Quick Review: Riveting Reads

Every now and then I pick up a novel not expecting anything in particular, but once I start reading I find myself sucked into the story and blazing through the book whenever I have a moment. These books either make me cry out “I can’t believe it! What happens next?” with nearly every page, or they have me captured silently wondering how the characters will deal with their situation. (…Well, now that I’ve typed that out, I realize that those are basically the same two reactions, hah.) I don’t usually review these sorts of books (isn’t that what I said about the last books I reviewed?! I guess I’m trying to do a better job of keeping tack of all my bookish thoughts). The reason I don’t usually review the books that provoke the reaction described above is because they’re very in-the-moment for me. I devour them and then forget them. For a few days, their stories are all that matter, but once I’m finished I can barely recall the main character’s name (example – I wrote “Jake and ?????” before looking up Jude and Noah’s names). These two books demonstrate those reactions.

  • I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
    • Rating: ★★★★½ [ratings guide]
    • Nelson’s novel provoked the “I can’t believe it! What happens next?” reaction
    • I’ve never read a book where I gasped so much or had to pause so often to let what I read sink in. And yet it’s not overdone, it’s not so surprising that it becomes unsurprising. Each shock has its place in the story. Just as you think you know how the story is going, Nelson throws one in. These surprises are largely realistic as well. They aren’t so absurd or unpredictable that you’d scoff at them. 
      • This is the sort of story I expected but didn’t find in We Were Liars
    • I’m also not sure I’ve ever read a more simultaneously heart-wrenching and uplifting story.
    • I like that at its heart it’s a story about family. Jude and Noah star, but ##, mother and father are also significant and have their own strengths and flaws.
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt
    • Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide]
    • Tartt’s novel provoked the furiously silent obsessive reaction.
    • I’m not giving this one four stars because I don’t think it has reread value.
    • This book is a beast. I agree with anyone who says it should have been 150 pages shorter. However, the length didn’t bother me much. I just kept plodding forward.
    • Thinking back, the characters are insufferable and the plot is a bit absurd. And I’m not sure if the prose was that great? Yet obviously there was something about this story that sucked me in…what’s the phrase about not being able to look away from a train wreck? Er, not that this book was as bad as a train wreck. I just can’t figure out now why I liked reading it so much. I do recommend giving it a go if the description piques your interest.

Have you read either of these books? Have any books completely dragged you into their world for a few days?
 

Thoughts on The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson

Author: Rae Carson
Series: The Girl of Fire and Thorns
Format/Source: eBook/library 
Published: 2011 – 2013
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Length: 1,266 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Why I Read: Won in a giveaway, in the mood
Read If You’re: Not necessarily a fan of YA fantasy but willing to try something with a little different (of course, YA fantasy fans should definitely try this)

Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

Please note: These thoughts touch upon aspects of all three books. Spoilers abound!

I didn’t read these books with the intention to review. I read them for some light-hearted escapism to ease my mind during my first Christmas away from home.  Reasons I didn’t want to post:

  • So much has been written online about these books, with opinions greatly divided, and I didn’t feel like contending with that
  • These books aren’t the sort I usually read
  • There’s too many little things to discuss, things with complex implications

But of course, those are also reasons why I should note my thoughts. This is my book blog; I’ll throw in my two cents even if my thoughts on this type of story are better suited to back and forth discussion rather than typing everything out. So that being said, these thoughts could benefit from mutual discussion. If you’ve read these books, please leave a comment (especially if you disagree with anything I say here)!

Elisa – Elisa is a great character to star in a YA fantasy. Her personality is balanced; she’s not too anything. She’s a believable young woman. She’s not extraordinarily beautiful or blindingly white or perfectly slim. She knows about war from her studying, but she’s not a warrior or even athletic as so many contemporary heroines are. She does learn to fight, a bit, and improve somewhat in her physicality, but she’s still holding back her friends because she can’t run like they do. Her weight journey is perhaps a more complex issue than I initially thought. To me the weight she loses comes as a natural part of the story and it’s not connected to her sense of self-worth or ability. As she finds purpose and confidence, she no longer needs to eat as much to comfort herself. It just happens at the same time as other things (and, she still isn’t thin). But maybe it’s more controversial, maybe my way of seeing it is my way of excusing it. As someone who hasn’t struggled with weight, I don’t think I’m able to comment accurately on how Elisa’s struggle is portrayed. I wonder how an emotional over eater (as Elisa is in the beginning) would feel about the story? Finally, Elisa really is a ‘noble’ character – this isn’t a story where the regents are totally evil or the peasants are totally wonderful. She strives to love her husband and recognizes why she’s being committed to a political marriage. She’s not so modern in that she thinks “I don’t want to marry him, I want to hunt bears” or something, and yet her husband isn’t a perfect romantic king who will sweep her off her feet. I like how she takes responsibility for Rosario. The political nature of their relationship and how it affects them felt very believable to me. She fights to do the best for her kingdom and for herself. She becomes an independent (well…I mean, she doesn’t have her father or her husband or someone telling her what to do) queen. Yet through all this she is still a realistic young woman. I could imagine chatting with her as a friend.

Social/political components – I enjoyed the palace politics and intrigues, which weren’t dull or tiring. I like how Elisa has to deal with different types of fallout from her actions and consider how doing something to satisfy one part of her kingdom will upset another.

Religious components – Despite my interest in religious studies, I never see connections in fantasy religions to real world religions. I like to consider them on their own. I wouldn’t have thought of Catholicism if it weren’t for the reviews that mentioned the ‘glaring’ similarities (maybe that’s also because I’m not so familiar with Catholicism?). At first I wanted more back story to the religion, but I came to realize that wasn’t really what the story was about. It wasn’t about getting answers to the truth of the religion – the religion is just there, as it is in reality. I like that Elisa is devout but it doesn’t hamper her actions. I like how her relationship with her religion evolves as the story goes on, but I also like how it doesn’t end with the religion being totally discredited. I think it’s interesting to note that Carson grew up in a very religious household but is no longer religious (see interview linked below) – but she’s not using her stories to promote her beliefs, because then Elisa would have disavowed her own religion. I think this is a great portrayal of religion. There aren’t any clear answers given, it’s just a part of the story. It’s not totally wonderful or totally awful. It just is, for the most part. Of course, Godstones are a major part of the story. We learn a bit about them, but not all is revealed. Sometimes that frustrates me (I want to know EVERYTHING) but I liked how it’s dealt with in this story.

Inviernos – I have some qualms about the portrayal of the Inviernos. In the first book, I wondered if the relationship between Joyans and Inviernos would get better, if we would get to see the Invierno’s side of the story. Well, we sort of do. Though Elisa wants them to be allies, she still has a bad attitude towards them. The Inviernos are still portrayed as ‘lesser’ than the Joyans despite the conclusion that integrates their two societies. Once I learnt their backstory, I did feel more sympathetic towards them, but the attitude of Elisa and her friends doesn’t change much. They seem to view an alliance with the Inviernos as just a means to end the war and their own suffering. There’s a comment about how the Inviernos should ‘get over’ something that happened a thousand years ago – the Joyans arrival and the destruction of the Inviernos’ way of life. Ouch, yeah, like Indigenous people should just ‘get over’ colonization. I guess this is a very realistic portrayal, mirroring the relationship between colonizers and Indigenous people today. However, because the story is told from Elisa’s point of view, though, the reader doesn’t hear any criticism of her attitude. You get the sense that Elisa’s attitude is supposed to be correct and acceptable. Nope, not cool. This is the main aspect of the story I have trouble with.

Romance  – I loved the romantic aspects of these novels, which is not something I thought I would ever say about a YA fantasy! I thought they were portrayed in a very reasonable and believable manner (I guess that’s the keyword for this story – ‘believable’). I like that Carson includes the idea of different types of love (as Elisa learns through her relationships with Humbert, Alejandro and Hector). I liked the inclusion of taking a form of birth control ‘just in case’ – it’s not condescending, not awkward, and I think it’s a good message to have in books like this (wow, now I’m talking about ‘good messages for teens’, that’s also not something I thought I would ever discuss…). There isn’t too much romance or any mushy scenes. The romance isn’t the main plot.

Other criticisms – Regarding many of the criticisms I read in other popular Goodreads reviews (of the first book at least): I found many of the critiques over blown, magnifying small aspects of the story out of proportion and ignoring how they factor into the story’s context. Maybe those reviewers jumped on and magnified those aspects because that’s what you usually find in YA fantasy? Or maybe I just missed the boat and the criticisms are valid (see my earlier comments on Elisa’s weight). Oh well. I’m not concerned by her maturity, but I can see how that would bother some readers. Some commented that this trilogy is a Divergent wannabe?? I never read Divergent but it must be very different than what I thought it was about if it’s similar to these books. Also, I think it makes a difference to look at the trilogy as a whole instead of just the first book, as the story improves and things that happen in the first book are better explained as it goes on. Elisa pursues many of her good deeds because she knows she destined to do something great because of the Godstone, but in the end she finds her great act was unrelated to everything she did – she was strong on her own, not because God was guiding her.

Conclusion – Most of my dislikes are outweighed by the fact that I just wanted a decent teen fantasy, and it turned it out better than I expected. This is a great example of an ‘enjoyable’ read.

The Bottom Line: Though not without problematic aspects (particularly the portrayal of the Inviernos), I enjoyed the trilogy and thought it was a fun read, especially because of its grounded and believable characters. If you’re wary of YA fantasy, I recommend starting here.

Further Reading: 

*I actually started a fantasy story once about a girl and her family who are believed to be divine rulers but she knows they’re just ordinary people who use magic and prevent the common folk from discovering it. I don’t mean I funnel my personal beliefs about religion into the story, I just thought it was an interesting way to explore how people engage with religion and how it factors into daily lives. I wrote another story that was pretty much the opposite – some fairies think they’re regular fairies, but learn they’re actually gods and when they try to take up their roles their people all have different reactions to that.

    Review: Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

    Author: L.M. Montgomery
    Title: Anne of Green Gables
    Format/Source: eBook/library 
    Published: June 1908
    Publisher: Simon & Schuster
    Length: 320 pages
    Genre: General fiction/young adult
    Why I Read: Quintessential Canadian children’s lit, wanted a taste of PEI
    Read If You’re: Looking for a light but lovely read that gains weight as it progresses
    Quote: “The Barry garden was a bowery wilderness of flowers which would have delighted Anne’s heart at any time less fraught with destiny.” (105)
    Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
    Links: GoodReads | Gutenberg | IndieBound Chapters 

    Anne of Green Gables is children’s literature classic, and Canadian to boot! I had to read the first chapters in university and I thought they were alright, but I wasn’t in the mood to continue on. Being in Japan finally pushed me to a place where I felt like reading the book. I wanted a lighthearted story with a natural Canadian setting – something that would give me a sweet taste of home. Also, Anne is very popular in Japan so I didn’t want to be caught looking unknowledgeable 😉

    Young Anne isn’t the perfect child I excepted. She’s certainly no Pollyanna. She has terrific mood swings and she is indeed chatty. Even I emphasized with Marilla at times! But for me, this is part of Anne’s charm. Despite her imagination, she’s still a child whose mood can be crushed by careless words. I didn’t know the story would follow her as she aged (she is 12-16 years in the book). I thought the entire book was a collection of amusing mis-happenings about a little girl. The reader truly does get a sense of Anne growing up, which I don’t think you usually see in a single novel. Usually the protagonist remains a child or a teen (perhaps progressing within those labels).  If a character does age a number of years, I find they’re largely the same, just in different circumstances. With Anne, I understood how Marilla and Matthew felt. Anne grows to a proper young lady, one who doesn’t chat as much but still has imagination. You might wish she had stayed a little girl, or at least not grown up so quickly.  I thought the transition from schoolgirl Anne to Queens Anne was sudden and quick. However, I’m not sure if this is awkward storytelling or excellent writing that captures the feeling of your little baby growing up too fast!

    As Anne grows up, so too does the story. I thought it was going to be all fun and games, but the book takes on some gravity near the end. I was nearly in tears. Yes, for the most part, Anne of Green Gables is a lovely light story but it’s got a lot of heart and it will pull you in if you let it.

    Finally, I was also surprised to find I really enjoyed the prose. I wasn’t expecting much from it. I heard Montgomery captures the beauty of PEI in this novel, but I never gave a thought as to how it shows in the story. Her prose reads like she’s just describing what she saw. There isn’t a lot of embellishment, but it’s not necessary. Sometimes a scene is beautiful enough to just describe as is. As I’m sure everyone feels after reading an Anne story, I want to visit PEI even more now!

    That bridge led Anne’s dancing feet up over a wooded hill beyond, where perpetual twilight reigned under the straight, thick-growing firs and spruces; the only flowers there were myriads of delicate “June bells,” those shyest and sweetest of woodland blooms, and a few pale, aerial starflowers, like the spirits of last year’s blossoms. Gossamers glimmered like threads of silver among the trees and the fir boughs and tassels seemed to utter friendly speech. (Chap. 9)

    The Bottom Line: Anne of Green Gables was took me unprepared in a number of good ways. If you have considered giving it a go, please do so! Now I understand her lasting appeal for thousands of readers – and it goes beyond Anne’s delightful childhood imagination.

    Further Reading: 

    Quick Review: Fell Short

    I looked forward to these two books but both fell way short of what I heard about them.

    • Room by Emma Donoghue
      • Rating: ★★ [ratings guide]
      • I thought the kid’s voice was going to put me off but I grit my teeth and became numb to it. It wasn’t too distracting once I settled in (there were other things about this book I liked a lot less), but I can definitely see how it could drive some readers crazy.
      • I thought Ma and Jack were going to be trapped for the whole book so during the escape plan I was so prepared for it to fail and then it didn’t…which seems ridiculous. I think maybe with more background of Old Nick and Ma’s relationship the escape could have been believable (for example, maybe he cares for her in some twisted way or he has a thing about kids or dead people – something to explain why he would let it fall apart so easily) but since it’s just Jack’s perspective the reader doesn’t get any of that.
      • The story overall didn’t feel real to me. It lacks soul, it lacks tension (which one might consider important given the plot). Jack is too smart for his age and his situation. Everything that happens afterwards in the real world reads like someone’s poorly thought out idea of what might happen – it felt like cardboard, stiff and awkward. The character interactions lacked dept. This could have been a powerful story, but it’s not. It came across as very ‘blah’ for me. It feels odd and almost a bit disrespectful, given the recent stories in the news about women escaping similar situations, that this not-so-great book then comes out from an author who’s never experienced such horrors .
    • The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco
      • Rating: ★ [ratings guide]
      • Heads up, I was not impressed by this book…
      • Heurgh, the only reason I finished this is because it was short and easy to skim and I was bored at work without Internet access.
      • The story is a fun concept but it’s poorly executed. Words I used in my notes to describe the prose: Immature, less developed, false, stiff, unrealistic. Reads like the work of a very new writer. I recognize my own early writings here. Stuff I would put onto paper, knowing it wasn’t any good, but also knowing I had to write something. It’s a fine place to start writing, but not something that should ever see the light of day. Most of the time, if I don’t like a book, I recognize that’s due to my personal taste, but I think this book is a proper example of poor writing.
        • I do think that Okiku has a decent voice, however (even if she never does anything). Chupeco should run with that style as it seems to be the only thing that works in this novel.
      • So many awkward attempts at incorporating Japanese culture. One of the reasons I picked this up was because of its tie in to Japanese ghost culture. DO NOT READ THIS BOOK FOR THAT REASON. This is a huge contributing factor to the writing coming across as immature, as I mentioned above. It seems like the author throws in all the tropes/stereotypes about Japan that she’s ever come across. There’s no indication she has any real knowledge about the country. I noted a few examples of this but when they became so numerous I stopped – one annoying one was the unnatural use of the -san suffix (see around ~pg. 114)
      • The freaking shifting perspective what’s up with that. It’s so all over the place that I was confused for awhile about whether there one or two ghosts.
      • There’s no tension in the ‘scary’ parts of the novel, it’s just gory. It’s like reading a description of what you might see in a horror movie. But then, maybe that’s what a horror novel is like? I guess I’m showing my preference for terror over horror here. I like spooky tension, not blood baths.
      • A chunk of the book is e-mails between the MC and his cousin while they’re in Japan. This felt really outdated to me.

    Have you read any disappointing books lately? (What a sad question…alternatively, have you read any surprisingly good books lately?!)

      Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

      Author: Hannah Kent 
      Title: Burial Rites 
      Format/Source: eBook/Library
      Published: September 2013
      Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
      Length: 314 pages
      Genre: Literary fiction
      Why I Read: Swayed solely by the reviews
      Read If You’re: Looking for something atmospheric, a fan of The Enchanted or historical fiction
      Quote: “Did she look at my scrunched face, hoping I would die, or did she silently urge me to stick to life like a burr?” (34%)
      Rating:  ★★★★½ [ratings guide]
      GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

      Here is another book that the blogosphere convinced me to try. I read many glowing reviews of Burial Rites before I made up my mind. The premise did not intrigue me, but after reading  enough about the prose I decided it might be worth my time. Thank goodness I was finally swayed! My younger self would be amazed that I enjoyed this novel. A book with no fantastic or mysterious elements?! I am actually still surprised to find I can love stories like this, stories that fall solidly into the realm of literary fiction. I’m growing up ;-; (which is not a jab at other genres – I mean that when I was younger I thought books about everyday lives and characters could only be dull…now I know better.)

      I loved the atmosphere Kent conjures through her prose. For a long time, that was the only sentence in this paragraph. I’ve struggled to come up with any comment that sufficiently describes what I’d like to say about Kent’s writing. I think it’s best for me to just leave you with one of my favourite passages. You really need to read a few pages to get a proper sense of the mood (and the novel is split between first and third person, so this is just a piece of it), but I hope this gives you an idea: 

      I remain quiet. I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold what has not yet been stolen from me. I cannot let myself slip away. I will hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and felt. The poems composed as I washed and scythed and cooked until my hands were raw. The sagas I know by heart. I am sinking all I have left and going underwater. If I speak, it will be in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say “Agnes” and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circle by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there. (10%).

      I also enjoyed reading about the characters (mostly). Agnes has a captivating voice, and I liked reading about Margret, Laura, and Steina. The young priest I also found much more interesting than the one from The Enchanted, perhaps because he plays a more integral role. I didn’t like any of the characters from Agnes’ past who were connected to the murder, though I don’t think they’re meant to be likeable. Poor Agnes, there’s something really not quite right about her and Natan’s relationship. I felt uncomfortable whenever her love for him became noticeable. He’s not a great person in any way, but she loves him. Although I didn’t like Natan, I liked how Kent gives the readers bits and pieces of his character throughout the book, which eventually creates a full view of him. The back story behind the murders is less exciting than one might expect, but it’s still interesting to read due to Kent’s prose. Even though every reader knows how the story will end, the ending may still hit you like the swift fall of an axe. I hadn’t thought I was emotionally invested in the story until the last few pages broke my heart.

      I mentioned The Enchanted above. When I started Burial Rites, I thought of the similarities between the two novels. Both describe people condemned to die and those who try to help them, and both have a similar prose style that invokes a specific mood. Though The Enchanted is more dark and discomforting, the feeling was the same for me. If I was still in university, I’d be looking for a way to write an essay comparing the two! Certainly if you enjoyed one, I think you will enjoy the other.

      I was surprised when I found out Kent is a relatively young author and not Icelandic. I’m fascinated by the novel’s basis in reality. The incorporation of real documents (letters between officials involved in the case) works seamlessly. I didn’t realize at first that they were real documents! One of the letters inquires about what to do afterwards with the axe especially commissioned for the executions (27%). I love that Kent came up with a more sympathetic story about Agnes than what is more commonly ‘known’. It’s always interesting to remember when looking back in history that we can only have some of the facts, if any, and that there can be many ways to interpret the past. I’d like to know what scholars think of Kent’s interpretation and how plausible it is (not that it really matters, though).

      I read in an interview Kent’s next book will be set in a similar time period, in County Kerry, Ireland. I spent some weeks there last summer – it’s an amazingly beautiful place where you can feel the history in the landscape. I’m excited to see what sort of tale Kent comes up with.

      God has had His chance to free me, and for reasons know to Him alone, He has pinned me to ill fortune, and although I have struggled, I am run through and through with disaster; I am knifed to the hilt with fate. (18%)

      The Bottom Line: I wouldn’t call myself a ‘fan of historical fiction’, but I’m sure such fans will love Burial Rites. Even if the plot doesn’t intrigue you, please give this book a go if you love a moody atmosphere, striking prose and engaging characters.

      Elsewhere: