It's January, and I'm already off my fiction/non-fiction schedule, but it's OK: I have an excuse! I have writing a major grant and I need something waIt's January, and I'm already off my fiction/non-fiction schedule, but it's OK: I have an excuse! I have writing a major grant and I need something warm, comforting and relaxing to support me through and I've been saving Enchanted Glass for just such an occasion. Enchanted Glass is the last book that Diana Wynne Jones wrote before she died, and DWJ is, of course, my favorite.
In the process of reading this, I ended up enumerating all of the DWJ books and plots to one of my friends, which I think helped me appreciate EG -- it has several of the key themes of her life's work: Andrew's memories of childhood are fuzzy; many adult authority figures are untrustworthy -- not that they don't believe in magic, but that they're straight malevolent; people are embodiments of mythical or fictional characters (in this case, Oberon -- cleverly calling himself "O. Brown", Titania, Mab and Puck.) It's nostalgic and it certainly filled the niche I was looking for.
On the downside, it felt raw to me. Plotlines drop, which I can't remember from any other DWJ book; there are some very jumpy parts and the beginning drags somewhat. Fans of DWJ will overlook it, but objectively, unfortunately, it's not that good....more
This book is some brilliant ideas executed quite poorly. In trying to be a literary thriller, Descent really succeeds at neither genre. Nonetheless, iThis book is some brilliant ideas executed quite poorly. In trying to be a literary thriller, Descent really succeeds at neither genre. Nonetheless, in this failure, which is his debut novel, Johnston brings some rather unique ideas.
The bad news first: this is yet another abduction/serial sexual predator novel. Why is this even a thing that exists? Also, stranger abduction practically never happens in real life, which makes the profusion of novels on the topic extra strange. But further, this novel doesn't really spend much time on the abduction. I came to the novel having seen it compared to Gone Girl, so I thought it was a mystery and tried to read it as such -- paying attention to all the details. Unfortunately, that way lies utter madness: there simply is no conclusion to the vast majority of storylines. Why is Grant missing two fingers? Who was the alleged rapist that grabbed a ride with Sean and whatever happened to him? Why was Sean also called Dudley? What happened to Angela after Faith died and was the story she told the real story of the drowning? None of these questions have clear answers, except maybe the first (he was drunk, the end.) and the last (yes, apparently, as billed.) Even the idea of this novel as an exploration of a family after tragedy falls flat as Angela's story gets dropped completely after only two chapters, and Grant and Sean's stories don't really come together until they settle in with the Kinneys. Finally, as many reviewers have already noted: you can either feature multiple timelines or multiple narrators, but not both, especially when you refer to your protagonists only by gender 95% of the time.
The good news: there are so many cool ideas here. Johnston really wanted to look at the shockwaves of tragedy and the idea of vignettes of separate coping mechanisms had potential. I loved the idea to make it seem like the story of the "every-man" by referring only to characters as "the girl" or "the boy" and this was one of the most successful themes as it carried through also into Caitlyn's dissociative episodes in which she was watching someone else narrate her story. Johnston is also very into the idea of good luck, bad luck and religion as a result of experiencing bad luck, and this came through strongly, if heavy handedly, with nice parallelism with the story of Angela and Faith as well as the Kenney brothers.
Overall, a fairly weak and not very enjoyable novel, but an ambitious one. I will definitely consider reading his second effort....more
Let's recap briefly: Rainbow Rowell wrote a book (Fangirl) about what it was like to be a Big Name Fan and in order to capture this experience she madLet's recap briefly: Rainbow Rowell wrote a book (Fangirl) about what it was like to be a Big Name Fan and in order to capture this experience she made up a fictional Harry Potter series, which the protagonist of Fangirl wrote a fanfic about. Then, Rainbow Rowell decided to actually write this fictional Harry Potter series, which is Carry On. Meta'ed out yet?
But, honestly, this kind of makes sense, because the Simon Snow snippets were the best part of Fangirl. Rowell is nothing if not wicked clever, and it shines the most in the way that she used the fact that everyone knows and understands Harry Potter to include huge swathes of background in a couple of paragraphs, which gave her inversions and subtle changes context. One of the coolest feats of literatures someone's pulled off in awhile, but I was worried that it was not particularly sustainable in a stand-alone novel.
Good news, bad news? The way in which Harry Potter provides a context and background to Carry On is probably the strongest part. The whole book exists in a dialogue with Harry Potter and the two most interesting themes of the novel grow from here: 1. Doesn't it kind of suck to be a mage in a magical/muggle world? The way HP is set up, you can only be a wizard if you're a wizard (you don't get the basic education required to be anything else.) What if you want to be a doctor or a mathematician or a chef in a big restaurant? Suck to be you: wizarding world or bust. But in the HP world, no one discusses this. Rowell actually explores this concept and how much magic destines people. 2. If you're a mage in a magical/muggle hybrid world, and you get to go to magic school, the rest of life is a downhill slog of hiding and never being around your people. Another thing Rowell does great is evoking the culture and community of teenagers and it's really on show here: the sadness of graduation is clear in a way that Rowlings did not succeed at. 3. I love the loyal opposition. That you can be boyhood enemies and play kid games, but if there's going to be a war and its going to be real, how does that change and mature your enmity. Because so much of childhood opposition is the loyal opposition: the person you depend on to antagonize you and play the foil. So, cool. This part is fun.
Bad news: The book reads like Harry/Draco fanfiction. Not that I read fanfiction (only pro-singularity propoganda, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.) But still. So still some good news, in that those of us who have spent the last 14 years and 7 books growing to love the Harry Potter characters will be invested off the bat. But on the downside, very little actually happens. Literally, the first 20% of the book is HarrySimon wandering around HogwartsWatford looking for Baz. The majority of the rest is Simon and Baz mooning at each other. Also, it reads to me like Cath actually wrote it, i.e. that it was written by an 18 year old girl: Is falling in love with your sworn enemy actually a thing that happens in real life? Just one minute you're fighting and the next you're swooning and then a second later you're "snogging"? OK... Also, I talk a lot. I think in words. I need to talk to process my thoughts. My friends get sick of hearing me think out loud. Both the thinking and the talking. I get told "most people don't think that much; they just do" a lot. In Rainbow Rowell's world, I am both basically selectively mute and impulsive. Her characters talk about everything always and at length (usually sounding like self-important teenagers in their word choice and punctuation.) I have never in real life met someone who articulates quite so many thoughts, and definitely not a 17 year old boy who does so.
Finally, despite having read approximately 20 pages of Baz's thoughts on Simon's hair, I still have no idea why they actually like each other in anyway. (Besides the hair. It seems easier to have your boyfriend wear a wig than to date your sworn enemy because he has nice hair.)
So, in conclusion, its a fun romp, with interesting commentary on the world of Harry Potter and school fantasy in general, and it's the only book you'll ever read that's a fictionalized version of a fanfic of a fictional novel, so there's that....more
Here's the thing: the first third of this book is absolutely swoon-worthy. I loved Cath's entry into cOh, Fangirl. I almost hate to write this review.
Here's the thing: the first third of this book is absolutely swoon-worthy. I loved Cath's entry into college. So much resonated so well: The slow development of a friend, then a couple friends, then a whole social world. Her fear of the cafeteria. The way that casual acquaintances such as that-friend-of-my-roomate can insidiously become close friends. The way that casual acquaintances can become all of a sudden close friends through platonic one-night stands. The juggling of the academic expectations with all of the other life expectations that blossom in college. All of these things Rowell depicts so well and the nostalgia was so strong and so sweet. My only criticism of this first third was that to be true to my experience, I would have loved to see fandom depicted in Cath's real life: my undergrad timeline with regard to Harry Potter was slightly different than Cath's with Simon Snow (Order of the Phoenix came out between my sophomore and junior years, Half-blood Prince the summer after undergrad and Deathly Hallows on my first call of medical school) but nonetheless, being a Harry Potter fan and an all around geek was a major part of my in-person social life in undergrad. Despite this small criticism, though, I was a major fan(girl) of the first third -- easily one of the best college-life books I've ever read.
Then, everything changed -- yucky romance plot! To be fair, I adore epic platonic stories; I crave platonic relationships in literature; I'm basically the inverse of a shipper in that I was deeply, personally invested in the platonic relationship between Cath and Levi. Deep, important platonic relationships between (straight) men and women are almost never depicted in literature, so when they are and they're positive, I horde them. Therefore, I wanted to cry when Rowell put them together, and my love for Fangirl never recovered. After my adoration for and identification with the Cath of the first third, I literally felt personally betrayed by their relationship. And when I recovered from that emotional reaction, I still felt that the last two thirds was lacking the magic of the first.
-Reagan is basically the best character ever. Nuanced, assertive, abrasive but caring -- basically the person I wish had been my undergrad roommate. She is virtually absent after her reaction to Cath and Levi getting together -Levy is just not that interesting as a romantic interest. He's too perfect and featureless. -Wren frustrates the heck out of me. Not the character, but her depiction. It is so shallow -- she reads like an Afterschool Special on the risks of drinking. Not interested!
I did like the Simon Snow bits, and I really enjoyed the snippets of Carry On, Simon. I love the technique of snippets of a book within a book, left for the reader to fill in the details. Also, after some discussion with Jon, I liked the way that Cath's major writing assignment was dropped for hundreds of pages to jump in again and punch her in the face -- my anxiety about its absence was a pretty visceral recollection of what having a major assignment like that was like in my own life. Probably not a pleasant writing technique, though.
I can't help but recommend this to people -- the first third was so freaking good, but don't be me! Stop at page 150 and imagine how amazing the rest could be....more
I almost gave up on this book when I realized that there was (view spoiler)[magic (hide spoiler)]. It seemed like cheating -- I loved Broken Harbor foI almost gave up on this book when I realized that there was (view spoiler)[magic (hide spoiler)]. It seemed like cheating -- I loved Broken Harbor for its grittiness and realness and I was worried that would be lost in The Secret Place. But it turned out that for me, the key to really getting Tana French books was embracing the magical realism here. The mental gymnastics I had to do to reach a place where magical realism was okay for me in her books led me to realize that there's a flavor of magical realism in all her books. Not literally, of course, but her books are to traditional murder mysteries the way that magical realism is to traditional fantasy: they aren't about murder, they use crimes as a lens to reflect upon the traits in real life that are difficult to explore in pure "literary" fiction.
And in that context, French is a genius. The Secret Place uses its central mystery to explore the tight friendships of teenage years, and how empowering and close they can be. The four main characters are depicted perfectly, achingly nuanced -- almost like someone that I've known and drifted away from myself. The overall effect was one of extreme, almost overwhelming nostalgia, so much so that the ["br"]>["br"]>...more
I thought this book was going to be dull; the premise, as billed certainly didn't seem that original: a woman alleges a horrible crime. Is she crazy oI thought this book was going to be dull; the premise, as billed certainly didn't seem that original: a woman alleges a horrible crime. Is she crazy or is it a coverup? Probably one of the most cliche plots. In addition, I tend to avoid literary depictions of "crazy" that don't resemble reality -- for example, highly organized improbable thoughts, being presented calmly and rationally. (I'm biting back a long digression here about the history of psychiatry as a tool to discredit women. By the way, the most coherent psychotic episode I've ever witnessed included a patient telling us how groundhogs were equipped with satellites to spy on her -- they're very rarely calm, realistic and difficult to dissect from reality.) But the Farm, while it skirts that cliched territory, avoids it, rather being something much deeper about people, and their relationships to each other.
I first got drawn in in the first chapter. The (ostensible) narrator, Daniel, notes that he hasn't told his parents that he's gay, even though he considers himself close to them, because they tried so hard to create a happy childhood for them and he doesn't want them to doubt that he was happy. This paragraph, a virtual aside, I found so twisted, so illogical and so compelling that I had to read further to find out if it was intentional. The answer is unequivocally yes: this is the world Smith has created for Daniel. A world where people keep relatively benign, mundane secrets from each other for no good reason, except the desire to keep a completely perfect facade. This is one example of money that will come forth in the book and Smith makes it quite clear: the premise of the book -- where either Daniel's mother has either been completely psychotic for about a year, or where Daniel's father is involved in a conspiracy to commit murder and has been for several months, all the while Daniel thinking that they were happily living on a farm -- is only possible in the context where secrets are habitually kept under the guise of emotional "closeness." I thought this had particular relevance to today's age and facebook culture, where people post a carefully curated life and keep their feelings under close wraps.
The bulk of the book, while still officially narrated by Daniel, is really the exposition of his mother, Tilde, her "evidence" for the conspiracy and her story of what has happened. Far from being an over-the-top portrayal of psychosis or the depiction of a completely normal woman taken for insane for no clear reason, Smith's depiction here is nuanced: it's impossible to get through this section without believing that Tilde is extrapolating quite a lot from quite a little and, conversely, without believing that there are at least some goings-on that are not totally on the up-and-up. (view spoiler)[I found out after I read the book that it is based on an autobiographical episode, wherein Smith's mother, who had been living on a farm in Sweden, flew to see him, alleging that his father was involved in a conspiracy, and was declared psychotic. I think the experience and the realism really shows through, here. I loved little touches like the episode where Tilde is mushroom picking and realizes she's got a basket full of leaves instead, and by that point it's so clear she's been hallucinating, but she instead confabulates a story about being gaslit. It's so clear to the reader and so, so sad. (hide spoiler)]
The other thing that I'll note, is in the genre of Shocking Family Secrets! which I usually avoid, because it's usually one of three secrets anyway (affair! homosexuality! abuse!) The Farm built up this shocking secret, about how Tilde, while she claims to lime and respect her parents, ran away and hasn't spoken to them since she was sixteen. And I was convinced that it would be a canonical secret, and it wasn't and indeed, I was shocked: (view spoiler)[Tilde had a best friend, Freja, who believed in trolls, and they tried to run away together, but it failed and afterwards Freja denied she'd ever been friends with Tilde, and then died under suspicious circumstances. And Tilde ran away because she knew that her parents believed that she killed Freja, even though she didn't. I finished this section and it was chilling -- this idea of "they don't believe me, I'm going to run away from the country forever and never look back" was so beyond the norm and so beyond what I expected, and it really established the tone for the stakes of Tilde's narrative. If I could nest spoilers I would, because once I worked through the matryoshka doll of this secret to find a classic family secret at the middle (Tilde's narrative, in which nests the imputed murder of Freja/Tilde's first psychotic break, in which nests Tilde's father's first story about Freja being imaginary, in which nests Tilde's abuse at her father's hands) I was already sufficiently impressed with the delicate psychology that Smith worked to be impressed (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I'm still processing how I felt about this book. Don't mistake five stars to signify enjoyment, rather it's respect: Gillian Flynn is doing somethingI'm still processing how I felt about this book. Don't mistake five stars to signify enjoyment, rather it's respect: Gillian Flynn is doing something different. As far as I can tell, she's doing something different and creative and she's the best in her genre. I've never experienced anything quite like it.
Do I like it? I mean, I guess. I mean, kind of. I mean, I definitely wouldn't torture myself by rereading this book. I found it compulsive reading. Literally -- I would try to put it down, but I would keep thinking about it, about the characters, about the atmosphere, until I just had to pick it up and read more. It was the most disturbing thing I've ever read. You know how, when you're a tween/young teenager, and you and your friends tell gross out stories, because you've realized that the world can be dark and you're trying to figure out the boundaries? This book reads like this. Think of the most disturbing thing you can possibly think of, and that's this book.
On the one hand, that takes all the suspense out of the book, because you know the twist and turn to literally every mystery. On the other, there is all this tension as you read thinking: "Flynn cannot possibly be going there, right?" (view spoiler)[I was mostly relieved when Camille and Amma went home to Chicago, because I thought: thank goodness I was wrong and Adora was the killer, not Amma. And then I was a little disturbed that I came up with a more morbid ending than Flynn did. And then the final twist happened. And then the teeth went into the dollhouse, which was even more gruesome than I could have imagined (hide spoiler)]
But honestly, I don't read anything just for the gross-out factor, psychological horror or the other type, so there's another reason that I stuck with this book, besides that it made me feel physically ill the way no other novel has succeeded. And that is, Flynn has something really interesting to say about female villains. Sharp Objects is an apt title -- Flynn explores the weapons that women, socialized out of traditional violence, use against themselves and each other and the deep damage that everyone involved sustains as a result. There are literal sharp objects: the knives that Camille uses to cut, girls who scratch with their nails, women and girls who bit, scissors that one of the victims once used to stab someone; and infinite metaphorical sharp objects.
(view spoiler)[ Flynn had said in interviews that Gone Girl was the book in which she explored feminism by exploring female villains, but I didn't buy it when I read Gone Girl: Amy was too stereotypically evil and stereotypically female and I felt like it was derivative. But in Sharp Objects, Flynn clearly succeeds (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Most novels ostensibly about math feature math as a Dan Brown-ian McGuffin, approximately equivalent to magic: we take these numbers and then Do MathMost novels ostensibly about math feature math as a Dan Brown-ian McGuffin, approximately equivalent to magic: we take these numbers and then Do Math and then the secret to the universe pops out-style. That is not the Mathematician's Shiva. This is a book written by someone who clearly loves and understands math. The whole novel is basically a love poem to math, and cold Wisconsin winters, supported by knowing winks at academic culture and a heavy dose of Madison in its setting. Out of that comes a charming family story, staring all middle-aged+ protagonists (shout-out to Jon, who's into that sort of thing), as well as some thoughtful exploration of the meaning of religion, and specifically Judaism to a bunch of hard-nosed skeptics who don't literally believe but still gain value, the difference between intelligence and genius and the areas of the world where gender discrimination is alive and well.
I'm not totally sure who this novel was actually for, but as an academic Eastern-European Jewish math-enthusiast, cross-country-skiing-enthusiast who was born and raised in Madison, I enjoyed it largely as a "hey, look at that, someone wrote a book just for me!" I'm not sure whether a broader audience would appreciate it....more
To get it out of the way: this book is not for people who think that books should only feature likeable people. (This review is not for people who thiTo get it out of the way: this book is not for people who think that books should only feature likeable people. (This review is not for people who think that books should only feature likeable people; this reviewer is not for people who think that books should only feature likeable people.) But if you're like me and you like unlikeable people in your books, you'll like this book.
I was thrilled by the first part of this book: unreliable narration is one of my favorite literary techniques; unreliable narration being used to make the narrators look good is even more fun and a pair of unreliable narrators each distorting the narration in their favor was compelling reading that went beyond the normal tenets of mystery novels to speak to the distance between who we are and who we want to be. In this first part, both Nick and Amy, taking turns narrating are both completely unlikeable and completely relatable. One of the parts that sticks out from here: Amy complaining that she's mad at Nick but she doesn't want to be mad so she ends up even madder because she's mad that now he made her mad. Chilling: clearly terribly emotionally manipulative, but at the same time I think most people can relate to that feeling where you had planned on handling a difficult situation calmly and maturely and it doesn't end up that way and the spiral that ensues. I like that by the end of part one, it was really clear to me that my two major suspects in Amy's disappearance were the narrators and one of them knew something that they weren't telling. It was clever and novel.
The second and third parts of the book are just less interesting. The narration stops being unreliable ((view spoiler)[except for maybe Amy's relationship with Desi -- I was definitely skeptical of her depiction (hide spoiler)]) and I found the solution to the mystery less interesting: sociopaths are the stuff of fiction but for a novel that is trying to be gritty and show compellingly, realistically flawed characters, true absolutely-no-empathy-do-whatever's-in-my-best-interest sociopathy really has no place (I decided not to spoiler tag this: I don't think it actually gives anything away.) I wanted the culprit in Amy's disappearance to be, like the first part of the book, a flawed but ultimately relatable person.
Overall, I'm glad I read it; it probably deserves the hype for trying some very cool and original ideas in terms of narration, and I'll be interested in reading Flynn's other work.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Yes, it is quite inventive: with carriageless horses and many types of magic. Yes, there is some interesting central plot about Fairyland stealing tithes from other worlds. There is a simply lovely introduction about the concept of history.
But I was hoping for more backstory on Mallow, maybe even dating back to the Maud days, and overall, I just don't think that the short story format is well-suited for fairyland, which I enjoy because of the perception of a vast, rich world. ...more