be properly effective.

All in all I found this a rather frustrating read, with moments of beauty overshadowed by my difficulty in sympathizing with the characters at the heart of the tale.

“They would go home, and even if nothing was finished, not ever, they would batten away the memories and find new beginnings.”

 

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Concluding thoughts:

Despite high hopes for at least two of these stories (Homeland and Shanti), this has turned out to be perhaps my most disappointing batch of Faber Stories yet. I don’t regret picking these up and rounding out my experience with this series of stories, but I had wished to end on a higher note. From this round, I’d say Homeland has probably been my favorite, and I’d read more from both Kingsolver and perhaps Joyce, based on these offerings.

 

To amp up the fun, my revised ranking of the Faber Stories, in order from most to least favorite! I’ve linked each title to its respective review set in case you’re interested in learning anything further about any of these in particular.

  1. Mostly Hero by Anna Burs – 5 stars
  2. The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes by Alan Bennett – 5 stars
  3. The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan – 4 stars
  4. Come Rain or Come Shine by Kazuo Ishiguro – 4 stars
  5. Mrs. Fox by Sarah Hall – 4 stars
  6. Mr Salary by Sally Rooney – 4 stars
  7. Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera – 4 stars
  8. Paradise by Edna O’Brien – 4 stars
  9. Intruders by Adrian Tomine – 4 stars
  10. The Inner Room by Robert Aickman – 4 stars
  11. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor – 4 stars
  12. The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes – 4 stars
  13. Ghostly Stories by Celia Fremlin – 4 stars
  14. Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath – 3 stars
  15. The Victim by P. D. James – 3 stars
  16. Three Types of Solitude by Brian Aldiss – 3 stars
  17. Fairy Tales by Marianne Moore – 3 stars
  18. Dante and the Lobster by Samuel Beckett – 3 stars
  19. An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah – 3 stars
  20. Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver – 3 stars
  21. My Son the Fanatic by Hanif Kureishi – 3 stars
  22. Daughters of Passion by Julia O’Faolain – 3 stars
  23. Shanti by Vikram Chandra – 3 stars
  24. The Country Funeral by John McGahern – 3 stars
  25. A River in Egypt by David Means – 3 stars
  26. Terrific Mother by Lorrie Moore – 3 stars
  27. Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine by Thom Jones – 3 stars
  28. Cosmopolitan by Akhil Sharma – 3 stars
  29. Giacomo Joyce by James Joyce – 3 stars
  30. The Cheater’s Guide to Love by Junot Diaz – 2 stars

 

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Set Reflection:

I would read more of these. I’ve absolutely enjoyed my time with this series overall; it’s nice to come to each story fresh- a new author, a new subject, pretty packaging. My average rating is 3.5, which is a bit low to get excited about but far from terrible. I still think this is a great way to sample authors’ work in bite-sized pieces; I’ve added several of these writers to my TBR as a result of reading this series (though shamefully I’m yet to pick those additional works up) and I just love the look of them. It’s been a good run. I probably wouldn’t recommend reading all of them unless you’re a die-hard completionist (welcome to the club!), but you can hardly go wrong picking up a few of these that appeal!

Who’s your favorite short story writer? (Feel free to mention someone who’s not included in this set!)

 

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: One Day in December, The Kingdom of Copper, and The Institute

First off, apologies to anyone who wanted to share a comment on my last post and wasn’t able to, thanks to a WordPress glitch. I’ve corrected the post settings and the comment box is back now, so I’ll link it here just in case: Reviews: Know My Name and The Body in Question. (No worries if you don’t want to comment, of course.)

For today, I’ve got another set of short reviews. These don’t have anything in common except for the time period in which I read them, so feel free to skip around if you prefer.

onedayindecemberJosie Silver’s One Day in December is a popular romance novel that I received last Christmas and waited all year for the right time to pick it up! In the end, reading this between Christmas and New Year’s was really the highlight of my experience. It’s formatted as a set of New Year’s resolutions followed by snippets from the year, over the course of a decade.

Other than the perfect timing, a lot of this story just didn’t work for me. First, it’s the least romantic romance I’ve ever read. The main couple “meet” in the first five pages of the book by glimpsing each other through a bus window. This moment was supposedly important enough that neither of them are able to fully love anyone else afterward. Through ten years of narration, we follow both of them as they date various other people; the romance we’re unarguably supposed to be rooting for through nearly 400 pages doesn’t come together until the LAST PAGE of the book. So, no steamy scenes between the two of them, and for most of the interim they can’t even be honest or open with each other. (Where’s the romance?!)

To some extent, I appreciate the longer timeline and the messy relationships, but I didn’t feel that the author used this setup to develop much of a rapport between the two main characters. Both the man and the woman find excellent partners in these 10 years that I would have rather seen them with than each other, which is partially due to the fact that the reader simply spends more time with those couples than the main ship. Even with 390+ pages and ten years’ worth of plot, we don’t really get to know any of the main characters well enough. The writing is so much telling rather than showing, to the point where the characters remain completely unpredictable because they don’t exhibit clear personalities or motives. They seem more like vehicles to push us through this story rather than just, you know, being the story. This made it impossible to invest emotionally, a crucial flaw in a romance.

“Despite the fairy-tale snowstorm out there, this isn’t Narnia. This is London, real life, where hearts get kicked and bruised and broken, but somehow they still keep beating.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Full disclosure, I think I’ll end up lowering this rating after some time has passed. I had low expectations going in and picked it up at a time when I wanted something light and inconsequential so I didn’t hate the read, but I think it will be the complaints that stick with me most.

thekingdomofcopperI read S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass, the first book in her Daevabad trilogy, almost an entire year ago, and I don’t think I did it justice in my (3-star) review. I remember my expectations not quite fitting what I actually knew about the book (that it’s the first in a Muslim, Middle Eastern high fantasy series), so that’s on me. I also remember feeling a bit disappointed in the use of a few tropes, which seemed to be driving the story in a predictable direction. Long story short, my expectations for The Kingdom of Copper were a bit wonky when I picked it up soon after, and I am now relieved that I set it aside in March and finished it in December. This was the better time for it in my reading life.

I don’t want to say much about the plot since this is a sequel, but in this second volume Chakraborty leaves the cliches behind and gives us three well-developed characters who are growing and changing in interesting ways, who are all brought together into the same conflict, on different sides of the issue. The magic and politics are intriguing, the world-building is excellent, and the characterization is absolutely superb- I found all three POVs equally engaging, which is rare and didn’t happen for me even in the first book of this series. If you enjoy adult high fantasy, this is really a stellar trilogy so far. I can’t wait to see how it all comes together in The Empire of Gold (out in June 2020).

“I know what it’s like to have ambitions, to be the cleverest in the room- and have those ambitions crushed. To have men who are less than you bully and threaten you into a place you know you don’t belong.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s my own fault, but it was definitely a bit jarring trying to jump back into this right in the middle. I think my ratings could definitely change (for the better) in a proper reread of all three books together.

theinstituteMuch to my surprise, after this buddy read went off the rails in early December, my friend and I suddenly decided to try finishing Stephen King’s The Institute in the last three days of the year (while also wrapping up other books)- and succeeded! Aside from that rewarding victory, this was a mixed bag for me.

On one hand, this started out so promisingly with an interesting ex-cop on an unhurried adventure, picking up an old-timey job in a random small town when struck with a whim. As soon as he’s settled in what is foreshadowed to be an important location to the overall plot, the narration switches to a genius boy of twelve who’s taking his SATs (as a formality) in preparation of beginning his college education at two elite schools- at the same time. But something happens that he doesn’t see coming- he’s kidnapped and taken to a secret facility in Maine where children with light psychic abilities are tested, used, and abused. Of course if anyone can figure out a way to stop what’s happening there, it’s the genius kid, and so a large turn of events is set in motion as soon as he arrives. Looks good, right? Unfortunately, it started unraveling for me about right at that point.

My biggest issue was simply that I didn’t buy it. The secret place where thousands of kids have been held captive over the course of 50+ years and used as psychic tools by conspiratorial adults could have been fantastic if it had been a bit more grounded and developed, but instead it feels like a quick sketch of an idea that’s not entirely thought out. There’s no nuance to the adults at this facility, they’re absurdly cruel and apathetic without reasonable explanations. The tests sound cool and retro (“shots for dots”) or provide a vivid image (the immersion tank), but they don’t make much sense. The plot is riddled with holes (it definitely shouldn’t have taken a genius to escape this place), the Stranger Things and even Miss Peregrine’s vibes are weak and doesn’t carry the story, the characters begin to feel less like people and more like plot devices the longer the book goes on. I also kept having to double check that this is set in modern day because the kids don’t speak and behave like modern day kids.

That’s a lot of complaining, but the worst part is King’s tone deafness. In The Institute he commonly refers to a group of kids as “gorks.” These are kids who’ve been kidnapped and abused to the point of essentially losing their minds, and it feels incredibly unfair of him to lump them together with such a thoughtless, hurtful term. Near the end of the book, there’s one character who tries to urge the others not to say “gorks” because its rude, but within two pages she admits it’s too hard not to, and everyone goes on using this term without another thought. This seems to indicate that King knew he would be called out for insensitivity, but either didn’t understand why or didn’t care enough to remove the offensive comments. (And I haven’t even started on how the one woman on the small town police force was “never cut out to be a cop.”)

I’ll leave The Institute at this: I like the core idea and the first third of the book was a 4- or even 5-star read for me, but the execution fell apart in the latter half. I hope King will continue to publish future novels, because I’d really like to see him do better, for old times’ sake.

“It was so simple, but it was a revelation: what you did for yourself was what gave you the power.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed bits and pieces, I enjoyed the buddy read experience (as always), but this one is going nowhere near my favorites list.

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

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Hannibal

Two years ago, I picked up The Silence of the Lambs as my Halloween read, knowing it was a horror classic with a readily available film adaptation, but without realizing that it was actually the second book in a series. I had such a good time with it that last year I followed up by choosing Red Dragon as my Halloween read (the first book in the set), and this year I picked up the third, Hannibal (all three by Thomas Harris). Sadly, with Hannibal I found my first real disappointment of the series, and what a disappointment it was.

hannibalIn the novel, seven years after Hannibal Lecter’s escape from custody, special agent Starling struggles to find her place in the FBI. It’s very much a man’s world, and she’s made enemies high up the chain of command who take pains to knock her back every time she tries to take a step forward. When a tip comes in that Lecter has fled Italy after causing some murderous havoc there, Starling is the one who chases the lead- from a dark basement storage room where no one expects she’ll find anything. Meanwhile, someone else is chasing Lecter as well; one of his earliest victims (who barely survived, aided by a lot of modern technology) is out for revenge. Verger has a lot of money, and was left in such poor physical state that he spends what’s left of his existence just thinking- about how to get Lecter away from the law and into his own hands. Can Starling bring Lecter back into official custody? Will Verger take her down to get to Lecter? Will Lecter escape them both? The answers are here, and they’re disturbing.

“That didn’t mean he wouldn’t kill me any second if he got the chance- one quality in a person doesn’t rule out any other quality. They can exist side by side, good and terrible.”

There seems to be one book every year in my busy work season that seems nearly impossible to finish and puts me in a big reading slump. Last year it was The Bachman Books, a set of four stories which I very much enjoyed, all but one. I was afraid the challenge this year might turn out to be Ducks, Newburyport, but fortunately that was such an excellent read that I didn’t have any trouble getting through its thousand pages. Instead, it was Hannibal I got stuck on.

There are so many things to dislike here. The book starts promisingly enough, with a very film-able shoot-out scene that turns out to be as much about bureau and media politics as about the adrenaline rush. Starling isn’t the same woman she was in The Silence of the Lambs, but it’s been seven years- some character development is to be expected, and there’s plenty of intrigue surrounding her place in the bureau and the future of her career. Soon after, the narration takes us to Italy, where Lecter is enjoying all the fine things in life, and a blacklisted cop there discovers his identity. We are also introduced to the story’s villain, Verger, who likes to make children cry and throw his money around to shape the world into what he wants it to be. But for all these intriguing starts, it doesn’t take long for the book to drag.

Problem number one: the plot trajectory becomes clear early on, and then stagnates while we wait for it to play out. Verger is making arrangements to torture and kill Lecter, and he’s got some powerful helpers, in addition to an endless supply of cash. The FBI (other than Starling) does not have any interest in Lecter. Or at least, no confidence in catching him, and thus they’re eager to look the other way. Starling is the wild card, but even so, any reasonably intelligent reader knows Lecter and Verger will have some sort of confrontation (why else even include Verger in this book?). And so, from the time the major players are introduced, to the time they all meet, hundreds of pages are spent on very little plot movement. There’s no forward momentum.

Problem two: What fills the pages instead is a whole lot of attention paid to Lecter’s superior “taste.” I suppose with the title of the book being what it is, we can expect that this novel is an exploration of Hannibal Lecter’s character, though the extent of it took me completely by surprise. We get lessons on the cars he insists on driving, the food he insists on eating (and cooking), the music he insists on listening to, the silverware he insists on using, the clothes he insists on wearing, etc. Brands and descriptions are numerous. I can’t speak for everyone of course, but I’ve learned the hard way (ahem, Discovery of Witches) that I will simply never care about any character’s list of favorite wines. For me, the surplus of these details quickly crossed the line past productive characterization into what seemed like Harris showing off his expertise on “good culture,” complete with travel details.

Problem three: Relatedly, almost everything about Lecter in this novel felt like Harris simply reveling in his most famous character being in the limelight. Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs certainly contain gruesome details (major trigger warnings in all three books for murder, torture, body horror, cannibalism, etc.), but those scenes featured infrequently, when they served the plot. In Hannibal, most (if not all) of the gory details felt gratuitous. This entire book honestly felt like a celebration of Hannibal the Cannibal, the most perfect murderer. He’s not presented as a villain here. He’s lauded. And it comes across as ridiculous.

“His ego, like his intelligence quota, and the degree of his rationality, is not measurable by conventional means.”

Problem four: The ending. Despite being published in the 1980’s and 90’s, most of the content in these three books hasn’t age too badly. Starling is a pretty great female lead in The Silence of the Lambs, and there’s not much in the way of insensitive commentary that wouldn’t fly today. But this ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but Harris completely ruins Starling’s character. Worse, he does it in a way that taints who she’s been and what her motivations have been since the first time she met Lecter, early in The Silence of the Lambs. In paving the way for Lecter to have a glorious ending, Harris pulls down everything else that was good about this series. His female lead. Excellent detective work. Morality. Ugh.

Problem five: There’s no one to root for anyway. After such disappointment in the ending, I had to go back and ask: what would I rather have happened? And I couldn’t answer it. Though Lecter is a fascinating character, he’s a nonetheless a villain. Verger mixes the tears of children he’s personally antagonized into his cocktails, and Starling, the obvious choice for a heroine, seems a shadow of her former self (especially as we approach the end- if you know you know). There isn’t anyone in this book that I wanted to “win,” or even felt good about. I don’t need to like the characters to like the book, but disliking all of the characters when that doesn’t seem intentional is the worst.

I usually try to soften my negative reviews by ending on some sort of positive note, or at least recommending it to an audience that I think will get on with it better. The best I can say here is that for the first third (or possibly even half), I didn’t hate this story yet, and there are a couple of scenes that I will remember mostly fondly (Krendler’s fate, for one). Also I suppose if you’re in this series for the gore (or for expensive wine recommendations), you might enjoy Hannibal. I think that’s as close as I can get to positivity here, I’m sorry. I sincerely hope that anyone who has already read or is planning to read this one has a better time with it than I did.

“We assign a moment to decision, to dignify the process as a timely result of rational and conscious thought. But decisions are made of kneaded feelings; they are more often a lump than a sum.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I’m on the fence about reading book four, the final book in this series: Hannibal Rising. I believe it’s a prequel about Lecter’s early life and career (both as a doctor and as a cannibalistic murderer). The completionist in me wants to cross it off my list after getting this far in the series. But my lack of enjoyment with this book, and the reasons for it (mainly Lecter’s characterization) leave me thinking that I can’t possibly appreciate that book any more than I did this one. So, it might be time to move on to a new Halloween reading tradition.

What’s the worst book you’ve read lately?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Dark Age

CW: murder, graphic violence (including torture), rape (off the page), use of nuclear weapons, planetary destruction

Disclaimer: Instead of a regular review (since this is the fifth book in a series) I’m going to use the opportunity of having recently finished reading Pierce Brown’s Dark Age to talk about the Red Rising series in general, and why I am reading it. So, no spoilers, and maybe this’ll be interesting even if you haven’t read any of the books in the series.

darkageBrown’s Red Rising series includes: Red Rising, Golden Son, Morning Star, Iron Gold, and Dark Age.

There are a lot of different factors that can motivate me to pick up a book (of course), but one thing I’m always looking for in what I read is something unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before. A dystopian/fantasy with a male hero and themes of fighting for racial/social equality hardly sounds unique, but the Red Rising series has always possessed a certain level of grit that (in my opinion) sets it apart from similar stories of its genre(s). Despite a fair amount of casual sexism and ableism, which I find increasingly annoying as my reading taste shifts more toward feminism and female authors in general, Brown is the only author I read who can write a passage like this:

“I moan something in fear. There’s a lurch. A sudden pressure in my chest. He pulls away, his hand holding something red as he mouths a word dead to my ears. 

‘Worthy.’

Then he takes a bite of my heart.”

…and still leave me with room for doubt over whether this character is actually dead. Set thousands of years in the future, most of our main characters are Gold superhumans for whom surgery can fix almost anything that evolution has not already. There is a caste system, so the lower folk (lowColors) usually can’t afford to be fixed, and are worked to the bone by their superiors, but having a powerful friend can help even them. It really puts what is humanly possible and what is not humanly possible into a whole different realm.

Furthermore, I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything with such a wide scope. Red Rising begins on Mars, as overflow from Earth has long since required the populating of additional planets, but the plot is mainly confined to two limited locations (a Red mine, and the Institute). As the series progresses, the plot moves farther into space. By Dark Age, we’re following world leaders who govern billions of citizens and are conducting a war between “Rim” planets and “Core” planets (though in actuality there are more than two sides taking up arms in the fray); the action is taking place in so many different places- even on ships between the planets- that the plot is just huge. Dark Age clocks in at over 750 pages, and probably at least 25% of its language (I’m obviously guessing, but it’s A Lot) is lingo specific to this series. The perspectives we’re following grant us access to whole armies, governmental bodies, and rulers with the power to end or save millions of lives with a single command; but they also give us individual humans with distinct motivations and emotions to remind the reader that no matter how big a character might seem with all their power, everyone is small in the face of the universe. The focus is craftily balanced between the very broad and the very narrow.

“Some men can stare at their feet and pretend the world isn’t falling apart. I cannot.”

And of course, the plot is utterly unpredictable. This is always a boon for me, as I find myself more frequently disappointed by authors I’ve loved in the past as their style becomes familiar to me. This has not been the case with Brown. The betrayals are brutal, the deaths are either horrific and described in minute, gory detail, or so abrupt and easy as to be almost comical. It’s meant to entertain at an epic level, but also to resonate with our own sense of humanity and the modern world.

Speaking of the modern world, Brown engages more and more with current politics as this series progresses. Gone is the simple cry for equality, and in its place, we see a much more nuanced presentation of many world issues feeding into each other. One of the topics Brown tackles in Dark Age is climate change and planetary destruction. Of course, in his universe, artists/architects have molded the environments of uninhabitable planets not only to make them livable but to mimic Earth’s rotational speed and thus fit humanity’s preferred cycle of time. Which is a statement in itself. Following that, we see a major battle on one small planet in which a “natural” storm is produced by one army to gain advantage over the other. The person at the controls experiences a moment of crisis and considers that increasing the storm to wipe everyone from both sides off of the planet might be the best way to turn the tide of the war, and for humanity at large. In addition, nuclear bombs are dropped on the planet in the spirit of “if we can’t have it, no one can.” All of this seems designed to make the reader think about our attitude toward our own planet these days. Earth is not one of the main settings for Dark Age or the larger series, but I think the point is clear enough. And this is just one aspect of the larger story.

“The waves crash all around the roots of the building. Both were made by man. Perhaps at first in hope, to give our species a new home to live and to love. But in time, I don’t know when, their creation became a vanity of will, and in the shadow of that vanity, man grew lesser for having more. Lesser for mastering the keys of creation, because he mistook himself for god, and cared less for his people, and more that his works endured.”

“The worlds cannot afford a man who wrecks a planet simply to win a battle.”

Ultimately, Red Rising is a high-tech political space drama series with a Latin / ancient Rome obsession, reflecting on the future fate of humanity. It practically requires its own dictionary- none is provided. (There is a cast list, but it shows only the house each person belongs to, no refreshers on their politics or past deeds.) Everything about this series is dense and demanding. Red Rising, the first (and shortest) novel, is certainly simpler, but even in Golden Son (the second novel) we begin to see where Brown is heading, and he really runs with it. I appreciate the challenge.

This isn’t going to be a favorite series for everyone. It’s niche, and it’s hard work. I can’t even tell you whether loving Star Wars or other space sagas is a good indicator here, because I really don’t read/watch any other space stories at the moment (other than Saga, the only story I know of that seems remotely similar, though much more readable). And honestly, I’m not sure this overview is doing much in the way of persuasion, but it’s just not a series I would recommend to everyone. I could do the usual spiel of assuring you it gets better after the first book, but forcing yourself to continue if you’re not enjoying these books is unlikely to work in your favor. And you need a strong stomach to survive Red Rising. There are impalements, flayings, live dismemberments and such in this most recent volume alone, and Brown doesn’t spare any details.

Some specific (non-spoiler) impressions of Dark Age, for anyone who has read the book: I found it very slow to start, with a few great moments but mostly political catch-up; and yet Brown ramps up the action in the end. As in Iron Age, we’re seeing multiple perspectives to glimpse different facets of the war; if I had to pick one, I think Lysander’s chapters interested me the most consistently in this volume. I was surprised by the return of a character I thought was dead (I shouldn’t have assumed this person was dead). I couldn’t bring myself to worry about Darrow with one more book on the horizon. Virginia’s new adversary seemed ridiculous at first, but I’m intrigued to see where Brown goes with it. I’m very interested in the Ascomanni, though I thought Brown’s writing of this “fairy tale” element seemed the weakest part of the novel- it felt rather shoehorned in. I’m also loving the mystery of “Figment.” I was disappointed with the lack of Sevro scenes, though.

“All that will be measured, all that will last, is your mastery of yourself.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was probably my least favorite book of the series so far, but I think the fact that I failed to reread any of the others to refresh my memory before diving into Dark Age made the read more challenging and emotionally distant for me than any of the others have been. I’m really hoping to reread a couple of the earlier titles before Book 6 comes out, but I said that last time. And I’d love to do a full series read at some point when everything is published, but it would feel like such a huge undertaking that I don’t know when it might happen. But, as I’ve made it this far, I’m still on board to read the final book of the series! I’m just really hoping it’s the final book this time. If this series goes on any longer, it’s going to feel like drama for the sake of drama, and I’m going to lose respect.

Have you read any of the Red Rising series? What did you like or dislike about it?

 

The Literary Elephant

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

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