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. 

 

8. ‘Mansfield Park’ by Jane Austen

Rereading all of Jane Austen’s novels in publication order has helped further my appreciation for each work’s uniqueness. To her harsher critics who argue that all of her novels are the same, I turn to Mansfield Park as evidence to the contrary. Often considered to be Austen’s most overlooked novel, I found it to be one of her most complex and thought-provoking works. The essayist Adolphus Alfred Jack perhaps said it best when he wrote that “Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice are the gay offsprings of youth, Mansfield Park is almost sombre.” I would agree with that statement wholeheartedly, as I think it shows the shift in Austen’s style to the maturity of later works, such as Emma and Persuasion. While exploring such mature themes as modernity, shifting family dynamics, and colonialism, Austen presents her readers with a heroine that is completely opposite to that of her most famous creation, Elizabeth Bennet.

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Perhaps there has never been an Austen heroine that divides her fans more so than Fanny Price. Sent to live with her aunt and uncle at their estate of Mansfield Park, Fanny’s mother is no longer able to properly care for the entire family due to poverty. That’s right–Austen helped pioneer the “rags-to-riches” tale. Although Fanny is kind and possessing of an even temper, she is unfortunately treated quite poorly by her new family. Her female cousins treat her abominably, and the only true friend she has is her cousin Edmund, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram’s youngest son.

Fanny is often viewed as fragile both in body and mind by her relatives due to her shyness and timid nature. However, those views mask her strengths as someone who is clever and extremely observant. Fortunately, those positive qualities become noticed by her family as the story progresses. While many readers dislike the character due to her more introverted nature, it actually works well in the context of the novel by allowing us to see Fanny’s observations of the other characters. Although Mansfield Park is a more downbeat work to its predecessors, Austen still populates this work with some truly memorable and over-the-top characters. Mrs. Norris, Fanny’s other aunt and sister of Lady Bertram, is the type of relative we try to avoid at family gatherings. Her rudeness is only matched by her complete lack of insight. Mr. Rushworth, the suitor that marries Fanny’s cousin Maria, is often viewed as comic relief for his foolishness.

23 Life Lessons We Learned from Jane Austen Quotes

Henry Crawford and his sister Mary are the equivalent of the villains of Mansfield Park. Henry is a showboat who is merely looking out for himself and has no cares for the hurting of others. While most of the Bertram family fall prey to his charismatic ways, the sensible Fanny Price sees through his charm and recognizes him as a fake. Henry’s pursuit of Fanny never seemed genuine to me and was born more out of the excitement of the chase than of actual love. While Mary Crawford was both beautiful and witty, her disregard for others’ feelings would serve as her undoing. Her remorse at her brother’s scandal being discovered, not the act itself, would leave a distaste with Edmund effectively ending that courtship.

“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”

Austen’s novels have always focused on contrasting ideals. While her two previous novels made those concepts quite explicit, I think it is handled with more of a subtle touch in this novel. Mansfield Park examines the concepts of the immaturity of youth and the maturity of adulthood. This is reflected throughout the novel, such as the characters’ failed attempts to put on a play, the immature actions of the Crawford siblings, and Fanny’s blossoming into a sensible and mature woman. As with Austen’s other novels, there are still fancy balls and comedic courtships. However, Mansfield Park is clearly the more political of all of Austen’s novels. While there was no in-depth examination of the horrors of colonialism in Sir Thomas Bertram’s business in Antigua, I thought it was quite daring that Austen at least touched on this topic. I am actually planning on watching one of the film adaptations to see if this is further explored. Social mobility through marriage is also examined, such as in the family’s disdain on Fanny’s refusal to Henry Crawford and Maria’s determination to escape from a loveless marriage. Through these events, we are reminded just how little freedom a woman had during this time period.

Overall, I found Mansfield Park to be one of the most revolutionary of Austen’s works. She takes more risks and manages to craft a really complex work. While the ending may have felt rushed, I was happy that Edmund made the more intelligent choice of the sensible Fanny over the glamour of Mary Crawford. While the novel is incredibly slow-paced and less accessible to Pride and Prejudice, I think this could easily be considered the most important Austen novel for its attempts to examine some larger themes beyond courtship.

“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

 

I read this book for the following challenges:

  • Reading Classic Books (classic that takes place in another country)

  • Back to the Classics (classic with a place in the title)

  • Austen Challenge

  • Classics Club (17/100)

Have you read this book? 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. 

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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Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

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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Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

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.