Read-A-Thor · reviews

Read-A-Thor, 3.3: Divinity

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The Soviets send an astronaut to the very edges of space, a 30-year space voyage that’s not supposed to come back. But Abram Adams does come back – or, at least, something in Abram Adams’s body does come back. Something powerful. Something mysterious. Something… divine.

And then there’s a superhero fight.

 

 

In a word: Anticlimactic.
Recommend: I might, after reading a few more of Valiant’s comics.

I have never not been burned by comics. My efforts to immerse myself in Marvel, in order to legitimize my affection (read: self-aware yet sycophantic adoration) for the MCU has mostly resulted in frustration, dating back to before I went to college. (I just wanted to get to the origin of Kid Loki, but you just have to buy about $200’s worth of comics to get the proper buildup.) I’ve had more luck with DC, if only because my library has more origin-type volumes for DC heroes. Although I’m still not over that Batgirl collection being marked Volume 1 and yet containing distinctly not-number-one issues. If I may:

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If you’re wondering what this has to do with Divinity, it’s because the same issues pop up here. I am no comic book aficionado, obviously; it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’ve never heard of Valiant Comics. Apparently, they’re a thing. A superhero thing. Guess what I didn’t surmise from Goodreads’s summary of Divinity? That’s right: that I would be dealing with established superheroes like X-O Manowar and Livewire. I saw the gorgeous cover art on Hoopla, noticed that it was #1 in a series of the same name, and assumed that I would be safe from the perils of the Comic Book Labyrinth.

My dear readers, you know what they say about ‘assume.’ This is a warning to my comic book-challenged fellows: This is not a standalone comic.

On to the proper review.

I adored the synopsis of Divinity. It sounded like something right up my alley: a bit historical, a bit scifi, a bit surreal horror. A bit, in other words, like an episode of The Twilight Zone. And it did start that way. You could almost hear Rod Serling’s voice in the voiceover (until you realize who is doing the talking). I am terrified of space – my terror grows in direct proportion to the length of space you travel – and the idea of meeting… something… out in the outer limits of the galaxy? I couldn’t wait for that to be explored in intimate, horrifying detail.

But guess what happens, about halfway through?

If you guessed “superhero fight,” you’d be exactly right! Thanks for reading my lame-o summary.

Divinity drops the ball by abruptly switching the genre from “supernatural/historical space horror” to “superpowered knock-down drag-out.” The tonal change may have been more compelling if I were versed in Valiant’s superhero world, if I knew the heroes sent in to control Codename Divinity and why they were there. And yet, I’m skeptical even of that. The heroes have no emotional stake in the battle. There’s no sense of history or camaraderie between them. The way the heroes defeat the Divine takes very little time to develop, and, again, has nothing to do with the Divine.

And, of course, Abram Adams had a wife and child he wanted to come back to. Guess what? They’re dead now. But their ghosts can still come back, just for him, to tell him that what he’s doing is wrong (is it, though?), tell him they had happy lives, and then disappear, having allowed the superhero team Unity to take the Divine down while he was in his trance of manpain.

It’s all just overwhelmingly underwhelming, a giant disappointment of concept execution.

Again, I might revisit Divinity if I read more of Valiant’s offerings (I’m interested in Livewire, myself), and there are two sequels to Divinity which I might check out from Hoopla if/when they get it. And I realize that I have much less of a right to review this comic, since it’s my first Valiant attempt. (Ha, unintentional wordplay.) So maybe all I can say is this: don’t try Divinity as a Valiant gateway. It doesn’t work. At all.

Storytelling and Divinity: I really enjoy the conceit of time as a book, a physical story that the Divine can flip through at will, lingering on certain “pages” of Abram’s life. As unsubtle as it might be, it retains a certain poetry, especially given the impact scifi novels had on Abrams and his ambitions.

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Read-A-Thor · reviews

Read-A-Thor, 3.1: Soulless

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It’s Victorian England, vampires and werewolves are mostly-accepted members of polite society, and Alexia Tarabotti does not have a soul. Oddly enough, this is the least of her problems.

 

 

 

 

 

In a word: Lighthearted.
Recommend: That depends on who you are, what you want to read, and what kind of content you’re comfortable with.

First up, the warning: I didn’t actually want to review this particular book on this blog, because of its content. I’m not big on chatting about Adult Content of the Bedroom Variety, for several reasons, particularly on my storytelling blog. (I am an adult, yes, but that means I can talk or not talk about what I please, thanks.) However, for two reasons, I will review Soulless: 1) I enjoyed it aside from the Adult Content, and 2) I’ve only read two books this week so far, so necessity calls.

Next up, the review: Soulless is probably my first or at least one of my first forays into paperback PNR. I’m pretty sure I’ve read paranormal books with romance in them before, but not paperback PNR, that special blend of vampires, werewolves, self-assured young ladies of quality, and burly centuries-old love interests. Gail Carriger seems to have made a name for herself in that area, with a whole basketful of series based in the steampunky paranormal world: Soulless is the first book in the Parasol Protectorate series, which I’ve had on my radar for years, and then there’s the Custard Protocol books, and then the Finishing School series for kids/YA. In other words, I felt like I was in safe hands. And I was.

Soulless is comfortably what is is, making no claims to be more but fully embracing its nature. It’s fun, is what I’m trying to say. It’s light, fluffy, and fun. Alexia is a delightful protagonist, consistent in both her flaws and her strengths. She’s a dreadfully old old maid at 27 years, and her Italian father has bestowed her with a dark complexion, a large nose, and an impossibly strongwilled nature. Though she is sensitive about her attributes, which her society sees as misfortunes, she is as unapologetic as the book itself. I hate to use this word, but I love her sassiness. Her sheer attitude is the height of entertainment, and I love when she ribs her judgmental mother and petty sisters right back when they criticize her appearance. (As an owner of a large nose, I felt vindicated.)

Of course, there’s a plot, too: in the highly structured and regulated subsociety of the British supernatural, vampires are getting turned willy-nilly, without hives to teach them how to be decent and not drink people’s blood when they’re hungry, and loner vampires and packless werewolves are going missing. No one knows why (cue suspenseful organ music). But Alexia is, aside from being half-Italian and a spinster with a custom-made weaponized parasol, a preternatural – someone without a soul. And someone with no soul has the ability to neutralize the supernatural aspects of those with too much soul, aka vampires, werewolves, and ghosts (the latter don’t, sadly, feature into this novel). It’s a fascinating concept, the whole too-ensouled/soulless thing, and probably one of the best takes on the supernatural that I’ve ever seen, especially when the logic of it gets applied elsewhere (there aren’t many supernatural people because no one knows how much soul you have; it risks just killing people to try to turn them before they die, and the supernaturals are a largely decent bunch).

And then there’s the romance: Alexia falls for her contact at the BUR, the Bureau of… I’m going to be honest, I didn’t remember the full title of the supernatural investigation society two pages after it was spoken, and I certainly don’t remember now. It’s like the supernatural FBI. Anyway,  Alexia and her contact, Lord Conall Maccon, Alpha of the main werewolf pack, have known each other for some amount of time, and it shows. They are the Bickering Couple, hiding their UST in fighting and frustration. Lord Maccon is an entertaining-enough guy, not nearly as fascinating as Alexia and not nearly good enough for her, but he’s also a genuinely good person, with the best interests of both Alexia and London itself at heart. Gruff, but nice. Also, Scottish. Win-win. You see the romance coming from a mile away in the first two chapters, but it’s not The Worst as most romances of the type usually are. Alexia retains her spirit, spunk, and humor throughout, never turning into a limp, lifeless Romance Doll, which makes the whole thing much easier to swallow.

That’s where the warning comes in: Carriger is pretty explicit about what goes on in their relationship. It’s not explicit in that way, but there are a few scenes where the euphemisms fly until they’re not euphemizing anything anymore. I didn’t dig it. But I knew what I was signing up for.

It’s not the most fascinating read in the world. It did, after all, take me about three days to get through Soulless. But it’s a good book to pick up if you want to unplug your brain for a while and watch a strong personality navigate the prim-and-proper side of the supernatural world (until it’s not so prim and proper and the torture machine from The Princess Bride makes an appearance). If you’re looking to get into the PNR paperback world, I’m sure you could do worse than Soulless.

Storytelling and Soulless: I am, admittedly, coming up a little blank on this. But I suppose that may be the point I’m looking for. All the dramatics I like to write on why people tell stories, to reach over and share an experience with the reader? That’s just one reason. And it’s not the right reason. Some stories are told because the writer probably said to themself one day, “Hey, you know what would be fun? If a British-Italian girl had no soul and fell in love with a Scottish werewolf. That’d be fun.” And then thousands of people say, “Yeah, that was fun. Let’s have two more series of stuff like it, because we love fun and smartmouth ladies and sexy werewolves.”

I don’t know, I just think that’s pretty cool, too.

Read-A-Thor · reviews

Read-A-Thor, 4.3: Winter

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This POValicious, 800-page conclusion to the Lunar Chronicles follows about twelve dozen characters through the execution of Cinder’s rebellion against Queen Levana, including the last new fairytale lady, Princess Winter.

 

 

 

 
In a word: Satisfactory.
Recommend: If you’ve come this far anyway, then yes, obviously.

Y’all have a 99-degree fever to thank for getting me to finish the bulk of this book in a single day, so huzzah for silver linings!

So here I am, at the end of the Lunar Chronicles, completing a journey begun back in, like, 2012, I think. (Not including the two companion novels, Stars Above and Fairest, neither of which I include in the main Lunar Chronicles series.) It’s been a trip, and a largely positive one, so shout-out to Marissa Meyer, even though she’s been done with the bulk of this series since 2015.

Now, as I mentioned, Winter is just over 800 pages long. There is so much going on in this book that it’s hard to know exactly where to start, but maybe the most obvious place to start is with the characters, and specifically with the newest addition.

Winter herself is a lovely character. I think it’s funny how her introduction at the end of Cress was supposed to be creepy – with that slightly ableist, ooh-it’s-a-crazy-person mystery about her – and then in Winter, we all realize that Winter is actually the sweetest person we’ve met yet, including Cress. She’s unstable from not using her Lunar gift, which we all know by now is detrimental to a Lunar’s health, but the fact that she is unstable out of a desire never to manipulate anyone is probably the most endearing thing Meyer could have come up with. Another winning attribute of Winter’s? Her relationship with her love interest, Jacin, is set up well, with a tangible background that doesn’t have to be completely spelled out for it to be obvious. There is a little bit of spelling-out here and there, but it’s helpful to fill in the gaps. (By the bye, can you believe that we first met Jacin in Cinder? That’s some dem fine plotting, Meyer.) And… come on. They’re just cute. Jacin is kind of a… I can’t think of any words that are appropriate for a rated-G blog. He’s not an easy-to-like guy, in any case. But it makes sense for his character, and he tries to keep up that façade around Winter, but he does it to protect her and he can never quite make it, and Winter just misses her friend so much so she tries to meet him halfway, even though it’ll never be enough while he’s working for Levana and trying to keep both her and himself safe…!

I am, on occasion, a total sucker.

That said, Winter and Jacin both get POV chapters in a book that is stuffed with POVs. Every main couple gets their own – Cinder, Kai, Scarlet, Wolf, Cress, Thorne, Winter, and Jacin – along with Iko and, on occasion, Levana. That is ten POVs. Part of me understands why Meyer chose to do this, but part of me saw this method crumbling as soon as Scarlet started. I stand by the assessment that, no matter how necessary multiple POVs might be, there are things you sacrifice for getting every major character’s view of the story. One of those things is character depth. If you divide 800 pages by the eight main POVs, that leaves less than 100 pages to be in each character’s head.

This probably wouldn’t be a problem for me if I didn’t have Cinder on the brain every time I pick up an LC book. Because that’s what made Cinder great: exploring the story from these two, well-written, in-depth perspectives. With each passing LC installment, more POVs got collected, and the personal touch stretched thinner. It suited the growing scope of the story, and it allowed Winter to span the massive effort it took Cinder And Co. to start their rebellion. So maybe the tradeoff was worth it. But that’s still what it is: a tradeoff, and one that didn’t always pay off, in my opinion, as much as it could have.

Because what you want when you can’t have the intimacy of one or two POVs is a very deft and specific hand when it comes to portraying personalities quickly – in, say, 100 pages or less. Meyer’s weakness when it comes to body language and precise description isn’t as noticeable when we only have Cinder, Kai, and their small families to worry about; when the cast swells to two or three dozen, that weakness shows, especially after the action picks up. The emotions get clunky and derivative without the snappy, evocative language necessary to express those emotions and still keep the pacing of the story at the necessary gallop.

Is all that a lot to ask of a YA novel about fairytales in space? Maybe. I’ll always stand by my belief that you shouldn’t let novelists off the honing-their-craft hook just because they’re writing genre fiction or YA or both. Still, I’m aware that I’m being a bit of a cranky pedant, so here’s a list of ten good things about Winter! Massive spoilers beware!

  1. Winter. A true beauty of a character, both in face and in personality. I loved being in her head. Winter singing the song about the wolves and howled at the end – aa-ooooooh! – is possibly the cutest thing I’ve ever read. While I still don’t particularly like Scarlet, I like the relationship between her and Winter, even if she’s kind of unpleasant to her.
  2. Jacin. The jerk with a heart of gold, separated from his love by duty and a tyrannical, jealous queen. Fluttering sigh. I also liked when Thorne punched him and then hugged him.
  3. The fact that approximately one dozen people lost their fingers? This is about 10% a complaint, because after the first time, the price of violent action on the heroes’ part becomes less intimidating and more ‘can’t wait to see them suffer nothing but finger loss,’ but also, it’s kind of funny. Thorne makes a joke about it. Thorne leans on the fourth wall occasionally.
  4.  Cinder. I mean the italics for emphasis, not for titling. I’m so proud of Cinder. She’s still the best character the LC has. Strong and tough, but not invincible, because she’s a freaking sixteen-year-old, with her own baggage that she never really gets over but which she learns to work around. She never stops fighting, even when she wants to; she’s compassionate and empathetic but she’s not willing to back down from the hard stuff that needs doing. She has exactly the amount of mental/emotional breakdowns that I’d expect a teenage hero to have, and it just makes me respect her more.
  5. Cress wears a dress with a butterfly wing shawl and a googly antennae headband. I died of cuteness.
  6. The friendship between Cinder and Iko, which gets some fantastic moments in this book. I never loved Iko until Winter – I liked her, but she was more of a novelty comedic presence than an emotional one in her own right.
  7. The fact that Cinder makes essentially the exact same choice regarding her queenship as Vanellope von Schweetz does in Wreck-It Ralph. ngl, it made me laugh when I realized why it sounded like such a familiar solution.
  8. Emperor Kai is the sweetest, best kid, and when he gets excited over being able to help Cinder And Co., my heart swells. Kai deserves everything good in life.
  9. Cress is so smart and brave. Her character development seemed really natural and steady over just two books, and I was glad whenever she had a POV chapter, because it was just a pleasure to read about her. And about her relationship with Thorne, because they were still the couple I was most invested in emotionally.
  10. That last scene. As simplistic and a little too easy as the rest of the conclusion was, the last scene was the perfect blend of sweet with just a bit of bitter, and peaceful all around. If I were making a video review, this is where I would kiss my fingertips into the air.

The word count is telling me that I have written 1300 words already in this review, which means it is definitely time to wrap it up. So, Winter: the perfect conclusion to a good but inconsistent series? No, not really. It drags in a lot of places, mired in less-than-fascinating setup for the grand finale, and I still can’t find it in myself to give a rat’s rear about Scarlet and Wolf. The fairytale conceit is nowhere as necessary here as it has been in the past. But is it a good conclusion? Yes. Meyer put some obvious effort into tying up her story satisfactorily, and, overall, I’d say she succeeded.

Read-A-Thor · reviews

Read-A-Thor, 4.2: They Both Die At the End

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In a world where a mysterious business – or public service – or front for eldritch prophetic monsters and their sadistic handlers – calls everyone to tell them that they will die within 24 hours, two boys without much left to live for anyway get the call. What follows is a full 24-hour sprint to get as much living in as they can, along with not caring at all why some business/public service/eldritch-monster front knows how they’ll die.

 

 

 

In a word: Unfulfilling.
Recommend: Probably not.

Yesterday, I finished two books: They Both Die At the End, and the 19th-century classic Silas Marner* . They Both Die has a wild premise and a relationship forged by desperation and carpe-ing their last diem together. Silas Marner is about a weaver in the English countryside. I am not anti-classic by any stretch of the imagination – I love classics – but at the start of this week, I was certain which book I would end up enjoying more.

Surprise! Silas Marner was more compellingly characterized and more tightly plotted than They Both Die, and so I was more entertained by the antisocial weaver.

Let’s get the elephant in the room dealt with first: Death-Cast, the aforementioned shadowy… place… that calls to torment people with the fact of their impending doom. A handful of dissatisfied reviewers on Goodreads have asked the question: Why? Perhaps even more baffling than the how, the why of this sadistic corporation is left unexamined. There is no history given and no explanation. No one questions the existence of Death-Cast. In this alternate history, Death-Cast exists in 2017 and wasn’t there until maybe a couple decades ago. In fact, I think Death-Cast is around fifteen years old, because, if I remember correctly, it wasn’t there when Mateo’s mother died giving birth to him. That’s less than 18 years old, and already everyone is okay with this.

Suspension of disbelief is one thing. Asking me to swallow this premise down without explanation or justification is something else entirely.

Mateo and Rufus simply don’t have that much to them. Mateo is at least enjoyable, with a compelling personal conflict which is integral to his introverted, slightly paranoid personality; Rufus, on the other hand, was never given a solid personality, and instead doomed to flip-flopping between two or three, depending on what kind of plot-mover the story needed. So while I could understand why Rufus liked Mateo so much after knowing him only a few hours, I could never pin down why Mateo was so drawn to Rufus. Without a firm personality, Rufus mostly acted as the novel’s primary force to get Mateo out of his comfort zone.

The writing improved somewhat later on, but I had a tough time getting through the first third or so. Silvera doesn’t let Mateo and Rufus get together for a surprising amount of time, subjecting the reader to Mateo’s first attempts at finding a Last Friend as well as Rufus’s evasion of the law (yikes); the writing is simplistic and lacks nuance, which doesn’t help the slowness of the first part of the story. Once Rufus and Mateo are together and the story gets itself started (slowly), the style becomes invisible, which is, at least, an improvement on “frustratingly artless.”

There are two things that Silvera does really well at the end, but to say what they are would be to give massive spoilers, and that’s not what we at Sympathetic Magic are about. Would I recommend They Both Die At the End just so you could find out what those two things are? No, not really; it bored the heck out of me when I wasn’t being disturbed by the very existence of Death-Cast and the Oracle of Delphi it clearly has locked up under ground. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it out, if this sounds like your thing. It has tons of weepy, satisfied reviews on Goodreads to more than balance out the skeptical ones. It takes all kinds, after all.

* I listened to the Blackstone audio recording, narrated by Nadia May, and I highly recommend it. (It’s on Hoopla, if your library has access to it.)

Storytelling and They Both Die At the End: They Both Die focuses a lot on legacy, and what you leave behind when you go. Mateo and Rufus both want to die having done something worth doing, something worth remembering. They want to leave behind a good story. Who they were, what they did, what mattered: those things get passed down as stories. The search for meaning can be framed as the need to leave stories that are worth being told.

Read-A-Thor · reviews

Read-A-Thor, 4.1: Reflections On a Gift of Watermelon Pickle…

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A collection of poetry from poets great and small, on topics great and small. There is even a poem about a giraffe.

 

 

 

In a word: Buoyant.
Recommend: Definitely.

I found my copy of Reflections at a Methodist thrift store. It’s a modest little volume, thin and battered, with the kind of crackly, brittly fibrous paper you find in a lot of cheap 70s books. Believe it or not, though, I passed up a book of ee cummings poetry to buy this instead. Maybe it’s because watermelon pickles are my absolute favorite. Maybe I’m a hipster and Reflections On a Gift of Watermelon Pickle sounded cooler than something beginning with The Collected Poems Of. And, really, knowing my penchant for distinctly not liking the majority of poetry I pick up, it was a risky move.

For once, the risk paid off.

The quality of this collection was, to me, startling. Even before I started noticing the biggest names – William Carlos Williams, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, and Carl Sandburg – I was struck by how compelling many of the poems were; I had a much higher success rate with this than with most poetry collections. A couple poems I was already familiar with (William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just To Say,” for example), but most were new to me, and I liked both getting to know new poets and discovering less popular poems by the aforementioned big names.

Reflections is set up into fifteen sections, and I’m grateful to report that the sections each have very clear themes. (If you don’t have themes, don’t separate into parts. That’s just common sense.) I’m also thankful that not one of them was dedicated to romance. There was, however, a section dedicated to birds, one to mammals, one specifically to cats and dogs, and one to space/rockets/related imagery. (A warning: I don’t do very well with animal death, even before I lost my cat, and a handful of the animal poems were about their deaths. I still read them, but it was a little bit of a struggle. If, by some stroke of luck, you happen upon this volume of poetry, and you have trouble with this, just know it’s in there.) There were, of course, duds, especially later on. I didn’t get much into the last two sections; they were less specific, and had a lot of vague, careless freeverse that I didn’t care for. It does close with the titular poem and it was worth the wait, though, and it’s also worth it just to read the first thirteen parts, which all have at least one good winner in them.

Physically, it’s a very appealing little book. The poems tend to shortness, and the people who formatted the books were magnanimous enough to space them wide and generously. There’s a lot of white space around each poem, uncluttering the page and letting you sink your visual teeth into the meat of the selection. Most compellingly odd of all, each section begins with a black-and-white picture. Each picture relates to the theme, somehow, but they’re not your ordinary pictures. They’re almost abstract, a little art-housey, maybe. Section Two, the one about birds, has a black square with – oh, I’ll just show you.

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I love it.

I don’t know what else I can say to convince you that this is a good collection of poetry, aside from maybe picking out my favorites and typing them all out, which I think is probably some flavor of illegal. (I would also have trouble picking them out, since I have about forty pages dogeared to show my love for those particular selections.) Just believe me when I say I’ve been enchanted by this odd little collection with the rightfully enchanting name. I’d guarantee you’ll find at least one poem to fall in love with – maybe the nursery rhymes rewritten to reflect Cold War fears about nuclear bombs, or the one about Mother’s homemade biscuits, or the one about how nice teeth are. I could go on, but I’d hope you’re convinced already.

Storytelling and Reflections On a Gift of Watermelon Pickle: I wasn’t sure what to say on this subject about storytelling. The other two poetry books I’ve reviewed for the Read-A-Thor were written by one person, and had unified author and more or less unified ideas behind them. An anthology of poetry is different, though, for obvious reasons; without a unifying theme – with, indeed, fifteen separate sub-themes, and great variation between the poems in the sub-themes – what is the story the anthology tells?

It’s probably a copout to say “the story of humanity.” But what else can I say? A collection like this is full of bits and pieces of dozens of authors’ experiences, pieced together into thematic quilts that say, “Life is never fully unique or singular; you are never the only one who sees and feels the things you do.” It’s both comforting and humbling, I think, but maybe more on the “comforting” spectrum. These poems are short, short stories, engineered for a time when you need to hear another person say, “This is what I saw or felt once, and you’ve probably seen and felt the same way.”

Read-A-Thor · reviews

Read-A-Thor, 5.3: Cress

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The fairytale rebellion continues, this time with the Lunar Chronicles’s take on Rapunzel: Cress, a young Lunar shell trapped in a satellite orbiting Earth. She knows everything about Cinder, and she wants to help. She also really wants to kiss Carswell Thorne.

 

 

 

In a word: Suspenseful.
Recommend: If you liked the first two books, obviously.

Cress deals with a lot of problems that I had with Scarlet. For one thing, I was actually invested in the new(ish) POV characters. Somehow, Cress seems to pop more than did Scarlet and Wolf. We already know Thorne, of course – and what a blessing he is, IMHO, especially in his relationship with Cinder – but it’s easier to get a handle on who Cress is. Her situation, of course, is easier to grasp than Scarlet’s; Cress has about a hundred square feet of living space, and with that kind of uber-tight focus, Cress’s identity comes across loud and clear. She’s endearing, too, if a bit similar to Tangled‘s Rapunzel: absurdly shy and timid, brilliant at hacking/programming but not at anything else, and almost too cute for words. She’s kind of like a fluffy white rabbit with some moderate character development and a romantic subplot. (I wish she hadn’t swooned and melted so often. She did it to the extent that I’m no longer sure what ‘swoon’ even entails.)

The pacing is up, too, which is good, as Cress is the penultimate installment in the series. It really helps that the story hits the ground running – no long, meandering scenes in which Cress tries to do something that doesn’t have that much to do with the series’s overarching plot, like Scarlet had. Even the time the book spends in (MILD SPOILER) the Sahara desert, where Cress and Thorne end up together for a full part of the book, doesn’t feel like padding, but more like necessary downtime. Cress and Thorne are allowed to have time for their romance to blossom (not a spoiler, it’s literally on the back cover), while the tension never lets up on Cinder’s side of the story.

Scarlet and Wolf are still frustrating. Scarlet really doesn’t do much besides act as a way to get the narrative to Luna, which is sadly underdeveloped and underdescribed. All I could visualize of the moon civilization was… well, if you’ve ever seen the old Duck Dodgers cartoons on Looney Tunes, that’s kind of where my mind went, except with big white space buildings. There’s talk of a nursery, though, and all I could picture was a regular old nursery, not a moon nursery centuries and centuries into the future. Luna was probably the biggest letdown of the book… aside from Wolf. Wolf, who spends most of the book in an emotional coma over a girl he’s known for, like, two weeks, max. He shuts down, attacks Cinder, and in general behaves abominably, like a two-year-old brat with muscles and fangs. I don’t like Wolf or Scarlet.

Cinder and Kai, though? Still wonderful. I don’t want to say anything else, because they were my favorite part and I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice it to say, they’re handled really well, and Cinder continues to be one of my favorite YA heroines of all time.

All in all, a solid improvement on Scarlet, and it gives hints of an even better book in Winter.

Postscript: Can I just take a moment to appreciate the naming in-jokes related to Rapunzel? Cress is short for Crescent, like the moon because she’s Lunar, but it’s also a leaf, kind of like the leafy veggie that the original Rapunzel was named for. You know what rapunzel was also called sometimes? Rampion – like Thorne’s ship. And you probably already know what happened to Rapunzel’s prince in some versions of the story: the witch threw him from the tower, and he was blinded when he fell on… yes, thorns! The level of planning Meyer put into the Rapunzel puns is truly breathtaking. (Her name isn’t Ra-pun-zel for nothing.) (I’ll see myself out.)

I hope to review Winter when I get my hands on it, so check back for the final review in a week or two!

Storytelling and CressI’ll just link back to my review for Cinder and Scarlet for this, since it’s still basically the same thing.

Read-A-Thor · reviews

Read-A-Thor, 5.2: Driving Hungry

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From Buenos Aires, to New York, to Berlin, Layne Mosler keeps a blog, eats a lot of food, and spends an inordinate amount of money on taxi fare.

 

 

 

 

In a word: Passable.
Recommend: Maybe, if you’re in the market for a travel-and-food memoir, but I’m sure there are better travel-and-food memoirs out there.

This is going to be a short review, because I don’t really know how to review nonfiction, especially memoirs. It always feels much more personal and vindictive to pan a memoir. (Food pun. Kind of. Absolutely intended.) So I’ll say this up front: I didn’t love this book. I’ll try not to get meaner than that.

This book neatly encapsulates a problem I have with a lot of memoir: the sense of babyish first-world problems. (Okay, that’s probably meaner, but let me explain.) While I realize that every person is allowed to feel frustration, sadness, depression, and anger at their circumstances, no matter how those circumstances compare to anyone else’s, there’s just something about the memoir format that rouses my judgy side.

Oh, this person gets to travel, eat good food, get contacted by major publications for interviews, and have lots of good friends as well as a popular blog? Wow, I’m so sad for them because their New York roommate has a sick cat. They have such a hard life.

Unfair, of course, but that’s the kind of thing that frequently went through my mind as I read Driving Hungry. Mosler, I’m sure, had a much harder time than her memoir let on, what with holding down jobs and paying rent and struggling with language barriers/culture shock while she wrote her blog and, as previously stated, spent so much money on taxi fare. (The gist of the memoir, if you haven’t read the synopsis, is that Mosler started a blog, Taxi Gourmet, the gimmick of which is that she takes taxi drives in order to get restaurant recommendations from the drivers.)

But still…! Your life is interesting enough to write a memoir about, and your blog is big enough for mainstream publications to notice you, but your (justified) anxiety still manages to come off as complaining?

Maybe Driving Hungry would have been easier to empathize with if Mosler’s writing was a bit more entertaining, but it wasn’t. It’s a middle-of-the-road style, functional to the extreme, and it did very little to spruce up 250 pages of taxi adventures. Actually, it seems like a very standard prose style for memoirs in general: serious, a little stiff, recounting funny anecdotes in a deadpan accent, recording conversations that are just a little too perfect, too on the nose, too eloquent to sound real. Her friends are wise, her taxi drivers are wise (the ones that speak English, anyway), her boyfriends are wise. Mosler is surrounded by people who say exactly what she needs to hear, at all times, giving her life lessons at an approximate rate of one per week.

The good of Driving Hungry: the food. Oh, the food. Beautiful, lovely food. My favorite examples of food came from Buenos Aires and Berlin, but New York had some winners, too. Mosler doesn’t quite linger over the food as much as I would have enjoyed, but the descriptions are still wonderful, and frequently made me hungry as I read. (Part of me wonders if the food passages were sparse because she’d already written them in her blog. If so, that would make it less frustrating.)

I also enjoyed some of the history of Berlin. Berlin is the second-to-last part of the book, and the one where Mosler has a more significant romantic story, pushing the food and travel to the backseat. The relationship was not particularly compelling, or at least Mosler’s retelling of it wasn’t. Still, her romantic partner did have a lot to say about Berlin after the fall of the Wall, which is something that you don’t hear about as much here in the States. It made up somewhat for the lack of food talk, and the presence of a lackluster romance.

In conclusion: meh. If you very much want some travel with your food memoir, you might pick up Driving Hungry, but if it’s the food you’re after, I’d recommend Stir, by Jessica Fechtor.

Storytelling and Driving HungryIt’s a memoir. It’s the story of a period in Mosler’s life. And yet it’s interesting how you can tell, very obviously, that some of it has been fictionalized. There’s even a warning in the front cover, explaining how names have been changes, people have been condensed into one character, and people have even been erased from certain narratives because they would have been distracting. In my opinion, it begs the question(s): what is the purpose of a memoirs if it’s not entirely truthful? To what extent should a memoir be a history book? Where is the line between improving the narrative and outright lying? Should we even ask for truth from a memoir or should we be prepared to understand it just as so much fiction, “based on a true story”?

Read-A-Thor · reviews

Read-A-Thor, 5.1: Midnight At the Electric

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Three time periods, three girls. A trip to Mars; a trip to the fair; a trip to America. Family exists in strange, tangled, ultimately meaningful ways.

 

 

 

 

In a word: Poignant.
Recommend: A thousand times over.

Jodi Lynn Anderson and I go way back. I fell in love with her May Bird series back in middle school, and ever since then, she’s put out good work (except for My Diary From the Edge of the World, which is probably more my issue because I don’t like novels told through journals). Though I haven’t read her whole oeuvre, I have read most of it, and I trust her. Still, when I read the synopsis for this book, I was nervous. Multiple time periods and multiple, unconnected POVs are not narrative choices that just anyone can follow through with; the same goes for that diary narrative again, as well as the part told through letters. There were a lot of elements that could have crippled Midnight At the Electric.

This is absolutely Anderson’s best work that I’ve read.

The most “normal” narrative is that of Adri, a teenaged girl without family (almost) who’s ready to slip the surly bonds of Earth forever and move to Mars as a Colonist. This is the frame story, if you will, and it was the most compelling (in my opinion, probably because it’s not told through diaries or letters). Adri is, frankly, an insensitive and closed-off jerk, and the narrative doesn’t try to excuse or justify her behavior, while it also doesn’t really cast her in the light of a villain or even really an antihero. It’s an incredible balancing act and Anderson pulls it off so well that it makes me want to weep. Adri changes and grows in small increments, without changing who she essentially is, and without any cheesy “come to Jesus” moment that might mark bad characterization. And the time she spends growing and improving with Lily, her 107-year-old cousin however-many-times removed, is powerful without sinking to saccharinity, sentimentalism, or  deus-ex-machina. The narrative takes the small parts of living with a person – the boring moments, the tiffs, the insults, the teasing, the bonding – and uses those to showcase Adri’s change of heart. The closer Adri gets to leaving for Mars, the more simple and undramatic Adri’s and Lily’s relationship gets, and yet that what gives the relationship its punch.

I’d also like to say that in the past year, I’ve read at least two (adult-marketed) books that were about astronauts and the painstaking process of going into space, and yet none of those books actually gave me the impending sense of leaving Earth like Midnight At the Electric did. I couldn’t say exactly what it is about Anderson’s prose here that evokes just the right sensation, but in any case, she knows how to use words – and judiciously, since Adri’s POV sections only take up a little over a third of a 250-page book.

There are two other POVs: Catherine, a girl living in the thick of the Dust Bowl, writing in her journal about her life; and Lenore, an English girl whose family is suffering the loss of Lenore’s brother to WWI, and whose portion of the novel is told through letters to her best friend (and Cathy’s mother) Beth. Despite my general dislike of the epistolary/diary narrative, I still enjoyed both of these girls’ stories, though they didn’t affect me the same way that Adri’s did. Cathy’s situation seemed more real, with the effects of the Dust Bowl much more tangible in the writing, but Lenore had a strong emotional arc, benefiting especially from her troubled epistolary relationship with Beth. I’ve never really seen a friendship between two girls written as a positive force despite genuine emotional problems; it was striking, compelling, and effective.

This novel has its own little problems. That relationship that I just mentioned, despite being a highlight, doesn’t have much of a climax. (Which is one of MANY PROBLEMS INHERENT IN EPISTOLARY/DIARY-STYLE NARRATIVES: it can be VERY DIFFICULT TO RESOLVE EMOTIONAL CONFLICT.) There are a few plot twists which don’t have foreshadowing, so their inclusions are jarring, and they occasionally seem pointless to the narrative because, up till that point, there’s been nothing wrong or out of place that required such a “plot twist.” Lenore’s setting, an early-20s England, feels sketchy at best.

But I don’t want to linger on the defects of such a poignant, well-written story. Neither do I want to give anything more away. I’ll say a little more in the next section but for this paragraph, I’ll say simply: read it. Try to read it in one sitting, to properly lose yourself in the story’s pathways. It’s worth the time and attention.

Storytelling and Midnight At the Electric: This book is about families and relationships; it’s about the way we tell those stories and the way those stories affect us when they’re told to us. Adri comes to find herself, and know herself, through reading the accounts of Cathy’s and Lenore’s lives – and Cathy finds strength in reading Lenore’s letters, as well. Lily comments that Adri has attached herself to Cathy and Lenore because the two are long dead, and thus can’t hurt Adri, but Adri makes the realization that the girls can still hurt Adri (in some constructive, soul-growing ways) simply by having existed and spoken, passing on their story to whomever would listen. Midnight At the Electric is a love letter in itself to the power that storytelling has over people, even in the most basic and mundane ways, like diary-keeping. (Even if diary-keeping is still a difficult and demanding method of storytelling at best.)

Read-A-Thor · reviews

Read-A-Thor, 6.3: The Golden Days

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The first in a five-volume story, which my first readthrough did not prepare me to summarize. Basically: do you want a slice-of-life story about the 1% of 18th-century China? You’re looking for Cao Xueqin and The Story Of the Stone, or The Dream Of the Red Chamber. A boy is born with a piece of blessed jade in his mouth; after that, just be glad the Penguin edition has a character index and multiple family trees.

 

In a word: Bewildering.
Recommend: That really, really depends on what you, as a reader, want out of your reading experience.

Look, summing up this book is impossible for me, and I know you don’t read reviews to have the books summarized anyway, so go read Goodreads’s summary and then come back here when you’re done.

You know my catchphrase, As Far As I Know, which I should really change the blog title to since I insist on talking about and reviewing books that I should not be talking about? The Golden Days is just one big As Far As I Know, except I know nothing from the get-go. I’m going to give my opinion, and it’ll be both wrong and frightfully uncivilized, but I’m going to bite the bullet and give my opinion anyway, because this is my review ad discussion blog, dangit.

On to the review.

The Golden Days is a bewildering mass of similar names, tenuous familial connections, social hoops to jump through, and standalone encounters that seem only to exist to give texture to the story, rather than to advance it. (That last bit is not a criticism, just an observation. As for whether I enjoyed it, my mileage varied depending on the characters involved.) It’s a Jane Austen novel turned up to eleven, where the social niceties are more important and go deeper than in any novel I can remember reading. So there’s a terrifying sense of weightiness and importance throughout much of this novel.

And yet what struck me was how human the characters were. They were playful and irreverent, teasing and bickering and constantly showing their worst sides. At one point, there is even – and I’m not exaggerating in the least – a schoolroom brawl because one student calls another student gay. The characters are frequently likable in spite of their flaws, rather than pigeonholing them into strict Good and Bad boxes. Xi-feng, my personal favorite, is one of the Jia family wives, and she is friendly, loving, helpful, competent, no-nonsense, and funny. She is also conniving, greedy, and has a scary capacity for heartlessness. In many stories, this would make me irredeemable and ultimately a bad guy, but there’s no such judgment, at least in this volume. She’s still a good aunt to Bao-yu, the main character, and a beloved family member. Other characters get similarly complex treatment, such as Aroma, Bao-yu’s favorite maid, and Dai-yu, Bao-yu’s sickly cousin.

That said, there is a smattering of pretty explicit material, shall we say. There’s nothing extensive or very descriptive, but the discussion is so frank and straightforward, without the Victorian circumvention and euphemism that I expected (why, though, from an 18th-century Chinese novel?), that it took me off-guard. I wouldn’t say don’t read it if you’re avoiding that content, since it amounts to maybe a single side of a page in nearly 500 pages’ worth of novel, but you should have that warning.

But whether or not you want to read it is a more important discussion. In my Recommend tab, I said whether you want to read this book depends on what you want out of a reading experience. Do you want to expand your reading horizons? Do you want a first-hand account of a period of Chinese history, with so many details and nuances that you wonder if you should be taking notes for a test that Cao Xueqin seems to be preparing you for? Do you want family politics out the ears and family dysfunction out the nose? Then The Story Of the Stone is for you, my friend. This is absolutely what you want.

If not, then I don’t think I’d recommend this to you. Not right away, at least, and not very strongly. It’s a worthwhile read, in my opinion – I’m glad I read it, and I want to continue, to see where the story ends up. (Cao died before he finished, apparently, and the fifth and final volume was compiled by an editor.) It’s not an easy book to consume, but once you get into the swing of things, it becomes more engaging, and easier to pick up. So if you ever want a challenge, and maybe something interesting to brag post about on Facebook, I’d suggest going for The Golden Days.

Storytelling and The Golden Days: Apparently, Cao Xueqin wrote or at least started writing The Story Of the Stone as something autobiographical, a fictionalized record of his own family’s important position in the Chinese government. How great is that? Storytelling: it leads you to turn the account of your family’s life into a thousand-page story, starting with a goddess and a mountain.

Read-A-Thor · reviews

Read-A-Thor, 6.2: Gitanjali: Song Offerings

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Rabindranath Tagore became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for literature. As far as I can tell, Gitanjali: Song Offerings, his English-language translation of the original Gitanjali, was a huge influence on that victory. And now I understand why.

 

 

In a word: Marvelous.
Recommend: YES. YES. YES.

Poetry is hit or miss for me. I think I made it clear in my review for We Still Live Here that I want good poetry, and actively search for it. But all too often, poetry – even the classic stuff – just doesn’t hit where it should.

Gitanjali did.

Obviously, I can’t say anything about the original Gitanjali. But knowing that Tagore himself did the massive work of translation and adaptation into its new English form, I’m able to appreciate these poems even more. If they’re this beautiful once removed from their native language, how touching and musical must they have been when he first wrote them?

Most of the poems of Gitanjali are religious. (Say it with me: As Far As I Can Tell.) There are a few more romantic ones, and some that are more life-oriented in general than explicitly religious. These are all wonderful. I especially like the life-oriented ones where the point is that the speaker isn’t a very active, busy, “successful” man; he likes slowing down, taking naps under trees, finding fulfillment in being himself, in being where he is. They are beautiful poems.

However, the majority are religious, and are addressed to some unnamed “Him” or “You” which I, a Christian, obviously interpret as speaking to a god. (Which god? I have no idea. I didn’t even bother to do that much research. I’m a failure of an English major. It’s actually hard to google anything about Gitanjali, too. I’m having a hard day’s work, okay?) If you’re not particularly religious, I’m not sure how Gitanjali will read; you’ve got a definite advantage if these prayer offerings can be applied to your daily life. There is so much gentle faith and tender spirituality to be found in these poems. If Gitanjali doesn’t apply at least a little bit to your relationship with your own god, I might be so bold as to suggest reexamining that relationship.

Am I getting too passionate/personal about this poetry book? Yes? Noted.

Even if you aren’t religious, there is so much this collection has to offer as poetry and as personal testament. The rhythm of the words are like visual lullabies. Sometimes Tagore uses patterns and repetition, sometimes he doesn’t; throughout them all, though, there’s a tide-like sensation that makes the poems comforting to read. The imagery and subject matter is equally soft and inviting; images of home and nature abound, and friends and lovers are always around the corner. And always, above it all, the sense that someone benevolent and kind is watching, wanting to be loved by the poems’ speaker and the poems’ reader.

I recommend this. I recommend all of it. Read it, and let me know which poems you bookmarked; we can compare which ones hit us the hardest.

Storytelling and Gitanjali: This is a collection that reads more like an emotional chronicle, and is therefore both intensely personal and widely universal. It’s hard for me to draw any particular storytelling theme from it, so I’ll stick to what I said in the last review: storytelling, stripped down, is one person passing a narrative to another. And that’s what Gitanjali is: a poet passing on the story he knows, the kind of story that will awe the hearer before it makes them realize that the story is very familiar.