Book Review: The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman

15993203Title: THE DARK DAYS CLUB
Author: Alison Goodman
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 482
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
My Rating: ★★★★★(5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I. Love. This. Book. You know when you’ve come to enjoy a book so much you don’t want it to end? I was torn between finishing this book quickly to find out what happens, and reading it slowly to savor every scene. I was hooked from the very first chapter, where the setting is quickly and fastidiously established as Regency England. A fascinating time period, and the skill of Alison Goodman’s research shines from every page! I truly felt like I was in Regency London; Goodman pays close attention to fashion, smells, common foods, popular dances, weather, locations, and so on. It all lends the book an extreme authenticity that makes it an absolute pleasure to read. I feel like I’ve just received an intriguing history lesson on Regency London! When I say this I don’t at all mean to indicate that this felt dry or textbook-like! On the contrary! But as a history nerd I do enjoy all the little details that popped up.

In The Dark Days Club, Lady Helen Wrexhall discovers that there is more darkness in the world than she first thought, and that she is inextricably bound to it. As she is introduced to this underbelly she discovers her new powers and abilities, all under the guidance of the mysterious and detested Earl of Carlston, a man who shares Helen’s powers but is also suspected of killing his wife. He and Helen share a budding but unresolved romance – in true Regency fashion, it is quite a slow burn and for the most part remains within the bounds of propriety. I think he’s a little bit of an asshole, but for me that’s what makes him interesting, that he’s so imperfect – he’s a good person, but he doesn’t have great bedside manner, so to speak.

Helen is a much more pleasant character – bright, curious, kind, but also not the stereotype I expected. She is more realistic than that: not quite rebellious, not quite so eager to shirk the boundaries of normal life and society, merely tiptoe around them. She’s a modern day women magically inserted into a Regency-era world to be the ~Exceptional Woman~. Rather, she is a realistic Regency-era woman who is heavily shaped by the customs of her time and place. She also shares a camaraderie with her maid (who becomes her partner in crime in a way), which was so refreshing to see! Female friendship is always appreciated.

The mythology here is fantastic! Not supremely original, but executed brilliantly, in a way that makes sense but doesn’t overwhelm the reader with too many details. Goodman created such an interesting world here, one with suitably high stakes that kept the tension high throughout the novel. By the 80% mark I was walking around my house doing things with my Kindle in my face because I simply could not put the book down! I absolutely love books that turn into compelling page-turners, and I love books that feel like home, which this book did. I’m a sucker for period drama set in England, and this book hit on everything I ever wanted: high-society drama, historical accuracy, the supernatural, loads of gory murder, sardonic dialogue, and nail-biting mystery!

I’m going to stop babbling because this review is long and effusive enough, but hopefully it has managed to convey the depth of my enjoyment of this book!

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Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

18498558Title: BIRD BOX
Author: Josh Malerman
Release Date: 2014
Pages: 262
Publisher: Penguin Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

I both love and hate dystopic fiction. I love it because it’s a fascinating exploration of survival. I’m always intrigued by how humans manage to survive without technology, without society, without order. Does the social contract break down? Where do people get food? What becomes important in a new world? Is survival enough?

I hate dystopic fiction because it’s depressing as fuck, and Bird Box certainly delivered on that.

I loved this book’s concept, which had notes of Lovecraftian horror all over it. Basically, there is something – some creature, some unknown, just something – outside. When you see it, you go mad and start tearing yourself apart until you die. Nobody knows what it is or where it came from or what it wants. Or how to stop it. But it’s trapped the survivors indoors, and if they venture outdoors they must have their eyes shut at all times. There are certain passages which were absolutely seeped with Lovecraftian influence – characters talking about our minds having a ceiling and the unknown creatures being beyond that ceiling, beyond human capacity to understand…it’s juicy, creepy stuff.

The narrative is centered on Malorie as she and her two children row a boat down a river attempting to find better shelter. The story is told in alternating timelines, between Malorie in the present and Malorie in the past, with a ragtag group of survivors who have holed up inside a house together and are just trying to survive. Even ordinary scenes in this book drip with tension; I was completely sucked in. When reading this book the world around me ceased to exist. There were some scenes that had my heart racing with anticipation. There is plenty of gore, but there is also a ton of psychological horror, building on the fear of the unknown.

I have some criticisms. The dialogue I found was often stilted, a bit unnatural. Malorie’s ragtag group of survivors were difficult to tell apart. There was Tom, the leader, and Don, the combative one, and then…a bunch of other people who were just there. In horror novels like this it’s important for characters to be distinct and interesting, and they weren’t. We don’t know what these people look like, what they did in their old lives, how they think and feel now. And there is zero diversity – all the characters are white. I felt like they were all cardboard cutouts, not characters but plot devices, there as a means to an end. Even with Malorie, I felt like I had a hard time getting into her head and getting a sense of her as a person. I felt her fear and desperation, certainly, but everyone in this world is afraid and desperate – what more is there to know about her?

Otherwise, I loved this book. I could not put it down for a moment, and it made my 90 minute commute feel like 10 minutes. I missed my train stop when reading the ending, because it was just so damn intense! I had been in an utter reading funk lately, and this book wrenched me out of it. Highly, highly recommend this creepy, intense, and thrilling read!

Thanks to Rachel @ pace, amore, libri for the recommendation!

Book Review: Roar by Cora Carmack

29939048Title: ROAR
Author: Cora Carmack
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 380
Publisher: Tor Teen
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆(1.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Never in my life have I seen such a fantastic concept executed so, so terribly.

The first few chapters had me hooked. We are introduced to a world ruled by storms, forces of nature like hurricanes or tornadoes that attack randomly and can only be controlled by Stormlings, who are normally the ruling families (this reminded me a bit of the world in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, but it veered off in another direction at the end). The mythology behind storms and Stormlings is so utterly fascinating too, and there’s even a creepy cult that worships them! The book hits the ground running, with protagonist Aurora preparing for her arranged marriage to Cassius Locke, a Stormling prince. It is revealed that Aurora is powerless, with no ability to temper storms, and so she must be married off to Cassius so that her kingdom can have a Stormling’s protection.

It’s a fantastic premise. I even was fascinated by Cassius; it seemed like he was being built up to be a super problematic dude but possible ally and anti-love interest. From the get-go he was domineering and controlling and just plain gross, but it almost seemed like the author was gearing up to deconstruct the trope of this kind of YA love interest, since Cassius was built up as the villain. I was even more fascinated when it is revealed that Cassius may have an ulterior motive for wanting to marry Aurora. So, one night, Aurora follows him to try to learn something, and this is where everything went downhill, and a promising fantasy devolved into an eye-rolling, nauseating romance. (This makes so much sense now that I know this author has previously only written romance.)

Basically, Aurora learns that Stormlings are not the only people with storm abilities, that in fact you can gain abilities by acquiring the heart of a storm (at least I think – the explanation on this was a bit shaky). So she joins a band of “hunters” – people who hunt storms – in order to acquire magic for herself so she doesn’t have to marry Cassius. What follows is a bunch of pointless, boring chapters of Aurora “training” to fight storms and falling in love with Locke, one of the hunters.

The romance is sickeningly heteronormative and misogynistic. Locke is possessive and domineering, frequently making references to how much he wants to “own” Aurora and how he wants her to belong to him. There are also several instances where he talks about being unable to control himself around her and forcing decisions on her. He’s a moody asshole a lot, with changes in temper that remind me strongly of abusive behavior. When they’re training, there’s a scene where he becomes sexually aroused when he physically overpowers her (yeah, I’m serious). At so many points I literally stopped reading and said aloud, “That is so fucking gross.” One example that nearly had me retching was when Aurora tells Locke she’s a virgin, and he says, verbatim:

“I’m the first to touch this mouth? To taste it?…That means it’s mine. My territory. And I’m prepared to protect it, every hour of the day if I must.”

If I hadn’t been reading on my Kindle, I think I would have physically hurled the book away at that point.

Just as disturbing are the constant references to Aurora’s body by the men around her. I feel like I know more about what she looks like than anything else in this world, and what she looks like is the embodiment of a traditionally beautiful thin white woman. There is so much emphasis on her thinness, her slim fingers, the curve of her waist, her hips, her perfect white skin, her gorgeous blue eyes, her red lips…and this happens constantly, to the point of being fetishistic. It’s fucking creepy, almost like a horny teenage boy was writing this. It constantly took me out of the narrative to roll my eyes.

Aurora, the protagonist, is bland as hell. She could have been likeable! In fact I was intrigued by her at the start, a bookish and shy princess trying to put on a brave face for her husband-to-be. She’s naive and extremely sheltered and idealistic, but it makes sense given her upbringing, and it works well. I got Sansa Stark vibes, and Sansa Stark is one of my favorite characters of all time! But Aurora’s personality development falls victim to the romance, which completely overtakes the book. There are entire chapters (chapters! plural!) devoted only to Locke and Aurora flirting and talking about how much they want to get in each others’ pants. In between these chapters Aurora spends a lot of time doing absolutely nothing but traveling aimlessly (I’m really starting to hate ~quest~ novels).

There are some scenes that take us back to Aurora’s home, where Cassius and his family have taken advantage of Aurora’s absence. Aurora’s childhood friend Nova, who helped Aurora fake her kidnapping, is imprisoned by Cassius after being suspected of having helped kidnap her. These scenes of Nova and Cassius were ten times more interesting than anything happening with Locke and Aurora. Nova is a fascinating character with her own secrets and her own power. Her scenes with Cassius were some of the most engaging in the whole book.

And a technical issue: the dialogue. Oh, the dialogue. Besides being peppered with laughably dramatic declarations, it constantly lacks contractions. Perhaps this is a personal annoyance, but nobody speaks without contractions; it’s stiff and stilted and just plain weird. And why would common people in particular be speaking it? Not that I like it when authors do this to try to differentiate upper-class from lower-class, but at least then it would make some sense. Instead, in this book, dialogue switches between super casual and super formal, to the point of being disorienting.

Everything about this plot is bland and cliche, which is such a shame, because this concept is too good to waste like this! I’m literally sitting here grieving about how this book decides that two horny teenagers are more interesting than potentially sentient natural disasters! At least if the romance were well done it might have been bearable, but instead we have a boring caveman male love interest who falls head over heels for a mysterious beautiful girl at first sight and then constantly talks about how he wants to possess her. No thanks.

Book Review: The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

31817749Title: THE STONE SKY
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 396
Publisher: Orbit
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I will begin with my one complaint, which is not even completely a complaint. But I spent nearly the entire book feeling vaguely lost, unsure if I was lost because I didn’t remember enough of book two or because things were just getting confusing. For in the conclusion to The Broken Earth trilogy Jemisin does give you all the answers you want about the origin of the world and the Seasons and the stone eaters – I’m just not sure I understood all of it. That is a testament to the complexity of Jemisin’s worldbuilding. It is the type of book that, once you finish, you want to begin all over again just to absorb it properly. In fact I feel like I want to re-read the whole trilogy, making highlights and annotations and using post-its to connect things and truly understand. That is what I mean when I say my complaint isn’t really a complaint, but rather an appreciation for the richness of the story. But I do think there could have been a way to make things more clearer, more straightforward and blunt, to help hammer in understanding.

Like the first two books in the series, The Stone Sky deals in tragedy, in exploitation and cruelty, justice and injustice. There are so many themes and incidents and characters in this book that resonated so strongly with me; they so powerfully mirror the current state of the world that I was utterly mesmerized. Essun and Nassun are finally reunited, in the last chapters, and it is as heartbreaking as you might imagine. Mother and daughter have both been through unimaginable horrors, and come out the other side hardened. But underneath all the tragedy, there is a tide of furious, fierce hope, a hope that things can be better if you force them to be.

The worldbuilding is spectacular. I know this even if I didn’t completely understand it. Jemisin showcases a society rooted in biotechnology, that uses the Earth’s magic to create tech that will grants convenience, a strong metaphor for our world’s use of fossil fuels and the like. It is an impressively creative way to combine science and magic. Like all of Jemisin’s books, and the reason why she is heralded as one of today’s best fantasy writers, The Stone Sky’s worldbuilding borrows little from existing societies or histories. It is wholly original, fresh, truly fantastical, the sort of fantasy that isn’t just faux-(insert historical civilization here), but completely unique.

At the close of the trilogy, the story wraps up beautifully, in a way that explicates the series’ narrative style, which, as I have come to understand, is Hoa weaving a complex story. It’s absolutely brilliant. The entire series is a masterful achievement of epic, that quality in fantasy that makes chills run down your spine from the awe of it all. What a grand, epic adventure.

Book Review: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

594139Title: REBECCA
Author: Daphne Du Maurier
Release Date: 1938
Pages: 387
Publisher: HarperCollins
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I’ve never read any classic Gothic literature before, but if they’re all like this, sign me up. Du Maurier absolutely excels at atmospheric writing; the setting of this novel is so palpable I could feel the oppressive heat in my own room, could smell the grotesquely huge rhododendrons, could hear the ebb and flow of the waves. From the very first page of the book I could feel myself sinking into its cozy depths. I read it slowly, savoring the rich prose, wanting to curl up with a blanket and a cup of warm tea. It’s that type of book.

But lest you think that it rests on its pretty prose and succumbs to its own Gothic atmosphere by dragging on dully, I have to tell you that Rebecca is truly a thriller. Part psychological, yes, but part straight-up noir thriller! You could sense there was some big reveal coming up, and by the middle of the novel I was turning pages so fast I had to pause and make sure I was truly reading every line carefully, savoring the prose. Du Maurier builds plot tension as well as she constructs atmospheric tension, and I’m sure many an English major has written about how her descriptions of the weather parallel the plot. It’s brilliant, with reveals I did not see coming.

I was very frustrated with our nameless narrator for much of the book, and even more so after the reveal, which I shall not divulge here. What I will say is that I can understand why she feels so small in Rebecca, who looms larger than life over the narrator’s relationship with her new husband Maxim. She looms over Manderly, over the servants, over the town, over the acquaintances…and so the narrator, already shy, shrinks and shrinks and shrinks until she barely exists.

All that’s there is her love for Maxim, despite the way he treats her almost as an afterthought, and I’m not entirely sure the reveal explains all that away. She is infuriatingly passive, very shy, and rather a daydreamer. All this makes for an fascinating, if not particularly engaging, heroine, but she was certainly a change from the usual female leads I usually read. That was refreshing. I haven’t read enough classic literature to say if this is because of the book’s era, though.

Overall, a rich, atmospheric, and utterly thrilling read!

Book Review: Now I Rise by Kiersten White

22817331Title: NOW I RISE
Author: Kiersten White
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 471
Publisher: Delacorte Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

One of the weaknesses of book one was that, being the first in a series, it had a lot of introductions to make. That lent itself to a lot of expository narrative that wasn’t particularly gripping, and as a result the plot was somewhat slow. This second book suffers no such issues

Picking up right where book one left off, Lada is back in Europe, trying to win back Wallachia, while Radu is by Mehmed’s side at all things. Alternating between both Lada and Radu’s perspectives, the narrative serves us two climaxes in paralleling story lines that leave us with a pair of disillusioned siblings.

From the get-go the plot races. Radu is sent to Constantinople to be a spy for Mehmed, while Lada tries to win alliances to get her throne back. Radu does so many things that weigh on his conscious that he grows disenchanted. Lada’s cruelty and viciousness grows even stronger, but in the process she also becomes jaded. The two siblings constantly think of one another, of how the other might do things, of how they need one another, and by the end I was longing for their reunion. Both of them also develop more complex feelings for Mehmed, still love, but mingled with other, more negative feelings as well, feelings that result from Mehmed’s actions as he himself grows in ambition and viciousness.

I’m also very pleased that all our characters continue to grow in complexity. I didn’t think I could love Radu more, but as we continue to learn more about him I find he’s quickly becoming one of my favorite male characters in literature. I appreciate Lada just as much, as well as Nazira, Radu’s wife, and the new character of Cyprian. White does such a fantastic job capturing the nuances of various characters. I’ve read a lot of books with forgettable characters so I love that the characters here are all so memorable and unique.

This is going to be a rather short review, as I don’t have too much to say other than that this book is just as well-written as the first only with a faster, more engaging plot. I will, however, say that the book ends with a spectacularly badass scene on Lada’s end, a scene that showcases how much her viciousness has grown. It was bloody beautiful. I’m so excited for the third part in this trilogy.

Book Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

18245Title: WAR AND PEACE
Author: Leo Tolstoy, Anthony Briggs (Translator)
Release Date: 1868
Pages: 1357
Publisher: Penguin Classics
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads

There are two things I want to say upfront before I (try to) get into the meat of an actual review.

First, having completed this book, I must say it is highly unlikely I would have picked it up or enjoyed it in the slightest had I not arrived at it by way of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. It is only with the musical’s vibrant characters in my mind that I was able to maintain my motivation to keep reading. That said, however, I will say that I hardly ever found the “peace” chapters dull or hard to get through. I just couldn’t connect with the characters very well. They were engaging, but I never cared about them as much as I hoped to (except for Helene, and possibly Anatole).

Second, what brings that book down to three stars for me is the insufferable, pedantic detail of the “war” chapters. Apparently Tolstoy is praised for his description of these battles. He does bring a certain realism to the forefront. However, I think that realism could have still been maintained even if huge chunks of these war chapters were pared down. There is just so much detail about random characters and random battalions and flanks and canons and other things I just could not bring myself to care about. And then of course there’s Tolstoy’s own philosophical interjections every now and again which I struggled to read without my eyes glazing over (Part II of the Epilogue…was an ordeal). I’m not going to go into Tolstoy’s philosophical beliefs or his views on history; I think his theories are best left to group discussions than book reviews (suffice it to say, if I understand Tolstoy correctly, I think I heartily disagree with many of his points).

The characters are the meat of this book. Tolstoy writes them well: they are all complex and varied and so different from one another you never had trouble telling them apart (well, the main characters at least!). And they are all so human in all their doubts and flaws. Despite the enormous cast of characters, I would say that there are really 3-5 main characters, in order from most to least importance/screentime: Pierre, Andrei, Nikolay, Natasha, and Marya (to my eternal disappointment, the Kuragins are really only very minor characters).

There are chapters upon chapters dedicated to Pierre and Andrei’s philosophical musings on life, which I found extremely irritating. It read like stream of consciousness at times. Andrei, as I’m told, is considered the Fitzwilliam Darcy of Russian lit, but I personally couldn’t stand him. I found him arrogant, brooding, and self-righteous. I know I’m supposed to have liked Pierre, and I didn’t dislike him, I just found his storyline meandering and dull (his whole thing with the Masonic Society was really weird and pointless). I’m rather ambivalent about Nikolay. I liked Marya a lot; I think she’s a fascinating character who really tries to embody goodness. And Natasha – the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl! Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but I wasn’t at all fond of Natasha’s characterization. She almost always seemed to be described in terms of her affect on other people, particularly men, who were drawn in by her seduction and oddities, and yet her own inner life seemed strangely bereft. Perhaps this is an issue with the translation, but often I found her thought process and dialogue meandering and dramatic to the point of irritation. It was like she was written more as a spectacle, a phenomenon, than a character.

The two characters who intrigued me the most were not featured as much: Anatole and Helene. From the moment they are introduced they are fascinating and contradictory. Anatole is described as kind and generous and yet simultaneously utterly oblivious to the wants and needs of others, or to consequences. Helene enjoys a reputation as a clever high-society woman and yet is thought of as stupid by her husband, whom she seems to despise but tolerates for his ability to raise her status in society. In the musical we get many interactions between Anatole and Helene that show their intense sibling bond; in the novel, however, they barely interact. Rather than being shown we are told about their strong (perhaps incestuous) bond, yet we see very little to convince us of this.

Perhaps that is my issue with the whole book and why I had such trouble connecting. So much of it is told to us. I know it’s probably futile to talk about “show don’t tell” when it comes to an epic like War and Peace. Not just because it’s an epic, but because literary conventions have shifted so much since this novel’s publication that I as a reader am certainly influenced by my own expectations. But alas, my enjoyment of these characters was definitely hindered by my modern day conventions and expectations of literature, and I wanted to see so much more than I was told.

But still much of the novel was engaging and entertaining, though the war chapters did nothing for me whatsoever. The agonizing dullness of the war chapters may have been salvaged by beautiful writing, but the writing is plain and ordinary. Again I hesitate because this is a translation, and perhaps other translations capture a more lyrical tone, but in the case of the Briggs translation I found the writing rather dull and unadorned. It is certainly easy to read, but it also leaves you unaffected. Not once did I pause and admire the beauty of a particularly written sentence or paragraph.

I’m glad to have read this, and I did enjoy many parts, but overall this isn’t a novel that will stick with me or affect me in any way. I wish I felt what so many people do upon reading this novel – which is apparently some kind of grand appreciation for the human condition or something – but I don’t, sadly.