Mini-Review Roundup

While I may be catching up on my reading during the pandemic, my reviews have been nonexistent. There’s only one solution. It’s time for a mini-review roundup!

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Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

This is one of the most insane books I’ve ever read! Think Agatha Christie meets Quantum Leap meets Groundhog Day, and you have a small inkling as to the madness of this book. I loved every page!

Our narrator wakes up in the woods, shouting the name Anna. He discovers that he can’t remember anything about his past, not even his name. Soon, he is approached by a mysterious masked figure who tells him that he has eight days to solve a murder that will take place that night. Every morning, he will wake up in the body of a different person and have to relive the same day over and over. He is advised that if he fails to identify the murderer in his final host, he will start they cycle over again with his memory erased. If your head isn’t already spinning, there’s another catch: there are two others working to identify the killer as well.

Believe me when I tell you that this is one of the craziest, most mind-bending, unique novels I’ve had the pleasure to read. There is so much timey-wimey craziness going on that I had to flip back to earlier chapters constantly. As our narrator repeats the same day in a different host, he sometimes will interact with his past and future selves. I loved how he would be able to utilize each host’s unique set of skills. The consequence of this ability is that he slowly loses control of himself the longer he leaps into different hosts.

Underneath all the science fiction insanity, there is a genuine old-school mystery with plenty of twists and red herrings. I was impressed with the big reveal as well as how the author managed to answer every single question posed throughout the mystery.

I had so much fun reading this book that it’s definitely a candidate for my top read of the year!

Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

This book, the first in a series, is an origin story for everyone’s favorite boy who never grew up. I love the story of Peter Pan, and the authors did an exceptional job of telling the events that proceeded the original classic. In the beginning of the book, we meet Peter and some of his friends, who are orphans at St. Norbert’s Home for Wayward Boys.  Peter and his friends are on a ship taking them to a life of misery in a foreign country when they find themselves being pursued by pirates led by the infamous Black Stache.

There’s an interesting mystery on board the ship called the Never Land. Peter discovers a mysterious trunk as well as a young girl named Molly. Peter’s new acquaintance is attempting to keep the trunk safe from the pursing pirates, as it contains a treasure unlike any other. Molly and her father are members of the Starcatchers, a secret society dedicated to protecting magical stardust from falling into evil hands. Soon, Peter learns just how powerful this substance is as he gains new abilities such as flying as well as possibly living forever.

This is such a fun book is filled with adventure, pirates, monsters, and magic.  The writing style was similar to the early Harry Potter novels. While the beginning of a series, this book can be enjoyed as a standalone. If you’re curious about how Peter Pan went from an ordinary mortal into a magical hero, then you need to check out Peter and the Starcatchers. 

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Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Death is a lonely business. This was the one painful lesson I took from Bellman & Black. I’ve waited well over a decade for a new novel by Diane Setterfield after her fantastic debut The Thirteenth Tale. So was her second novel worth the wait? Unfortunately, the answer is no. While this novel was decent, I thought The Thirteenth Tale was much better.

Bellman & Black begins with William Bellman as a young boy. One day, while out in the woods, William uses his slingshot to kill a rook. This single action would prove to have dark consequences for him as we next see him as a young man. William’s family owns a textile mill, and he quickly moves through the ranks of learning every aspect of this operation. William’s life is marred by constant tragedy as loved ones, such as his mother, wife, and children pass away. At each funeral, William sees a mysterious stranger that he refers to as “Mr. Black.” The appearance of Black along with rooks are harbingers of the death that surrounds our main character. One night, William enters into a devil’s deal with Black. Soon, his only surviving child Dora recovers from a fever, and William has an idea for a new business. “Bellman & Black” becomes a huge success, an empire in the business of death.

Throughout the book, there’s this tension that builds with each appearance of a rook. I love Gothic stories, but unfortunately, all the suspense builds to an anti-climax and a depressing one at that. I was left feeling sad. Part of that has to do with my expectations as I was thinking this was going to be a supernatural thriller. It’s not. I doubt I will read this one again.

The Little Country by Charles de Lint

I cannot say enough about Charles de Lint. He is such an underappreciated force in the fantasy genre. Even stories that are just so-so are still so deliciously enchanting. Wow, did I just say “deliciously enchanting?” Wow. The Little Country is one of his earlier works, and the best part is that it’s actually two complete novels in one! Using the classic story-within-a-story format, we are treated to a great fantasy story along with one of high intrigue. There’s a secret society searching for a book that could provide immortality! This secret text is protected by a delightful Cornish family. We have a psychopathic killer! Throw in a few alternate worlds and a love story, and you have a little bit of everything. I found the book utterly charming. Yes, I said “utterly.”

The novel begins when folk musician Janie Little finds the only copy of a novel titled The Little Country by fantasy writer William Dunthorn, an old friend of her grandfather’s. This discovery of a lone fantasy story triggers some extraordinary events. While a powerful order seeks to steal the book, we go back-and-forth into the fantasy story about a young girl who is hexed by an evil witch. De Lint weaves the simultaneous stories beautifully.  He is a master at juggling multiple story lines and characters. There is so much wonder to be found in a de Lint tale. While reading this book, I truly was able to believe that magic is real. As a folk musician, de Lint also infuses his stories with so much music. His descriptions of various places transported me there instantly.

At just over 600 pages, trust me when I say it won’t feel like that at all. For fans of later de Lint works such as his Newford tales, this one is a must read.

“Every book tells a different story to the person who reads it. How they perceive that book will depend on who they are. A good book reflects the reader, as much as it illuminates the author’s text.”-The Little Country

 

I read these books for the Beat the Backlist Challenge.

Have you read any of these books? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

 

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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Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

 

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. 

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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Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

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. 

3. ‘The Starless Sea’ by Erin Morgenstern

A long time ago, in a world before this book blog existed, I read Erin Morgenstern’s extraordinary first book The Night Circus. Although I don’t recall a lot about that particular reading year, I do remember that it was one of my all-time favorite books. As I patiently waited for her next book, I read all of her Flax-Golden Tales from her blog. Sadly, it would be another eight years before another release. Fortunately, good things come to those who wait. The Starless Sea is a wonderfully complex novel, full of magic and gorgeously created characters. In fact, I just finished it and want to read it again for all the little moments I missed on the first reading.

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Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student studying the narrative power of video games when he disovers a mysterious book in the college library. It is filled with tales of storytelling pirates, hidden keys, and lost loves. When he reads a story from his own childhood, Zachary goes on a journey to discover the origins of his mystery book. Instead, he finds a doorway to an ancient library hidden far below the surface of our world. Zachary learns that this curious place is more than just a library-it is a place that exists out of time and space, a world that is composed entirely of stories, a city that many have vowed to protect at any cost. Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired immortal, and Dorian, a handsome man with mysterious alliances, Zachary travels through dark tunnels, crowded ballrooms, and more stories than he can ever imagine.

“Not all stories speak to all listeners, but all listeners can find a story that does, somewhere, sometime. In one form or another.”

The Starless Sea is such an enchanting work. The prose is breathtaking and I love the nonlinear storytelling. This work can’t be considered a fantasy novel because it truly is multiple short stories that come together to perfection. It is the ultimate love letter to the power of myths and legends. One quality of Erin Morgenstern’s writing that I really enjoy is how she transports you somewhere through using all the senses. She evokes not just sight and sound, but smell, taste, and touch in her writing.

The characters of this novel are so captivating. I really love Zachary because he reminds me so much of myself. Like me, he used reading as his escape, choosing to spend more time in fictional worlds than having actual adventures of his own. His growth and development in the book speaks out about the importance of going out and having epic adventures of our own. There are so many other great and colorful characters to be found in The Starless Sea, from the enigmatic Dorian to the star-crossed lovers of Simon Eleanor. The pacing is perfect. Watching all the separate threads come together was so much fun. Moments of the book made me laugh, others made me cry, while most of it just made me want to dream of faraway magical places.

One last point I wanted to make was I appreciated the fact that the main character was gay. The Starless Sea has so many great love stories, but I found it refreshing that the protagonist fell in love with another male. I thought the development in the relationship between Zachary and Dorian worked well and perfectly complimented the story without distracting from any of the intriguing plot.

The Starless Sea was easily my most anticipated book of the year. It never disappointed me. Morgenstern’s writing is exquisite, and here she has crafted a complex labyrinth of a novel with interlocking stories all working together. Those looking for a simple and straightforward narrative may want to pass on this one. However, I was captivated all the way to the end. This book has all the power of discovering your first kiss, the excitement of watching snow fall, or seeing the stars for the first time. While I know everyone won’t share in my passion for this book, I found it to be perfection. In my eyes, Morgenstern is a fantasy writer in the leagues of Neil Gaiman and Charles de Lint. I sincerely hope I don’t have to wait another eight years for her next novel.

“Everyone wants the stars. Everyone wishes to grasp that which exists out of reach. To hold the extraordinary in their hands and keep the remarkable in their pockets.”

I completed 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. 

 

Science Fiction and Fantasy Mini-Reviews

I am firmly in end-of-year mode, which means finishing up my reviews for the year so I can start all over again in 2020. Since I don’t have time to review each of these books separately, you get to read all of these mini-reviews in one fantastic post!  During my Christmas vacation, I had the opportunity to read several books in my favorite genre. Let’s start with some awesome graphic novels of some classic sci-fi/fantasy works.

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Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Hope Larson

I actually never read the original novel until I was an adult. My wife introduced me to it, and while I never read the rest of the series, this book always stayed with me. So many great characters filled the pages as Meg and her brother Charles Wallace attempt to rescue their father from across space and time. The character that always resonated with me was Meg for her stubbornness and big heart while I adored the three Mrs. of Who, Whatsit, and Which.

I loved this version as I thought it was adapted well without losing any of the poignant moments that made the original work such a classic. The art work, done in black and white, adds an additional element to the storytelling. This special anniversary edition includes one of the final interviews Madeleine L’Engle completed before leaving our universe once and for all. A delightful read that hopefully sparked renewed interest in this classic tale.

Ayn Rand’s Anthem: The Graphic Novel by Charles Santino and Joe Staton

I read Anthem for the first time several years ago and appreciated its message of living for yourself. As most of you know, I love my dystopian fiction. For those unfamiliar with the story, it follows a character named Equality 7-2521 who lives in a post-apocalyptic world where individuality is nonexistent. There is only the collective “we.” Our main character discovers his love of learning after stumbling upon an abandoned mine. He also falls in love with a woman, something else that is forbidden in this society.

I appreciate that this adaptation keeps the story intact. It does not waver from the original story of individualism, liberty, and freedom. The illustrations are black and white and enhances the action of the story. It is a quick read as I finished this in one sitting.

The Illustrated Stardust by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess

Ever since I first read it years ago, Stardust remains one of my favorite fantasy novels of all time. This is the story of Tristan Thorn as he journeys to a magical realm to retrieve a falling star in the name of love. However, it is so much more: brothers willing to murder each other for a throne, witches trying to gain back their power, and a mysterious star who wants to go home. When you read a Gaiman work, you are actually reading several stories at once that never fail to impress.

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Rather than a graphic novel, this is actually the full novel completely illustrated. Charles Vess does a masterful job of bringing Neil Gaiman’s vision to life. The illustrations are so stunning and compliment Gaiman’s words to perfection. Once you read the first page, you are instantly hooked. Keep in mind that this is a very adult story so keep the little ones away. I also loved how Gaiman manages to weave all of the separate strands together with precision. This is a highly satisfying read.

I also had the pleasure of reading some classic sci-fi/fantasy novels.

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Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

The Screaming Face by John Lymington

I had never heard of this British author prior to reading this book. John Lymington was quite a prolific writer. The plot of this one sounded promising. The Earth is days away from facing an apocalypse that will end all life on the planet. Every 11,000 years, an astronomical phenomenon occurs signaled by a planet-wide screaming sound. The protagonist is a pilot named Bill whose work for the government on a super-secret project has led to marriage problems between Bill and his wife. Bill struggles with knowing that the end of days is coming and is unsure if he should tell his wife or not.

Unfortunately, Bill’s marriage problems compose of the majority of the book. In addition, Bill is sexually attracted to his sister-in-law, whose husband just left her for another man. Bill’s wife Marty suspects her husband of infidelity with another man. These domestic issues compose over two-thirds of the book. While I don’t have a problem with sex in fiction, I got really tired of reading about Bill’s yearnings for his sister-in-law. The main plot is finally picked up in the final few pages, but at that point, I was ready to be done. John Lymington did not win me over with this one. At the end, the only screaming face was my own.

The Trees of Zharka by Nancy Mackenroth

While I was skeptical of tackling another pulpy sci-fi work immediately following The Screaming Face, I was pleasantly surprised by this one. The planet of Zharka lives in perpetual penance for a great sin committed long ago. While the nature of this great sin is unknown, the priests of Zharka maintain order through forcing the populace to hard work and drudgery with the idea that after enough suffering, God will forgive the people. This story follows a young priest named Toma who begins to question everything he has been told.

Once again, I delved into another dystopia. Despite being a short novel, Nancy Mackenroth creates some memorable characters and some nuanced world-building. I also enjoyed the sci-fi element that the atmosphere of the planet grants certain characters special powers, such as telekinesis and telepathy. The book is also carefully paced. My one complaint about the book is the ending. When we finally get to the grand reveal of how these people ended up on Zharka, it felt extremely rushed. While the author intended for this revelation to have a strong emotional impact, it just felt tacked on. Otherwise, this was a solid read.

Beauty by Robin McKinley

I adore retellings of fantasy stories. In fact, I’ve written a couple of my own in the past. This version of Beauty and the Beast takes a while to get going, but the pacing improves after the first 100 pages. I appreciated the changes Robin McKinley makes to the original story, in particular how “Beauty” was the nickname of a bookish girl who was actually quite plain. In fact, a significant amount of plot is spent on the character feeling as though she is nobody special. Beauty’s family is fleshed out very well, and I found myself enjoying the majority of the characters. Beast’s castle is also incredible, and I love the whole concept of invisible ghostly servants. This one was a lot of fun.

Once again, the only fault comes from the rushed ending. It felt as though McKinley just became bored and churned out a resolution as quickly as possible. It just didn’t feel like a natural culmination of the story, which is too bad because McKinley has proven herself to be a highly adept writer.

And with that, I bid you all adieu until next year.

“And since I am the only one who sees you, why are you not then beautiful?”-Beauty

 

Have you read any of these books? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.