Lyndsay Faye Saves the Day!

Hello, readers! I’m sure you’ve noticed that I haven’t been posting lately. I just haven’t found any good books to review for a while. I’ve been rereading a lot of old ones, but every time I try to break new ground, I end up stalling out and not finishing.

Enter Lyndsay Faye. After loving Jane Steele, I got Faye’s first novel, Dust and Shadow. It’s not quite a retelling, but it is a Sherlock Holmes story. In this case, Faye’s “What if” question was “What if Sherlock Holmes investigated the Ripper murders?”

I like Sherlock Holmes (the short stories better than the novels) so I was prepared to love Dust and Shadow. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but I did like it enough to bust me out of my slump, finish a book, and come here to write about it, so yay!

It’s been a while since I’ve read any Sherlock Holmes, but I think they do often get off to a slow start. I loved the end of Jane Steele so much I forgot how much I slogged through the beginning, but that one also took a while to get going. So it took me longer than it should have to really get into Dust and Shadow. I think I was about halfway through before I got really invested in the investigation.

Part of that might be because I’ve read other books on Jack the Ripper. Much of the beginning of the novel is a rehashing of the established facts, most of which I already knew. But once Faye laid the groundwork and sent the detective of Baker Street to work, I was hooked.

By nature of the historical facts, some of the scenes are gruesome. If that’s going to bother you (it should bother you a little, but if it’s going to ruin the book for you) then I do not recommend this one for you. I also found the ending vaguely unsatisfying, but very much in keeping with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original style.

Lyndsay Faye delivers meticulously researched and masterfully written novels. In my experience, she is 2 for 2. I’ll definitely be reading her other books and reporting back on what I think of them, but at this stage, I’m very confident in recommending any of her books.

Advertisements

Revisiting Neverland: Peter Pan Retellings

Months ago, I downloaded Kindle’s sample of UnhookedI really liked the direction the story was going with this girl whose parents had some mysterious connection with Neverland, but the sample ended right about the same time the story moved out of England and into the world of make believe. As I said, I really liked it, but not enough to buy the book to read the rest.

Months pass, I remember that public libraries exist, and I finally get my hands on the full copy of Unhooked. It was such a disappointment. I wasn’t a big fan of the ending. I felt like the beginning of the story set up a lot of unfulfilled expectations. But overall I couldn’t put my finger on what I didn’t like about the book. And then I read Alias Hook.

It was so much better. The books are very similar. Both make Captain Hook into a sympathetic character. By extension, this makes Peter Pan the bad guy. But how they go about doing that is very different.

In Unhooked, the protagonist and Hook are both teenagers, just like Pan. Pan wants to control Neverland and will stop at nothing to gain more power. He is unquestionably a villain. Hook is a former Lost Boy who has turned against Pan now that he knows the boy’s true nature. While I thought it sounded like a promising premise, it was ultimately unsatisfying.

Alias Hook focuses on a woman who has arrived in Neverland under mysterious circumstances, desperate to escape war-torn Europe and recapture her lost childhood. Hook, a full grown man, has been cursed to stay in Neverland, but with Stella’s reappearance, he learns that there may be a way to escape his prison. And it’s a fantastic character journey that I really want to discuss with you, but not until after you’ve read the book. So read it, get in touch, and we’ll chat. Seriously, I would love it if you did that.

In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’m not going to go into more detail of the plot of either of these books, but I will talk about why I think Alias Hook works so much better. The idea of eternal childhood is central to the original Peter Pan. Hook isn’t a villain because he’s a pirate, but rather because he’s an adult. By putting Hook and Pan in the same age bracket, Unhooked loses that central conflict.

Alias Hook turns that conflict around by challenging whether eternal childhood is really such a good thing, but the same idea remains at the heart of Neverland. Pan is not the hero of the story, but he isn’t a true villain either. Because he’s still just a young boy, his ideas of right and wrong have not fully developed. He’s still cruel, but the point is that children have no grasp of the consequences of their actions, which is why they can be so heartless. Cutting off Hook’s hand is still a despicable act, but Pan has no notion of what it means to permanently maim someone.

If you want to read a Peter Pan retelling, I highly recommend Alias Hook by Lisa Jensen. If you decide to read a different one, I still really think you should find one that maintains the age difference between Pan and Hook. As with any retelling, fiddling with the details is what makes it new and fun, but the heart of the story has to stay in place.

 

Uprooted: Magic that Works

I really loved Naomi Novik’s fantasy novel Uprooted. In addition to being an author she is also a computer game designer. Much of her novel echoed aspects of the old Sierra adventure games like King’s Quest and Quest for Glory. So maybe part of it is just my 90’s nostalgia, but I loved it.

Her characters were great, her world was well-developed, and her folk story foundation was rock solid. But the crowning masterpiece of this book is the magic.

It’s hard to come up with a workable magic system for a fantasy world. If you’re not careful, you end up with the solution to all of your characters’ problems being right at their fingertips. Then you need to come up with some convoluted reason why magic can’t fix this particular problem. This is compounded when your main character is the most powerful wizard to be seen in hundreds of years, which is another fantasy staple.

So the question becomes, how do you make your character special without giving them unlimited power? Naomi Novik has found the answer in Uprooted.

Agnieska lives in a region protected by a Dragon (not a real dragon, just a wizard known by that name). Every ten years he picks a girl to be his servant. Everyone knows that he will take Agnieska’s best friend Kasia, who is beautiful and graceful and everything that Agnieska is not. But then choosing day comes and Angieska is the one taken.

Once back at the Tower, the Dragon tries to teach Angieska magic, but she is a horrible failure at it. Then she finds a little book full of spells that all work for her. The Dragon is stymied, as no one considered those spells any good, and eventually it all comes out. Agnieska does magic differently than other wizards do.

This is a brilliant move on Novik’s part. Agnieska is not more powerful than everyone else, but she can do things they can’t. On the flip side, things that come easily to them are hard for her. And when she works with someone, combining their two forms of magic, they can accomplish even more.

This gives them their best chance yet to beat back the Wood, a malevolent power that corrupts everyone that comes in contact with it. But it also creates even more problems. Working magic together is kind of intimate. What if no other magic user is around to work with you? What if the only one available isn’t someone you’re comfortable forming that type of connection with?

Novik’s magic system sets up a framework that allows her characters to break new ground while still providing limits. When you combine this with a world-weary sorcerer with a dry sense of humor, a determined heroine who makes things up as she goes along, and a sinister villain whose power reaches farther than anyone ever guessed, the resulting story is simply magical.

Reckoning of Dragons

Rob May’s epic fantasy trilogy made for a quick and entertaining read. Even though there were things about it that I didn’t love, one thing made it some of the best fantasy I have ever read: Kal Moonheart is the epic heroine I never knew I wanted until I found her.

We’re all familiar with the character who is living a quiet life and only wants to be left alone until some cataclysmic event forces them to take action and save the world. It’s noble of them, really. But as they hope from danger to danger, it gets harder to believe that they’re doing everything they can to avoid excitement. The lady doth protest too much.

And then there’s Kal. She will leap headfirst into trouble for no other reason than to see what happens. She’s largely motivated by money, though she does have enough of a conscience to help a friend out. Strangers can fend for themselves. Kal isn’t looking forward to finishing one last dangerous task and then retiring to the quiet life. The quiet life bores her silly and has her investigating dangerous intrigues just to break up the monotony.

May’s other characters are equally three-dimensional and interesting. I highly encourage aspiring writers to read this series as an example of how to develop good characters. They all have positive and negative traits, making me like all of them, even if I kind of hated them too.

The one thing I did not like about this book: the ending left me wanting more. There are many more stories to tell with this world. As far as I can tell, Rob May isn’t working on any new books with these characters at the moment, but a girl can hope.

 

Twenty Sided Sorceress Recommendation

After just finishing A Promise of Fire and trying to hold off on book 2 of the Kingmaker Chronicles until we’re closer to book 3’s release date, I turned to a more complete series to help pass the time. The Twenty Sided Sorceress series is on book 8 (Dungeon Crawl, which is brand new) and still going.

I’ve only read the first three books of this series to date, but so far I like them. The series is urban fantasy, which I always kind of sneered at for some inexplicable reason before reading Justice Calling (book 1 of this series) and discovering that I liked it.

Jade Crow is a sorceress who channels her magic through Dungeon and Dragons spells. Her magic technically doesn’t have any limits, but she’s still figuring out how to use them. Or, more accurately, she is repressing them as hard as she can because her ex-lover, another sorcerer, is trying to find her and eat her heart because that’s how sorcerers get more power. And you thought your love life was bad.

I waited a long time after reading book one to read book two, but the important points came back quickly. I’m still a little fuzzy on some of book one’s details, but I could follow along with book two and three no problem. With that being said, this is a series you’re going to want to read in order. And also, this is a series you’re going to want to read.

Would I Recommend Yann Martel?

After recently reading and reviewing Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal, I’m still trying to decide what I thought of it.

It’s a very well written book. There’s no arguing with that. You feel like you’re jolting down the back roads of rural Portugal in an early automobile while you’re reading it. Or sitting in a morgue late at night. Or driving back home wondering why the heck you just bought a chimpanzee. Even though I’ve never done any of those things.

Martel captures the emotions of his characters very well, and by doing so he captures the reader just as tight. I struggled a little to get into the book, but once I was hooked I couldn’t put it down. Despite the excellent writing and the captivating characters, when I got to the end, I wasn’t quite satisfied.

I think leaving his readers unsatisfied is part of the fun for Martel. He did the same thing in Life of Pi. And while I admire his writing, I prefer my leisure reading to leave me more settled than his does. It sticks with you, which is always a compliment to any author, but not in a comfortable way.

One of the things they teach you about creative writing is that it’s okay to leave strings dangling. Leaving some things unresolved adds to the illusion that the world inside the book continues on after the last page. But I think Martel takes it too far the other way. One week after I finished reading his book, and I still feel like I need some closure.

So would I recommend Yann Martel? Sure, if you want to read a well written book that’s going to take you by surprise. But if you’re looking for something to leave you happy and contented when you reach the conclusion, this isn’t it.

Talking As Fast As I Can

Image result for lauren graham talking as fast as i can

Talking As Fast As I Can is Lauren Graham’s collection of essays that mostly deals with what it was like to star on Gilmore Girls twice. The title fits because, as you will already know if you’re familiar with the show, there is so much dialogue packed into each episode that I’m pretty sure they had to take breaks between scenes for the actors to catch their breath.

Maybe the title helped set the mood, or maybe I just can’t separate Lauren Graham from Lorelai Gilmore in my head, but I felt like Lorelai Gilmore was reading this book to me. If that was Lauren Graham’s goal: well done! If not, it was a nice side benefit.

I enjoyed this essay collection. It was mostly light-hearted reminiscing, which is all I really want out of a book like this. I’m not a fan of celebrity books that get philosophical. I just want to laugh at your quirky journey to Hollywood star. And, for the most part, Graham delivers.

Her return to Gilmore Girls for A Year in the Life was my least favorite part of the book. While I understand that returning to the role that gave her her first big break could be an emotional experience, I could have done with less emotional overflow in the book. But that’s just me. My family tends to minimize emotional displays. Unless I know you very well, I’d like for you to do likewise.

I wouldn’t call this book a stunning masterpiece, (sorry, Lauren!) but reading it was enjoyable and what more do you want from a book? If you’re a fan of Lauren Graham, I recommend this book to you. If you’re a fan of celebrity memoirs/essays, I recommend this book to you. If neither of the above applies to you, then, no, this is not the book for you. But you can finish it in one afternoon, so if you’re looking for something different, go ahead, give this book a read.

The Mother Tongue

For the most part, I’m going to focus on books that have been released within the past year for my reviews, but I will recommend some older books for you from time to time. For example, my first book recommendation for you was published in 1990. The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson is as old as I am, which gives it a nice kind of symbolism for my first recommendation, but more importantly than its age is its brilliance. And this book is, quite simply, brilliant.

Available on Amazon.

Bill Bryson is better known for his travelogues, especially A Walk in the Woods, but his clever wit shines through just as clear when he’s detailing the history of the English language. That might sound like a dull subject, but when Bryson is explaining it, it’s fascinating and hilarious.

Quick Disclaimer: I would find the history of the English language fascinating if it were being taught by Professor Binns from Hogwarts, (i.e. a dead guy). But even people who don’t have my odd obsession with English will find Bryson’s explanation of some of it’s quirkier bits ridiculously entertaining.

I laughed out loud while reading this book, a lot, which I’ll admit I didn’t see coming. I annoyed my family by reading large chunks of it out loud, since they were simply too good to not be shared. I threw this book onto my Christmas list on a whim and ended up finding an absolute treasure.

If you’ve ever wondered why this goofy language of ours is so, well, goofy, then read this book. You’ll be entertained for hours and you just might learn something along the way.