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.

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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