A Conjuring of Light, by V.E. Schwab

A Conjuring of LightMan. I was suuuuper excited for this book to come out earlier this year, and very upset that it took my library like three whole weeks to process it and get it in my grubby little hands so that I could devour it whole. I mean, not really, eating library books gets expensive. But my plan was to read it in, like, one sitting, and also to love it and cherish it forever and ever.

Best laid plans, and all that.

A Conjuring of Light picks up right after A Gathering of Shadows, with the Triwizard Tournament (still too lazy to look up its real name) just ended and Kell kidnapped to White London, where Holland is trying to pawn off the magic inhabiting and controlling him onto Kell. As one does. Holland fails, which seems good for Kell, except then the magic demon whatsit called Osaron decides to take over Red London, which is decidedly bad for Kell.

This leads to the pretty decent part of the book, which is all the plotting and planning on the part of pretty much everyone who’s ever been in this series to figure out how to save Red London, and by extension Red London’s whole world, from Osaron, who is off collecting bodies to control and using citizens as weapons against their own people. There’s machinations and sabotage and intrigue and I am so many kinds of for that. But then there is also this quest plotline where our pirates go off to find a MacGuffin to defeat the magic monster, which we know where it is because one of our characters sold it a while back and you just have to go to this mysterious floating market and trade away the thing you hold dearest in the world and ohhhhhhhhhhhhh my goodness why are we doing this when we could be plotting and planning and punching things in the face?

I wasn’t super on board with that part, is what I’m saying. Also not super on board with the continuing and completely unnecessary romance subplot, or the big boss fight at the end, or basically any time Kell and Alucard interact in this book. One thing I am totally on board with is the way Schwab handles the Big Reveal I’ve been waiting for this whole series, in that it just happens without a ton of fanfare and everyone’s like, yeah, no, that makes sense.

Overall I liked this book just fine; it’s a decent conclusion to a decent series that is mostly fun brain candy. But I wouldn’t read the series just to get here, is what I’m saying.

Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

NeverwhereA while back I got a great deal on an Audible membership, $7 for three months instead of $45. Winning! At the end of the three months I had credits to spend before I could cancel, and so into my collection went the radio adaptation of Neverwhere because Benedict Cumberbatch and because I couldn’t find it for free (legally) anywhere else.

I waffled about whether to listen to it immediately (see: Benedict Cumberbatch) or finally get around to reading this book, and I might still be waffling about it except that in a room full of my sister-in-law’s books, this one was sitting on top of a precarious pile, just waiting to be read. So I did.

It was… not what I was expecting. I was thinking it would be American Gods-like, maybe, or, better, Good Omens-y, but it reminded me more of Stardust than anything else. It has that sort of slow, dreamy, fairy-tale quality to it, as well as some very obvious morals and dubious motives.

It’s not quite what I wanted, but I still liked it, for sure. I was drawn into the weird world of Richard Mayhew, your standard bumbling British fellow with terrible girlfriend and improbable lack of any social graces, and moreso of Door, your standard, uh, magical creature slash creator of portals to other worlds. As one is.

Richard, having done an exceptionally good deed, is punished for it because magic is rude like that and finds himself rather unmoored from reality, no longer welcome in our regular world and yet not welcome in the world of London Below, where things are magic and danger is lurking in every corner, especially for Door. But, having almost literally nothing to lose, he bumbles his way into Door’s quest for answers and revenge, and, probably not a spoiler, learns some stuff about himself along the way.

It is kind of an epically standard boy-meets-magic story, but of course Gaiman sells it with his writing, which is as ever poetic and darkly humorous and full of the tiniest and most important details. I hadn’t realized when reading it how early it falls in Gaiman’s writing career, so much earlier than almost anything of his I’ve read save Good Omens and Sandman that it’s hard to adequately judge this book on its own merits. I am definitely more inclined toward his more contemporary novels and stories, but I can see the bits and pieces in this novel that, twenty years later, make a Gaiman book a Gaiman book and that’s always a cool thing.

And, of course, now I’m ready to bust out my radio adaptation and see what can be done with this book with four hours and a bevy of amazing voices. I am looking forward to reporting back on that!

Recommendation: For fans of Gaiman and weird London-based fantasy stories.

Stiletto, by Daniel O’Malley

StilettoHas it really been four years since I read The Rook? On the one hand, it feels like I was just in that hostel in Belgium yesterday, and on the other hand, I feel like I’ve been waiting FOREVER for this sequel. I’m sure there’s a supernatural explanation.

True story, though: I was SOOOOER excited for the sequel up until I had the advance copy in my hot little hands, at which point I realized I remembered almost nothing of the first book and thus feared I would be completely lost. As a friend re-read The Rook, I contemplated doing the same, but I have so little time for reading I decided to just go for it.

And, well, it turned out okay! I think. It helps that the book is mostly not about Myfanwy, the awesome-pants protagonist of the first novel. Instead we start off following a team of Checquy operatives (supernatural mutant-type soldier-types) as they investigate a very strange house with a very strange Oblong of Mystery in the center of it. The Checquy soldiers storm the Oblong, but things go very pear-shaped very quickly to the strains of Bruckner’s 8th. As they do.

Meanwhile, we meet up with Odette Leliefield, a teenage girl who is part of the Grafters, the Checquy’s long-time archenemy, recently come to London to, uh, make up? Odette resents being trapped in a hotel for most of her trip, but since it seems like every time she leaves she ends up with Checquy agents hating the Grafters more than they did before, it’s probably for the best. Especially since Odette has some sad and terrible secrets in her past that might affect this reconciliation more than anyone knows…

I’ll admit this book started off a little rough for me, as the opening chapters were super simplistic and oddly casually racist. I’m hoping that’s because of its advance copy nature and that you won’t see that oddness. But once the story really got going, the oddness either went away or became background noise and I found myself tearing through the novel. It doesn’t have quite the same driving plot that The Rook did, but I was still very curious to see how things were going to go.

I love the way O’Malley sets a scene and plays with language and reality, so that even if what he’s writing makes no sense, it sounds good while you’re reading it. This book doesn’t suffer from Implausibility quite the way the first one did, but there are a couple places that don’t hold up to close inspection — but then again, it’s a book about mutants and body modifiers, so.

If you’ve read The Rook, you should absolutely check out this follow-up, and if you haven’t read The Rook, you should go do so now because it is soooooo good. And then you can read this one if you’re feeling wistful for weirdness.

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

A God in RuinsI loved Life After Life with a fiery burning passion, and when I heard there was a second novel in that universe coming out, I may have done a happy dance. I couldn’t wait to spend more time in Ursula’s strange time-altering world.

So when I realized early on that this book, which is about Ursula’s brother Teddy, that the whole reincarnation-ish aspect of Life After Life was going to be pretty much ignored, I was hugely disappointed. I had thought it would be fascinating to see how Ursula’s lives affected Teddy, but instead there’s just a brief mention near the beginning about how sometimes Teddy felt like he could see his whole life ahead of him and then a straightforward novel. Well, I mean, straightforward compared to Life After Life.

What Atkinson does here instead is jump all around in Teddy’s one life, writing briefly of his childhood and then his war years and then his married years and then his widower years and then back to the war years and then forward to the grandpa years and then some chapters from the point of view of his kid and grandkids and wife thrown in for good measure.

Many of the vignettes of the novel are told more than once from different perspectives (present, past, other characters), and it is fascinating to see how the same event can look completely different. Atkinson does this great thing, too, where she relates the story as if for the very first time, so that the variations in the story don’t get any sort of prominence and you almost have to work to remember that that one character thought something completely different had happened. I almost want to go back and read the book again, to experience the first half or so the right way (I waited a long time for the weird to happen) and to catch all the little bits I know I must have missed.

Setting aside the narrative style, the narrative itself is also a pretty good one. Where Life After Life covered World War II and the London Blitz and the horror of the war in England, this book is more about Teddy as a survivor of that war. There is plenty about his role in the war itself, bombing the heck out of Germany and presuming every flight in his plane would be the last, but there’s even more about how that part of his life is almost completely erased after it’s over. He’s expected to move on, and so he does, sort of, but the war is always in the back of his mind and on the pages of this book. And then there’s this whole other storyline about family and parenthood and what it means to love someone who doesn’t (can’t? won’t?) love you back and what love even is, really, and the whole thing is heartbreaking in a million different ways.

It’s so good, guys. I wanted it to be a different book, but it stubbornly refused to listen to me, and I’m so glad it didn’t. I may never get around to Atkinson’s mysteries (which I do very much want to read), but I will read the heck out of whatever giant historical novel she writes next, and y’all know that’s saying something.

Recommendation: For lovers of Life After Life, but especially for those who wanted to love Life After Life but couldn’t get past the reincarnation. This is your book!

Rating: 9/10

The Shadow Cabinet, by Maureen Johnson

The Shadow CabinetHas it really been two years since I read The Madness Underneath? Am I going to have to wait another two years to see how this ends?? Things are getting crazy up in this series and I don’t think I can handle it.

If you haven’t read the series, seriously, start with the first book, read the three existing books as fast as possible, and then come back here. If you read on without doing so, I can’t promise you won’t be spoiled to the best parts of the first books.

This book starts off right where the last one left off, with an upsettingly dead person. Sad face! Rory and Co. are pretty sure the UDP is a ghost now and decide to go track UDP down, but they’re already pretty busy looking for the crazy Jane Quaint and Rory’s kidnapped classmate Charlotte. Then Rory, in the midst of breaking all the rules, meets a new ghost-seer with a wealth of information about London and ghosts and even secret society conspiracy theories that are totally just wacko theories except perhaps they’re not? Meanwhile, we get the back story on crazy Jane, who helped a pair of twins murder a bunch of people in an attempt to beat death, which twins are totally dead but possibly not for long.

This book is nuts, but still awesome because Maureen Johnson does not know how to write a not-awesome sentence or a not-awesome Rory. Rory is the best, guys, even if she is incredibly terrible at following rules. And I am super-interested in all the new characters Johnson introduces and what they’re going to do in the next, last book.

This book also introduces a lot of that intrigue and subterfuge that I like, and even though I felt like things were going a little off the rails, plot-wise (Secret societies! Magic stones! Cults of personality! People who are only mostly dead!), I was still totally interested in how everything was going to play out, and it played out quite nicely. The ending was even sufficiently creepy without resorting to killing people I like! Very excellent.

Recommendation: For those who like ghost stories with subterfuge.

Rating: 8/10

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainIf you’ve talked to me about books any time in the last month or so, you’ve probably heard me ask the following questions: Did you read and like Gone Girl? Were you okay with the fact that almost everyone in that book was an awful human being?

And then, if the answer is yes, an exclamation: You should totally read this book The Girl on the Train that’s coming out really really soon!

Really really soon is finally now, so seriously, if you liked Gone Girl, look into this one.

The story starts off innocuously enough. Our main narrator, Rachel, rides the train into and out of London every day, and passes by a house on the tracks where she sees a lovely young couple and imagines their wonderful life together. But then, one day, she sees the wife kissing a man who is not her husband, and then shortly afterward Rachel sees this woman’s picture all over the media on account of she’s gone missing. Rachel is sure that this mystery man had something to do with it, so she decides to go to the police and tell them what she knows. But as she gets more involved with the investigation, we (both the reader and Rachel) learn that Rachel’s life isn’t exactly what it seems.

It’s absolutely fascinating. Rachel is a super unreliable narrator, and we find out very quickly that she’s lying about her reasons for being on the train, lying about her interest in the missing girl’s neighborhood, lying about how much alcohol she drinks — really just lying to us and herself about a lot of things. We learn some of this through her admissions, but we learn even more when the narration switches over to her ex-husband’s new wife, Anna, and even more than that when we get narration from the missing girl, Megan. All three ladies’ lives are intertwined, more than any of them really knows, and the pieces from each story they tell add up to an even spookier story than it looks like from the start.

We already know I’m a sucker for unreliable, multiple, and awful narrators, so clearly this book was made with me in mind. But it’s a really great work of suspense, with danger at every turn and terrible decisions being made and that sense of never knowing which way is up in the narrative. And for all that the narrators are terrible people, I really wanted things to work out for all of them. It’s hard to talk about any specific part of the book without spoiling how the story got to that point, so really you should just go read this now and come back and then we will talk about ALL THE THINGS.

I will say that the ending is weak compared to the rest of the book, with things wrapping up just too nicely, but I think for most people that’s a welcome change from the end of Gone Girl, which ending I liked way more than anyone else. For me, if I don’t know what the heck is happening in the rest of the book, it only makes sense not to know what’s going to happen after the book ends you know? That’s probably just me.

Anyway. Go read it. Do it.

Recommendation: For and possibly only for people who like unreliable, multiple, and/or awful narrators, because that’s pretty much the entire book.

Rating: 9/10

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith

The SilkwormI read the first Galbraith book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, long after it had been revealed that he was actually J.K. Rowling (writer of a kids series you may have heard of) and probably just after all the controversy had passed, which is clearly a good time to read things because I thought it was super awesome.

This second book is probably equally awesome. There are all the twists and turns and broken alibis of the first novel, as well as all the introspection and cinematic writing (which are an odd combo, to be sure) and excitement. Really, if you liked the first one, you should just go read the second. Well, unless you’re easily squicked out by gore and weird sex things, which this book has just enough of to be kind of icky.

See, our dead person this time is a fellow called Owen Quine who is a writer of books with weird sex things in them and also kind of a huge drama queen, to the point that his wife only comes to our hero, Cormoran Strike, after he’s been missing several days, and she just wants Strike to go get him back from some writers’ retreat that she’s sure he’s run off to.

But of course it’s more complicated than that, as Strike finds out that Quine went missing shortly after writing a new creepy book that is pretty blatantly about basically everyone Quine has ever known. His friends, fellow writers, mistresses, publishers… almost everyone is painted in a hugely unflattering light. The book hasn’t even been published and there are fights and lawsuits aplenty that would make any writer go into hiding for a while.

Except that when Strike finds Quine’s hiding place, Quine is there and also dead and also really gruesomely dead, tied up and covered in acid and with his guts missing, which conveniently mimics the ending of his already pretty awful novel. It seems likely that someone didn’t like what Quine had to say about them, but with so many suspects, it’s going to take a while for Strike to figure this one out — especially with the police blocking his every move in an effort to save face after that whole Lula Landry debacle.

Meanwhile there’s quite a bit about Strike’s assistant, Robin, and her fiancé issues and her Strike issues and the fact that if she would just use her freaking words her life would be a lot better. I may be projecting that last part. There is also, as you might expect, a lot of talk about the publishing industry, which makes me wonder what could have been if this book had been written after the whole Hachette vs. Amazon shenanigan began. A lost opportunity, really.

There’s nothing particularly new or noteworthy about this book compared to The Cuckoo’s Calling, but it is a solid work of mystery fiction and I am super looking forward to whatever Rowling writes for me next. As long as it comes soon!

Recommendation: For fans of non-Potter Rowling, crazy-pants mysteries, and characters saying “I have a plan” and then not telling you the plan, just doing it.

Rating: 9/10

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's CallingI put this book on hold at my small library system maybe a couple of days after it was revealed that one J.K. Rowling had actually written it, back in July, and it only took three months for it to make its way to me! I was pretty excited to see it arrive, finally, after I had seen it go out to so many other readers, and it went straight to the top of Mount TBR.

When I started reading it, I was less excited. The story was incredibly cinematic, with people doing things while they talked and every little thing being narrated and I was like, hey, there’s a dead person, how about we focus on that, maybe, and not this Doom Bar beer that your PI is obsessed with? But soon either Rowling let up on the description or the awesome mystery just overshadowed it, and the book got pretty dang readable.

The mystery at hand is that there’s a pretty model girl who fell to her death from her apartment balcony and everyone was sad but it pretty much had to be suicide and so life went on. But then the pretty girl’s brother shows up at the office of Cormoran Strike, hard-up private investigator who agrees to take the brother’s cash even though he’s pretty sure that he’s going to call it for suicide also. Of course, things quickly get more interesting and complicated and Strike starts to think maybe there was a murder here after all.

Throughout this whole murder mystery story, we also learn a lot about Strike, who we meet as a guy whose PI venture is about to go bust and whose relationship just has and who becomes by the end of the story a pretty nuanced guy with a rocky relationship history and family issues and a military background and one leg and a serious obsession with this Doom Bar beer. Rowling devotes a lot of time to making all of her characters pretty rounded, largely by throwing red herrings at them and ruining their alibis and such but whatever, it counts. She also brings in a lot of class and social issues that I did not know were a thing, or were still a thing, and as you figure out how all of these characters and their various societal constructs interact and relate to each other you also figure out how this mystery is going to end.

Well, maybe not so much that last part, because when it was revealed whodunnit I was like, I’m sorry, whodunnit? Really? Are you sure? And then Rowling was like, of course I’m sure, I wrote this whole book about it and maybe if you’d read it closer, but whatever, let me explain this to you. There was a little Holmes-ian “I have solved the mystery before you even heard it, here are some details I made up on the spot that just so happen to be absolutely right” to the solution, but those details were certainly borne out in the text and it made sense with the characters and what we had thus far learned about them. I may think that the murderer is a complete idiot, but a) of course, we’re talking about a murderer and b) of course, this murderer has been kind of an idiot the whole time.

There was a bit of controversy all those many months ago about the fact that Rowling used a pseudonym to write this book, and blah blah tricksy and blah blah marketing ploy. While it’s true that I had never heard of the book until I found out Rowling wrote it, it’s also true that if I had heard of it I would probably have ended up reading it and I still would have kind of loved it. The only thing I really object to is the fake bio made for Mr. Galbraith, which appropriates a very specific identity that is patently false and makes an intriguing juxtaposition with the concepts of identity in the novel, but only if you know that there’s a pseudonym involved.

I also find it odd that the publisher apparently chose to do the bare minimum to promote the book, because it is quite good and should have gotten at least as much press in my own bookish circles as many terrible books I’ve recently read did. I don’t know if this was some big conspiracy to make people read less-promoted books, but I’ve certainly been looking at my library’s big shelf of New Books I’ve Never Heard Of a little differently.

Recommendation: Read books that sound interesting! Also read this book, because it’s pretty awesome.

Rating: 9/10

RIP on TV: Luther

LutherScott and I finally finished the third season of Luther yesterday, after weeks of procrastination because who knows when there will be more? It’s almost like Sherlock in that way, except that I think you at least get more minutes of Sherlock when it comes around. I often wish that American television would follow Britain’s lead in short but amazing seasons, but I do like not having to wait literally years between seasons…

If you haven’t seen Luther, I don’t know if I can actually recommend it as a thing to watch, because it is absolutely batshit crazy. Of the fourteen total episodes, I can’t think of one that didn’t cause me to stare at my screen, jaw dropped open in complete disbelief that THEY would do THAT. Which is probably why I can’t stop watching, because I want to know what the heck they’ll do next.

In the first episode, the show seems pretty normal. We are introduced to DCI (sidenote: greatest job title ever) John Luther, a copper who put a man in a coma sort of accidentally-on-purpose in order to get information to solve a crime. Luther is clearly one of those detectives who knows where the line is and dances all around it but stays firmly planted on the correct side when it’s time to be held accountable, but also clearly he is a Sherlock-Holmes level crime-solving savant so people are willing to look the other way when necessary. It’s a thing that’s been done, but I love seeing it done so well. And the actual plot? Very first episode, we’ve got an extremely intelligent murderer carrying out the perfect murder. Luther knows whodunnit, but can’t prove it, so he has to let her go, which turns out to be terrible for him.

The rest of the first season revolves around this murderer stalking Luther and trying to make his life better in extremely counterproductive ways, and also Luther trying to repair a failed relationship with his wife, and also Luther and his higher-ups wondering if that guy in a coma might wake up and get Luther charged with attempted murder, and also Luther’s regular horrifying homicide caseload. In six episodes. Ballsy.

Things only get crazier from there, with a lot of insane murderers-of-the-week (including one who commits incredibly brutal crimes based on the roll of some dice) and some season-long arcs that make you wonder how Luther survives being Luther. I certainly couldn’t.

If you have the stomach for some serious gore and some serious flouting of every law known to man, and have a dozen or so hours to spare, I would say that Luther is not a terrible way to spend them. But if it’s, like, nice out or you have friends who want to come over or an interesting book to read, you should probably do that instead. It’s a much nicer and happier place here in our world.

an RIP watch

The Amulet of Samarkand, by Jonathan Stroud

The Amulet of SamarkandDear Bartimaeus, You are wonderful, let’s go hang out together. Love, Alison.

I listened to this book back in the day and fell madly in love with it — I mean, how could you not fall in love with Simon Jones? It’s impossible! Ever since, this book has been one of those books that I find not many people know about, and when I do find a person who has read it and loved it we are clearly meant to be BFFs (well, at least in one case!). So obviously I was really excited when my in-person book club put it on the schedule for September, although I wasn’t going to have time to listen to it again and was a bit worried about reading the book without the help of the handsomely voiced Mr. Jones.

I needn’t have worried; the book is nearly as fantastic as read by the voices in my head and also THERE ARE FOOTNOTES. Why was I not informed of the footnotes earlier? Goodness me I love a footnote, and actually I felt like the constant asides made a heck of a lot more sense having a party at the bottom of the page as opposed to hanging out in parentheses as I had assumed. There’s just something about seeing that little superscript and knowing there’s something hilarious waiting for you just inches away…

Ahem. I digress. Without footnotes. How disappointing!

So anyway, the book is as hilarious as ever. Our intrepid narrator is the aforementioned Bartimaeus, who enters the book in a cloud of stereotypical demon trappings because wouldn’t you, if you were a demon, and proceeds to joke and trick and mostly luck his way out of all sorts of magical problems, most of which are caused by the third-person-narrated Nathaniel. Nathaniel is a very young magician in a world where magicians rule via threats, intimidation, and the enslavement of demon-types, and even though we first meet him doing that third thing and also he’s young and therefore dumb and annoying (I do not miss being dumb and annoying), he’s a decent kid and I was pulling for him the whole book.

The plot of the novel involves Nathaniel having Bartimaeus steal an unexpectedly potent magical thing from an expectedly potent magician, which of course turns out to be a very terrible idea and ends with lots of magical fights and a few deaths. But the reason I love this novel is its world-building. Stroud takes your average fantasy world with magic and spells and pentacles and whatnot and makes it disturbingly like our regular world with class struggles and power-hungry politicians and foolish children and also wisecracking djinnis. Well, I wish our world had wisecracking djinnis, anyway.

I also, as you may guess, love Bartimaeus, who is basically the greatest character ever characterized. He’s a demon who just wants to do his thing, no matter what he is actually required to do, and who will grumble amusingly until such time as he can figure out how to do his thing. He also has a healthy sense of his place in society (not too high on the demon scale, not too low) and uses it to great advantage, which is a pretty good life lesson, actually!

I’ve read the rest of the (increasingly inaccurately named) Bartimaeus Trilogy, and they were all pretty decent, but this remains my absolute favorite of the series and one of my favorite fantasy novels in general. If you haven’t read it, take a few hours and rectify that situation!

Recommendation: Read it, even if you don’t think you like fantasy, and especially if you like sarcasm and awesome fight scenes.

Rating: 9/10 (I have to admit that Simon Jones is what makes it a 10!)

an RIP read