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.

Friday, February 2, 2018

IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS


Review of IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS by ERIK LARSON

With this nonfiction history book, Larson follow the American ambassador in Germany before World War II. The book almost reads like fiction with a well-paced sense of storyline and plot threads as Larson leads readers through a wealth of complicated, layered information.

Above all this is a true tale about the ambassador William E. Dodd, but his daughter Martha also plays a significant part. Starting with Dodd, though, he had an admirable view on the role of politicians that I wish we saw more of today. He believed politicians, diplomats included, serve their country and their people and should not be extravagantly rewarded for service he considers more a duty than a favor. Dodd took his pay at a much lower rate than offered and frequently turned down luxuries in favor of more practical, cost-efficient alternatives. Nobel as this may sound to some, myself included, this modest approach earned him countless enemies and he spent most of his career fighting off one attempt or another to oust him from his position in favor of someone more traditional (and by that I do mean more of a spendthrift). The official stance against Dodd was that part of a diplomat’s role is to pamper and impress his peers. However, I believe (and this is me talking, not something taken from the book) that people like Dodd threaten those more attached to their bloated salaries and excessive lifestyles. Dodd focused on the work: on who he needed to talk to and more on what should be said in that conversation than what fancy restaurant or party they should attend, what they should wear and eat, or how he could phrases bribes as gifts, etc.

Meanwhile Dodd’s daughter Martha loved the attention her father’s role brought her. She became infamous in their circle for her promiscuous dating life. Her lovers included some men very powerful in politics at the time, including the first chief of the Gestapo and a Soviet spy. My impression at least, though, is that Martha seemed to care little for the political connections of these men beyond a novelty that contributed to their complex and intriguing characters as men romantically interested in her.

It feels odd to make such statements about Dodd and Martha, as if I knew them at all. Larson, however, includes plenty of first hand quotes from speeches, interviews, conversations, and letters, enough that the reader can start to believe they have an idea of what kind of people contributed to this part of history. It’s particularly eye-opening reading direct quotes on how people reacted to Hitler at the time, not to mention direct quotes from Hitler himself. Larson paints a not unfamiliar portrait of a world in denial and a U.S. preoccupied with their own priorities. Sadly, and again all too familiar, Dodd’s warnings become lost in pettier politics. His peers look down on him as an idealistic nonconformist due to his financial beliefs and then their dislike of him turns to an eagerness to dismiss anything he claims, including warnings about the threat Germany poses to Jews, to the U.S., and to the world.

Dodd might sound like a heroic underdog in my descriptions, but Larson is carefully avoids idolizing him. Both Dodd and Martha make anti-Semitic statements, establishing that while they abhor the thought of genocide they do both agree that Jews are a worldwide “problem.” Near the end of the book there’s also brief mention of something terrible Dodd does once back in the U.S., a seemingly random story except as a reminder of who he was as a complete, flawed man of his time.

The short chapters make this thick book read faster than expected. With the excerpts from historical documents providing real words from real people, Larson gives his readers at least a subtle sense that we were there. He treats these figures with careful attention to their hypocrisies and nuances, piecing together a familiar world of flawed human beings and how those flaws can sometimes leave big gaps in mankind overall, gaps that can be exploited in the worst ways imaginable.

It’s only in the past five years or so that I have taken an interest in nonfiction as well as fiction, but Larson’s unique way of making history read like a story makes me eager to hunt down his other books.  

Friday, January 26, 2018

MAGIC STUDY


Review of MAGIC STUDY by MARIA V. SNYDER
(second in the STUDY trilogy)

After being banished from her homeland (kind of; we’ll get to that) for having magical powers, Yelena sets off to learn how to control her magic before it takes control of her. Along the way, she reunites with her birth family. Kidnapped as a young girl and raised in another country, Yelena had her early memories magically erased by her kidnapper. So this overjoyed, welcoming family nevertheless feels composed of strangers. Not to mention that her brother hardly seems pleased about her return, going so far as to accuse her of impersonating his long lost sister. Then someone starts preying on young girls in a way all too familiar to Yelena. Her past experiences and particular skills make her the obvious choice for tracking down this sociopath, but she’s far from ready for a challenge of this magnitude.

Snyder does an incredible job “filling” every corner of her story. Many books lag in the middle, and many trilogies have an entire middle book less interesting than the first and last books. Not Snyder. From the every day details of Yelena’s lifestyle to her developing relationships to the higher action and drama, Snyder makes every page worth reading.

This trilogy may be one of the few cases where I actually like the books more upon a second read. From my first read, I recall enjoying the series with some harsh criticisms, but upon a second read those criticisms seem much exaggerated in my memory. I’ve written about how expectations affect our final opinion and in this case I suppose knowing already what I consider the book’s drawbacks allowed me to simply enjoy the story to the fullest. And with a weaving, layered plot lush with interesting characters, there’s plenty to enjoy.

My main remaining criticism is that Yelena presents as a typical Mary Sue trope. Power beyond what anyone knew possible. Defies traditional rules, without the traditional consequences. Perfect in many people’s eyes, either the love of their life or the greatest friend they ever expect to have. Pursued by multiple of this world’s most intriguing bachelors. Detested by the villains to the point of single-minded obsession. As one particular example of her greater-than-thou qualities, there are several instances in the book where Yelena meets someone and has a very strong first impression of whether they are a good or bad person. Now based on the interaction alone, I as the reader cannot understand why she has this impression. However, she’s always right, eventually and at least partially. This makes me feel a little left out as the reader, because her ability to anticipate people’s true trustworthiness seems more like some all powerful magical sense than anything logical I too can detect from subtle descriptive clues.

I forgot, though, how much Snyder’s books suck me into the story. I cannot wait to re-read the last in this trilogy. I cannot recall at all how she wraps everything up, but I trust she will make every page along the way a good read.

Friday, January 19, 2018

PRINCESSES BEHAVING BADLY


Review of PRINCESSES BEHAVING BADLY: REAL STORIES FROM HISTORY - WITHOUT THE FAIRY-TALE ENDINGS by LINDA RODRIGUEZ MCROBBIE
(based on a review copy)

I love my remarkable women fiction, but how about some nonfiction? This book features not a few but dozens and dozens of incredible accounts from different points in history and around the globe of unforgettable princesses.

The stories start becoming a little repetitive but I don’t even mean that as the criticism it sounds. The similarities between the stories add to a resounding theme of brave/bold/smart/manipulative/strategic/vicious/carefree/permiscuous women. The book sorts these dynamic figures as best as possible into the following categories: warriors, usurpers, schemers, survivors, partners, floozies, and madwomen. Each chapter focuses on a specific woman, but the author nevertheless sneaks in even more stories by making brief mention of similar tales at the end of some chapters. 

I hold nonfiction authors in high regard for the amount of research required for their work, especially those who document their sources and biases well. Rodriguez McRobbie makes mention whenever accounts vary or are unclear, as well as acknowledges what comments fall under speculation.

To be honest, this book is so overflowing with badly behaved princesses, I don’t know where to start picking examples. I genuinely think every single story is worth reading. I will say I laughed aloud at several points in the section on women who pretended to be princesses, mostly unsuccessfully with some surprise success stories in the mix.

In general, this is a book full of tales of women who made their own story. Some are most definitely not stories I would want for myself, but nevertheless I enjoyed all the accounts of women defying expectations and social limits. Some use their power for good...and some don’t, but each of the many tales in here deserves its place on the page.

Friday, January 12, 2018

BRIGHT SMOKE, COLD FIRE


Review of BRIGHT SMOKE, COLD FIRE by ROSAMUND HODGE
(first in the BRIGHT SMOKE, COLD FIRE series)

In this Romeo and Juliet twist, Juliet is more of a rank or role than any one person. Through dark arts she is given the power to detect if anyone has killed a member of her family and then she will be compelled to execute that person immediately. She is raised for this specific purpose, trained and groomed for it. Her mind will also be linked with another’s and this person, known as her Guardian, granted the power to command her against her will. Through this shared mental connection, the Guardian can both protect and control the Juliet.

On paper, this book shouldn’t work for me but it did. It has too many aspects that, thematically speaking, I generally dislike. Though an ardent Shakespeare fan, I consider Romeo and Juliet one of my least favorites, much overhyped and greatly misunderstood, and I usually dislike any twists on this play, especially when they underplay the family feud element. Along those lines I grow frustrated with stories too fixated on romance alone, especially if I don’t care much for the specific romance in the first place and it’s the centerpiece. Last, the dark arts I mentioned in this book involve a lot of necromancy and 9 times out of 10 if it has anything undead in it I don’t enjoy the story.

So why did this story work for me? Probably because it breaks the overdone tropes of these themes. The Juliet and Romeo do fall in love, but that takes place off stage and more as a precursor to our main story. In fact, this Romeo and Juliet twist is shockingly slim on the romance emphasis, much to my personal satisfaction. Instead Romeo and the Juliet find themselves each stuck cooperating with a once rival. The enemy of my enemy is my friend and all that, which does, of course, play up the feud and the ripple effect it has in this community. Last, for me at least, the undead in this book simply felt like tools for telling a good story rather than a focal point in which I can’t personally invest much.

My one complaint is that that a character is revealed to be trans and then the writing switches from using that chacter's preferred pronouns of the gender everyone assumed they are to the pronouns of the gender in which the character was born. Courtesy is to use a person's preferred pronouns rather than projecting how you see them onto them and I like seeing that reflected in modern fiction, too. 

I did not know this is the first in a series and fortunately happened to run into the author at a conference who warned me of as much when I mentioned I was almost done with her book. However, this is one of those cases where I find myself pleased the story isn’t wrapping up yet, because there’s so much left to explore within the world, the characters, the plot. Sign me up for the next journey!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Favorite Books Read in 2017


For those who have been following my blog throughout the year, the books on this list won’t come as a surprise. I write long reviews, though, so below you can find much shorter descriptions of my favorite books from 2017. All the books I reviewed are linked to the original post.

Note that these are books I read in 2017, not necessarily books published in 2017.

1.     FUSE by JULIANNA BAGGOTT

The second book in the PURE trilogy picks up with Partridge finally outside the Dome that has sheltered him and the other elite from the post-apocalyptic world they abandoned. The cast of intriguing characters in this series make it stand out in a market brimming with post-apocalyptic novels.

2.     THE DARKEST PART OF THE FOREST by HOLLY BLACK

Hazel and her brother Ben grew up in a creepy, mysterious town that sits right at the edge of fey territory. They spent their childhood hunting down some of these vicious creatures and daydreaming about the fey prince trapped in an eternal slumber in the middle of the woods. When the prince wakes and the fey turn more violent and unpredictable, Hazel and Ben go on another dangerous adventure.

3.     ABARAT by CLIVE BARKER

This over-the-top-weird fantasy book is an acquired taste for sure, but if it appeals to your palate it’s sure to be a lifelong favorite. Candy detests her small town life until the day a sea sweeps into a field and carries her off to a magical world where each bizarre island represents a different hour of the day. Did I mention this book is weird?

4.     TEXAS GOTHIC by ROSEMARY CLEMENT-MOORE

“The goat was in the tree again.” Thus opens a hilarious and heart-warming ghost story more in the vein of Brigit Jones than the darker, grimmer tales from the horror genre. Strong willed farm-girl Amy investigates a possible haunting while verbally sparring with the skeptical (though admittedly sexy) guy-next-door.

5.     COURT OF FIVES by KATE ELLIOTT

In a world ruled by class and privilege all Jessamy wants is to compete in her society’s popular obstacle course known as the Fives, but doing so could undermine everything for which her father has worked so hard.

6.     NOBODY’S PRIZE by ESTHER FRIESNER

Helen returns for more adventure in this sequel. She disguises herself as a boy and sets sail on the Argo. I love Friesner’s more resourceful portrayal of this iconic figure, as a determined woman who sees herself differently than the way the world sees her.

7.     INKHEART by CORNELIA FUNKE

Though both Meggie and father adore books, her father refuses to read aloud to her. Then one night a mysterious stranger delivers a warning to her father that sets in motion an adventure beyond anything Meggie ever imagined for herself.

8.     THE CONSTANT PRINCESS by PHILIPPA GREGORY

Katherine of Aragon is often a background player in either Henry VIII’s or Anne Boleyn’s story, the first wife ousted from her position. In this gorgeously told historical novel, Gregory gives Katherine the voice she deserves, a voice of admirable determination and patience.

9.     CATSKIN by ARTEMIS GREY

When Ansel finds a strange, mute, injured girl in his parent’s barn, he takes her into his home...not realizing he’ll soon be taking her into his family and his heart as well. This heart warmer of a story is about discovering your place with your found family. 

10.  THE PRINCESS CURSE by MERRIE HASKELL

This twist on The Twelve Dancing Princesses starts along a familiar path and then swerves in exciting, unexpected directions as the author interweaves another of my favorite fairy tales. Reveka is a heroine worthy of her role, determined to find agency even in situations that seem hopeless.

11.  BOY MEETS BOY by DAVID LEVITHAN

If I trimmed down my yearly favorites to all time favorites, this one would still be on that list. The title tells you exactly what to expect and this twist on the traditional romance formula comes wrapped in an eclectic high school many readers will wish had been their high school.

12.  THE ORIGINAL GINNY MOON by BENJAMIN LUDWIG

Ginny is a foster teenager, whose rough experiences and lack of emotional support have left her with some...quirks. Her new foster parents want to do everything they can for her, but she’s so difficult to understand and possibly a danger to their own unborn baby. Ginny’s first person narration in her powerful and determined, if misguided, voice makes this a breathtaking novel.

13.  TRULY MADLY GUILTY by LIANE MORIARTY

This novel switches quickly back and forth between the present and an ill-fated barbeque that changed everything for three couples. Moriarty crafts unique, layered characters and convincing dynamics between them all. This fascinating character-centric story is a particularly great book group choice as there’s ample worthy of in-depth discussion. 

14.  THE NANNY by MELISSA NATHAN

In this cute chick lit novel, small town girl Jo takes a nanny job in London and it becomes immediately clear why previous nannies never lasted long. She’s up to the challenge, though...at least until the kids’ adult (and handsome and annoying) brother moves home into the room right next to Jo’s.

15.  SABRIEL by GARTH NIX

When Sabriel receives word that her powerful father has died, she must take his place as Abhorsen, responsible for keeping dead things dead. Her first task is to discover whatever killed her father, for anything that could do that must be a terrible threat indeed.

16.  UPROOTED by NAOMI NOVIK

This novel feels like a modern fairy tale, not exactly a retelling but pulling from familiar elements and tropes with a more feminist spin. In Agnieszka’s village a powerful magician known as the Dragon takes one young woman every ten years into his service and in return keeps the sinister Wood from spreading any farther.


In this historical novel, we meet Palombo’s fictionalized interpretation of Simonetta Cattaneo, reputed to be Boticelli’s muse for his famous The Birth of Venus painting. These bewitching characters come alive on the page with timeless and heart-wrenching problems of seeking their true happiness.

18.  LUCY AND LINH by ALICE PUNG

Hard-working Lucy won herself a scholarship to a prestigious prep school, but finds herself fixating on memories of Linh from her old, less privileged life. Linh told things straight (if brutal) while these prep school girls craft complex, devious psychological manipulations. Delivered as though Lucy is recounting a long story to Linh, this book packs an emotional twist near the end.

19.  PAW AND ORDER by SPENCER QUINN

In the seventh Chet and Bernie mystery, private investigator Bernie takes his dog and partner in crime (solving) Chet to visit Bernie’s girlfriend. The visit turns awkward when they bump into another man leaving her place. Then that same man turns up dead and the cops suspect Bernie.

20.  BEWARE THAT GIRL by TERESA TOTEN

This novel jumps between the stories of two teenage girls: Kate, a hardened manipulator conning her way into a prestigious prep school, and Olivia, the school’s rich and glamorous queen bee who dropped away for an entire school year without any explanation. This dark psychological thriller kept me glued to the page.

21.  THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS by GAIL TSUKIYAMA

Young orphans Hiroshi and Kenji are raised by their grandparents and in each brother burns a different passion. Hiroshi wants to become a sumotori while Kenji idolizes the artistic skill of local mask maker. Their life stories intertwine with those of two girls, who also suffered the loss of a parent.