That's What She Read
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- Susanna Clarke sure knows how to do atmospheric
I was all set to mark To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini as a DNF after the first chapter. There is so much in the first quarter of the novel which reads like an extension of The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey. This includes terminology, anti-Earth sentiment, newly-found alien artifacts, the blending of alien and human biology, and consequences of that blending that impact the entire known universe.
A funny thing happened as I progressed to that twenty-five percent marker whereupon I would make my final decision. I started to care about the main character. A lot. I wanted to know more about what she was going to do with her Soft Blade issue. Moreover, I couldn’t tear myself away from the idea of an honest-to-goodness alien invasion and universe-wide war. And so a DNF turned into an 880-page devour.
Characters are not the heart of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. In fact, other than Kira, the rest of the cast consists of nothing but space opera archetypes with no character development. And there is nothing wrong with this. The near-constant action counteracts the lack of strong characters.
One of the best things about space operas, outside of the story, is how each author approaches aliens. More importantly, how each author approaches humanity’s reaction to concrete proof of aliens. In To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, that reaction is intriguing. The “shoot first, ask questions later” human traits takes a backseat to the need for adequate study and determination of threat level. In fact, it is the aliens who are the aggressors. Personally, I think this is a rather optimistic view of humanity, but it makes for interesting reading.
I thoroughly enjoyed To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. It has everything I love about such stories, including so much space travel that it allows you to finally grasp the vastness of space. I liked it so much that I would love to see more of Kira’s story. Thankfully, Mr. Paolini left the ending open for more should he so choose.
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The Unanswered Letter by Faris Cassell follows the author’s research into the family history behind a haunting letter from a Jew living in Nazi Vienna. In this letter to a complete stranger, he pleads for help in obtaining the necessary support to allow his immigration into the United States, hinting at the dangers his wife and he face. What follows is an intimate look at Vienna, Austria before and during the Nazi government took control and its impact on one family.
Having read my fill of Holocaust stories, I was not certain I wanted to read yet another one. Yet, the letter from one Alfred Berger is something I could not ignore. With ten sentences, none of which are explicit in listing the terrors he faces, you get one of the most private looks into the Jewish plight under the Nazis. Even though you know from the beginning that the recipient of the letter did nothing, which means you suspect the war did not end well for Herr and Frau Berger, you want to do nothing but find out what happened to them.
The story of the Berger family is one of joy, sadness, perseverance, patience, and luck. It spans pretty much every continent as two generations of a very large family try their luck in emigrating from Vienna before it is too late. Because of the size of the family, at times their story needs a whiteboard in order to understand who each person is and their relation to the man who started it all. Ms. Cassell shows great patience and compassion as she helps the Berger family confront a terrible past.
At the same time, Ms. Cassell inserts too much of herself into the narrative. She spends as much time theorizing on the emotional state of people she will never meet as she does telling us the Berger family story. Plus, at some point in time, the story becomes as much her husband’s family story as it does the Berger family. As her husband is also Jewish and had no knowledge of what happened to his family during the war, Ms. Cassell uses her research of the Bergers to also look into her husband’s family. I read The Unanswered Letter to find out what happened to Alfred and Hedwig. I did not read it to have to wade through her thought process as she uncovers their story or her deviations into her own personal connection to the period.
What’s worse is that she references all of these original documents from which she obtains clues or even direct knowledge of Alfred and Hedwig’s lives, but the book contains no bibliography, no reference list. It does not even have pictures of the sources. I understand that Ms. Cassell is telling her true story as a narrative, but I have no patience when an author doesn’t even include a list of the resources used or at least images of the precious documents.
Putting aside the problems, The Unanswered Letter does an excellent job providing a highly personal look at Vienna before and during the war. The Berger story raises awareness of the insidiousness of hate. What I find truly shocking is how readily the Viennese accepted and celebrated Nazi rule as well as how quickly the majority embraced the anti-Jewish regulations the Nazis immediately put in place. The story of Nazi Vienna is not the same as Nazi Germany. It is more brutal, more obvious in its hatred of Jews, and more disconcerting at how an entire city can turn its back on one particular section of its citizens. If anything, it reinforces the increasing bigotry we have been seeing in the US since 2016. Given the chance to act upon their prejudices, most people will do so in a heartbeat.
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Susanna Clarke’s first novel was my first introduction to the world of the Fae and is something I will never forget. Even though I read it years ago, well before I started blogging, the one thing I remember the most is the feeling of dread I had throughout the entire novel. In fact, when I recall Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, that dread and the darkness of it are the first things that come to mind. I am happy to report that Piranesi has that exact same feel. It is creepy and atmospheric as hell, and you never quite overcome the unsettled feeling you have while reading it.
With two novels under her belt, I can safely say that Ms. Clarke always makes me feel like I am one step behind when reading her stories. It is as if I am playing catch-up regarding the characters and the events that happen in the novel. This feeling exacerbates the unsettled feeling her stories evoke as if I am missing something vital. It is FOMO but with an intense sense of dread about it.
The bright spot in Piranesi is Piranesi himself. He is so happy and content to be almost pure of heart and spirit. There is no doubt that he is a man, but you do wonder if he is completely real because he is just such a joy. As you learn more about him and his circumstances, you find yourself wanting to protect that innocence at all costs because it is such a rare thing.
The one area in which I feel Piranesi is lacking is in the whys behind the story. Ms. Clarke gives us the who, the what, the where, and even the how, and the when. But we never learn the whys behind various characters’ actions. Knowing this would certainly flesh out Piranesi’s story and the characters within it and would go a long way to satisfying my own curiosity.
However, I don’t think such character details are Ms. Clarke’s strong suit. Her writing is best when she leaves such things as motivation up to the reader to decide. Where Ms. Clarke excels is in evoking emotion, something she does in abundance with Piranesi. Because of this, I will most definitely wait another fourteen years for her to publish another novel.
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Guys, it has not been the greatest of weeks. We have not received much in the way of good news. RBG’s passing was pretty much the icing on the cake.
We have ten more days before we close on the sale of our current house. Unfortunately, we recently found out that our cabinets are on backorder and delayed by three weeks. This means that our closing on the new house is now two weeks later than what we planned.
To make matters worse, we bought our appliances with a delivery date for the end of August. Jim just happened to check in with the store to let them know of the delay, only to find out that all but our washer and dryer are also on backorder. The store never bothered to let us know. At this point in time, we don’t know when we will be receiving them. We know the builders need them by October 22nd.
We have been looking for a place to stay in town since Holly cannot leave due to dance, school, and her new job. Unfortunately, we struck out there too. Holly’s best friend’s mom absolutely adores Holly and has graciously agreed to let Holly stay with her for the month, but Jim and I will be stuck moving back into my parents’ house 75 minutes away. We are all heartbroken about this. Holly doesn’t want to move, let alone leave the dogs for a month. Jim and I look at it as a month lost when the amount of time we have with her at home is rapidly disappearing. The whole thing really, really sucks.
As if this wasn’t enough, at our six-month dental check-ups, I discovered that I need my root canal retreated. Plus, Holly’s wisdom teeth are close enough to erupting that we need to consider having them pulled sooner rather than later. Jim and I weren’t expecting the wisdom teeth thing this soon. As for me, I was literally just complaining to Jim about how all of my major dental work has been the result of previous shoddy dental work – sealants that never sealed, cavities that the dentist did not clean properly. And now, a root canal that the dentist did not properly treat. Is it any wonder I detest the dentist?
So, yes, it’s been a pretty shitty few weeks. The bright spots are Holly and packing up the house. If ever you want to purge your belongings, I highly recommend moving. It is the best for that. I have been having a blast going through everything and Marie Kondo-ing everything. It is truly cathartic getting rid of shit you don’t need or want. It’s even more fun trying to figure out why you got it in the first place.
As for Holly, she is amazing. Her dedication this year impresses me. I don’t have to worry about her getting up for school. On the days where she has school virtually, she gets up and goes to the library for quiet, undisturbed study. No fighting to get her to finish her homework. Unlike last year, she manages to go to bed before midnight every day. And, she has been diligent about finding a job now that she is sixteen and no longer needs a work permit. She found one at a fast food restaurant, making way more than minimum wage with a manager she likes. In fact, her manager doesn’t want Holly working weeknights because of school. She won’t get a lot of hours — we agreed she should aim for 10 to 20 hours a week — but it provides her with enough to pay for gas as well as her portion of our auto insurance premium each month, put some into savings, and still have some spending money. All this plus she helps me around the house, with packing or taking care of the dogs, is willing to go the store for me, and in general is indispensible. I am so, so proud of her.
So, that’s all the latest from my end. All I have left to pack are the remainder of my books, the kitchen, coat closets, and our clothes. We want the movers to come take everything and deposit it at the new house on the 29th, so I have just over a week to finish four rooms. The buyers close their end of the deal at 1 PM on September 30th, and we will officially be homeless until sometime in October. The builder is shooting for an occupancy date of October 30th. Keep your fingers crossed for us!
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- Very Agatha Christie-esque
The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart is a fascinating story about magic and power. Sure, magic and power are common storylines, but Ms. Stewart puts it together in a refreshing way. Moreover, for all the rather dark nature of most of the magic that occurs within the story, it is a hopeful plot. All of this makes a fantasy novel that rises to the top of a spectacular list of new releases this autumn.
Some series read like series. You know the first two novels are going to end on cliffhangers, and the first story either explains too much to establish the world or doesn’t explain enough. The Bone Shard Daughter is neither one nor the other. Nor does it end with a jaw-dropping cliffhanger.
Instead, it ends at what I would consider a natural break in the story. We meet all the main players in the action and learn their stories. In addition, we gain some basic knowledge about the world and receive hints about a greater problem that these characters will face. Lastly, we obtain the resolution of certain smaller plots which only serve to lead to the next conflict. In short, it is exactly what the first book in a series should be.
One of the best aspects of The Bone Shard Daughter is the balance between questions and answers Ms. Stewart maintains. She provides readers with the perfect number of answers that allow us to understand what is happening. At the same time, she allows the story to naturally raise more questions, keeping your interest.
This is true of every part of the book. It is as if The Bone Shard Daughter is just the tip of an iceberg, with the rest of the series being those portions of the ice still underwater. We know the characters are going to come together in some way but don’t know how or why just yet. The magic we see is not the only magic that exists in this world. Again, we know this but don’t know what it means or what form this other magic will take. Rather than detracting from the story, knowing that there is more to come for the characters and the world-building only enhances it because it is such a satisfying story.
Like most fantasy novels, the cast of characters is not small. There are four narrators who take us through the action, and they are all fabulous. Compassionate and complex, they are not afraid to admit their faults. Moreover, they all have such passion for their chosen path. They are all about righting wrongs, even as they realize their methods may not be the best to achieve that aim. There is a surprising amount of character growth as well, as these are characters who learn from their mistakes and the mistakes of others. I am excited to see what Ms. Stewart has in store for them all in future stories.
The Bone Shard Daughter is one of those novels that burrows its way under your skin. You find yourself constantly thinking about it, even when you would prefer to be asleep. The hopefulness of the characters bleeds into your everyday life, and suddenly the world looks like a place where you can make a difference. I want to put The Bone Shard Daughter into the hand of every fantasy lover because it is deserving of becoming a best seller.
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Like millions of other readers around the world, Jo Rowling’s Harry Potter series had a profound impact on my life. Unlike so many readers, Harry Potter and his friends defined my parenthood. You see, I discovered the series right after giving birth to Connor. Jim and I spent each night taking turns reading aloud one chapter from the first three books while the other gave Connor his last bottle of the day and rocked him to sleep. It was a peaceful ritual and quickly became one of our favorite parts of the day.
By the time the fourth book came out, Connor was almost ready to read the series on his own. He learned to read and immediately jumped into the Harry Potter series, reading the first few books so many times that the cover of the first book is hanging by a thread. As we neared the end of the series, I would preorder two copies of each of the books, one for him and one for me.
When Holly was born, she too became a Harry Potter fan. Harry Potter became the tool with which we practiced reading, alternating paragraphs for her to read aloud, knowing that the familiar story would help her with any difficult words. She too received her own copies of the series because they were such a large part of her childhood.
My kids and I know our houses. I personally have three tattoos dedicated to something HP related. Holly, Connor, and I spent hours discussing the series and the characters, the merits (and faults) of each movie, trying Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, and researching recipes for pumpkin juice. When Android and Apple released the first Wizarding World game for your phone, Holly and I were among the first to download it.
The Harry Potter books taught me to fight against injustices and tyranny. Harry taught me to teach them the importance of tolerance and inclusivity. Hermione helped me reiterate the importance of book learning and logic. Through Ron, I was able to show them what true loyalty and friendship looks like. The Weasleys showed the kids what a family looks like. And the entire series gave us something we all enjoyed.
Within the past few years, however, our discussions about Harry Potter and the series changed. My kids no longer saw it as a magical story full of adventure and fabulous life lessons. Instead, they started seeing and talking about the problems inside the story – Jews as goblins, house-elf slavery that upset no one but Hermione, werewolves as a metaphor for AIDS with Lupin as a stand-in for predatory homosexuals or those who target children, the promotion of Irish and Scottish stereotypes in Seamus – a drinker and brawler and the red-haired Weasleys – large families, negative Chinese representation in Cho Chang and her two last names, her lack of LGBTQ+ representation, and so much more. They no longer see Harry Potter as an adventurous and inspiring story but rather as a living embodiment of everything Jo Rowling has since come out to say to her followers.
I have always taken the approach that one can hate the artist but love his/her art. There are too many examples in my lifetime where this is the case, the biggest of which would be Michael Jackson. I encouraged my kids to adopt the same philosophy with Jo because I still thought her work was admirable. Even as her opinions about transgender became public, I hoped they would look past that and still enjoy her stories. And then we got the synopsis of the next Cormoron Strike novel.
With that novel, I am officially done with Jo Rowling. It was one thing to have different interpretations of her work as was the case with my kids and myself. It is something completely different to see her opinions directly stated in her fiction, as is the case with Troubled Blood. Sure, there are some articles I read that said that the rush to judge her story of a male serial killer who dressed as a woman to hunt his female victims is not just premature but also unwarranted. The thing is that I don’t believe the authors of these articles.
The reason why my kids have such issues with the Harry Potter series is because of everything Rowling has said in public since their publication. As the public understands her biases, we see those same biases in her books. Rowling has been very outspoken in her opinion of the transgender community in recent months. If she has a history of inserting her opinions into her books, then we have to assume that she would also deliberately add anti-transgender ideas into her current novel.
There are too many instances where Jo has gone onto social media to say something that is completely against everything I believe and everything I taught my kids to believe. She is not going to change. In fact, I almost believe she enjoys the uproar her comments create.
Regardless, I am done with Jo. I will no longer purchase anything that would give her royalties in any form. When I unpack my books, those books of hers I have but have not read will be going into the recycling bin. I will not review anything she wrote. There are too many equally good authors who are doing fabulous things for social justice that I want to support. It breaks my heart in some ways because she defined my parenting and my children’s childhoods, but part of growing up is removing toxic relationships from your life. Jo has become a toxic person, and I am removing her from my life.
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Magic and science. Sky and Earth. Boy and girl. Goddess and prince. Destiny and choice. Family and individuality. The Other Side of the Sky, the latest collaboration between Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, is a fascinating amalgam of all of these. It truly is a fantasy/science fiction mashup in the very literal sense.
One thing that Ms. Kaufman and Ms. Spooner do well is within their character development. With each new piece of information learned or event witnessed, Nimh and North change and grow. Preconceived notions disappear, and these two characters from opposite ways of life start finding their similarities rather than their differences. In this age of seeming intolerance, it is refreshing to see two characters who are anything but.
I don’t often say this, but I wish there was more exposition within The Other Side of the Sky. We have so many questions; almost every scene creates a new one. However, we don’t get nearly enough answers because Nimh and North are constantly on the move with no time for explanations. I get the need to keep readers’ interest, but to me, the sheer number of unanswered questions is frustrating rather than intriguing.
Speaking of action, there is so much of it that it too becomes overwhelming. There appears to be a plot twist within every chapter, which makes for interesting reading. Unfortunately, it also means that there is no chance to just sit and absorb everything. Characters and readers need rest, and there really isn’t any for either.
As a result, The Other Side of the Sky feels slightly manipulative, or, rather, as if it is trying too hard to keep readers engaged for the next volume. Even the cliffhanger ending is less a cliffhanger and more a very obvious ploy to shock readers. There is simply no way what the authors intimate at the end of the novel is really going to come to fruition in the second installment.
Between the numerous unanswered questions, the near-constant plot twists, and an ending that hints at a major misdirection, the whole thing has an air of desperation about it that begs readers to maintain interest over of the course of the series, something that is too obvious and therefore a bit uncomfortable to experience. Sadly, all of this means is that The Other Side of the Sky is not my favorite Kaufman/Spooner collaboration.
The post I wish I liked it more appeared first on That's What She Read.
One by One, the latest novel by Ruth Ware, is drawing a lot of comparisons to Dame Agatha Christie’s novels and for good reason. Not only does it involve a locked-room mystery scenario, but it also has a large and eclectic cast of characters that includes the wealthy, the anti-social genius, the serving class, and everyone in between. Set high in the French Alps, there is an automatic remoteness that sets the initial tone and provides a captive setting for the cast, also a la Dame Christie. The only area which is not an homage to the queen of mystery is the fact that the story suffers from predictability, which dampens the overall effect of the solved crime and lessens your enjoyment.
Two narrators take us through the fatal events that occur over the course of three days in the French Alps. The first narrator provides us with insight into the company members and politics that rule much of the story’s characters. The second narrator provides us with expert knowledge of the French chateau setting as well as that of the remote observer. Naturally, her job as the chateau’s hostess affords her ample opportunity to gain mastery of her observational skills and ability to read body language, everything that makes her sections much more insightful and, frankly, enjoyable.
The switch between narrators never drags, however, allowing the story to smoothly flow as we learn a little bit more about the crimes, the setting, and the people with every switch. Unfortunately, the narrators are a bit too good at their job, and we learn too much information too early. This means that the murder suspect becomes quite obvious very early on in the story, something you don’t want happening in any crime novel. Knowing the murderer does not remove all reader enjoyment, but it certainly dampens it a lot.
While One by One has thriller elements to it, I personally believe it a stronger mystery as most of the story revolves around the whodunnit portions of the murders. In the end, I liked it more than Ms. Ware’s last novel, but it is not my favorite of hers. I missed that Gothic element she tends to insert into her stories, and I cannot overcome that predictability issue. To me, that is a mystery’s death knell.
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There are heroines for whom leadership is thrust upon them. These are the girls who reluctantly rise to greatness, which usually involves some major soul-searching and testing of their fortitude. Then, there are those heroines like Fable by Adrienne Young. These girls know their strengths and weaknesses, both physical and mental, and have no problems rushing headlong into danger for the right reasons.
Fable is T-O-U-G-H. Not only does she survive for four years on an island of thieves and cutthroats living by herself, but she also free-dives like she was born underwater, stares down potential rapists, and faces danger with a clear, pragmatic head. Yet, Ms. Young lets us know just how fragile she is underneath that cool exterior. After all, being abandoned as a preteen by your father after being told you weren’t meant for this life, is going to leave emotional scars, of which Fable has plenty.
One of the best things about Fable, outside of the fact that she can kick some major ass, is her self-awareness. She may have daddy issues, but she doesn’t (always) let them interfere with what she needs to accomplish. She knows her strengths and plays to them. Also, she has the ability to read others’ body language, which helps tremendously in her situational awareness.
For most of the novel, Fable does everything right no matter what the world throws her way. She sets goals, follows her instincts, observes, and acts appropriately, and eventually achieves her goals. This does not mean the story is boring. In fact, the story is exciting as she finds her plans thwarted at every step through no fault of her own and must constantly adapt. There is only one mistake she makes throughout the course of the novel, which ultimately sets up the cliffhanger ending to leave you wanting more, and boy do I want more.
Fable is not a long read. Personally, I finished it in the course of a few hours. This is partly because it is not a very long novel at 368 pages but also because I did not want to stop reading. I found myself so engrossed in her story that I could not put it down. In addition, with its tropical setting, Fable is the perfect antidote to a gloomy autumnal weekend.
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- More of the same from this middle story
Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey is the penultimate book in The Expanse series, and it shows. The gentlemen behind Mr. Corey up the ante as they gear up for the ultimate battle for the galaxy. Set four years after the exciting ending of the previous book, we get to see how the Laconians rule the known solar systems as each crew member of the Rocinante attempts to resist in their own ways. Oh, and no one is safe.
For the Roci crew, resistance takes several different forms, each as diverse as the characters. For some characters, their idea of resistance is direct, public, and very dangerous. However, for others, resistance means publicly playing a long chess game, making moves no one notices until all of the pieces are in play. Yet for others, the only acceptable form of resistance is completely underground, totally behind the scenes, and anonymous. For me, seeing how each person reacts to the new-to-the-reader government is a fascinating study in character.
Tiamat’s Wrath is not all spaceships and watching other ships through telescopes. We spend a good portion of the story on Laconia as it makes a relatively odd shift in tone to that of a coming-of-age story. While on Laconia, we follow Teresa Duarte, only daughter of the Laconian leader and wannabe God, as she gains growing awareness that not all on her beloved planet is as peaceful and straightforward as she believes. There is much wrestling with ideas and growth as she learns to assess information for herself rather than believing the party line. While this is not in tune with the whole space opera format, it does make for interesting reading because it is so different.
Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you feel about them, no one is safe as we near the end of the series. Until this point, the authors avoided killing off major characters. There are a lot of deaths given all the battles throughout the span of the series. However, outside of the death of one of the main voices in the first novel, main character death has been minimal. That is no longer true in Tiamat’s Wrath. My heart broke more than once during the course of the story.
As Tiamat’s Wrath ends, we have a good idea of the major players in the final story, but we have no idea how it will unfold, what will happen, or when it will occur. I feel like the authors gave the readers all the clues, but I’ll be damned if I can decipher them. The final book is the first book in the series I will have to wait until its release, and I don’t like it. I’m ready to see how the Roci crew’s story and its almost constant struggle against the protomolecule is going to end.
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