Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness

"You have to read these books so I would have someone to talk to about them!" a friend gushed in a phone call. "They are so good!"
I hadn't read anything in a while and was eager to get back into the habit, and I'd gotten a few recommendations for this series already, so I decided to give it a go and borrowed A Discovery of Witches from the library.
The story had a slow start, but I liked the promise of the world and the characters so I kept reading. By the time I could tell who was who and where the whole thing was going they'd grown on me, so I dove in deeper, finishing the book in a few days. So much about the story was predictable and formulaic, but because of the close attention the author paid to the characters and the world building I found it extremely satisfying. I loved the intimacy of Diana's routines, her thinking process, her growing fascination with Matthew, the gradual unfolding of and hinting at the mysteries, the lurking danger. The familiarity of the tropes made the story comforting while Harkness' spin on them kept it fresh, so I by the time I turned the last page the sequel was there waiting for me to begin right away.
The first few chapters of Shadow of Night started out as well as one can expect a sequel to do, but soon enough I could tell something was missing. The setting was new and exciting, the challenges our heroes faced were not so familiar any more, there were even a handful of new characters who charmed and amused me, and yet I didn't look forward to reading time as much as I did with the first installment. Soon I realized what it was. The heart wasn't there. I don't know if the story grew and there wasn't enough time or room to develop it properly, or the author was so fascinated with the setting that it overshadowed the story, but I kept thinking to myself "Who are these people and what has she done with Diana and Matthew?!" I could catch glimpses of the characters I'd grown fond of here and there, but those glimpses didn't last long enough. Moreover, as capable as Diana was, I had a lot of trouble believing that she could accomplish that much that well in that short of a time with no practical foundation. I could buy that she was good, but not that she was that good. Had the main mystery been less compelling, I probably would have abandoned the series, but it had me thinking about it and the implications, so I pressed on.
The Book Of Life immediately had the feel of an action-packed blockbuster. There was so much plot that character development seemed barely more than bright flashes in the blur of events, and I had to slow down reading to keep everything straight. It was very exciting though. Extremely. All the connections that tied the story together were coming to light, Matthew turned out to be much more flawed than the prequels revealed (especially the first book), and Diana... Diana went from capable in A Discovery of Witches, to formidable in Shadow of Night, to indomitable in The Book Of Life, a force to be reckoned with in every sense of the phrase. Despite the thrill of the transformation I missed the original Diana sometimes. That one reminded me of a beautiful, soft, pastel-colored rose with sharp thorns. This one was also beautiful, but in a dark, hard way, all sharp angles and razor blades for thorns.
One of my criteria of a great book is whether I would read it again, and this trilogy didn't quite make the cut. I would probably revisit The Book Of Life at some point to get rid of the sensation of whiplash, but I wouldn't buy the trilogy to keep. Had the series been five books, I think it would have been stronger. The story would've had room to breathe, there was definitely enough plot in books 2 and 3 to fill the volumes, and with a concept as rich as this Ms. Harkness could've made it into an amazing series in every respect. As it is, I couldn't quite share in my friend's enthusiasm, despite The All Souls' many positive qualities. I did find my kind of series later though, but that is a review for another time.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Review: Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy

Set in California, this novel follows four generations of the Catholic Santerre family from World War II to the present. In a family driven as much by jealousy and propriety as by love, an unspoken tradition of deceit is passed from generation to generation. When tragedy shatters their precarious domestic lives, it takes courage and compassion to bring them back together.

Very slowly I'm getting back to reading, and tackling this month's book club read on audiobook seemed like the best way to get it read (my track record this year has been far from stellar). Audiobook proved to be an excellent choice, and Liars and Saints a great book to ease me back into the world of fiction.
It can be difficult to create character voices that are easy to distinguish, and most authors limit themselves to two, maybe three points of view per book for that exact reason. Maile Meloy went all in with her debut novel: she has seven. Moreover, these seven characters grow and change as the story progresses, and their voices change with them, never losing their individuality. That was actually my favorite thing about this book, how well the author wrote her characters and their imperfections, self-doubts, courage and faith. They kept me listening, and that is what ultimately counts as far as characters go.
This book was short-listed for the Orange Prize in 2005, and while I can see why it went as far as to be short-listed I also see why it did not win. The plot is to blame, particularly two aspects of it. One came about half-way through and it required me to suspend my disbelief a bit too much. Had it been omitted I wouldn't have minded, in fact, it would have kept me more grounded in the story. The second time the plot development didn't work for me was toward the end of the book, and this time it seemed like a cop-out that forced the story toward resolution. I haven't read very many novels that tell about several generations of a family, so I can't give examples of ones where similar situations would've been handled better, I just know that the way Meloy wrapped up her book didn't work all that well for me. (You have no idea how hard it is to abide by my own no-spoilers policy right now.)
When cover copy tells you that this is a story of a family with a history of deception you begin reading with the expectation of wowza moments. If there are no such moments then what's the point of telling such a story, right? Well, let me tell you, there is a wowza moment alright. When I first realized where the author was going I was sure she wasn't going to actually go there. But she did. All the way. It's quite a shocker, and I can't tell you want it was, but it made me post on FB and Twitter that I was suitably shocked. (Don't you wish right now I didn't have a no-spoilers policy?)
If you are looking for a novel that's a quick read, has rich characters and a plot that at times approaches the twists and turns of a daytime soap opera this book is for you!

Monday, March 3, 2014

The long hiatus

My friends, I haven't been posting in a very long time. My apologies for that. I don't know when I'll be back. I haven't been reading much lately because for over three months now I've been dealing with health issues in the family, and at the same time watching events unfold in my home country, Ukraine.
In Ukraine a protest became a standoff, which became an armed conflict, which in turn became a revolution. Close to a hundred people died, hundreds were injured, many disappeared, a president was voted out by the parliament, a new government was established, and before the people could celebrate their blood-soaked victory a war broke out. You may have heard about all that on the news. If you haven't, here's a post on the New York Review of Books which will shed some light on the events, and here's a slide-show that will show you what the NYTBR can't show in a blog post. All of my family is still in Ukraine, and although they are not in the middle of the conflict, that may change at any time. You see, Ukraine is not that large of a country, only roughly the size of Texas.
As you can see a lot has been going on for me, a lot to watch and a lot to worry about. I'll be back when I can. Thank you for bearing with me.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Movie Trailer: The Fault In Our Stars

One of the first books I read and reviewed last year was The Fault In Our Stars by John Greene, and now, almost a year later, the first trailer for the upcoming movie has been released. Prepare your tissues, everybody.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty

A travel writer takes a job with a shady publishing company in New York, only to find that she must write a guide to the city - for the undead!

I've been a fan of Mur Lafferty's podcast, I Should Be Writing, for a while now, I've listened to her Marco and the Red Granny and Playing For Keeps (both available on Podiobooks), and was very excited when she sold her first book to a publisher. Mur loves her fans, so one of the things she did was podcast her book for free. We're on an extremely tight budget right now, so although I wanted to buy the book I had to listen to the podcast and console myself that I would buy the sequel.
The best thing about The Shambling Guide is that it's fun and fast-paced, and the main characters are colorful and engaging. I particularly liked Morgen the water sprite and the baker at the cafe, they stole the show at least half the time for me. There was snappy dialogue, descriptions that set the scene just enough without taking away the readers' ability to fill in some details on their own, and enough humor to make me chuckle on a number of occasions. I had a blast listening to it. Of course having the author read the book is an extra bonus because they put the emphasis where they want it to be, and the whole experience feels more intimate than when there's a professional voice actor in the picture.
Lafferty's world-building skills deserve a special mention. There are zombies, vampires, golums, all of which roughly follow the traditional lore of being dangerous creatures, but the author has made them her own and humanized them along the way. Of course this happens when you are looking at them from inside their world and witness their weaknesses and their struggles to make it in a world where nobody's supposed to know about them.
There's a lot to recommend this book, yet there was enough that didn't work for me to spoil the experience. Some characters came to life and some were pretty flat. Take Arthur the love interest, he was just a generic hot guy with a bunch of preconceived notions. The protagonist, Zoë, is too comfortable too soon in her new job and with her co-workers. Yeah, the pay is good and she needed the job, but she is almost blasé when it comes to the world of monsters where she suddenly finds herself. Would you be totally cool if you found out that your boss is a vampire (not vegetarian either) and that every one of your coworkers can kill you without exerting themselves too much? I know I wouldn't.
There was a sex scene, which, although well-executed, didn't have to be there and didn't really do anything to move the story forward or develop any of the characters. (For fairness' sake I do have to admit that this is my usual complaint about sex scenes, and unless the book is a romance I'd rather authors kept them out of the story. After all, what exactly has to happen between the sheets to serve the story or character development? Off the top of my head, not too many options there.) The mystery at the center of the story was interesting and I was surprised to find out who the villain was, but there was so much going on during the final battle that frankly I lost track of it all and just waited for it to be over. If it was a paper book I would've skimmed the pages and gotten to the end. All in all I thought her shorter works were tighter and therefore more effective, the novel format allowed for too much room for digression.
The Shambling Guide is a fun read and if you've had a stressful stretch it's just the thing to get your mind off the problems. Get the audio book to give you a charge for the work day or to help you unwind during your commute in the evening. It's not great, but for all its faults it is good enough to make me want to pick up the sequel, Ghost Train to New Orleans, and to hope that there will be a third book. After all, I believe writers get better with every new novel. Unless their work becomes formulaic, but that's a topic for another time.