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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.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Saga: Book Two

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

sagabooktwo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Bone Season

I’ve read enough YA fantasy that it’s starting to all look the same, but this one fulfilled a slot on my reading challenge so I picked it up anyway. And what a shock I found. Most of this novel– especially the world it’s built in– is so utterly unique. I’ve read a lot of books, but never anything like this.

theboneseason

About the book: Paige is a criminal. All of the “unnaturals” are, just by existing. And in 2059 London, unnaturals have 3 choices: to work the black market under constant threat of death, to spend 30 years rooting out unnaturals hiding in society, or to be scent to Sheol I. But the only people who know about Sheol I are the officials who support its continued existence, and the kidnapped unnaturals who are forced into slavery there– and, of course, the Rephaim, inhuman creatures with a long-term world-domination plan. The Rephaim, like the unnaturals, possess gifts that span the realm between life and death. They can use their minds, their spirits, to connect to the aether– the dimension where souls exist without corporeal form. But the Rephaim, unlike humans, are frighteningly powerful and nearly impossible to kill. Paige has a rare gift, a rare form of clairvoyance that allows her not only to sense changes in the aether, but to cause them. Even this coveted ability, however, may not be enough to level the playing field between Paige and her captors.

This plot is weird, and intense, and I mean both of those descriptions in the best possible way. This could have been a great story with half the amount of detail layered into it, which means at the very least that the world is well-developed and the plot is constantly evolving, entirely unpredictable. The narrator, Paige, starts us out in a dystopian world that’s already significantly different than the real world we live in, but then things get crazy when she’s kidnapped and transplanted inside another little world that she didn’t even know existed. But it’s not just the alien nature of this other world and the creatures that inhabit it that make the book interesting– there are new elements constantly thrown into the mix: impossible tasks, terrifying monsters, battles between powerful beings, new technology, death threats. Every time Paige (and the reader) thinks she’s grasped the rules for survival, the game changes.

” ‘Normal’ and ‘natural’ were the biggest lies we’d ever created. We humans with our little minds. And maybe being normal wouldn’t suit me.”

There is a lot of new terminology in The Bone Season, lingo specific to the world of this series. Rest assured, there is a glossary at the back of the book (at least in my copy there is), but even that doesn’t cover all the new words. You have to pay attention just to keep up with the language, and the plot doesn’t slow down to let readers catch up. The Bone Season is not a quick read. It is not easy. But it is powerful.

“We are the minority the world does not accept. Not outside of fantasy, and even that’s blacklisted. We look like everyone else. Sometimes we act like everyone else. In many ways, we are like everyone else. We are everywhere, on every street. We live in a way you might consider normal, provided you don’t look too hard. Not all of us know what we are. Some of us die without ever knowing. Some of us know, and we never get caught. But we’re out there. Trust me.”

A sticky spot: Paige’s reaction to her enslavement. From her speech and her fight to help others who are oppressed, the reader can see that Paige does not agree with or support slavery in any way. There are occasions when she fights her own “keeper” as well, but she’s also shockingly obedient. Even in her thoughts she refers to her captor by his chosen title, Warden, rather than his name. In some things, she’s very careful not to cross him. She thinks and says, repeatedly, “It’s not like I have a choice,” when the choice of refusal is always there. There may be consequences for refusal, of course, but for someone so willing to fight and so opposed to slavery, it’s infuriating at times how easily she accepts Warden’s leadership. Even in moments when they seem to have found equal footing, she remains the underling until he announces their equality in the matter. Their relationship is odd, at best.

“I looked at him in silence, waiting for his judgment.”

Best aspect: the friendships and loyalties. Shannon is an author who’s not afraid to kill beloved characters, and she’s also not afraid to make her readers care about them first. Paige can feel like a very solitary character at times, with her unique gift and situation, but she does have a great support system and she can be just as supportive. In SciLo (futuristic London) and in Sheol I, Paige develops strong alliances. There are enmities, as well, and neutral conversations, but the scenes that tug the most at the reader’s emotions are the ones in which Paige is risking herself to help someone in need. When she’s doing something kind, no matter the cost. Sometimes her help is not enough, but that never keeps her from trying.

“I had no weapons– but I did have my gift. No longer my curse. Tonight it would save a life, not take one.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. The only thing that help me back from loving this book was its density– there’s so much packed into these pages that it’s easy to get lost in the actions and the politics of it. But I will definitely read the next book in this series. I don’t like all of the characters and all of the details, but the unusual world and plot is undeniably captivating. I can’t say yet whether I’ll read the entire series, but I am curious about where it’s going next.

Further recommendations:

  1. Red Rising by Pierce Brown is a great choice for YA and adult readers who like dystopian/fantasy/sci-fi that takes plot twists to a whole new level. Nothing is predictable or boring, no matter what else you may think of the story. In the Red Rising trilogy, a lowly Red is taking on the unjust hierarchy by fighting the Golds from within their own system– on Mars. The plot keeps getting better as the books continue, and the characters never disappoint.
  2. Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows is another book for YA and adult readers alike who are looking for an action-packed ride full of crime and betrayals, as well as a little bit of magic. If you like powerful characters from the underbelly of humanity, working together against the odds and with opposing aims, check this one out.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, a novel for my 2017 reading challenge (a book from the year I was born) set in the turn of the 20th century. It involves an early psychologist, or alienist, trying to catch a gruesome murderer with science. I’m also reading Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s Saga: Book Two, the continuation of Hazel’s story as her parents fight for survival and safety in the midst of a war where they’re being hunted by both sides. Full reviews on both are imminent.

What are you hoping to finish reading before the end of the year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Silence of the Lambs

This year I picked up Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs as my Halloween read, but I ended up being so busy working the whole week that it went a little long. I watched the film once in high school, but most of the details didn’t stick, so almost everything in the novel seemed new and surprising to me.

About the book: FBI agent Jack Crawford is thesilenceofthelambshunting a serial killer that takes his victims’ skin. It’s taking a lot of time and effort from the FBI, but help comes from an unexpected source. Clarice Starling, FBI trainee at Quantico, is pulled aside to make a routine call on Dr. Hannibal Lecter. She’s not the first to be sent to him for answers about his crimes, and no one expects much from the visit. She’s supposed to be able to say she went, she spoke, she wrote up the report on the likely one-sided conversation. Except Dr. Lecter, nick-named Hannibal the Cannibal, former psychiatrist and evil manipulator of the human psyche, does have something to say to Clarice. He tells her something about the serial killer Crawford is hunting. When it becomes clear that Dr. Lecter knows who the killer is and the FBI doesn’t, Clarice’s involvement with Lecter and the current case increase, just as things begin to spiral out of control…

“Starling put her head back, closed her eyes for one second. Problem-solving is hunting; it is savage pleasure and we are born to it.”

About the format: the narration is third person omniscient, although it most often follows Clarice Starling. She is the link between Lecter and his vast knowledge of humankind, and Jack Crawford with the power of the FBI behind him. There are, however, several chapters dedicated to Crawford’s life, to Lecter’s, and even to Buffalo Bill’s skin-seeking endeavors, as well as his latest victim. These sporadic changes of pace keep Clarice’s search from becoming dull.

The Silence of the Lambs is a fantastic mystery. It’s weird enough to capture the reader’s attention, technical enough not to be dismissed as overly fictional, and bold enough that the reader never knows what’s coming next. Unless you remember the film, of course. Harris uses an exquisite level of detail, some for characterization, and some to lay the groundwork for plot twists ahead. There’s enough of both that the plot twists remain unpredictable and the characters feel real and sympathetic. Everything is a clue– whether it’s a clue as to how someone will act, or a clue for catching the killer.

The only things that felt odd to me in this novel were the author’s continual use of full names long after the reader had a solid grasp on the main characters. Jack Crawford is almost always Jack Crawford, rarely Crawford and even more rarely Jack. Clarice Starling is occasionally Starling, but the narration always introduces her fresh in each chapter as Clarice Starling. Dr. Hannibal Lecter gets his professional title as well as both first and last names. This one, at least, remains intriguing because it reminds the reader that Lecter is both a frightening criminal and a renowned intellectual. He’s evil, but the reader can’t help rooting for him a little. And then there’s Buffalo Bill, who has several names, some more real than others. But this is only a minor detail, and at least the reader can be assured of never forgetting who is who, or which character is being observed at any given moment. The only other small detail that bothered me was the sentence fragments at the beginnings of the chapters. Harris uses these often to set the scene, but then moves back into full sentences as he goes back to plotting and characterization. His full sentences are so well-crafted that the fragments confused me almost every time, leaving me wondering where the other half of the sentence was hiding. Again, this is a small detail, a stylistic choice that doesn’t affect the story greatly.

On the other hand, I’d like to talk about my favorite aspect of the novel: the technical descriptions. The level of detail about the moths, the prison cells, the motives and methods for removing human skin, the workings of the FBI, Crawford’s medical care for his wife, the appearance of the body of one of Buffalo Bill’s victims. Harris certainly knows what he’s talking about, and by providing so much detail beyond the bare minimum that the reader needs to understand the basic workings of the plot, he gives this novel such a sense of reality. And reality, of course, is what makes a horror book so terrifying. Anything can happen in a book, but it’s the fear that there really are deranged humans out there who might kill for skin that keeps the reader gripped in the tale. Harris doesn’t let the threat of death carry the story– so many stories involve death. There’s something about the human body being harvested for its materials, regardless of who is inside the skin, that Harris conveys to the reader and persuades him/her to be frightened of. It comes off as way more than a plot device because through the details we see Buffalo Bill as a person, as much as anyone can; we see his obsession with moths, his love for his poodle, his longing for his mother. “The devil is in the details,” they say. And yes, he is.

“You’ll have to earn it again and again, the blessed silence. Because it’s the plight that drives you, seeing the plight, and the plight will not end, ever.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is quite possibly the best mystery/detective book I have ever read. I need to read more Thomas Harris, particularly the original trilogy about Hannibal Lecter. The Silence of the Lambs is actually the second book in the series, so I think I’m going to go back and read book one. Lecter is highly intriguing as a villain, made all the more complicated by the fact that he’s not always a villain in The Silence of the Lambs. I’m eager to learn more about him.

Further recommendations:

  1. Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm, book two of the Cormoran Strike trilogy. I enjoyed all three of the books in this detective/murder series, but I found book two particularly grisly and horrifying in a way that Thomas Harris fans may appreciate. Book three, Career of Evil, may also be of interest as it delves into the mind of the mysterious killer.
  2. If you’re looking for less detective work and a little more straightforward horror, try Stephen King’s Bag of Bones. I know Halloween has passed now, but it’s never too early to start planning for next year, and this ghost/haunted house story is a perfect fit for any time of the year that you’re looking for a scare.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading one of my reading challenge books, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. It’s a romance between a young French woman and an older Chinese man (it’s no Lolita though), and it touches on some beautiful and devastating facets of impossible dreams and unchangeable fates. It’s really short, so I hope to have more details for you in a review coming soon.

Sincerely,

The Literary ELephant

 

Review: Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy

My Cassandra Clare marathon of 2017 continues. This month I read Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy, the second short story collection in Shadowhunter publication order. I had high hopes for this one, but honestly it didn’t impress me any more than The Bane Chronicles. This second collectiontalesfromtheshadowhunteracademy is co-written by Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson, and Robin Wasserman.

About the book: There are ten short stories set around Simon’s time at Shadowhunter Academy, after the events of The Mortal Instruments novels. You should read those first to avoid spoilers. Each story is precluded with a key excerpt from the coming story, and a page of beautiful matching graphics. And now for the stories:

“Welcome to Shadowhunter Academy” : 3 stars. Nothing happens in this one that we don’t know already from the end of The Mortal Instruments. There’s a lot of angst about Simon’s missing memories, and a lot of snobby characters. Familiar faces from TMI appear like “guest stars.” Simon is trying to make a stand against prejudices at the school, but he’s a weaker character at this point because of his unknown past, and we’ve seen these same prejudices in Clare’s previous books. I was expecting a little more flare in this first story, but it’s heavy.

“The Lost Herondale” : 4 stars. This one, at least, follows a traditional story arc with steadily increasing tension to keep the reader engaged throughout the story. It starts a little slow, and trickles off after the tension fades, but it’s stronger than the first story. Most of the characters are still unpleasant, and the prejudices are back… I keep expecting Clare to make a big show of resolving conflict between the species and it just keeps… well, not happening.

” ‘We are all what our pasts have made us,’ Catarina said. ‘The accumulation of thousands of daily choices. We can change ourselves, but never erase what we’ve been.’ “

“Every decision you make, makes you. Never let other people choose who you’re going to be.”

“The Whitechapel Fiend” : 2 stars. Here are two stories in one, in which neither story seems to have a purpose. Especially the story Tessa tells– it’s heartening to see her in this context, but the moral to her story is “problems solve themselves.” There’s a second storyline with Jace and tree falls, which also has little point. “The Whitechapel Fiend” might have made a decent chapter in one of Clare’s novels, but it does not work as a short story. Stories are supposed to stand alone. And they’re supposed to be eventful. Halloween bonus for the demon child, though. She’s creepy.

“Nothing but Shadows” : 4 stars. Another story-within-a-story. Again, I believe a story is supposed to have a purpose, and when Catarina tells Simon her story, it seems at first that she’s going to offer some insight to help him with his current situation and instead she ends it with “you have to work these things out for yourself.” Which is what he would have done without her story anyway. It was a great tale, though. I could read a whole book about Jamie Herondale.

“That is the wonderful thing about making changes and meeting strangers, Jamie. You never know when, and you never know who, but someday a stranger will burst through the door of your life and transform it utterly. The world will be turned upside down, and you will be happier for it.”

“People are afraid of anybody who is different: It makes them worry everyone else is different too, and just pretending to be all the same.”

“Do not let any of them tell you who you are. You are the flame that cannot be put out. You are the star that cannot be lost. You are who you have always been, and that is enough and more than enough. Anyone who looks at you and sees darkness is blind.”

“The Evil We Love” : 4 stars. The back-and-forth narration of this one is more successful than the stories-within-stories. Both of the tales in this one have proper story arcs with increasing tension, and they feel properly related to each other. It provides a fascinating view of Valentine’s Inner Circle, and the difficult relationship between Simon and Isabelle; both are handled well, and even though they both fit into larger plots this story could stand on its own, which is something I’m looking for in a short story.

“Sometimes first impressions were misleading; sometimes they peered straight through to a person’s inner soul.”

“Love, real love, is being seen. Being known. Knowing the ugliest part of someone, and loving them anyway. And…I guess I think two people in love become something else, something more than the sum of their parts, you know? That it must be like you’re creating a new world that exists just for the two of you. You’re gods of your own pocket-universe.”

“Pale Kings and Princes” : 4 stars. Here’s yet another way to tell two stories: book-ending one with another. In this case, the two stories are connected with a single character, and the Shadowhunter prejudices against faeries. The best part of this story, as with much of Clare’s writing, is the trick of perspective: two people (or groups of people) will always tell the same story in different ways. That’s an important reminder in the real world as well as fiction, and it strengthens this story. This one works as a stand-alone, even though it features familiar characters. Thumbs up.

“Bitter of Tongue” : 3 stars. This story is compelling and emotional, but it doesn’t have much of a purpose here. It feels more like a chapter in the Blackthorn family history than anything related to Simon, or even to Shadowhunter Academy. The tension in the story is something that began before this story started and doesn’t end with it either, so nothing is resolved. Thus, the structure feels weak, though the prose is remarkably beautiful in places.

“Fortunate are the ones who know the name of their heart. They are the ones whose hearts are never truly lost. They can always call their heart back home.”

“Some were born with abs, some achieved abs, and some– like Simon– had abs thrust upon them by cruel instructors.”

“The Fiery Trial” : 3 stars. This one seems longer than necessary for the small amount of events it contains. On top of that, the main parabatai bond discovered here is predictable. But there is some wonderfully mysterious confused reality in the middle of the story that’s incredibly compelling, even though the beginning and end are more drawn out than needed.

“Born to Endless Night” : 2 stars. This story offers a unique mix of Magnus’s and Simon’s perspectives. But again, it’s too long. I don’t mind long stories when something is happening; there is only one really notable event in this story, it happens early on, and it has little to do with Simon or Shadowhunter Academy. The rest is all about everyone’s feelings, which can be nice too, but it doesn’t feel like the meat of this story. Also, I dislike babies being named after someone else. A name can affect a person. I think all people should have their own chance to make their own name significant instead of living in the shadow of whoever made the name significant before them. I do understand the desire, I just don’t support it for the naming of human (or warlock) babies.

“I think sometimes it’s too hard to believe in yourself. You just do the things you’re not sure you can do. You just act, in spite of not being certain. I don’t believe I can change the world– it sounds stupid to even talk about it– but I’m going to try.”

“Angels Twice Descending” : 4 stars. Here is an example of a story that is predictable and filled mostly with internalized emotion, but still makes a compelling story. This one could stand on its own, but it’s also full of now-familiar characters and memories. It’s an end and a beginning. It’s a beautiful exploration of meaning and determination that readers can apply off the page, despite all of the fantasy details that also make it the heart of this fictional collection. This is the reason I read the book.

“Choosing what’s right for you, maybe that’s the bravest thing you can do.”

“The point wasn’t that you tried to live forever; the point was that you lived, and did everything you could to live well. The point was the choices you made and the people you loved.”

Simon is one of my favorite characters in the Shadowhunting world, but at times he felt like a weak character in these stories because he’s constantly dwelling on his memory loss. It makes him less certain of himself and more anxious than usual. Also the academy is a disgusting place. It’s not like Hogwarts, which is whimsical and sometimes dangerous but still essentially a good place– Shadowhunter Academy is slimy, with bad food, prejudiced professors, torturous “classes,” horrible students, infestations, and a lack of plumbing. Every new detail about the school is something equally disturbing. It seems like an uninhabitable place, not a zany and educational one. Bad environments make my whole reading experience less pleasant.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. My average rating was actually 3.3. Although Shadowhunter Academy did not live up to my expectations, I am glad that I included it in my Shadowhunter marathon because it’s likely that certain details from this collection will crop up in future novels. It also added extra closure to TMI. But… I finally get to read Lady Midnight! Most of my Shadowhunter marathon has been enjoyable, but the biggest reason I wanted to read/reread all of Clare’s books this year was for The Dark Artifices, except I wanted to read those without missing anything from the previous books. So even though most of these stories did not even meet my standard expectations of what a short story should be, this collection was worth my time.

What’s next: I’m still reading George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords and will review that as soon as I finish. But I’m also picking up Matthew J. Sullivan’s Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, an adult mystery/thriller about a book-related death.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Skewed Goodreads Ratings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: City of Heavenly Fire

Drum roll, please… because I’ve finished the Mortal Instruments series! I didn’t really expect my Shadowhunter marathon to take me this long when I started rereading City of Bones in January, but I’ve now read nine of Cassandra Clare’s books, and finished both the Infernal Devices trilogy and the Mortal Instruments series, both of which I had started previously and failed to complete. And now the end is here! Sort of. There are a few more Clare books left on my list, but reading City of Heavenly Fire was a big milestone. And it’s a big book, so it’s doubly pleasing to have finished.

About the book: Sebastian/Jonathancityofheavenlyfire wants to rule the world (what’s new?). He couldn’t reach heaven, so he’s raising hell. He’s gathering allies and creating Endarkened forces to battle the Shadowhunters and anyone else who gets in his way. As usual, the Clave is being less than helpful and the real work falls to Clary and co. The problem is that Sebastian wants Clary and Jace beside him, and if it would save the world to hand them over, the Clave might consider making a trade. So when a clue falls into their hands about where Sebastian is hiding, Clary, Jace, Simon, and the Lightwoods set out on their own to end things once and for all– literally, because even if they win, there’s a chance they won’t be returning from this particular trip. With more at stake than ever before, it’s vital that Clary can harness her Rune-creating power, and that Jace can master the Heavenly Fire still raging through his veins; they’re going to need every advantage they can find to prevent total world domination.

” ‘Heroes aren’t always the ones who win,’ she said. ‘They’re the ones who lose, sometimes. But they keep fighting, they keep coming back. They don’t give up. That’s what makes them heroes.’ “

This is a long book. It’s massive. It gives all the same perspectives the reader expects after reading the first five books in this series, plus a few new characters. And yet, despite it’s size, City of Heavenly Fire is not slow and bogged down with detail as I feared. There are a few repetitive conversations, but for the most part all the information feels new and vital to the story. Unlike some of Clare’s other long books, I don’t think this one would benefit from any shortening.

“I think sometimes we are reckless with our hearts the way we are with our lives. When we give them away, we give every piece. And if we do not get what we so desperately needed, how do we live?”

The characters feel older in this final volume. So little time has actually passed– six months, I think– but all of these characters feel so much more mature than where this series started out. They’re still teenagers, and a few of the newer characters to the series are even younger, but Clary, Jace, Simon, Isabelle and Alec… they’re familiar at this point, and the reader knows they can fight and strategize and persevere. The going may be tough, but now they have experience. Their friendship is stable and reliable. The reader is expected to know what they’ve been through together, because the narration isn’t dropping those constant, lengthy, annoying recaps that series sometimes use. The characters have come to feel like family, for better or worse.

“There are things we want, down under what we know, under even what we feel. There are things our souls want, and mine wants you.”

One of the best things about Clare’s books are the overlapping details. Between the (last half of the) Mortal Instruments and the (entire) Infernal Devices, there are small clues to a bigger picture, and together the two time frames begin to construct a history, an entire world that extends beyond a single book, or in this case even a single series, and that makes Clare’s entire fictional universe so much bigger. I read Clare’s first nine books in publication order, and I think that’s a great way to go, but it seems like the distribution of detail would be interesting to read in other arrangements as well. If I do another big reread marathon someday, I’ll want to pick up these books in a different order, and I think the detail and the morals will be just as rich.

“Because the world isn’t divided into the special and the ordinary. As long as you have a soul and free will, you can be anything, do anything, choose anything.”

A downside, though, is that I think for these first two Shadowhunter series at least, the reader must read all nine novels to learn the entire story. There are little pieces that just don’t entirely make sense otherwise. For example, Clary meets Tessa in City of Heavenly Fire, and if the reader doesn’t understand who Tessa is, or how her friends connect to Clary’s, Tessa seems entirely inconsequential to the book. Nothing important happens in their meeting beyond the fact that they’re meeting, which is something that readers won’t care about without reading the Infernal Devices trilogy in conjunction with the Mortal Instruments. This is only one example; there are so many little comments and details that tie the two series together, so I highly recommend reading both sets together.

“So much magic, Clary though, and nothing to mend a broken heart.”

A little compare and contrast: I rated the Mortal Instruments books and the Infernal Devices books very similarly, but now that I’ve completed them both, I must say that I enjoyed the Mortal Instruments books a lot more. The plot is more action-packed, each character feels important to the story, the wrap-up is emotional but it’s still focused primarily on the events of the series. I found the Mortal Instruments less overly-dramatic, and also funnier.

“I was going to kill someone today. I just wasn’t sure who when I woke up this morning. I do love mornings. So full of possibilities.”

The biggest disappointment for me– in all of Clare’s books that I’ve read so far– is the Clave. The individual members that the reader sees seem so human and comprehensible, but somehow when all the big decisions get made, the Clave seems to repeatedly (and obviously) choose incorrectly. I kept thinking this series would end with some equality between all the different species we see coming together in these books, or at least with a repairing of a clearly defunct government system that might one day lead to equality. I can understand that Clare wants to end her books with room for future strife, but how long is it really going to take the Shadowhunters to realize that they’ll save a lot of lives and make a lot fewer enemies if they’ll try something different? I’m still hoping that a better balance of power will be reached in later books, although I’m not sure how many more hundreds of pages I’ll be willing to read to find out.

“Have you ever felt that your heart contained so much that it must surely break apart?”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This has been one of my favorite Cassandra Clare reads to date. Definitely in the top 3, though I don’t have an official listing of the order of my favorites and dislikes. I’m planning to move on to The Bane Chronicles soon, which was Clare’s next publication after the end of the Mortal Instruments series. It’s a short story collection with other contributing authors, so I’m a little wary, but I’m a lot more intrigued about it after City of Heavenly Fire than I ever have been before.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading the collaborative new release Because You Love to Hate Me, a short story collection about villains collected from a dozen or so popular YA authors. Big name bloggers and booktubers also contributed to this one, but I’m primarily reading it as a sampling of authors, to help me decide which writers I might want to see more from, and which ones I’ll want to skip. Also, it’s all about villains, which is fun to experience.

Who’s your favorite YA fantasy author?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant