Gentlemen and Players – Joanne Harris – A Review

The very first book of her’s that I found, I read in a time of great defeat and transition, unknowing of the fact that it was she who authored the book – the original source material, of one of my favorite movies, Chocolate.

The book was called, Five Quarters of the Orange, and followed the strange, startling, stubborn tale of one girl growing up with a distant mother and her one connection to this imposing woman, through a cookbook.

I found the style of writing to be, not only wholesome, but calming in a way I hadn’t experienced before. It didn’t feel like I was reading so much as it felt as though someone was telling me a story. I could taste the book if I wanted to. Orange and berries and pastry and wine. She has a gift for making the reader experience food – a commonality in most of her books. She wants you to experience the hardships in life and at the same time, know the little joys that abound.

That being said, this story was quite a bit different.

Again I find myself in a stage of transition (admittedly a less upsetting one) and another of her books has made it to me by way of a used bookshop in town. The kind with the almost stale paper smell and bookcases almost touching the ceiling, and rolling ladders hooked to the stacks.

It tasted like cigarette smoke and dark beer and fried fish.

“For generations, privileged young men have attended St. Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys, groomed for the success by the likes of Roy Straitly, the eccentric Classics teacher who has been a fixture there for more than thirty years. This year, however, the wind of unwelcome change is blowing, and Straitly is finally, reluctantly, contemplating retierment. As the new term gets underway, a number of incidents befall student and faculty alike, beginning as small annoyances but soon escalating in both number and consequence. St. Oswald’s is unraveling, and only Straitly stands in the way of its ruin. But he faces a formidable opponent with a bitter grudge and a master strategy that has been meticulously planned to the final, deadly move.”

gentsandplayersWhat can I say? It’s a book about scandal, young love, revenge, and violence. Joanne has a way of digging into the truth inside people which is a difficult thing to do. We all like to believe that we know real people and so it should be simple to capture that reality and complication on the page. It’s not. And few have done it as well as she manages.

The characters are complex. Even when you know they are wrong you can feel for their struggle and the heartbreaking reality of their situation.

I don’t want to give too much away, but this book is an expertly crafted ride that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat by the end. With a reveal that left my jaw hitting the floor.

Was it my favorite? No – not really. I’ll still remember Five Quarters of the orange in a vividness that astounded me and I’ll always have a sweet spot for Chocolate. But, this was a fun ride that came just in time for Halloween.

Check it out at your library, or got ahead and buy it here.

David and Goliath – Malcolm Gladwell – A Partial Review

I haven’t finished this book yet.

It’s not a work of fiction, either.

It is, however, a book that teaches through telling stories and that’s worth writing about.

If you were to ask me in high school whether or not I thought of myself as an intelligent person, chances are I wouldn’t know how to answer that. By looking at my grades alone, I might have told you no. Though I might also have to caution you that throughout all my years in school, I never tried.

During my bitter, dark days I like to blame the way education is handled. It’s a system focused more on memorization and thoughtless obedience than the type of creative free thinking that leads to ingenuity in solving long-standing problems like harmful cultural teachings.

By no means am I going to sit here and try to convince you that I’m some type of genius. I am not. If anything I’m a fake masked by eloquent speech, great posture and a slightly inflated sense of importance. If I’m being honest, a great smile also helps. What I want o highlight here, is a word of caution.

Chapter three of Malcom’sDavid and Goliath is titled, ‘Caroline Sacks.’ It tells the story of a young girl who wanted to be a sicentist. Ever since she was little she would go out into the backyard with a sketchbook and a magnifying glass to look for bugs. Unlike me, she excelled in academics – never knowing what it might be like to do less than an A-. In fact, she did so well that, when it came time to find a college, she was accepted into Brown University.

The entire chapter explores the Big Fish Little Pond theory – asking those to ponder whether or not it’s better to be a little fish (Caroline Sacks) in a very big pond (Brown) Or a Big fish (Caroline) in a little pond (Her second choice university.) The simplest way to put it is to imagine being the best at something among the people that you know – and finding your merely average or, worse, under average when surrounded by those considered specialists in that thing. In more cases then not, this leads to giving up.

davidandgoliath-malcolmWhen I was still in school, many friends and close family got to telling me about all the things I was going to regret one day. I was going to regret not going to prom. I was going to regret not getting out to party more. I was going to regret not taking those AP classes. They also said I was going to regret not going to college.

I never regretted a single thing. Not after graduation. Not after years deep into customer service, minimum wage jobs. I already had a dream and once school was over I finally had space and time to tear into all the books, articles, and talks on that one thing I was passionate and excited about. (It was writing in case you didn’t know.)

Here I stand ten years later unpublished and newly moved into a haunted Bed and Breakfast to work as a live-in Inn Keeper, (I will write about this eventually) writing my confession of regret.

I wish I had gone to college.

No, wait.

At the root of it, I regret never learning how to try.

As I was reading this chapter (ignoring all the creaking floorboards over my head) I started to wonder how different my life would look if I hadn’t been so stubborn. Or, rather, that stubbornness was harnessed. what would have happened if someone picked me up and dropped me in the middle of a school or a class that was so far over my head I thought I might drown in it? I like to believe I would have learned what it was like to struggle for my effortlessly average standing.

I graduated without ever doing a single scrap of homework or project. If it required even a small amount of at homework, it wouldn’t be done. That included studying. Maybe if I had tried I would have learned more of my passions in time to strive for something greater. Maybe I would have noticed that my passing love for psychology, was actually an ignited passion for neuroscience and brain psychology.

I regret that.

Don’t get me wrong, the education system needs to change. Every year it seems to become more inaccessible to those of limited means. But it’s important to appreciate education when you have it, and make the most of every tool you have before it’s gone.

I’ll write more on this book once I finish it, but so far three chapters in, I say it’s well worth the read.

The Bird and the Blade – Megan Bannen – A Review

Once upon a time, while scrolling through professional photographers on Instagram speckled by the fan-crazed posts of book lovers and published authors alike, I stumbled across a little something called, Shelf Love Crate. Okay, that was partly a lie. What I really stumbled on was a picture someone posted of one of these boxes – included in it, a set of character tarot cards for V. E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series. The end result of my inquiring was the discovery of these little boxes.

Inside you get a hardcover copy of a new YA fantasy author, signed and snuggled all around it – all the best little trinkets any dork would love to have. Like those tarot cards – for example.

My box came in late August, featuring a signed copy of The Bird and the Blade, A Goblet of Fire maze puzzle, and coins from a Y.A. book I haven’t picked up yet but intended to at one point, Six of Crows.

The Bird and the Blade is a 401-page fantasy novel written by Megan Bannen that takes place in the Middle East during the time when Genghis Khan’s blood relatives remained fierce rulers. It follows the story of Jinghua, a slave in the Kipchak Khanate, and her struggle between finding her way home, and her growing love for prince Khalaf.

Synopsis: As a slave in the Kipchak  Khanate, Jinghua has lost everything: her home, her family, her freedom… until the kingdom is conquered by enemy forces and she finds herself an unlikely conspirator in the escape of Prince Khalaf and his irascible father across the vast Mongol Empire. On the run, with adversaries on all sides and an endless journey ahead, Jinghua hatches a scheme to ue the Kipchak’s exile to return home. A plane that becomes increasingly fraught as her feelings for Khalaf evolve into an impossible love.

Jhingua’s already dicey prospects take a downward turn when Khalaf seeks to restore his kingdom by forging a marriage alliance with Turandokht, the daughter of the Great Khan. As beautiful as she is cunning, Turandokht requires all potential suitors to solve three impossible riddles to win her hand – and if they fail, they die.

Jinghua has kept her own counsel well, but with Khalaf’s kingdom— his very life— on the line, she must reconcile the hard truth of her past with her love for a boy who has no idea what she’s capable of… even if it means losing him to the girl who’d sooner take his life than his heart.

shelflovebox1Before we get into my thoughts on the story, let’s look at the writing craft. It was serviceable. I didn’t come across passages or sentences that made me pause to appreciate the hypnotic sound of the words on the page, but nothing that stoked my vengeful ego into proclaiming, ‘why, I could do better than that.’ either. (I have to admit, sometimes I like those sorts of books if only because it gets my butt in gear) Megan’s style carried the story along and made the character’s voices clear and their emotions unveiled. If I were to fault anything it was the few instances where the style seemed to break a bit to make way for much more modern phrases.

My favorite elements of the story were the shifts in the timeline. I can always appreciate a book that carries me, not on a straight and narrow path, but takes me on a journey through past and present. It reminds me of what it’s like when you get to know a person. Chances are you don’t sit down with them one day over coffee while they regale you with their life story. Bits and pieces are revealed as more trust is passed between you. Jinghua herself I found to be an easily relatable character. What she lacked in appearance, wit, and strength, she made up for in courage and loyalty.

As the story progressed I found myself more invested in her developing relationship to Khalaf’s father then to the dashing prince himself. You could also blame this on my recent feelings about romance in novels. For the better part of the first half of the book, she spent a lot of time talking about how pretty he is, and lingering on the one kindness he’d shown her in her time being a slave. There was development between the two as the story progressed, but I had a difficult time feeling for them and their romantic plight.

The riddles were interesting and well worded. My favorite being the first one:

She is the dragon with the iridescent wing

Stretched taught across the bleak and yawning void

To whom the hallow human heart must sing

When, with it, like a cat with prey has toyed.

She only lives in shadow’s heave hue

When, invoked by man, is night her reign.

So every dusk gives birth to her anew,

And every dawn destroys her once again.

I had almost solved that one.

The ending… I struggled with whether or not I wanted to write about this since it does contain spoilers. But, for those who read it and understand, the sun rose too quickly after the final curtain dropped. She could have held on.

All in all, I found it to be an enjoyable read. Not one I would go back to in the future, but one I’m glade for having finished.

City of Ghosts – Victoria Schwab – A Review

Life has a way of happening, you know? As it turns out, so does death.  City of Ghosts is V. E. Schwab’s first book in her new Y.A. book series, narrated by Cassidy Blake. A girl who, after drowning in a river, comes back to realize she can cross the veil separating our world from the personalized purgatory of ghosts. Oh, and her best friend is a ghost named Jacob who can read her mind.

This strange ability is making life interesting enough, but then her parents get a T.V. show deal that lands them in one of Europe’s most haunted cities, Edinburgh, Scotland. There, she meets a girl who shares her peculiar gifts, discovers her purpose, and goes head to head with an urban ghost story, The Red Raven.

A quick side note, this book isn’t available to buy, yet. (It will be very soon.) I was fortunate enough to get a signed, uncorrected proof during my last minute book con dash that involved a lot of luck and magical timing. You can read that adventure here.

Now, Onward with the review!

I do not believe in a reality where I pick up a Schwab book and go away dissatisfied. That being said, this was no, “Kell wore a very peculiar coat.”, either. What I love about

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Personal artwork loosely inspired by The Red Raven.

Schwab’s work is the seemingly effortless way she draws you fully into the setting and world of the characters. (Anyone who writes knows it is not, in fact, effortless but sometimes grueling and soul-sucking.) She does this not by plastering saturated words over soggy loaves of prose, but by finding the essence of a place and breathing life into with a few well-placed sentences.

 

She does the same in City of Ghosts. I’ve never been to Edinburgh, but when I’m following Cassy through the dreary haunted streets, I feel like I have been. I feel like I know the smell in the air and cobblestone streets and the gift shops and the ghost tours. It’s a delicate skill that she’s mastered.

Another thing I always look forward to in Schwab’s work is character. There wasn’t a single one who I didn’t love. Cassidy’s parents, the ghost hunter and the professor, were delightful. They didn’t get much time in the book itself but the few pages they had dedicated to them made me smile. I adored Jacob the ghost. He is the epitome of the ghost all of us aspire to be one day. If I have any complaint at all it was that I didn’t get to learn more about the main protagonist, the Red Raven.

In a small way, it also felt like a head nod to Vicious what with the whole, coming back to life with strange powers. I’m not complaning. It’s lovely to imagine that these two series take place in the same universe.

On the whole, it was an enjoyable, if not slow start to what is going to be a fun adventure in future books. It does what the first in a series if supposed to do. The characters are fleshed. The setting is shifting. The plot dice are rolling, and I’m eager to find out where they land next.

Happy reading.

-Side note: Have you ever heard of Shelf Love Crate? Every month you get a themed box shelflovebox1based on different Y.A. Fantasy novels. You get a signed book, and tonnes of other fun things like puzzles, books marks, candles, socks and more. My next review is going to be on the Y.A. book, The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen that I got in my July crate. Check out their website here if you’re interested.

American Gods – Neil Gaiman – A Review

Despite my reservations about Gaiman’s style, the Graveyard book gave me the nudge I needed to venture into more of his darkly enchanting world. There was one title I heard repeatedly while contemplating his next work? American Gods. It seemed a good place to go next. Did it disappoint? Well, I wouldn’t say that it disappointed, but I wasn’t floored into submission either.

I’m sure most have either read this book by now or watched the hit T.V. show. For the sake of consistency (and those who, like me, tend to wait until popular fiction is nearly forgotten to pick it up for themselves) lets back up a bit.

American Gods, follows Shadow who, while serving his time in jail, discovers that his wife, Laura, died in an accident. While on the plane going home he meets a grizzled old man who calls himself Wednesday and is offered a job playing chauffeur and bodyguard. Shadow, a man with nothing to lose, accepts.

It’s a very simple premise

Myth2
Inspire by American Gods

masking some complex questions all centered around the mauled, ever-changing spirit of what we call today, America. In that way, at least, I can say Gaiman came close to capturing that spirit. Not only with the invention of new gods like those of fast food, television, and freeways, but of the eternal ever-beating heart of the earth where we walk. The very earth the Natives of this land gave thanks to every day they traversed it.

What did I like about it? Gaiman paints a picture of gods being prisoners to our every wish and whim. Locked not only into the laws that we believed for them but dependent on our continued belief. The idea itself has been around for a bit now, but to me, this was gone about in a very human way. After all, if it was our intense belief that created Gods, then we created them in our image. We gave them our anger. Our love. Our jealousy. Our passion. Neil does a great job showing us the humanity of these forgotten gods. They are con men, prostitutes, morticians, homeless drunks. They are afraid and stubborn and blind and wise – filled with faults and pettiness and fierce loyalty.

There wasn’t a moment with the Gods that I didn’t enjoy. It was fun trying to guess their identity even if I wasn’t as familiar with the lore where they originated. Bast and Ibis were brilliantly done but I found Odin to be… not what I would have expected him to be. I enjoyed the part of him portrayed in the epilogue better.

What bothered me? I can think of one thing that tended to be a continuous itch.

What the hell was Shadow’s job?

He didn’t drive all that much and he sure as hell failed at being a bodyguard. When it was brought up, all that was ever said was that he was special, or that he was important, but I couldn’t find a particular reason why it had to be him and not anyone else. In the end, it’s a timid flame held up to the blaze of a bigger picture, but I would have liked to know more.

Other then that it’s the usual nitpicks I tend to have with Neil’s style of writing. it’s a little slow and distant.

All around I would recommend the book to anyone looking for an adventure that mimics a dream. You’ll remember it even if it doesn’t become a favorite.

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman – A Review

The first book by Neil Gaiman that I tried and failed to read, was Neverwhere. For some unfathomable reason, it would not hold my attention. As much as I wanted to like and enjoy his work – after all, I adored The Nightmare Before Christmas and the one Sandman comic I owned – it was a hopeless endeavor.

I put the book down.

It gathered some dust.

I got rid of it at some point in time.

That being said, I went into his work again with no small amount of skepticism. You might be wondering, whatever drew you to this book now? The simple answer? It has pictures in it. I’ve always been a sucker for an illustrated book. Make those illustrations a little dark and strange to go with a book that’s just the same, and it’s a baited hook I can’t refuse.

Let’s get into the meat of the review, shall we?

The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody Owens, Bod for short. Nobody lives in a graveyard, raised by ghosts, guarded by his not quite alive, not quite dead guardian, and is being hunted by the man Jack who murdered his family. It follows Nobody Owens as he grows up among his strange family, learning about Goblin gates, fading from notice, dream walking and more.

While the story is based on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book – Owens learning to joinjust because the living rather than a wild boy learning to be human – the actual writing itself reminded me much more of Peter Pan. Even though the book opens with murder and does, eventually, build up to that moment of completion, it never strays from the child heart it’s centered around. For most of the book you follow Bod who’s growing up the same as all of us. He makes friends, and grows out of them. He’s told not to do something, and he does it only to learn from it. He has a shallow understanding of what happens to his parents but the danger is real to him in that distant, innocent way it usually is to kids that comes from a lack of proper understanding of what it means to die.

Overall I found the book enjoyable. It was exactly the kind of darkly innocent, relaxing read I was looking for. If I were going to nit-pick it for anything it would be that sometimes the plot can be a bit choppy and there was a point in the book when Owens seemed to mature very quickly. I had to go back and make sure I didn’t accidentally skip a chapter. I wish Neil had delved deeper into some of the elements – like the origin of our nefarious Jack, the enigmatic Pale Lady, and the Danse Macabre. At the same time, those little mysteries suit me just fine. They always made stories feel more real to me.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants an easy, engaging, and darkly delightful read. I’d say it’s best for rainy days in bed but, come on, read it on a beach. Be that ghost on the sandy sea of trashy romance novels.

Until next time~

“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”

Nod- Adrian Barnes, A Review

This was one of those books I picked up on a whim. I usually try to avoid bookstores. My shelves are stacked to the point of bending and the paper bricks are starting to pile up next to my bed. For that reason, I try to buy the authors I know I love and take the rest out of the library. Despite all this, somehow Nod made it into my collection.

Was it worth it?

To be honest, I was originally going to write a bad review for this book. The main character felt emotionally detached from everything that happened and I was less than pleased with the lack of woman characters throughout the book – and where one was, the only purpose she seemed to serve was for the sake of the main male character to have something to lose. (To be fair, I can understand someone becoming emotionally detached when faced with a cruel and dangerous new reality. He did change halfway through the book, but it was a jarring switch that I felt could have been built up better)

Nod-Adrian-Barnes-616x956Let me back up.

Nod is a 271-page book (If you include the author’s note which I highly encourage) about a man named Paul who lives in Vancouver at a time where the world ends. It was published first around 2012 and was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award. You can find it in the fantasy section.

Instead of world war three, zombies, or a crazy viral outbreak doing humanity in, it was insomnia. One day, for reasons never explained, 90% of the population loses the ability to sleep. In the weeks that follow, they gradually lose their sanity before their bodies give out and they die. Paul is of the remaining 10% who do sleep, and so becomes the observer to the madness.

One of the first things I look for in anything I read – is it written well? Call me a snob, but I need to enjoy the style to get into the story. It happened around the time I began studying writing and story craft, and I think it a sacrifice a lot of committed writers make in pursuit of literary ambitions. The writing was… passable. In that, so long as no one was speaking, I loved it. The style was crisp and simplistic. I’m not sure if it was a purposeful thing or what, but he had a tendency to put character names into speech.

“I still love you, Paul.”

“Go see your Tanya, Paul.”

“But what about your work Paul?”

It got to me.

What I found most difficult, was the ugliness of the book. The setting was ugly, the smell was ugly, the people decrepit. I tend to be a sensory person, so it was difficult to dedicate time to a world that made me cringe no matter what corner I turned. At its heart, it was an angry, mean little book with little hope of a satisfying ending.

So, why did I change my mind?

For starters, I finished the book. I was about the write this review without finishing it if I’m being perfectly honest but I’m glad I waited. That isn’t to say it had a miraculously happy ending. I probably would have hated it more if it did. It simply made me realize how good we have it here.

My view of modern life and society on the whole is… er… cynical at best. Which is why books like this are hard for me to swallow. It takes all that infuriates and disgusts me and puts it under a high powered telescope.

I won’t give it away, but Nod drifts off leaving a lingering feeling of gratefulness tinged with hope for the potential of the future. It’s a book that’s okay with leaving questions unanswered. Simply put, that’s exactly how life is anyway.

Dose Nod make it to my top five? No, but I know it’s going to be in my head for a while to come. I think it’s worth checking out if you go in prepared.