Friday, May 18, 2018

THE BEATRICE LETTERS


Review of THE BEATRICE LETTERS by LEMONY SNICKET

Oh, you thought Snicket’s thirteen-book-long series was over, did you? Not quite. Here the puzzles continue with a collection of letters between the mysterious Beatrice and our fictional author Lemony. The letters, of course, include the characters’ usual efforts at coded messages as well as the rambling, subtextual wit that I consider the signature of this series.  

I found this installment a little too young for my tastes, but expect the target audience of middle grade readers will thoroughly enjoy analyzing each letter for hidden messages. The book is also a little more interactive with pop-up and fold-out pages as well as pockets for things like a poster. Definitely a fun addition for young fans of the series.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Art of Reading: Recommendations


All bibliophiles have at least one thing in common: the love of books. Still, as I'm reminded every time I talk to another reader, that doesn't mean we express our affection for the written word in exactly the same way. I'm referring to how we read.

This post’s theme: recommendations. How often do you read something at the recommendation of someone else? Do you tend to like books that have been recommended to you? Or does it really depend on who recommends them? Is there a particular person whose recommendations you especially trust? Do you yourself recommend books to others? Do those recommendations usually go over well or not so much?

Anyone who follows my blog regularly likely noticed I’ve been in a blogging slump lately. Well, silver lining is that it did give me an idea for this non-review post about recommendations.

The truth is that I have been reading, just as much as always, but sadly I haven’t been liking a lot of what I read, and, although I always mention my criticisms, I only review books if I like them. Given this spree of disinterest in what I read, I had to ask myself, “Is it me? Is it them?” Perhaps after decades of addict level reading, I’m becoming a more cynical, critical reader. I do think that’s true, but I also noticed a trend. Lately I’ve mostly been reading books people recommended rather than ones I picked out myself. And all the ones I haven’t liked are ones someone else urged me to read. To clarify, I do read plenty of recommendations that I love, including some I’m still finishing now, but my point is that there was a common trend in the ones I wasn’t liking: someone pushed me to read it and, despite this small, internal voice that suspected I wouldn’t like it, I caved to the reader peer pressure.

Next I wondered about the difference between the recommendations I liked and those I didn’t. I do think recommendations are far more likely to be a hit if the recommender and recommendee already have similar tastes. Certain people, such as booksellers and I like to think reviewers like myself, have a distinct skill for knowing who will like which books even if they themselves feel differently. However, most people tend to assume that if they like something other people will, too. In my case, I have eclectic tastes but a special draw towards speculative fiction. I am utterly and completely guesstimating but I would say 75% of what I choose myself is spec fic while only 25% of what people recommend to me is spec fic. Given that I’m almost done with two non-spec fic novel recommendations that I cannot wait to rave about in reviews, a book not being spec fic is not a deal breaker for me. However, I do think it demonstrates differences in my average taste versus the average taste of those recommending books to me.

Now the last thing I want to suggest with this post is that we all know exactly what’s good for us and should never consider anyone else’s opinions. Word of mouth is the single most powerful advertising tool in the world. We make most of our purchasing decisions, not just with books, based on recommendations by those whose opinion we trust. The truth is that I have had plenty recommended to me that I thought I wouldn’t like and found myself happily proven wrong. It’s wonderful, in fact, to broaden your horizons that way, but my point is that it’s equally disheartening when you try broadening your horizons and don’t feel anything more uplifting from the experience than that apathetic “meh” response.

I want to mention some recommendations that pleasantly surprised me. First, Jane Austen. In all honesty, I now realize I was making a judgment about the type of person who raved about her novels: from my experience, often young women gushing over the romantic male leads. Then when I finally read one of Austen’s books, I was startled by how much feminism I encountered. Second, a friend recommended Abarat to me and a peek at the illustrations had me thinking, “Boy, this looks weird. “Little did I know I would consider it the best kind of weird and find myself dreamily pulled into this fantastical world. Third, a publisher sent me a copy of The Original Ginny Moon. I don’t read everything people send me for review, especially when I didn’t ask for it, but neither am I someone to turn my nose up at free books so I try to give as many of these review copies a decent chance as I can. The premise didn’t sound to my taste by description alone, but - wow, oh wow - what a compelling and unique narrator voice.

No surprise given the nature of this blog, but I recommend books to people constantly, sometimes upon request, sometimes unsolicited. I also worked as a bookseller for four years where that was the nature of the job. Recommending at the bookstore was even trickier than recommending to a friend, because you have to attempt assessing someone’s taste within a brief, few minutes long conversation. I like to think that I have a knack for recommendations. People usually come back to me for more suggestions and sometimes there’s impressed surprise, because they were skeptical and then found my pick for them to be spot on. Of course, I have had experiences where someone doesn’t like what I recommended, but, if I’m really honest, I think I saw it coming in those cases. Every now and then I push a book on someone not because I truly believe they will love it but for more selfish reasons. I love it, and poor me but I cannot find anyone else I know who’s read it so I’m all alone in my quiet adoration. I don’t do this on purpose, but when someone admits they didn’t really understand the appeal of something I recommended I often realize that small, internal voice warned me: “This isn’t really their taste...but maybe, hopefully we’ll both be surprised and then we can gush over the book together.”

Speaking of recommending books for selfish reasons, I want to end this post on a funny note. I have a friend who several times has pushed and pushed me to read a book: “You have to read this. Have you read this yet? You have to read it. I really want to hear what you think.” Then when I finally read the book...I hate it. So I say to this friend, “Well, sorry, but...I didn’t really like it.” only to hear, “I know! Isn’t it awful? I hated it, too!” Did your brain just explode the slightest bit, too? Turns out then this friend encounters a book he really detests, he plays the same game I do when I encounter one I absolutely adored: he goes looking for someone else, anyone else, he can get to read it so they can talk about it together. Well, needless to say, I don’t read books recommended by this friend anymore.

So how about you? How often do you read based on recommendations? How often does that work out for you? Do you recommend books to others, and do they like the ones you suggest?

Friday, March 30, 2018

PERFUME


Review of PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER by PATRICK SUSKIND
(translated from German by JOHN E. WOODS)

Jean-Baptiste is not like other humans. He lives for smell and smell alone. Yes, you read that right. Everything else about the world is immaterial to him. All that matters is scent. His sense of smell borders on something superhuman as he can pick it apart down to its base elements as well as separate out and follow one smell amid a chaotic environment overwhelmed with different complex scents. This fixation leads him to a life as an extraordinary perfumer. However, Jean-Baptiste cares nothing for fame, fortune, or even his work. His true, secret goal is more sinister, rooted in a dark experience from his youth when he tracked the most exquisite, perfect scent to a young girl and unsuccessfully tried to take her scent for himself.

I would call this story magical realism. It’s not fantasy as it doesn’t explicitly call anything magic, but rather the magical elements are catalysts for unusual characters and plot threads. However, I consider the novel some branch of speculative fiction without a doubt since what Jean-Batiste does lies beyond the bounds of realism as we know it and his whole character is portrayed almost as a type of demon.

I hesitate to comment on the writing, since I know this book is translated from the German, but I will assume the English translation bears some reflection of the original German. I cannot call the writing anything other than luscious, skillfully taking us inside a very warped, tunnel vision obsessed mindset. The story is filled with vivid, unusual metaphors putting Jean-Baptiste’s bizarre view of the world into some comparison most of us can understand. Also as a writer myself, I struggle with scent more than any other sense. I know smells, but putting a specific smell into descriptive words a reader can understand is very difficult. Yet Suskind (and/or Woods) finds the words, over and over and over again, to describe a small fraction of the countless distinct scents we encounter in our daily life.

This is a weird story to be sure, but weird can be good or bad. Some will find Jean-Baptiste’s creepy obsessions merely off-putting while others, like myself, see the story as an exceptionally unique point of view. I believe most everyone will agree this novel is one of a kind.

Friday, March 2, 2018

TONGUES OF SERPENTS


Review of TONGUES OF SERPENTS by NAOMI NOVIK
(sixth in the TEMERAIRE series)

After being convicted of treason and striped of his title in the last book, former Captain Will Laurence and his dragon partner Temeraire are transferred to a prison colony in Australia. They accept an assignment to blaze a trail through uncharted territory in hopes for leniency on their sentence. Along the way they encounter smugglers and unfamiliar, dangerous, wild beasts.

As always, I LOVE the voice in this series. It’s so unique, wittily formal, and in a word delightful. Temeraire in particular never ceases to tickle me: the proper dragon with a sense of etiquette and a firm moral code.

I also love the Australian creature introduced in this book, though not in the same way I love Temeraire. I don’t want to say what it is to avoid spoilers, but the interpretation of this mythical beast is the right amount of creepy and intriguing. Not to mention the thing’s knack for showing up at the worst possible moments and making those moments worse.  

I love every new Temeraire book I read and this is one of those series that I naively hope will never end.

Friday, February 23, 2018

PRINCESS BEN


Review of PRINCESS BEN by CATHERINE GILBERT MURDOCK

In full honesty, this book almost didn’t make the cut for a review. I love the story, characters, and themes, but I have nothing positive to say about the writing.

My approach to reviews is that I would rather focus on praising books I adore than bashing those I dislike. This comes from being a writer myself and understanding how much work goes into even books I think are terrible as well as a general preference for putting more emphasis on positive than negative. That said, with books I detest it’s an easy decision: no review. The tricky part comes with books where I have both glowing praise as well as harsh criticisms, in which case I weigh them in my mind and ultimately ask whether or not I still recommend the book. I may like being positive, but I care more about honesty so I feel if I’m going to review a book I have an obligation to call out both strengths and weaknesses as I see them.

To get the negative out of the way, almost every single sentence irritated me. It feels like a thesaurus has been taken to the entire novel and the style frequently opts for unusual, obtuse word choice over something simpler and more accurate. I might have been able to get past a formal, wordy writing style were it not for the fact that the book is told in first person. I cannot fathom anyone who thinks this way and it doesn’t feel natural as Ben’s voice.

However, I stop reading a book when I realize I’m not enjoying it and yet I liked this story so much that being annoyed about word choice in almost every sentence still wasn’t enough to make me put down the book. Princess Ben is a great protagonist with an array of both strengths and weaknesses like any real human being. She whines about other people judging her constantly, but doesn’t realize how much she misjudges those around her.

Let me back up and describe the premise. Princess Ben is not an ideal princess. She’s overweight and uncouth, argumentative and tactless. When her father the king dies, she’s left in the care of her stepmother until she comes of age to rule. And her merciless stepmother finds fault in every little thing Ben does. Then Ben makes some magical discoveries that lead her down an unexpected path to even more important discoveries about the fate of her country and the people she thought she knew.

And the thing is, now that I’m done with the book, I’m not thinking about that word that seemed especially out of place on page such and such. I’m still thinking about Princess Ben and how she changed for the better over time and all she learned about people she thought she had all figured out.

Friday, February 16, 2018

INKSPELL


Review of INKSPELL by CORNELIA FUNKE
(second in the INKHEART trilogy, translated by ANTHEA BELL)

Meggie’s magical bibliophilic adventures continue. After defeating the villain that her father accidentally read out of the infamous novel Inkheart years ago, she returns to her normal life. Better than normal, in fact, since now she has her mother back. Unfortunately, sometimes moving on is easier said than done and despite all the terrible things that have happened because of that book Meggie cannot get Inkheart out of her head. She idolizes that magical, fictional world and hopes desperately to be read into the story so she can experience all the wonder firsthand. Everyone warns her that the world of Inkheart is as horrible as it is beautiful, but she becomes obsessively fixated on seeing the beauty for herself. So she resolves to find a way to read herself into the book.

This is a re-read for me and I confess that I didn't adore this one as much as I did the first time. I suspect it’s a matter of taste. I don’t normally gravitate towards either epic fantasy or multiple POVs. At times the story felt longwinded and unnecessarily complex to me. (Whereas I recall thinking on the first reading that the layered stories and worldbuilding were impressively complex.) The story also feels too dark for my taste at times, especially with that sense of romanticizing the darkness.

That said, I still enjoyed this book cover to cover; I think I only overhyped it a little in my own mind over time. Dustfinger will always be a favorite character for me, despite falling into the exact trope of trapped in an endless cycle of tragedy that I took issue with in the above paragraph. In INKSPELL specifically, I love the complicated, thought-provoking role that Cosimo ends up playing, along the lines of which it’s constantly fascinating to consider the effects an author could have living in the world he created.

Above all, I cherish this series for the book-obsessed premise: book magic, lots of avid readers, quotes from real books, stories within stories. These novels were written as a love letter to bibliophiles everywhere and have set up a permanent place of affection for themselves in my heart. I look forward to seeing how the last book in the trilogy holds up on the second read.

Friday, February 9, 2018

BURN


Review of BURN by JULIANNA BAGGOTT
(third in the PURE trilogy)

The final installment in Baggott’s complex and beautiful PURE trilogy sees all of our favorite characters held captive by terrible circumstances and scrambling for even the tiniest bit of leverage to help their cause. If you’re avoiding spoilers of the first two books, don’t read this review.  

Partridge’s storyline in particular ran dangerously close to be boringly passive, but Baggott makes it work in same way she does the others, by evoking strong emotional empathy for her characters. Partridge finds himself stuck as a powerless figurehead. He carries on with his fake engagement, following a schedule of trivial activities and photo ops while what he really wants is to be plotting the Dome’s downfall with the woman he truly loves, Lyda. As mentioned earlier, all the main characters find themselves trapped in frustratingly powerless circumstances. Lyda misses the outside something fierce. It was dangerous but liberating. Now she plays the damsel in a tower role, hidden away in a beautiful apartment where she can’t see Partridge and she doesn’t have the freedom to come and go as she wishes.  

The only drawback for me was the ending. The entire series has a very slow, character focused build towards an inevitable showdown between those inside and outside the Dome. Then the hurried climax comes abruptly and the series ends without much denouement. I have always been a reader more interested in the aftermath of an explosion than the explosion itself, so it disappointed me that we aren’t privy to much aftermath.

Regardless theses characters made themselves comfortable in my heart and I won’t soon forget about the girl with a doll for a hand, the boy with birds on his back, the brothers fused together, or the girl who crafted spears from a crib.