The Unwritten Vol. 1, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

I don’t remember where I first heard about this series… one of those blogs or podcasts or something that tells me what’s good. I don’t remember what I was promised, either, but whatever it was I liked it enough to give it a shot.

That forgetting posed a bit of a problem in the first few pages, which I read and thought, “Whaaaaaaaaat is this? This is not very good. What’s with all these words? It’s a graphic novel!” And I really almost gave it up right then, but I said to myself, I said self, you’ve done this before and maybe you should just give it a little bit longer.

And of course, I was right. The second time, with the reading just one more page. Because it turns out that first three pages or whatever are meant to be pages from a not-graphic novel series that is like Harry Potter et al. and therefore is written as a send-up of Harry Potter et al. And once I figured that out, I was much happier!

The real novel, the graphic one, is about this fella called Tom Taylor whose father wrote the aforementioned series that instead of Harry Potter is Tommy Taylor. Tom is emphatically not Tommy, but is still making a living going around to all the cons and whatnot signing Tommy Taylor signatures and talking about his father’s work, which his father can’t do because he’s gone mysteriously missing, or possibly just abandoned everyone. And right now Tom has two opposing problems causing him no end of trouble — a group of people who think he’s not really Tommy Taylor but some kid his father absconded with to make himself look good, and another group that thinks he’s totally Tommy Taylor, magical wizardry and all. And some people in that last group would really rather him dead…

There’s so much to this story, I’ve barely cracked the surface of it, which makes sense considering these are just the first 5 comics of an ongoing series. But other interesting things so far are Tom’s obsession (given to him by his father) for literary locations, a mysterious staircase that has more stairs going down than coming up, people possibly made of words, and some revisionist-history backstory involving Rudyard Kipling.

I may or may not have gone right out the day after reading this volume to get the other two that currently exist. I might have to track down a comic shop if I get through those too quickly…

Recommendation: So far, I’d recommend for people with a good sense of humor about fantasy conventions and a slightly strong stomach.

Rating: 9/10
(RIP Challenge, A to Z Challenge)

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The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

I don’t want to talk about this book. I want to snuggle with it. Snuggle snuggle snugg—ow, those are some pointy edges! Okay, book, you can just stay over there a minute.

Okay, so, this book. I heard some folks bein’ real excited about it earlier this year, and I was like, magicians? Circuses? Secret plots OF DOOM? I am so in. And so I put a hold on it at the library, some ridiculous amount of time in advance. And then in the intervening weeks this book seemed to get ALL the publicity, showing up on lots of blogs and in newspapers and on NPR, and everyone was like OMG THIS BOOK IS TEH AWESOMEST and I was like, ohlord. Because I’ve read those books before, and I have not liked them.

But as you can tell, this book I liked a ton, possibly because all those things that drew me into the story, and that made me worry that they would not be as good as everyone was shouting about, were really not that important. Yes, there are magicians. There is a mysterious contest so hush-hush that even the competitors have no idea what the contest is or how to win it. There is intrigue and subterfuge. But what I cared about was the circus.

The circus is this nearly completely black-and-white affair, with dozens of little tents with your usual circus fare and a few tents with really magical things — a magician disguised as an illusionist, a labyrinth, a wishing tree, a landscape made entirely of ice but still realistically aroma-ed. And what makes the circus truly special is that the author makes sure you know exactly what everything looks like and smells like and feels like and all those other sensory things. About a bonfire:

“As you walk closer, you can see that it sits in a wide black iron cauldron, balanced on a number of clawed feet. Where the rim of a cauldron would be, it breaks into long strips of curling iron, as though it has been melted and pulled apart like taffy. The curling iron continues up until it curls back into itself, weaving in and out amongst the other curls, giving it the cage-like effect. The flames are visible in the gaps between and rising slightly above. They are obscured only at the bottom, so it is impossible to tell what is burning, if it is wood or coal or something else entirely.”

Morgenstern intersperses short sensory passages like that throughout the novel, but she writes all of her scenes in a similarly opulent way. At first I was a bit put off by this seemingly over-verbose writing, and in a few places it sort of gets away from Morgenstern, but in general she makes it work fantastically and it is absolutely my favorite aspect of the book. I really want to get my hands on the audiobook so that this writing and Jim Dale’s voice can make beautiful babies in my brain.

Ahem.

If you’re more of a story person, I’m not sure you’ll be as enamored with the book; the plot is fairly simple, starts off quite slow, and ends abruptly AND with a not-declared-as-such-but-it-totally-is-and-can’t-deny-it epilogue, but though I found myself saying more than once “If this goes one step farther I’m calling shenanigans,” the book managed never to take that step, at least by my measurements.

I wrote on Twitter the other night that “I’ve read through the last page of The Night Circus, but I’m certainly not finished with it…” and that holds true today. I spent more than a week reading this book not because I didn’t have time to devour it in one sitting but because I didn’t want to. I wanted to savor that writing and put off leaving the circus as long as possible. And I’m not kidding about the audiobook. My library doesn’t have it yet but when they do, you’ll be seeing another post about The Night Circus right here.

Recommendation: If you like shiny pretty things or magic or clown-less circuses, you’ll probably be happy here.

Rating: 9/10
(RIP Challenge, A to Z Challenge)

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

I’m just going to start with this — I don’t think I understood this book. I don’t think anyone in my book club (for which I read this book) understood this book. I made this discovery at the book club meeting, during which we found some discussion questions including (to paraphrase) “How did Didion use humor in this book?” and “What parts of this book were exhilarating?”

We couldn’t come up with humor. We couldn’t come up with exhilaration. We came up with introspection, detachment, plodding…

Which is not to say that I disliked this book. I didn’t like it, perhaps, but I found it very intriguing, which is more than I can say for some of my fellow readers!

The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s memoir about the death of her husband, which happens suddenly if not unexpectedly at the dinner table, and how she makes it through the first year after his death. This is not easy after forty years of marriage and the rocky previous year in their relationship, and it is especially difficult because Didion’s daughter is, from five days before the death to the end of Didion’s narration, in and out of the hospital herself with mystery ailments that don’t bode well for her.

I did not find it an exhilarating book; in fact, Didion seems to go out of her way to make everything very rational and straightforward, even the things that aren’t naturally so, and provide a sort of road map to life as a widow. She speaks of being called a “cool customer” by her social worker, of saving her husband’s shoes just in case he comes back, of dealing with the panic that is set off by the most innocuous of memories. I haven’t lost a spouse of forty years, but I have lost some loved ones in my time, and I can see a lot of Didion’s reactions in my own, if scaled down.

I can only think that I would have understood and appreciated it better if I actually knew who Didion was outside of the scope of this book, and knew the context of her life in which to place all of these events. I felt absolutely lost when Didion would mention friends or locations that meant nothing to me, or when she referenced previous novels by her or her husband. I knew there must be a connection to be made, but I had no idea what it was or how to make it.

So on the whole, I found this book fairly depressing and a bit under-explained in places (and over-explained in others), but I did find it an interesting read for the simple honesty of it all.

Recommendation: I really don’t know who this was written for. I’m going to say that if you know Didion or have gone through similar troubles, you might be interested. But I’m not sure.

Rating: 5/10

(A to Z Challenge)

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

I have been meaning to re-read this series since, oh, the first time I read The Eyre Affair almost exactly three years ago. But I really got it into my head to do it over the summer, and by that time I had lent the first book to a good friend who is apparently bad at returning books, and I was all, fret fret fret. But then I realized — audiobooks! So I grabbed this book on audio from the library, and I can now say that it is a rather different experience.

The idea behind The Eyre Affair is actually a complex set of ideas. You have an alternate universe where Britain has been fighting the Crimean War for, you know, 130 years, no big deal, so you’ve got the pro-war/anti-war/pro-soldier/pro-let’s-have-a-nap-instead set of issues. This alternate universe also includes time travel that is constantly re-writing history. Also vampires and werewolves. Also people who really really know you’re talking about them. Also reconstituted dodos. Also many other things, and also, primarily for the book’s purposes, a Special Ops unit dedicated to solving crimes against books. Which is awesome.

It’s a whole big mess of everything, and so when I read it with my eyes, I necessarily imbued a Hitchhiker’s/Buffy/Monty Python snark-the-day-away sort of mentality into it. And in fact, the audio book box promises these things. But what struck me within the first chapter of reading with my ears is that the narrator, despite having a fantastic voice for Thursday, does not choose to play the book that way. She is very very earnest and plays very straight off the page, and I felt like I was missing out on a lot of Fforde’s wit and sarcasm.

On the plus side, I can now pronounce a lot of things from the book better than I could a week ago. Darn British people and their un-intuitive spellings.

The other thing I found interesting about re-reading this book is that I had forgotten how different the first book is from all the rest, because Fforde had really intended The Eyre Affair as a standalone. The pacing is slower (we don’t even get to the Eyre part until practically the end!), there is a LOT of exposition-y stuff, and Thursday is not quite the BAMF she becomes later. And oh my goodness had I forgotten about Daisy. Let me just go jump into this book and punch her in the face.

Right, yes. On the whole I recommend the eyes-reading experience better than the ears-reading, but either way is pretty fantastic.

Recommendation: Do you like books? Mysteries? Sci-fi? Love stories? Dodos? Characters called Braxton Hicks and Jack Schitt? Fun? Go read this series.

Rating: 7.5/10 (lower than last time for the audio sadness)

(A to Z Challenge)

The Disappearing Spoon, by Sam Kean

My favorite element is antimony, for the most arbitrary of reasons — Sb are the initials of both antimony and a nickname I had in high school. That’s it. That’s all I knew about antimony before reading this book. Now I know two important things about it: a) there used to be people who liked antimony more than I do, to the point where they were willing to dig it out of feces, and b) it’s used to make the strongest known superacid. I hope you can figure out which of these I appreciate more.

If you have a favorite element, or if you want one, you should pick up this book, because it will tell you everything you never knew you wanted to know about the periodic table.

There are element-specific facts, like those about antimony, and scientist-specific facts, including long passages about Mendeleev, the Curies, and various other scientists I can’t remember off the top of my head. There are also bits about alchemy, of course, and how aluminium (which is really annoying to hear over and over on the audiobook) became so amazingly devalued, and how Tycho Brahe may have had more than one fake nose, because you always need a good one for the fancy people.

And, I mean, that’s the whole book, really, is facts, which is a fun time and leads to a lot of me going, “Oh! Did you know that Paul McCartney got a rhodium record for making all the music, because rhodium is apparently awesomer than platinum?” at dinners with people who liked me better five minutes ago. But there’s nothing wrong with that!

Recommendation: It appeals to the science nerd and trivia nerd in me, so if you’ve got one of those, go for it!

Rating: 8/10

(A to Z Challenge)

The Dark and Hollow Places, by Carrie Ryan

I just… I… hmmph. Pout. Frustrated dance. Etcetera.

I shouldn’t have picked up this book. I really shouldn’t have. I quite liked The Forest of Hands and Teeth, but I did not like The Dead-Tossed Waves, and I knew that I was not going to like this book but I had to give it a chance, right? And when I saw the audiobook sitting on the shelf, just waiting there for me, knowing that I lots of time for listening to audiobooks at work… well, I couldn’t resist.

True story: I listened to probably the first three or four hours of this book before realizing that it wasn’t still about Gabry of the previous installment. I was very very confused and wondering how I had managed to forget all this stuff that must have happened, and then finally I figured out that it’s actually from the point of view of Gabry’s sister, Annah. So I gave up and started over, and things made so much more sense then. Well, comparatively.

Right, so, Annah. She’s living in the Dark City (no, really), and she’s been waiting for her boy-thing to return from the army-type-thing for several years now, but with all the zombies and the really crappy living conditions she’s like, okay, fine, I’m out of here. Except then she sees herself, and by herself I mean her twin sister, and she’s like, oh, how interesting, considering the last time I saw her I was leaving her to her doom in the woods. And so she heads back into the city to find her sister and, you know, catch up.

But, if you’ve read the other novels, you know that Gabry doesn’t remember a thing about Annah, and also she’s trying to run from some zombies and army-type people herself, oh, and also, she’s madly in love with Annah’s boy-thing. And he’s pretty in love with her, too.

And so there is love triangle-age, no, love square-age because another fella is there who was once in love with Gabry and who is now thinking about being in love with Annah, like, seriously? And there is also danger because said fella has this immunity thing to the zombie-ism and the army wants him. And then they get him, and also the other boy fella and also the twins and they aren’t very nice and they show Annah that the world has really gone all to crap and so isn’t it okay if they leer at her and abuse her? Of course it is.

It’s… uncomfortable.

So, yeah. The book doesn’t have much of a discernible plot, that I could tell, unless you count making me hate Annah so hard as a plot — if I have to hear one more time about how no one loves her or how her scars make her unlovable or how she uses her hair as a shield or how she once associated a certain affectation with her old boy-thing but now it’s totally her new boy-thing’s affectation, I may scream a little. I did actually say “I KNOW.” out loud a couple of times, at my desk, while listening to this. Frustrating.

I’m not sure how this series went so off the rails (in my opinion, as I’ve seen many people loving on this book) after this first book — I think part of it is that the protagonists have gotten progressively weaker, and also the fact that the love parallelapiped has gotten progressively more important to the story. Whatever it is, I’m giving this book a solid MEH.

Recommendation: I guess if you’re looking for a love story with zombies, you could read the last two books of this series.

Rating: 3/10
(A to Z Challenge)

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

Another re-read for my book club! Luckily, since I knew going into it that the last fifty pages or so were going to make me bawl my eyes out, I managed to just cry a whole bunch instead. One tissue only, though! Still so, so sad.

This is a book told by Death, beginning with death, and ending with death, but it manages not to be about death.

The first part of that sentence was really difficult for a lot of my fellow book-clubbers, but I think if you’re prepared and/or used to odd narrative styles, you’ll be okay. Death is an interesting narrator, with its odd little view of the world that mostly involves dead people but also apparently involves being incredibly and possibly overly poetic about everything. I like Death, but it could tone it down a little.

And what’s really cool about Death as a narrator is that hey, how does Death even know this story? Oh, right, because our protagonist wrote a story about her life and called it The Book Thief and then Death found it and read it and is now telling us the story. So you’ve got a frame story and some unreliable narrators and I am SO IN.

The titular thief is called Liesel Meminger, and she’s a young German girl who gets sent off to foster care with her brother just before the start of World War II except that she’s the only one who makes it to foster care on account of her brother dying awfully on the train there. That’s a good way to start off the story, yes? But Liesel keeps going and makes a new sort of family and makes some excellent friends even if she doesn’t know it sometimes and even though the war comes and makes everything pretty much absolutely terrible, she still keeps going.

And of course there are stolen books, hence the name, and there’s some Hitler Youth fun times and some hiding a Jew fun times and some hiding in basements from the bombs fun times and it’s all depressing, really, but you still come out of the book thinking that maybe things aren’t so bad after all, and that’s really amazing. I adore this book, maybe even more the second time around.

Recommendation: Bring some tissues. And an open narrative mind.

Rating: 9.5/10
(A to Z Challenge)