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Posts tagged ‘book review’

Emma

Emma

by: Jane Austen

I love rereading books by listening to the audio books but I often struggle to find books narrated by women.  I don’t know why, but there are times when I strongly prefer to listen to a woman’s voice over a man’s and while I have plenty of podcasts that fit the bill, it’s harder for me to find audiobooks.  But I decided, after listening to Pride and Prejudice, that I should continue with my Austen adventure and downloaded Emma.

Emma, is, of course, a classic novel by Jane Austen. Written in Georgian-Regency times (thanks Wikipedia!), it follows the titular character through the perils of matchmaking, romance, and growing up.  My audiobook was narrated by Juliet Stevenson, who was really excellent. Her voice is elegant and has just the tiniest hint of merriment.

When I first read Emma, I was in early high school.  I only read it the once, so while I knew the plot, I really wasn’t prepared for all the comedy I’d missed the first time around.  I had to stop myself from laughing out loud more than once, and I’m sure that I walked around grinning like a fool while listening.  Austen pokes fun at her characters dryly and deservedly, though kindly.  I missed a lot my first read and I remember thinking the plot dragged a bit.  Now, when I can appreciate the subtle satire and the ridiculousness of the scenes, I didn’t think it dragged at all, even though not much happens in the story.

It’s a cohesive story and solid plot, but what I loved best are the individual scenes that can stand on their own.  My favorite scene involved two rather self-absorbed characters, one quite good-natured, engaged in a conversation where each is determinedly wresting the subject back to their favorite brag every time they speak. I was thoroughly entranced and amused the entire scene – it felt real, funny, and I could definitely think of a few people who it reminded me of!  It could have been taken from the story and read just as a scene and been just as satisfying.

Like all Austen books, some of the references and subtle pokes haven’t aged as well – a very few, but there were times when something was clearly supposed to be obvious and I had no clue what was being referenced.  And, of course, there’s a lot of subtlety and unspoken context going on in the novel, as in any Austen novel.

I will say, the ending did feel like it dragged on a bit and then, when it did end, it felt rather abrupt.  It was particularly noticeable because I was listening to it; I couldn’t start skimming over the last bit after I knew the major problems were resolved.  Austen thoroughly ties up every plot line, perhaps a tad too neatly and leaves the reader completely satisfied.  Her characters are believable and engaging. Overall, despite the more complex language, it’s a great escapism novel.

If you like things to happen in your novel, clear and straightforward writing, or a hot ‘n’ steamy romance, this, unfortunately, is probably not the book for you. If, however, you like old-fashioned and sweet stories, you love absurd but realistic humor, or you’re just looking for a book to read in a garden with a glass of wine, then I strongly encourage you to give Emma a read.

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Sorcerer to the Crown

sorcerer to the crown by Zen Cho

(Longest absence yet! But I’m hoping to post more often.)

I was traveling around on a vacation last week and I ended up buying two books quite randomly at a bookstore. This book caught my eye, partially because of Naomi Norvik’s recommendation on the cover. I read the first page and was hooked.

Sorcerer to the Crown is Zen Cho’s debut novel.  It’s a fantasy set in Regency England. Zacharias Wythe, a young African-British magician, has just become Sorcerer Royale of Britain, much to the dismay of, well, everybody. While attempting to solve the problem of England’s fading magical supply, he meets Prunella Gentlewoman, a half-white (her background is a spoiler) charge of a girl’s school with a mysterious past and many unfeminine traits, also to the dismay, of, well, everybody.  Together, they’ll face fairies, ghosts, and Wodehouse-worthy aunts to get England set right again.

This book is amazing. It’s written in a Jane Austen-esque style, enough to put you in the Austen mindset but with full acknowledgement of the modern audience – less convoluted sentences, more nods to modern day improprieties, and less modest vagueness.  (I had actually just finished listening to Emma when I read this; it was shocking how much it sounded like Austen!) Cho writes with a charming lightheartedness. Despite the Austen-like style, this is an adventurous fantasy.  The plot twist and turns and takes you on a merry romp.  I bought in completely to both the period setting and the fantasy elements; not an easy task!  It was the perfect escapism book; I read a lot of it sitting in an outdoor hot tub in a garden and I couldn’t have picked a more perfect book for the setting.

Without ever deviating from tone or style, Cho directly portrays the racism and sexism the main characters face.  The book never becomes about racism or sexism, but it never loses sight of the characters’ experiences as people of color.  As all great fiction should, it immerses you in the experience of living someone else’s life; Cho does this masterfully.

And yet, every book has its faults.  In particular,  the pacing on this book is just too fast.  I was expecting it to turn into a trilogy or at least a duo due to the number of plotlines that were popping up and the air of importance around so many of them.  I figured one would get tied up in this book and we’d get a nice big clue about the next one, but instead, nearly everything gets resolved.  It was too much for the second half of the book and I wanted things to slow down.  Everything was plotted well, but I needed more time to explore each of the plot elements – at least one more book’s worth of time!

In short, this book is both fantastic and highly original.  If you’re at all into fantasy, but especially if you love the style of Regency romances and fantasy, or if you’ve been on the hunt for something new, great, and unusual, this book is definitely for you.  However, if you’re looking for elaborate world-building, really value pacing in an adventure/action story, or want a deep dive into the social justice issues intrinsic to her choice of main characters, this, sadly, may not be  the book for you.

The Aeronaut’s Windlass

aeronaut's windlass

(Long absence again! Can’t promise anything. But – here’s a post for now!)

So I wasn’t going read Jim Butcher’s latest, because it’s steampunk and steampunk really isn’t my thing.  But my mom bought it for me – she knows I love Butcher’s work and very kindly always preorders his stuff off Amazon for me – and I’m so glad she did.  I wouldn’t have given it a chance otherwise and it’s certainly worth reading!

The Aeronaut’s Windlass takes place in an alternate world, where people live on giant, man-made mountains – Spires-, forever under ceilings that cover all the living space.  They travel from place to place via crystal-powered ships (and wear goggles to protect them from the sun.)  The crystals are powered via ether, a magical presence that flows through the world – very much like the Force. The basic premise is that one of the Spires, which struggles economically, has decided that conquering one of the more prosperous Spires (where the heroes reside) is their path to economic success.

Overall, it’s a really fun and light read.  Pure escapism – I was totally absorbed in the book and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.  Like most of Butcher’s work, it’s fast-paced with lots of action and a multifaceted plot.  There’s strong hints of plot points that I’m wildly curious about – Butcher introduces a lot and gives a strong base for further books and intrigue – but I know that we can depend on him to follow through and incorporate everything in future books.  I’m super excited about the next book in the series!

In the Dresden Files, Butcher has a definite tendency towards info-dumping, but here it’s actually handled quite well – he reveals things very naturally and the reader has the enjoyable job of puzzling together how the world works.  There are about ten different viewpoints he switches between – maybe more?  Some of them are much more heavily emphasized than others, but though Butcher does it well, if multiple viewpoints are not your thing, this is not your book.  (It’s in third person, not first, if that’s influential.)

My biggest critique is that it’s so fast paced and switches between so many viewpoints that I don’t feel the characters were developed as much as I would’ve liked.   The hardcover was probably 700 pages, so there was a lot of room for worldbuilding and plot development – and the multiple characters’ viewpoints all wound together seamlessly to provide a cohesive plot.  But because there were so many characters, and because Butcher is aiming to develop complex characters with room for growth, there wasn’t quite enough room for character development at the level that I would’ve liked.

That being said, I did enjoy the characters very much! There’s a fair number of female characters, now that I think about it, and they all have important roles to play.  Most importantly, all of the characters whose viewpoint we used were complex and interesting, if not explored in depth.  I want to know their backstory, or see how they develop, or both!  Though a few of the secondary characters tend towards the archetypes – the villains, for instance, are chilling but not terribly original – it’s forgivable in the context of the main characters.

Most of the main characters are late teens, early twenties.  They have a wide variety of strengths and interests and I like that they have lots of room for growth without it actually being a coming-of-age story – the focus is how all the characters weave together, not the growth of one particular character.  Also, in contrast to his previous two series, there is no “Chosen One” (either obvious or implied) in the story and very little room for one to develop. I’m a bit worn out on the chosen character stories, so it’s a nice relief!

My favorite character by far is Captain Grimm, one of the main-main characters.  He’s captain of the Predator, a mysteriously overpowered ship that’s the fastest in the sky.  He’s a good man – not a conflicted good man, but someone who does the right thing because of conviction – but isn’t boring or particularly stereotypical. He longs for freedom, but is not willing to pay any price for it.  Butcher alludes to a mysterious, semi-tragic backstory that I presume will be revealed in the next book or two.

Overall, if you’re into sci-fi/fantasty/steampunk escapism, good world-building, and fast-paced action-packed stories, this is definitely a book I would recommend!  If you’re looking for a deep, introspective read, an in-depth character study, or a totally new take on the sci-fi/steampunk world, this, sadly, probably isn’t your read.

Enchanted

enchanted

by: Alethea Kontis

Blog note: I won a contest over at Ensis Reads, formally Don’t Read! I got this wicked awesome traveling coffee mug (LOVE IT!), and I am going to do a full post with pictures this weekend!

This is the first book in The Woodcutter Sisters series, a book based on the family of Jack and Seven Woodcutter, and featuring modern retellings of European fairy tales – quite a few of them feature in each book.

The woodcutter sisters are seven sisters born to a woodcutter and his wife (naturally).  Each of the girls is named after a different day of the week.  Sunday, our heroine, is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter – I do love that in this world, that is equally powerful as the seventh son of a seventh son.  Sunday befriends a frog in the woods and thus starts an adventure to change the life of her and her sisters forever.  And yes, this book is based mostly on The Frog Prince, one of my favorite fairy tales.

As a protagonist, I liked Sunday a lot.  She was thoughtful and somewhat dreamy, but she still did things and was very much an active participant in the story.  The frog prince, Rumbold, is also a good character – very flawed but likable.  He spends a lot of time in the story learning to be a man, without having it be the central theme of the story.  I very much appreciate that – I feel like too often a main male character growing into manhood automatically becomes the center of the story.  Here, though, it is an important part without overpowering the story. I didn’t necessarily think he was romantic or dashing or any of the things I like my romantic heroes to be – but I did think he was an interesting character and a good fit for Sunday.

The plot was good, though the pacing was a little weird.  There was a bit too much going on, even though it’s a fairy long YA novel.  It was partly because Kontis was fairly obviously trying to set up plotlines for all the continuing book in the series, plus introduce other characters which have already had their adventures, like her sister Thursday.  (That was pretty irritating.  Thursday runs off to sea and becomes a pirate captain.  I want to read that story!) Three of Sunday’s siblings have already found their ever after; one of them finds it as a minor side plot in this story.  The writing was quite good, but there was simply too much going on.  I feel like Kontis could have worried less about making sure we understand everything that’s happened or is happening to this family and worried more about tightening up the plot.

The book, however, was engaging and I definitely stayed up late to finish it! A great sign.  Unfortunately, it also wasn’t that memorable.  While I definitely want to read other books in the series, I did have trouble recalling what happened in this book while writing this review. I think part of that is so much happened that my brain kinda gave up on it.

The characters were, as a whole, engaging and interesting but Kontis ran into the same problem with them as she did with the plot; namely, there were too many that she was trying to give too much attention to.  That means some of the characters, like Wednesday, became “tells” and not “shows.”  Sunday tells us a lot about Wednesday but the reader never gets to see her behaving in her odd Wednesday ways, so her particular storyline isn’t very convincing or engaging, even though she’s central to what happens in the story.  On the other hand, I completely fell in love with Saturday and cannot wait to read her book.  The characters that Kontis fully fleshes out are done extremely well and absolutely perfect for a YA novel.

The flaws didn’t prevent me from enjoying the story but I do think a strong red pen could’ve turned this story from a book I really liked to a book I’d rave about.  That makes me a little sad, to be completely truthful, though I’m happy I read it anyway.

If you’re into YA novels with a strong fairy tale influence or if you like ordinary teenage characters who have extraordinary adventures, you should definitely pick this one up! If you don’t like the feeling of being plunged into the middle of a series (I know it’s billed as the first, but it doesn’t feel like it), or if you like your fairy tale retellings with a darker or socially relevant edge, than alack! this may not the book for you.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

ocean at the end of the laneby: Neil Gaiman

I know it’s been a few months since this came out, but my mom bought me a signed copy for Christmas so I held off on reading it until I received the signed copy.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Gaiman’s latest fairy tale.  Gaiman always writes things with a darker edge, and this was no exception. It was written more along the lines of Coraline and Stardust than, say, American Gods or Neverwhere, with a simpler plot line and less complicated storytelling.  It is an adult’s book, though I would say anyone 12+ could safely read it.  (There is a part or two that might exclude your under-12 crowd; a not-terribly-indiscreet sex scene, or implied sex scene – there’s rather passionate kissing – and a few scary and many suspenseful parts.)

It’s the story of a nameless narrator, who goes back to his hometown in his middle age and finds himself wandering out to his old childhood home and then onto his old neighbor’s property. After a cup of tea and some conversation, he finds himself at the edge of a pond, struggling with half-formed memories.  But then he remembers – it’s not a pond, it’s an ocean.  And both he and the reader are plunged back into the year he was 7, a year of adventures and magic and mysterious others.

I won’t delve much on the plot. It’s good – fast, intriguing, paced well enough that you hold your breath during the scary parts and never quite relax until the end.  There’s lots going on and it’s much less fill-in-the-holes-y than some of his other stuff. (American Gods, anybody?)  Which is nice; this is a short read but also a quick one.  At the same time, it still feels like you’re reading a Gaiman novel; the world is complex and you can tell there’s more going on than he’s letting the reader see.

It’s told in first person POV and we can only see what our 7 yr old narrator sees; it’s not colored, at least not obviously, by the 40 yr old’s recollections.  I really liked the choice of narrator, actually. He’s observant and intelligent, though believable as a child.  He’s very sympathetic and he does have all those moments children dream of having, like rebelling against authority figures and being right while the parents are wrong – though, of course, not in the way you’d expect.  At the same time, he’s flawed and well-rounded.  He’s brave, but not extraordinarily so, which I appreciated.  So rarely do you read of a hero in an adventure with ordinary courage, if that makes any sense.

The neighbors, by the way, are the Hempstocks, three generations of women who live at the edge of the ocean.  They possess great, but not unlimited, power.  The grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock, is a woman both comforting and intimidating.  Her granddaughter, Lettie, is practical and extraordinarily brave, in a very matter-of-fact way.  In the non-literary sense, they are the heroes of the story.  I, of course, love strong female characters and this book is peppered with them.  They’re – I hesitate to say well-rounded; not every character needs to be well-rounded – but well-developed.  The reader begins to understand them, and though they may not be terribly multi-faceted and complex, they are immense and deep characters and it is enough.

The book is driven by plot, though not at the expense of the characters.  Though character growth is not focused on – and indeed, I am not sure that many of the characters even grow – it does a great job of exploring the characters, which was enough to satisfy me, especially given the brevity of the story.  In short, it’s a remarkably well-balanced book and I absolutely loved it.  And, it should go without saying that Gaiman is an excellent writer and this was no exception.

If you have been wanting to like Neil Gaiman but find his works intimidating, or if you like darker fantasy books, or if you like child narrators (ug, sorry if that sounds weird), you should definitely give this one  a shot.  If you lean more towards epics or stories where the main character is heroic and saves the day, than, sadly, this may not be the book for you.

Ever

ever_scaled

by: Gail Carson Levine

I’m a huge fan of Gail Carson Levine.  Ella Enchanted was the first re-imagined fairy tale that I fell in love with and her Princess Tales series was a favorite of mine growing up.

But I didn’t like Ever.  It was cute and the premise was good – I really wanted to like it!

Ever is the story of Kezi, a girl who lives in an alternate version of Ancient Mesopotamia.  (The cover models are oddly white, considering that.)  Doomed to die young, she falls in love with Olus, the Akkan god of the wind.  To be together, they must go on an epic quest and overcome great odds.  If they survive, they stand a chance of gaining their happily ever after.

Like I said, the premise is good.  Ancient Mesopotamia, powerful gods, a doomed woman, epic quests and dangerous situations.  Levine is a good writer and I generally like her characters – strong, intelligent, relatable – as well as the world she creates.  The setting in this book actually is fairly reminiscent of Ancient Mesopotamia, without losing its ability to relate to the modern-day reader. There a lot of everyday touches that really work to put you in the time period, and the dialogue is a nice mix of modern and old-fashioned so you’ve never jolted by the characters’ speech.  (That is a pet peeve of mine.)  She also uses some of the Sumerian language (I’m assuming here) which is a nice touch.

It’s told in first person perspective, alternating between Olus and Kezi.  It’s not my favorite, but she transitions well and uses it to build tension fairly well.

Like I said, the set-up is for a fairly good novel.  But Levine keeps this novel so simple that it becomes simplistic and looses all depth.  Now, it is a young adult novel and often they’re written on a lower reading level but that doesn’t mean that the novel has to be simplistic.  Simple can include depth.  The characters seem almost stunted.  They’re not very well-developed – I mean, they have an appropriate number of different traits and virtues and flaws, it’s just that everything about them is so straightforward and lacking depth.  They are completely scared, or completely grateful, or – their emotions just seem to lack complexity.

The situations are the same – they should be more exciting but everything is linear that it takes away from the suspense.  I don’t know – on its surface this should be a great book but it just doesn’t work on anything but a surface level.  I wish it did – I really do love Levine’s work.  But this book just doesn’t have anything going on besides the plot and the plot, while not terrible, isn’t enough to make up for its shortcomings.

It’s a quick read, so if you’re interested in Levine’s work or fictional representations of Ancient Mesopotamia there’s no harm in reading the first chapter or so.  The book is pretty consistent throughout, so if you like the first chapter you’ll probably like the rest.  Otherwise, you may want to give this one a pass.

Anyway, I’m interested in seeing what others thought of this book. Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments!