Posted in Books

Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the BardoLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to love this book. I really did. And all I could manage was deciding that it was okay, that I respected the story Saunders was trying to tell and the research it required. But I just couldn’t make myself love it.

Not that there weren’t aspects of the story that I liked, because there were. There was real emotion here, deep emotion. There were philosophical questions on death and what lies beyond the grave, thoughts on war and parenthood and religion. Racism and sexism were addressed in ways that were harsh and real. Saunders also provided a plethora of quotations from various historical documents on Lincoln, on his personal life and appearance and presidency, on the state of the White House and the state of the Union while he served as Commander in Chief. And he provided readers with some great information on Willy, the poor Lincoln son who died too soon. This was Willy’s story, and Lincoln’s story, and the story of a nation represented by ghosts in a graveyard.

This all sounds like the makings of a new literary classic. And it probably is, or will be. But it fell flat for me. There were some descriptions and language that felt uncomfortably overdone, as though Saunders included them for shock value alone. (I never want to hear about a ghost’s grotesquely swollen member ever again, for example. And the Barons! Good grief at the mouths on that couple.) It could be that I’m a prude, and others probably wouldn’t be bothered as much. Also, some of the writing just felt so pretentious which is my problem with a lot of literary novels. Again, this might just be me, and I can’t put my finger on a particular example because I listened to the audiobook and thus can’t flip back through.

Speaking of the audiobook, listening instead of reading is likely the only reason I finished this. The vocal cast was phenomenal including the talents of Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Lena Dunham, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, the author himself, and many more. There were 166 voice actors in all, which is quite possibly a world record. (Penguin Random House Audio has applied to Guinness for exactly that.) And, had I not made it to the end, I would have missed a pretty great ending. Which is why I settled on three stars here. A lot of people are going to love this book. It might even be life changing for some. Just because it wasn’t for me doesn’t mean it isn’t for you.

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Silence Fallen

Silence Fallen (Mercy Thompson, #10)Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 entertaining stars.

I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If I enjoy something, I see absolutely reason to be embarrassed of that enjoyment. Years ago, before I came to that conclusion, Urban Fantasy was one of my guilty pleasures. Now it’s simply a genre I enjoy spending time in, especially when I need something lighter. How is it that urban fantasy is “lighter,” you might ask. Many series in the genre, such as the Dresden Files and the Hollows and the Mercy Thompson series, of which this book is one, follow the misadventures of one particular individual over the span of multiple small books. So going in, I am almost certain that the main character is going to be okay, no matter what happens. It’s like visiting an old friend, hearing about terrible situations they had found themselves in some time past, but because they’re here now, telling you the story, you know everything must’ve worked out alright. So, compared to epic fantasy where even central characters are fair game, visiting the urban fantasy genre is fairly relaxing.

Mercy, our coyote shapeshifter and VW mechanic who pals around with werewolves and vampires and all manner of other paranormal creatures, is always getting into trouble. In her defense, it’s often through no fault of her own. And Mercy is not some hapless, helpless damsel, waiting for some man to come to her rescue. This little coyote can save herself, thank you. In this book, the tenth in the series, she finds herself in Europe, cut off from her wolfpack and, worst of all, her husband. This installment was a bit different from its predecessors, providing both Mercy and Adam’s perspectives, instead of staying focused on Mercy. Seeing the different sides of the story was a fun change.

All in all, this was an entertaining and comfortable read. There weren’t many surprises, but that’s exactly what draws me back to the story; knowing that everything is going to turn out alright is a good thing sometimes. Also, there was a recurring Doctor Who reference as well as a brief Star Wars reference, which made my little nerd heart happy. Now, excuse me while I go prowl the internet for news of Mercy’s next adventure.

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Malice

Malice (The Faithful and the Fallen, #1)Malice by John Gwynne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars, rounded up. (Half-star taken off for a slow start. But man, did that ever change.)

Move over, Martin, because Gwynne is here to steal yo’ girl.

The A Game of Thrones comparisons here are completely understandable. As in Martin’s series, there is a varied cast of characters from whose perspectives we witness this story unfold. There is no time travel here, no resurrection for those who die. Death is final, and it is an equal opportunity reaper, not caring how good or bad a person is, how likable, or how important. As with Martin’s work, no one is truly safe here.

However, Gwynne has already surpassed Martin in my mind, even though I’ve thus far only read this, Gwynne’s first novel. (Side note: I do really like A Song of Ice and Fire. This is in no way me dissing Martin. So don’t yell at me.) Martin is a king of backstory and plot twists, but Gywnne was far more successful in crafting characters that I care about. They aren’t just well polished pieces on a chess board; they breathe. The love and are loved and fight and mourn and laugh and rage. These people are as real as ink and page can produce. Their physical appearances aren’t touched on much, but I was actually okay with that. The characters took on the features of people in my life who shared their personality traits, causing me to care even more about their well being.

I also really appreciated Gywnne’s choice of setting. The Banished Lands weren’t overwhelmingly large, and I enjoyed the smaller scope of the story because of decision. The effects of disagreements between kingdoms was more immediately felt than in a larger fictional land like Westeros. And the Scottish feel of the setting, of the society, of the names, was wonderful. It gave a weight to the story that some fantasy series that focus more on unique setting and societal norms tends to lack, in my opinion. The many kings of small neighboring kingdoms, the importance of and methods of warring, the names of both places and people, all whispered of Scotland as I read, but with enough differences to plant this solidly in the fantasy genre. As far as I know, there aren’t actually giants or wyrms or saber-toothed wolves in Scotland.

Something else than made an impression on me was the mythos of the Banished Lands. The creation myth, beginning with the God-War. Asroth, Elyon’s beloved first-created and captain of the Ben-Elim, sowed seeds of discord and split the heavenly host. When Asroth was defeated, he turned his hatred on Elyon’s new creation: man. He wreaked havoc and Elyon, in his rage, almost destroyed the world. The He realized what He had done and almost done, He grieved. In the aftermath, Elyon vanished, turning His back on all creation to mourn. The Ben-Elim still seek to protect it, out of love for their Creator, while their fallen brethren still work toward destruction. The Judeo-Christian influence here is overwhelming, and I loved contemplating the theology here. The parallels are fantastic; Elyon is even a Hebrew name for God, meaning “Most High.” I don’t believe that He has abandoned us, as I’ve felt His presence in my life, but I understand how His disappearance works better for the story Gwynne is telling here. The Bright Star/Black Sun prophecy was also a big draw for me, the Bright Star as savior and the Black Sun as antichrist. The idea of a Chosen One is a trope as old as storytelling itself, but it was deftly handled here, and gave me all kinds of theological and philosophical goodies to chew on as I read.

One other thing Gywnne did incredibly well was present a wide variety of relationships. We were given fantastic friendships, mortal enemies, beautifully close families, and their dysfunctional counterparts. We see kings interact with subjects, warriors interact with their leaders and each other, and mentors training younger generations. And best of all, we see some incredible kinship between man and beast. The animals in this book had so much personality, and their relationships with their humans was beautiful to behold. Family was so important in this story, whether that family was formed by blood or bond, and some of these animals were truly part of an amazing family.

I’ve read some truly stunning debut novels in the past, but the best of them are standalones, and sometimes it’s many years before the author puts out another book. If ever. And often that next book is a letdown after the masterpiece that was their first book. But rarely have I read a debut as fantastic as this one that was the first in a series. A series that I have it on good authority only improves with each successive book. I am undeniably impressed. Congratulations, Mr. Gwynne; you’ve earned yourself another fan.

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The Jungle Book

The Jungle BookThe Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was my first book completed on the Serial Reader app, an awesome way to read classic works of literature in less than fifteen minutes a day. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in reading some classics, but who doesn’t want to get bogged down in them. And no, I haven’t been asked to advertise the app; I just really think it was a fantastic idea, and the execution of that idea was incredibly well done.

End advertisement. 😉 Onto the story at hand.

Most everyone probably knows at least a little about this book, due in large part to Disney’s animated movie and their more recent live-action film. I enjoyed reading about Mowgli and his adventures growing up as the lone man-cub in the jungle. Bagheera the Panther, Baloo the Bear, and Kaa the Python all had different personalities than their film counterparts, but were just as much fun to read as they are to watch. Mowgli was headstrong and clever and never backed down from a challenge. Raised by a Wolfpack against the wishes of Shere Khan, the man-eating Tiger, Mowgli lived an interesting life to say the least. He learned every language present in the jungle, and then spent some time in a human village and learned to speak as they speak. But the village could not hold him. He conquered his foes and returned to the jungle, triumphant.

Besides the main story of Mowgli, Kipling also included the stories of Kotick, the White Seal; Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the Mongoose; Toomai, the Elephant boy; and different animals in the military, who argue about whose method of fighting is right. Of these, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’s story was by far the best. I completely understand why his is the segment included in so many literature books, because it was the most engaging story in the entirety of the Jungle Book, in my opinion. I enjoyed the adventures of the little mongoose even more than I did the tales of Mowgli the man-cub. Second-best out of these secondary tales was the story of Kotick, the White Seal. I was thrown by his story at first, because it was the first after Mowlgi’s story, but once I adjusted to the change I enjoyed the little white seal, out to save his people from being butchered. He swam to the beat of his own drum, and I can always respect that.

The last two stories weren’t enjoyable to me. They’re where I bogged down and just had to make myself power through to the end. I found Toomai annoying, and I could care less about which animal thought they were the most important in a battle. If the book had ended after the tale of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, I would’ve easily given it 4 stars. But, because of the drudgery of the last two stories, I’m settling at a 3 here. It was a short, mostly fun classic to mark off of my “to-read” list, and I enjoyed marking it off in the 24 episodes that Serial Reader provided. It novelty of the app added to my enjoyment, and I will most definitely be reading more classics this way!

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Scythe

Scythe (Arc of a Scythe, #1)Scythe by Neal Shusterman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What if we were able to cure death? What if disease and old age and accidents were a thing of the past, and we could live forever? How would this impact our society? And how would we keep out population growth under control? These are questions Shusterman raises in his new book, and he addresses them well. In his imagined future, life is pretty close to perfect, but something has to be done to keep the population to a manageable number. That’s where the Scythes come in.

Scythes are individuals chosen to live a life set apart, to “glean” others from the population. Only death doled out by a Scythe is truly irreversible. Scythes are respected and revered, are given anything they want for free, and live outside the laws that govern others. Scythes’ families are immune from gleaning for the lifespan of the Scythe, and the only way for a Scythe to die is by gleaning themselves. How would you handle being assigned to become a professional murderer? Do the pros outweigh the cons? If they do, you probably won’t be selected to become a Scythe.

I enjoy Shusterman’s books a lot. He raises interesting philosophical questions, he has characters that grow or at least change throughout their stories, and he doesn’t take an interesting storyline and destroy it by focusing almost exclusively on romance, as an unfortunate number of YA authors tend to do. This was the tale of two reluctant Scythe apprentices. In the beginning, I liked Rowan much more than Citra out of our two main characters. But as the story progressed and plot twists were thrown at them both, Citra grew on me and became Rowan’s equal. Many of the other Scythes were interesting, as well, especially Faraday, Curie, and Goddard. Curie was incredibly interesting, and probably my favorite. I loved how Shusterman wrote each Scythe doing the same job in completely different ways, and I personally thought Curie’s method was the best.

I was excited when I picked this up because I thought it was a standalone, which there is a severe shortage of lately. But I can’t say I’m disappointed that this turned out to be the first book of a series. I’m looking forward to reading more about the Scythes, and contemplating whatever other philosophical questions Shusterman throws my way.

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Norse Mythology

Norse MythologyNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was a little girl, I was completely obsessed with mythology. Greek, Roman (or Greek with different names, because Rome was nothing if not unoriginal), Norse, Egyptian, Indian, Native American, Japanese, Russian, etc, were all equally interesting to me. I wanted to know what ancient civilizations believed and why, and how those beliefs still influenced their culture. My faith was important to me and heavily influenced how I viewed the world, so why wouldn’t I be interested in what so heavily influenced other people groups throughout history? As a fourth grader, I was teaching short mythology lessons to junior-high kids before state testing. I loved to learn, and the natural overflow of that love was teaching others. Even then, I always included a segment on Judeo-Christian beliefs, so I could share what I believed as I had shared what ancients believed. I cut my teeth on Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, Bulfinch’s Mythology, most of Joseph Campbell’s mythology books, and more.

There was one problem, though. Even though mythology books held incredibly interesting myths, they were generally conveyed like research papers instead of stories. They put forth the tales, but the telling of those tales was generally severely lacking. That was not at all the case with Gaiman’s addition to the mythology genre. He brought in his natural storytelling and breathed new life into the Norse mythos. The book seems small, but writing something of this magnitude was completely outside of his norm, and required more research and tighter restrictions on how that research was interpreted that most novelists ever have to worry about. I respect what he did here immensely, and am excited that now, when a kid develops a love of mythology, they’ll have access to tales well told.

The adventures of Odin, Thor, and Loki were a pleasure to read. There were a lot of myths that I had forgotten about or never retained due to the clunky writing of other mythology books. Quite a few of these had me grimacing at one paragraph and laughing at the next. Norse myths are incredibly violent. Their creation myth was the bloodiest creation mythos I ever remember reading. But even in Ragnarok, the end of the world as foretold by the Norsemen, there is hope to be found.

I could go into dissecting the stories, but I would hate to spoil anything for someone who is just becoming interested in mythology. But I will say that now I have a burning desire to reread Gaiman’s American Gods. Pick this up if you’ve ever had any kind of interest in ancient beliefs. Just know that this is no novel; this is a faithful retelling of ancient tales, but with style. You’ll learn something if you decide to read this, and you’ll have fun doing it!

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, #1)The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finally know the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

This was my third attempt at reading this book, because it’s just so gosh-darned silly that I could never get past the first three or so chapters. Well, what was the difference this time, you might be asking. The difference was a British gentleman by the name of Stephen Fry. I would have never made it all the way through this admittedly short book without the voice talents of Stephen Fry. The man is a genius! Every character had a completely unique voice, and they were all engaging. I’m not positive which came first, the movie or the audiobook, but Fry’s version of Arthur Dent sounded incredibly similar to Martin Freeman, who played Dent in the movie.

I’m not usually an audiobook girl. I tend to get frustrated with the slow pace and pick up the print version of whatever book I was listening to, because I can just read faster. But I never had that desire listening to Fry. He was absolutely fabulous, and now I want to track down other audiobooks he’s read. Just another reason to wish I was British, so I could have Audible access to his readings of Harry Potter. *disgruntled sigh*

Onto the book itself. I’m pretty sure Douglas Adams is a national treasure of the U.K., as he well should be. These books are meant to be silly, and they most definitely are. The tone of his writing was great, and I love the idea of the story, but something about the humor didn’t translate well for me. It was just too much, somehow, as stated earlier. Honestly, the book itself would have been somewhere between a 2 and 3 star read for me (please don’t lynch me!) had it not been for Fry’s marvelous audio. His reading saved the day and bumped the book up to 4 stars for me. I did end up really enjoying listening to this story, though I’m not sure I’ll continue the series. However, I’m glad to have read this book, and to now understand the cultural references and impact Adams provided here.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

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Island of Glass

Island of Glass (The Guardians Trilogy, #3)Island of Glass by Nora Roberts
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

5 incredibly subjective “It’s Nora Roberts and I just love her” stars. (This rating is for the trilogy in its entirety.)

I’ve been reading a lot of epic fantasy lately. And I love it. But fantasy tends to be the steak of my literary diet. (Vegetarian friends, please forgive me for this extended meat metaphor.) Steak provides protein and iron, and is obviously delicious, but when it your diet consists of all red meat all the time, you risk getting gout. Sometimes, you just need to break up your diet. Which is what Nora Roberts’ books do for me. Her books are my popcorn, and the change was wonderful.

Something you need to know about Nora’s books. They’re predictable. Like, Nora-has-a-formula-that-she-applies-to-all-of-her-books predictable. When I pick up one of her books, I know that good is going to win out, that love will conquer all, and that all of the main characters will not only live, but live happily ever after. And that’s exactly why I love them. Sometimes I need a story that is safe and comfortable and, well, predictable. Like popcorn! And Nora is the best in the business at delivering comfort brain-food.

Onto this series specifically. This is soft fantasy, the story of a group of six radically different individuals, drawn together to find three fallen stars and save the world from an insane goddess. All six individuals are mythical in some sense, and the three women each fall in love with one of the three men over the course of their own book. Like I said, predictable. But so much fun. My favorite character in the trilogy was Annika. She was gorgeous and kind and funny and so incredibly different. Her story, Bay of Sighs, was my favorite in the trilogy. But this was a very nice, cosy ending. Everyone lived happily ever after, just as I knew they would. Which was just exactly what I needed. *contented sigh*

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Bands of Mourning

The Bands of Mourning (Mistborn, #6)The Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m not sure I can write a review of this book that does it any kind of justice. I try to write reviews that actually contain some kind of cohesive thoughts about the book, but I’m afraid all I can do is gush right now. Bands of Mourning was absolutely fantastic from beginning to end. I enjoyed myself immensely, and am so looking forward to any and all Mistborn stories Sanderson puts out in the future. Or any stories in the Cosmere, honestly. I just really love Sanderson, okay?!

There was so much character development here, especially from Steris. I know there are those who think that Sanderson fails at crafting believable, sympathetic characters. I’ve read some reviews that go so far as to say that his characters tend to be cardboard. I simply can’t agree. But I will say that his characters have become warmer and more genuine to me in his later books. I’m more attached to Wax and Wayne and the gang than I was to Vin and Elend, though I really enjoyed their story. I never saw a lack in his writing, but he’s done nothing but improve with every book he publishes. And I really love how he brings back characters from other books in different forms and capacities. (Those who have already read this know exactly who I’m talking about. One in particular. I had to give myself literally hours after finishing this book to be able to think of anything but a certain reappearance.

Just about everyone can agree that Sanderson excels at world building and magic systems and incredibly engaging action scenes and plot twists. This book and the books that preceded it were no exception. There was never a dull moment. There was humor, devastation, joy, shock, awe, and romance to be found within these pages. As my beautiful friend Mary pointed out, Sanderson gave an amazing gift to his fans with these Alloy Era books. There were new characters and adventures in a fascinating new time period, but in a world his fans had already fallen in love with. He knocked it out of the park, and I can’t wait to read The Lost Metal. No really, I can’t…

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Fates and Furies

Fates and FuriesFates and Furies by Lauren Groff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3 stars for content, 5 for writing, averaged out to 4.

Okay, confession time: I don’t like literary fiction. I used to, but it started feeling stale to me, much like a lot of YA; any book I picked up in either genre for a while just felt like a lesser repetition of something I had read before. I hate predictability and pretentiousness, which a lot of recent literary fiction seems to have in spades. That’s why I tend to stick to fantasy or books that I completely expect to be predictable, like a Nora Roberts romance or some Christian fiction. Because sometimes predictability is comfortable, like a bubble bath for your brain.

Fates and Furies was most definitely NOT a bubble bath for my brain. I would’ve never picked this book up if it hadn’t been my bookclub’s selection this month, and I would’ve been missing out. I get the hype on this one, I really do. The book was pretentious, yes, but it had every right to be. It was never predictable. The writing was stunning. The characters were real, but I hope I never in my life meet anyone like any of them. I didn’t like them, and so I didn’t expect to feel any sympathy for them. But I did. There were times when I was uncomfortable or disgusted or both, but the book was so compelling that I never felt the urge to put it down, even though I found some of the content distasteful. And the writing was exceptional. Groff crafted something exquisite here, and managed to never give anything away until she was good and ready to do so.

I feel like I could write a fairly massive essay on this book, but I would hate to spoil anything for someone. Spoiler tags only help so much. I can see this book being taught in colleges one day, and would love to sit in on that discussion. It was a story of love and lies and fallibility and the grotesqueness that some seen to associate with real life. In my opinion, love is honest and forgiving and covers a multitude of sins. Life is mostly good, and people are mostly good. I’m an optimist. Groff’s writing comes across as extremely pessimistic to me. Life is hard, it’s true. I’ve been through my share of tough times. But I had an amazing God and husband and family and group of friends to get me through everything. I’m honest with them. I trust them. And so much of the pain in this book could’ve been avoided with some honesty and trust.

Did I like this book? No. This was not an enjoyable read. Would I recommend it? Absolutely. It was a disaster, but a beautiful disaster, as enthralling as a hurricane or a wildfire or a lightning storm.

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