“The Sky is Falling. Life is Apalling”

the obelisk gate

Reading this book was a bit of a chore. Not because N.K. Jemison’s work isn’t amazing, but because I checked it out as an ebook from my library, not realizing that I couldn’t renew it if other people had it on hold and it would be automatically returned before I could finish it. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I did its predecessor, The Fifth Season, but it is still an intense read that gives us a deeper understanding of Essun, the main protagonist along with her allies in the underground city of Castrima. It also adds the point of view of Nassun, Essun’s daughter who it was believed was lost or killed in the Season that started at the beginning of the first book.

The action does slow quite a bit in this second installment of The Broken Earth trilogy. Essun spends the entire book learning to navigate her new surroundings in the city of Castrima, which is unique not only in the fact that it exists underground using ancient technology but because it contains Orogenes and Stills (non-Orogenes) living side by side in relative peace. She also must deal with her former lover Alabaster, who was revealed to be alive at the end of the previous book. Nassun’s story fills us in on where she was at the start of The Fifth Season and catches us up until both mother and daughters stories are on the same timeline. We see her come upon her father, Jija, after he has just beaten her younger brother to death after discovering that he is an Orogene. Much of the emotional impact that was contained in the first book is to be found in Nassun’s chapters. Though we understand her motivations, it is frustrating to watch this young girl try to maintain her father’s extremely conditional love. She also unwittingly allies herself with an old nemesis of her mother’s.

Though it may not have the action of the first book, we learn so much more about the characters who inhabit the world of The Broken Earth trilogy and see the setup for what promises to be a stunning finish in The Stone Sky.

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And the worms ate into his brain

surfacing

I would have liked to read this book over a day or two without interruption so that I could immerse myself in it. Reading it in fits and starts while I was on hold at work (I have the Kindle app downloaded to my desktop) and before bed it at night really didn’t allow me to feel the growing feeling of unease and dissociation that Margaret Atwood’s book conveys. Though I wouldn’t call it my favorite work by Ms. Atwood (Cat’s Eye wins that hands down), it’s a thought provoking short novel.

Surfacing follows a nameless protagonist as she returns to her childhood home on an isolated island in Quebec after the mysterious disappearance of her father. Though very little as far as action happens in the novel, the woman’s experience of suddenly being immersed in a a past that she fled from slowly drives her into delusion and madness. Many of the themes, such as not fitting in with your childhood world or your current one and the societal expectations put on women, I found very relatable. I must confess that running theme of Canadian independence was beyond me.

Surfacing is one woman’s story of leaving home because she did not fit in, only to find the new life that she’s constructed is equally foreign to her. She confesses that she does not love Joe, the man she lives with, and that her career is something she fell into. Though most of us aren’t driven mad by alienation, most of us can relate to it.

Lost in a parallel existence. Lost in a nightmare I retrace

THE LIKENESS

 

I read Tana French’s first first novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series, In the Woods a little over a year ago and immediately fell in love with her writing style. In the Woods was the dark, complex and gritty murder mystery that filled the season one True Detective sized hole in my heart. The Likeness has cemented my love for Ms. French and this mystery series. This second book hits many of the same notes that made the first one so great without being repetitive.

The Likeness begins picks up about six months after the events of In the Woods have concluded. The protagonist, Cassandra Maddox is the former partner of Rob Ryan who was the protagonist of the first book. Despite these close ties, it is not necessary to have read In the Woods to follow along with The Likeness, though I would highly recommend it. Detective Maddox has transferred out of Murder Squad and into Domestic Violence. However she is called to a murder scene to find that the victim is not only her doppelganger, but that she has been identified as “Lexie Madison” an identity that Detective Maddox used when she was working Undercover. Her former boss from Undercover convinces her to move in with “Lexie’s” flatmates and pose as her in order to help catch the killer.

Tana French’s ability to put you inside the main character’s head is phenomenal. Often I would catch myself missing the same things Cassie would miss because I was looking at everything through her eyes with all the baggage from her past that colored it. The conclusion of this book (like its predecessor) was an emotional gut punch. In addition, French makes Dublin and the small village where the main action takes place into secondary characters. The conflict between history and modern life weigh heavily over the events of the story. I can’t recommend this book, or any of the other books in the series enough to anyone who loves a mystery with some serious meat on its bones. Yes, I just recommended books I haven’t read yet. FIGHT ME!

It’s all over and I’m standin’ pretty.

the passage

 

I enjoy post apocalypse fiction. There is something about the society and all its excesses breaking down and mankind being stripped to its bare essentials that appeals to me as a literary trope. The means in which the world ends is simply a MacGuffin, the device that propels the story forward and tells us what happens to mankind when it has to focus solely on survival. The Passage is similar in that regard, though the concept of a viral vampire apocalypse is intriguing. In the end it’s the story of what mankind is when boiled down to its essence.

As with most apocalypse stories, the government is the catalyst. After finding a vampire-like virus carried by Bolivian bats that can greatly extend life, the U.S. Government uses death row inmates as guinea pigs for a top secret military operation known as Project Noah. Things to horribly wrong as they must for this story to continue. A young girl named Amy Harper Bellafonte, who has also been infected with the virus escapes with an FBI agent and lives through the end of the world, also outliving her savior. The story then jumps forward approximately 93 years to a small outpost in California which has been cut off from the rest of the country for decades and encounters Amy by chance. Though they don’t realize it, Amy holds the key to ending the plague that has destroyed most of humanity.

Though this book hit many of the same plot points followed by books like The Stand and Swan Song, it still surprised me in quite a few places. At over 700 pages the book is long but rarely drags. No character is unimportant to the plot. The book ties up many loose ends in the conclusion but still leaves a nice cliffhanger for its sequel.

“You left me alone but you’re still my own.”

pretty girls

 

The key to a good suspense/mystery novel is similar to that of a good horror film. The characters reactions to things have to be realistic and make sense. That doesn’t mean they have to necessarily be smart or follow basic common sense. It means they have to make sense given what we know about the character’s past experiences and personality. That way, when everything goes pear shaped, it feels like these things are being experienced by a real human and not merely a vessel to move the story forward. Pretty Girls hits the nail on the head. I hate to use a cliched term like “non-stop thrill ride,” but reading this book was a lot like riding a roller coaster. I found myself having to take a breather from this book every once in awhile because it got too intense.

Lydia and Claire are two sisters who have not spoken in twenty years. Their relationship slowly deteriorated after their sister Julia disappeared without a trace from her college campus one night. The incident destroyed their once happy family. As the book begins, Claire’s husband is killed in what appears to be a botched mugging. This sets in motion a series of events that throw the two sisters back together as are drawn deeper into the mystery, not only of her husband’s death but of their missing sister.

Aside from being a hell of a good mystery, this book depicts the emotional toll taken on a family when a child goes missing. It packed an emotional wallop throughout. I will give a warning for extremely graphic depictions of murder and rape. It’s rough material but given the themes of the book I don’t think it’s extraneous.

All I want is some truth

code name verity

This book took me awhile to really get into. It definitely wasn’t bad, it just didn’t suck me in the way I expected to. The description, a young female spy held prisoner and tortured by the Nazis, gave me a much different impression of what this book would be. At it’s core, Code Name Verity is the story of a powerful female friendship and what one friend will do to save another. It was only about midway through the book when the perspective shifted that I was unable to put this book down.

The first half of the book is told by “Queenie,” a British spy against the Nazis for the Allied Forces. At the beginning of the book she is being held in an old hotel in occupied France which the Nazis are using as a prison/interrogation center. She is being forced to write everything she knows about the British Defense and French Resistance forces. Queenie is writing everything down in the form of a novel in which she tells the story of her friendship with Maddie, a British pilot dropped her into occupied French territory before crashing her plane. After Queenie concludes her narrative, the story shifts to Maddie’s perspective. As is often the case, this mid-novel perspective shift completely turns everything we thought we knew on its head.

This is a spy story but it is also the story of two singular women thrown into a harrowing situation and using all of their wits and their talents to try and save one another. I had to put this book down and have myself a good cry at one point. The next time a literary snob tries to tell you that YA writing isn’t art, buy them a hard copy of this book and beat them soundly about the head and shoulders with it…or make them read it, whatever.

“Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.”

Kitchen Confidential

 

I did not have any exposure to Anthony Bourdain until his later television programs; The Layover and Parts Unknown. I have to say I much prefer the older more introspective and thoughtful version of Mr. Bourdain. That is not to say I didn’t enjoy his first book thoroughly. While the younger chef is certainly more brash, he’s still clearly a smart, engaging and thoughtful writer who does not shy away from sharing some of his lowest career moments with his readers.

Before Anthony Bordain was all over our televisions trying meats of questionable origin from all corners of the world, he was just a work-a-day chef in kitchens throughout the eastern seaboard. Kitchen Confidential is the story of his early years; how he first became a “foodie” during a family trip to France, his early years as an inexperienced but overly cocky young chef and his various ups and downs (including a heroin addiction) to become head chef at Les Halles in New York City. He also offers various tips on getting the most out of your fine dining experience. I’m not sure if his advice is still accurate seventeen years later, but this book made me want to do a Cook’s Tour of Manhattan.

I love food memoirs and “Kitchen Confidential” is definitely one of the most famous. While it didn’t make me want to be a chef like “My Life in France” made me want to move to Provence, it’s a solid, well written and fun memoir.

“Come ride with me through the veins of history”

the invasion of the tearling

 

Spoilers for Queen of the Tearling ahead!

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I dove right into this book since I enjoyed the first one so much and I already owned it. (Yep, still kicking myself for not picking up the third!) Invasion of the Tearling deals with the consequences of Kelsea’s breaking of the treaty with the country of Mortmesne and the Red Queen. As the vastly superior Mort troops begin to invade the Tear Kelsea struggles with how to save her people, with her own growing anger in frustration that is manifesting itself in some truly horrifying ways, and with her visions of a woman named Lily who lived 300 years in Kelsea’s past.

I definitely enjoyed this book as much as the first one. Watching Kelsea’s past (which is our future) was very informative. I did find that the middle part of the book dragged a little but I often have this issue with books where an inevitable fate is approaching through most of the plot. Kelsea’s ultimate confrontation with the Red Queen in the end was extremely satisfying as well when she finally got her groove back at the book’s conclusion. While I still can’t wait to read the resolution in the third installment, I was okay with taking a break from the Tearling for a bit to read something else.

 

“I’m just like my country. I’m young and scrappy and hungry.”

QUEEN OF THE TEARLING

I don’t usually finish a book and then immediately pick up the sequel. Now usually that’s because I don’t yet own the sequel but also I tend to want a change of pace genre-wise. But in the case of The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, I had to know what happened next. Fortunately, I had the first two books in the series already on my kindle (and I’m currently kicking myself for not picking up the third when I had the chance). The Tearling series is a fast paced, genre bending work of fiction that I can’t wait to finish.

Princess Kelsea Raleigh has been raised in exile by her foster parents. On her nineteenth birthday, her personal guard arrives to bring her to the royal Keep so that she can ascend to the throne. Unfortunately the kingdom Kelsea is inheriting is in shambles, beholden to the seemingly immortal Red Queen in the neighboring kingdom of Mortmesne. Kelsea has been told little of the state of her kingdom or her mother who sent her away as a baby before she arrives in the capital and she immediately upsets the order of things. In addition, most of the people in power would like to see her dead before she is even crowned.

Kelsea is no Mary Sue character. She is plain and a little frumpy. She is smart, but no genius. She is however well read and highly moral thanks to her upbringing. It is this above all that drives Kelsea through this first book in the series. Her actions make her some powerful enemies and could spell disaster for everyone in her kingdom but she must act against the evil that has a grip on her land. Ultimately, Kelsea must use her education and her moral code to prove to those around her that she is a better ruler than those that have been in power.

This book is a mashup of both fantasy and, as you discover when you read dystopian future fiction. Although not everything is explained in the first book, The Tearling is located on Earth, but not anywhere we have seen before. Part of the reason to keep reading is not just to find out what will happen but what *has* happened. I can’t recommend this book enough.

A well written disappointment

in cold blood

 

I have been a huge true crime fan since I first read Helter Skelter at 16 years old. I listen to the My Favorite Murder Podcast religiously. But somehow in over 20 years, I haven’t managed to read this book, which is a classic in the True Crime genre. I finally picked it up in a birthday book buying frenzy in May and read it shortly after. Objectively, I recognize Capote’s contribution to literature and that it is the first of what’s often referred to as the “non-fiction novel.” However I did not like this book nearly as much as I thought I would.

The story itself is compelling enough. On the night of November 15th 1959, Herbert Clutter, a prosperous Kansas farmer was murdered in his home along with three members of his family: His wife Bonnie and his teenage children Nancy and Kenyon. The family was extremely well liked and had almost no enemies. The town was shaken and on edge after the killings. The perpetrators, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith had never met the Clutters before the night they died. A former cellmate of Hickock’s had spoken of Mr. Clutters prosperity and mentioned a safe containing as much as $10,000 in his office. After six weeks, the murders were apprehended, tried and eventually executed. It’s the writing that I sometimes found to be troublesome. Capote quotes uses huge blocks of text from the killers to do some of the writing in the last half of the book. While their past is certainly compelling, Capote almost seems too sympathetic at times to these men who committed such heartless acts. I’m glad I read the book, but I can’t see re-reading it.