Elizabeth Gaskell [read by Juliet Stevenson]
Dates Listened: November 25 – December 18
Jane Austen meets Charles Dickens. Not that I can say that with any sense of real certainty since I would rather read the dictionary from beginning to end than read Charles Dickens, but based on what I can remember of the crap – sorry, literary classics – by Dickens I was force fed in high school, North and South does incorporate the socioeconomic criticisms of Dickens with the romance of Austen.
This beautiful novel chronicles a period of approximately five years in the life of young Margaret Hale. A “country gal” from the south of England who loves her quaint countryside town of Helston, Margaret finds her life turned upside down when her father, the local preacher, decides to move the family to the northern industrial town of Milton so he can work as a private tutor. Rolling green hills and sun-dappled forests are replaced with smoke-belching factories; charming cottages and trickling brooks have become squalid tenements and soot-lined streets; and quiet, thoughtful, peaceful neighbors are now loud, crude, and boorish. Determined to make the best of her situation, Margaret reaches out to her new surroundings, befriending her new neighbors, and she quickly has her eyes opened to the crushing, toilsome world of the manufacturing industry. She watches new friends suffer debilitating illnesses from exposure to the smoke-thickened environment at the same time they fight for their rights as workers and try to care for their suffering families.
In the midst of all this comes Mr. Thornton, a factory manager who has struggled his entire life to care for his family, and who has a distinctly different outlook on the world of manufacturing then the novitiate Margaret. Personalities inevitably collide and sparks inevitably fly, but with Margaret’s whole world changing day-by-day, can she open her heart to Mr. Thornton? Can she bring the beaten down workers together with the kind-hearted and struggling-to-survive manager? And what of Margaret’s own family? A father whose conscience forced him out of the church he had loved, and a mother who cannot adjust to a new life in the North are only part of the problem. There is also Margaret’s beloved brother, Frederick, who is in hiding because of an accusation of mutiny….
North and South is a gorgeous and delectable novel. Beautifully written with characters that literally spring forth from the page, I loved every sentence of this book. And I knew I was in love when I found my own heart fluttering every time Mr. Thornton appeared. I also wanted to smack Margaret up the back of her head a few times – how could she *not* fall in love with Mr. Thornton at first sight?? Sigh. It is a rare occasion that I get so emotionally involved in a love story. I went through a Harlequin romance phase many years back, where all I read were those body shivering novels with pictures of half-naked men and women on the cover, and I burnt myself out on them. These days, I enjoy romance as part of a story, but it needs to be just that: part of the story, not the entire story. Although North and South included a fair measure of socioeconomic drama, it really was a romance novel. And I was pleasantly surprised to find myself so enthralled in a romance novel. To the point where I would listen and listen until Mr. Thornton reappeared. I just loved him so…
Dates Read: December 5 – December 17
It’s official. Brandon Sanderson- I worship you. I am now on a quest to read everything you have ever written. Starting with Book 2 in the Mistborn series. But first, the incredible, incredible, incredible (did I mention “incredible”?) Book 1.
A thousand years ago, the immortal, all-powerful, and indestructible despot, the Lord Ruler, assumed control of the world, and established the Final Empire. He rules a depressed planet where dark clouds obscure the sun, ash falls from the sky, and the only plants that grow from the earth are wilted and brown. The people are divided into classes; at the very bottom are the skaa, the worker force who survive as little more than slaves, and they are ruled by the Great Houses, or the noblemen who manage the industries under the Lord Ruler. There are the Obligators, the Lord Ruler’s clerks and administrators, and there are the Inquisitors, the Lord Ruler’s terrifying police force comprised of super humans with steel spikes protruding from their eye sockets. In this dark world, we are introduced to Vin, a skaa urchin who scrapes by as one in a group of vicious thieves. She stays alive by using “her luck” to help the group with their thieving missions – her mysterious ability to sway people’s emotions by calling on an inner power. When Vin tries to use her luck on an Inquisitor in a robbery attempt, she inadvertently catches the eye of Kelsier, a skaa rebel who dreams of overthrowing the Final Empire.
Turns out Vin is Mistborn, one with the rare ability to pull power from metals and use them to enhance physical characteristics like strength, speed, and senses, and exert force on surroundings. Kelsier is also Mistborn, and he recruits Vin to his Skaa Rebellion. Together the two will try to do the impossible: bring down the Lord Ruler and establish a new world order, a feat that has been tried thousands of times in the past, and has always failed. Will Vin master her powers as a Mistborn? Can she successfully infiltrate the Great Houses’ social circles and play her part in the rebellion? Can she trust Kelsier and his crew, and their mission? Or is everything, as she fears, doomed to fail?
Though Mistborn sounds a lot like any other epic fantasy about toppling a magical tyrant, there is so much more depth to this novel than I have read in others of a similar vein. There are personal journeys of faith – Vin trying to find a way to trust when all she has known is betrayal; Kelsier trying to resolve his love for his late wife with the likely reality she betrayed him to the Lord Ruler; and the Lord Ruler himself. How could someone who left behind indications he was once a righteous man with aspirations to do good things become the despotic tyrant of the present day? And there is such a deep mythology in the book with this idea of Allomancy (the ability to pull power from metals) and Feruchemistry (the ability to store powers in metals for later use). It all comes together in the magic that is Brandon Sanderon’s creativity.
I can’t rave enough, and I’m so anxious to start Book 2, I am ending here, and starting that one right now…
Dates Read: November 28 – December 2
Whew. What a downright depressing book. A beautiful book. A gorgeously delicious read. But I need some serious comedy now to relieve the black hole of melancholy that is this novel.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a series of letters Eva Khatchadourian is writing to her ex-husband, Franklin, two years after their teenaged son, Kevin, went on a school shooting rampage, murdering several of his fellow students, a cafeteria employee, and a teacher. Looking back over their 20-year marriage, Eva traces the decision to get pregnant, and the effect it had on her relationship with her beloved husband. A successful career woman, Eva didn’t have much interest in children, but she took the plunge to please Franklin, and within moments of giving birth to Kevin, her life quickly becomes one of constant struggle – internal fights with herself to love her son, who from infancy proves to be a dark and malicious child, and continuing arguments with Franklin over Kevin’s nature – Franklin thinks Kevin is gifted; Eva thinks Kevin is evil. In the midst of their crumbling relationship, Eva watches Kevin’s darkness grow from toddler to teenager, and reflects on all the moments that led to a tragic Thursday in a school gym.
Even with such tragedy, We Need to Talk About Kevin deals with one fundamental issue: the decision to become a parent. I sympathized with Eva because we live in a world where women are under constant pressure to get married and have children. And when women have reached a certain age, and they aren’t married, or they don’t have children, then there an underlying stigma becomes attached to them like super glue to skin: what is wrong with you? It’s sickening because just like every other lifestyle choice – be it college, investment in property, or marriage and family – some people simply do not want to take on those responsibilities. And there shouldn’t be anything wrong with that. The land of the free? Let me be free to make my own choices about my lifestyle. That is why I loved that Franklin was such a wholehearted American, with this American dream of wife, kids, and house with the white picket fence… and guess how that turned out for him. Then there’s Eva, who can see the truth of Kevin’s nature from the time he is a baby, because she knows herself, and knows what she really wants from her life.
It is a tragic story. But it is also a lesson. Think about what you want from your life and go for it. You don’t have to want those things that “every” person “should” want. After all, your son may turn out to be a sociopath.
Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry
Dates Read: November 19 – November 25
So it has been 45 years since the brutal murders of Sharon Tate and her friends Abigail Folger, Voytek Frykowski, and Jay Sebring as well as Leno and Rosemary LaBianca and Steven Parent. And so it has been almost 45 years since Charles Manson, and several members of his “Family” were convicted and sentenced to life in prison for committing these vicious crimes in a two-night killing spree meant to start a worldwide “race war,” and bring about “Helter Skelter.” But reading Vincent Bugliosi’s remarkably detailed account of the 1969 Manson murders and the subsequent trial is like learning about this dark moment in Los Angeles history for the first time.
On the morning of August 9, 1969, Winifred Chapman, a housekeeper working for actress Sharon Tate, arrived at the starlet’s sprawling Hollywood hills mansion to find a scene of abject horror: the brutally slain and heavily mutilated bodies of Tate, her friend and roommate, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, Folger’s boyfriend, Frykowski, and Tate’s former boyfriend, celebrity hairstylist Sebring, as well as the gunshot-ridden body of 18-year-old Steven Parent. The following night, grocery store owner Leno LaBianca, and his wife Rosemary, returned home from a vacation, and were found the next day equally slain and mutilated by their son and daughter. And that is only the beginning. From the moment the first LAPD officers arrive at the scenes to the death penalty sentence passed down to all defendants accused of the murders, Bugliosi walks the reader through the months that followed.
There is the bungled investigation, led by both LAPD and the LA Sherriff’s Office. A bungled investigation that saw, among other notable moments, a neglect to properly collect and identify evidence left at the crime scenes, a refusal to follow up on leads and connections to the cases, and, in instances of real stupidity, an unwillingness to work together. And let me put it this way: the Manson Family was finally connected to the murders when Susan Atkins, aka Sadie Mae Glutz, started bragging about her involvement to her cellmates… and she was in jail because several members of the Family had been arrested after they were accused of stealing a car!
Then there is the trial, a true circus of epic proportions, with Manson and his three co-defendants (Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, and Patricia Krenwinkle) in the center ring. Right next to them is the lead defense attorney, Irving Karanek, who obstructs trial proceedings so much, he even objects when a witness states his or her name, claiming it is hearsay since the witness is told their name by a parent.
And there is the Manson philosophy: Helter Skelter, a race war Manson claimed was messaged to him via the Beatles and their eponymous song from The White Album. Manson believed Helter Skelter would overturn the racial hierarchy he perceived (white is superior to black) and give the oppressed minorities a chance to rule… until they realized they needed the superior white race to take control again. Who would lead when that day came? Manson, of course.
From beginning to end, Helter Skelter is a true page-turner, keeping the reader up late into the night to find out what happens next in this crazy world of Charles Manson and his worshipful followers. But it wasn’t just Manson and Family that proved so fascinating. It was enlightening to read about the depths of law enforcement’s incompetence (at one point, a detective on the case complains to prosecuting attorney Bugliosi, “how are we supposed to know to do all this? We’re not lawyers,” when Bugliosi asked the detective to follow up on evidence left behind at the crime scenes. Bugliosi’s understandable response: “investigating a crime is not your job??”).
And it was especially eye-opening to read about the antics that can occur in a courtroom. By the third day of testimony, defense attorney Karanek had objected to the prosecution’s questioning more than 200 times. The reporters on the case stopped keeping track. It took star witness Linda Kasabian over an hour just to establish her name in the court’s records because of Karanek’s incessant objections. Is it any surprise, then, the trial lasted almost 9 months?
Well-rounded, thoroughly-researched, and featuring a positively fascinating first-person perspective, Helter Skelter is the “best selling true crime book of all time” for a reason. It is good. It is very, very, very good. It is scary good. In that it is a terrifying story, told in a way to keep you reading it. Kudos.
Emily St. John Mandel
Dates Read: November 14 – November 18
My first thoughts upon completing Emily St. John Mandel’s brilliant novel is that she is a cross between David Mitchell and Alice Hoffman. Which means she is awesome. And Station Eleven is amazing.
Hollywood superstar Arthur Leander drops dead while performing on stage as King Lear in the Shakespearean tragedy. That same night, a deadly virus reaches the North American continent, and the end of the world has begun. Among those who are on the run from the Georgia flu are paramedic-in-training Jeevan Chaudharry, who tried to save Arthur when the actor went down on stage, and Kirsten Raymonde, a child actress also in the King Lear production.
Fast forward 20 years, and Kirsten is an actress in a traveling symphony, a group of troubadours that travel from settlement to settlement performing Shakespeare for the survivors of the pandemic that wiped out 99% of the world’s population. When the symphony reaches a settlement named St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter The Prophet, a religious zealot who rules his village with fear.
Moving backward and forward in time, Station Eleven explores the ripples that flow out from our lives. Jeevan, a former paparazzo and entertainment journalist had chased Arthur when the latter was starring in blockbuster films. Arthur’s first ex-wife wrote a graphic novel called Station Eleven, which has become one of Kirsten’s most prized possessions. And Arthur’s best friend, Clark, is stranded in a small Midwest airport when the outbreak begins. As he and his fellow passengers turn the airline terminals into a new home, the threads between the survivors solidify and thicken, proving yet again that every choice we make can have infinite consequences.
And that is where St. John Mandel is David Mitchell-esque: the rippling effects our actions have on everything around us. But her writing style, her beautiful use of language, is very Alice Hoffman. I don’t think I have read an apocalyptic novel that is just so gorgeous. With such delicious syntax. Combining the two – ripples and language – and you have one incredible novel, full of poignant emotion, and one I know I will never forget.
Stephan Eirik Clark [read by James Langton]
Dates Listened: November 5 – November 13
I’ve heard it said that 1968 was a turning point in American history. Our country, and us as a people, changed after that tumultuous year, and we haven’t been the same since. It feels like Stephan Eirik Clark subscribes to that thought with this interesting debut novel. Which on the surface appears to be about the effects of an artificial sweetener, but I think is really more about finding your way in a changing world.
David Levereaux is fresh out of college in 1973 when he goes to work for a flavor manufacturing firm as an apprentice flavorist. His first job is supervising the rats and monkeys in the animal testing lab, and he immediately notices changes in their behaviors after they are fed a new artificial sweetener then in production, Sweetness #9. Lethargy, obesity, and a “general dissatisfaction with life” (one of the rats actually commits suicide!) are a few of the changes Levereaux notices, and when he tries to bring this to the management’s attention, he finds himself out of a job. Determined to blow the whistle until he realizes doing so would end his career, Levereaux struggles to find a new job while also coping with a stormy personal life.
Fast forward a decade or so, and the artificial sweetener Levereaux wanted to shut down in the 1970s is in everything from baked goods to frozen dinners, and the now successful flavor chemist still struggles with his decision not to go public with his knowledge of Sweetness #9’s possible side effects. Is this decision the reason why Levereaux keeps facing issues in his personal life? His wife, who struggled for years to get pregnant, finally gives birth to two children: a daughter, Priscilla, who hates everything and makes it her personal crusade to bring down processed foods, and a son, Ernest, who as a young teenager suddenly loses the ability to speak complete sentences. Then there is Betty herself, Leveraux’s wife, who struggles with weight and her status as a good or bad mother.
Levereaux comes back to Sweetness #9 and the role it plays in his daily life, but really he faces a deeper conflict: he is a stranger in a strange land. Very traditional – he still dresses like it’s the 1950s when he is in college – I think Levereaux’s story really is about sticking to the American dream in a time when the concepts that constitute it are changing. I also think his journey represents a look at how often we find our dreams are not what we hoped them to be, and how we live with that awareness when it is finally thrust in our face. Social commentary and American satire Sweetness #9 is, and an interesting example of both genres. In fact, it is downright hilarious to watch Levereaux try to understand his world, and try to continue navigating through it even though he bumbles along like an absent-minded professor.
I enjoyed this fresh take on living your life, and how the decisions we make ripple across time. Sweetness #9 is not the most unique story I have ever read, but it was a thoughtful piece, and a good reminder to love what you have.
Dates Read: November 7 – November 11
What can I say? This is a book by Brandon Sanderson. That means it is amazing. Awesome. Incredible. An edge-of-your-seat, pulse-pounding, nail-biting, science-fiction thriller with broad brush strokes of immense creativity. It is a book by Brandon Sanderson. Those two words alone make it a 5-star read: Brandon. Sanderson.
Steelheart is set in post-apocalyptic Chicago (renamed Newcago), ten years after a bright red light named Calamity appeared in the sky, and catalyzed the appearance of superpowers in regular men and women. Known as Epics, these super-humans have wreaked vast destruction around the world and taken control of ruined cities as despotic tyrants. In Newcago, the tyrannical Epic in charge is known as Steelheart, seemingly indestructible with the ability to turn anything he touches into steel. Trying to bring down the Epics are ragtag groups of human survivors known as Reckoners. With top-secret technology as their weapon, they seek out and assassinate individual Epics in the hopes of ultimately bringing them all down. Aching to join these freedom fighters is 18-year-old David Charleston, whose father died at the hands of Steelheart in the early days of the Calamity apocalypse. David brings more than intuitive survival skills and accuracy with a rifle, however; he is the only person who has seen Steelheart injured, and therefore, the only one who may know how to bring down the murderous super-human. But first, he has to get the Reckoners to accept him, including the gorgeous, yet icy-cold Megan, and the group’s enigmatic leader, Prof.
I know I can’t rave enough about this book. Not only is it wickedly creative – some of these Epics are downright insane in their superpowers! – but it is suspenseful science fiction at its ultimate best. Gloves that can pulverize steel; jackets that create protective shields; motorcycles that can take sharp turns at high speeds and not tip over because of balancing gravitational bulbs – these are just a few pieces of the incredible technology rampant through Steelheart. And the storyline itself is simply incredible. The ending is pure genius. Genius. I will say it again and again: genius, genius, genius!
Not to mention, how can you not love David? Whose big goal in life – besides bringing down the eponymous Epic – is nailing the perfect metaphor???
I have to wait until January 2015 for Book Two in this series? You’re killing me, Brandon! Between this, and the Stormlight Archive, I’m dying here… just dying!
Dates Read: October 28 – November 6
Having been force fed “classic literature” before (I still suffer involuntary shudders when I think about A Tale of Two Cities), I am always a tad skeptical when I dive into a classic novel. I don’t know who decides what is “classic literature” and what isn’t, but whoever it is needs their head smacked. The Sun Also Rises?? Please. But I needn’t have worried here. Pride and Prejudice is a sheer delight, and now that I have closed the last page on the amazing story of Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy, I can only ask: why wasn’t I force fed this in high school??
Jane Austen’s incredible novel follows the rather complicated love lives of the five Bennett sisters in early 19th century England. There is the graceful and gorgeous Jane, the proud and wickedly smart Elizabeth, the thoughtful and studious Mary, and the equally vapid, insipid, self-centered, and downright stupid younger girls, Kitty and Lydia. Heading this full house is the matriarch, Mrs. Bennett, who rather takes after her two youngest daughters in the intellect department, and whose sole goal in life is to see all five girls married to rich husbands. She shares family leadership with the tolerant Mr. Bennett, who could care less if his daughters marry or not. He just wants them happy. And smart.
Entering into this family fray are the men who will forever change the course of the sisters’ lives. First is the very handsome, very rich, very eligible, and very charming Mr. Bingley, who immediately takes an interest in the elder girl, Jane. Mr. Bingley is accompanied by his best friend, the proud and standoffish Mr. Darcy, also handsome, also rich, also eligible, but not quite as charming. He is slow to come around, but Mr. Darcy soon finds a potential match in his intellectual equal, the proud Elizabeth. There is Mr. Collins, the heir to the Bennett estate, who in an attempt to entrench himself in the family, proposes marriage to Elizabeth. And Mr. Wickham, former steward of Mr. Darcy’s father, who though outwardly charming, intelligent, and thoughtful, may not be all that he appears to be. What will happen when these very different men pursue the Bennett sisters? Will the cast of supporting characters – best friends, in-laws, and other siblings – sabotage the relationships? Can the Bennett family’s low social status be overcome so the girls can find their happily ever after? Or will their pride, and their prejudices, get in the way?
I couldn’t believe how quickly I fell in love with this novel, and how entrenched I became in the sisters’ lives. It is even more surprising when I think back on how I felt during the first few chapters. My 21st century feminist self had a hard time getting behind this whole idea of women existing only to get married, and women defining their entire identities around their marital status. I wanted to bonk everyone on the head with a bowling pin, especially Mrs. Bennett and the two younger sisters. Sheesh. But then a dawning, an awakening, a realization. I wanted to bonk everyone on the head with a bowling pin because I cared. Jane Austen made me care about these characters. And when I took the deep breath and dove in, it was amazing how quickly I fell into that 19th century mindset. How much I wanted to see these women win (well, Jane and Elizabeth anyway. I’ll say this about Austen’s superb talent; those two younger girls really were a piece of cake). I rooted for the good guys – wanted them to get over their aristocratic pride – and wanted the bad guys to get their comeuppance. In short, Pride and Prejudice did everything a true piece of classic literature is meant to do: it transported me to another world, and brought a cast of detailed and complex characters to life. And even more, it helped me open my mind to the priorities of young women in the early 1800s. It helped me understand.
And gosh it was funny. I mean, who cannot laugh out loud when Mr. Bennett finally upbraids his younger daughter, Kitty, when he says, “you will never leave this house for a ball or any other social event until you spend at least 10 minutes a day doing something rational.”
Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan [read by Daniel Oreskes]
Dates Listened: October 18 – November 5
Eh. Book Three. Vampires. A Master. End of the World. Oh wait, there are angels in here now, too? And the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? And how is it that Ephraim Goodweather, whom all 25 million telepathically-communicating vampires are hunting, is still alive two years after the release of the vampiric virus?
I never thought The Strain trilogy was the best in the vampire universe to begin with, but it did feel like each iteration in the series got worse. You start with The Strain, which presents vampires as a very scientific and biological threat; an actual virus that corrupts organs and tissues and generates growths. Very much like cancer. Okay, I can get on board with this. Strip away the mysticism, the supernatural, and put vampires in a scientific context. But then Book Two comes along – The Fall – and now it is an ancient book written in a magic code that holds the key to bringing down the King Vampires. Okayyy… we’re heading back towards crosses and garlic here. Then comes Book Three – The Night Eternal – and we’re firmly back on the Holy water, wooden-stakes-through-the-heart bandwagon. In other words, what started as a relatively new approach to the vampire legend has devolved into the same ol’ same ol’.
The Night Eternal opens two years after the vampiric virus was unleashed on New York City with the landing of the now infamous “dead plane” at JFK. Eph Goodweather is hiding from the new vampire police state, where human survivors are living in “blood camps” – concentration camps where they spend days toiling away to keep themselves alive, draining their blood for their new masters, and enduring forced procreation to keep those human babies coming. The king of them all is the Master himself, who has taken Eph’s son, Zack, hostage and has him holed up in a “castle” overlooking Central Park. The Master seeks Eph so he can get this mystical ancient book, since it does, after all, reveal how to bring said Master to destruction. But even with 25 million vampires at his disposal, all of whom are on the same wave length as the Master, he seems to have the hardest time getting his claws on Eph. Even with Eph fallen back on his old alcoholic, drug-addicted ways since his only son was dragged away by the most powerful creature on the planet.
Enter the gang of vampire killers. Dr. Nora Martinez and the former exterminator Vassily Fett are secret lovers, hiding their newfound passion from the tumultuous and unstable Eph, and Gus Elizande, the former gang-banger and now hired assassin, is still set on destroying every “vamp” that crosses his path. The four come together, rather reluctantly, in this final stand against the Master. Can they decipher that book and determine the Master’s origin site? The clump of earth that birthed him, whose destruction will mean the destruction of the Master? If they find the origin site, can they destroy it? And can they do all of this AND save Zach from the clutches of the Master before he becomes a vampire himself?
It’s not that The Night Eternal was mystical. And mystical it was. Let’s put it this way: the origin of vampires comes from the murder of an archangel… as in Michael, Gabriel, Raphael. You know the guys who fight God’s battles and deliver His messages. After the angel in question is murdered, his body is dismembered and each piece buried at a different location. Where each body part is laid to rest, a vampire arises, the final vampire to do so being the Master.
An interesting take on the vampire legend for sure. But it would have worked so much better if the whole trilogy had been mystical. And there were definitely elements of mysticism in the first books – the vampires are not fans of pure silver, for example – but there was so much more science too. These weren’t magical creatures; they were creatures of pure biology. Yet they have mystical beginnings? I don’t know. I just couldn’t buy it. Science could be called upon to explain it, and fail. Hail mysticism. But science didn’t fail here. And it’s hard to put science and mysticism in the same legend. At least it is hard to do it and make it believable. I don’t think The Strain trilogy pulled it off, to say the least.
Jonathan L. Howard
Dates Read: October 22 – October 28
Oh, Johannes Cabal, you snarky, cynical, sarcastic ne’er do well, you are one amazing character to follow. Whether you are getting your soul back from the Devil, as you did in Book One, or out to solve a murder mystery, as you do in Book Two, you are nothing but pure and unadulterated fun.
It has been some months since infamous necromancer Cabal won his soul back in a daring battle of wits with Satan, but, lo and behold, he is back in trouble again. This time, he is under arrest for attempting to steal a rare text from a library in the small, revolutionary-hungry Mikravia. When the country’s emperor dies suddenly, Johannes is called upon to reanimate him… long enough for the late ruler to stoke the fires of revolution. But when that doesn’t go quite as the Mikravian government planned, Johannes goes on the run, fleeing the country aboard a new aeroship with a stolen bureaucrat identity in hand. And just when Johannes thinks he’s safe, a fellow passenger aboard the aeroship goes missing, and an attempt is made on Cabal’s life. Well, that is inconvenient. So with a sense of curiosity born from boredom, Cabal sets out to solve the mystery. Did the missing passenger really commit suicide? Was he murdered? And if it really was a suicide, why did somebody try to kill Cabal?
Yep, it’s all fun and games until Johannes runs into a former enemy – the delightful Leonie Barrow – whose interest in criminology means an unwilling partnership with the necromancer to solve the aeroship mystery.
Sparks fly. Barbs fly. Aeroships fly. This is one flying high novel with the love-to-hate-him Johannes continuing his unique brand of sarcastic and cynical humor as he gets to the bottom of the mystery. The Detective doesn’t have as much of the supernatural as The Necromancer – no devilish carnivals, ghosts, or trips to Hell in this one – but it still sings with the wit of the first novel, and is a respectable second in the series.
On to Book Three!
Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan [read by Daniel Oreskes]
Dates Listened: October 7 – October 17
The world is ending. A virus unleashed following the bizarre landing of “the dead plane” at JFK is spreading at an astronomical rate, turning anyone who comes in contact into bloodthirsty vampires. Human survivors are dwindling, cities are burning, and social infrastructure is collapsing.
And Sotheby’s holds an auction.
That is The Fall for you, the second book in The Strain trilogy about mankind’s last battles against the rampaging vampiric virus. Picking up where The Strain left off, a band of survivors, including Dr. Eph Goodweather and Dr. Nora Martinez, both formerly of the CDC, Eph’s young son, Zack, pest exterminator Vassily Fet, and Holocaust survivor / vampire expert Abraham Setrakian, are holed up and trying to recover from their failed encounter with the Master, the king vampire whose arrival aboard “the dead plane” unleashed “the strain” on Manhattan. Thrown off by the Master’s ability to withstand sunlight, the ragtag band of vampire hunters also face a new threat: Eph’s ex-wife and Zach’s mother, Kelly, is a vampire, one of the Master’s right hands, and she is dead set on getting her hands (and her stinger) on her son. As the group tries to stay one step ahead of Kelly, and out of the clutches of the Master, they also seek an ancient text that details the origin of vampires, and hopefully, how to bring them down.
Meanwhile, 19-year-old Gus Elizande has been recruited by a group of ancient vampires – the originals – as a soldier in their own war against the Master. Teaming up with fellow gang bangers, and a retired wrestler / movie star, Gus sets out to destroy every “vamp” he comes across. When Gus and his warriors team up with Eph and crew, it becomes a race against time to find the book and stop the Master before the entire world is destroyed.
Gripping stuff. And it has taken me some reflection to finally put my finger on what has withheld me from fully embracing this book. The writing is much better than The Strain. Del Toro and Hogan stepped away from the clinical description of every minute action – as was their approach to the first novel – and have turned more towards the smooth flow of narrative. So it’s not the writing. And it’s not the suspense of the novel. The world is falling apart. You can’t get much more suspenseful than that.
It is a sense of believability. I know a world where a virus that turns all infected into vampires requires a certain suspension of reality. But it is possible to create a world with the most far-fetched and outlandish premise, and still make it believable. It is a core tenet of writing: make sure everything that happens, every word that is spoken, and every action taken is true to the world and the characters that inhabit it. At the end of The Strain, Eph, Setrakian, and Vassily go up against the Master in hand-to-hand combat. Here are your warriors: an 85-year-old pawnbroker who has to take a nitroglycerin pill every few minutes because of heart palpitations, a medical doctor who never lifted a weapon until the release of the virus 6 days earlier, and a rat exterminator who, yeah, may be big and burly, but still kills his enemies by spraying a hose. I know the supreme likelihood they will fail in their fight is part of the suspense. But the fact this all-powerful being with superhuman strength and speed, not to mention the ability to communicate telepathically, was sent on the run by these three warriors after just a few swings of a sword? And no one was hurt? Please. You can do better than that.
And del Toro and Hogan don’t in The Fall. Sotheby’s holds an auction in the middle of Armageddon? Really?
Still, I am hooked enough to read the final installment. Let’s see what kind of reality I have to suspend for this one.
Dates Read: October 8 – October 17
This book is perfect. Perfect. Perfect. I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of doing this remarkable piece of fiction justice because it has annihilated any expectations I had… and I had some pretty high hopes because I absolutely adored Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten. David Mitchell is a literary god, in my humble opinion. And like I said, expectations I had for his latest release, The Bone Clocks, were so far exceeded, they aren’t even dots on a radar screen anymore.
This amazingly perfect novel centers on Holly Sykes, a young woman gifted with psychic abilities – she can hear voices and has some flashes of precognition – whose entire life, and the lives of those around her, are affected by one bizarre weekend in 1984. The book opens in said year with 15-year-old Holly storming out of her house following an argument with her mother over Holly’s rather less-than-desirous boyfriend. Determined to prove to her mother she can take care of herself, Holly wonders off into the countryside, where she experiences mystifying and horrifying psychic encounters; ones that are wiped from her memory, but still ripple out to affect the rest of her life. The book moves forward in time, with each section switching to a new narrator – an egotistical Cambridge student who is looking for the perfect get-rich-quick scheme, a young journalist who can’t give up the thrill of covering the war-torn Middle East for his family, a middle-aged author, who hasn’t had a book on the bestseller’s list for years, and an aging psychiatrist whose patient mysteriously disappears from his locked cell – all of whom are connected to Holly and those bizarre psychic interactions in 1984.
This is David Mitchell’s supreme genius: the ability to bring five seemingly unrelated stories together to show how the tiniest decisions, the quickest moments, in our lives can have the longest and most far-reaching effects. A very typical teenager gets into a scalding fight with her mom because mom does not approve of her teenaged daughter’s much-older boyfriend. That singular moment touches every character who comes across these pages over the next 60 years, and has a direct impact on a centuries-long war. A war between two very different groups of psychics.
And each connection that Mitchell bridges is so layered, they make onions look like a single piece of paper. I can read The Bone Clocks five times and still find new meanings in these story connections, new depths to the characters and their tie to Holly’s psychic-infused weekend. There is so much that happens here, one reading is not even close to enough.
Which is a consolation since The Bone Clocks is Mitchell’s newest release. Who knows how long until his next masterpiece comes out?
Dates Read: October 2 – October 7
Another example of my piss poor reading tastes. Everyone loves Ray Bradbury’s classic novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and I was bored stiff. Everyone raves about the gothic horror and the dark suspense, and I found a novel that comes in a close second for Best Insomnia Cure (A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens claims the top spot).
I don’t know if it was Bradbury’s haphazard and disjointed writing style, or the storyline itself, but I could not get on board with this. Something Wicked is the story of two small town teenagers and one middle-aged father who come together to battle an evil carnival that pulls into town one dark and frightful night the week before Halloween. Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade are your typical 13-year-olds in small town middle America, always up to no good and always on the search for adventure. When they both hear the carnival train pull into the station in the wee hours of the morning, they do what any self-respecting teenaged boy would do: they sneak out their bedroom windows and rush off to get a closer look at the new visitors. As they watch the carnival magically unfold in front of them, the whispers of evil stir, and the boys soon find themselves on the quest to bring down the carnival’s evil proprietors.
Enter Will’s dad, Charles Halloway, a janitor for the city library and one who is lamenting his rapid descent into old age. An insomniac, Charles is awake himself when the carnival train pulls into town, and he can tell from the tinkling calliope music that all is not at it seems. When he notices the boys’ odd behavior, and some strange happenings with others in town, Charles also starts nosing around the carnival, finding much more than he bargained for.
It could have been a great book. It could have been a spectacular book. But for me, it fell way below the mark. I did have a hard time falling into the rhythm of the syntax. So many repeated sentences and then so many vague phrases. Sometimes I felt like a particular thought or moment was getting smashed in my face, and other times, I had to re-read whole sections because I was sure I missed something. This constant groping around in the text took away from any emotional draw of the story. I didn’t care about the characters. I wanted to hit Charles Halloway in the face a few times and yell, “54 is not old! And quit feeling sorry for yourself you slobbering bag of bones!” I didn’t find any of the carnival proprietors scary, or even that interesting. I just felt blah about the whole thing.
Sigh. So on to something that I’m sure everyone else is going to give 2 or 3 stars, but I will undoubtedly love…
Dates Read: September 23 – October 2
It is not fair to compare this delicious novel to Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain, but since I was reading the two at the same time, (well, listening to the audio of The Strain anyway), I can’t help but catalog, and ultimately admire, the differences between these two vastly different novels. Where The Strain was clinical, hard, structured, and straightforward, Alice Hoffman’s incredible book about life in ancient Judea was rich, velvety soft, smooth, and languid.
Every time I opened The Dovekeepers, it felt like I was laying back upon a pile of thick clouds with nothing but the silvery moon and millions of stars above my head. It felt like I was floating in a pool of soft warm water, watching the sun set over the mountains in the desert. It felt like I was standing eye-to-eye with a wolf, looking deep into his honeyed eyes, and seeing the earth’s strongest magics… Hoffman’s novel is the epitome of literature’s ability to transport us, and to transform us.
The book follows the lives of four incredible women who all find themselves living in the ancient Judean fortress of Masada in the months before it was captured by the Romans. Opening in 70CE with the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, we are first introduced to Yael, the daughter of a feared assassin who lives with the curse that her birth caused her mother’s death. When the Temple is destroyed, Yael and her father flee into the desert seeking the stronghold that Yael’s older brother – also an assassin – escaped to some months beforehand. On the journey to find Masada, Yael is overtaken by a spiritual transformation, becoming more and more like the lion that haunts her dreams…
Fast forward a few months, and we are introduced to Revka, the wife of a baker, whose beloved husband was murdered when the Romans conquered her small town. Fleeing the destruction with her daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons, Revka is witness to more tragedy when the Romans catch up to them, and her only daughter is brutally raped and murdered right in front of her eyes. Now in Masada, Revka raises her two grandsons, rendered mute by the horrors they witnessed, and watches from a distance as her son-in-law becomes the fortress’ deadliest and most feared warrior…
Next, we meet Aziza, the daughter of Masada’s revered witch and healer, who was raised as a boy to protect her from the curse of destruction that dogs her mother. A warrior at heart, Aziza lives for the feel of metal in her hands and the tautness of drawing back a bow. As the Romans inch closer to Masada, she confronts her own destiny, and finds herself on the front lines of war, fighting side-by-side with Revka’s son-in-law, the only man who sees her for what she truly is…
And lastly, we meet Shirah, the witch and healer from Alexandria, whose life and destiny has been driven by love. She raises her children, including the warrior Aziza, in the mountain fortress, and leads the other women in the care of the town’s doves. These spiritual birds keep Masada alive, in more ways than one, and they bring these four women together in the strongest bonds of friendship and sisterhood as the Romans lay siege to the mountain in the spring of 73CE….
Magic. Spirit. Love. Destiny. And the human / animal bond. All are feelings and concepts that pervade The Dovekeepers, and not only awaken these emotions in ourselves, but remind us of the wonder of the natural world. Of turning our destiny over to the elements. Of sharing the world with the magic of our animal companions.
It is a beautiful novel. It is a transformative novel. I will never forget it.
Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan [read by Ron Pearlman]
Dates listened: September 23 – October 1
Ambivalence. That is the best word I can use to describe this book. Ambivalence. I have read it once previously, and I remember not being impressed at all. Of course, I read The Strain immediately after finishing Justin Cronin’s incredible vampiric virus apocalyptica, The Passage, and I do think it is near impossible to top that one. You want an edge-of-your-seat, keeps-you-up-nights, can’t-put-it-down, end-of-the-world-caused-by-vampires thriller, then you want The Passage. Hands down. End of debate.
That’s how I feel, anyway. But then, The Strain started on FX. And I love the show.
So I decided to give the novel another try. This time, I listened to the audio, recorded by the inimitable Ron Pearlman, and I am walking away from this reading not screeching with excitement, but not quite as ho-hum as I was after my first attempt. Like I said: ambivalence. And I don’t know if this shift in my feelings towards The Strain stems from the fact I haven’t read The Passage in some time, or if Ron Pearlman is just an amazing reader, but I am geared up to read the second book. So it’s something, somewhere.
The Strain opens with the landing of Regis Air Flight 753 on the tarmac at JFK, and within moments, going dead right there on the runway. Call in the troops, which includes Homeland Security, the Transportation Safety Board, and the Center for Disease Control, the latter most represented by Dr. Ephraim (Eph) Goodweather and his colleague, Dr. Nora Martinez. The two board the blacked-out plane to find it full of dead people, cause of death unknown and no sign of trauma apparent. Oh wait, there are actually four survivors on board: one of the pilots, a goth rock-star, a tort attorney, and a Joe Suburbia with a wife and two kids at home. Though the four appear to have escaped the befuddling fate of their fellow passengers, they are all suffering the same flu-like symptoms. And the remaining dead are… not right. As in not decomposing the way all corpses do. Eph and Nora set out to get to the bottom of this new medical mystery, but they are up against a disease not found in the medical texts: a plague that turns the victims into vampires with long thrusting stingers.
Joining the two doctors on their quest is Abraham Setrakian, a Holocaust survivor who has an intimate knowledge of the vampires, and Vassily Fet, a city pest exterminator who stumbles across more than just rats in New York’s subway system.
And as the four come together to become the next generation of vampire hunters, they are after the most physiologically detailed and clinically described vampires I have ever read. That is one beauty of The Strain: the very scientific approach to what has often been treated as a purely supernatural phenomenon. Del Toro and Hogan provided such a convincing physiologically overview of the vampiric virus, I am a smidge scared this plague could really happen. On the flip side, however, is the very methodical and clinical approach to the entire book. The language didn’t melt and flow; it was very block-like and structured… and scientific. In my opinion, that detracted from the story, and made it hard to get lost in the complexities of the characters.
But Ron Pearlman’s expert reading has convinced me to at least give The Fall a try. The audio anyway.
Dates Read: September 2 – September 22
I feel strangely empty now that I have finished The Secret History. Not empty in the sense that I have had to say goodbye to beloved characters, or I have seen a gripping story through to its conclusion. No, it is more of an emptiness that comes from the novel itself. I was curious enough to continue plowing through – a curiosity that stems in part from Tartt’s deliciously rich writing – but I felt disconnected. I never fell completely into the story.
The novel chronicles a year in the life of young Richard Papen, a product of a loveless home in some desolate town in California, who uses a passing interest in ancient Greek to get himself into a small private college in Vermont. Once at Hampden, Richard joins the elite circle of his fellow classics students: the quietly serious Henry, the flamboyantly obnoxious Bunny, the charming and intelligent twins, Camilla and Charles, and the emotionally charged Francis. It turns out, however, this tight-knit group shares more than just an interest in classical civilizations: one dark and tempestuous night, Henry, Charles, Camilla, and Francis try to reenact the ancient Bacchanal festival and accidentally kill an innocent bystander in the process. When Bunny discovers their crime, he embarks on a journey of psychological torture – driving the four students, with Richard now in the know, to hatch a desperate plan: a second murder. After Bunny’s death at their hands, the five remaining students cope with their actions in remarkably diverse ways.
It is a plot that screams psychological depth, and I know that is what Tartt was attempting to achieve here. These six students are separate from their peers, elevated, at least in their own minds, above the others. The first death is brushed off by the four perpetrators as an accident. They were in the throes of Bacchanalian ecstasy; they can’t be held responsible for their actions. The one person who does crack under the pressure of that death is the one student who wasn’t even there: Bunny. And he copes with his traumatized psyche the only way he knows how: by lashing out at his peers. I thought this was an interesting psychological approach, and I tried to get behind it, but I never quite made it. It might have been in the way this element was structured – the novel is told exclusively from Richard’s point of view, and he doesn’t find out about the Bacchanal and Bunny’s subsequent torture of his peers until it has been ongoing for some time. When Richard is brought into the fold, he reflects back on incidents and comments that were not part of the narrative… incidents and comments we as readers are just now learning about, and that makes the psychology of what is happening a bit hard to swallow.
It is the same in the months after Bunny’s death, when the five students each respond to what they have done in their own way. Charles slides into deep depression and alcoholism. Camilla just floats along. Francis panics at least three times a day. Richard can’t sleep, and he imbibes copious amounts of alcohol, cocaine, and sleeping pills. And then there is Henry. A character who is very much inscrutable, so when he announces that Bunny’s death has left him feeling empowered and untouchable, it is just a smidge unbelievable. Even more so is when Richard agrees that he feels the same. The same Richard who takes handfuls of narcotics every night because he can’t fall asleep.
There was probably a depth to this story that I never reached, and a depth that had I managed to find, would make the above psychology all that more believable and rewarding. But I didn’t get there. I was left wondering how I am supposed to believe what is happening in these students’ minds. How am I supposed to believe that a narrator who is haunted by visions of his dead friend also feels like an untouchable god? Sorry. Just didn’t quite get it.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Dates Read: September 5 – September 16
I admit: I am a privileged, middle-class, American white girl who often wonders why skin color has such a prominent role in our society. It has always felt like such a superficial way to identify ourselves; to make choices about our lives. After all, we are all part of one species (although I often wonder if teenaged boys can technically be classified as Homo sapiens), and regardless of the pigmentation in your skin, no one person’s blood is any redder than another’s. With this philosophy ruling my life, reading a book like Americanah was in a word: illuminating. I dove into a world I could never hope to understand given my background, and I came away with a new appreciation for the challenges of establishing an identity.
Because while Americanah is billed as a love story – and there is definitely a contemporary romance involved – I felt like this incredible novel was more about the search for identity, and what one ultimately chooses to use as part of their identity. The book does follow the young adult lives of Ifemelu and Obinze, children and teenagers in Nigeria who fall deeply in love while attending college together. Ifemelu has the opportunity to go to America, and though she is ambivalent about the move, Obinze convinces her to go. Obinze, who so desperately wants to go to America himself, and dreams that he will join Ifemelu in the land of opportunity one day.
Ifemelu arrives in the wilds of Philadelphia, and is suddenly hit with a new reality: in this world, where skin color varies from palest white to darkest black, part of your identity is established for you by your skin color. In Nigeria, as Ifemelu herself states, there is no such thing as “being black”; skin color is just not part of a world in which everyone has the same hue. But now, in America, Ifemelu not only faces this concept of “being black,” but she also finds the idea is even further divided into “American black” and “non-American black.” Astonished, bewildered, and curious about a new approach to identity, Ifemelu’s journey through her life in America leads to the start of a successful “race blog” where she chronicles her observations on life as a self-proclaimed “non-American black” and what that means in black America.
Meanwhile, Obinze finishes his schooling in Nigeria and tries to join Ifemelu in America, but is thwarted both by immigration regulations and Ifemelu’s sudden severing of contact. Instead he makes his way to London where he tries to establish citizenship through the dark underworld of illegal immigration only to find himself deported back to Nigeria. Lost and heartbroken, Obinze searches out a way to establish himself and his life without Ifemelu.
It is easy to dismiss Americanah as a contemporary romance – two people separated by circumstance who overcome insurmountable obstacles to reunite – but that would be doing this novel a disservice. Ifemelu and Obinze are star-crossed lovers for sure, but they each undertake their own journeys to establish an identity: Ifemelu as a “black” in America, and Obinze as one-half of a lover’s whole. And that is the real love story here. I’m about to go all Whitney Houston, but it is the message I walked away with: the greatest love is to love yourself. Both Ifemelu and Obinze have to decide which characteristics they want to use as part of their identities. If and when they do that, then they have the chance for happiness together.
But illumination? As a privileged, middle-class, American white girl? I had no idea, and in so many ways could never hope to have a real solid idea because of my whiteness, how much “being black” is part of the black American consciousness. How deeply entrenched “being black” is in the identity of American blacks (at least according to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). I mean I don’t identify as white. I identify myself as a teacher, an animal lover, a writer, a reader… I never think of myself as white. And I have always wondered why the color of my skin – the color of anyone’s skin – should be part of my identity. Now I understand. Or I should say I am more aware. The distinction in skin color has led to cultural and social division, and if you are “non-white,” then your non-whiteness means more than just additional pigment in your epidermis. It is a part of your culture, your social structures, your background. Your identity. Being white may not necessarily mean anything, but being black, brown, or any other variation of non-white does. Our all-encompassing, welcoming American society has made it so.
Jonathan L. Howard
Dates Read: August 28 – September 4
I loved this book. I loved this book. I loved it. Loved it. Loved it. Maybe it comes from the fact I had just finished The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and I needed something light and entertaining, or maybe it comes from the fact Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer is one sprightly and wickedly funny piece of fiction.
I’ll go with Option B.
The novel follows the smarmy and sarcastic Johannes Cabal, who sold his soul to the Devil some years previously in order to gain the knowledge of necromancy. Now he wants his soul back, so upon a visit to Hell, he strikes a second deal with the Lord of Fire and Brimstone: secure 100 souls for Satan in one year, and he’ll get his own in return. To aid Johannes on his quest, Satan allows Cabal the use of his own twisted carnival, which features a seductress made entirely of latex, a ghost train full of, you know, real ghosts, and penny arcades that teach you rather amoral ways to solve your worst problems. Oh, and by the way, the train is driven by two walking corpses rotting right in front of your eyes. Johannes, having no clue how to manage a carnival, enlists the help of his brother, Horst, a vampire he locked in a crypt several years before, and hilarity ensues as the two embark on the journey to save Johannes from eternal damnation.
Hilarity literally ensues. I find sarcastic humor the best, and I just relished all of the wisecracks and cutting remarks that fly around this book like the Wicked Witch of the West’s army of monkeys. I loved that this book didn’t take itself too seriously – Satan is one lackadaisical fallen angel – but at the same time, employed some real creativity in the supernatural elements. For example, the Cabal Brothers’ carnival train pulls into a station one day that looked bright, shiny, and new, and was manned by a cheery and eager stationmaster. Turns out that station had actually burned down several years before, and the stationmaster had committed suicide. Huh! How did the station suddenly reappear and the station master suddenly re-emerge? Well, I’ll leave that to you to find out.
But through all the smarminess and wisecracking humor, there is a heart as well. Can Johannes really condemn 100 people to an eternity of torment just to save his own soul? Especially the enchanting Leonie Barrow who makes Cabal’s heart pitter patter? And what happens when Johannes starts forcing true innocents to commit heinous acts so their souls are his for the taking? It is a fun and glorious read. I am anxious to continue the series with Johannes Cabal: The Detective.
Dates Read: August 19 – August 28
At times thoughtful and soulful, heartfelt and humorous, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is every inch a Pulitzer prize winner … and, therefore, one of the most depressing and tragic books I have read in a long time!
And what a slog of depression. The book clocks in at 770 pages, and that is a lot of tragedy to undertake. I found myself feeling the same despairing emotions I experience when I watch the news every day for two straight weeks. I wanted to blow my brains out. I wanted to run out into the streets and scream at the tragic futility of humanity – how we can be both the most horrible and the most benevolent species on the planet.
Thankfully, I finished when I did because who knows what would have happened otherwise?
The book chronicles the life of Theo Decker, a teenaged Manhattanite who survives a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – a bombing that killed his beloved mother – and how the decision to take a painting from the museum’s collection changes the course of his entire life. Both comforting and stressful, Theo’s decision to take a delicate still life of a gold finch painted by a Dutch master in the 1650s in the chaotic aftermath of the explosion, is the cloud over his future. Through everything – drugs, alcohol, crooked business deals, unrequited love, and the specter of his mom – the painting is the constant in Theo’s life.
And what a future it is. If there is one lesson that Theo’s story reiterated to me in countless ways, it is the fact that our lives can change with every breath we take. On that fateful morning, Theo was a mediocre student on his way with his mom to meet his school’s principal about his grades … by that afternoon, he was an orphan and an art thief. And that is only the beginning. He becomes a drug addict, an alcoholic, a dropout, a crooked business man, and a liar. All because his mom wanted to stop by the Met on the way to meet the principal and see this gold finch still life.
It is that lesson, too, that made this book so horrifyingly depressing. It is tragic to watch Theo’s life spiral out of control, and to watch him try to survive continuous heartache. After his mother’s death, he is taken in by a friend’s family. And he wants to stay with them… but then his drug-addicted, alcoholic father appears on the scene, and Theo finds himself living with him in Las Vegas, where he not only gets into drugs and alcohol himself, but also finds that his father is trying to steal his inheritance. Furthermore, he takes comfort in the painting, and the peace its subject brings, but he suffers from paralyzing anxiety about getting caught with a stolen piece of artwork.
It is the nature of life, I am sure. Everything that can be beautiful can cause serious pain. Maybe that’s why those things are beautiful.
But I am not going to ramble on about the philosophy of The Goldfinch. It is a beautiful book. A gorgeous book. And maybe that is why it is sad.
Wilbur Smith [read by Ruper Degas]
Dates Listened: August 15 – August 23
So in reading the reviews for Those in Peril by the inimitable Wilbur Smith, I have had a distinct epiphany: I have the worst reading tastes on the planet. Shouldn’t be too surprising since my taste in music sucks, so…
But I was surprised to find that so many people absolutely loathed this book. Almost every review I came across couldn’t believe “this trash” had been written by the same author who had written such incredible works on Ancient Egypt; the novel was an absolute mess; the dialogue was ridiculous; and the characters were completely unbelievable. And let me say, I can see where all of these reviewers are coming from. I guess my take is: I thought it wasn’t *that* bad.
The novel centers on Hazel Bannock, the president and CEO of her late husband’s empire, Bannock Oil, and her chief security officer, Hector Cross. In the opening chapters, Hazel’s only daughter, 19-year-old Cayla, is abducted by pirates while she is en route (via private yacht) to meet her mom for the holidays. When Hazel’s attempts to enlist the assistance of the US military go nowhere, she turns to her last resort: the head of her own security team. Together, Hazel and Hector concoct a daring plan that will take them into the heart of jihadist Africa to save Cayla. Of course, obstacles await – one taking the form of a trusted confidante that turns out to be a double agent – but as Hazel and Hector come together to rescue Cayla, they also find their initial disdain of each other might be the seeds of a deeper attraction.
So yeah, it’s slightly predictable. And yeah, the dialogue is ridiculous – Hector is about as profound as a soup spoon with his self-ruminations – and, yes, I got a little tired of the step-by-step writing style. I mean there were passages that literally went as thus: “Hector stood up and stretched his arms over his head. He bent down and picked up his pack, slinging it over his left shoulder. He took three steps forward and when he came to the rock, he stopped. He turned to the left and took two steps. Then he stopped again, turned right, and took three more steps. The rock now to his right, he turned again, took a few more steps, and then stopped when the rock was directly below his right arm. He turned to the left one last time, and continued walking. He had skirted the rock entirely.” At first, I thought this was an attempt to build suspense – I kept waiting for some jihadist radical to jump out from behind that rock with an uzi – but after a while, I saw this was just Wilbur’s method of providing detail. And then I got bogged down in it.
But I kept going because I was committed to the story. I wanted to know what happened to these crazy characters. And I absolutely loved all the detail on modern-day African piracy. I also listened to this book on audio, and I’m sure part of my commitment came from Rupert Degas’ expert reading of the story. He was absolutely fabulous.
But even with Degas (who really was amazing), I didn’t think the novel was that bad. Not Smith’s best work, definitely, but still entertaining… at least to me. I do have the worst reading tastes, after all.
Dates Read: August 4 – August 18
I tried to describe this book to my fiancé, and the best I could cobble together was: “it’s a good book and at the same time it isn’t.” Very profound, I know. But I cannot find a more apt way to say it. In many ways, this book was truly incredible. In others, it felt like pure drudgery. It is hard to determine, but I need to decide now if I find The Last Ship to be a good book… or a not-so-good book.
The novel, told from the perspective of Captain Thomas, chronicles the adventures of a naval destroyer, the USS Nathan James, during the fallout of nuclear war. The book opens several months after the planet has been rendered near inhabitable by nuclear radiation, and the James has come alongside a small deserted island in the South Pacific. An island the ship’s radiation officer has determined to be safe… and has fresh water, fertile soil, and strong timber for construction. An island where the only known survivors of the nuclear holocaust can start over. As Thomas prepares his 180-person crew to transition to a “landsman’s” life, the book jumps back to the start of the war, and the James on patrol duty in the Barents Sea, north of Russia.
Since the novel is told solely from Thomas’ perspective, the reasons for the war are never fully explained. He is ordered to launch several of his nuclear warheads at targets along the Russian landscape, and hightail it out of the Barents before they make contact. Then… nothing. The radios go silent. There is no word. The James makes it way south through the Atlantic to the Mediterranean hoping to reconnoiter with an American military base in Italy when they discover the full extent of the horror. Europe is gone. Africa is gone. And with only so much fuel left, Thomas has to decide if he wants to take the James home to the States or try to find a new home in the (hopefully) relatively unscathed waters of the South Pacific.
Since the book opens with the reconnaissance of the island, it is no secret which route Thomas decides to take. But there are hints of unrest, mutiny, and Darwinian fear: if the crew of the James really are earth’s last remaining survivors, can the 150 men and 25 women on board come together to ensure the continuity of the human race? And more importantly, will they be able to do so?
This description makes The Last Ship sound like an action-packed, suspense-ridden, post-apocalyptic thriller in the vein of Independence Day or World War Z. But The Last Ship is no such thing. It is fully and purely an emotional drama – with Thomas’ soul searching and personal introspection serving as the heart of the story. In that way, the novel is incredible. Thomas’ journey, which includes both the physical movement of the James and the captain’s own personal journey towards the reclamation of his soul, are the true gem of the book. In those passages where Thomas reflects on his life and his career, the condition of the world, and the way to maintain some sense of order in a world he can no longer understand, Brinkley truly shines.
In fact, Thomas’ self-ruminations also prompted my own thoughts on the nature of humanity, and our terrifying ability to destroy ourselves and our planet with the push of a button. It really illuminated how much power we have, and how that power is often in the control of those who don’t fully understand it.
But on the flip side, there are moments glossed over so quickly, and with so little interest, that it made me wonder why Brinkley included them as plot points in the first place. You can’t build much suspense if you throw a mystery at the reader and then solve it two pages later. That defeats the point. And sadly, Brinkley does exactly this a few times in the book.
He also tries to fire the reader’s imagination. Descriptions of the fallout are purposefully vague, as are encounters with the few survivors the ship does come across on the shores of Italy. It’s obvious that Brinkley is trying to be mysterious, and hopes you, as the reader, will fill in the blanks on the canvas. What you imagine will be far more terrifying, right? However, Brinkley doesn’t quite pull it off. He is so vague in his descriptions that there are more blank spots on that canvas then there is total image. So I felt like I was looking at a blank piece of paper. I need something to work with if you want me to fill in the blanks…
And lastly, the writing itself. Brinkley is a beautiful writer. The man owns the finest Thesaurus this side of the Atlantic Ocean. I have never seen so many “GRE words” as I call language that employs multiple syllables, in a fiction novel…and that was, in many ways, a detriment. I didn’t feel like I was reading a novel. I felt like I was reading an academic paper. If I wanted that, I would go back to school. There is nothing wrong with the use of words like vicissitude, synergism, vermilion, gamogenesis, and fructuousness, but man, throw in some simpler syntax now and then too. If for no other reason than to give the Thesaurus a rest.
All this said, I think The Last Ship stands strong as a drama. It has the heart and soul needed for the emotional intensity. Overlook a few things like the formal syntactical structure and the lack of context in some of the plot points, and you do have a mighty fine read.
Stephen King [read by Bronson Pinchot]
Dates Listened: August 2 – August 13
Only Stephen King could make napkins interesting. And I mean that literally. This book really should be called The Royal Napkins for the prominent role those handy dinner accessories play in this rare fantasy gem by the master of horror. And one would think that a novel featuring napkins as a crucial plot point can only lead to sheer boredom… but leave it to Stephen King. He can take napkins and make them as fascinating as the scariest of monsters.
Luckily for those who are still wary of a book about square pieces of linen, The Eyes of the Dragon isn’t just about napkins. It is an old-fashioned fantasy with dragons, magic crystals, magic poisons, magicians, kings, and princes, with murder, betrayal, loyalty, and wrongful imprisonment, and with napkins… of course. The novel chronicles the lives of two royal princes: the older brother Peter, and the younger, Thomas, and their father, King Roland the Good, who rules over the magical kingdom of Delain. Roland is advised by the sinisterly evil magician, Flagg, who wants to wrest more control over the kingdom, so he murders the king, and frames the older (and far more courageous) son, Peter for the crime. When Peter is sent to prison “at the top of The Needle,” the younger and weaker brother, Thomas, takes the throne. He rules in name only, however, since Flagg really holds the power.
And Peter may be trapped in his cell at the top of the tallest tower in Delain, but he has an escape plan. Peter’s staunchest allies, including his childhood friend, Ben, and his former butler, Dennis, are doing everything in their power to get Peter out too. But can they get past the dark magician? Can Peter prove his innocence and claim the throne that is rightfully his? And what did Thomas see the night his father was murdered?
A very fun read, and it is obvious in the tone and style of the novel that King had fun writing it. There isn’t much depth to The Eyes of the Dragon as found in some of King’s other works, but that is kind of the idea here. Kick back, relax, and enjoy a fun romp through an equally fun fantasy world. Watch Peter grow up, first under the quietly intelligent eye of his beautiful mother Sasha, and later under the tutelage of palace staff. Watch him become a man in his prison cell, and hatch his crazy escape plan, which (SPOILER ALERT!!) will involve napkins. Conversely, watch the delicate and borderline-sniveling brother, Thomas, cope with his jealousy at his stronger and more confident older brother by hiding in castle corridors and spying on his father. Watch him regress when he wakes up one day and finds himself king. And throughout the narrative, watch the viciously evil Flagg wreak his black havoc… because he can.
There isn’t much to be gained from The Eyes of the Dragon – besides a new appreciation for the power of napkins – and that is a-ok. It is a fun ride. Thank you, Stephen King, for taking me on it.
Dates Read: July 28 – August 4
Harry Potter is all grown up and working for the government! Okay, not really, but that is the best way I can think to describe this fascinating and entertaining read by Daniel O’Malley. The Rook is definitely Potteresque in its world of magic hidden right in plain sight in the everyday non-wand-twirling one, and its heroes (and heroines in this case) trying to live between the two spheres of existence.
In this case, though, Harry Potter is Myfanwy Thomas, a Rook in the top-secret, magic-wielding, and magic-protecting government organization, the Checquy. The book opens with Myfanwy waking up in a London park surrounded by dead bodies and containing no memory of who she is and what has just happened. In her hands is a letter written to her by her “former self” – Myfanwy before she went amnesiac – that explains who she is and the important work she does protecting the non-magical people of the world as a secret agent. As the new Myfanwy tries to pick up where the former self left off, she is faced with more than just the rigors of running top secret government ops – like dispelling a purple slime that engulfs and controls its victims or a giant flesh cube composed of multiple brains, bones, and muscles from the different victims it has ingested – she also faces the very real threat that someone in the Checquy is responsible for the memory wipe. Why did someone want to take away everything she was? And who can she trust?
Including a very magical cast of characters – such as a single mind that is split across four bodies (known collectively as Gestalt), a century-old vampire (Alrich), a woman whose skin can turn into metal (Shantay), and a guy who leaks gas from his pores (Grantchester) – the secret agents at the Checquy have their work cut out for them!
A charming, and even sometimes hilarious read, The Rook is definitely Harry Potter meets X-Men. Each of these special agents have a distinct magical talent – Myfanwy, for example, finds that she can control others’ bodily functions with her mind – and together, they fight to save the world from the evil magics, while keeping the fact there are magics in the world hidden from the non-magical folks. Very light, very fun. And with O’Malley’s writing style, the book does not take itself too seriously at all.
I’ll admit that it’s not the best fantasy book I have ever read. I personally would have liked to see more interesting villains than a purple slime and a flesh cube. But the breezy lightness of the writing made up for it. And since this book is subtitled, The Checquy Files #1, I can only hope there are sequels being planned. I enjoyed the characters, and would gladly dive back into the world of Myfanwy Thomas, Gestalt, Alrich, and Shantay without a moment’s hesitation!
Josh Malerman [read by Cassandra Campbell]
Dates Listened: July 28 – August 1
We have nothing to fear but … fear itself. Those are the words clanging around my head now that I have finished Malerman’s Bird Box, a post-apocalyptic thriller that chronicles the harrowing journey of one young heroine, Malorie, and her two children struggling to survive.
In this debut thriller, the world has been beset by unseen and unnamed creatures – creatures that cause anyone who looks upon them to go insane and wreak unspeakable violence before they, in turn, kill themselves in equally gruesome ways. Malorie, discovering she is newly pregnant after a one-night stand, loses her sister and her parents to this horror, and to save herself, sets out to find a house she saw advertised in the papers; a house offering sanctuary to survivors. And a devastating sanctuary it is: windows are covered with blankets and mattresses, trips outside can only be completed with blindfolds, and helmets, and weapons, and any sound can mean a monster is hiding right outside your door. With six fellow survivors in the home, Malorie tries to find a way to exist – and raise two children – in a world where opening your eyes can kill you.
It’s an interesting concept. Take a world essentially experienced in real life by those with vision problems and turn it into an edge-of-your-seat thriller. But it worked. It really worked. Bird Box is intense and chilling; the descriptions of fear are palpable. And the structure of the story only elevates that potent fear. The novel opens five years after the insanity apocalypse. Malorie, living alone in a house with her two 4-year-old children, is getting ready to leave and sail down “the river” to find a new sanctuary. Blindfolded and terrified, the three set out on the journey, but quickly realize that something is following them…
Cut to five years ago, and we watch as the story of the apocalypse unfolds. Malorie finds the home she will live in for the succeeding five years, and she meets and befriends her fellow housemates: Tom, the former teacher who lost his daughter; Olympia, also newly pregnant whose husband was overseas; Cheryl, the bad-ass; and Don, the isolationist. The one who wants only the core group of housemates to survive. Together, they etch out an existence, surviving on canned goods and well water, all while battling the fear of what lives outside the door. Then, one day, a new housemate arrives. One who asks the question: what are we really afraid of? Those creatures? Or ourselves?
As the two stories unravel, the suspense builds. You, as the reader, know something terrible happened to Malorie’s housemates before the conclusion of the first chapter. And as with any great horror piece, it is that which is not seen that is more terrifying. Malerman uses that concept to excellent effect in this novel. But I think what resonated most with me is this question of what we fear. What should we fear? Is it the creatures in the shadows? The ones we can’t see? Or is it us?
Chilling. Very chilling.
Dates Read: July 23 – July 27
Ethan Gage, at it yet again in another frisky and fun adventure in Dietrich’s series of books about the turn-of-the-19th-century adventurer and treasure-seeker.
In The Three Emperors, our noble hero has survived the historic Battle of Trafalgar – and escaped both British and French control by sailing away to Venice, where he now picks up the search for his wife, Astiza, and his son, Harry. The family had become separated during Napoleon’s coronation some months before when their plot to have Napoleon crowned with the Crown of Thorns went horribly awry. First, however, Ethan needs some traveling money and he tries to gain it the only way he knows how: gambling. Luck in gambling doesn’t necessarily mean luck in selecting gambling partners, because of course, Ethan runs afoul of an opponent, a horribly scarred and disfigured baron who, before Gage manages to piss him off, drops cryptic hints that indicate he knows the whereabouts of Ethan’s family.
And another adventure begins! Ethan, on the run from said baron, is caught yet again by Napoleon and this time, he finds himself on the front lines of the new emperor’s army as it goes up against the Austrians and the Russians in the devastating Battle of Austerlitz. Meanwhile, Astiza and Harry, still searching for the Brazen Head of Albert Magnus, have found themselves in Prague, and when a new friend betrays them, they are taken prisoner by a malicious and sadistic dwarf who also seeks the historic relic. Locked in a dungeon, Astiza’s only hope of finding the Head, keeping it out of the hands of the enemy, and reuniting her family, is to develop the Philosopher’s Stone – the alchemical compound that can turn lead into gold and grant those who drink it eternal life.
Can Astiza make the compound? Will she? And will Ethan survive life as an infantryman in Napoleon’s army long enough to find his wife and son?
Yes, another great romp through history, with enjoyable characters along for the ride. In fact, this particular iteration held some surprises. The first was watching Ethan start to grow up. His wayward life of gambling, aimless wandering, and playing with electricity has been replaced with purpose: a family. In The Three Emperors, Gage starts to feel the effects of his previous life, and how his decisions are impacting his family. He starts to see how his choices to gamble, hunt for treasure, and try to get rich keep putting his family in danger. And his outlook starts to change. He starts to grow up.
Secondly, The Three Emperors differs from previous installments in that we, as readers, finally get to read from Astiza’s POV. Switching back and forth between Ethan and Astiza, Dietrich crafts a compelling story that bridges the adventurers while they are separated and seeking each other, and provides more insight into Astiza herself. A good thing. She is a great character.
The Three Emperors is also darker than previous Ethan Gage novels. While Ethan and Astiza have always been caught up in devastating and tragic adventures, they often handle them in the same stride as say Indiana Jones or Ben Gates (of the National Treasure franchise). In The Three Emperors, the two face rape, cannibalism, and deep-rooted betrayal, and while there is still some stride handling, these are some more difficult challenges to stride handle than your typical action fare: blow ‘em up and kill ‘em all. In other words, it is harder to brush off a sadistic dwarf that wants to eat children than it is to brush off running through a storm of bullets where everyone around you is falling… in an action and adventure novel that is.
But Dietrich doesn’t disappoint! Dark as it may seem, The Three Emperors is still a great escapism ride. How long until #8??
Reza Aslan [read by Reza Aslan]
Dates Listened: July 17 – July 26
Let me preface this review with a few considerations – because I know how passionately many feel about their religious convictions, and I do not want to offend with my personal thoughts on this absolutely incredible, truly thought-provoking, and possibly life-altering book. First, I was raised Catholic, and come from a very devout family. My paternal grandmother knew the Bible better than God. Both of my parents were devoted; we went to Mass every weekend. And for a time, I was devout. Then, during my college and early adulthood years, I started losing belief in the Catholic faith for a multitude of reasons. By the time I turned 21, I was more than lapsed; I was borderline atheist.
And with that loss of faith, I found myself poking holes as it were in my former religious doctrine. Very similarly to a child who learns Santa Claus isn’t real, and all those questions that had answers rooted in magic now become difficult (and impossible) to answer with logic. How does Santa make it to every house all around the world in one night? How does he get in and out of homes without chimneys and fireplaces? How do reindeer fly?
I started asking those types of questions about Catholic dogma.
And those questions prompted an interest in the historical Jesus. Not the Jesus of the Gospels and the New Testament. The one who raised Lazarus from the dead, walked on water, died on a cross and rose from the dead three days later. I was raised on that Jesus, and knew him intimately. No, I wanted to know the man who lived, breathed, and walked the ancient Holy Land during the Roman occupation. The son of a carpenter who preached a new message to the disenfranchised Jews. What kind of archaeological evidence exists to support that Jesus was a real historic figure? What was Jesus’ life really like? And how much of the historic Jesus differs from the Jesus brought to us through the Bible? It has been so difficult, if not impossible in some cases, to separate the Jesus of history from Jesus Christ of the Bible.
But that is what Aslan does in this extraordinary book. He peels back the religious connotations of Jesus and drills down to the historic figure. The Jesus of Nazareth as Aslan distinguishes him from the Jesus of Christ, or the divine figure modern Christians worship. And from page 1, where Aslan details the assassination of a high priest of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by a rising religious sect known as the Zealots, through the Epilogue, where Aslan laments the loss of the historical Jesus to the modern interpretation of Jesus Christ, every page in Zealot is an eye-opener.
The book itself is divided into three parts: the first approaches the historical environment, and life in the Holy Land in the 1st century CE when it was a province of the Roman Empire. Who were the figures? What were their roles? What was the culture? Those are questions Aslan addresses. The second studies Jesus of Nazareth through the lens of this historic context, and through contemporary sources that illuminate Jesus’ associates, such as John the Baptist. Where did Jesus fit into the religious revolution of his time? What was his relationship to fellow preachers and leaders? What and who inspired his teachings? Why was he crucified from the Roman perspective? The final section looks at how the historical Jesus was shaped and molded into Jesus Christ by his early followers in the first few centuries following his execution. We meet Paul, Peter, James, and others who had direct influence and impact on the development of Jesus as a divine figure, and a founder of a whole new religious movement.
I cannot express how truly informative and enlightening this book was. It has answered so many questions I have about the historical Jesus since my days of disappearing faith, but it has raised so many new ones for me too. Not questions about Jesus per se – Aslan is incredible in his detail and context; you feel like you are right there in the ancient Holy Land, walking alongside this revolutionary preacher – but rather questions about faith and belief. Aslan is very explicit in his approach to this topic; he does not in any way, shape, or form, try to discredit Christian dogma or attempt to answer questions about Jesus’ divinity. Aslan’s purpose is to find the real person behind the Son of God. So, he does not say Jesus did or did not raise Lazarus from the dead; he did or did not walk on water; and he did or did not rise himself from the dead three days after his execution. Those questions he leaves to his readers to answer for themselves.
But by contextualizing Jesus in his historic environment, and placing Jesus in with his ancient Jewish contemporaries, questions I had long buried about my own faith bubbled to the surface. Maybe that is why I loved this book so much. I like to think that I can identify books I enjoy based on factors other than personal resonance, like writing technique, storytelling, etc… And I do think Aslan is an exemplary writer. His ability to tell history in the form of a narrative, to make it feel like a story, is beyond compare. I would recommend Zealot to anyone interested in the historical Jesus or the life and times of 1st century CE Jerusalem without hesitation. But I also think this book touched chords in me that it might not in other readers because of my own personal experiences with Catholicism and the Jesus of Christ.
I can guarantee this, however: if you do read Zealot and you absorb what Aslan has so beautifully put to paper, you will walk away with a new cognizance of Jesus. A whole new way of understanding him. As Aslan himself says, “the historical Jesus is just as much a person to admire as the Jesus of Christ.” True dat, my friend. True dat.
Dates Read: July 17 – July 23
I think Ethan Gage himself best sums up the social and political complexities of this sixth installment in the eponymous entertaining series:
“I catalogued my alliances. I’d conspired with the British spymaster Sidney Smith to take revenge for the death of my wife who, as it turned out, was not dead. I’d partnered with Comtesse Catherine Marceau for a return of royalists who, as it turned out, were arrested, scattered, or repatriated. I’d allied with Real to advise Napoleon’s army officers, allied with Napoleon to find a medieval automaton I was skeptical existed, allied with odd Palatine to disrupt Napoleon’s coronation with religious blasphemy, and been promised ten thousand francs by Talleyrand to let him try this ‘android’ first. Now I was sitting in the center of an agitated porridge of two million excited Frenchmen who, if they knew what I was about, would rip me limb from limb.
For such a simple man, my life is surprisingly complicated,” (p. 194).
But, as with all the other Ethan Gage novels, delightfully fun too. Although, admittedly, both The Barbed Crown and The Emerald Storm focus more on Ethan’s political machinations (or should I say those who use Ethan to further their own political ends) than on the wild adventures of treasure seeking that characterized the first four books. That doesn’t make The Barbed Crown any less of an enjoyable read. If anything, it’s kind of fun trying to keep up with whichever side Ethan is on at this moment in time.
The sixth installment does open with Ethan smuggling himself, and the beautiful Comtesse Marceau, into France on a quest to assassinate Napoleon as vengeance for the death of Astiza in a hurricane at the end of Book 5. Ethan had made his way back to England after losing Astiza, and was partnered with the comtesse by his longtime on-and-off ally, Sidney Smith. She dreams of restoring the line of Bourbon kings to the French throne. Smith wants spies in France to report back on what Bonaparte is up to.
But, lo and behold, Ethan makes it to shore and who should be waiting for him? Astiza! Alive and well, and on a quest to catch up to her wayward husband so she can continue research she started in the Caribbean in Paris. The trio make their way to the city center, where, rather than assassinating Napoleon – no need to do that now that Astiza is alive – they will try to ruin his coronation by replacing his crown with the legendary Crown of Thorns; the one worn by Jesus at his crucifixion.
What a plan.
And when it goes wrong, as things so often do with Ethan, he once again finds himself separated from Astiza and his young son, Harry, and ping-ponging back and forth between France and England trying to negotiate peace between the two nations as the historic Battle of Trafalgar draws ever near.
Oh yeah, and in the midst of this back-and-forth, back-and-forth, Ethan was tasked by Napoleon to track down another historic treasure: the Brazen Head – an automaton built by Albert Magnus sometime in the 13th century that is rumored to predict the future. When is Gage supposed to find time to look for it? Well, it is Astiza who is charged with this hunt more so than Ethan, so the Brazen Head does take a back seat to the rest of Gage’s adventures in this installment.
But as with the preceding five books, The Barbed Crown is pure fun. I wish the novel hadn’t spent quite as much time on Ethan’s ping-ponging, but it was still great escapism. Now I come to the latest release: The Three Emperors. What happens next, oh Mr. Gage?
Dates Read: July 6 – July 17
It is becoming increasingly difficult to find glowing adjectives about Ethan Gage, and William Dietrich’s delightful (there’s one!) series about the pseudo-savant-turned-reluctant-hero-turned-overly-willing-treasure hunter. The Emerald Storm, as with the previous four installments, is a frisky and fun ride through the days of Napoleonic history… although this time, Gage finds himself in the Caribbean hunting down the lost treasure of Montezuma.
At the conclusion of The Barbary Pirates, Gage stole a large emerald from the pasha of Tripoli. When The Emerald Storm opens, Gage and his family – now including his Egyptian wife, Astiza, and their three-year-old son, Horus – are back in Paris where Gage is trying to pawn the emerald and retire. When Gage takes the emerald to a jeweler, he is attacked by a rogue French policeman, and, as with all of Gage’s adventures, he finds unlikely rescuers in the British, who reveal to Ethan that he has managed to steal the Green Apple of the Sun – a legendary emerald that is part of an equally legendary lost treasure of the Aztecs. As thanks for their timely rescue, the British order Gage to free the Haitian revolutionary, Toussaint L’Ouverture from a French prison so he can lead them to this lost treasure. But does that go smoothly? It wouldn’t be Ethan Gage if it did! L’Ouverture – a real historic figure who died in a French prison – is killed during his escape attempt, and the flummoxed British send Gage to the Caribbean to find the treasure on his own.
What makes Ethan agree? During the attack by the French policeman, Horus is kidnapped, and he has been taken to Haiti to ensure Gage follows. Because guess what the French want? This same lost treasure!
So Gage and Astiza head to the Caribbean where in a desperate ploy to save their son, Gage tries to play for all sides, including the Haitian revolutionaries, the French, and the British. Sides that all happen to be at war with each other: the Haitians, slaves to the French, have revolted and are fighting for their independence. The French and the British are at war again. And in the middle is Ethan Gage. That is way too much for poor Ethan to handle – since he also wants to find and claim the Aztec treasure too – so hilarity ensues. As is typical for Ethan. And as is the case with all the Ethan Gage books, the laughs abound, the adventures fly, the history fascinates, and the escapism occurs.
It means that Books 6 and the newly released Book 7 should be just as much as fun as the previous five!
Anita Diamant [read by Carol Bilger]
Dates Listened: July 6 – July 16
This is my first true foray in the world of audiobooks, and so I will admit: this review may be influenced by the experience of listening to the book on audio, rather than reading it traditionally. I have experimented with audiobooks enough to know the reader can make or break a book. I tried to listen to the audio of Game of Thrones, a book I relished, and I couldn’t make it past the five minute mark. A true disappointment since the audio is something like 34 hours long. But that reader did not do it for me. I did find Carol Bilger, however, lively and refreshing, and she made listening to this masterpiece a true pleasure.
And I believe The Red Tent is a masterpiece. Similar to Wicked, this clever novel takes a nugget of a story – this particular nugget being the rape of Dinah as portrayed in the Old Testament book of Genesis – and fleshes it out into a descriptive and detailed narrative. In Genesis, Dinah is mentioned in a brief flash. She is the only surviving daughter of Jacob, the great prophet whose 12 sons formed the original tribes of Israel, and his first wife, Leah. According to Genesis, Dinah is kidnapped by a Canaanite prince, who rapes her, and then, because he truly and deeply loves Dinah, tries to marry her. Jacob will consent to the wedding only on the condition that all the men of Shechem (the town of which said rapist is prince) agree to be circumcised. Surprisingly, the prince agrees, and all the males are “brought to the knife.” However, Dinah’s two older brothers, Simeon and Levi believe Dinah’s marriage to this prince has dishonored the Jacobite family, and late one night, they sneak into Shechem and murder all of the men, including Dinah’s new husband. In Genesis, Jacob is ashamed by his sons’ actions, and he banishes them from his family. Dinah’s fate is not revealed.
In The Red Tent, Diamant brings Dinah to life, creating an entire world inhabited not just by Dinah, but by her four “mothers” also – the great wife, Leah, and Jacob’s three lesser wives: the beautiful Rachel, the intelligent Zilpah, and the quietly observant Bilhah. Together, these women’s lives revolve around the red tent, the sacred space set aside for ancient women to celebrate the coming of their menses, and to give birth to their children. As a child, Dinah is particularly close to her brother Joseph (who not only goes on to do something with an amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat but also becomes a great viceroy and dream interpreter for the pharaoh of Egypt), but she thrives on the adoration of her mothers.
And it is this relationship – Dinah’s relationship with the other women in her life – that makes The Red Tent the masterpiece that it is. The language is so rich and evocative; the writing so passionate and beautiful, that I could not help but feel like one of the women in the red tent with the others. I almost yearned for the simple yet glorious lifestyle Diamant describes. One of simple work, simple pleasures, and joy found through the magic of the natural world. At one point, Dinah encounters her first river (later revealed to be the Euphrates), and her fascination with the beauty and the peace of the water made me wish to be standing next to a mighty river myself, finding and experiencing the same magic.
When the kidnap and rape come into the picture, Dinah is not a quivering, faceless victim, but rather a vibrant and happy young woman in love. She meets her prince when she goes to Shechem to serve as a midwife during a noble woman’s labor. They are immediately smitten, and hop into bed the same way two teenagers today do. Too bad her brothers are the jealous type and they don’t like the idea of Dinah’s marriage taking away the glory they so desperately seek for themselves.
After the rampage at Shechem, Dinah escapes to Egypt, where devastated and heartbroken, she strives to put back the pieces of her shattered life.
The Red Tent was an exquisite story, and one that brought the ancient world to life in ways no other books I have experienced have done. I applaud Diamant her masterful storytelling, and Bilger, her expert reading. If The Red Tent had been my first experiment with audiobooks, I would be a veteran by now.
Dates Read: July 3 – July 6
Ethan Gage keeps going strong! This fourth installment isn’t any less enjoyable than the first three in the series, with Gage as fun as ever, and on as crazy an adventure as ever. After surviving the wilds of the American frontier in The Dakota Cipher, Gage is back in Paris in this chapter, escorting three fellow savants – noted zoologist Georges Cuvier, geologist William Smith, and inventor Robert Fulton – through the wilds of the Paris underworld when he is attacked by a mysterious Egyptian who claims to have knowledge of Gage’s lost love, Astiza. Escaping right into the waiting arms of the French police (after setting a brothel on fire, of course), the quartet find themselves in front of Napoleon, who charges them with following up on a mystery recently uncovered on the island of Thira (modern-day Santorini).
And thus begins yet another race against the odds for Gage, this time striving to find the ancient Mirror of Archimedes – a super-weapon developed by the mathematician capable of setting whole navies on fire – before it falls into the hands of his old nemeses: Aurora Somerset, her band of Barbary pirates, and the never-ceasing Egyptian Rite. From the long-buried city of Akrotiri on Santorini, to the dungeons of Tripoli, and the domed churches of Sicily, Gage and his trio of savants race across the Mediterranean basin not just to find the mirror but also to save Astiza, and the two-year-old son Gage did not know existed.
As with the preceding installments, The Barbary Pirates is a frisky, fun, entertaining romp through the annals of history and buried treasure with not just Gage providing the laughs, but his trio of accompanying savants throwing in chuckles here and there too. In fact, the first half of the book, where the four embark on the mirror adventure together, is one laugh after another as they lob insults and wisecracks at each other, and bring their own unique talents to their quest. Leave it to Robert Fulton – a true historic figure remembered for his work in developing early submarines – to buy an old set of bagpipes and turn them into a rudimentary flamethrower, which comes in handy when the quartet find themselves trapped inside a church on Santorini.
I also particularly enjoy Dietrich’s villains. First there was the slimy Alessandro Silano and now there is the maniacal Aurora Somerset, whose vicious insanity provides for some truly terrifying moments in The Barbary Pirates. She’s the type of villain that makes you want to take a shower – she’s so wickedly evil – and there is that whole incestuous relationship thing she had going on with her late cousin / brother, Cecil. You can just hear the dark thrumming music that comes on screen at a villain’s appearance every time Somerset pops up on the page.
What’s next? Gage visits the Caribbean in the fifth installment, and next on my reading list: The Emerald Storm.
Dates Read: June 26 – July 2, 2014
Oh, Ethan Gage, you are so predictably fun. Whether you’re chasing after the legendary Book of Thoth as you did in Books 1 and 2, or the even more iconic Hammer of Thor as you do in The Dakota Cipher, I can always count on you to keep me laughing.
And that is what Ethan Gage does in this third installment – keep us laughing. The book opens with Gage firmly back on the French side (well, as firmly as Gage can be on anyone’s side) even though he was nearly executed by Napoleon at Jaffa and he electrocuted hundreds of French soldiers at the Battle of Acre during Bonaparte’s failed invasion of the Holy Land. All water under the bridge, of course, and never one to turn down an opportunity that will save his own skin, Gage now negotiates treaties with fellow European powers on behalf of Napoleon himself. But can Gage stay out of trouble? Of course not! And when he is caught in flagrante delecto with none other than Bonaparte’s sister, Pauline, and nearly incinerated during a fireworks display, Gage finds himself on the run yet again, and with the Norse treasure seeker, Magnus Bloodhammer by his side.
Bloodhammer believes Thor’s legendary hammer was carried out of Europe by displaced Templars following their mass execution in 1307, and buried in the wilds of the American frontier by these self-same dispossessed knights, who reached the American continent almost 200 years before Columbus. So Bloodhammer solicits the rather reluctant Gage in an expedition to the Great Plains to find the hammer and use it to win Norse freedom from the Danes. Meeting an extraordinary cast of historic characters along the way – including the explorers Lewis and Clark and the president Thomas Jefferson (who agrees to support Gage’s campaign in the hopes the latter will find evidence that prehistoric elephants once roamed the continent!) – Gage and Bloodhammer are in a race for the relic and for their lives. Because while Bloodhammer believes his own enemies were the force behind the attack on Gage at the fireworks display, there are those pesky followers of the evil Alessandro Silano, who met his end at Gage’s hand in The Rosetta Key, and who might just be seeking revenge for their fallen leader. Is the alluring and enigmatic Aurora Somerset, the plucky-yet-refined British lady who throws herself in to Gage’s expedition, one of them?
So, yes, another wildly adventurous and vividly entertaining romp through history in this installment with a whole new environment and cast of characters to keep Gage busy. And as has been the case with Books 1 and 2, my favorite parts of Book 3 are 1) the real life history in which Gage always manages to immerse himself, and 2) Ethan Gage. Gage is such a fun character to follow with his sarcastic sense of humor and his cynical outlook on his reluctant adventures. All he wants to do is retire, but will he ever turn down the chance to find his fortune in historic relics? Nope! When all of his friends warn the roguish ladies man that pursuing a conquest, be it Pauline Bonaparte or Aurora Somerset, might not be the best idea, does Gage listen? Nope! And that’s one of many things that makes Gage so entertaining.
So yeah, while you have to suspend belief when you read Ethan Gage’s adventures – as you have to do with any escapist entertainment – at least you’re putting it aside for a good time!
Dates Read: June 20 – June 26
There is a reason why we have escapism in literature (and in movies, TV, etc…). Sometimes it’s great to just sit back and have fun.
And that is what Ethan Gage is all about. Pure, unadulterated, engaging fun. The Rosetta Key picks up right where Napoleon’s Pyramids left off. Gage and his lady love, Astiza, discovered secret chambers beneath the Great Pyramid, where the long-lost Book of Thoth – an ancient source of unlimited wisdom and power – once resided. Believing the Book was carried out of Egypt by Moses during the Exodus, they planned to head to the Holy Land to discover its fate. But their own fates got in the way. The last Gage saw Astiza, she was plunging into the Nile from the hot air balloon they appropriated to escape the evil Alessandro Silano – who also seeks the Book of Thoth for his own evil purposes (how common) – and Gage finds himself rescued by the British Navy on their way to the Holy Land to stop Napoleon’s planned invasion.
The Rosetta Key kicks off from the get-go with the affable Gage struggling to continue the quest on his own. The British think he’s seeking a treasure that will stop Napoleon in his tracks. The French think he’s seeking the Book of Thoth to endow Napoleon with unlimited power. And all Gage wants to do is find the darn thing and go home without getting shot by either side. As he races across the Holy Land, he finds himself caught right in the middle of Napoleon’s invasion, and some of its most noteworthy moments, including the tragic slaughter at Jaffa (where Napoleon executed thousands of Muslim prisoners of war) and the devastating Battle of Acre, where the British soundly defeated the French in brutal combat. Gage also visits some of the Holy Land’s most incredible sites, including the Temple Mount and the ancient city of Petra, and every step brings him closer to the most important artifact in the history of mankind.
This sounds like a plot for an Indiana Jones movie, but as with Napoleon’s Pyramids, The Rosetta Key is not a deep, thought-provoking, gut-wrenching read that transforms your outlook on life. It’s a thrill ride on a rollercoaster of adventure and history with lots of laughs in between. Set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s real-life 1799 invasion of the Holy Land – which he hoped would bring him one step closer to conquering the known world in the tradition of Alexander the Great – The Rosetta Key is a rip-roaring good time with lots of fun new characters, including a new love interest for Mr. Gage, and page-turning suspense. My favorite, however, remains Ethan Gage himself. A wandering, gambling, roguish ladies man who somehow always manages to survive, even when he shouldn’t, is one heck of a great character to read. I laugh out loud at his comments, like this gem from page 5: “I’d taken fire from Mameluke cavalry, the woman I loved, Arab cutthroats, British broadsides, Muslim fanatics, French platoons—and I’m a likable man!” And I relish reading his crazy adventures.
On to Book 3!
Dates Read: June 13 – June 19
The first time I read Dietrich’s Napoleon’s Pyramids, I remember enjoying the novel as a flighty read, but I was not overly impressed. Now, I have read it a second time and I see what an idiot I was. Although Napoleon’s Pyramids is not the most creative or ingenious story I have ever read, it is a lot more fun than I remember it.
The novel – the first in a continuing series – introduces us to the late 18th century Ethan Gage, a dashing rogue, aimless wanderer, and chronic gambler who counts his years studying under the late great Benjamin Franklin as his one major achievement (thus far). When Napoleon’s Pyramids opens, the year is 1798, and Gage, living in post-Revolutionary / pre-Napoleonic Paris, wins a mysterious medallion in a lucky game of cards. Although it turns out that win might not be as lucky as he hoped. The next morning, a prostitute Gage spent time with is found murdered, and the debonair womaziner becomes the prime suspect. To stay out of prison, and the hangman’s noose, Gage agrees to join Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt as a savant, and to solve the mystery of his medallion and the treasure it must lead to.
In the Land of the Pharaohs, Gage’s quest brings him in close contact with a varied cast of characters, including his fellow savants, local Egyptian rebels, the pursuing British army, led by none other than Horatio Nelson, and a mysterious priestess who believes the medallion is the key to a long lost book of wisdom. And as Gage finds himself trying to survive Napoleon’s campaign, including the devastating Battle of the Nile, he also becomes the target of treasure-hungry scholars who believe the medallion leads to endless riches.
Insanity ensues in this fun and frisky adventure story set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s real-life 1798 invasion. I love Gage as a character – he is smarmy, charming, and just wholly likable in his attempts to solve scholarly mysteries without a drop of scholarly blood in his system. And yes, the adventures have been visited before: Freemasons, Knights Templar, ancient secrets of hidden treasures and hidden knowledge, secret chambers beneath the Great Pyramid of Giza, etc…, but I think Dietrich breathes fresh life into them by a) setting the stories in the late 1700s, and b) placing Gage in true historical contexts. Many of the characters Gage encounters were real people, including the obvious players Napoleon and Nelson, but many of his fellow savants, military comrades, and the periphery participants were also true historic personalities. Furthermore, the story includes a creative and interesting twist – a new spin on some of these ongoing theories around lost treasures and long-buried secrets – that freshens up the tantalizing conspiracies in interesting ways.
But what it all comes down to, for me, is personal preference. I have always loved these wild adventures that center on chases for ancient secrets or treasure. Give me Indiana Jones, Robert Langdon, or Ethan Gage any day of the week; I can always enjoy the escapism. But as I mentioned, Dietrich’s creative approach to the chases for ancient secrets only adds to my love for these types of stories.
That’s why I am on to Book 2!
Dates Read: June 3 – June 12
Being the maritime history nerd that I am, there were two things I really enjoyed about this book: 1) the history around the development of the sextant and the chronometer, and the evolution of celestial navigation based on the appearance of these instruments, and 2) the history of the explorers who bumbled their way around this planet with the various incarnations of these navigational tools in their employ.
I will be honest – and this is just a personal preference, not a critique of Barrie’s approach to this book – I could have done without the “personal voyage” narrative. Sextant is one part Barrie’s own trek across the North Atlantic on a yacht in the 1970s and two parts history of the eponymous instrument. The personal voyage material was well-written and interesting, but I relished the history he presented, and I wished he had dedicated the entire book to it. He had more than enough material to make the book a compelling read.
Because the two parts history is fascinating, and Barrie provides just enough detail in this compact tome – only 280 pages – that if you want to know more about the men profiled here, you will have to head back to the bookstore for the more comprehensive accounts of these navigators. Which is relatively easy to do since most of the big names from the Age of Exploration are here: William Bligh, James Cook, Robert FitzRoy, George Vancouver, and Ernest Shackleton, are just a few he tackles, but other names like Matthew Flinders, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, and Jean-Francois de Galaup, comte de La Perouse also make an appearance. Barrie does a great job of providing broad brush strokes on these men’s stories, and their place in the history of oceanic exploration.
I was also pleasantly surprised to learn more about the history of celestial navigation, and the real challenges these men faced in accurately pin-pointing their positions at sea in the eons before the arrival of GPS. I have seen references to these challenges in other maritime history works I have tackled, but they are only references. Barrie really delves into the detail – the faulty equipment (chronometers were a very in-exact instrument for decades), the lack of understanding the earth is not perfectly round, the lack of understanding the moon has a rather wavy orbit around the earth, and the complexities of the math involved are all part of why navigation – and calculating longitude to be exact – was (and still is) an imperfect science.
Most thought-provoking of all, however, were Barrie’s ruminations on the effect technology has had on our interactions wit the natural world. He laments that early navigators, lacking the “push a button” equipment we have today, had a greater understanding, awareness, and appreciation of the majesty of our planet. They could feel the awe of nature, the open ocean, and the night sky in ways we don’t appreciate anymore because everything is done for us on computers. And I agree. Therefore, Barrie’s book has reiterated to me an importance in appreciating the natural world. Taking time to really relish in the beauty all around, especially at night when the stars shine down on us.
And I want to read more about ALL of these early oceanic explorers.
Dates Read: May 9 – June 3
Having just read the final page of Sanderson’s 1,087-page tome, Words of Radiance, I have only one question: HOW LONG UNTIL BOOK 3???
I thought Book 1 – The Way of Kings – was pretty durn perfect. But now, Book 2, in this anticipated 10-book series, has surpassed “pretty durn” and can be classified as “completely and totally” perfect. There aren’t any words that describe the amazing work that is this novel any better.
Words of Radiance picks up where The Way of Kings left off, but now the stakes are heightened. The three main characters that we met and grew to love in Kings finally start to cross paths with each other in Radiance:
Kaladin: the former slave saved the Highprince Dalinar from certain death in a crippling battle against the Parshendi, or the creatures the Alethi have been fighting the past 6 years since they claimed responsibility for the assassination of the Alethi king (and Dalinar’s brother), Gavilar. As reward for their rescue, Dalinar promotes the entirety of Bridge Four – Kaladin’s men – to royal bodyguards with Kaladin as their Captain. Kaladin’s hands are full: protect Dalinar’s family, which now includes a love interest for the Highprince, protect the new Alethi king, Gavilar’s son, Elhokar, train his men to become true soldiers, and learn more about his newfound powers… like how to use them and what they mean.
Shallan: the aspiring scholar was nearly dismissed by her mentor, the great Jasnah Kholin, when her intended theft of Jasnah’s prized soulcaster was discovered. Shallan convinced Jasnah to give her another chance, and the two are now sailing for the Shattered Plains and the heart of the Alethi war against the Parshendi. The women fear that a great cataclysm is imminent, and the only way to stop it is to find the mythical city of Urithiru… but when disaster strikes, Shallan finds herself alone on the quest with nothing but a talking line drawing along for the ride. As she makes her way to the Shattered Plains with “Pattern,” she also starts to experience new powers….
Dalinar: the Highprince still experiences visions during the devastating highstorms that ravage his land, but he has worked himself into a new position of power, and he means to see all of the Alethi kingdoms united and strong. He also means to end this war against the Parshendi. Now. Of course, challenges loom around every corner – he has been tasked, by a god no less, to refound the Knights Radiant, an order of supernatural warriors that betrayed mankind thousands of years ago… and the other Highprinces, including Torol Sadeas, who betrayed Dalinar and left him to die in the battle against the Parshendi, are against him; his visions have started indicating that a destructive cataclysm is coming in just a few weeks; and to top it all off, the assassin that murdered his brother is now after him too.
These three paths intersect and collide in the most astounding of ways, as do the destinies of the other characters, such as Dalinar’s son, Adolin, the slimy Highprince Sadeas, and Kaladin’s men from Bridge Four.
It’s just incredible.
This book is like stepping into a whole other world. A world rich in history and mythology, where supernatural powers and power-fueled implements are as real as technology. It becomes natural for the characters to have shardblades, shard plate, and to use stormlight as the source of their powers. And scribes communicate with magical pens. And little wisps of cognition, called spren, can walk, talk, and guide you in the exploration of your new powers.
It is a world where characters are complicated, imperfect, and still relatable. Romance blossoms in this book – Jasnah as a way to save Shallan’s family from total destruction has her betrothed to Dalinar’s son (and her cousin), Adolin. When Shallan and Adolin finally meet, their courtship is very real, with all the bumps and knocks that come with two people trying to get to know each other.
And there are the character’s back stories. In Kings, we read about Kaladin’s past, and what brought him to slavery. In Radiance, it is Shallan, and the story of what brought her family to the brink of destruction. These backgrounds not only add suspense to the books, but they just add more layers to these incredible characters. I feel like I know Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar as well as I know my best friends.
So yes, how am I going to wait until Book 3??
Dates Read: April 12 – May 9
It is a world of endless war and destructive storms. A world where your place in the social structure is determined by eye color; men aspire to be soldiers; and women are relegated to the pursuit of feminine arts like scholarship, music, and literature. A world abandoned thousands of years ago by a powerful sect of warriors known as the Heralds, who left behind their otherworldly plates of armor and broadswords; today, these weapons – known as shardplate and shardblades respectively – are coveted for their abilities to transform the owner into superhuman fighters. A world preparing for a cataclysmic disaster and trying to understand its past.
It is Roshar, and in the midst of the storm-washed, stone-shattered landscape, we are introduced to three remarkable and unforgettable characters:
Kaladin – a former soldier and surgeon-in-training who has been sold into slavery. He finds himself on the frontlines of the war to avenge the assassination of the king, where he is assigned the suicidal role of bridge runner – literally carrying the army’s bridges from battle to battle. As Kaladin struggles to survive, and keep his fellow bridge runners alive, he also struggles to find the soldier he used to be…
Shallan – an aspiring scholar whose father’s death has left her family on the brink of downfall. To save her brothers, she undertakes a daring and risky plan: apprentice herself to the leading scholar of the age so she can steal that scholar’s most prized treasure – a soulcaster, or magic tool that can transform substances. But when Shallan finds herself so close to achieving her lifelong dream of becoming a renowned scholar, can she go through with her intended theft?
Dalinar – an aging general whose brother is the assassinated king, Gavilar, and whose nephew now rules the fragmented kingdom, Alethkar. Dalinar advises the young king as they fight the War of Vengeance against the race of beings that claimed responsibility for the assassination. But when Dalinar starts having vivid and realistic visions during the devastating highstorms, he starts to question his role in the war, and what he can do to bring peace to the shattered kingdoms…
These three incredible characters are each on their own journey across the storm-swept landscape, but their fates are intertwined in this spectacular novel – the first in a series of ten – by one of my new favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson. I was first introduced to Sanderson when I picked up The Rithmatist from a cruise ship’s library, and I was so astounded by his creative genius that I knew I had to read more of his work.
I am completely speechless now.
How can I even start to capture all of the amazing features that are this book? The landscape; the characters; the mythology; the fantasy; the writing; everything. Everything was incredible in this novel. If it was possible to create a perfect book, then Sanderson created it.
But what I loved most? My complete immersion in the world of Roshar. Every time I opened the book and started to read, I was a part of it. I wasn’t in my bedroom or sprawled on my couch, reading. I was there, feeling everything the characters felt as they traveled on their journeys towards their destinies; I experienced their wanderings and their wonderings – as they tried to understand their worlds and their places in them, as they grappled with the decisions they made, I was with them; asking myself the same questions and grappling with my own decisions.
It is a true genius to create that kind of world. To reach out and touch the reader in such a personal way. Sanderson is a true genius. And I can’t wait to read everything he has ever written.
Dates Attempted: April 7 – April 12, 2014
I give up.
I gave it my all. I made it to page 243 and everything, but I just can’t stick with this one. So I’m throwing up the white flag. I surrender. Guess I’m never going to find out what happens to Thomas and his crew of Gladers.
And the sad thing? I don’t care. That’s how poorly this book was written. It is the second in The Maze Runner trilogy, so it picks up right where Book 1 left off. Thomas and his motley assortment of fellow Gladers have made it back to planet Earth, where they quickly learn the planet has been decimated by a series of powerful solar flares. Millions of people are dead. Most of the globe is uninhabitable. And if that’s not enough, the CDC (or “some disease agency” as one of the character states) released a deadly virus that is plaguing most of the world’s survivors. Thanks to its release at the same time as the solar flare disaster, the virus is called the Flare.
Within moments of their arrival, Thomas and his fellow Gladers also learn they are part of an experiment coordinated by the “government” in place, and the Maze was only part one. Now, they get to survive part two: the scorch trials, which entails walking across 100 miles of barren wasteland to reach a safe haven, where, oh yeah, they can get the cure for the Flare. Turns out all the Gladers are infected with it.
As awkward as all this sounds, I was intrigued. I personally love post-apocalyptica so I’m all for a destroyed planet and a band of battle-toughened survivors any day … regardless of what caused the destruction of the planet. But the issue I had with Book 1 is magnified ten-fold in Book 2.
I’m sorry to say this but I just can’t get behind the way Dashner expresses his characters’ emotions. I can’t stand the way Thomas gets pissed at (new character) Brenda when she reveals a secret she had been keeping from him, and literally three pages later, says to himself, “she’d gained his trust,” (p. 209). Then you jump ahead to page 217 and it’s “he wanted to trust her.” Come on. The guy trusts her or he doesn’t. Pick one and stick to it until Brenda does something to violate or gain the trust.
And the whole book is like this. Thomas loves Theresa. Thomas loves Brenda. Thomas loves Theresa. Thomas loves Brenda. This isn’t a case of the guy not being able to figure out which girl he wants. This is a case of on page 5, he’s in love with Theresa, and on page 10, he’s in love with Brenda. I can see that Dashner is trying to create a complicated situation: Thomas loves Theresa, his mind-talking girlfriend from Book 1, but he is also drawn to Flare-infected Brenda. The problem is the writing is so muddled and so weak that Dashner isn’t actually creating that situation. It literally comes across like Thomas is schizophrenic and one day he’s devoted to Theresa; the next to Brenda.
And with all this muddled mess, there has been no development of these characters. The Thomas that woke up in the elevator on the first page of The Maze Runner is the same Thomas that I quit following on page 243 of The Scorch Trials. Considering everything this guy has gone through, you would think that he would develop emotionally. But nope.
So sorry. I’m not even going to bother with Book three. Here’s hoping the movies are better though.
Dates Read: March 30 – April 7, 2014
First, there was vampire romance. Now, there is survival in dystopian future. I have to admit – I like the second YA theme MUCH better than the first.
Another great read in this hot trend of post-apocalyptic literature: The Maze Runner is the first in a series (as is custom in this genre) about young Thomas, a 16-year-old-ish survivor who wakes up in an elevator with no memory of his life before that day. All he can remember is his first name. Thomas. Elevator stops. Thomas gets out. And he is in the Glade, a pastoral environment populated entirely by other 16-year-old-ish survivor boys who all have the same affliction: no memory of their lives before they too woke up in the elevator.
Turns out the Glade is surrounded by a giant maze, and every day, select survivors from this pool of 16-year-old-ish boys head out into the wilds of it to try and find an exit. They are the Runners. And though Thomas himself cannot explain it, he wants to be a Runner too. But wait. The Maze changes every night – the walls shift and new routes are established every day. And there are giant, bulbous, half-slug / half-machine killer monsters called Grievers that also roam through the Maze too. Don’t want to run into those guys. It gets nasty.
So, here Thomas finds himself plunked down into this surreal landscape with these hideous monsters and a handful of young survivors who have no idea why they are there or what is going on. They all just have one goal: find a solution to the Maze and get out. Then things take a turn for the super weird when the day after Thomas’ arrival in the Glade, the elevator brings up another young survivor. Only this time it’s a girl. The first girl that has ever arrived in the Glade as far back as any of the boys can remember. And she blurts out “everything is about to change.” Uh oh.
And off we go on our wild adventure. I have to admit I enjoyed the ride. Very unique premise – as the mysteries unfold, I found myself plowing through since the reveal of one mystery only led to more that needed solving. And the “twist” at the end was a stroke of creative genius. I enjoyed the characters, especially Thomas, Minho, Newt, and Chuck, and my heart palpitated a few times as they found themselves staring death straight in the eye. I was rooting for them.
The only critique I really have is Dashner’s attempt to inject emotion into the story. I sometimes wondered if, as he was writing, he suddenly thought to himself that he needed to make sure Thomas’ emotions were clear. So he would drop in random lines about Thomas being pissed, or scared, or sad, or what-have-you. Problem I had: these random lines of text were a bit jarring, and they distracted me from what was happening. I could understand Thomas’ emotions just fine without the added text. I also found it hard to believe that this kid vacillated so frequently and so widely in his emotional-spectrum in such short bursts of time. I don’t know how many times I read that Thomas was terrified in one paragraph and then at peace in the next even though his situation had not changed. I know there is the possibility of experiencing a host of different emotions at one time, but that seemed to happen an awful lot to Thomas. Kid is gonna need massive therapy to cope with all that shifting emotion. Forget about the Grievers and the Glade and the Maze and all that other stuff.
But that critique aside, this was an excellent piece of fiction, and I’m definitely heading straight on into Book 2 to continue the story. What happens next??
Dates Read: March 25 – March 30, 2014
I could be a bit of a dim-watt bulb but I had a difficult time following the mythology of this one. And as is becoming my tired and overused mantra: I didn’t feel overly connected to the characters.
The Line is the first book in a series of novels about families of witches that are tasked with protecting “The Line” — what sounds like a barrier between the human world and an alternate dimension ruled by the very demons that use to rule this one, but found themselves exiled by ancestors of these witching families. Enter Mercy, a fraternal twin born into the powerful Line-guarding Taylor Family, who appears to have no magical abilities of her own, and is perfectly comfortable hiding in her twin sister, Maisie’s, shadow. Shortly after the book begins, the matriarch of the Taylor family is found brutally murdered, and everyone prepares for Maisie to take over as “The Anchor” — or the representative of the family whose sole job is to continue protecting The Line.
Mercy doesn’t have much to do initially except pine away hopelessly for her sister’s boyfriend and fend off the romantic advances of her best friend, Peter, until the witch families come together for the ceremony that officially determines the next anchor. When powerless Mercy draws the lot, things go haywire.
Sounds very interesting, and in theory it should be, but I couldn’t quite get on board because a) as I mentioned above, there is a lot of mythology in this book – a lot of hows and whys – that I couldn’t quite make sense of, like this idea of non-witches harnessing witch’s powers, and these creatures called “boo hags” or “shadows.” And b) there are characters here that seem superfluous – like Mother Jilo? What purpose does she serve? – and other characters that should be more interesting but just aren’t because they aren’t developed enough, like many of Mercy and Maisie’s aunts and uncles.
When the big reveals start coming at the end of the book, like who killed Taylor Matriarch Ginny, I couldn’t bring myself to care because I didn’t care about the characters doing the revealing. In fact, one of the few characters that was interesting, and in my opinion, nicely developed, was Wren, the “imaginary friend” created by one of said Taylor uncles, who grew strong enough to become a manifested being. I thought that idea was interesting.
But on the whole, I am going to find it difficult to muster the motivation to read the next book in the series. I didn’t care enough about the characters in this one… about the only thing that would get me to pick up The Source is a hope that the mythology of this universe is explained in more detail. Like the climactic events of this novel? What the hey-yo was going on??
Dates Read: March 15 – March 25, 2014
I treasure these gems. Books that are so creative and unique in their story, in their characters, and in the world they create. I am lucky to have read two such fabulous books in a row – with this delight, The Golem and the Jinni being the second.
The story follows the lives of two “mythical” creatures: a golem and a jinni who both find themselves in early 20th century New York City. Golems are human-like beings fashioned from clay, built by human (or wizard) hands, and are designed to live as a servant to one master. The Golem in this novel, who later takes the name Chava, is commissioned by a ruined business man looking for a bride, who smuggles her aboard a steamship bound for New York. When the master dies from appendicitis at sea, the Golem is left adrift and unsure … Golems are made to be slaves. Without a master, what is she to do?
Cut to the jinni, who has been trapped inside a copper flask for thousands of years, and is suddenly freed from said flask by an unsuspecting tinsmith living in New York. Jinnis are powerful creatures, made of fire, and fiercely free and independent. This Jinni (who later takes the name Ahmad) has no recollection of being confined to the flask or why, and he is livid to find that he is trapped in a human form, bound to a master he does not know or remember.
As these two struggle to pass for human in the wilds of Progressive Era New York, their paths ultimately cross and an unlikely friendship is born.
It is an incredible friendship – one made all the more poignant by Wecker’s superb talent – and not just because you have put together two “people” who couldn’t be more different, but also because you have put together two people in a reality that feels so real. I have read other novels that try to incorporate elements of magic into everyday reality, and sometimes, they just don’t pull it off. It feels tried. It doesn’t feel believable. Not so with Wecker’s book. The mythology behind the golem and the jinni, and the magic associated with them, feels as real in this novel as the noise and pollution of an early 20th century city.
And what a cast of characters! Wecker brings all of them to vivid life, from the Golem and the Jinni themselves to all the secondary figures that are affected by their actions and decisions – the young heiress the Jinni seduces and impregnates; the social worker who falls in love with the Golem; the Golem’s “best friend” she meets at a bakery; and the ice cream man, who has had a run-in with mythical creatures in his past. It felt so real and so true, that I expect to look over my shoulder and see a “Jinni” walk by any second now!
But I think the best part – the underlying moral I retrieved from this incredible novel – is the lesson of figuring out who you are and what place you have in the world. These are two creatures who are not of the human world, but have now found themselves plunked right down into the middle of it. How many of us have wondered: where do I fit? What role can I play? And, most important of all, what can I do that makes me happy? I loved that most about this book: watching both the Golem and the Jinni try to navigate those questions, and watching the two most unlikely friends try to navigate them together.
Dates Read: March 12 – March 13, 2014
I have just finished the final chapter of one of the most creative novels I think I have ever read. I spent this entire book jaw-droppingly wowed by the imagination that went into building this alternate reality, and into crafting this intricate and complex storyline.
The Rithmatist is ultimately the story of Joel, a 16-year-old student who aspires to be a Rithmatics scholar, and his journey to solve a mystery and find his place in his world. That doesn’t sound too creative initially, but it is Joel’s world and this whole concept of Rithmatics that are truly astounding. What is Rithmatics? It is an alternate technology: chalk drawings that contain magical properties. There are different kinds of chalklings – as these chalk drawings are called – including little figures that can fight battles, and defensive structures that can protect the warriors who fight with Rithmatics (called Rithmatists), and symbols that can exert a force on others nearby. Think of it like drawing a symbol on the ground, and by being close to that symbol, you are now subject to its power. Or you draw a lion on the ground, and your drawing comes to life. Not as a 3-dimensional lion; just the 2-dimensional drawing you have created. This is a rudimentary description that really doesn’t do the concept justice because Sanderson has created an entire world, an entire mythology, around this idea, which is so real to you as the reader.
In this alternate world where we meet Joel, the United States of America is not one continuous continent, but a series of 60 different islands, and several hundred years before the events of the book, humans found themselves battling evil chalkling figures, which they managed to trap in a tower on one of the United Isles’ islands – Nebrask. Now, students attend special academies, where they are trained to become Rithmatists, or the warriors who fight with Rithmatics. When they graduate, the students complete a term of service, protecting the United Isles by keeping the evil chalklings confined to their tower.
Our young hero had wanted to be a Rithmatist, but they are chosen at the age of 8 in a complicated ceremony, and Joel well … not to give away any plot points or spoilers in the story, let’s just say his ceremony did not go as they are designed to go. Now, Joel is a student at the academy, but he watches Rithmatists in training from afar, studying the theory and philosophy behind this science surreptitiously in the hopes that one day he can become, at the very least, a scholar in the field. When Rithmatist students at the school start disappearing, leaving behind clues indicating that a fellow Rithmatist is kidnapping them, Joel teams up with a Rithmatics professor and a Rithmatist student, Melody, to get to the bottom of it.
Again, that is just a rudimentary description. Sanderson’s brilliant novel is crafted so intricately, and the plot has so many interweaving threads, that trying to sum it up in a paragraph or two is like trying to take a picture of the Pacific Ocean. It just can’t be done properly. Suffice it to say that Sanderson has created an entire world you can get lost in, with characters that you love and loathe, like the adorably annoying Melody or the sinister Professor Nalizar, and if anyone can make you believe that it is possible to draw a unicorn on the ground with chalk, and that chalk drawing will come to life, it is Sanderson.
Just a brilliant, brilliant novel. One that also touches on themes that ring so true even for those of us who don’t live in a world with chalklings, like the importance of education and the effect teachers can have on our lives. It is poignant to watch Joel’s relationship with Professor Fitch develop, and to see how two people who have each lost something, can rebuild their faith through each other. It also touches on the theme that we all have a talent – we are all good at something – even if that talent isn’t always obvious or doesn’t seem like it is something that can do any good.
So even with chalk drawings that come to life, The Rithmatist, is really a book about the power of faith and believing in yourself.
Great job, Sanderson. Can’t wait for the sequel!
C. J. Omololu
Dates Read: March 11 – March 12, 2014
Awww … another one of these novels that falls into your lap at the right moment in time. I admit that I am the type who turns to books for answers to those existential and universal questions, which is not always the brightest idea, but it brings me some measure of comfort nonetheless.
It’s probably more the connection I have with the characters in these books facing similar dilemmas or questions I am facing at the same time, then actually finding any answers. It helps to watch someone else wander through those tunnels of self-exploration, even if that “someone else” is a fictional character.
But enough of that philosophical blabber. Transcendence is the story of Cole Ryan, a teenaged cello prodigy that discovers she is Akhet – a rare individual who has the ability to remember past lives. She first discovers this talent on a visit to London, when a tour through the Tower of London prompts vivid visions of Cole as a young noblewoman who is executed outside the Tower in the 1500s. The visions are so intense that Cole faints … into the waiting arms of deliciously hot hero, Griffon Hall, of course. Turns out Griffon is Akhet too, and has been for a while, so he makes it his personal mission to help Cole accept, understand, and embrace this new ability.
Do I need to say romance here?
Or the fact that Cole’s new abilities also come with danger? Turns out that a woman she may have murdered in a previous life is also back and out to exact revenge. So, we sit on the edge of our seats as Cole and Griffon fall in love AND try to battle an evil “essence” (or what they call the soul that passes from body to body and life to life) set on destroying them.
I see Hollywood blockbuster here.
And the book was fabulous. As I have mentioned in previous reviews, I enjoy YA novels that feature strong and independent heroines. Although Cole and Griffon are falling in love, and Cole finds herself increasingly drawn to him, she still retains an element of her own self: mostly seen through her love for the cello. As Cole works her way through the blossoming memories of her previous lives, she learns that she was a cello prodigy in a previous life, and that her talent has come with her to this one. The cello, as she admits herself, is her one great passion. She feels like she can’t live without it, and as not seen with most 16-year-olds, she dedicates all of her spare time to it (to the chagrin of her best friend, Rayne, who is a refreshing sidekick). It was this passion – this dedication to a singular aspect of Cole’s life – that resonated the most with me. Especially when Cole starts to question the “truth” of that passion. She grows to believe that her Akhet status has somehow made her a cheater – because she knew how to play the cello before she was born into this life, then she is not a true cello prodigy.
And while I don’t question any of my extensive talents or where they came from (ha!), I can understand the journey that Cole is taking to understand what this change in her life means. I introspect a lot – probably far more than is necessary – but I do think a lot about the direction to take my life. What I want to do with my life is a question I know we all face, and I have found my path, but how far can I throw myself onto that path? How can I make it feel as rewarding and fulfilling as I want it to feel? That is my question now as I read this book. I love where I’m headed, and I want to make sure I keep going that way. And I know I will – but I want to make sure that I am experiencing it as much as I can. Cole isn’t facing quite the same questions, but the questions she faces about her future, resonate with another who is also thinking about the future.
So, on the whole, an excellent work. I enjoyed Omololu’s writing style, and her characters felt very real. Griffon is an admirable hero, one I can get behind and root for like Peeta from The Hunger Games trilogy or Four from the Divergent series. He’s got his head on straight, and he understands that women are not perfect in reality, but perfect in how they, as the hero, view them. That felt very vivid in Transcendence, and I would recommend this book for that reason alone. Ladies—you do not have to be perfect for the perfect guy to think you are. However, I think that Cole’s passion for the cello – her life connected to something so different than what you can find in other young adult heroines – is refreshing, and a great inspiration for young readers.
Dates Read: March 7 – March 10, 2014
Sometimes, it’s all about an escape from reality. A good book, like a good movie, does not need to have a deeper purpose or meaning. It does not need to bring up questions about life and existence and our purpose here.
Sometimes it can just be a fun ride through the tunnels of imagination.
And that is what I think of when I reflect on Relic Master, Part 1, which is actually two books combined into one volume: The Dark City and The Lost Heiress. Now, if you take a look at titles like The Dark City and The Lost Heiress, and you think you’re going to be diving into something with the depth of Schindler’s List, well … I don’t know what to tell you.
As for me, I did not expect much. And I got a fun ride out of it. Relic Master is the first in at least a 2-volume series about Galen Harn, a relic master, or keeper of ancient artifacts that hold extraordinary powers, and his 16-year-old pupil and apprentice, Raffi. In their world, Galen and Raffi used to be part of The Order, a type of government that has been destroyed and replaced by The Watch, evil warlords and soldiers who definitely form your prototypical military society. Galen and Raffi, always on the run from The Watch, whose main purpose seems to be destroying any remnants of the old Order, are searching for a way to restore Galen’s powers to him – powers he lost in an accident before the book’s opening – and, along the way, assimilate a crew of unusual sidekicks: first, the Sekoi, a cat-like creature with a penchant for gold and immersive storytelling, and second, Carys Arrin, a Watch soldier in training who was sent by her superiors to capture Galen.
Adventures abound as this unusual cotillion of heroes works their way towards the ancient city of Tasceron, where their world was founded and many relics belonging to their deities are rumored to lie hidden. And among the usual arrows, swords, and ambushes, the heroes have to fight against their own personal issues with trust, loyalty, and faith along the way.
As I said, a fun ride. I was especially impressed with Fisher’s imagination and her use of mystery. It is pretty obvious from the get-go that these relics Galen and Raffi are charged with protecting are old pieces of technology – at one point she describes a “device” that is surely a digital wrist watch – so while the premise of the story sounds like fantasy, there is a question: is this science fiction? Is Anara, the world in which Galen, Raffi, the Sekoi, and Carys inhabit, an off-shoot of Earth? And if so, what happened here? The characters refer to their gods as The Makers, and they believe the Makers created Anara and then left, taking the knowledge of creation with them. Hence the question of faith the characters all face in their own way: what do you believe about the reality of your world? Galen and Raffi believe the Makers are gods; Carys believes it’s all hogwash. And there are just enough crumbs dropped in this first volume to let you, as the reader know, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
If, as I suspect is the case, Anara is a colony established by humans in the years of super-advanced technology (in a time when chips and machines can be implanted in your brain that enhance your abilities and give you “powers”), then Fisher has done a superb job setting that up as the big reveal. And I think it is highly creative as well. Not a world that coincides alongside our own, as in the Harry Potter novels, but a world that exists long after our own and in such a way as to form its own mythology and reality around itself.
I love it!
Dates Read: March 6, 2014
When we are babies … we need an authoritative figure to guide and take care of us. We ask no questions about that authority and imagine that the small circumference of our family life is the limit of the universe and that what we see before us is what exists everywhere and also that it is all as it should be. As we mature, our horizon expands and we begin to question. This continues until we either throw over our creators – our parents – for good and take their place as the creative force in our own lives or find replacements for them because the terror and responsibility are too great. People go one way or the other, and this accounts for all of the great personal and political divides throughout history.
Sometimes a book falls into your lap at the right moment. I believe firmly in the magic of books, and the transformative power of good writing, which is why I read as much as I do, and write about what I read. But I also believe the line between a good book and an amazing book can be defined by what is going on in your own life at the time you are reading said book.
I am writing this review in the midst of an ocean-going adventure – I’m on a cruise around Cape Horn – and I could think of no place more appropriate to read a book about a shipwreck and the subsequent horrors for survivors in a lifeboat than now. Much better than the non-fiction anthology, Disasters at Sea, which I read when I was on a cruise in 2007.
But anyway, I know that part of why The Lifeboat resonated with me in the way it did is because I am on this cruise, because I have been pushing myself outside my comfort zone on this cruise, and, yes, going on adventures on this cruise. The main character in Rogan’s superb work, Grace Winter, is also on an adventure … of a different sort, mind you, but an adventure still. Reading the tribulations of Grace, as she tries to survive 21 days in a lifeboat after her ship catches fire and sinks, is obviously not akin to my own experiences, but since the book is more about the psychological power of survival versus the physical, then in that way it is.
Grace is newly married, and she and her husband are traveling aboard the Empress Alexandra when a fire breaks out and the passengers are forced to take to the lifeboats. Grace finds herself in a boat with 38 other survivors, including one of the ship’s crew members, and thus the adventure truly starts. The 39 survivors try to stay alive, and cope with their situation in fascinating and complex psychological ways. There is the harried crew member, who takes a tyrannical and dictatorial stance since he has the oceangoing experience and he knows what he is doing, and there is the small contingent of anti-crew-member survivors, led by one of the ship’s 1st class female passengers, who plot and scheme to remove the crew member from his position of power. Grace finds herself caught in the middle: she is grateful to the crew member for saving her life, but as her own psyche weakens in the struggle to survive, she starts to question what is right and wrong. She starts to question the existence of God. And she starts to question her role in the developing hierarchy of the lifeboat.
It is a fascinating psychological read, to say the least. First, there is the question of how Grace came to be in the lifeboat in the first place. In the trauma of the fire, she doesn’t remember herself, but one of her fellow survivors, with whom she bonds in a rather unconventional way, claims through most of the book that Grace’s late husband “bought her place in the lifeboat” with family jewels. Then there is the question of Grace’s relationship with her fellow survivors. As she herself admits, she is captivated in a way with the crew member because she attributes her survival to his skill as a leader. But she is also intrigued by the anti-crew-member faction, and comes to believe as they do: that the officer is the reason they have not been rescued … that he is hoarding food and water … and if they are to survive, then he must go.
And then there is the character of Grace herself. A survivor, no doubt, who married her husband because he saved her from an ultimate fate of life as a governess … but whom she loves nonetheless. And she is one who can face the harsh realities of the situation in front of her. As the book develops, the question of who survives and who dies comes up again and again, and Grace faces the reality with a deliberate and methodical certainty: for some to live, some must die. She accepts it and understands it.
But ultimately, the part that remains with me even to this moment is that Grace viewed her 21 days in the lifeboat as an adventure, and after she is rescued (which believe me, is not a spoiler alert since the book opens with Grace walking to an unidentified courthouse with her lawyers for her trial. The charge shall remain unnamed since that is a spoiler alert, but trust me – you know from page 1 that Grace is rescued), her life can start fresh. It can start anew. Will she have that chance is also a spoiler alert, which I will not reveal, but I personally responded to this idea: life is a series of adventures – when one adventures ends, a new one can begin.
Thank you, Charlotte Rogan, for crafting your novel around that idea.
Since I have been thinking a lot about my own personal adventures as of late, I am probably slightly biased in writing this review, but I do believe that Rogan crafted a superb novel. I love how the work was formatted – you learn right from the get-go that Grace survived the lifeboat so the question is not if, but how … and Rogan returns enough to the “present day” (i.e., after the rescue) to make you wonder why on earth, after surviving 21 days in a lifeboat, Grace is on trial. Beautifully, beautifully crafted. What could easily become disjointed plot points flow together like water, and that takes a very skilled writer indeed, regardless of the perception of the reader.
But I thank you again, Charlotte Rogan. Your book has led me on a quest. A quest to find the adventure in everything I do. Thank you. Thank you for opening that world to me.
Dates Read: February 28 – March 5
This is one of those novels that I plowed through in a few days because I was so hungry for the story, but how much will I remember of it? Well, considering that I can’t clearly remember parts of it mere moments after finishing the book does not bode well. The writing was amazing – Martin is very talented with her word-smithing – but the story left me wanting.
The mystery of the Mary Celeste is ripe for an amazing novel. Heck, just the story of that ill-fated voyage is a book in and of itself. The ship was found abandoned and derelict in the waters off the Azores in November 1872. Her small crew and contingent of passengers (numbering somewhere around 13 in total if I recall correctly) were nowhere to be found, although the crew of what became the salvage ship found personal belongings, navigation equipment, and necessary survival supplies like food and water left behind. The ship’s only lifeboat was missing, leading the investigative team to believe the crew and passengers had abandoned the ship, possibly with the intention of returning at some point (since they appeared to have taken no supplies with them). However, no trace of the crew or passengers or that missing lifeboat were ever found. So whatever happened to the people aboard the Mary Celeste, which did include the ship’s captain, Benjamin Briggs, his wife, and their young daughter, remains one of maritime history’s greatest mysteries.
In the novel, the story begins several years before the Mary Celeste’s departure on her ill-fated journey, introducing us to Sarah “Sallie” Cobb, her sister, Hannah, and their cousin, young Benjamin Briggs. After an opening chapter that details the death of Benjamin’s older sister and her husband in a shipwreck at sea – an opening, I should mention, that doesn’t seem to connect to the rest of the story outside of the relationship between Benjamin and the woman who died – the novel shifts to the perspective of Sallie, and recounts her courtship with Benjamin and her sister’s insistence that she communicates with the dead.
An interesting plot line to be sure, but again: the sister’s communications with the dead seems to go nowhere. I could discern no reason to include a character that communes with the dead anyway. Especially since the “Hannah” character disappears in the second half of the book – which fast forwards to about 10 years after the Mary Celeste disaster – and reappears in the character of Violet Petra, a respected medium who travels around the world communing with dead people. She doesn’t communicate with anyone from the Mary Celeste disaster, or anyone even remotely connected to the Mary Celeste disaster, so what’s the point here? The only connection she has to the Mary Celeste is that her sister was on it, and she disappeared. And that connection is never made explicitly clear by the way, nor does it connect to the story.
And this disjointed approach continues. A main character in the book is the Sherlock Holmes author, Arthur Conan Doyle, who apparently makes his literary breakthrough when he writes a fictional short story: a statement of the Mary Celeste disaster from a recently identified survivor. Okayyy … and what’s the point of this?
If there was one, I couldn’t find it.
And the entire novel continues that way. The final chapters are the most interesting in that they return to the final days aboard the ship on that ill-fated voyage, but as you would expect, the novel ends without providing any solution. Or resolution. You are left with essentially three separate stories that had no end, and no real connection to each other either.
And there are so many things that Martin could have done with this story that would have made it all the more interesting. She could have written a fictional narrative of the Briggs family. They are legendary in the annals of shipwreck history because something like 6 out of the 7 boys died in disasters at sea. She could have written about Sallie and Benjamin, and told their story up to the disaster… throwing in a few ghostly premonitions or what have you to build the suspense. Or if she wanted to go the ghost route, she could have focused on Hannah / Violet Petra, and connected her to the Mary Celeste disaster in a more tangible way. It was the inclusion of all these nuggets, all of which went nowhere, that did this book in for me.
But like I said, the writing is fantastic. I love reading period books told from the perspectives of the characters, and the author writes with the style of the period. So proper. So formal. It makes me feel all the more erudite in my own speaking. And the story nuggets themselves were fascinating – I kept reading because I wanted to find out what happened. I wanted to know how these 3 seemingly unrelated stories were connected. And Martin could have done that without answering the ultimate question: what really happened to the crew and passengers of the Mary Celeste? It’s the fact these story nuggets died untimely and pointless deaths that makes their deaths so difficult.
So much potential. So little fruit.
Dates Read: February 26 – February 28
This is one of those rare gems, a book so engrossing and so captivating and so haunting, that I had no choice but to plow right on through it in a couple of days. And I relished every moment I spent with it.
The Winter People has everything you need in an excellent book: a unique and thoughtful storyline, crisp and clear writing, gripping and suspenseful plot structure, relatable and believable characters. I can’t say it enough: this was an excellent work. Will I read more books by McMahon? You bet.
Billed as a ghost story, The Winter People is so much more than scary shadows, flashes of movement, or things that go bump in the night. In fact, it doesn’t have any of that stuff in it. The novel follows the stories of two women: Sara Harrison Shea, a young mother living in 1908 Vermont, who loses her beloved daughter, Gertie, in a violent accident, and Ruthie Washburn, a modern-day teenager living in the same house Sara Shea occupied 100 years before, who comes home one night to find her mother has gone missing. As these two stories unfold, we are introduced to the sleepers: the dead who are brought back to life, and who can wander the earth again for 7 days before they disappear forever. When Sara tries to bring her precious Gertie back, there are devastating consequences that reach across the years, resonating in Ruthie’s own time.
The plot sounds like something that has been done a thousand times before (and I know I have read books myself that have the same basic idea: loved one dies, loved one is brought back, loved one is not the same person who died, bad things happen, loved one dies all over again), but the way this novel was structured brought a unique spin to this plot concept. We follow both Sara and Ruthie, as well as Sara’s husband, Martin, and a seemingly innocuous secondary character, Katherine, whose own husband, Gary has died in a car accident, and who, in an attempt to find out what happened to him on the day he died, is pulled into the mystery of Ruthie’s missing mother. This shifting POV structure (each chapter is told from a character’s perspective) added to the suspense of the novel because, as is so often the case, each character only has so many pieces of the story, and it is at the end of the book that all the threads tie together.
Even more so, however, are the characters themselves. They are believable. They are relatable. They are all tragic too, and I found myself flabbergasted that these characters could keep going with everything they suffered. Sara lost her daughter Gertie but she had also lost a son several years before in infancy, and she had suffered several miscarriages. Ruthie lost her father (and was the one who found his body), and was facing the prospect of losing her future because her mother refused to let her attend college. Katherine lost her husband and her young son, Austin, to leukemia. When faced with shouldering this kind of tragedy, no wonder these characters turned to the idea of sleepers, to the hope that they can have even just a few moments with their lost loved ones again. Which only makes the sleepers even more tragic since they are the hopes of these devastated characters personified, and … well, let’s just say they aren’t exactly a dream come true.
In my humble opinion, it is pure magic to create that kind of world that a reader can get lost in.
I will say this though: there is a “twist” of course – a bad guy that is revealed at the end – and as far as twists go, this one was pretty weak. I thought the bad guy’s motivation for being the bad guy was pretty lame, but a bad guy was needed to tie all the loops together. I just wished McMahon had picked a different character. And a different reason.
But skip over that part, and you have what I would call, an almost perfect novel. So do I recommend this one? Do I even need to say it?
Dates Read: February 17 – February 25
I saw the movie, and I was disappointed. So what do I do? I read the book.
And I am ever glad I did – what an incredible, inspiring, and truly heartwarming read. I was completely captivated from page 1 through page 426, and I attribute it, in part anyway, to Robert Edsel’s approach and writing style.
The Monuments Men chronicles a handful of art experts’ Herculean efforts to find, protect, recover, and restore the art, cultural artifacts, archival materials, and monuments looted and / or destroyed by Nazis during World War II. It is a spectacular story in and of itself because this is a lesser known side of World War II. Similar to The King’s Speech and the struggles of King George VI, the efforts of the Monuments Men have been overshadowed by the more prominent figures and events of those horrifying years 1939 – 1945.
So first off, it is great to see their story get told.
It is also great to see their story get told by an amazing author. Edsel breaks the book down into countless vignettes, following this cast of approximately 8 main characters through their adventures in Europe. But he tells these stories with such poignancy and such liveliness that it feels like you’re right there beside them. You feel their frustration when they are stonewalled by military bureaucracy, their shock and awe at the devastation they are encountering; their anxiety at getting in there or getting the pieces out.
But what I connected with most – what I felt like Edsel did such a splendid job conveying – was their sense of purpose. For the most part, these men were museum curators, art historians, scholars, architects, and sculptors. They were not soldiers; they were not even young boys training to be soldiers. They all signed up for the gig, and they all did it because they wanted to do their part. They knew that if the world was ever going to recover from this, the most devastating and destructive of wars in known history, then the world needed its art, history, and culture. I really felt this question underlying the entire book and the Monuments Men’s role in answering it: not just how to survive today, but, if I do survive, how do I heal tomorrow?
A question which only added to the suspense of the work since Edsel does such an amazing job bringing the art and the monuments to life. It didn’t take much imagination on my part to see how the loss of these pieces could be more devastating and destructive than bullets. Maybe it’s the history buff in me, but when Edsel described the eventual destruction of the Monte Cassino monastery in Italy by Allied forces, I almost cried. When he described how the people of La Glieze rallied around their Madonna statue, I felt it. I felt the connection and peace that comes from resonating with a piece of art. I could understand and appreciate what Cate Blanchett’s character (in the movie) meant when she described art as “people’s lives.” Not because of the film, but because of Edsel’s incredible work. There is something comforting in seeing art and monument in front of you. A comfort that is demolished if that fate befalls that art or that monument.
It was a captivating book, if for no other reason than Edsel writes it like a novel. There is no wonky jargon; there is no academic writing style. It is a straightforward and simple read that pumps up and down like any great work of fiction. It is another one of those stories where you have to remind yourself that everything you’re reading is true.
Dates Read: February 2 – February 17
It is difficult for me to not compare Bernard Cornwell’s excellent The Last Kingdom to the previous book I read. Primarily because this one is so good and that one was … well, pretty disappointing.
And I found myself comparing the two as I was reading The Last Kingdom because there are similar techniques at work. Cornwell has a very straightforward and succinct writing style, and he plunks you right down in 9th century England without any real context or development. (Previous author does the same, although not 9th century England, but 17th century Bavaria) And when I say no context or development, I mean nooooo context or development. Cornwell writes like you live in 9th century England and the reality he is portraying to you is your reality.
And in previous books I have read, this tactic hasn’t always worked well for me. But it did in The Last Kingdom. And I think the main reason is the sole narrator / first person perspective of the story. Compared to the previous novel – which shall remain nameless here – the entire story of The Last Kingdom is told by Uhtred, the heir and lord who finds himself caught up in the 9th century wars between the then five English kingdoms and the Vikings. Since Uhtred is the only narrator, it became so easy to get engrossed in his story … compared again to previous novels, which had multiple storytellers, and therefore, too many perspectives to feel really attached to any of them.
And I’m not saying the multi-narrator tactic doesn’t work, but I do think more time is needed in creating a context to the individual characters so you can connect with them. I will give an example of a multi-person POV series that I think handles this just swelly: A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) by George R.R. Martin. If you don’t take the time to create that context and that connection, then why should I care about the characters or what happens to them? Just my humble $0.02.
I was also surprised to see how much I enjoyed Uhtred’s cursory and simple description of the events in his life. It is his story after all, so it was refreshing to read through and see which moments meant more to him as a character than others. And they were surprising selections. I reached certain passages and thought they would drag on for days, but nope. Uhtred plows through them in a couple of pages … and others that would have seemed insignificant, but Cornwell spends more time describing them through the eyes of Uhtred than it would feel, at least initially, is necessary. As the story will prove, those longer passages do connect to later moments in the novel, but it still felt new and innovative to get so lost in a character’s personality.
So yes, I did compare this book to the previous one I read. Because it felt good to connect with that character, to get lost in his story, to see his world through his eyes, and to feel his emotions at his level. And both novels were set in violent and exciting time periods in history – but thanks to my immersion in Uhtred, I felt the world he was living in far more than 17th century Bavaria…
Dates Read: January 28 – February 1
It’s always a little disheartening to finish a book like this. I don’t mean a book with this kind of macabre storyline, but a book that had so much potential and really failed to live up to it. This could have been an absolutely amazing work. It had a unique premise for one. The novel chronicles two seemingly unrelated stories – a) the weeks leading up to the arrest of the sadistic and murderous Countess Erzesbet Bathory in December 1610 and, b) the unlikely partnership between a modern-day Jungian psychotherapist and her “Goth” patient who unwillingly come together to help find the therapist’s missing mother. They shouldn’t be connected at all, but as each story unfolds, it is revealed they are related in multiple ways.
But here is fault one in the book: the storyline tries to be more deep than the finished novel actually turns out to be. There are threads of connection, strings of depth, that basically flutter away, and are never fully enveloped. Such as this concept of a Taltos, personified in the 17th century story through the character of Janos, Countess Bathory’s “horsemaster.” This mythical idea is never really explained, nor is it ever really embraced. Snippets are included, but they are done in such a way as to leave the reader (or me anyway) feeling like they are useless tangents. I’m guessing that Lafferty tried to be mysterious or tried to lead the reader to his / her own conclusions, but all I felt like it did was detract from the main story. There didn’t seem to be any point …
On the reverse, Lafferty also spends alot of time “harping” on certain themes that makes one think this particular concept is even more significant than the others. But I was left feeling like, “okay, got it. This is x, y, and z. Now, what’s the point?” Especially since said theme doesn’t become part of some big reveal. Example? The continued return to main character Daisy Hart’s gothness. It comes up over and over again that modern-day, angst-ridden teen, Daisy Hart, patient to main character Dr. Betsy Path, is a goth. Everyone Daisy encounters in the book is so fascinated by seeing her dressed as a goth, they have to bring it up some way or another. Everyone. Including a clerk in a hotel. Daisy has to keep identifying herself as a goth. And guess what? Spoiler alert: this goth thing goes nowhere. It’s not like the fact that Daisy self-identifies as goth leads to some ultimate reveal in the story. Instead, it feels like Lafferty was trying to make her character complex … and all she really did was make the goth thing so redundant, I got bored reading about it.
I kept going with this one though (as compared to my last review on Bellman and Black which bored me so quickly, I put it down after 36 pages) because I did want to see how it all turned out. And Countess Bathory, for all her sadism and cruelty, is a fascinating historical figure. Which, sigh, I think was the biggest disappointment of all. Lafferty could have made the Blood Countess a richer, deeper, more layered figure, even as the murdering psychopath that she was, and, therefore, one the reader could really hate. In my erstwhile opinion, that did not happen. On the contrary, the Countess is so far removed from me that at one point I actually wondered why the “officials” (in the form of a fellow Count and a local parish priest) wanted to arrest her so badly. Because, as Lafferty herself kept “harping” on about: most of the women the Countess killed were her servants, and the murder of a servant was not a punishable offense at the time. So, in staying true to the culture of 17th century Eastern Europe, these men shouldn’t have cared. Why did they? That is yet another thread of depth that fluttered away.
So, yes, a very disheartening read. Not because I felt sorry for the characters or was sickened by the torture or anything related to the novel at all. But because this novel could have been one of the greats, but the poor writing really did it in.
Dates Read: Attempted January 27 – 28
Yep, had to give up on this one. I thought the writing was beautiful – rich, descriptive, and evocative – but I could not get with the story. Page after page of this guy in his mill. How not exciting.
And I’m all for the character building novel, but give me a character that is getting built. All I got was an endless litany of how a clothing mill operates.
Dates Read: January 19 – January 27
Wine tasting. That is the perfect metaphor for this book. It’s like a wonderfully elegant wine tasting. In that Lavery covers so much history in a short 400 pages that all you really get is a taste from each era. If you want more, buy the bottle.
And to keep on this track: if you’re at a wine tasting, and you have the option of trying a famous red or a lesser known red, well, Lavery selected the lesser known red. His short vignettes that highlight the different eras of seafaring are, to me, the lesser known of the associated events. For example, when he gets to the Golden Age of Piracy, you don’t learn more about famous pirates like Blackbeard. Rather, Lavery highlights Raveneau de Lussan, a French pirate operating across Panama in the late 1600s. Same with the American Revolution. After a quick mention of the Boston Tea Party, Lavery moves onto the adventures of John Paul Jones and his ocean battles against the British in the latter’s home waters. Admittedly, I haven’t taken a US history class for … well, that is irrelevant, but let me say that I do not recall learning anything about American Revolution battles occurring overseas. I remember Washington crossing the Delaware and the Battle of Lexington and all that. But if I learned about John Paul Jones in History class, I have relegated that knowledge to the part of my brain that doesn’t work.
All that said, I relished being introduced to these new characters and these new historic moments. A segment I enjoyed more than I thought I would was Lavery’s vignette on modern piracy. I watched Captain Phillips and loved it (and by the way, Academy, how could you NOT nominate Tom Hanks for the Best Actor Oscar for that film???). And now that I have read about the 2010 Marida Marguerite incident, I feel a new interest brewing here. Don’t be surprised if a book on modern piracy shows up on my “currently reading” shelf soon.
I’ll wrap it up now with a few final thoughts on this great work: I devoured the illustrations, so a big shout out to Lavery for including those because my poor “visual” brain has struggled to imagine some of these different kinds of ships based on textual descriptions for years. I caught the half a dozen or so typos in the text, so I agree with other comments I saw that whoever proofed this book needs a refresher course. And thank you for a nice readable writing style. It’s great to see that some authors can take very technical subjects and make them an enjoying read.
Dates Read: January 14 – January 19
I personally find it humorous that product descriptions of this book vaguely state that you are about to watch “the dissolution of a modern marriage.” It sounds so benign. This is not just a mere dissolution of a modern marriage. Dissolution means growing apart, fighting constantly over every little thing, like who should be taking out the trash and picking Johnny up from soccer practice, or yes, even adultery. But in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, this is some seriously demented, psychotic, twisted, maniacal mind screwing! This is Fatal Attraction in a book form … although I should probably check to make sure Fatal Attraction wasn’t actually based on a book itself before I make that claim.
Yes, you have the perfect couple that every couple wants to be (at least as it appears to outsiders): Nick and Amy Dunne, who have transplanted themselves from the cultural and social megalopolis of Manhattan to drab and dreary small town Missouri because both have lost their exotic jobs as professional writers. On the morning of the couple’s 5th wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing from their small-town house, and Nick goes … evasive. It was interesting to plow through the first part and try to unravel the psychological complexities of Nick Dunne – made all the more brilliant because the story is told in the first person from his POV – while meandering through the flat, two-dimensional Amy, whose life with Nick up to the day of the disappearance is told through a series of journal entries. I applaud Flynn’s ability to make Nick a mystery in the story of his wife’s disappearance, when he is telling the story.
And then you get to Part Two, where, yes, the POVs now switch back and forth between Nick and Amy, and again, I applaud Flynn because the flat, two-dimensional Amy of the diary entries in Part One becomes a richer and more complex character, while Nick becomes flat … and two-dimensional. That is the true genius I walked away with: somebody who appears psychologically complicated is not, and somebody who appears psychologically simple is not. Flynn’s ability to unravel these two characters is, in a word, astounding.
Did I like either of these characters? Not particularly. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t a fascinating read, especially from that psychological perspective. And I will admit, the slow unveiling of the story behind Amy’s disappearance: when, how, and why, kept me turning the pages. As completely demented as everything was in this book, I wanted to find out what happened. And I take that as a good thing. Because, to me, that means this was a brilliantly crafted novel, even if I hope I never meet anyone like Nick or Amy Dunne in real life.
Dates Read: January 1 – January 14
Dense. That is the word that comes to mind now that I have finished Stephen Fox’s tome on the history of transatlantic shipping. And I don’t mean dense as in stupid. I mean dense as in packed, stuffed, chock full of incredible information and astute detail.
It is the thoroughness in this detail that makes this book an incredible reference source. And a must-have on the shelves of anyone interested in the history of transatlantic ocean liners. I know I personally will consult this book again and again as I start to tackle the many maritime-related projects I have slated for myself. But this thorough detail also has its drawback: in many ways, this book is almost too intense for casual reading. Maybe, as the passionate student of maritime history that I profess myself to be, I wanted to retain more from my reading of this book than I quickly realized would be possible to do. There is so much covered here — so many names, dates, locations, technical jargons, and ship lifetimes — that I found myself wanting to stop and create Excel spreadsheets to organize and collate Fox’s data in a vain attempt to keep it all straight. Maritime history nerd alert here. I know many could sit back and read this book as casually as any other notable history. But I (rather foolishly) wanted to be able to give a lecture on the topics covered in this work after a single reading. How utterly, utterly foolish.
The density of detail aside, there are snippets that will stand out to me. I am an avid amateur student of maritime history and my two favorite topics are shipwrecks and people. I am most fascinated by the personalities involved, life aboard ships, and the tragedy of ocean disasters. There was plenty of all three in Fox’s excellent narrative. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself engrossed in some of the more “peripherary” personalities, or characters Fox drops in here and there to illustrate certain key influences or experiences of transatlantic travel. For example, the experiences of earlier transatlantic travelers like Fanny Appleton and Charles Dickens. Or, even more so, the grudging acceptance and approval of late 19th century ocean liners by curmudgeonly American Henry Adams. I found myself enjoying those stories most of all.
But no matter the interest, be it the history of specific shipping companies (everyone from Cunard to Collins to Hamburg-America is here) or the history of ship machinery or the social and political influences that drove some of the shipping decisions (connection to the railroads, for example) or the cultural relationships amongst the power players on the North Atlantic (Great Britain and the United States, for example), Stephen Fox’s Transatlantic has it covered.