Recommended Reading

Women dressed as handmaids promoting the Hulu original series "The Handmaid's Tale" stand along a public street during the South by Southwest Music Film Interactive Festival 2017 in Austin

In the past half a year I have read two Margaret Atwood novels (the Handmaid’s Tale and Hag Seed). So imagine my delight when the always fantastic Boston Review published an interview with the amazing woman herself and Junot Diaz. If your unfamiliar with Diaz, he is the author of several amazing novels himself, including the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I read a few years ago.

Much has been said and written about Margaret Atwood and the Handmaid’s Tale as of late, many of which by people smarter and more eloquent than I. The interview is an amazing combination of great literary minds.

Read the article here

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It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

DarkerShade

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab. Published February 24th, 2015 by Tor Books. 400 pages.

For some reason I don’t find myself reading that much genre fiction, although I often like it. Maybe it’s because most fantasy novels have cover designs that look straight out of a Scholastic book fair graphic novel and that throws my off. A Darker Shade of Magic does not have that problem (the cover design is quite lovely). 22055262

In the other reviews I looked through, people either loved this novel or thought it was just ok. I find myself in the latter category. Don’t get me wrong—I liked it. On Goodreads I gave it a 3 star rating, but it’s closer to a 3.5. It’s a compelling, fast read, that I found compelling enough to blast through in about a week.

However. One of the strengths touted in many of the reviews is that the concept is very unique. In the world V.E. Schwab has crafted, there are four parallel Londons: the boring one with no magic (Gray London); the exciting, prosperous one with magic (Red London); the one that used to have magic but has the life sucked out of it (White London); and the spooky one overtaken by magic (Black London). While these places are parallel, only the Antari, a special race of magicians, can travel between them. Our main character, Kell is one of them.

For me, this concept was not as unique as it sounds. One of my favorite novels, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, did the “magic door-opening” thing before this, and that novel had a little simpler of a world and felt more fleshed out because of it. That leads me into my next point: I felt that both and world and the characters were underdeveloped. Unfortunately Schwab often defaulted to telling over showing.

We are told that the main characters, Kell and Lila, are both dangerous people who have killed before and don’t have many qualms about doing it again. Lila is supposed to be a cutthroat thief (who also dreams of being a pirate despite presumably never having left London?), yet the whole time Lila and Kell help each other and are definitely the good guys. The novel claims these characters are morally ambiguous but they aren’t beyond a superficial-backstory level. It would be more interesting if Kell was supposed to be this upstanding figure who got into the whole mess because he is a good guy and went through a journey of having to kill, lie to his family, and break the rules of his world.

(I keep getting caught up on the pirate thing. Why pirate? This book literally has three locations and all of them are London. The series has absolutely nothing to do with the sea. It’s like Lila wanting to be a pirate is nothing more than a tepid metaphor that shows all us readers that she craves adventure. Except we don’t need clues, because Schwab just comes out and tells us that she does.)

Other people have critiqued the writing as flat and boring. Personally I didn’t have a problem with the simplicity of the writing. It works very well with the descriptive scenes of the separate Londons.

Of course, there are two more novels in the series, so maybe some development comes from that. I plan to read the next two books, but I would feel a lot more motivated to if at the end of the novel Lila betrayed Kell (spoilers: that does not happen. I sure wish it did though).

I think (I hope) that a Gathering of Shadows (book #2) dives into some of the things hinted at in this one because there’s definite potential for things to get really interesting. I have some ~theories and won’t even be disappointed if they all turn out to be true.

An American Novel in a Time of Unrest

East-of-Eden-01

East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Published 1952 by Penguin. 601 Pages.

Like many American schoolkids, my first introduction to Steinbeck was in Middle School with Of Mice and Men. There is a beautiful simplicity to Steinbeck’s prose, though the same certainly cannot be said for the careful and intricate construction of the plot. A large, generational novel like this certainly has many threads to care for and none of them get lost in the sheer magnitude of scope.

East of Eden is a perfect example of why classics are, well, classics. The novel invokes a classical narrative in itself—the story of Genesis (Adam/Eve and Cain/Abel) but set in the Eden-like Salinas Valley in California at the turn of the century. Though the novel takes place over a hundred years ago, I’m sure I could find some poignant parallels to today’s society.

Steinbeck fleshes out the landscape with gorgeous, lush descriptions and many of the characters receive the same treatment. The main figures (Adam Trask, Samuel Hamilton, Lee, and the Trask twins) are engaging and dynamic in their evolutions throughout their individual journeys. Some characters are treated better than others; a common critique of the novel is that the character Cathy is rather one dimensional (though the argument could be made that this is a purposeful representation of human sin).

“Maybe we all have in us a secret pond where evil and ugly things germinate and grow strong. But this culture is fenced, and the swimming brood climbs up only to fall back. Might it not be that in the dark pools of some men the evil grows strong enough to wriggle over the fence and swim free?”

However. There were two main things keeping me back from enjoying this novel the way I think I could have, given different circumstances. The first is that I have very, very limited knowledge of the Old/New Testament, and East of Eden is an opaque retelling of Genesis. I’ve also never read Paradise Lost and don’t have that to work off of, either. In an academic environment this issue would have likely been downplayed with the input and discussions of others, but on my own I’m sure quite a bit went over my head.

Second is that the picture of America that Steinbeck paints is incredibly beautiful—it’s the people in the novel that are flawed. With today’s political climate, I guess I am cynical towards the optimism. It’s the characters, of course that fight the battle against their inner sin. The drama of East of Eden, while universal, feels contained within the Trask and Hamilton families. Today, everything in the world feels so important, so dire. I found myself feeling disconnected from the world portrayed in the novel and the one I lived in.

From a thematic view, East of Eden addresses the nature of good and evil (obviously) but in a much more abstract way than a superhero story. Steinbeck approaches the question through the avenue of love; many of the characters desire love or lack it, and it often becomes a major factor in character motivation. The novel takes time to address all different sorts of love: familial, romantic, friendship, and self love. This is best represented through Adam’s journey—he begins with rejecting the love of his father, then becomes infected with a false love towards Cathy. However, he gradually begins to receive love through Sam Hamilton and Lee; finally, he himself learns how to give love to his sons in a way his father was unable to provide to him.

Another major theme is that of choice. The phrase ‘thou mayest’ comes up in a memorable conversation between Adam, Lee, and Samuel approximately halfway through the novel. When it comes to the characters, from the fringe to the main ones, they all battle with choice. Will they be how their fathers were? Do we accept how we are born or do we fight it?

“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.”

I am not a lover of classic novels. But, as will many classics from the early 20th century, East of Eden is extremely accessible and compelling. It also feels like one of those books you should read. After all, it is the novel Steinbeck himself considered to be his masterpiece.

Bird by Bird // Review

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Published 1995 by Anchor. 237 pages.

Google “best books about writing” and Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird is bound to be one of the first books to come up. It’s a slim book but it’s hardly a writing manual; rather, Bird by Bird is part writing guide, part meditation on the creative process.

This is the only work I’ve read by Lamott, but it makes me thinks her books are probably really good. Her voice comes through so clearly; reading about writing likely doesn’t seem like the most interesting topic but Lamott makes it so. Each chapter, even the ones that didn’t focus on specific aspects of the writing process still engaged me. These more speculative sections still challenged me to think critically, or even just differently about how I approached writing.

The book is probably divided half and half— the nitty gritty process and more of a general attitude when it comes to writing. Lamott explores how to create authenticity and truth but also the mental realities of trying to get published, of jealousy of author friends, and failure. Sometimes it’s nice to read about how to construct multi-dimensional characters, but it’s also nice reading about Lamott’s personal journey. There’s an even balance.

If you are looking for an instructional (how to write a plot treatment, how to structure a narrative, etc.) this is not that. That kind of manual can be very helpful, particularly in fiction writing if you’ve never taken a class. However, each time I opened this book I felt inspired to write, or even just create something.

It’s more than just a therapy session, to be clear. There are incredibly helpful tips about short assignments (just one paragraph, just one page) that are very insightful when it comes to fellow writers. Like many, Lamott recommends writing everything down, but instead of the trusty journal, Lamott uses index cards. There’s something about these very isolated thoughts that I like.

Bird by Bird will not teach you how to be a good writer. It will not teach you how to write at all, in fact. It will, however, sit down with you and help you with the suffering that writing often is. Lamott writes a very honest approach on how to consider ones own writing; in her mind, an exploration of truth. Lamott thinks the best writing is about truth and hope, and here she certainly lays it all out there.

Austen Almighty’s Year End Reading Wrap-Up

Another year, another reading wrap-up. In 2016 I read 28 books and it took me until the last minute to get it done– I finished my last book, Colson Whithead’s Underground Railroad about an hour before writing this. For the full list, feel free to head over to my Goodreads, where I track all of my reading.

Breakdown
Total books read: 28/28
Five Stars: 5
Four Stars: 11
Three Stars: 12
Two/One Stars: 0

As I’ve said in the past, I vet my books fairly carefully because reading bad books is a waste of time, so this distribution is not surprising. I did read more 3-star books than usual, however.

As far as patterns go, I started strong and had a major dip during July and August. I had a lot of reading to do for school this semester, of which Too Big to Fail was one, which hurt my year-end totals. Luckily, because of my good start I was only two books behind at the end of the semester and I was able to safely complete my goal.

Five Favorite Titles
1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (the first book I read this year and yes, also my favorite. Read my review here.)
2. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (I actually gave this book four stars, but it also really inspired me to write, and I know I’ll be using to for reference in the future.)
3. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Although, much like the last half an hour of Interstellar, the ending of this book lost me, I find myself thinking about it all the time.)
4. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (There’s not much more to say than what has already been said. Read my review here.)
5. Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Book Store by Robin Sloan (Literally just the most delightful thing I read all year. I like to look back and remember how happy this book made me.)

My goal next year is to read 29 (new) books with enough time to re-visit older titles at the end of the year. This will require some more consistency on my part, though my shelves are in disarray since I can’t have all my books with me at once. First on the docket is Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker, mostly because it’s the only book I actually have with me on vacation.

The Raven Cycle // Review

The Raven Cycle is a tricky series to categorize. On one hand the young adult series is low-fantasy, or perhaps it’s paranormal, or the cringe-inducing paranormal romance. Either way, it’s been an immensely popular series across pedestrian reviewers on book blogs and Youtube.

The Raven Cycle was all the rage around the internet last spring when the fourth and final book of the series, the Raven King, was released. I have a well-documented distaste for YA so it was simply not on my radar for some time, but I do try to diversify my reading and decided to give it a go. I ordered my books off of the Book Depository because I couldn’t bear to pay full price so I have the British edition, which is mostly the same except they change words like gas to petrol.

The quality of the books themselves is awful. Sigh. Scholastic never changes.

The Scholastic Book Fair is a load of crap. -My mom, a school librarian

The Raven Cycle follows the lives of a group of teenagers in a small Virginia town called Henrietta with an all-boys boarding school that sounds an awful lot like a New England one. But then again, not all students live in the dorms, they live on their own off campus. It’s a small detail, probably for convenience, but as someone who has lived with boarding school culture it doesn’t make much sense to me. All the boys— Ronan, Adam, Gansey— attend the school except for the female member of the squad, Blue, who is a local.

Blue’s family (made of mostly her mother’s friends) are psychics. She, herself, is a mirror who amplifies other’s magical abilities. Blue is billed as a typical “weird girl” who is too strange to fit in at public school and is Not Like Other Girls; however, she manages to be delightful despite this. Through coincidence and a sprinkling of fate, Blue gets wrapped up in the boy’s plot to uncover a sleeping Welsh king supposedly buried beneath the town. That is essentially the overarching plot of the series.

There’s magic, drama, intrigue—it’s certainly more dimensional than other YA titles.

After reading the second book (the Dream Thieves, also my favorite and by far the standout), I decided that I would review the books together, as a series. Although it’s made of four books, I honestly don’t feel as though there was enough plot. Each book is fairly long—between 300-400 words each. The structure is so that each novel centers around a major character: the first is Adam’s book, then Ronan’s, Blue’s, and finally Gansey’s. The point of view shifts multiples times and there is essentially a guiding focus… but not much else.

The series is treated more like an anthology or a television show than a cohesive series of novels. It’s a fantasy story in installments, which is not exactly the best format for a fantasy. There is the guiding quest to find Glendower, the magical Welsh king, but the ‘bad guy’ changes in every novel to the point where they all feel superficial. Even the final installment an interesting, dynamic character named Henry Cheng is introduced and he becomes a fundamental and important part of the group with hardly any screen time.

The writing itself feels this way, too. Stiefvater is a talented writer who I image will only get better the more she publishes (she’s fairly young for an author of eight books at 34). She produces beautiful sentences—moments, really. But like a movie, moments aren’t enough. I didn’t find the substance between the lovely, quotable lines to have enough purpose. Sometimes the plot jumps from hit to hit without much in between. A novel absolutely needs to be purposeful and make sense between the major hits or it becomes empty.

There’s reason to enjoy these books— they’re actually interesting and unique, for one, and are enjoyable and easy to read. Part of the reason the lack of development in characters and plot annoys me so much because the world really is an engaging one. I crave more, but when I finished the final book I felt… incomplete. I feel as though, almost, a determined editor could shave Stiefvater down to one, fantastic 500 page book.

It was good. Not great, but good. A passable novel that wasn’t a waste of my time and almost certainly inflated by the surrounding hype. More than anything it made me want to revisit Lord of the Rings, which I think is its best characteristic.

Summer Reading: a List

I month of September flew right by, and I forgot about doing a summer roundup. As we all know, May-August was a strange time for me and the same goes for my reading habits during it. I played bingo again and started off strong, but when I started a new, full time job in mid-July, I stopped reading almost completely. Included in this list are books read from May-August, with two exceptions.

  1. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (started in April)
  2. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  3. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
  4. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
  5. Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Book Store by Robin Sloan
  6. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
  7. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  8. The Goldfinch by Donna Tart
  9. Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope by Ian Doescher
  10. Never-Ending Birds by David Baker
  11. The Dream Thieves by Maggie Steifvater
  12. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling (technically finished before September)

All things considered, twelve books is pretty good. Obviously there are bloggers and vloggers who are capable of that total in a month, but I am not and will likely never be one of them.

Of them all, the Bone Clocks was probably my favorite, although it does go off the rails a bit at the end. And even though I don’t think it’s a masterpiece, the Goldfinch did make me want to go out and get the Secret History.

And least favorite? Well, we all know how I feel about Ender’s Game.

Where You Been, Reader Girl?

The bedrock of this blog is literature. I have been doing very little literature blogging lately. Some of that is because I have much less free time, because of school. And some of it’s because I’ve been in the mood to binge watch multiple shows at Netflix. And some of it’s because when I could be reading, I’ve been knitting instead. Yesterday I finished my first hat; I’m very proud of myself.

But most of all, I haven’t been blogging about reading because I’ve been reading. For my big Communications 101 lecture we were assigned Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail. I guess the 2008 financial crisis is “in” these days.

It is very enormous (almost 600 pages) and more importantly, a very dense nonfiction book on finance. Yeah. Not really light reading.

Harry Potter and the Veil of Adulthood

Hello pals! So today is not a review of the Cursed Child, rather an essay! I might do a review in the future, maybe not. Enjoy.


A lot of people didn’t like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. A lot of people did, of course, like that glowing New York Times review. I personally did enjoy it, but here in this space I want to explore why I think many people did not.

The problem with Harry Potter is that people love it and grew up with it. Not typically something think would be problematic, but this is internet generation. The core series means a lot to a lot of different people and changing any of the expectations or preconceived notions is asking for trouble. This idea is strongest, and most prevalent, on the internet and in fandom.

In the gap between canon material (Pottermore notwithstanding) a strong community of “fanon” has grown to fill the vacuum. Here, people begin to head off on their own into the land of speculation— and that’s not a bad thing! Fandom is an incredible place that does an amazing job of fostering creativity and community building. But it can also color one’s view on the real facts of the canon. It’s possible to go so far that one forgets where they cam from at all.

With Harry Potter, things are amplified because of the strong emotional attachment to the source material. The characters that exist in fanon are different than the author’s creation, and everything that happens in fandom is inherently separate from canon even if it closely follows the original. An alternative to the expectations created through deep exploration is asking for conflict.

I would like to make this very clear: I’m not here to rag on fandom, or the internet, or whatever. I’m a big proponent of these things but it’s important to note that they do have their downsides.

Now, we live in the age of remakes, so this isn’t exactly new territory. The best recent example I can think of is Star Wars: the Force Awakens. This is a late addition to a property that is very near and dear to everyone’s hearts. They went the easy route: the basic plot was recycled from Star Wars: a New Hope with only some new elements.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a bit more ambitious. It sets off with the same characters but in a stage we’ve never seen them in before, and a plot that circles around elements we know but never becomes repetitive. Although it does this, I actually found it to be one of the most thematically consistent Harry Potter books. Like most of the series, family— born or chosen— plays a pivotal role in the plot. Certainly in terms of maturity it’s more at home with the first and second books, but instead of the darkness of evil the play gets its substance from somewhere else entirely.

One of my favorite parts of the play was that it treater our heroes as humans. Too often we fall into the trap of thinking our parents are superhuman, know everything, and are perfect. Again, this feeling is amplified because of fandom. We want Harry to be a great father, perhaps because of his own tortured upbringing. Yet this is utterly at odds with almost the entire series. Harry has always acted on his emotions, often to poor results, and has always had trouble communicating. This is the same person who brewed and advanced potion to spy on Draco Malfoy on a hunch. The same person who broke into the government with his friends based off a vision!

Finally, I must remind everyone that the Cursed Child is a play before it’s anything. Elements are inherently bare, just like any Shakespeare play. It’s meant to be performed; the world building is supposed to take place on the stage with actors to make real the words and “stage magic” to paint the world.

It’s not easy to see our fairytales grow up. We’re the ones who are supposed to do that, not the other way around. But it’s critical to see Harry and company as adults with real flaws and shortcomings. Maybe take this chance to see your own parents in this light— I know that as I’ve gotten older it’s been easier for me to do so. Remember, magic can’t help us communicate better.

Ender’s Game // Review

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Published 1985. 325 pages.


enders2Ask and ye shall receive. I have so many reviews to get through I figured I might as well do the one someone asked me to do. I also finished this book so long ago I switched notebooks and had to go digging around for the one my initial thoughts were written in.

Ender’s Game was one of the books on my TBR the longest. I’ve had it forever but never got around to it. Then suddenly, all I wanted to read was SciFi, and I figured hey, what a good opportunity to knock this thing off the list?

(It may be beneficial to note I read this book almost entirely in a parking lot before I went to work and while watching Red Sox games on TV).

A few years ago I watched the last twenty minutes of the movie they made in 2013. I had no idea what was going on then (besides the enemy being giant bugs), and it gave my only a vague idea of the end game of the novel. But I’ll tell you what, for most of it I had no idea how the end of the movie was going to set up by first 2/3rds of the novel. Not the faintest notion of how the dots were going to connect.

char_20231The dots did connect, eventually, and that brings me to my thoughts on the book as a whole: it was just ok. Orson Scott Card, in addition to being a not-great human being is not the most eloquent of writers. His prose behaves like a block of wood. Not like Plank from Ed, Edd, and Eddy, but a literal, soulless block of wood. And the plot drags on forever in weird places; so much time is spent on the nuances of children fighting in zero-gravity, which turns out to not really matter in the end.

In fairness, I haven’t read much science fiction at all. Maybe it’s supposed to be that way. But I can say for sure it wasn’t doing good things for me.

I also have a major problem with what is one of the key plot points: the kids don’t act like kids even a little. Personally, I’m a huge fan of novels with children as the main character, and I know it can be done very well. I understand the “loss of innocence” is an important theme, but the way the characters acted was so unrealistic it pulled me right out of the story. For reference, Ender is supposed to be something like eight years old at the start. No wonder they were aged up for the movie.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that my favorite part was the completely unnecessary subplot where Ender’s siblings Valentine and Peter plot to take over the world— literally.

Ultimately, I don’t think it’s all it’s cracked up to be. This novel tries very hard to make everything make sense, to the point where it sacrifices character and prose to do so. There’s better classics out there, better science fiction, too (The Left Hand of Darkness, anyone?). I’d say you’re better off spending time and money on something else.