It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again


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 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.

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.

The Sparrow // Review

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Published 1997 by Ballantine Books. 431 pages

This book came out 18 years ago– the year I was born. Many people, much more eloquent than I have written and talked about this book. I’ve been trying to decide how I should approach reviewing older novels, especially popular ones that many people have probably read. The conclusion I came to is to give my impressions and focus less on plot– so I won’t stress the details. 

I’ve been on a collision course for a long time. It’s the favorite novel of someone’s whose opinion I trust, and my copy technically belongs to my sister, who first read it for her Freshman year honors course three years ago. When I told her I was reading it she said “you are in for a ride.” So I did know some things beforehand, but the suspense functions best when not much is said.

Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.”

But the sparrow still falls.”

The novel defies categorization. Some elements are soft science fiction, something close to Ursula LeGuin, but much of the thick of the plot is character based– relationships and internal struggle. It’s about language and understanding and perceptions and relationships– between Emilio and God, and the host fantastic supporting characters. 

And yes, God is a large part of the novel, but it’s much more of a meditation than a dogma.

Terrible things happen– it’s not a spoiler to say so. But finding the context, and going through the same emotional journey as Emilio makes the core of the novel.

The more negative reviews of this book claim that the inevitable tragedy is underwhelming. I can’t help but think those people missed the point a bit. The Sparrow is a novel about personal tragedy, especially in the case where a person is undone by something they held dear. In the case of Emilio Sandoz, it’s his relationship with God. It resists becoming torture porn so well.

Not everyone gets a glorious death.


Cities I’ve Never Lived In // Review

Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka. Published 2016 by Graywolf Press. 192 pages.

I totally read a short story collection after saying I never read short stories. I know.

cities20ive20never20lived20inSara Majka’s collection of stories is a wonderful little debut about attachments and unattachment, small magics, and ordinary lives. It’s about love, and distance, and the miles we put between ourselves and the things we desire. I didn’t realize this when I bought it, but it literally had just come out (it was only published in paperback).

Majka’s stories are beautiful and melancholic, like the spring rain or autumn sunset. To keep up with the metaphors, the collection is like an abstract painting; each story is another hazy layer adding to the meaning. There’s the author, Sara, the painter, then the persona of Anne who is the narrator for many of the stories and is emotionally recovering from a divorce. Finally, there are the few stories that Anne tells– it’s implied that the character herself is a writer.

“The world opens immeasurably. She would have felt it like something opening inside her.”

I found the collection to be lovely. I may be a bit biased, because many of them are set in Maine or other parts of New England. I found she captured the feeling of New England melancholy perfectly– in a way it felt like coming home. Her prose is subtle and unadorned in a way that everything speaks for itself. It reminds me a bit of the classic the House on Mango Street, which I read in highschool and really, really loved. I wouldn’t go so far to say all of the stories fall into the category of magical realism, but some of them flirt with its edges and have a mysterious quality to them.

“What they must have thought of him, though they probably didn’t think much about him, just thought of him as a permanent thing.”

I don’t think this collection particularly stands out. But then again, I don’t think it means to.

Favorite story: Boy with Finch
Up next: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Grownup // Review

The Grownup by Gillian Flynn. Published 2015 by Crown (original 2014). 64 pages.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m rather inexperienced when it comes to short stories– I read a few in high school but that’s about it. I’ve read many, many more essays (of both the serious and comedic variety). For whatever reason I just don’t gravitate towards them. That all being said, I saw Gillian Flynn’s tiny, beautiful story the Grownup in a bookstore when I was on vacation and decided I needed it.

518f2bgo8wyl-_sx312_bo1204203200_The Grownup was originally published in 2014, although I can’t find exactly where it was published. Not in any collection that I can tell. But in the acknowledgment is to George R. R. Martin, which is enough to make any literary fan’s head explode. Either way, Crown published the story as a standalone in a pretty little hardcover with the very tempting price of ten dollars.

Anything not printed out and stapled together I’m willing to count towards my yearly reading goal.

“People are dumb. I’ll never get over how dumb people are.”

The Grownup is a short story about uncertainty. The narrator in an unnamed minor con-artist who splits her time between handjobs and aura readings. There’s a balance between the con, a ghost story, and the mysterious three characters– out narrator, her patron Susan Burke, and Burke’s… odd… stepson Miles. There’s an old house, blood on the walls, and a strained marriage. All the qualities of a ghost story told around a campfire.

But the Grownup isn’t a ghost story. It’s a people story.

The best, most electrifying part of this story is the writing. This is the first thing of Flynn’s I’ve ever read, shocking, because I’ve seen Gone Girl and absolutely loved it (I am aware Flynn wrote the screenplay). Her characters are funny and realistic. They’re unpredictable in the predictable way you’d expect from Flynn.

And then the length. Like this review I hope, it’s just long enough to bring the suspense and intrigue, but doesn’t overstay its welcome.

How to be Both // Review

How to be Both by Ali Smith. Published 2014 by Penguin. 315 pages.


Do you ever feel as though you’re reading a book and you totally miss something? I heard Ali Smith’s 3rd novel was challenging, and unfortunately I feel as though I skipped over some close reading details and parallels. This novel would be a good fit for an AP Literature class, I think.

If you are involved in the book world, likely you will have heard of this novel before. For a hot second, it was all over bookTube, and that’s how I came across it. It is about duality, and art, and duality and art. Things I just happen to love– it was a book match made in heaven.

There are two narratives– Eyes, which takes place in the 15th century, and Camera, in present day England (Ali Smith is English herself). Camera is the story of a teenage girl named George (short for Georgia), whose mother has just died. The second is of Francescho del Cossa, a somewhat obscure painter in the modern world but nuanced and engaging character.

“You, her mother says watching her, are a migrant of your own existence.”


“Hello all the new bones/hello all the old/hello all the everything/to be/made and/unmade/both.”

How to be Both is published in an interesting way– depending on the edition you get, either Eyes or Camera comes first. My edition had Camera first, which I’m really glad about. George’s narrative provides a little background information on our dear painter and also happens before Francescho’s (this is complicated, but if you read the book you’ll see what I mean). In an already confusing novel, some linearity helps out. Also, personally I could have read a whole novel on George alone. I found her endlessly fascinating.

Dear Francescho was more of a mystery. The writing is beautiful and poetic, which fans of Smith is know, but I had some trouble following the thread of the narrative. There were some parts I loved, but others I wasn’t sure about.

I don’t want to say too much, because the less known the better, I think. I would like to add my name to the many endorsements of this novel. It’s perfect for anyone looking to challenge their mind a bit and for people who adore art. I for one definitely consider it worthy of a second go around.

Mr. Splitfoot // Review

Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt. Published 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 336 pages.

“Every story is a ghost story.”

Mr. Splitfoot is a haunting American Gothic, a novel that is piled with layers and mystery. It’s a hard thing to categorize– it mixes a dual narrative of alternating POV chapters with elements of magical realism, ghost stories, and religion. Not to mention the classic American vibe; the story takes place in the blue collar wilderness of New York state. A reader may find it difficult to know what’s real and what is not. In fact, the characters themselves struggle with this.

517uly48sql-_sy344_bo1204203200_This novel floats. It’s almost as if it were a dream. It touched me at unexpected times in unexpected ways. Samantha Hunt as an author caught me by surprise– this is the first piece of writing by her I’ve ever read, and she has perfected the art of just enough. She gives and takes from the reader in such a way that you will be driven through this book. The classic gothic elements are all there, but Hunt twists them in interesting and new ways. If you’re looking for something totally unique, look no further.

The core of the novel is built around the themes of belief– false and true– and motherhood. Womanhood, even. Some of the periphery characters are a bit shallow, but the two main ones, Cora and Ruth, are perfectly nuanced. Cora’ narrative takes places present day and is about life– she’s pregnant– and Ruth’s takes place in the unsure past and is about death. They mirror each other perfectly.

(As an aside, I love the way this novel treats modernity. Cora gets a “euphorical rush” from buying expensive shoes on the internet, but for the most part technology is tossed aside. I feel like you never get that is contemporary literary fiction.)

“We will change them into cedars. We know that this is impossible.”

It is a novel that is otherworldly. Complicated, impossible to truly explain. Magical. It’s a very American thing, if that makes any sense. I really, really loved it, but I could be biased because it resembles one of my favorite novels in the best of ways (if you loved Neil Gaiman’s American Gods you will certainly love this too).

The Martian // Review

The Martian by Andy Weir. Published 2014 by Crown. 369 pages.

Someone described this novel as “man survives alone on Mars on sarcasm” which I believe to be an incredibly accurate description. Weir is not the greatest writer on Earth (or Mars, well, maybe Mars). There are no eloquent soliloquies about the loneliness of space, or whatever. But it’s funny. Like, really funny. And also, very, very real. Surprising, but even amazing scientists and astronauts are people.

It’s more than likely you’ve heard of this novel. This is a review for the people on the edge of should I/shouldn’t I.

It’s been on the bestseller list probably since it’s been out. You can’t walk into a bookstore without seeing copy. Especially now, because it’s been turned into a popular movie with Matt Damon as the Martian, Mark Watney. I watched the movie before reading the book, which I never do and honestly am kind of ashamed of. If you haven’t seen the movie, or want to, or have seen it and are considering the book, I would first off say it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. Of course, there’s most shenanigans in the book (and swearing) but nothing major changes.

I didn’t even mean to buy this novel. I was in Barnes and Noble and saw this hardcover signed copy, probably the only hardcover in the whole store and suddenly decided I needed it. I told myself I couldn’t get it unless I could find it in hardcover and there it was. Destiny.

The novel is worth it. Especially if you’re into science shit. I don’t make a habit of reading science fiction, but this one is very accessible. Some people caution putting this into the science-fiction category but there’s just too much science not too. But there are no made up aliens, no made up physic rules or languages that cause people to shy away from the genre. It’s a book about the near future and a near planet. Things make sense. Well, for the most part they do. I’ll admit that some of the science did go over my head.

I wasn’t crazy about the structure. Journals just don’t do it for me and never have. My favorite parts were the ones that took place on Earth. And like I said before, Weir’s prose isn’t going to knock your socks off. You probably won’t have an existential crisis based off a passage (which has happened to me before). That means that the greatness of this novel is on plot alone, and let me tell you, it does not disappoint in that department. As could be expected, Mars tries extremely hard to kill Mark Watney.

The ultimate strength of this novel is that it’s believable. I believed in the mission to Mars, I believed in the character interactions. And even though I literally knew the ending, I was still tense as hell reading it. If you’re into a fast-paced adventure-survival story with enough sass to kill someone? Get to it.