Friday, May 17, 2019

SPINNING SILVER


Review of SPINNING SILVER by NAOMI NOVIK

Miryem is the daughter of the local moneyleader, but her sweet, compassionate father never follows through on actually collecting the debts owed him. As they slide into crippling poverty, Miryem takes over, earning herself a reputation as a hardhearted woman who practically turns silver into gold. Unfortunately, the fairy king hears these rumors and takes them literally. He comes to Miryem with high demands, which in turn carry high rewards for success…and high prices for failure.

Then there’s Wanda, who comes to help Miryem’s increasingly well-off household with chores and, in so doing, earns herself a little peace from her abusive father. Our last heroine is Irina, whose father intends to marry her to a cruel tsar. Only Irina knows that the tsar is possessed by some kind of demon, and that their marriage will mean her death. Each of these women work alone, and sometimes together, to craft their own destiny.

I love all three heroines. They’re all strong and smart, but in their own unique ways. However, the story switches between their perspectives…all in first person. It was definitely confusing and sometimes took me several sentences of a new chapter to piece together whose viewpoint we’re in now.

SPINNING SILVER finds that sweet spot between fairy tale retelling and original story. It has that wonderful combination of familiar and fresh, not to mention that beautiful haunting sense of mysterious old magic. Even Novik’s name for the fey—Staryk—sounds so recognizable that I thought it must be from something I read before. Well, if it is, I can’t track it down now. I think she just nailed the balance of innovative familiarity. I would recommend this book even to those who claim to have already met their fairy tale retelling limit. SPINNING SILVER doesn’t read like any story you’ve read before.

Friday, May 10, 2019

THE LAST ANNIVERSARY


Review of THE LAST ANNIVERSARY by LIANE MORIARTY

First let me say that I liked this book. I like (often love, sometimes adore) all of Moriarty’s work. However, interestingly enough THE LAST ANNIVERSARY is both my least favorite so far as well as the one that best handled my pet peeve about her writing.

That pet peeve is that she always plants a piece of mystery bait early in the story to keep the reader hooked out of a desire for answers. I find this tension technique overdone and unnecessary, especially in Moriarty’s case since she writes such strong and intriguing characters. The withheld mystery in THE LAST ANNIVERSARY is regarding a local legend. A baby was discovered abandoned, the parents mysteriously gone with no explanation. However, it’s clear from an opening chapter that at least some people know the true story behind this mystery and, as is standard for a Moriarty novel, those secrets will not be revealed until the dramatic ending.

The withheld mystery didn’t bother me as much in this novel as it has in others, I suspect because Sophie doesn’t know either. While the book dips into other perspectives, I viewed Sophie as our protagonist and felt comfortable watching secrets unfold along with her. I think it frustrates me more when a character already knows something, but only ever thinks about it with vague, veiled wording meant to intrigue without explaining. Or even when someone else knows, but all it would take is simply asking them.

Moving away from my pet peeve point, though, what I adore about Moriarty’s writing is the nuanced characters and how all the relationships pop with believable chemistry. Yet I experienced that the least in this book so far. The characters felt a little flatter, less developed. I didn’t buy them as people I might meet, like I normally do with her characters. I struggled keeping track of everyone, as well as their relations to each other.

Having established that this one is opposite to my usual Mortiarty impressions, let me back up and explain the premise a bit more. Sophie is single when her one-that-got-away, and now married, ex approaches her with a bizarre situation. His aunt has passed away…and left her house to Sophie, much to the fury of other family members. Sophie loved that house, probably part of why the aunt left it to her. It’s on a small island infamous for the unsolved mystery. Generations back, the aunt’s family found that abandoned baby in a house they rented, with absolutely no sign of what happened to the parents.

Aside from the underdeveloped characters, I do have a few more criticisms with this one than I normally do with this author. I’m afraid I called almost every single twist in the entire book, including the main one about the original Munro Baby mystery. My frustration over this is lessened by the fact that there was one small twist near the end that I didn’t see coming and I was pleased to be taken by surprise by that one. 

Unfortunately, I will also say that the final explanation for the big Munro Baby mystery didn’t fully satisfy me. I have to suspend my disbelief far too much to be convinced, especially in proportion to how long that information is dramatically withheld. The explanation seems to rest entirely on the incompetency of others.

Honestly, I think this is fantastic book that fell a little short of the high bar I set for Moriarty’s work. The short chapters make it a fast read, and, as ever, Moriarty infuses everything with suspense and complicated relationships.

Friday, May 3, 2019

THE SLEEPING PRINCE


Review of THE SLEEPING PRINCE by MELINDA SALISBURY
(second in THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER trilogy)

This trilogy started very well with THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER
and I was excited to read the next book. Initially, I was disappointed that THE SLEEPING PRINCE opens in a new perspective, especially since the first novel ended on a slight cliffhanger. However, our new heroine Errin won me over as much as Twylla, arguably more so for being a little more relatable. (No poison skin or anything like that.)

Errin does connect to the first book. She is Leif’s sister. Leif left Errin and their mother for his job as a royal guard in a foreign country, supposedly to help his family financially, but Errin has not been feeling particularly helped. Whether his heart was in the right place or not, Errin’s brother abandoned her to handle both money issues and a mother with severe mental health problems. Now that The Sleeping Prince has awoken and is sweeping through every country, killing by the hundreds, Errin will need to figure out how to move her unpredictable mother away from their dangerous position on the border.

Errin is not entirely without help. She befriended a peculiar outlier named Silas. He wears a hood at all times and Errin has never seen his face. Their friendship is rocky; they clearly like each other, maybe more than like, but both have secrets from the other and a lot to lose if they misplace their trust. Despite all that, Silas is all Errin has right now.

I found Errin’s dream sequences odd and irrelevant, but—as with opening on a new character—trust the author. Salisbury knows what she’s doing, and by the end of the book any confusion or criticism I had smoothed out and made sense to me.

THE SLEEPING PRINCE builds to a powerful, unexpected, emotional (but, yes, cliffhanger) ending that left me desperate to start the next book immediately.
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Friday, April 26, 2019

REDEFINING REALNESS


Review of REDEFINING REALNESS: MY PATH TO WOMANHOOD, IDENTITY, LOVE & SO MUCH MORE by JANET MOCK

This memoir relays a trans woman’s journey from childhood into becoming the woman she is today. While I can imagine that a lifetime of being told who you are by others does indeed make one very thoughtful, the level of insightful self-reflection in this memoir truly amazed me. Mock distills complicated experiences, emotions, and preconceptions into powerful phrases. She’s incredibly articulate in analyzing not only herself but this complex, horrible, wonderful world.

Mock does share about some dark experiences in her life, so I would warn any sensitive readers about that, especially those who feel they can be easily triggered by others’ stories. I am wary about seeking too much darkness in the books I read as I find plenty in real life. However, I often say that it’s not a matter of avoiding darkness as there being a proportional, emotional payoff for exposing yourself to it. Watching or reading some terribly dark, gratuitous story does not appeal to me, unless there’s some deeper meaning woven into the darkness. Mock makes exploring her demons with her well worth it. She has clearly had an abundance of opportunity to think in depth about some of the worst moments and people in her life. As with many survivors, Mock comes to the conclusion (through an abundance of much more memorable quotes) that she wouldn’t be the woman she is today had she not gone through the experiences that she did.

I hesitate telling people this a memoir about a trans woman, because I think many consider that experience not relevant to their own. It would be far more accurate to say this a memoir about discovering and claiming your own identity even as others try to tell you that you’re mistaken. It’s not all about gender, not by a long shot. For starters there’s the whole victim versus survivor debate. An integral part of recovering from any tragedy is to shift from seeing oneself as a pitiable victim of misfortune into viewing oneself instead as a brave and resilient survivor. Mock is also multi-racial and grew up extremely poor, two other identities that the world thrust upon her to do with what she could and would.

Honestly, Mock is so impressively articulate about such complex topics that I find myself anxious I can’t possibly write a review that fully does her memoir justice. I would caution that some might opt to avoid books with darker, traumatic material, but aside from that I feel this is one of those books that everyone can benefit from reading. She filters her insight through the perspective of a trans woman, but most of her revelations are applicable to all humankind: about discovering and claiming your identity.

Friday, April 19, 2019

THE BOLEYN INHERITANCE


Review of THE BOLEYN INHERITANCE by PHILIPPA GREGORY

I adore Philippa Gregory. She’s my favorite historical fiction author and, as such, I use her as my measuring stick for other historical fiction, asking myself, “Did I like that as much as a Philippa Gregory novel?”

After THE CONSTANT PRINCESS, which focused on Henry VIII’s first wife Katherine of Aragon, and THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, which focused on the infamous Anne Boleyn as well as her less well-known sister Mary, Gregory follows with THE BOLEYN INHERITANCE. This novel continues the saga of Henry VIII’s many unfortunate wives, as told through three perspectives: his fourth and fives wives, respectively, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard, as well as Jane Rochford, widow of Anne Boleyn’s brother.

What makes Gregory’s novels exceptional are the characters. Each feels like a living, breathing human with complex emotions and understandable motivations. My issue with some historical fiction novels comes when a character follows history…but why? Their decision doesn’t make sense for the personality the author has created. Gregory sticks to the major historical facts, but crafts such compelling, convincing characters that, even knowing the ending and likely “twists,” I’m riveted to the page.

Gregory’s version of Anne of Cleaves is a timid young woman desperate for any opportunity that will free her from her brother’s tyrannical control. Like Katherine of Aragon, she’s easily underestimated, but proves herself worthy of admiration over time. Anne may be quiet and unassuming, but she’s smarter than she’s been given credit for and she learns to make the best of her circumstances.

Meanwhile, Katherine Howard, even younger, lives fast and wild. She’s a vain, selfish, thoughtless child of a young woman who snatches at forbidden fruit without thinking any further ahead to possible repercussions. She innocently believes life will work out in her favor, because…well, so far it always has.

Last, there’s Jane, reduced to an existence of memories, regret, and self-torture. Her testimony sent Anne Boleyn and her brother (Jane’s husband) to their deaths. Jane has always told herself whatever she most needs to believe is the truth and she’s reaching the point where she cannot remember what the real truth is.

Whether these woman are anywhere close to accurate depictions of the true historical figures, Gregory’s novels are so enjoyable precisely because she makes these character her own. Each one is captivatingly compelling and distinctive.

Friday, April 12, 2019

LEAGUE OF DRAGONS


Review of LEAGUE OF DRAGONS by NAOMI NOVIK
(ninth in the TEMERAIRE series)

I feel sad even writing this review. Why? Because it’s the last book in the Temeraire series, one of those series I wish could keep going forever. Laurence, Temeraire, and their many other comrades – human and dragon alike – have come to feel like familiar friends. I enjoy their casual banter almost as much, and in some cases even more, than their high stakes adventures.

This last installment sees a weakened Napoleon retreating. The opportunity to end his reign of terror is clear, but still threatened by debate about treatment of dragons. In a desperate ploy to maintain his control, Napoleon promises the sun and moon to dragons who join or defect to his cause.

These books have always been skilled at examining the complexities of war and politics. Laurence and Temeraire do not merely need to plan a strategic battle plan for approaching and fighting Napoleon’s troops. More importantly, they need to maintain the morale and support of their own ranks.

The ending of this final Temeraire story could only ever be bittersweet for me. Except for one amnesia twist miss, I enjoyed every book in this series immensely and would have happily continued reading as many as Novik wanted to write. Laurence, but Temeraire especially, carved out places for themselves as some of my top-memorable characters.

Friday, April 5, 2019

INKDEATH


Review of INKDEATH by CORNELIA FUNKE
(third in the INKHEART trilogy, translated by ANTHEA BELL)

This final installment in the captivating INKHEART trilogy finds our heroes trapped within the beautiful but dangerous (and fictional) world of Inkheart. The entire novel has a very somber tone, with clear “the grass is always greener” themes. Meggie, among others, yearned for this magical world and, now here, she yearns for home. Neither will ever fulfill her completely.

This series features a huge cast of interesting characters and unfolds through short chapters in alternating viewpoints. I will confess that multiple viewpoints is never my preference. Funke is a master with her material, but nevertheless I find that when the viewpoint splits so does my investment. Rarely do I invest as strongly in multiple viewpoint stories as I do with one perspective. It lends too much to the idea of each character as an almost insignificant piece in an overwhelmingly huge puzzle.

I would like to back up and describe the premise of this third installment, but with so many characters and plot lines it feels too complex to summarize. Of course, those who read the first two novels have an idea of where the story’s headed. To do my best, I’ll suggest that this entire third book is a long and dramatic showdown between Meggie’s family (among others) and the evil Adderhead.

As always I adore that books play an active role in both the story and the magic of this series. An exceptional book becomes the key for either success or failure in overcoming the Adderhead.

Despite my disinclination for series with so many viewpoint characters, the INKHEART trilogy will go down in my memory as a classic favorite. I, too, understand the perhaps misguided yearning for the magical world of Inkheart.