Let me be honest with you. I’ve always preferred Through the Looking Glass to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Even so, it is rare that I can resist anything with a bit of Alice in it. There were two reasons why I requested a review copy of this book via NetGalley. Number one was the beautiful cover. It drew me in and made me read the blurb. Number two was just that blurb. The little descriptions of the four short stories all included some buzz word that made me go “ooh”. Let’s see how I ended up liking this small volume.
Published by: Candlemark & Gleam, 2011
ebook: 219 pages
My rating: 5/10
First sentence: The boy has managed, so far, to displace himself four meters off the ground.
In 1865, Alice went on an adventure to Wonderland. Today, four modern authors follow her down the rabbit hole…
This is the first in a planned series in the (re)Visions line, which is devoted to exploring the lasting legacy of classic works of speculative fiction on our genres and on our lives. In each book in the series, four authors will tackle a classic work of imaginative fiction, and give it their own spin; along with each of these novellas will also be the original work.
I read few to no anthologies or short story collections (a fault I am trying to remedy at the moment) and it may be because I feel the need to read the stories in order and not skip any of them. Reading short stories online (at Clarkesworld, etc.) has brought me enormous amounts of pleasure, though, so I thought I’d give this little collection a try. After all, not much can go wrong when you know you’re getting spins on a favorite classic, right? Well…
Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
I won’t say much about this. It is Alice as we know and love her, and if I ever do write a review on that book, it will get its own post. This was very nice beginning for the anthology, of course, and gave me an excuse to re-read it. Luckily, I can continue in my Annotated Alice which includes Through the Looking Glass. That one is definitely worth its own review…
I will talk about each of the four contained novellas separately, as they were all written by a different author.
Kaye Chazan – What Aelister Found Here
Blurb: It is 1888, and Aelister has never felt at home, not even in his own skin. Now that he’s been expelled from school, he sees no reason to stick around his house in Warwickshire, so he runs away to another world altogether: London. The city is a maze of heat and rain, where a murderer stalks the streets of Whitechapel and a Crown Prince flouts his mother’s laws, and Aelister soon finds himself dealt into a series of deadly games—ones that put his life, and far more, on the line. And while London may not be the wonderland Aelister expected to find, he is far from the only person in the city looking for that very place.
Now this is what I was hoping for. The story opens on our practical boy-protagonist in avery Alice-like style. The witty prose and clever asides were totally up my alley and reminded me very much of Victorian prose. There are references to Alice and they are very neatly incorporated into the real-world setting. While the main story has pacing problems as soon as Aelister arrives in London, it picks up once a very peculiar game of chess starts. I enjoyed how Jack the Ripper was mixed into this strange little tale, but the end came extremely abrubtly and was somewhat anticlimactic. The Alice-elements are subdued, you will recognize a lot of characters from the original. Altogether, a story that I enjoyed more for its whimsical tone and its practical protagonist than for its connection to the original Alice. Recommended. Rating: 6,5/10
Amanda Ching – House of Cards
Blurb: There’s Alice, who fell down a rabbit hole and had an adventure. Then there’s the Queen of Hearts, who loses her temper quite frequently. But before that, there was Mary Ann, a servant pressed past patience, past duty. As all three hurtle toward an inevitable meeting, a creature has broken from its coffin and is even now tunneling to meet them. When the deck is stacked like this, even the strongest foundation could crumble.
This story featured surprisingly many characters for such a short piece and the climax was probably supposed to be when it all comes together and the separate storylines make sense as a whole. But the story as such failed to grab my attention and I mostly just read on because I wanted to get to the next story. The Queen of Hearts as well as some other known characters do show up but mostly to spout nonsense. And not the brilliant kind of nonsense Lewis Carroll gave us, just plain nonsense without much humor. Except for the occasional badam-tish line that made me roll my eyes rather than smile. I was hoping for some fantasy elements but even that bubble was burst. I’ll give the writer props for the idea but I think it would have needed more characterisation and depth to work. Rating: 3,5/10
Hilary Thomas – Knave
Blurb: In the city they call Wonderland, the Queen calls the shots. If she doesn’t like the way you’re playing the game, she’ll give you the axe. Permanently. Jack Knave is an investigator, a man of many talents, an occasional blade for The Crown; and he’s the best at what he does. He knows every face in the city, every move they make, every connection. Except one.When a mysterious woman shows up in town, Jack is sure she’s not just here for the tourism. But the more he digs, the less he knows. Finding the answers means getting close to her, but she’s not the only one with secrets. Somebody’s been stealing from the Queen, and it looks like Jack’s taking the fall. Alice could seal his fate with a word—or not. With no options left, and the odds stacked against him, Jack must make a desperate gamble to survive. Whether his luck holds out or he’s left out to dry, one thing’s for certain: he can’t afford to lose his head.
Jack Knave lives in the city of Wonderland and the arrival of a certain dame named Alice turns things upside down. This is Wonderland goes noir. I was surprised by how much that genre mash-up appealed to me. But an idea alone does not make a good story. Characters may have names that sound like they are from Wonderland (Jimmy Cheshire, Jack Knave, The Queen, Kingsley, Alice) but they are walking stereotypes. I don’t read noir fiction but I have seen a few movies that fit the description. There is nothing new or original about this story. There also happens to be no magic whatsoever and the big reveal (if, indeed, it is supposed to be a big reveal) was painfully predictable. All of that said, I enjoyed the story more than “House of Cards”. The prose wasn’t a revelation but easy enough to read and the plot was fast-paced and had a nice flow to it. Probably not a story I will remember for long, but enjoyable, nonetheless. Recommended with reservations. Rating: 5,5/10
C.A. Young – The World in a Thimble
Blurb: Toby Fitzsimmons hates the creepy sculpture of Alice on display in his gallery, but when it drops him into Wonderland for real, he’s not prepared for what he finds. From real living furniture to scoutmasters and cowboys to coyotes who really do go everywhere, Toby finds himself in a Wonderland that’s more deadly, and much more American, than the one he remembers reading about as a boy. At the heart of it all is the Catmistress, who rules over the city’s dark alleys and knows the secret of the Cheshire trick. In this strange new world, Toby will need all the help he can get to find his way home. Before that, though, he’ll have to find a way to keep from losing himself. Wonderland, it seems, changes everything it touches. And then there’s the thing in the sewers…
This time around, the story starts in a modern day setting with gallery owner Toby, who spends his time as a punching bag for Hambrick, a man whose collection he’s showing in said gallery. With a little help from the Alice sculpture on display, he falls into Wonderland. I was insanely happy to actually read a story that took me to Wonderland and showed me some of its marvels. There are flying coyotes (who can talk, of course), cats who know the Cheshire Trick, depressed fountains, and bottles that say “drink me”. It could have been so nice. But the writing is clumsy at best, the characters – including Toby – are very flat, and the storyline is predictable. I did enjoy the craziness of Wonderland and its inhabitants but the description dumps and the characters left me rather unimpressed. Rating: 5/10
Overall, the first story was my favorite because it hit the tone of the original most closely and, while not showing us actual Wonderland, gave well-known characters a new personality. It had atmosphere and a good plot. I liked “Knave” second best, despite its stereotypical characters and predictable plotline. At least the idea was original and the execution okay. As a collection, I didn’t love it and wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. But if you love Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and want to see its characters wearing new cloaks, this might be right for you.
RATING: 5/10 - Meh
If you like fairy tales or retellings, there is a good chance you’ve heard of Misty the Book Rat. She has thing for everything fairy tale-esque and hosts an annual Fairy Tale Fortnight – two weeks of reading fairy tales, retellings, or anything else to do with fairy tales. This year, I was lucky enough to be chosen as an active participant (rather than just read a retelling for myself). I highly recommend you check out Misty’s youtube channel. She’s one of those people who inspire passion for a book you’ve never even heard of before.
Published in: Tor, 1999
Series: Sevenwaters #1
My rating: 7/10
First sentence: Three children lay on the rocks at the water’s edge.
Lovely Sorcha is the seventh child and only daughter of Lord Colum of Sevenwaters. Bereft of a mother, she is comforted by her six brothers who love and protect her. Sorcha is the light in their lives, they are determined that she know only contentment.
But Sorcha’s joy is shattered when her father is bewitched by his new wife, an evil enchantress who binds her brothers with a terrible spell, a spell which only Sorcha can lift – by staying silent. If she speaks before she completes the quest set to her by the Fair Folk and their queen, the Lady of the Forest, she will lose her brothers forever.
When Sorcha is kidnapped by the enemies of Sevenwaters and taken to a foreign land, she is torn between the desire to save her beloved brothers, and a love that comes only once. Sorcha despairs at ever being able to complete her task, but the magic of the Fair Folk knows no boundaries, and love is the strongest magic of them all…
Mythology in all its shapes and forms intrigues me. As do fairy tales. A combination of the two usually guarantees that I will go out and buy a book, and almost none came as highly recommended as Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters series. A retelling of The Six Swans set in Ireland and involving a romance as well as the horrible task our heroine has to complete in order to save her brothers – there is so much potential there, I simply couldn not resist. The execution of the tale was well done but didn’t sweep me off my feet.
Sorcha tells her story in detail. Very much detail. To say this is a slow book would be an understatement. That said, I quite like slow books. I love how they focus on characters instead of action, how deep they let us get into the protagonist’s head. But despite the first person narrative, there was always some distance between me and Sorcha. Maybe it was the flowery language or the very drawn-out scenes but it was never one of those books for me that I could crawl into and dissapear in for a while. One scene especially made me cringe, not just because it was a terrible experience for Sorcha but because I felt that the scene was simply added for shock value and to give Sorcha more personality. Her wild spirit and determination to save her brothers no matter what, would have been quite enough.
As the protagonist struggles to break the curse, she has to remain completely mute. On the one hand, that is an intriguing idea, on the other hand, it is difficult to keep a story moving when the heroine never speaks. She has to let her actions speak for her. But Sorcha’s actions are just as predefined as is her silence. She collects starwort, spins it into thread, weaves the thread into fabric and sews shirts. Of course, she has to collect food and clean herself, but in reality, her everyday life is just not very interesting to read about. Then again, it wasn’t boring, either, especially in the second half. Juliet Marillier walks a fine line between thrilling and boring and somehow manages to just make it good enough to keep reading.
At a certain point, another level of conflict is added when Sorcha has to deal with the Britons, the sworn enemies of her own people. The Briton characters were my favorites in the entire book. I never really warmed to most of Sorcha’s brothers and Sorcha herself didn’t really grow any more interesting than she was at the very beginning, for all the ordeals she has to suffer through. Simon, Red, even Sir Richard, or Margery, managed to leap off the page and make me care. Whether it was because I wanted them to be happy and help Sorcha in her task, or whether it was because they were absolutely despicable, they were real to me and evoked real emotion. And yes, there were definitely butterflies and silly girl giggles involved when it came to a certain character.
One thing the author does magnificently well is the fact that I was never really sure if Sorcha would manage to break the curse. This is a fairy tale and as such should end in a happily ever after. But the stakes were so high and Sorcha was faced with more and more difficulties along the way, that for a long time, I was conviced this would end badly. The ending could not have been better. I won’t spoil it, but let me say that it is neither happily ever after nor is it completely bad. That bittersweet part in between struck a chord with me and was one of my favorite bits of the book.
In the end, I wasn’t impressed enough to continue with the series right away. I will, eventually. This is a recommendation, despite some misgivings, because while I was never so in love that I hugged the book to my chest and danced around the living room (yeah, that happens sometimes), it was also not bad. I am somewhat torn about how to rate this because I believe the quality of the writing should be rated higher than this. However, my rating is based on a scale of my personal enjoyment and I don’t really see myself re-reading this novel.
THE GOOD: Great beginning, great last third, some fantastic characters and a beautiful, very subtle romance.
THE BAD: A protagonist who is never more than somewhat interesting, a very drawn-out middle part, and not enough mythology for my taste.
THE VERDICT: A great retelling of The Six Swans, full of atmosphere, conflict, and an incredibly enduring girl. The beginning and the end were wonderful and despite some slow and one unnecessary bit, I recommend it to people who like character-intense books and, of course, fairy tales.
RATING: 7/10 – Very good
The Sevenwaters Series:
Why did I read this? I had mostly lukewarm feelings about Shades of Milk and Honey, the first part in this series. But Mary Robinette Kowal is so likable and seems so clever in her interviews and podcasts that I wanted to give her a second chance. If the first novel was – and such a thing is possible, I’ve learned – too much like Jane Austen and read like all the characters were ripped off, this one has its own voice and mood to it. Unfortunately, it was a mood that bored me almost to death.
Published by: Tor, 2012
ebook: 213 pages
Series: Glamourist Histories #2
My rating: 6/10
First sentence: There are few things in this world that can simultaneously delight and dismay in the same manner as a formal dinner party.
Mary Robinette Kowal stunned readers with her charming first novel Shades of Milk and Honey, a loving tribute to the works of Jane Austen in a world where magic is an everyday occurrence. This magic comes in the form of glamour, which allows talented users to form practically any illusion they can imagine. Shades debuted to great acclaim and left readers eagerly awaiting its sequel. Glamour in Glass continues following the lives of beloved main characters Jane and Vincent, with a much deeper vein of drama and intrigue.
In the tumultuous months after Napoleon abdicates his throne, Jane and Vincent go to Belgium for their honeymoon. While there, the deposed emperor escapes his exile in Elba, throwing the continent into turmoil. With no easy way back to England, Jane and Vincent’s concerns turn from enjoying their honeymoon…to escaping it. Left with no outward salvation, Jane must persevere over her trying personal circumstances and use her glamour to rescue her husband from prison . . . and hopefully prevent her newly built marriage from getting stranded on the shoals of another country’s war.
After Shades of Milk and Honey, I was hoping for many things to happen in the second novel. I wished Mary Robinette Kowal would be a little less like Jane Austen (who but Jane Austen can really pull it off, after all?) and more like herself. Check. I was hoping that the characters weren’t such obvious copies or amalgamations of Austen’s own Elizabeth Bennet or the Dashwood sisters. Check. I was hoping that her magic system, Glamour, would be further developed. Check.
Despite all of these good things that were delivered as per my personal order (or so it seems), there was one element this book was missing. Badly. It was drive, it was that thing that makes you go “wow” and get really immersed in a story. Frequently, the five-year-old that I secretly still am on the inside, wanted to shout out “This is BOOOORING” while I was reading. I shushed her and everything, pointed out the nice writing and the depth of research that must have gone into the novel. But five-year-old me didn’t care. She wanted a good story. And that’s where Glamour in Glass was truly lacking.
It opens on a dinner scene where Jane, who, with Vincent, has just finished a magnificent glamural commissioned by the Prince Regent, describes the dinner conversations, all the rules of propriety that go with such and the separation of the sexes once the whisky and cigars are brought and the discussions start going in a political direction. This may be very interesting from a historical point of view but it lacks any wit that Jane Austen always provided in her work. And the plot (if you can call it that) meanders along in the same manner until the last quarter of the book, when finally something happens that requires action. I am by no means averse to slow-moving books that focus on characters. But let’s take a look at the characters we meet here.
Jane, for the most part, is incredibly sulky and passive throughout the novel. Until said event in the last bit makes her come out of her shell and become pretty awesome. I liked her a great deal in Shades of Milk and Honey, but here I found myself not caring very much about her and actually being annoyed with her a lot of the time. Vincent has lost his brooding mystery and what little we see of him didn’t excite me either. This may be entirely my fault or it may be due to the inconsequential conversations the newlyweds have. I don’t know. It just didn’t grab my attention at all.
What Mary Robinette Kowal does brilliantly is paint a picture of the era. I’m no expert, not even an amateur, in the field, but everything just feels right. The way people behave, the differences between England and France and Belgium, the clothing, the carriages and horse-drawn carts… simply guessing from what I’ve read in her two Glamourist Histories, I would say, Mary has a firm grip on her research. The afterword gives us a clue of how thorough she has been, creating a list of words with all the words Jane Austen used in her works, and eliminating or rephrasing any words Mary used to fit the vocubulary of 1815.
I was also very happy to learn more about Glamour and see Jane come up with new ways to use it. It is like reading steampunk – you read about inventions that could have been made in the past. Only this is glamourpunk. The scenes where Jane and Vincent work on their theory and try to put it into practice were the first ones that got me really hooked and that offer a myriad possibilities for future novels in the series.
What did I think? In the end, the story left me rather cold. The fact that I didn’t particularly like Jane or Vincent for most of the book is surely a large factor in this. The lack of a driving force behind the plot made this, to say it in my five-year-old self’s words, simply boring. I need something to want to read on, be it characters, action, magic or world-building. None of these things were interesting enough to hold my interest. I am somewhat surprised to see this on the Nebula shortlist and I have the strong suspicion that, like with the Hugos, sometimes authors just make it onto that list because they are very present. Or because “it’s kind of their time to get an award”. Mary is a great writer, no doubt, and has a firm grip on her research and craft. But for this second Glamourist History the elevator pitch “Jane Austen with magic” does not work anymore. There may be magic in the shape of Glamour, but there is none of Austen’s wit or clever critique, there are none of her ridiculously funny characters. And so, for me, there wasn’t really much magic at all.
The Good: Well-researched, with perfect French (that made me squee a lot) and an ending that redeems some of the earlier problems I had.
The Bad: Three quarters of the story were painfully boring, except for one scene involving Glamour. Lacks the Austenesque humor and fun characters.
The Verdict: Slow burning historical piece with threads of magic woven into it.
My Rating: 6/10 – Okay
The Glamourist Histories:
- Shades of Milk and Honey
- Glamour in Glass
- Without a Summer
I feel quite useless writing a review about this book. It has garnered nothing but praise and features on so many best-of-the-year lists I can’t remember seeing one without it. And honestly, all I can do here is agree with the rest of the world. This is a superb book!
Published by: Egmont Press, 2012
Paperback: 452 pages
My rating: 8/10
First sentence: I am a coward.
I have two weeks. You’ll shoot me at the end no matter what I do.
That’s what you do to enemy agents. It’s what we do to enemy agents. But I look at all the dark and twisted roads ahead and cooperation is the easy way out. Possibly the only way out for a girl caught red-handed doing dirty work like mine — and I will do anything, anything, to avoid SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden interrogating me again.
He has said that I can have as much paper as I need. All I have to do is cough up everything I can remember about the British War Effort. And I’m going to. But the story of how I came to be here starts with my friend Maddie. She is the pilot who flew me into France — an Allied Invasion of Two.
We are a sensational team.
This is another one of those books that have been very much hyped – not so much through marketing efforts by the publisher, blog tours, givaways, and such things. But through glowing reviews all over the place. Naturally, I was suspicious at first. But some of the blogs that I read and count among my most trusted Recommenders of Great Books have agreed with the overall praise. It was settled, I was reading this thing.
Being a story set during World War II, there is bound to be some tragedy. Lives are destroyed, people are killed, lovers ripped apart and children taken away. But we focus on a smaller world. In the first part of two, “Verity” confesses how she came to be where she is – being interrogated by the Gestapo and coughing up any facts she can remember about the war. The story she tells is more personal, though. She doesn’t just list places, give away radio code, and sing out names of spies. She tells us how she met her best friend in the world – Maddie.
It is hard not to get drawn into the story right away. “Verity” manages to tell her story in a gripping way and despite her terrifying situation, infuse it with a sense of humor that made me love her very quickly. The girls’ first meeting was simply brilliant but I do have one small point of critique. I didn’t quite feel their bond after that initial meeting. They simply don’t spend enough time together or at least we don’t get to see it. And that really put a damper on the entire story for me. Because if that friendship doesn’t feel as strong to me as it obviously does to these two women, then whatever happens won’t touch me as much.
Despite this little misgiving (and it is just a wee little one) I enjoyed this book immensely. When I read a novel about WWII, there are certain things I expect, certain events we all knew happened – but if you can show me something new, and be it a tiny little detail, then I’m already intrigued again. I remember my classmates in school always whining when we talked about WWII because it felt like we always talked about it in a never-ending regurgitation of the past. I believe that there are stories that should be told over and over, and that within the big picture, there is a nearly infinite number of smaller stories that deserve to be told as well. Now this may be fiction – and the author says so in her Debriefing – but there were women pilots and there were a few women spies. I had no idea! This was definitely a story worth being told.
The mix of languages was totally up my alley. Seeing as the three languages used are all ones I speak to some degree, I was thrilled that the narrator sometimes switched back and forth between them. Don’t worry, most of the time, she translates them to English. But this sentence here could have come from my own language-befuddled brain (plus, the French subjunctive is used correctly which made the Grammar Freak in giddy with glee):
Apart from the great story and the character of “Verity” (she was easily my favorite), this book offered a few things that felt like little gems, put in especially to make me happy. Being somewhat of a Peter Pan nut, I loved the parallels and use of lines and names from the original story. Mrs. Darling, who leaves the windows open, in case her children fly home unexpectedly – what a wonderful image for the mother of a pilot. There are plenty more but I won’t spoil.
I am expecting this book to win all sorts of awards and they are most deserved. In the end, it wasn’t as much of a hit as I had expected after the rave reviews. The friendship didn’t really feel that close to me until the end. There was admiration between these girls, certainly, but the love of a best friend did not come across through the pages. Still, a very highly recommended read that shows a different perspective on a story we all think we know already.
THE GOOD: Great writing, wonderful characters, very suspenseful until you know what is going on.
THE BAD: I didn’t feel the friendship as much as I think I should have. The first half of the book was much better than the second.
BONUS: Mixed languages.
THE VERDICT: A highly recommended book that can be read by people of all ages.
RATING: 8/10 Excellent
I have great stamina when it comes to reading and I hardly ever lem a book. The possibility of missing out on a great ending is too big. But sometimes, a novel drags you along and leads nowhere and it’s just not worth my time to finish it. So this is a review of a little more than the first half of the book (plus, I peeked at the ending and am glad I didn’t plough all the way through to get there – so not worth it).
THE WHITE FOREST
by Adam McOmber
Published: Touchstone, September 2012
Copy: ebook via NetGalley
My rating: 4/10
First sentence: When Nathan Ashe disappeared from the ruined streets of Southwark, I couldn’t help but think that the horror was, at least in part, my own design.
Young Jane Silverlake lives with her father in a crumbling family estate on the edge of Hampstead Heath. Jane has a secret – an unexplainable gift that allows her to see the souls of man-made objects – and this talent isolates her from the outside world. Her greatest joy is wandering the wild heath with her neighbors, Madeline and Nathan. But as the friends come of age, their idyll is shattered by the feelings both girls develop for Nathan, and by Nathan’s interest in a cult led by Ariston Day, a charismatic mystic popular with London’s elite. Day encourages his followers to explore dream manipulation with the goal of discovering a strange hidden world, a place he calls the Empyrean.
A year later, Nathan has vanished, and the famed Inspector Vidocq arrives in London to untangle the events that led up to Nathan’s disappearance. As a sinister truth emerges, Jane realizes she must discover the origins of her talent, and use it to find Nathan herself, before it’s too late.
Once more I am reminded that a beautiful cover is just not enough. Even good writing isn’t enough. Adam McOmber’s style captivated me and for the first 50 pages or so, I was drawn into this strange world of Jane Silverlake, the girl who hears and feels the souls of inanimate objects surrounding her. What drives this story is that you want to know what exactly this gift is, who Jane really is, and – of course – what happened to Nathan Ashe. But you can only string your readers along for so long.
When, after more than half of the book, there still was no movement in the plot, I threw the towel. There was one hint that made me suspect Jane’s identity and a peek to the ending told me I was right. This was not the plot twist I was hoping for while reading the first 170 pages. With so much build-up, there really has to be a big bang waiting for a reader at the end to make it all worthwhile.
As the characters go, they were interesting enough. Jane – an introvert, an outsider, almost completely isolated from society – paled in comparison to her two friends, Maddy and Nathan. Maddy, obviously jealous and visibly not as loyal to Jane as she likes to pretend, was probably the most interesting character in the entire book. She actually does things. But even when the girls take matters into their own hands and investigate Nathan’s disappearance, the author gets lost in memories of the past. Just as the plot inches forward a tiny bit, Jane remembers some really boring episode from the past – either where Nathan is curious and wants to experiment with her gift and/or when Maddy is jealous because of that and talks down to Jane. This structure is repeated over and over – until Nathan’s diary is found. Now, what normal person would read a few pages and then put it aside? Jane, of course. If you’re looking for your best friend and potential lover, wouldn’t you plough through that diary to gather as much information as possible? Apparently not. Jane puts it aside often and only reads a few pages at a time. Which makes for an even slower plot.
I am sorry to say I didn’t finish this novel because the writing was really well done. There is atmosphere hidden in these pages and the characters have potential. It just wasn’t realised very well. I read the last pages to find out the one thing that interested me – what the fuck is Jane’s gift all about? – and was disappointed there as well. The answer to this question is, to say it in simple terms, lame. Maybe this book is better suited for more patient readers, and I might be tempted to try another novel by this author (like I said, good writing there), but this was not my kind of book.
THE GOOD: Atmospheric writing, a mystery that sucks you in quickly. Tension between the leading ladies.
THE BAD: Gets boring after a while, very repetitive, drags you along without any real pay-off.
THE VERDICT: I wouldn’t recommend it. Read the first few pages on Amazon and if you love it, think whether you want exactly the same for 300 pages and don’t mind any lack of plot. If the answer is yes, go for it.
RATING: 4/10 Not that good
I’m not a great reader of romance novels. But I do like historical fiction, especially if it’s interspliced with some fantasy. And since it’s incredibly hard to find bad reviews of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, I thought I’d give it a try. And I loved this book. I never made it through volume 2 but I could reread Cross Stitch immediately.
Published: Arrow, 1994 (first: 1991)
Series: Outlander #1
My rating: 8,5/10
First sentence: People disappear all the time.
In 1945, Claire is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon in Scotland. Innocently, she walks through a stone circle in the Highlands, and finds herself in a violent skirmish taking place in 1743. Suddenly she is a Sassenach, an outlander, in a country torn by war and by clan feuds.
A wartime nurse, Claire can deal with the bloody wounds that face her. But it is harder to deal with the knowledge that she is in Jacobite Scotland and the carnage of Culloden is looming. Marooned amid the passion and violence, the superstition, the shifting allegiances and the fervent loyalties, Claire is in danger from Jacobites and Redcoats – and from the shock of her own desire for James Fraser, a gallant and courageous young Scots warrior. Jamie shows her a passion so fierce and a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire, and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.
I own the UK paperback with the incredibly cheesy cover shown above. But I came to love this by now tattered thick paperback so much. While Claire isn’t what I’d call a contemporary characters, she still comes from a time far more advanced than mid-18th century Scotland. Her knowledge in medicine doesn’t just help her out in some dangerous situations, it was also very interesting to read and – while no expert in the field at all – it felt like Diana Gabaldon has done her research well. Claire was easy to love and identify with and maybe that is why this book is so dear to so many people. Because while you read it, you are Claire, and like her, you are torn between the desire to go back to your time and your wonderful husband, and this exciting new world of adventure and passion for Jamie Fraser.
Knowing nothing much about Scotland, I dove into this novel and was blown away by the imagery of the Scottish highlands, the political tension, and the day-to-day life one used to lead. The author has managed to bring the setting to life on the pages and suck you into a time you really shouldn’t want to live in but kind of do… I must admit the political aspects of the book were less intersting to me (probably because of my ignorance on the subject) but I could still fear for Claire and Jamie whenever there was a fight or the threat of danger. They don’t always get out unscathed and it’s wonderful to see their characters develop and changed by events like getting married, severely injured, or kidnapped. Yes, there is a lot of action in this book.
My biggest surprise was probably how much I cared for the romance. It is not so much the thought of “Will the good guy get the girl?” because – and that’s not a spoiler – that happens fairly quickly. It is watching these two people grow and develop a true relationship. Anybody who has ever been in a romantic relationship can relate to certain scenes, be they in the bedroom or little every day fights. To me, it felt believable and tore my heart out several times.
The only thing that bothered me in this entire, chunky novel was probably one fantasy element that I could have done without. I won’t say which one for fear of spoiling but when it happened, I had to hold back chuckles, it was so ridiculous – and unnecessary! I wish I could say I have devoured the entire series but I didn’t. I started on the second book right after finishing this one but it lacked the quick pace and easy-to-follow story arc of its predecessor. Nonetheless, I can recommend this wholeheartedly to anybody who’s ready to fall in love with Scotland and a certain redhead highlander.
I may buy the graphic novel adaptation of Jamie’s perspective of this story – or read the spin-off series about Lord John. Because I really don’t want to give up completely on this universe yet.
THE GOOD: A gripping tale of romance, rich in history and adventure, as well as edge-of-your-seat action.
THE BAD: Hardcore feminists won’t like this.
THE VERDICT: A wonderful book that will not let you do anything but read for a while. And I dare you not to fall in love with Jamie Fraser!
RATING: 8,5/10 Excellent
The Outlander Series:
- Dragonfly in Amber
- Drums of Autumn
- The Fiery Cross
- A Breath of Snow and Ashes
- An Echo in the Bone
- Written in My Own Heart’s Blood
Being my first Ishiguro novel, I knew nothing going into this. People had warned me of its slow pace, its quiet prose, but I honestly didn’t expect a book barely 300 pages thick to take me this long to read. Still, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. I might even be tempted to pick up other books by this author.
Published: Faber & Faber, 2005 (1989)
My rating: 8,5/10
First sentence: It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.
In 1956, Stevens, a long-serving butler at Darlington Hall, decides to take a motoring trip through the West Country. The six-day excursion becomes a journey into the past of Stevens and England, a past that takes in fascism, two world wars and an unrealised love between the butler and his housekeeper. Ishiguro’s dazzling novel is a sad and humorous love story, a meditation on the condition of modern man, and an elegy for England at a time of acute change.
Fans of a good period drama will surely love this. If you’re at all interested in the downstairs part of Downton Abbey, this is a book that, in exquisite prose, gives you an insight into a servant’s life that you simply can’t get from TV. This is a very slow-paced, quite book, that comes alive not through action or even “things happening” but has a flow to it that I find hard to describe. I had a hard time getting into the story at first but once I relaxed into the style, it was a revel from then onwards.
Stevens is a fascinating protagonist. Every aspect of his private life is secondary to his being a great butler. His own family, the chance for love, his health, and his opinions – nothing matters if they obstruct, in any way, his master’s comfort. He goes into some detail describing what makes a butler great and it is in his memories and musings that we see not only how deep his devotion is but we find out why he chose to live a life of truly passionate service. Stevens believes that, in being a great butler and providing an important gentlemen with as many comforts as he can, he helps a little bit in shaping the course of the world. Realising how small the part he plays is only makes him prouder to be part of it at all.
There are a few side characters here, and they all feel very fleshed-out and real. But the focus lies clearly on Stevens – and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. While reading, my inner psychoanalyst was rejoicing at such an interesting subject. Reading about and understanding Stevens’ subtlety was a pleasure that I didn’t expect. His peculiar relationship with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton, is described in even quieter tones but gives more room for thought.
Perhaps it is indeed time I begin to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically. After all, when one thinks about it, it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in – particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth.
In short, this is the story of a man who has devoted his life to his vocation and, looking back at it, ponders about the remains of the day – and whether it was all worth it.
THE GOOD: Beautiful language, an insight into an old school butler’s life, and one of the most intriguing protagonists I’ve ever read about.
THE BAD: Takes a long time to get going and stays very subdued. Nothing for impatient readers or fans of lots of action.
THE VERDICT: A touching and magnificently written work of literature that will stay with me for quite some time.
RATING: 8,5/10 Quite excellent
I devoured the first Flavia de Luce mystery while on holiday. I thought it would be perfect for a lazy afternoon at the beach and some light reading. While it wasn’t a perfect book, I found myself missing that charming young protagonist with a passion for poisons and a knack for mystery-solving. It is not so much the plot of these stories as the voice in which it is told that captivated me and that I can’t seem to get enough of.
Published: Dell 2010
Series: Flavia de Luce #2
My rating: 7/10
First sentence: I was lying dead in the churchyard.
When a traveling puppet show sets up on the village green in Bishop’s Lacey, death stalks the little stage. Flavia goes behind the scenes to learn the craft (so to speak) in order to catch an ingenious killer. Flavia thinks that her days of crime-solving in the bucolic English hamlet of Bishop’s Lacy are over—and then Rupert Porson has an unfortunate rendezvous with electricity. The beloved puppeteer has had his own strings sizzled, but who’d do such a thing and why? For Flavia, the questions are intriguing enough to make her put aside her chemistry experiments and schemes of vengeance against her insufferable big sisters. Astride Gladys, her trusty bicycle, Flavia sets out from the de Luces’ crumbling family mansion in search of Bishop’s Lacey’s deadliest secrets.
Our clever little sleuth of a heroine is back. And it doesn’t take too long for somebody else to drop dead in her surroundings. There is puppetry, there are murdered children, there are (of course) poisons, and yes, the titular weed is the one you’re thinking of. While I enjoyed the theme of this volume more than the first novel, it is not the plot that drew me in – and I suspect, this will continue as the series goes on. Flavia is solving the case of a puppeteer dropping dead during a show with a whole range of suspects, not a lot of motive, and the past catching up with the present…
Alan Bradley has given Flavia de Luce the most charming voice I could imagine. Much like the Alexia Tarabotti novels, this series lives from its wit and its remarkably clever heroine as much as from what is simply good writing. Flavia, as much as I liked her already, has grown ever so much more dear to me. Who wouldn’t want to be friends (or a mother to) that kind of eleven-year-old? Her passion for chemistry is still as powerful, even though it isn’t vital to the plot. It does give her personality more depth though and teaches me quite a few little tidbits about the subject. Hurrah for educating your readers, Mr Bradley!
As Flavia leads us past that fateful puppet show, meets new characters and shows us more of Bishop’s Lacey, we both read an entirely new and separate story – good for standalone-lovers – but we also get a glimpse of novelty. Flavia’s home life, her family and the nearby village all grow a little in depth. Which is exactly what I was hoping for, as we didn’t see a whole lot of it in the first book. If the series continues in the same vein, with standalone crime stories and an overarching continuation of Flavia’s life in general, I will go so far as to call myself a fan.
My suspicions as to who the murderer(s) was showed once more that I’m not well-read when it comes to the crime genre. Who is really pulling the strings in this game of memory and secrets came as a surprise to me, even though I had all the necessary clues. More experienced readers of the genre may not be fooled as easily but personally, I enjoyed this little adventure very, very much.
THE GOOD: A charming heroine with a quick mind and great storytelling abilities.
THE BAD: There is still room for improvement. I would like (even) more family life, more de Luce craziness and more quaint villagers.
THE VERDICT: Another light and fun mystery story with an endearing leading lady and a clever murderer.
RATING: 7/10 Very good.
The Flavia de Luce Mysteries:
- The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
- The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag
- A Red Herring Without Mustard
- I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
- Speaking From Among the Bones
- The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches
It must be the healthy air or simply the fact that during your holidays you can relax and finally get to some books you’ve neglected. Which is why I thought I’d get right into my resolutions for the second half of 2012 and kicked the list off with Dodie Smith’s classic novel. I caught the beginning of the movie a while ago and was so enchanted that I felt I would love to book. And I did. Truly, I loved it… and hated it. Here’s why:
published: Vintage, 2004 (1948)
my rating: 6,5/10
first sentence: I am sitting in the kitchen sink.
This enchanting novel tells the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her unusual family who live in not-so-genteel poverty in a ramshackle old English castle. Cassandra’s eccentric father is a writer whose first book took the literary world by storm but he has since failed to write a single word and now spends his time reading detective fiction. Cassandra’s sister, Rose, despairs of her family’s circumstances and determines to marry their affluent American landlord. She is helped and, sometimes, hindered in this by their bohemian stepmother, an artists’ model who likes to commune with nature. Finally there is Stephen who is hopelessly in love with Cassandra. Amid this maelstrom Cassandra hones her writing skills, candidly capturing the events that take place within the castle’s walls, and her own first descent into love.
Our heroine Cassandra leads us into the enchanted world of the castle she lives in with her rather eccentric family. As she writes her diary (which we read), we see just how bad poverty can get and with how little this strange family can be content. Cassandra’s thoughts and observations are surprisingly deep for a girl her age. Without any envy, she describes her older sister’s beauty, without bitterness she talks about the way her father never wrote again, after the initial success of his novel. But her life is boring and observing and trying to “capture” the people and landscapes around her is not as fulfilling as she would hope. When two young men enter the neighbourhood (very Jane Austen, isn’t it?), her life changes forever…
I was instantly feeling sympathetic towards our narrating heroine. Her family suffer but manage to creatue happiness in their very own way, and I enjoyed reading about their little routines and rituals. But Cassandra got on my nerves very quickly. Precocious – yes. Smart-ass? Not so much. The way she always sets herself apart from the group and describes, sometimes quite coldly, what is happening, made her feel cold and arrogant to me. She certainly doesn’t think too much of herself but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she considered herself a notch above everybody else – for she is the one who captures everything, who sees more than others. Or who would like to. Her flaws make her believable but personally, I just couldn’t really like her.
The plot dragged a little and felt like a soap opera at times. But the love and engagement and childish fun and unrequited love mixed with the very mature style made this a nicely balanced book. I didn’t pine for anyone, I didn’t really care who ended up with whom. But I did find myself wanting to go back to the book whenever I put it down.
It suddenly seemed astonishing that people should meet especially to eat together – because food goes into the mouth and talk comes out. And if you watch people eating and talking – really watch them – it is a very peculiar sight.
An unlikable protagonist is one thing but a whole cast of lovable, deep side characters make up for it. Rose and Topaz, Stephen (above all) and even our two gentlemen captured my heart by storm. I did care a lot about them and would have actually liked to see more of their perspectives. This being a diary, however, that wasn’t possible. I look forward to finishing the movie and I hope the focus is not so heavily set on Cassandra’s fate alone. Her coming-of-age story is certainly better than a lot of modern YA tales I’ve read but it’s far from my favorite…
THE GOOD: Concise and beautiful writing, a very different family life from what I know, in a romantic setting with a heroine full of ideas and thoughts.
THE BAD: Not really a bad point but I didn’t warm to the narrator. Which dragged the entire story down a bit.
THE VERDICT: If, like the sisters in this book, you like Austen and Bronte and can’t decided with romance you’d rather live in, you’ll probably enjoy this story. A young girl’s coming-of-age with love, betrayal, and a castle.
RATING: 6,5/10 Very good with some reservations.
Alright, I admit it. This book has been sitting on my shelves for years and years. It was the trailer for the upcoming movie that gave me the little nudge I needed. Even though, in my defence, I was planning on reading this in 2012, as my TBR-list-competition will tell you. It took me the better part of a month and overall, it was worth it. But in the end, I did miss that little spark…
published: Sceptre, 2004
my rating: 6,5/10
first sentence: Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints.
A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation—the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small.
The first thing I noticed about this book, and indeed the trailer, was the structure of the story. As the chapter titles will tell you, we are told six very different tales that are connected like a set of matryoshka dolls. We get half of each story, then jump into the next. Once we’re through all six story-halves, each of them is finished in reverse order. As each of the stories’ first half ends with somewhat of a cliffhanger, I could barely stop reading.
What made this novel great for me was how the stories bled into each other – in both directions, sometimes even connecting to more than one previous story – and how cleverly this was done. While it starts very subtly, the hints become more and more obvious and by the third story, you find yourself looking actively for clues as to how this story is connected to the first two. Really, David Mitchell could have written about anything. I had fun just making these connections. And by the time you reach the end, there are many.
As for the stories, I’d really have to judge each one on its own. I did not like all of them equally. Adam Ewing’s journal was terribly boring, Robert Frobisher’s escapades were a little more fun. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the Luisa Rey mystery. Timothy Cavendish’s story was at times great and at others convoluted and weird. An orison for Sonmi-451 would have made such a great story, I would have read an entire book just about her. Sloosha’s Crossin, the middle story that ties them back together was interesting and had some great moments but the language was such a challenge and disrupted my reading.
Speaking of language: Each of the stories is written in a very unique style, appropriate to the time it was written and the person telling it. Ewing’s journal from early 19th century read completely differently than, say, Luisa Rey’s story, set well into the 20th century. Perspectives range from first person narrative letters to third person, to plain dialogue. This diversity shows off Mitchell’s talent and his gift with language. Again, I didn’t like all the styles but they set the tone for each story so perfectly that I couldn’t help but be impressed.
What I’m taking away from this book is a bunch of interesting ideas and themes. Consumerism, racism, humanity, and the search for truth are all to be found here. I particularly liked how the stories progress in time and we see how the world changes when the characters from the first stories are long gone. Sonmi-541′s tale was, in this respect, probably the scariest. A corpocracy of this kind is my worst nightmare. Maybe I just reacted so strongly to it because we’re already on our way there…
My pet peeve with this novel was the ending. By the time we figured out the main idea, the way all the stories are really connected (and it’s quite obvious early on), I’ve been waiting for a big bang. I needed some sort of a revelation that I hadn’t guessed at or at least an extra chapter that gives me a little something to remember this reading experience by. But no. Mitchell simply finishes his half-told stories and that is it. I guess we can’t always have last sentences like Guy Gavriel Kay in Tigana.
THE GOOD: Great language throughout, smaller stories cleverly intertwined. It’s a pleasure to find all the clues.
THE BAD: Easy to figure out. Not all stories were equally interesting, the ending left me hanging a little.
THE VERDICT: Recommended with some reservations. If you enjoy large stories and are willing to commit, if you like fix-up novels, interconnected fiction and authors who turn language upside down, then this is for you.
RATING: 6,5/10Very good with tiny reservations
Unsure if this book is for you? Watch the trailer on Youtube.