Friday, October 16, 2020

THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE

Review of THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE by KATHERINE ARDEN

(first in the WINTERNIGHT trilogy)

 

I love novels that feel like both a familiar fairy tale and a distinct new story all at once. THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTGALE certainly fits that description.

 

Arden beckons in her readers with luscious, exquisite writing. Since I know writing is entirely a matter of taste, here’s an example of a line I really admired: “Ivan Kalita was a hard prince, eaten with ambition, cold and clever and grasping. He would not have survived otherwise; Moscow killed her princes quickly.”

 

I enjoyed this book, but I must confess that I didn’t feel it. Sometimes we read books that on a checklist seem good, but somehow we didn’t connect and as a reviewer (and a writer) I find pinpointing exactly why can be one of the most difficult aspects of assessing any story. My best guess here is that the narrative has a formal, distanced, detached tone and that discourages too much attachment from the reader. It’s one of those books that I would categorize as slow and quiet.

 

I also suspect pace as a major culprit in my hesitant investment. For me, this book dragged in Part I but really hit its stride in Part II, ultimately hooking me with the introduction of Konstantin. Unfortunately, that’s a good 100 pages into the book. Part I intrigued me, but felt unfocused, as if we were still waiting for the story to begin. In Part II, I felt I could identify a clear storyline with driving forces and compelling stakes.

 

I hardly ever say this, but I wanted more setting description. At times, I had the sense of a complex visual world full of snow and ice, fire and demons. Yet very little comes the reader’s way in terms of visual, physical description. I think this contributes to the detached voice as everything feels a bit too much to-the-point without the slanted, biased interpretation of a world through a distinct character that can make everything feel so unique and interesting.

 

Potential pacing issues aside, THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE is a haunting siren song of a story, luring readers into a cold Russian fantasy.


Friday, October 9, 2020

THE PRINCESS BRIDE


Review of THE PRINCESS BRIDE: S. MORGENSTERN’S CLASSIC TALE OF TRUE LOVE AND HIGH ADVENTURE by WILLIAM GOLDMAN

 

Though more people are familiar with the movie, this novel is a modern classic for good reason. It’s a timeless tale of adventure and true love that feels both nostalgically old-school and delightfully fresh.

 

Goldman implements a very unique observer narration style for this book. Goldman claims that THE PRINCESS BRIDE is a much beloved favorite from the country of Florin, written by S. Morgenstern. Goldman says that his father used to read this to him and now he’s been gifted the opportunity to publish an abridged version with his own notes. So throughout the story we encounter italicized interruptions by Goldman explaining what he cut and why, as well as sharing some personal childhood reactions to the story.

 

Funny anecdote: when I worked in a bookstore, an irate woman came in wanting to return this book. She insisted that she wanted the original Florinese book by S. Morgenstern, not this stupid abridged version with Goldman’s rambling and pointless interruptions.

 

I wish I didn’t have to clarify this: Florin is a not a real country. S. Morgenstern is not a real person. Fire swamps are not real nor are R.O.U.S.s (Rodents of Unusual Size). This fictional backstory is all part of how Goldman has structured his novel, all written by him.

 

The lengths Goldman goes for crafting such a backstory are, however, singularly extraordinary. In the foreword and notes, he tells story after story about his personal experience researching S. Morgenstern, not to mention his legal battles with Florin for publishing this abridgement – all fiction. He even references real people, with their permission I can only assume, such as claiming Stephen King has Florinese ancestry and criticized Goldman’s abridged version for omitting “boring” content that is historically and culturally informative. (In several places Goldman’s interruptions describe content he supposedly decided to cut from the story, such as several pages about packing or clothes or bureaucratic minutiae. This helps support the fantasy that he’s abridging a famous classic. As part of his elaborate fictional conceit Goldman claims these omissions are what upset King.)

 

Goldman’s story within a story is all the more enjoyable, because he makes every part so believable. It’s easy to mock the customer I mentioned earlier for gullibility, especially considering fire swamps or R.O.U.S.s. Except, even knowing it’s all fiction, Goldman almost convinces me they’re real. He approaches even the fantastic with a historical and scientific approach and seals his realism by underplaying the amazing: “Fire swamps are, of course, entirely misnamed…Simply, there are swamps which contain a large percentage of Sulphur and other gas bubbles that burst continually into flame.” Goldman’s bored recitation of fire swamp science implies normal and mundane to anyone willing to go along with him. Along these lines, to convince us of R.O.U.S.s, Goldman casually mentions the real largest rodent: the capybara. Little reminders of how crazy the real world is can be enough to convince us that maybe this fantasy world is as real as it gets.  

 

My only criticism is small against my fondness for this novel, but as someone who loves a good heroine I find Buttercup disappointing. She isn’t in any way remarkable beyond her much-hyped beauty. Especially in a story populated with unique, dynamic, memorable characters, Buttercup stands out as a boring set piece. I personally like to project more bravery and intelligence onto her than we see but it’s disappointingly noticeable that she’s the only prominent female character in the book and arguably the least interesting.

 

This classic, epic tale has won over countless readers and lives on in our collective society’s memory with iconic lines like “Inconceivable!”, “You killed my father. Prepare to die,” and “As you wish.”

Friday, October 2, 2020

PRINCESS ACADEMY


Review of THE PRINCESS ACADEMY by SHANNON HALE

 

This one was a re-read for me. I last read it in early college and adored it; I adore everything I’ve read by Shannon Hale. I’m also happy to say that PRINCESS ACADEMY entirely lived up my memory.

 

Miri lives in small quarry village. She knows lowlanders look down upon mountain girls like herself, so it’s a shock when it’s prophesized that the prince’s future bride will be found within her little village. In preparation, all eligible girls are sent away to study for their possible royal future.

 

As for Miri, she can’t decide whether being a princess would be a good thing or not. It sure sounds like a good thing, and yet the thought of leaving her family and her friends, moving far away to marry a stranger, and following all these ridiculous rules and restrictions – well, let’s just say it’s enough to make a girl wonder at a crown’s appeal.

 

Hale has a knack for writing distinct, compelling voices. As a writer myself, my early drafts especially often suffer from that on-the-nose dialogue in which characters understand and articulate their own motivations all too well. Hale does a brilliant job of expressing Miri’s emotions in a humanly slanted manner; often the reader understands young Miri better than she understands herself.

 

As counterproductive as it sounds, “strong female characters” are becoming almost overdone these days. To clarify, I think some writers believe they can slap that label on a character and be done with it, but I don’t think we’ll ever have enough of true, deep, meaningful strength. Hale tends to write about the kinds of strength that I admire most: thought over action, study over born talent, quiet consideration over loud but empty talk. Books have always celebrated introverts in a way we don’t see nearly as much on screen, because some of the most interesting and complex conflict is all internal. Hale’s work skillfully highlights the often undervalued and unexpected strength found within those we overlook.

 

PRINCESS ACADEMY is a middle reader book, but an enjoyable read regardless of age for anyone drawn to strong heroines, underdog protagonists, and brains over brawn themes.

Friday, September 25, 2020

ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING


Review of ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING by RAY BRADBURY

 

This is a collection of, I believe previously published, articles by Bradbury on the philosophy of writing. (I categorize writing books as primarily being about: business, craft, or philosophy – this is mostly philosophy: what is writing and what does writing mean to the writer, as well as the reader.) I marked numerous quotes that moved me, even several from the poetry, which came as a surprise given my apathy towards most poetry.

 

Speaking of which, I begrudgingly agree with Bradbury’s advice that all writers should read poetry every day. Oh, I’m not going to do so every day, but I see his reasoning. For anyone curious about why I don’t like poetry, I think it’s because there’s so much terrible poetry out there. I find it much harder to find poetry I like (though I do find it) than fiction or nonfiction. I find the labels of good versus bad are far more variably subjective with poetry than other categories. The vague ambiguity of a lot of poetry hits me as self-indulgent: written more for the writer than for the reader. 

 

I marked a lot of memorable quotes in these essays. A non-writer friend of mine rolled her eyes at this hyperbole: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” – but I think most writers, even most creatives, will relate. As long as we’re bashing reality, I also like the following phrase from his poem We Have Our Arts So We Won’t Die of Truth: “The World is too much with us.” In fact, Bradbury’s poems can go into the small category of poetry that I enjoy.

 

As I cannot possibly rephrase Bradbury’s own words better than he does himself, let me wrap up by sharing a few more of my favorite quotes:

 

We live surrounded by paradoxes. One more shouldn’t hurt us.

 

There will always be problems. Thank God for that. And solutions. Thank God for that.

 

We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.

 

Eventually quantity will make for quality.

 

To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a moving process. Nothing fails then…There is no failure unless one stops.

 

I loved this book. It’s a short, fast, extremely worthwhile read that I would recommend to all authors regardless of career stage.

Friday, September 18, 2020

THUMPED


Review of THUMPED by MEGAN MCCAFFERTY

(second in the BUMPED series)

 

If you don’t want any spoilers for the first book in this series, BUMPED, don’t read this review.

 


 

The first book in this series ended on a major cliffhanger. Melody, who is supposed to be pregnant, is not, while Harmony, who is not supposed to be pregnant (at least not by someone other than her husband), is. For anyone in need of a refresher, Harmony found an unexpected connection with Jondoe, Melody’s celebrity conception partner. Despite his vain and, um, prolific reputation, Jondoe secretly shares Harmony’s connection with God. Of course, Jondoe thought Harmony was Melody when they slept together, so fulfilling his contract just became a lot more complicated.

 

(As a side note, I find Harmony and Melody’s names too conceptually similar. Throughout reading both books and while writing both reviews, I kept mixing up who is who and needing to double check.)

 

For the time being, Melody is wearing an advanced tech false pregnancy bump in the hopes she can convince her sister to give up the baby in the name of fulfilling Melody’s contract. Her lie is no small fib, though, as “bumping” with a big name star like Jondoe for such a high paying contract, among other factors, has made Melody a constantly scrutinized celebrity herself. For Harmony’s part, she took off back home shortly after her encounter with Jondoe. She wanted a taste of the outside world and, boy, did she get it, but now she’s trying her best to fit back into a community that has never felt fully right for her.  

 

My praise and criticisms for THUMPED remain the same as for the first book. Fascinating world, but somewhat lackluster focus. Harmony and Melody’s stories don’t entirely convince or grip me, but there are all these moving parts and complications in the background that kept me intrigued and reading.

Friday, September 11, 2020

THE DINNER


Review of THE DINNER by HERMAN KOCH

(translated by SAM GARRETT)

 

This is a wonderful book that may have suffered, for me, from some over-hype. It was a bestseller years ago and since then has been enthusiastically recommended to me by literally dozens of avid readers. I honestly enjoyed it, but found the book fell a little short of my expectations after all that build up (and how much I enjoyed another book by this author).

 

The premise doesn’t do the book justice: a family goes out to dinner. I can’t reveal much more than that lukewarm description, because this is a psychological suspense novel. The real magic of this story lies not in an intriguing concept hook, but in how things unfold to reveal something much deeper and darker than our first glance suggests.

 

The book is narrated in first person through Paul’s perspective. Paul and his wife Claire are meeting Paul’s brother Serge and Serge’s wife Babette for dinner. Through veiled hints, the reader understands that the couples have something important to discuss, but Koch takes his suspenseful time revealing what. (And as the what and the slow reveal is the core of the story, I can’t say much more.)

 

The writing is full of meaning and misdirect. An extremely literal person would notice a long, detailed description of a family meal, including the food, waitstaff, and minute expressions of the diners. However, most any reader will catch volumes unsaid within each descriptive sentence. From page 1 – “He’s always the one who arranges it, the reservation.” – to “The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was its vast emptiness.” to “We had returned to our earlier seating arrangement.” Even the simplest of sentences carry weight and insight. Oh, don’t misinterpret me: our narrator Paul gives us plenty of more explicit explanation regarding his observations and opinions, but even what he’s not saying feels shouted.

 

I enjoyed this book, but do suspect it was overhyped for me. I liked Koch’s SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL far better, but had been told by many that THE DINNER is the better novel. Matter of opinion, of course. I also think THE DINNER caught me off guard in personal way that made it less enjoyable for me than for most readers. Please forgive the vagueness of that statement, but I want to avoid spoilers.

 

I find myself more interested in the writing and emotional themes of Koch’s work than in his slow reveals. With both books that I read, he takes a privileged, (seemingly) happy family and peels back layers to reveal the unusual and twisted complications beneath. I’m less interested in waiting for the revelation morsels about the real truth than I am in how skillfully Koch can turn a simple phrase to say a lot.

 

THE DINNER has lines that made me laugh – “A fixed appointment for the immediate future is the gates of hell.” – and lines that moved me – “Happiness needs nothing but itself; it doesn’t have to be validated.” Koch is a talented writer with a distinct and addictive style: both insightful and unsettling with a dash of unexpected humor.

Friday, September 4, 2020

ON MONSTERS


Review of ON MONSTERS by STEPHEN T. ASMA

 

I often say that the quality of a nonfiction book comes down to the writing, more so than with fiction. I believe fiction readers have an easier time overlooking weaker prose if they find an intriguing plot and/or compelling characters. But with nonfiction, only those already exceptionally interested in the particular subject are likely to persevere if the prose isn’t engaging.

 

Voice can make or break a nonfiction book. Plenty of people possess great knowledge on a particular subject, but cannot present that knowledge in a universally engaging manner. Asma’s personality shines through here and there in his writing with a touch of cute humor: “When the first two crazy people, I mean scientists, descended a quarter of a mile into the ocean…” Oh, and let me not forget one of my favorite lines: “If one’s penis goes missing, one can feel confident that one deserved it.”

 

Asma opens by admitting his own childhood fear of things lurking in the water: “I’m annoyed by my irrational fear of sea monsters, but I’ve resigned myself to coping with it.” After opening with that personal, relatable anecdote, Asma takes us on a fascinating study of the elusive but patterned concept of “monster.” In themed chapters, he addresses everything from demons to freaks to witches to serial killers to cyborgs, including how our views have changed through the ages. The Latin root of the word “monster” means “to warn.” Warning (associated with danger and fear) proves a strong commonality between the various uses of the word “monster” throughout centuries.

 

Of course, the content itself is even better than the writing. ON MONSTERS would be a great academic course or book club read as each chapter is packed with information and insight worthy of in-depth discussion. To pick out a few examples, I found myself very interested in Asma’s self-admitted speculation that perhaps the very common fear of the sea is a Darwinian evolutionary instinct. We might sometimes feel like top dog on land, in big communities and urban areas especially, but what about alone in the water with a shark? Asma mentions the debate within psychology regarding “preset fears.” Take snakes, for example. A lot of people are scared of snakes and simply explaining that there’s nothing to fear usually doesn’t counterbalance that instinct. Many snakes are poisonous and perhaps there’s an evolutionary basis for such fears. I also particularly liked Asma’s discussion of the relation between attraction and repulsion, especially his humorous examples of how even monkeys who are already aware there’s a snake in a bag will continue taking turns peeking into the bag only to jump (again) in fear and run away shrieking. (These are the same monkeys who would watch horror movies, I’m sure.)

 

My criticisms are few and minor. The prose is very wordy with an impressive vocabulary. I enjoyed that aspect myself as I actually had to look up a few unfamiliar words and I like learning new things; however, I expect it might be too dense and distracting for some readers. Also the author’s subjective opinion sometimes sneaks into the word choice. I most often agree with him, but I prefer objective nonfiction where facts are crisply stated without bias and I’m left to form my own opinion. For example, take the phrase “ridiculous creationist claims.” While I’m inclined to agree that creationist claims are ridiculous, I do think that adjective is too opinionated for fact-based nonfiction.

 

I loved this book. It’s one of the most interesting nonfiction books that I’ve read in a while and utterly packed with fascinating fodder for further thought. Asma examines the concept of monster from many different angles. “Everyone has the potential to become monstrous,” he writes. “An action or person or thing is monstrous when it can’t be processed by our rationality.”