The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova — book review

What could have been the perfect historical mystery for bibliophiles ended up being an unnecessarily long-winded and frequently dull novel.

“Looking up from my work, I suddenly realized that someone had left a book whose spine I had never seen before among my own textbooks, which sat on a shelf above my desk. The spine of this new book showed an elegant little dragon, green on pale leather.”

The Historian alludes to a variety of works, sometimes by means of subtle allusions, while in other cases Elizabeth Kostova seems to be emphasising her own novel’s intertextuality, such as its ostensible intertextual relationship to Stoker’s Dracula.
While Dracula has come to represent a turning point in vampire literature, hailing it as the ‘original vampire novel’ means disregarding the earlier encounters with vampires of other writers such as Goethe, Byron, Le Fanu, and Polidori. Although the ‘romantic’ and ‘seductive’ vampires populating today’s media don’t seem to owe much to Bram Stoker’s hairy-palmed Dracula, he has become an intrinsic part of vampire culture (if not a synonym of vampirism itself). While vampires are inherently intertextual beings (readers know more or less what to expect when reading a vampire novel) I was hoping that Elizabeth Kostova would not relegate her version of Dracula to the sidelines of her story…which sadly seems to be the case. Kostova, even more than Stoker, pushes Dracula, otherwise known as Vlad Țepeș, to the margins of her narrative.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Historian is its supernatural ambience and the stylistic strength of Kostova’s writing as she deftly weaves together folklore and history in what is neither a carbon-copy of nor a sequel to Dracula. Kostova’s story is an amalgamation of genres: a work of Gothic that largely relies on the epistolary form, a detective novel that is equal parts adventure, travelogue, and history lesson. Through these various styles Kostova examines the often conflictual relationship between Christian West and the Islamic East.
Kostova’s re-elaboration of the myths and stories established by works such as Dracula reflects a divided Europe. She examines themes of immortality, monstrosity, and otherness, against a backdrop of quiet social upheaval. Paul and Helen’s quest to find Dracula/Vlad’s tomb is often impeded by the political atmosphere of the countries they visit. Paul in particular, being American, is regarded with suspicion by these countries’ socialist regimes. This added another layer of secretiveness to their ‘adventures’, one that forces them to carry out their true research under a guise.

While we do get an overall biography of Vlad Țepeș, the ‘man’ himself does not recount his own experiences, we don’t see from his own point of view. His potential victims inform us of his misdeeds and history…which serve to make Vlad into a rather one-sided character. He is ‘evil’, and that seems to be that. I was expecting a far more nuanced portrayal of vampires and of this infamous historical figure. Terrible people/creatures can still be compelling subjects. Kostova’s novel however does not really allow this vilified figure the chance to speak his truth. I could have understood his motivations without necessarily agreeing with them. Sadly, Vlad seems evil for the sake of being evil. We learn of his monstrous actions but we never truly glimpse the mind behind those brutal deeds. Vlad is evil because of his transgression of the natural order…and that’s it. Vampirism aside Kostova’s depiction of Vlad does not really propose any new ‘reading’ of his rule.

While I really appreciated the use of different timelines in Kostova’s latest novel, The Shadow Land, here the various storylines were rather uneven: in the 1970s our narrator is a sixteen-year old girl who remains unnamed throughout the course of the novel, her father Paul (his story takes place in the 1950s), and Paul’s former mentor, Professor Bartholomew Rossi (most of his letters are dated from the 1930s). Initially I thought that the narrative would mainly switch between Paul and his daughter…so I was rather disappointed to discover that the daughter’s story is non-existent. She appears at the beginning of this bulky book and has a few chapters here and there…and that’s it. Paul’s story is the main focus of the narrative, and sadly I just wasn’t all that taken by him or his adventures. Him and Helen definitely travel through interesting cities and places (Turkey, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, France) and I did appreciate Kostova’s use of the sublime in these ‘travelogue’ sections: the way in which the landscapes inspires fear and awe in Paul (these sections reminded me of Ann Radcliffe).
Sadly Paul and Helen’s journey soon grew rather repetitive and predictable. They always seemed to encounter the right people and the right time which definitely struck me as a too coincidental. While I certainly enjoyed reading of the history of the cities they travel through, I wasn’t all that invested in them or their ‘quest’.
Perhaps I was hoping for a more emotionally involving story (such as the one in The Shadow Land) but here the characters were largely secondary, if not downright passive, and while there were plenty of opportunities to flesh them out, to give us an impression of their personalities, their ‘quest’ has far more importance.
The ‘quest’ largely relies on their finding documents or people who know something about Dracula’s existence. They gather information slowly, over the course of hundred and hundred of pages. A lot of what they ‘discover’ wasn’t all that surprising…the ending felt anti-climatic to the extreme.
Nevertheless, in spite of my not so great opinion of this novel, I did appreciate Kostova’s subject matter and her confluence of classicism and romanticism, of logic and emotion, of mysticism and faith. Last but not least, I have always loved descriptions of books and libraries…

“Besides, you can tell a great deal from a historian’s books.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Institute by Stephen King – book review

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“What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good.” — Joseph Brodsky

The Institute is a gripping, if occasionally horrifying, read.
Stephen King is a great storyteller and The Institute showcases many of his strengths and traits: we have an engrossing narrative, children and teenagers with psychic abilities, and an army of evil characters.
While The Institute is in many ways a ‘classing King’, its story struck me for its incredibly relevant portrayal of America’s political and social climate (from Donald Trump to anti-vaxxers). The novel’s main concern however is the inhumane treatment of children: within this narrative we read of children who are used and abused, treated as commodities, and denied of their rights, freedom, and agency.
Their age, the fact that they are indeed children or underage, becomes a weapon that is used against them. King’s story subverts society’s notion of children, their role and place in society: children run away from home, they are rude, they don’t know enough about the real world or important issues, and they are egocentric. In The Institute not only do adults keep children in the dark but they use their limited knowledge and lack of experience against them. Those working for the Institute kidnap, imprison, and torture children. Yet, they believe that they are justified in their methods. They believe that as adults they have the power, if not right, to ‘punish’ and ‘educate’ children.

“I am having quite the adventure, Luke thought. Yes indeed, quite the adventure for me.”

This propelling narrative is populated by an array of believable characters. Rather than just focusing on the children, those who are oppressed by the Institute, King’s narrative is polyphonic. We become acquainted with the adults who commit such horrific acts, their working-dynamics, their motivations and beliefs. Still while we see that they themselves view their own actions as necessary, readers will still find most, if not all, of their behaviour and values to be utterly appalling.

“He was only twelve, and understood that his experience of the world was limited, but one thing he was quite sure of: when someone said trust me, they were usually lying through their teeth.”

The characters I cared about the most where of course the children (Luke, Kalisha, and Avery in particular). King gives each child and teenager imprisoned in the Institute a distinctive personality, which is no small feat given that their horrifying circumstances threaten to erode their very sense of self. They are repeatedly humiliated, tortured, and dehumanised. Yet, the fact that they are all living through this nightmare, create a powerful bond between them. They have a camaraderie of sorts, they distract each other from their terrible surroundings and heinous experiences.

King’s depiction of good and evil within The Institute’s brutal world although complex and ultimately open ended convinced me that the end does not justify the means. While in many of his novels there is an unseen or arcane evil presence, something un-human, within The Institute it is the seemingly ‘ordinary’ people who cause the most evil.
What is most terrifying is that they are often completely desensitized to the violence that they are committing against these children (and their parents). When we follow them in their ‘daily routines’ we see that they do not consider or second-guess their job requirements. They consider their horrific actions towards and mistreatment of these children as part of their job descriptions. After all, these children have psychic abilities, and therefore they are not really normal children. They are ‘soldiers’ and they have to do their duty. The way the Institute’s employees normalised their own violent and gruesome behaviour brought to my mind the notion of ‘the banality of evil’.

In spite of the novel’s dark themes and difficult subject matters, this novel never comes across as heavy going. King manages to inject this story with a healthy dose of humour and compassion. He also is one of the few authors who is able to incorporate popular American culture in a way that is accessible to non-American readers (most of his references are made clear because they aren’t just thrown out in the open air, they have some context). Speaking writing of America…I just enjoy the way he portrays small towns. He perfectly captures the ambience of the places he writes of, giving us an impression of a community within the space of a few lines.
King also excels at dialogue. The children and teenagers within this novel have the most entertaining of conversations and arguments. I particularly liked the way in which he employs various slangs as well as managing to convey a person’s inflections. You can see that King pays incredible attention to the English language, to the way people speak, and to the significance of their chosen words.
The novel’s occasional intertextuality (the horror fiction is after all a rather derivative genre) create some moments of entertainment, but it is his self-referentialism that is particularly effective (“They were holding hands and clutching dolls as identical as they were. They reminded Luke of twins in some old horror movie”).
Another thing that I appreciated is that the children’s psychic abilities doesn’t make them into unstoppable forces. Even Avery isn’t made into an all-mighty figure. He is a ten year old who didn’t have a lot of friends before meeting Luke and Kalisha. These children have all too believable fears and they obviously affected by their environment. And it’s perhaps because their powers are limited, because they are afraid and they have everything at stake, that makes their determination to leave the Institute all the more admirable.

“Telepathy always sounded great in stories and movies, but it was annoying as fuck in real life.”

The Institute’s story and its characters, even King’s writing itself, are—in more ways than one—incredibly vivid. With its thrilling storyline and through plenty of slam-bang chases and action scenes, this book makes for an adrenaline-fuelled read.
While there is a lot of stomach-churning violence (often committed against children) King’s descriptions never struck me as gratuitous. If anything that I was ‘forced’ to silently witness what these children endure made me all the more irate towards those who committed these vicious actions.

“Because it was chess now, and in chess you never lived in the move you were about to make, or even the next one.”

King examines the way in which power structures and or authoritative figures abuse and oppress those they perceive as expandable (in this case children) and he portrays in almost painful detail the way in which Luke, Kalisha, and Avery, are robbed of their ‘innocence’.
The absorbing narration, the captivating dialogues, and the edge-of-the-seat plot combine together into an exceptional reading experience.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones — book review

36524503._SY475_.jpgThe Bone Houses is a delightfully creepy and atmospheric book that makes for a quick and entertaining read.

“The things that crawled from the lake were sinew and rotting flesh. They were silent, with hollow eyes and bodies that caved in.
They were called bone houses.”

The story follows a quest of sorts in a medieval-inspired fantasy setting. Although the landscape is vaguely

 

reminiscent of Wales, the world in The Bone Houses is a unique product of Emily Lloyd-Jones’s imagination and therefore isn’t tied down or restricted by historical accuracy.
The novel opens in the quite literally ‘off the map’ village of Colbren. Seventeen-year-old Aderyn, who goes by Ryn, is the daughter of the village’s gravedigger. After her father’s disappearance and her mother’s death, Ryn, alongside her younger siblings, struggles to make ends meet. The graveyard isn’t doing too well as most of the villagers are aware of the rumours of the ‘bone house‘, the dead who don’t stay dead, so they prefer to cremate their loved ones, Ryn spends her days loitering in the forest, and finds herself in more than occasion face to face with a ‘bone house’. Thankfully for Ryn, her trusted companion happens to be an axe which she can use with skilful dexterity, especially when in peril.
The arrival of a stranger in the village, a young aspiring map-maker, provides Ryn with the opportunity to venture into the forest and to see if the ‘bone houses’ are indeed the result of a decade-old curse.
The two main protagonist were both compelling in their own ways. They each had their own distinctive personality with character arc. Their relationship progressed at a slow yet convincing pace.
The novel has a surprisingly amount of humour, so that there are many moments when the characters’ banter or a dark joke adds an entertaining note to some of the more action or suspenseful oriented scenes.
Emily Lloyd-Jones’ writing style resonated with the fairy tale gone wrong atmosphere of her novel. Her prose is that of a storyteller whose careful pace and use of repetition gives a delightful rhythm to her story.

“When the man said the cauldron would make his fortune, people laughed at him.
The man was right.
Terribly, horribly right.”

The curse and Ryn’s quest reminded me a bit of The Black Cauldron, except instead of a pig with have a very stubborn goat who accompanies our heroes in their journey to break this curse. There is also a certain Over the Garden Wall quality to it that makes it into a rather perfect Halloween read.
While I enjoyed the story and characters I think that the tone of the book was a bit too middle-grade for me…maybe if I’d read this believing that it had indeed been marketed as MG I wouldn’t have hoped to read of a story with more horror or darker content.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger — book review

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“Whatever happens, Odie, we’ll still have each other. We’ll always be brothers.”

Stephen King meets Charles Dickens in William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land. Set against the Great Depression Krueger’s Odyssean-like narrative takes inspiration from stories such as the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and/or Huckleberry Finn. Rather than offering a rehash of these tales, This Tender Land presents us with a series of complex and thought-provoking adventures. The experiences of our protagonists, four orphans who call themselves the vagabonds, will surely strike a chord with most readers.

Unwanted and neglected, these four children will experience hardship after hardship, and throughout their travels they will encounter many different sides of their society. Lincoln School ( a school where Native American, after being ripped away from their families, are ‘educated’ ) has left both physical and emotional scars in all of them. The only two white boys there Odie and Albert together with their best-friend Mose and Emmy, a recently orphaned girl of six, embark towards their own idea of home. In their journey towards safety and love they are hunted down by Lincoln School’s superintendent Mrs. Brickman, a woman who holds a particular grudge against Odie.
Soon the four vagabonds will learn that the world outside their prison-like school is a lot bleaker than they’d hoped for. The land is harsh, the people are desperate, and soon they come to understand that their ideas of ‘home’ do not coincide. As each child gains understanding of who they are and what they want, they risk drifting away from each other.
Odie, our narrator, particularly struggles with this. The cruelties he suffers time and again have made him cling all the more desperately to his chosen family. His lack of judgement and impulsivity often get the better of him, yet readers will find themselves sympathising with him even in his biggest mistakes. His gift for storytelling and playing the harmonica provide some truly heartfelt scenes.
In his odyssey Odie is forced to question if the end justifies the means…yet even as he lies, steals, and does even worse, he begins to interrogate his own morality making for some provoking reflections on justice, duty, and the extent to which we can categorise are choices as being right or wrong.

The vagabond’s mis-adventures, similarly to the winding river they travel on, will whisk them far away from Lincoln School. Krueger’s depiction of Minnesota is startling vivid. The land he writes is a harsh mistress indeed. It causes strife, poverty, starvation, and death, turning good men into husks of their former selves. Krueger also doesn’t flinch away from the time’s attitude towards child abuse and labour, the persecution and dehumanisation of Native Americans, and the large quantity of homeless people…within his tale there is cruelty, hatred, racism, greed…and yet the story never succumbs to darkness.
There is the beautiful friendship between the four vagabonds, as well as the big and small acts of kindness and love they witness along the way, and there is always hope for a better future.
Krueger’s poetic style provides plenty of melodic descriptions, thoughtful reflections, and heartfelt conversations. He has an ear for the way people speak, which makes his dialogues all the more authentic.

All of his characters were nuanced and believable. Regardless of our feelings towards a particular character we couldn’t easily label or dismiss them as being good or bad. Each character has individual circumstances that have shaped their worldview and their actions. Also Krueger makes it quite clear that often our narrator’s descriptions of certain characters are influenced by his own feelings towards them. Similarly to him, Odie’s friends are also affected and shaped by their journey. Unlike him however readers can only witness their character development from the outside, so that we see how they slowly begin to behave differently without always knowing what exactly is occurring ‘inside’ them.

I switched between reading this and listening to the audiobook edition and equally enjoyed both version. Readers who are looking for an emotional tale of forgiveness and hope should definitely consider picking up This Tender Land.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to 4)

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The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow — book review

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“Reason and rationality reigned supreme, and there was no room for magic or mystery. There was no room, it turned out, for little girls who wandered off the edge of the map and told the truth about the mad, impossible things they found there.”

Readers who have yet to dip their toes in the vast sea of YA fiction will probably enjoy The Ten Thousand Doors of January more than those who are well acquainted with this popular genre.

In spite of its first promising chapters, The Ten Thousand Doors of January never quite reaches its full potential.
The premise of the book called to mind Seanan McGuire‘s Wayward Children series—which also stars ‘magical’ doors—and the more adventure/travelling oriented YA such as Alexandra Bracken’s Passenger. The start of The Ten Thousand Doors of January, with its focus on the relationship between a young child and her guardian, held echoes of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and Cornelia Funke’s The Inkheart Trilogy: Inkheart, Inkspell, Inkdeath. What followed sadly lacked the magic of these two series and throughout my reading of The Ten Thousand Doors of January I had the impression that it’s the kind of book that doesn’t know wherever it’s aimed towards middle-grade or young adult readers…it stars cartoonish characters that would be more suited to a MG while also trying to address more serious themes, all the while attempting to establish a complex ‘magical’ system.

The Good
Occasionally I do like to first address the good things—or to be more accurate, the things I personally liked—in a book. In the case of The Ten Thousand Doors of January that would be the writing style. Alix E. Harrow’s writing style was the best aspect of her debut novel.

“Books can smell of cheap thrills or painstaking scholarship, of literary weight or unsolved mysteries.”

The first-person point of view allows for a compelling and engaging narrative, a narrative which our protagonist is aware of:

“I ought to introduce Mr. Locke properly; he’d hate to wander into the story in such a casual, slantwise way.”

This awareness creates many charming moments as she intersperses her narrative with many amusing asides, for example telling us what she thinks of certain words or sayings: “After that, our fates were more or less sealed (a phrase that always makes me picture a weary old Fate tucking our futures into an envelope and pressing her wax seal over us).”
The openness of January’s storytelling is incredibly effective as it holds the reader’s attention and makes us sympathise with her.

“But, as Mr. Locke so often complained, I could sometimes be quite improper, wilful, and temerarious (a word I assumed was unflattering from the company it kept).”

That she often refers to existing stories/tales of children wandering into magical realms or such places acknowledges the intertextuality of her own story.

“People never got to stay in their Wonderlands, did they? Alice and Dorothy and the Darlings, all dragged back to the mundane world and tucked into bed by their handlers.”

And it is the very way that January recounts her own story that kept me interested…it was also nice to follow her character growth. Due to her father and her own appearance (she is described as having coppery-red skin) she is pegged as ‘no good’. Because of this, January does try to meet expectations of respectable femininity, an attitude which—as she herself notes later in her narrative—will hinder her future independence. We could see the way her circumstances affected and shaped her.

The Not so Good
Although I loved the portions recounted by January herself, incorporated in her narrative are sections from a book that she is reading…called The Ten Thousand Doors. These sections were boring and led to a very predictable reveal.
The magical doors that we are promised in the summary of….do not really make a ‘proper’ appearance as we are told of the adventures of other characters in a very rushed and indirect manner.
I was hoping that the story would follow January’s adventures but that wasn’t the case. She reads of other people’s adventures, and it is only it last 20% or so that she actually gets to do something more enterprising.
The book she reads is supposedly written by a scholar but it just seemed pale when compared to January’s own narrative. While her voice is engaging and genuine, the book she’s reading never really convinced me. It seemed to be trying for a similar effect as January’s sections but the ‘author’s’ voice failed to come across as believable or even as belonging to an actual individual.
The magic system, in other words the Doors, was poorly explained and explored. Parts that should have been more detailed and fleshed out are rushed over so that we never get a clear picture of how a Door works. We know that they introduce “change”, which is a very generic way of defining them.
There is little to no action and, with the exception of January, the characters we are introduced to never seemed very fleshed out. Some had very inconsistent personalities while others, such as the love interest, were painfully dull additions. And it isn’t great when as soon as we are introduced to a character we know the role they will play. Take for example this love interest. As soon as the words “childhood friend” and “boy” appeared on the page it was quite obvious that he would form a romantic attachment to January. His main two qualities are: he is Italian and he likes January. That’s about it (his name/appearance/personality are pretty much irrelevant).
I think that having more characters would have filled up the backdrop of January’s non-adventures a bit more. Maybe it could have detracted from the overall one-sidedness of two or three people in her life. Other than January there are mainly two other female characters, and they seem to share the same I-am-sort-of-empowered personality. With the exception of January’s father and her love interest all men sort of suck, seeming closer to caricatures of evil men rather than actual evil men.
While I loved January’s narrative voice, I disliked the way the writing would sometimes use metaphors or description that seemed to exist merely to meet certain YA aesthetics (we have the typical overabundance of colours: “I dreamed in gold and indigo”; as well as descriptions alluding to ‘glitter/shards’: “The thought was dizzying, intoxicating—I’d already broken so many rules tonight, left them smashed and glittering in my wake—what was one more?”).
The plot seemed to predictable and undeveloped…less sections from The Ten Thousand Doors would have given more page-time to January and her story.

Overall
The summary and first few chapters lead to disappointment. The simplified vision of evil, the boring and wafer-thin side characters, and the poorly developed ‘Doors’ all left me with a not so great impression of this book…which is a pity as I really really enjoyed the first few chapters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia — book review

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In spite of the beautiful attention that Gods of Jade and Shadow pays to the function of myths and deities in our everyday lives…this turned out to be an unexpectedly juvenile read…

The swift storytelling found in Gods of Jade and Shadow might not appeal to those readers who prefer slower and more in depth narratives such as The Song of Achilles. Here there is a focus on the action or better yet on the quest undertaken by our protagonist. Scenes rarely featured the same backdrop since the various characters keep moving from one location to another which in turn leads to underdeveloped settings. The various places and characters-human and non-encountered by our protagonist(s) are often breezed through so that they have little time to leave an impression on the reader. Having finished this book a few days ago I recall not one of the characters that Casiopea and Hun-Kamé encounter…which isn’t a good sign.

The story is predictable and follows a repetitive pattern in which our cinderella-like main character Casiopea unwilling joins a former god, Hun-Kamé, who will be able to regain his rightful role as ruler of Xibalbla only after he finds certain ‘items’ (which are conveniently stored in places he knows of and that are fairly easy to reach). The story in its simplicity seems more fitting in a middle-grade novel rather than an adult one, and in fact, I would have actually preferred it if this book had been clearly aimed at a younger audience.
Another criticism I have is that it should have been more decisive in its tone, darker as Valente’s Deathless, or as tantalisingly ingenious as Seanan McGuire‘s Wayward Children series, or even as satirical and fun as Zen Cho‘s Sorcerer Royal duology. But the tone in Gods of Jade and Shadow remained rather inconsistent, which is a pity since there are many occasions where Moreno-Garcia’s writing style does really echo that of a skilled storyteller. The narration at times evoked that of a fairytale yet in certain instances this omniscient narrative seemed rather simplistic and often reached clichéd conjectures.

The setting only comes into focus when the narrative explicitly addresses some of the trends of the twenties…mentioning a couple of times the popular dances and haircuts from this period does not render the time in question. At times it did so by literally blurting out these trends on the page:

Mexico City in the 1920s was all about the United States, reproducing its women, its dances, its fast pace. Charleston! The bob cut! Ford Cars!”

I wanted more of the vernacular (which I know is difficult since the characters are not speaking in English but I’m sure that there are differences between contemporary Yucatec Maya and the one spoken in the 20s). The story could have easily had a modern setting as the only thing that truly emerges from this historical setting is that our protagonist as a woman has little control over her life.
Another thing that detracted from my overall enjoyment of this story was the over use of exclamation marks (“It was not possible. He was ruler of Xibalbla now! Nothing could change this, nothing could ruin his plans.”) or when the narrative used expressions such as ‘oh dear‘ (“That might be a relief, since she did not understand what they were supposed to do in the city, and oh dear, she wasn’t ready for any of this.”).

Perhaps this was done to lend immediacy to the events narrated or to give urgency to certain moments or thoughts but it seemed a bit contrived and was not handled all that well.
As the story focuses on the quest, the characters seemed rather flaky. Casiopea was the typical heroine of certain YA fiction, she is kind and just yet has endured many wrongs (alienated from the rest of her family, made to their bidding, etc…). Much was made of her ‘temper‘ so much so that I kept excepting a trace of it but found none. I’m not sure why her will was emphasised so much, and in often such cheesy lines:

She was wilful, daggers hidden beneath her muttered yeses, her eyes fixing on him, slick as oil.

The romance was unnecessary and ‘blossomed’ out of nowhere. It made a potentially interesting character into a love interest, turning yet another dark and powerful death god into little more than eye-candy.
In spite of all these flaws I still enjoyed those passages which solely focused on reiterating Mayan mythology. It was in those moments that the narrative really brought into focus the events and figures it spoke of. And there were certain descriptions that had a nice rhythm but these were far too few.

There was the slim veneer of civilty to his actions. He spoke unpleasantries, but in the tone of a gentleman.

Overall, I’m not sure I do recommend this one.
Cho’s fantasy-romp series (Sorcerer to the Crown & The True Queen) offers a similar type of fast-paced storytelling but with much more historical detail, while N.K. Jemisin‘s The Fifth Season creates a much more complex and compelling narrative that addresses dynamics between humans and divine beings.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars

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The History of Living Forever by Jake Wolff — book review

Untitled drawing (1).jpgThe History of Living Forever is an ambitious novel. The narrative includes multiple timelines and often switches between 1st and 3rd perspective, weaving together a compelling yet intricate story. Two of the central figures in these various ‘timelines’ are Conrad Aybinder and Sammy Tampari who in spite of their student-teacher relationship, and of Conrad being underage, become involved romantically. Their “liaison” however is soon cut short by Sammy’s death. A grief-struck Conrad finds himself entangled in what was Sammy’s search for immortality. Through Sammy’s diary entries he discovers that for years Sammy had been using himself as a guinea pig. Had Sammy lost his mind? Or was he really onto something?
With this fascinating premise The History of Living Forever details Sammy and Conrad lives, moving from their childhoods to their adulthoods. They are highly intelligent individuals who are feel somewhat isolated by their intellect (both of them are high-school seniors at the age of 16), I like the fact that the narrative never romanticises their worst actions or behaviours and that other characters call them out on their ‘bad antics’. I also enjoyed the way the characters around them were rendered. Wherever they had an important role or not they were engaging and realistic. I was particularly affected by the parents and relatives in this story. While Conrad’s dad is an alcoholic and could have easily been relegated to the role of ‘bad dad’ the narrative offers a nuanced portrayal of him and his addiction.
The plot was in constant movement, shifting from past to present, jumping from one theory to the other. We learn what drives Sammy’s quest for immortality and see that at the age of 40 Conrad still thinks of him.
At times I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information we were given. Don’t get me wrong, it was all fascinating, but science and maths are not my fortes so I think (okay, I know) that many things that went over my head. Nevertheless, I was captivated by this story which is a story about science, love, obsession, and immortality. Immortality makes for an intriguing topic, one that Wolff skilfully explores. Part of me wishes that we could have had more of Conrad and less of Sammy, or that at least we could have known what Sammy felt for Conrad.
Overall, I think this is an incredibly creative novel, one that bridges genre (coming of age, mystery, adventure, speculative fiction). While I wish that some of the characters’ arcs had been handled differently, I am looking forward to reading this again (and perhaps I will have a better grasp of the theories discussed).

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My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.75 stars

 

Beautiful by Juliet Marillier — review

In Beautiful subverts fairy-tale storylines by making her heroine a troll princess. Hulde is in fact the sole daughter of a tyrannical queen who terrorises those around her. In spite of its title, the story is not concerned with beauty: Hulde knows that humans are afraid of her. Trolls are seen as hideous creatures and throughout the course of the story’s three acts Hulde will have to reconcile herself with her appearance and her position as (view spoiler).612XkHP-AnL._SL500_
I’ve read many of Marillier’s books and it was refreshing to read of a protagonist who isn’t stereotypically beautiful. I also like the way bravery is what Hulde aspires to, rather than beauty. She constantly tries to better herself and ultimately learns that to be brave also entails trusting others.
Marillier pays particular attention to storytelling itself and in her adventures Hulde often draws strength from old tales of brave heroes and heroines.
Although this was an enjoyable read, with some interesting takes on certain tropes, I found the story to be less complex than some of Marillier’s other novels…perhaps because this is an audible original so Marillier kept things ‘simple’ for this type of format or maybe because this was the spin-off of a short story she’d written…longtime fans of Marillier might find this story to be less layered than her usual.
Still, this is a short audiobook and makes for a short and entertaining read.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars

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Things in Jars : Book Review

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Things in Jars
by Jess Kidd
★★★✰✰ 3 stars

Throughout Things in Jars Jess Kidd showcases her creativity. This novel imbues its mystery with an intriguing mixture of fantasy and science.
Kidd’s main character is a tour de force. Bridie Devine is an experienced detective. Her strength, her resilience, and her sharp-wit, made her into an incredibly compelling character. Her relationship with Cora, her ‘second in command’ who is about 7ft tall, provided a lot of heart-warming scenes. Their interactions were funny and consolidated the depiction of her friendship.
At the start of the story, and coinciding with her new case, Bridie meets a former boxer Ruby Doyle…who happens to be a ghost. He claims that they knew each other, but Bridie doesn’t seem to remember him. Together they try to find Christabel Berwick, a remarkable child who has been kidnapped. Bridie and Ruby’s scenes were perhaps some of favourite moments in this novel. These two have a great (not strictly romantic) chemistry and I found their banter to be really entertaining.
The other characters were definitely…picturesque. They were not as interesting as Bridie or her friends and they often seemed either weird or creepy (a few manage to be both).
Kidd sets her intriguing story in London 1863. The city comes to life through layers and layers of vivid descriptions. Her London buzzes with a chaotic energy and at times it could be almost overwhelming there. The dialogues, dialects, and expressions all conveyed this historical period.
What stopped me from ever loving this novelin spite of its many meritsis the writing style. The sprawling narrative jumps from character such as Bridie to a secondary character to an animal, such as a bird or a horse, to the objects of a room or the city itself. Everything seemed to become part of this narration, and at times I wished it would just settle down on Bridie. From the start of the novel there are chapters from the person who has taken Christabel and they sort of undermined Bridie’s storyline, which should have been the focus of this story.
Often sequences would seemed clouded by this unrelentingly exuberant narration. Revelations where muddled, characters’ actions or choices seemed to be revealed in a backwards sort of way, to the point where it seemed I had to re-read and decode a scene before grasping what had happened.
Each phrase or description seemed far too playful. Soon these funny description became repetitive and predictable. The humour was overwhelmingly there. Everything was meant to be amusing, which didn’t quite work in favour of the most serious or dramatic scenes. The narrative was almost interactive…which I found irritating since it made the characters and their experiences in a bit of a joke. It just made some of themes less serious.
If you don’t mind this sort of playful style (which uses the type of humour that a child might use: arse and farts jokes, comparing people to turkeys and crabs ) this might be book for you.

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Six-Gun Snow White : Book Review

Untitled drawing (9)Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars

“She named me cruel and smirking, she named me not for beauty or for cleverness or for sweetness. She named me a thing I could aspire to but never become, the one thing I was not and could never be: Snow White.”

Valent has given a Western spin to an old European tale. I enjoyed the way in which Valente juxtaposes a gritty setting against her lush writing style, and it is almost unnerving the way she can describe horrible things in such a beautiful way. At times, I did find some scenes and metaphors to be gratuitously graphic.
The first part of this novella was really strong. It is narrated by Snow White herself and she recounts how her father married by force a Crow woman (her mother). The way he fetishes her beauty and appearance was truly sickening, and Snow White is always made to feel ‘other’ and ‘alien’ by her father and his servants .
Snow White’s mother dies and her father (Mr. H) marries again. His new wife (known as Mrs. H) begins abusing Snow White, pretending that she is ‘teaching her the ways to become a woman’. Altering physical abuse with a torrent of dehumanising insults and actions (she bathes Snow White in milk in order to make her skin paler) all of the things that Snow White is made to endure were hard to stomach.
The narrative switches to a third perspective which created a distance between the events of the story and the reader (me). There was almost a joke-y tone which went at odds with the Snow White’s serious narration.
The last part was really…pointless? The story comes across as meandering and unfocused. Characters have few (if any) layers, they share the same bland and unfixed personality, and our main protagonist, Snow White, seems quick to forget Mrs. H’s abuse and acts merely under the command of the narrative. What of her will? She is an accessory to her own story, an object rather than a subject.
All in all, this is the type of novella that carelessly tosses characters about, throwing one too many pointlessly extravagant (or occasionally grotesque) observations that have little impact on the overall story but only serve to distract me from the story’s action. The narrative favours the language over its plot or characters. The beautiful phrases soon become overindulgent and repetitive.
Great concept, poor execution.

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