7. ‘All the Birds in the Sky’ by Charlie Jane Anders

After reading All the Birds in the Sky, the first novel from Hugo-award winner and former editor of io9, Charlie Jane Anders, I can honestly say I’ve never encountered a novel that so perfectly blended my two favorite genres. Growing up as an outcast, I sought comfort in science fiction and fantasy. Solace could equally be found in Dungeons and Dragons along with reruns of Doctor Who. In those moments, I didn’t feel quite so alone. This book about two opposing outcasts is a work that can only be described as sheer brilliance. Charlie Jane Anders has crafted a beautiful novel that attempts to teach us that our similarities, not our differences, define us as a society.

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Magic and technology. Never have two opposing yet necessary forces been captured so well as in these two main characters. For magic, there’s Patricia, a witch who got her first taste of magic as a child. One day, a wounded sparrow leads her to the Parliament of Birds. When asked the impossible question of “Is a tree red?” Patricia’s struggle of an answer haunts her until the end of the novel. For technology, we have Laurence, a technology genius who builds the next generation of AI (as well as a two-second time machine). Both Patricia and Laurence grow up with unhappy childhoods. They are teased and misunderstood in a world that fails to appreciate each of their respective talents. Then, they meet each other, where they find some measurement of solace. Both long for escape, one into the woods, the other into the stars. As different as their beliefs are, they are drawn to each other. A series of unfortunate events separates them until adulthood, where they enter and leave each other’s orbits as only two brilliant stars could accomplish.

I appreciated how it often felt like I was reading two very separate novels. Our two main characters spend the majority of time separate from each other. Patricia, now a successful witch, uses her powers to help people. Laurence spends his time working with a group on a project to save the human race from their inevitable destruction. Separately, each character is quite dazzling. When they do come together at random points, it’s a moment of beautiful intensity. I had no idea where this novel was heading in terms of plot, but I promise that it all comes together meticulously in the final pages.

I appreciated how throughout the novel, Anders echoes The Magicians, one of my all-time favorite fantasy series that reveled in sarcasm and melodrama in equal measure. While most readers of serious sci-fi and fantasy might be put off by this approach, I personally appreciated the willingness to pick and choose from any genre at any given moment. Anders plays fast and loose with the traditional rules, and I think the book is so much stronger because of the freedom of style. The result is a hodgepodge of sci-fi and fantasy tropes. Where else are you going to find death rays and sentient computers in a universe that also has schools of magic and inter-dimensional portals! Throw in some comedy and a dash of romance and the result is such a fun book.

At its heart, All the Birds in the Sky is about the great divide between science fiction and fantasy, or magic and technology. Patricia and Laurence are so different in many ways yet so drawn together. The romantic element is so subtle in the storytelling, it’s just perfection. There’s a moral to the story that becomes crystal clear by the book’s end. By focusing on the similarities of Patricia and Laurence, while not diminishing the differences that tear them apart, Anders has created one of the best couples to ever appear in a work of fiction. And they save the world to boot! In the end, we see that these characters are us. We are all on a never-ending search to belong, whether to ourselves, to a community, or to each other. How each of us can accomplish this is the most important question of all.

“She misplaced herself in the woods over and over, until she knew by heart every way to get lost.”

 

I read this book for the Beat the Backlist Challenge.

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

6. ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ by Agatha Christie

I’ve recently discovered a passion for the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie so I thought it was time to read one of her most famous works. Murder on the Orient Express has often appeared on many lists as one of the greatest detective novels ever written. Having seen the most recent theatrical adapation, this particular reading experience will be very different from the other Christies I’ve read. I worried that my overall enjoyment of the book would be affected having already known the solution. Instead, I’m pleased to report a rather unique reading experience where I was able to see the subtle clues leading to the resolution. Reading Murder on the Orient Express allowed me to further understand the process of one of the greatest mystery writers who ever lived.

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On the luxurious train the Orient Express, a murder has been committed. An American, M. Ratchett, lay dead in his compartment having been stabbed a dozen times. As it so happens, each passenger aboard the train has a motive for committing the crime. Fortunately, one of the passengers is the detective Hercule Poirot. With time running out and tensions mounting, Poirot is able to use his little gray cells to once again find a solution.

Murder on the Orient Express has a really intricate and interesting plot. Little of the novel actually focuses on the crime itself, but of the process Poirot uses to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The majority of the novel is actually taken up with individual interviews with each suspect. I liked this format as it allowed me to keep track of a story with so many characters. Of course, Poirot has always been a more psychological detective. While he relies on physical clues at the crime scene, most of his investigations center on his keen insight into human behavior. Once you learn the solution to the case, it makes sense given the facts. I do appreciate Christie for once again developing a twist that I thought was quite inventive.

As with last year’s Death on the Nile, I enjoyed having a British mystery that took place outside of England. Christie used her extensive travels around the world as material for her books. While most of the action take place within the train itself, I did enjoy the opening scenes as Poirot is traveling from Aleppo in Syria to Instanbul. These foreign locations just make these stories feel grander and more exotic.

While I loved the recent film version of this story, the book itself was not one of my favorites. During the investigation, the book felt more analytical than some of the other Christies I’ve read. I just didn’t develop any connections to these characters. The movie greatly improved on that aspect. If you’re reading Christie for the first time, I suggest either The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or And Then There Were None to begin your journey.

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It’s nice to check another Agatha Christie novel off my list. Murder on the Orient Express is a solid work of the classic crime genre. I recently bought a ton of her books at my local used bookstore so the journey will continue for this reader.

“The impossible could not have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances.”

I read this book for the following challenges:

  • Beat the Backlist

  • Reading Classic Books (classic by a woman)

  • Back to the Classics (20th century classic)

  • Classics Club (16/100)

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

5. ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong

I have recently developed a desire to start learning how to write poetry. Naturally, I thought a good starting place would be to read some work by some of the best contemporary poets. Ocean Vuong was a name the kept appearing in my online research, so I rushed to the library in hopes of finding his award-winning collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Unfortunately, the only book available at my library was his first prose novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. The reviews of this work had been stellar, so I decided to give it a read for myself. I always feel some added pressure when reviewing a book that was absolutely perfect. While this review will not even come close to capturing the beauty of this novel, I will do my best to reflect just how necessary it is to go find this book for yourselves.

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It is no small feat to become an accomplished prose writer or poet, and it is even more unusual to become a success in both. However, Ocean Vuong proves he can easily handle crossing over into another genre. In fact, his abilities as a poet are what make On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous so mesmerizing. The narrator of this story is Little Dog, a young man writing to his mother in the form of a letter. Since his mother can’t read and has a limited grasp of English, this allows our narrator to attack subject matter with brutal honesty. In his writing, so many topics are covered, from his feelings toward his family, abuse, trauma, loss of identity, and falling in love with another boy. It’s a brutal exploration of the narrator’s horrible past but also a story of love and hope for the future. Vuong covers so many difficult topics in such a short amount of time, but he is able to explore them with such an open heart. You will definitely have moments where you will put the book down and cry.

“The thing is, I don’t want my sadness to be othered from me just as I don’t want my happiness to be othered. They’re both mine”

Vuong’s strengths as a poet shine on every page. The descriptions of everything that Little Dog experiences could only be seen through the eyes of a poet. While this book covers some truly painful material, the author’s expert hand still turns it into beautiful darkness. While Little Dog’s mother struggled at being a good parent, you still feel the deep connection the son has for her. At times the writing seems so brutal, but there’s an openness there from someone who is allowing himself to be so vulnerable. The result is a work that feels so open.

Vuong manages to create empathy for the other characters in the novel as well, such as his first love with a country boy who tries to be tough but can also be so compassionate and tender. While there’s a gentle poignancy to this romance, it is also raw and so powerful in its total honesty. The narrator leaves nothing behind as he describes his coming out as a teenager and his growing awareness of self. There’s such a cathartic effect from reading this book, and I was so impressed with the author’s bravery for putting everything out there. While I believe this work is so important for those who have experienced many of these situations (abuse, trauma, coming out), I think that Vuong manages to successfully translate these events for those that have not. While my life’s journey is so different from his, I still cannot help but feel a deep connection to the material. I also found myself reflecting back on my long and complicated relationship with my own mother. As I write this review, I find myself thinking about the possibility of writing something slighly more personal in the coming weeks.

The universe tends to put the right book into my life at exactly the perfect time. Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a work that has become one of my all-time favorites. While I plan to explore Vuong’s poetry in the near future, I am eternally thankful that this novel entered my life. If you are looking for a beautiful novel that will have you contemplating your place in the grander universe, find this one right away.

“The sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

What We’re Reading Wednesday-February 5, 2020

Currently, it is snowing outside my window. As luck would have it, my office is closed which means I get my own snow day! Unfortunately, I’m also sick with a terrible cold so I don’t feel like doing much of anything. However, I want to get back to posting twice a week on this blog. I discovered this cool reading meme from Allison at Mount to Be Read. What We’re Reading Wednesday is hosted by Taking on a World of Words, and I thought it would be a fun way to keep up my motivation. I probably won’t participate weekly, but maybe once or twice per month. It’s quite simple. Just answer these three questions:

What are you currently reading?

I actually have three books going on at once because I’m weird like that. I’m nearly done with the beautiful On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. If you haven’t heard of this one, you should immediately run out and buy it, or check it out from your local library like I did. Written in the form of a letter to his mother who cannot read, it is a poignant examination of race, class and trauma.

I also just started Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. This one is a reread, but it will be my first time reviewing it on this blog. My goal this year is to finish rereading all of Austen’s novels, a goal I began in 2019.

I’m also slowly working through the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake. I plan on taking my time through the rest of it as the writing is gorgeous but dense. At some point, I plan to check out the BBC adaption from a few years back.

What did you recently finish reading?

This year is off to a great start, as I’ve loved all four books I’ve read so far. Stephen King’s The Institute was a fantastic sci-fi thriller, perfect for fans of Stranger Things. A Robot in the Garden by Deborah Install was a fun and endearing work about a friendship between a man and a loveable little robotThe Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern was a glorious fantasy epic nearly a decade in the making. I loved it and plan to reread The Night Circus in the near future. Last but certainly not least, I just finished Titus Groan for Classics Club. Larger than life characters inside an ancient rambling castle was so much fun. The writing was so brilliant that I can’t wait to finish Gormenghast. 

What do you think you’ll read next?

So many options! I’m thinking All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. I would love to read something to honor Black History Month, so I’m considering Jazz by Toni Morrison. I also have Stephen King’s The Outsider on deck because I can’t get enough King.

What books have you read so far this year? Comment below!

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4. ‘Titus Groan’ by Mervyn Peake

When one considers the greatest fantasy trilogy of the twentieth-century, most readers would probably name that little series by Tolkien (you know that one with all the hobbits). Meanwhile, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy often is grossly underappreciated. Based on my experience with the first in the series, Titus Groan, I would like to argue that this gothic masterpiece is a much more accomplished and thought-provoking work than The Lord of the Rings. Larger than life Dickinsion characters inhabiting an ancient crumbling castle make this work unlike anything that has ever been created.

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One of the reasons why this book is so often overlooked is that it often defies conventional storytelling. Gormenghast castle, the setting of this epic, is an ancient castle the size of a city with darkness and intrigue to be found in every corner. It is also ruled by traditions and celebrations that sometimes lack any sense of reason or sanity. The birth of Titus Groan as the heir of Gormenghast is the event that begins this trilogy. The first book follows Titus through the first two years of his life. In fact, the infant hardly appears in the novel at all. The lack of a central protagonist makes this work more of an ensemble piece. Let me tell you that every character in this book is insane! Rules of sense need not apply here.

“This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.”

The pacing of the novel is incredibly slow, particularly in the first half. In this case, I think it’s justified as Peake takes his time introducing us to each of the main players in this tale. There is so much atmosphere to take in that this is definitely a work that should be enjoyed slowly like a fine wine. Each chapter offers a peak into a new part of the castle, focusing on a specific character. At times, it feels like this novel is more a series of character sketches devoid of any central plot. There is so much richness to every character’s mannerisms and dialogue. Whether it’s Lady Gormenghast – the best crazy cat lady ever – or her passionate daughter Fuchsia-you often feel as though you are in a large mental hospital. Even the resident physician, Doctor Prunesquallor, appears to be a little off his rocker.

However, my favorite character would have to be the cunning Steerpike. A poor kitchen boy when we are introduced to him, he immediately becomes one of the greatest antagonists every created on paper. His Machivellian dismantling of Castle Gormenghast and his rise to power is rather impressive to witness. He could easily teach Shakespeare’s greatest villian Iago a thing or two about being a master manipulator. It was a delight to see his interactions between him and the other characters, particularly with the passionate and fierce Fuchsia.

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Steerpike and Fuchsia are easily the most overlooked couple in fiction. From the 2000 BBC adaptation.

The language is so breathtaking! Mervyn Peake’s writing is just so beautiful. His long descriptive sentences are just a delight to read. His language creates so many vivid images and truly brings every corner of Castle Gormenghast to life. This novel is a work that deserves to be read at a slow pace just to take in every single detail.

Another aspect of this novel that I loved was Peake’s originality in naming these characters. In this case, every name fits its owner so perfectly. There’s Flay – scrawny, creaky, and sickly – or Swelter – obese, sweaty. Doctor Prunesquallor is referred in the novel as both “prune” and “squallor” if that tells you anything about him. Peake easily rivals Dickens when it comes to his gift for naming. The names fit the personalities, or perhaps the characters were formed out of their names. Either way, it is impossible to forget any of these characters. Since Titus Groan is a character-driven book, it often seems that a central plot is missing. While subtle, there is a plot that becomes more prominent particularly in the second half of the book.

My apologies if this particular review seems to lack focus. It may be lack of sleep or the fact that it’s difficult for me to put down all of the thoughts and feelings this book evoked in me. I plan to start on the second book of the trilogy quite soon, and I plan to take my time soaking in all the deliscious details. Titus Groan is proof that you don’t need actual magic to have a truly glorious work of fantasy literature.

“In the presence of real tragedy you feel neither pain nor joy nor hatred, only a sense of enormous space and time suspended, the great doors open to black eternity, the rising across the terrible field of that last enormous, unanswerable question.”

This book counts for the following challenges: as a classic by a new to me author for the Reading Classic Books Challenge, as a classic with a person’s name in the title for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and as my spin book for Classics Club.

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.