Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson

ElantrisHoly cow, has it really been eight years since I first read this book? It was definitely long overdue for this re-read, and this time I got to make a bunch of other people read it for book club! I love this power.

Eight years ago I was taken in by the first sentence — “Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.” This year? Same. Is that not a great sentence? Is Brandon Sanderson not a master of sentences? Ugh, so good.

I’ve explained the story pretty well in my first post about this book, so I’ll let that all stand and talk about how this holds up to a re-read. Spoiler: pretty well!

It turns out that I retained only the vaguest of details about the book, except for the one big reveal about why Elantris’s magic stopped working, so it was pretty much like reading the book for the first time. Except, of course, that I am a different person now, and so the constant sexism toward women, and, conversely, the Sarene’s constant commentary on the backwardness of Arelon rankled. Did Sarene have to be an underestimated and ignored component of Arelon society to achieve the books results? Probably not! Also, I’m not not a fan of stories where the characters are witty and smart and have answers for every problem thrown their way (see: everything Sanderson and John Scalzi have ever written), but it becomes tiresome after 600 pages to keep reading things like, and then Sarene was witty and smart and had all the answers, and so did Raoden, and then Hrathen used this against them, but it’s cool, Sarene and Raoden just invented better answers.

That aside, the plot is still really well done and the ideas of government as rule by the wealthy or rule by religion are almost creepily relevant today. I found myself drawing more than a few parallels between the power-hungry characters of the book and certain political figures who have recently come to power. Oh, politics. You never change.

I also still love the world that Sanderson built for this story, with its weird magic Aons and familiar world religions and strangely small footprint on what I presume is the Earth. Sanderson has written a couple of other stories meant to take place in the same world, but what I really need is a book about Dreok Crushthroat and maybe one about Fjordell before Wyrn Wulfden.

Probably the thing I liked least about this re-read, and this is a really weird thing, is that my husband listened to the book while I eyes-read it and it turns out that all of the proper nouns in the book are pronounced VERY DIFFERENTLY from how I think they should be pronounced. I would hear Scott listening to the book and be like, who the heck is Ay-hane? Oh, Ahan. And See-in-ay-len? Oh, Seinalen. Darn your vowels, Sanderson!

But hey, if you eyes-read it, you can do like my book club mate and just give everyone names like Bob and George and not even worry about it!

Recommendation: Totally worth a read, especially if you need a book where the good guys win. (Spoiler?)

Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell

Beat the ReaperSometimes the scariest thing about re-reading books is realizing how long ago you read them the first time… this one’s from waaaaaaaay back in 2009 when I was still posting reviews the day I finished every book. Oh, past self. You were so cute.

I picked this one out for my in-person book club because I remembered liking this book a surprising amount and because we’ve been reading a lot of relatively serious books lately and I thought a nice bonkers quasi crime novel would hit that beginning-of-summer sweet spot. After the turnout at the last few meetings, I was sure this ridiculous book would net me a handful of book clubbers, but instead this was our best turnout of the year. Don’t underestimate bonkers fluff, is what I’m saying.

My opinion on the book hasn’t really changed in seven years, although I thought it might when I started listening to it on audio. I guess I sort of had a voice in my head already for our hero, Peter Brown, and the narrator’s voice was just… not that. It was very impersonal and flat and matter-of-fact where I thought it would be more sarcastic and emotive, rather like that time I listened to The Eyre Affair. Also, I had forgotten about the twenty-seven (this is an estimate, I did not count them, though now I feel like I should have) F-bombs Peter lays out in the first, like, two pages, and I was very nervous that my book club would not make it past that minefield.

But either the narrator gets better or the story does or both, as I was quickly drawn back into the weird world of Peter Brown, ex-Mafia hit man turned doctor in Witness Protection. His hospital is weird and terrifying, especially when your fellow book clubbers tell you that yeah, no, it’s totally believable that that terrible thing would happen in a hospital. His childhood is weird and awful as you learn more and more about the circumstances of his grandparents’ untimely demise and his entrance into the Mafia world. His present circumstances are weird and nerve-wracking as everything keeps going wrong, and then vomit-inducing at the end when a certain weapon is procured. Ugh.

I’m not sure I liked the book quite as much this second time around, possibly due to the only-decent narrator and the lack of footnotes (!) in the audio version or possibly due to the lack of surprise when the craziest of things happen. But I still enjoyed it immensely, and I was happy to find out that most of my book club agreed save for two very upset members who came just to tell me, personally, how much they hated the book. But they showed up, so the joke’s on them!

If you’re intrigued by the “ex-Mafia hit man turned doctor in Witness Protection” conceit, and you like your crime hard-boiled, and you like your humor sarcastic and cutting, AND you don’t shy away from an F-bomb or twelve, this is definitely a book to pack in your beach bag this summer. There’s even a sequel, if you end up loving it!

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

The SparrowI hadn’t intended to read The Sparrow so soon after my last read of it, but I ended up having to fill an emergency book-club slot and I wanted to make sure I had a winner of a book. Of course, shortly after I announced this as the next book, I started hearing horror stories all across the internet (by which I mean one horror story on a podcast) about someone else’s book club where no one liked The Sparrow.

Luckily that’s not actually possible and that person was clearly lying, as my second book club reading went just as fantastically as the first!

There’s just so much greatness in The Sparrow, starting with the chilling-on-a-re-read last line of the prologue — “They meant no harm.” Seriously, chills. Then there’s the competing Before and After plotlines that don’t seem like they can come together until they rush headlong into each other just exactly like Sandoz rushes headlong into Askama to start this whole narrative. And there’s the worldbuilding, which, in a present very close to the present of the story (2015 to the story’s 2019), seems oddly prescient about some things and very very happily completely wrong about others. Hooray for iPads and a lack of institutionalized slavery! (Though as one book clubber pointed out, not a lack of slavery in general.)

But I’ve talked about all that before (see link above), and I will talk your head off about it if you even tangentially mention this book in my presence. What was cool about reading the book this time was that Scott and I chose to listen to it on our road trip up to Cleveland, so we got to experience a very different re-read together. There was much pausing and discussing of the book while we drove, and it was really fun to see how we took parts of the book very differently.

And, of course, it was cool to hear the book. The narrator, David Colacci, was maybe not a master of accents, but he put on a good show, and I realized for the first time how ridiculously multicultural (still pretty white, but multicultural) the characters are. I mean, I knew there were Texans and Italians and Puerto Ricans in the book, but let’s be real, they all had Cleveland accents in my head. So it was neat to hear how they “really” sounded. Colacci also did a good job with tone and volume, putting a lot of emotional depth into Sandoz’s pain and Sofia’s reticence and the narration about everything awful that happens to everyone in this book. At first I was a little put off by this, because it can be really hard to hear those quiet parts while driving without losing an eardrum to a normal speaking voice, but since I already kind of knew what was happening it turned out pretty okay after all. I will definitely be seeking this narrator out for future audiobooks.

I will also keep recommending this book to everyone. I knew my first book club would love it because I know them pretty well, but I was really nervous about this second book club because the members have wildly varying ages and religions and viewpoints and I was worried that like two people would show up. But the ten of us who came all at least appreciated the book, and we had a great discussion about fate and belief and responsibility without anyone resorting to fisticuffs, and several people said they would be seeking out the sequel, so I’m glad to get more people on the MDR train.

Recommendation: Um, go read it, obviously. If you’ve only read it once, read it again.

Rating: 10/10, perpetually, always

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

The SparrowThe last time I picked a book for my online book club, it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad time, and so when it finally came around to my turn again I decided to go with a foolproof selection — a book I’d read and loved and already foisted upon another group member, who also loved it. Co-member Mary says this is “cheating,” but I say it’s “not getting kicked out of the book club.”

It seems to have worked, as in fact all of the people who read it liked it, though we didn’t end up having terribly much time to actually discuss the book because of reasons. This is a shame because this book makes me want to talk about ALL THE THINGS.

Of course, as I said last time I read the book, a lot of what makes this story so interesting and wonderful is the way that Russell tells you things in stages — first you learn that Emilio’s hands are somehow no good, then you learn how they’re no good, then you learn why they’re no good — so I won’t spoil any of that here. It was really interesting on my second reading to see how Russell dances around certain subjects that become important later, some of which I missed the first time, but those reveals later were not nearly as exciting.

Another thing I noticed on my second reading was the stuff around the Jesuits in Space storyline; I didn’t remember going in how much world-building Russell does to create her version of 2019, which was 23 years away when the book was first published, 11 years away when I first read this book and only six years away now. The computing technology is surprisingly accurate, if awkwardly phrased in 90s speak, but there are some references to the fact that we’ve killed all the trees that make me very glad that we haven’t, though I guess we’ve still got six years. Russell, who lives in my beloved Cleveland, also hedges her bets by getting the Indians to the World Series, though of course they lose, because that is how Cleveland works.

Narrative-wise, I had trouble with the book last time because it spends a lot of time on some scenes I consider boring and absolutely none on others I am more interested in, and because the ending runs in front of you and slaps you right in the face when you think there should certainly be much more story left. I was still disappointed in that this time, especially regarding certain scenes where certain things happen to certain characters, but since I knew more of what was going on it was easier to see this as a function of the story being told by a reluctant narrator who wants to spend more time on the good things than on the horrible, awful things that happened to him. Seriously, poor Emilio.

Story-wise, I am still madly in love with this novel. I love that music sets off a space journey and that the Jesuits are way more organized than any government. I adore all of the humans brave enough to go to space and the Runa that they meet (though I wouldn’t want to live with them!). I appreciate if not enjoy all of the realistic consequences of this journey and of the human propensity to break the Prime Directive.

If you haven’t read this book, I really think you should, because it will make you think lots of thoughts and that is never a bad thing. Also Jesuits! In Space! You can’t go wrong.

Recommendation: For everyone, unless you are allergic to space priests, I guess, or very bad things happening to good people. There’s a lot of that.

Rating: 10/10

P.S. Apparently several years ago Brad Pitt’s production company bought the rights to The Sparrow, with the intent to have Pitt star as Emilio. Russell subsequently revoked the rights, and while I am sad not to have this fantastic book as a movie, I am very happy that I won’t have to worry about that casting.

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