Tag Archives: series

Review: Stillhouse Lake

In the midst of a Christmas food coma, I started my first Kindle Unlimited read. Everyone was getting lazy after the big holiday meal, so I wanted something thrilling to keep me awake. Enter Rachel Caine’s Stillhouse Lake, the first book in her recent thriller series. Three months later, I’ve finally finished reading Stillhouse Lake

stillhouselakeAbout the book: Life is no picnic when you unwittingly marry a serial killer. Gina had two children and a whole life with Melvin Royal before a freak accident put a car through their garage wall and ousted his gory secret hobby. But even after the arrests and trials die down, no one seems to believe Gina is innocent. How could she not have known? How could she not have helped? She changes her name, and the names of her kids. She moves again and again, hiding their identities, installing expensive security systems, using temporary phones and concealing their locations even from her own mother. There are too many threats against Melvin Royal’s family for Gina to be open and honest about who she is. Protecting her kids comes first, always. But after years of running, they’ve finally found a place that feels like home, and Gina starts taking risks again, doing whatever it takes to stop running– even when the murders start again, right outside her door.

In this moment, in all moments now, I can’t afford to be seen as weak. Not for myself. I have two children in the house, and I’m responsible for their lives—lives that are never safe, never secure. I will do anything I must to defend them.”

Right off the bat, I have to say that part of the reason this book took me so long to read is that I wasn’t enjoying it. I made it all the way to 45% before it stopped feeling like a drag and finally held my interest. I had seen good reviews for this book and I DNF so rarely that I stuck it out through 130 pages that I felt I was mostly hate-reading. That’s a pretty extreme reaction for me, and now that I’m finished I have some mixed feelings about it.

First, I do think it is a fault of the novel that those first 130 pages are stuffed with mainly scene-setting background info. We get a lot of information and small events that are only minimally relevant to the overall story, details that show over and over again how hard it is for Gina/Gwen and her children to hide in plain sight without really furthering the plot. It felt like overkill, and I found it especially annoying because we hear Gina/Gwen saying over and over that she’s gotten paranoid about safety, that she checks and double checks and flees at the slightest provocation and doesn’t trust anyone, etc; but even as she’s thinking all those things, she’s making exceptions. Anyone who reads mysteries/thrillers is going to see those lapses as the catalyst. A careful reader will see right through the excuses and know that something weird is going on and despite all her claims to the contrary, Gina/Gwen is going to get caught in the middle of the chaos because she’s overlooking things that even she knows she shouldn’t be. It all feels so obvious.

And of course, eventually Gina/Gwen realizes her mistakes, about 150 pages after the careful reader does.

I hate myself for not questioning that.

I had good reasons, but those reasons seem useless now. They seem like illusions.

But I did have to give some credit to that 45% eventually, because there was another detail in those pages that I thought seemed so obvious, that I ended up being wrong about. I appreciated having to second guess myself when Melvin Royal came into the story. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t say more about the part that surprised me and made me give Stillhouse Lake a little more respect. Once I made it to the second half of the book, I got along with it a lot better.

There are no good answers, but this time I’m not just going to be strong. I’m hitting back.

My favorite thing about this book was also my least favorite thing: the perspective. I think that first 45% went so slowly for me because Gina/Gwen is the first-person narrator throughout, and there are so few other characters in that first half of the book to give the reader an idea of what other people think of Gina/Gwen. Seeing how other characters act around the main character (or vice versa) is a big part of characterization, and in the first half of the book Gina/Gwen is so solitary and consumed with her own thoughts and worries that the reader is given a very biased picture of her until some new friends and enemies finally enter the story more meaningfully.

This was my favorite aspect because so much can be done with a narrator who’s so focused on herself, especially if she’s lying or wrong about something. Her thoughts are presented as truths, though they might not always be. A careful reader is going to be looking at the other characters around Gina/Gwen and taking cues from their behavior around her rather than trusting her completely right away. But in this case, the perspective was also my least favorite aspect because Gina/Gwen didn’t live up to her wild card potential. The reader isn’t given enough information and time with the other characters to see what Gina/Gwen is wrong about before she does. It’s no use trying to piece the mystery together before Gina/Gwen, because there’s just not enough to go on until she’s suddenly putting the missing links together right along with the reader.

For that reason, I would call this a slasher thriller rather than a psychological one. It’s not the sort of mind-games novel where the reader is given the clues up front and tries to make crafty connections, it’s just the run-for-your-life-through-the-woods sort of  thrill. The clues aren’t all in place until it’s too late. But the action scenes are great; this is some of the best running-for-your-life-through-the-woods drama that I’ve ever read. The characters are gritty and real. The threat feels constant and close. If those first 130 pages could have been condensed into about 50, I would have really loved this book, and I think readers with fewer thrillers behind them aren’t going to have as much of a problem with that slow beginning. There’s a lot to like about this book.

“He also knows that a gun can’t protect you unless you protect yourself mentally, emotionally, and logically. It’s the punctuation at the end, not the paragraph.

Side note: I don’t have much knowledge about the families of criminals. I had a hard time suspending my disbelief at first about the level of animosity against Gina/Gwen, and especially against her kids. I could see there being a few crazies out there interested in revenge or just a continuation of the gore Melvin Royal started, but I couldn’t believe that they were constantly being  targeted by basically everyone. Shouldn’t there be some balance, especially after she’s gone through a trial and been proven innocent? Shouldn’t there be some good samaritans out there as well as all the crazies? Surely someone must see the rest of the Royals as victims?

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I really couldn’t give a higher rating after disliking the first half of the book so much, though I really did like it once the plot picked up. I liked it enough that I’m planning to read the sequel, Killman Creek, which is the only other book in this series that’s already published. I really prefer reading physical books and I’m fairly new to e-reading because of that, but I had a pretty good experience with this one, other than it not being my favorite book.

Further recommendations:

  • If slasher thrillers are your jam, try Riley Sager’s Final Girls. This one’s a bit psychological as well, but the focus is on the knife-wielding and gory deaths. There are more great running-for-your-life-through-the-woods scenes here, and some of the same commentary on targeting victims that Stillhouse Lake dabbles with.

Have you read any good thrillers lately?


The Literary Elephant



Review: Crooked Kingdom

No mourners. No funerals. No spoilers. I finally, finally got back to Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology, and today I’m reviewing book 2, Crooked Kingdom. You should read Six of Crows first, though. In case you need more incentive, it’s a fast-paced YA fantasy with a great cast of misfit characters, plenty of sleight-of-hand and plot twists, and lots of feel-good one-liners about resilience and compassion.

crookedkingdomAbout the book: The Dregs want their Wraith back, they want the money they were promised, they want safety for themselves and their hostage, and they want the power to choose their own futures. They’ve been crossed, and they’ll be crossed again, but only an idiot would cross Kaz Brekker and his crew and hope to get away with it. Even as the gang becomes the most wanted criminals in the world they refuse to give up hope and they keep fighting for better days. But what can six lost souls do when Ketterdam itself seems to rise against them?

“He often wondered how people survived this city, but it was possible Ketterdam would not survive Kaz Brekker.”

“None of them really knew what Kaz would or wouldn’t do. Sometimes Matthias wondered if even Kaz was sure.”

I’m probably in the minority about this, but I actually preferred Six of Crows to Crooked Kingdom. I thought the sequel would take this duology to new heights, but where Six of Crows constantly surprised me, Crooked Kingdom was exactly what I expected. I suppose it makes sense for books in a duology to be this well matched, but I was hoping for a bit more… chaos. A bit more uncertainty about who would win. Crooked Kingdom ties the loose ends from Six of Crows together, but it’s more predictable about it.

“I would come for you. And if I couldn’t walk, I’d crawl to you, and no matter how broken we were, we’d fight our way out together– knives drawn, pistols blazing. Because that’s what we do. We never stop fighting.”

Crooked Kingdom is more episodic than its predecessor, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but I find episodic tales (especially of this length) somewhat exhausting after a fashion. The plot twists are less thrilling because you’re expecting them, and the big shocks are less shocking because you know which parts are just for show. It gets a little tiring, knowing that everyone (or at least Kaz) knows what’s going to happen next, and you (the reader) are being left out for the dramatics of the narrative. In the first book, it made sense for Kaz to play his cards close and test the loyalty of his friends by leaving out some of the details. Now, there’s no reason for trust issues and the reader knows things won’t go as planned, so why not let us in on the plans?

“Well, Brekker, it’s obvious you only deal in half-truths and outright lies, so you’re clearly the man for the job.”

Perhaps because of that deliberate manipulation of information, my favorite parts of this book were the flashbacks– the backstories about Wylan leaving home, Jesper’s relationship with his parents, Inej’s experience at the Menagerie. It’s incredible to see the things that made these characters so strong. It’s also incredible to see their dreams for the future. For a band of criminals, they have some lofty goals; their rough pasts and hopeful futures make their criminality more a matter of necessity and survival than the sort of evil bullying they want to snuff out. The characters are the best part of this duology, and seeing their humanity through the flashbacks and future goals they’re all harboring gives them so much more color than the impossible feats they’re trying to pull off in the present.

” ‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ said Kaz. ‘I don’t hold a grudge. I cradle it. I coddle it. I feed it fine cuts of meat and send it to the best schools. I nurture my grudges, Rollins.’ “

Let’s talk for a bit about fiction. About how much harder it is to believe that the Wraith can enter a room with locked doors and barred windows, can walk a high wire with no safety net, that the bastard of the Barrel can plant or pickpocket anything on anyone without their noticing, etc. when you can’t actually see the tricks. It’s easier to write about sleight of hand than to perform it– but for the most part Bardugo makes the Dregs’ tricks seem plausible; the fact that they occasionally fail helps with that. But some parts of this books till seem… fictionalized. Manipulated. Written the way that they are because of reader expectations rather than natural facets of character. I know I’m being very vague, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Let me just say that something bad happens toward the end of this book, and I hated it not because it was bad or sad or less than ideal– I hated it because it felt unnecessary. Because it felt rushed and fabricated. Like Bardugo thought the ending would be too happy without something going wrong, so she had to throw an extra punch at the victors for good measure. I would’ve found the ridiculously happy ending more believable.

“But what about the rest of us? What about the nobodies and the nothings, the invisible girls? We learn to hold our heads as if we wear crowns. We learn to wring magic from the ordinary. That was how you survived when you weren’t chosen, when there was no royal blood in your veins. When the world owed you nothing, you demanded something of it anyway.”

But don’t let my minor complaints fool you. Though I appreciated the finesse of Six of Crows more than the flash of Crooked Kingdom, the second book is still a phenomenal read. If you’re only going to read one YA fantasy set, let this one be it. It has so many good messages about finding (or fighting for) your place in the world, about demanding more than the crap the world deals you. The Grishaverse is bright and beautiful, the Dregs are dirty heroes out for justice rather than revenge, and the writing is imaginative and even occasionally poetic. This is the kind of story that inspires my own writing, and despite a few choices I would’ve made differently with Crooked Kingdom, I can’t recommend this duology enough. (Perhaps even because I would have chosen some things differently– it’s educational to read something you don’t agree with one hundred percent.)

“The world was made of miracles, unexpected earthquakes, storms that came from nowhere and might reshape a continent. The boy beside her. The future before her. Anything was possible.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had a fantastic time reading this book and I’m definitely going to pick up The Language of Thorns soon for more of Bardugo’s imaginative writing. I’ll probably keep an eye out for future Bardugo publications as well. I’m not as interested in reading her edition of Wonder Woman just because I’m not as interested in reading that whole superhero series, but the Six of Crows duology is such an improvement from the Grisha trilogy (which I though was also good, but not this great) that I’m definitely interested in seeing where Bardugo goes from here.

What’s your favorite YA fantasy?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Saga: Volumes Seven and Eight

Happy Valentine’s/Galentine’s Day, book lovers! I’m currently reading Jane Austen’s Emma, which is all about ill-conceived attempts at match-making and finding true love right under one’s nose, so it’s exactly what I want to be reading today. But before I’m ready to review that classic, I’ll tell you about something else I finished reading lately.

My “Short Books Spree” continued this month with Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s Saga comics, volumes seven and eight. In the past I’ve read Saga three volumes at a time, compiled in Saga: Book One and Saga: Book Two, but volume nine has not yet been published so I read these most recent volumes individually. No spoilers for seven and eight below, but you’ll want to have read through volume six before perusing the rest of this review.

sagavolumessevenandeightAbout the books: With their family of three recently reunited and a fourth member on the way, Marko, Alana, and Hazel make a long pit stop to refuel their tree rocket on a war-torn comet. They encounter new friends and enemies, but most interesting is the mystery surrounding the comet’s current evacuation– and once the mystery is solved, will Hazel and her family make it out in time or run into bigger trouble? The Will is ready to make new steps forward to reunite with his old friends. Squire faces a monster only he can see. A vengeful lover takes a captive. Gwen and Sophie make a bold choice. Lying Cat must take a side. A further quest involving Alana’s pregnancy is required.

“One moment, the universe presents you with this amazing opportunity for new possibilities… and then…”

So far into the series, I can’t give more than vague hints without giving any new plot developments away, but I can at least assure you that fellow Saga fans will not be disappointed by the latest installments to the series. Seven didn’t particularly impress me in comparison with past volumes, but it was up to snuff and certainly ended with a heart-wrenching bang that’s sure to keep readers invested. Eight, on the other hand, is tragic and full of love, with twists that kept me turning pages past my bedtime (though not too far past, because these books are quick and easy to read). What’s more, it brings back many of the main characters from earlier in the series with new alliances, new complications, and new promises of intrigue yet to come.

The cornerstone of this entire series is Hazel’s family. As we know, her mom (Alana) and dad (Marko) came from opposite sides of the Landfall/Wreath war and put aside their differences for a hasty romance and an unexpected pregnancy. It’s been fascinating watching their relationship evolve from that point, through separations and complications, deaths and reunions. They’ve been on the run, they’ve made a few mistakes, and now they’re facing challenges with a second unplanned pregnancy. The developments in these two volumes solidified their relationship for me. Their relationship is continually surprising and inspiring, and all the more so for their interactions with myriad other characters with their own opinions and agendas.

And, through all of the zany plot twists, Hazel narrates the whole adventure with an eye on voicing truths, and moving toward healing and righting wrongs, especially the wrongs of inequality. Saga is, as ever, an epic fantasy adventure advocating equality, kindness, and peace. It features unique creatures, magics, and technologies, a wide variety of sympathetic characters, and provocative art that speaks as loudly as the comic’s words.

“Little one, you are unlike anyone who has ever existed, and that makes you exactly like everyone who has ever existed.”

A general notice: these are (still) adult comics. I would recommend caution for younger readers due to some graphic and sexual content, but mature readers should have no problem with what’s included.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars for volume seven, and 5 out of 5 stars for volume eight. I like reading multiple volumes of this story at once because otherwise the snapshots of some of the characters just seem so brief that it’s hard to place them in the overall story line. I think it’s going to be harder for me going forward now that I’m caught up, but I have had great experiences reading the first two books and now these two volumes. I think once the entire story is finished I’d like to go back to the beginning and read the whole thing through. This is really the only experience I’ve had with reading a plot so serialized, even though there are coherent arcs through each volume that distinguish it as its own story. In any case, I am determined to keep reading this series, and while I’m waiting for volume nine I think I’ll look around for another comic to broaden my reading horizons a bit, maybe something that’s published in its entirety already. I’m just not even sure where to start at the moment, since Saga is my only recent experience with that art form.

Does anyone have any favorite comics they’d recommend?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Iron Gold

*Excuse me while I rave about my current favorite series*

Iron Gold is the recently-released 4th book in (what has become) the Red Rising Saga. You do need to read these books in order for the plots to make sense, so if you don’t know who lived or died by the end of Morning Star, you probably want to catch up in the series before reading this review. No Iron Gold spoilers below, though. You can check out my review of book 1, Red Rising, if you’re just getting started with Pierce Brown’s books.

To be up front about it, this is mainly a book for the readers who’ve been addicted to Darrow’s story since Red Rising and already know they’re in this for the long haul. If you’re undecided but still hanging on, Iron Gold probably won’t make or break the series for you.

irongoldAbout the book: Ten Years after the Rising, Darrow and Virginia’s Republic is fraying. It has focused so heavily on liberation of the lowly throughout the solar system that it hasn’t been particularly attentive to the people once they’re freed, nor is it pleasing the new Senate at home on Luna. War is still raging (or simmering, in some cases) throughout the Solar System, affecting all Colors and all planets, in one way or another. There are those who would love to take advantage of the Republic’s current weakness– and a few who are ready to try. There may even be a few inside the system who are intentionally (or not) sabotaging the Republic and its resources. Our fabled heroes won’t go down without a fight, however.

This is the first book in this series with multiple narrators. There are 4 first-person perspectives in this book, but it’s hard to name a favorite because they all have something vital to add to the narrative. They span the solar system with their schemes and tragedies and divulge unique views on the political situation. It’s a good balance of introspective commentary on the aftermath of war, the struggle to build up what’s been broken, and new fights for peace. Here’s a look at the main characters:

LYRIA- This “freed” Martian Red gives readers a good look at the bottom of the ladder. Even with the old social castes upturned, Reds are still under-supplied, under-aided, under-appreciated. Lyria is only one of millions who was promised a new and better life after the Rising, but instead her family is forgotten in an overflowing refugee camp, still struggling to survive and robbed of the feeling of any nobility in the work they must now perform outside of the mines.

“I pray before I look at each new face, and feel sick as I breathe sighs of relief when it is someone else’s mother, someone else’s sister dead on the ground.”

LYSANDER- The boy king Cassius rescued from Luna has grown into a man on the run, but he’s still letting others make the important decisions– at least until their luck turns when he and Cassius get into their worst scrape yet. Lysander is quiet and wise, and never shows fear. He’s easy to sympathize with, which makes him both more deadly and more interesting as he’s pitted against other beloved characters by his past and present circumstances.

“The key to learning, to power, to having the final say in everything, is observation. By all means, be a storm inside, but save your movement and wind till you know your purpose.”

Ephraim: Here’s the criminal genius with a crippling past that you didn’t know this space drama needed until he showed up. He’s selfish and underhanded, but it’s clear his heart is in the right place though he’s been dealt a bad hand. Ephraim’s action scenes were probably my favorite in the book, between his heists and the introduction of a new cast of villains and allies. It’s difficult to say whether he’s trustworthy or not, or even which side he’s on other than his own.

“You are a world entire. You are grand and lovely. But you have to see it before anyone else does.”

These three characters are opening new doors for readers who’ve been with Darrow since the beginning, and they’re especially important at this point in the series because this war is much bigger than one person, even if that one person is Darrow, the mythologized Reaper responsible for the cataclysmic Rising. But don’t worry, even though our favorite Helldiver isn’t our only narrator anymore, he still has a voice.

DARROW- He’s 33 now, and he’s starting to feel old. The war, the Republic, the politics… the things he was once so passionate about have become a chore, a duty he’ll tend to with the best of his ability though his heart is home with his wife and son, who seem to be drifting apart from him as he pursues the war effort. Darrow’s chapters in this book show the range of Brown’s capabilities best, because though he’s still our beloved hero with plenty of tricks up his sleeve, he’s also making mistakes. Collecting regrets. The scope of Darrow’s character development throughout this series has been immense, but Iron Gold proves there are plenty of changes left for Darrow.

“I feel the trauma of what I’m doing not just to him, but both our families. It feels like the world is doing this to us. But is it the world, or is it me? The way I am built? A breaker, not a builder after all.”

Let me just note that we also see new sides of Sevro through Darrow’s perspective and it’s fresh and intriguing and makes me a little trepidatious about where he’ll stand in the next volume.

There’s plenty of action, never fear, but Iron Gold is heavy on the introspection, as well. It’s a set-up book, the bridge between the devastation and triumph from the first three books to what promises to be an epic conclusion. I wouldn’t say it ends on a cliffhanger so much as a gaping chasm for the next two books to fill, and with the fresh sparks ignited in Iron Gold, I just know it’s going to come to a crazy fantastic conclusion. And of course, it’s all written with Brown’s singular attention to detail. The descriptions are otherworldly and beautiful, the classical references are plenty, the characters are unabashedly bold.

The only let-down for me in Iron Gold was Mustang– or the lack of Mustang. In this book, she’s always Virginia or the Sovereign or Darrow’s wife. She makes only a few relatively small appearances. I missed seeing this half of the power couple at work in Iron Gold. It’s the relationships that keep me engaged with the characters, even though it’s really the epic plot twists and fast action scenes that keep me turning pages. With the way Morning Star ended, I expected to see more of Darrow’s family in Iron Gold, even if they’re not thrilled with him at the moment.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This isn’t my new favorite book of the series, but it’s not my least favorite either. I’m already majorly anticipating Book 5 (Dark Age), which is scheduled to hit shelves in September 2018. And while I’m waiting for September, I’ll be rereading all 4 of the already-published books in this series because I can’t. Get. Enough. Also because it’s been a year and a half since I read the first three books and I’ve already noticed I’m having a hard time tying some of the myriad names to their titles and backstories. There’s a lot of detail in this series, and I want to absorb every facet of it.

Any other enthusiastic Pierce Brown fans out there? What are your thoughts on Iron Gold?


The Literary Elephant

Reading Lesser-Known Books

I’m thinking about lesser-known books today because I just finished rereading a personal favorite from my teenage days: Hawksong by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. Have you heard of it? I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer is no. This book was published fifteen years ago, and still has less than 20,000 reviews on Goodreads. And I don’t understand why. It’s rating is 4.15 currently, and I do understand that. No book is truly perfect, but this one’s pretty great. Instead of reviewing(/raving about) a book that basically no one has even heard of, I’m going to use Hawksong to talk about the merits of reading lesser-known books; and the sludge readers occasionally have to sort through to find the hidden gems in that category.

The thing is, you just can’t trust the hype. Haven’t you been burned before, picking up a book that everyone’s talking about only to find out it’s just not the book for you? Every reader has his or her own opinions and preferences, and for that reason, it’s best not to listen too closely to whether the masses love or hate certain books. If popular opinion were the best factor in finding books to love, we’d all just go to Goodreads and read only the highest rated books, regardless of things like genre and subject. But no one really does that, right? Sometimes other readers’ opinions are helpful in gauging whether we might like or dislike a certain book, but in the end we’re all marching to the beat of our own drum because we’re readers, not sheep following the herd. Which means sometimes you pick up a book that no one you know has ever read. And sometimes you find a true gem.

hawksong&snakecharmFor me, Hawksong is one of those gems. It’s a fantasy story, a genre plenty of people reach for, but it does have it’s own quirks: it’s a fantasy story about shapeshifters; people who can transform into birds and snakes make up the main characters. The romance is obvious, partially due to the fact that it’s outlined on the book’s back cover, but it’s wonderful in its simplicity. The fight for peace is as uplifting and relevant as it is unrealistic in its abruptness, but a lack of realistic qualities matters little in fantasy novels. For me, the excellent world-building and the general kindness and acceptance practiced by the main characters is worth the short and otherworldliness of the plot. Guessing the identities of the assassins is a bonus side mystery. What’s not to love?

“The first of my kind was a human woman. Surely your kind comes from like roots. We have human minds and human bodies. If we can speak as humans do, and love as humans do, then what makes us so different?”

I don’t remember how I ended up picking up Hawksong in the first place. I know it was one of a limited number of books in my middle school’s tiny library, but why this one? I didn’t know anyone else who had read it, and as time has passed, that hasn’t really changed. I’ve pushed it on a couple of friends (and my mom), but I never see this book in bookstores and I never hear about anyone reading it. I’ve read it more times than any other book in existence. Because often the books that hit hardest, the books that surprise me most, the books that feel most tailored to me, aren’t the books that everyone else is reading. They’re the books that seem weird and unusual, that you pick up on a whim without ever having heard of and are totally surprised to fall completely in love with.

Sometimes the books no one is reading are overlooked for a reason– you encounter some bland (or even just downright bad) books while you’re looking for those hidden gems. But that’s no reason to quit trying.

I know I read things off the beaten path sometimes, and I know I get fewer likes and views and all those good things on my reviews of those lesser-known books, but that doesn’t make me like them (or want to talk about them) any less. Think about how small the world of books would be if everyone truly was reading the same things all the time, only the most popular choices. So many crazy great things wouldn’t even be published. We’d all be reading prize-winners and classics and steamy romances (because apparently tons of sex scenes equals a high Goodreads rating even if the book is trash), but that’s not the case in reality; the truth is, classics can be boring for readers who just want a quick escape, prize-winners have themes that don’t appeal to everyone, and some readers just can’t stand trashy writing even if the make-out scenes are good. So we pick up books that sound the most interesting to us, even if no one else seems to be reading them.

And that’s a good thing.

I feel that I can’t give Hawksong a fair rating anymore. It was a 5-star read back when I was twelve, and now when I reread it I’m probably blinded to its potential flaws by my familiarity with it, and the fact that every time I read it I remember what it’s like to fall in love with reading all over again. Which, in my mind, is still worth a high rating. But I’m not trying to sell you on Hawksong. I’m saying… keep picking up those lesser-known books that no one is talking about. Stay weird. Be you. Find your reading niche. And tell us about the unusual books you love, because how else are we going to hear about them?

What’s your favorite lesser-known book? I would love to hear some titles I’ve never come across before! (And I would especially love to hear that someone else has read Hawksong…)


The Literary Elephant

Review: Lord of Shadows

I’m not sure if the release date for Dark Artifices book 3 (Queen of Air and Darkness) got pushed back or if I just wasn’t paying enough attention to it in the first place, because I thought I needed to be prepared to read it by February or March, not December 2018. That’s why I decided to pick up Cassandra Clare’s Lady Midnight and Lord of Shadows (Dark Artifices books 1 and 2) in January. I hope I will remember them well enough when book three is published, because after reading Lord of Shadows this week I know I’m definitely going to be reading the final book of this trilogy ASAP.

lordofshadowsAbout the book: Emma is trying to prevent the parabatai curse from befalling her and Julian by convincing him that she’s not in love with him. In the midst of that emotional turmoil, there’s a dangerous trip into Faerie that sets a new adventure in motion. The Seelie Queen wants to make a deal with the Blackthorns– a deal that involves finding Annabelle and the Black Volume. But she’s not the only one with an interest in the book, which means Emma, Cristina, and the Blackthorns need to watch out for some new deadly enemies. No one is sure whether Kieran is on the Blackthorns’ side now, or how far they can trust the Centurions who come looking for Malcolm. And where is Annabelle? What will she do next? Is she truly alive?

“We fear things because we value them. We fear losing people because we love them. We fear dying because we value being alive. Don’t wish you didn’t fear anything. All that would mean is that you didn’t feel anything.”

One thing that Lord of Shadows does better than Lady Midnight is to let the inevitable forbidden love angst stand behind the rest of the plot. Sure, Emma and Julian still love each other and that’s still a problem, but they’re trying to solve it by moving on, which means the rest of the story can take precedence. And it’s a great story. There are surprising twists woven throughout the book, and hints at what the final book of the trilogy will pull from its sleeves. The characters are coming into their own a little more, changing and becoming stronger and finding their own places in the story. We get more perspectives, more of Christina and Mark, more of the other Blackthorn siblings, more Kit. I find I care more about Emma and Julian when the narration takes a step back from their tortured love story.

“I think you cannot root out love entirely. I think where there has been love, there will always be embers, as the remains of a bonfire outlast the flame.”

It’s also great to see farther inside of Faerie with this trilogy. It’s a darkly whimsical place, and it rounds out the Downworld side of Clare’s Shadowhunter novels– we’ve seen vampires, warlocks, werewolves, and of course Nephilim, but faeries only in passing. Lord of Shadows takes the reader a step out of the mundane world for a whole new aspect of Clare’s Shadowhunting universe. Even in fantasy novels, it’s wonderful to see all perspectives represented.

Speaking of representation, Lord of Shadows covers a wide range of more familiar diversity topics as well. While Shadowhunter books have always been advocates of diversity, I have to admit that aspect is starting to feel a little more forced. It did to me in Lord of Shadows, anyway. For example, there’s a transgender character who reveals her medical history seemingly for the sole purpose of receiving an acceptance speech from another character. Accepting transgender characters is good, but it felt like it was just pushed into the story so that Clare could write about being accepting of it. If this character had made a stand against the Clave and the law that prevents her from holding the job she wants because of her gender identity, this reveal would’ve fit into the story a whole lot better. But the law goes unchallenged even hypothetically, and I don’t understand why.

There are good examples too, though. Like Mark’s conflicting loves for Cristina and Kieran. The conflict isn’t in the fact that he’s bisexual and loves both a boy and a girl, the conflict is in the fact that one of them is a faerie and one is a Shadowhunter; Mark is caught between two worlds, and his relationships are a reflection of that. It fits into the story as more than a display of bisexuality.

As long as we’re on the topic of love, I think I’ve finally realized my biggest pet peeve with Cassandra Clare books: every single character seems to be romantically interested in basically every character he or she could ever possibly ever be romantically interested in. There’s something about the narration that makes every routine introduction between characters oddly charged. Every friendship also seems to include both parties being especially aware of the other person’s body and love life. Every gesture and sentence is noticed by someone in some romantic way. Clare’s just covering all the bases for angst, I guess, but can’t anyone just be friends? Can’t they just be casual acquaintances? Is there really that much romance in life? Am I missing out?

But that’s a small matter. Clare readers who’ve been interested in the Shadowhunter novels this long know they’re at least partially in it for the forbidden romance. Let’s go back to diversity.

I especially appreciate the Greek and Roman references in this trilogy, though I am a little disappointed we’re getting so many Latin phrases and quotes from ancient Rome without much reference to the mythology. Especially with a character named Diana after “the goddess of the hunt,” I expected a little more. But I’ve been loving practicing my Spanish skills every time Cristina or Diego forget to speak English. There are some great names thrown in when Shadowhunters from all over the world meet for missions or meetings. And even our main characters do some traveling to show readers a bit of variety in culture. Even though Idris is a made-up place, it’s even exciting to see the differences between real places and fictional ones. Fantasy is a genre uniquely capable of uniting very different peoples and creating spaces where peace and harmony are possible in ways we don’t see anywhere yet in reality. It gives readers a goal, something to strive for in real life even where there aren’t Shadowhunters and Downworlders fighting to the death.

“Fiction is truth, even if it is not fact. If you believe only in facts and forget stories, your brain will live, but your heart will die.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is the same rating I gave Lady Midnight, but I definitely liked Lord of Shadows better. And I’m hope book 3 will impress me even more. I’m so excited (even though I’m a month late to count it as a successful end to my 2017 goal) to finally have finished my Shadowhunter reading marathon! I have now officially read all the Shadowhunter books currently published, and it feels good. I’m glad I kept going this far even though I haven’t loved every Clare book I’ve read in the past year. I’m still waiting for the Clave to be reorganized, though. Still. Waiting.


The Literary Elephant

Review: Some Luck

One of the categories in my 2017 reading challenge was “a book that takes place in your hometown.” But I live in small-town Iowa and there are no books written about my hometown. I don’t give up easily though, so I widened the category to “a book that takes place in your home state,” which led me to Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, the first book in a trilogy of Iowan history that follows one fictional family over a span of 100 years. And honestly, I could not have found a better book for this part of the challenge even if something had been written about my hometown.

someluckAbout the book: Walter Langdon just put a down payment on a new farm. In the year 1920, he’s back from serving in the war, he’s recently married, and he’s moving off of his dad’s farm to try his luck on his own. Walter and Rosanna’s first son has just been born, and the grand adventure of their life begins– even though both of them grew up on farms before they were married, the farm work combined with parenthood seems like the biggest job in the world– and maybe also the most rewarding. They will go on to have five more children as the years progress, and the reader will follow each one of their lives through a history of Iowan culture until a calamitous event in 1953 affects them all– and sets the tone for Some Luck‘s sequel.

First of all, I know Some Luck is not going to be the book for everyone. There’s going to be a very small audience that appreciates it, which is a shame, but I understand it. It’s about Iowa. It’s about farming. It’s about family. There’s not much plot, though some events carry over for months or even years through the narration. The book is divided into chapters by year– I assume in the entire trilogy there will be one hundred chapters, as the saga covers 100 years. Book one covered 33 years, from 1920-1953. It’s further divided into unlabelled sections within each chapter for different perspectives and events that happen within that year. And it all adds up to: a sort of Little House on the Prairie from later in history, geared toward adults.

“Of course, his father laughed. He could afford to laugh– he owned his farm free and clear. And more than that, his father always laughed at farming and what a joke it was on the farmer.”

It sounds pretty unimpressive so far, right? At first, I too was unimpressed. The book opens on a new family settling into their new farm, and several of the earliest sections in the book are “narrated” by the new baby. I’m talking surprisingly intelligent babble about waving spoons and rolling over and teething. But this first baby is going to be important to the story, and after only a couple of years, he does become a pretty interesting narrator. I was addicted about five years in.

“On a farm, you knew that you could die from anything, or you could survive anything.”

I should be able to explain what’s so great about Some Luck after reading all 400 pages of it, but it’s hard to put into words exactly where the magic comes from. The characters are generally quiet people, with simple, hard-working lives. There are births and deaths and marriages. But each character has their own personality– they are unique in the way that their family members see them and in the way that they see themselves. It’s incredible to see the difference between those two points of view. And it’s incredible to see such ordinary lives in such an ordinary way; the characters are not particular heroes or villains, there are no fantasy elements, the story is not especially driven by romance or revenge or learning, though all of those things happen and more. It’s just a story about some fictional people in a mostly real setting (the Langdons’ hometown is fictional, though many real Iowan towns make an appearance) that reminds its readers that we’re all human, and we’ve all got our own story to tell. Even if you think your story isn’t much, it exists, and it’s yours, and even if the people who will understand it are few and far between, they’re out there. That’s the magic of Some Luck. It’s quiet, but it’s not trite.

It’s like the stories that your grandparents tell, if your grandparents are farmers. It’s a whole way of life, and like all cultures, it comes with its own particular hardships and rewards. You can die in a freak storm, or you can fall down a well and then go about your day as if nothing unusual has happened at all.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I will definitely be continuing with this trilogy. I know that Smiley also has published a Pulitzer Prize winner, which I might also check out eventually, but my first priority is The Last Hundred Years trilogy. And I think reading it as a trilogy will bring out the best aspect of the story: the gradual change.  Even in one volume, thirty-three years, every chapter has felt like a continuation of what came before, and most of it is unremarkable, just the regular progression of seasons and life on a farm. And yet over the course of those thirty chapters, everything changes. I’m excited to see how things will look as the timeline approaches the current year.

Further recommendations:

  1. Little House in the Big Woods is the first book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s well-known children’s series, the Little House series. They take place through Laura’s childhood and describe aspects of her life, everyday life and big events, that took place as her family tried to make a home for themselves on largely unsettled prairie land as the United State expanded west. They are technically fiction novels, and most of them read like children’s books, but I still find them fascinating as an adult. It’s U.S. history, or a very particular sub-genre of it like Some Luck, more about past culture than major politics or wars or the sort of things that history books tend to focus on.
  2. Again, fiction, but again, if you’re looking for those snapshots of past culture, I’m going to recommend Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. There’s some time travel, some supernatural stuff going on, there’s a giant romance through the series, but it also shows glimpses of cultures. It starts in 1940’s Scotland, and from there goes to 1740’s Scotland, but there’s also 1960’s America, 1740’s France, 1760-70’s America, 1760’s Jamaica, etc. The romance was a guilty pleasure for me, but seeing all these different places and ways of life was really what sold me on seeing it through.
  3. If you’re looking for a nonfiction snapshot of a past cultural and historical moment, try Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. This one reads like fiction, but it follows the assembly of the World’s Fair in Chicago in the late 1800s. There’s a real-life murderer in there, the beginnings of electricity in America, the invention of the Ferris wheel. There’s architecture, fraud, giant sums of money. But also it’s just a really fascinating glimpse into the way people– seemingly ordinary people– lived in that time period. People that history doesn’t remember much. It’s great.

What’s next: I am ALMOST DONE with my 2017 reading challenge. Barring some unexpected disaster, I should have no trouble fitting in the last two books I need this year. The next on that list is Homer’s The Iliad, the famous classic about Achilles and the Trojan War, and other well-known characters from Greek mythology. I’ve read some of this book before, but never finished. I’m starting over today.


The Literary Elephant