Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Golem and The Jinni

6. The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker

The Golem and the JinniThis writer hit so many of my readerly pleasure spots that it's hard to know where to begin a review. The story is set in turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York, mostly in immigrant Jewish and Syrian neighborhoods, and the story begins with two different awakenings: in one, a tinsmith accidentally wakes a jinni when repairing a copper oil pot; in the other, a young Jewish immigrant wakes the golem he's had created for him on a voyage across the Atlantic (this, despite being warned not to waken the golem until he's reached the city). It's lucky for the golem that he does, as her master is soon dead of appendicitis and she finds herself adrift in New York City, masterless (and a golem's primary pleasure is in obedience to her master) but uncomfortably aware of all the needs and desires of the teeming city's residents.

Though neither has a name, they both quickly acquire them: the tinsmith names the jinni Ahmad and takes him on as an apprentice; and the golem is named Chava by a kindly rabbi who finds her wandering and helps her acclimatize to the disconcerting human world around her. And of course, it's no surprise to the reader when the golem and the jinni cross paths--but I found their shared journey delightful, thoughtful, surprising, and frequently moving. Chava struggles to control herself--if she is roused to anger, she might forget the qualities that make her human-like; nearly all golems must ultimately be destroyed because of this, and the rabbi who finds her, knowing this, struggles for some time with the question of what ought to happen to the golem. Ahmad struggles to piece together his missing past--the thousand years he's lost caught up in the copper pot and the mystery of how he came to be there.

There are so many things I loved here: the gorgeous writing, the intricate historical settings (it took Wecker 7 years to write this), the interesting questions raised about what makes us human (or not), what we want from our lives and what we are willing to sacrifice to get there, the touches of the fantastic. And of course, the lovely, complicated relationship between the two main characters.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Nothing Named Silas

A Nothing Named Silas, by Steve Westover.
(I read this one last year, but am just now getting to the review . . .)

A Nothing Named SilasI thought the book started really promisingly. Silas has trained his whole life to be accepted into one of the elite units (Command), only to have a chance accident result in his being drafted into the lowest of the units: Labor. Once there, Silas finds himself repeatedly humiliated and abused by Taelori, the Labor Regent. But once he passes her seemingly arbitrary tests, he's welcomed into the group. However, things aren't entirely what they seem (of course!): Silas stumbles across a group of rebels who want to change the system of government and invite Silas to join them. Between the growing number of secrets he's learning to keep and a girl he's coming to admire, Silas finds life quite complicated: who should he trust? The Regent who has abused him, or the revolutionaries who might not be telling the whole truth.

The story as a whole moves pretty quickly. For a dystopian world, this felt new, like something I hadn't seen before. However, once Silas became established in Labor, I had a hard time relating to Silas, whose sympathies seemed attached to a pendulum and changed frequently, depending on what he'd just been told. I wanted Silas to trust his own judgment a little more. I also felt a little underwhelmed by the big secret--I know some readers/reviewers loved the climax reveal, but it didn't quite work for me. 

Monday, January 20, 2014


5. Steelheart, Brandon Sanderson

I wasn't quite sure what to expect of this, because the post-apocalyptic, super-hero genre seems pretty well saturated. But this book was terrific.

Steelheart (Reckoners, #1)A few years before the start of the book, Calamity happened. (It's never quite clear what Calamity is, though I assume later books in the series may make this clear). And following Calamity, the world saw the rise of Epics, ordinary humans with powers so extraordinary that they soon ceased to seem human at all. In the opening chapter, life still functions as usual, with many people, David's father included, believing that heroes will rise to challenge the Epics. But then Steelheart comes to claim Chicago as his own, and all hell breaks lose. The opening chapter was immediately riveting, including a few horrifying images that are going to remain with me for a long, long time. And in this sequence, David sees something no one else has seen: he sees Steelheart bleed, which means this Epic has a weakness. One he wants so badly to bury that he destroys the entire building where David is and any potential witnesses. David escapes by lucky chance.

Fast forward ten years, and David is obsessed with Epics. He's studied everything there is to know about them, including their weaknesses, with an eye to destroying them. And when the Reckoners (the only group of humans to fight the Epics, who have essentially taken over the world) come to town, David seizes his chance. Because not only does David want to fight epics, but he has a plan to take Steelheart down. But for his plan to work, he has to convince the Reckoners to trust him . . .

The world Sanderson creates here is fabulous: fascinating powers (and weaknesses) for the epics, interesting technology, and the character interplay among the Reckoners is fun to watch. But mostly, he keeps the action moving along so quickly that it's hard to put the book down. (My husband is currently listening to the audiobook version and I frequently try to initiate conversation only to find that he's just as sucked in by the world as I was. In short, he's oblivious). Sanderson even manages to raise some interesting moral and ethical questions about the nature of power and those who seek to wield it. Fun, fast, fascinating--a great read for people who like action, dystopian, super-heroes, or even just a good story.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Fractured Soul

(Note: I'm not numbering this because technically it's a book I read last year--I'm just catching up on reviews!)

Fractured Soul (Fractured Light, #2)For a book from a small press (Cedar Fort), I was quite impressed with Rachel McClellan's Paranormal book, Fractured Soul. This is a sequel, and while I haven't read the first book, McClellan does a terrific job building the second--she gives enough information so readers aren't lost, but not so much that it's overkill.

Llona is a new student at Lucent academy, where she's to be trained (under her aunt's guidance) as an Aura, one of a select group of women with unusual powers to manipulate light. However, Llona is increasingly frustrated by her fellow students and by the academy's tendency to "safeguard" the Auras by essentially hobbling their ability to perform anything but defensive magic. Llona fights her frustration by escaping from the academy into the surrounding forest, where she stumbles into evil beings who are drawn to the Auras at the academy, and, worse, begins to uncover a plot that may involve the academy itself.

The writing was clean (both in terms of content and in terms of clarity) and the plot moved quickly. In fact, it builds to a pretty surprising climax that will have readers wanting more. The characters were interesting, though I sometimes found myself frustrated with Llona for taking unnecessary risks (though I will say, it seems in character for her).

Hand of Glory

4. Hand of Glory, by Stephen Carter

The Hand of Glory This is not the type of book I usually read (you only have to look at the cover to realize that! No girls in pretty dresses, no landscape vistas, no fantastic realm . . .). For all that, I found the book to be well written: the characters were charming and quirky, the small town landscape felt realistic, and parts of the book were laugh out loud funny. The story follows 14-year-old Paul McAllister, who has settled with his parents in small-town Wyoming, in a house built by his great-great (something) grandfather, for his plural wives. However, there is something not quite right about the house, and as Paul and his great-uncle Doc start delving into the family history, what they discover is both strange and deeply unsettling (nearly as unsettling as the cover image).

I made the mistake of starting this book just before bedtime, which I would not recommend, unless you enjoy being frightened and creeped out before trying to sleep--I do not! I had to finish the book before I could sleep, which either means that I am easily frightened (possibly true) or that the author did an extremely good job making the book creepy and disturbing (definitely true).

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Palace of Spies

3. Palace of Spies, by Sarah Zettel

Palace of SpiesThis has a lot of elements I enjoy: a smart female protagonist, intrigue, and an interesting historical setting (early 17th Century, in the midst of the Jacobite uprising). Peggy is an orphan living on her uncle's reluctant charity. The only bright spot in her life is her cousin Olivia, who genuinely loves her. But then Peggy is informed about a betrothal to a man she scarcely knows--a man who then proceeds to assault her in the garden at a party. When she tells her uncle she will not marry this man, her uncle kicks her out of the house. With no money and nowhere to go, Peggy follows the address given her a by a mysterious gentleman (who saved her from the assault at the party). There she finds that the gentleman and his business partner want her for a daring and dangerous plot: to take the part of one of the princess's maids of honor (a young girl who recently died).

Peggy agrees, somewhat relunctantly, and the plot takes off from there. The plot is admittedly a little slow as Peggy struggles to get used to the expectations of the court and the intrigues and rivalries with other maids. Then there's the footman who presumes an awful lot on his relationship with Francesca (the girl Peggy is replacing), and the young artist who's drawn Peggy's attention. It's only when Peggy begins to fear the real Francesca's death was no accident that she realizes she must solve the mysteries surrounding her new life, or she might face the same fate.

As I review this, it occurs to me that there are several plot holes: how is it that no one realized Francesca was replaced? She'd been ill, yes, and yes, the custom of the time was for a great deal of face paint (some of it lead, yikes!), but still, someone should have realized it. (Like maybe her former lover?). But I had a lot of fun reading the story, so I'm willing to overlook some of those gaps. There is, as mentioned above, a sexual assault early on that is pretty disturbing, so even though this book is written for a YA audience, it's probably not appropriate for very young readers.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


2. Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson

The Rithmatist (Rithmatist, #1) The more I read from Sanderson, the more impressed I am with his creativity. Each of his series features a different magic system--all fascinating, all plausible. In this case, the magic system features chalk drawings that come to life to attack or defend as the case may be. Only Rithmatists are allowed to create these chalk drawings, originally developed to defend against the wild chalklings currently trapped on the island of Nebrask. (Yes, island: the book is set in an alternative late 20th century universe where the United States is actually the "United Isles." Just one more thing to love about it).

Joel is a student at a prestigious academy for Rithmatists and non-Rithmatists, but all he wants to do is study rithmatics. Of course, he's not allowed to, but that doesn't prevent him from sneaking into classes and reading as much as he can on the topic--to the detriment of his other studies. But when Rithmatist students begin disappearing from their homes and Joel is asked to assist one of the professors investigating the case, he begins to understand that there's more to his world than he knew.

I think I loved the world-building here as much as any of the characters: I liked Joel, and I adored Melody, the outcast Rithmatist student who befriends Joel (although it could also be said that Joel befriends her.) I'm already looking forward to the next book in the series.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Interestings

I'd hoped to have a new blog up and running in time with the new year, but as with all the best intentions . . .

Last year, I read 129 books (I read The Eye of Minds last year, even if my review posted *this* year).

Appropriately, for my first book of the year, I have one that made all kinds of best books of 2013 lists. As adult contemporary, this is also outside my usual genres a bit.

1. Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings

I'm having a hard time collecting my thoughts on this one, which is probably a good thing. Several days after finishing it, and I'm still thinking about it.

The InterestingsI had high hopes for the book, not only because of the rave reviews, but because the book theme treated something I've been thinking about a lot lately (part of an early mid-life crisis?): can you live a "successful," fulfilling life even if your life looks nothing like the early promise you manifested as a teenager? The opening epigraph, in particular, is devastatingly apt: ". . . to own only a little talent . . . was an awful, plaguing thing . . . being only a little special meant you expected too much, most of the time."

And technically, this book is successful: Wolitzer writes well, her characters are complex and the multiple POV seems faithful to each character. The book is also quite ambitious, tracking the characters from their meeting at age fifteen at a summer camp into their mid fifties. And the philosophical question of the book was one that I found personally compelling--and Wolitzer's answer seems hopeful.

But. Somehow it didn't move me as much as I'd hoped it would. Maybe because I found the characters interesting, but not personally relatable? I didn't love any of the characters, except perhaps Jules (I loved her description of how difficult it is to be a wry, diffident teenage girl). The writing was also cruder than I like, just as a personal preference.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Eye of Minds

The Eye of Minds (The Mortality Doctrine, #1)129. The Eye of Minds, James Dashner

This was my first Dashner novel, though I've heard him speak before at a writer's conference and he was really funny. This book, of course, isn't funny--but it is fast-paced and interesting.

The story is set in a vaguely futuristic world where most people (especially young people) spend much of their free time in the VirtNet (aka, the Sleep), where their bodies are wired to experience virtual events as if they are real. Michael is a gamer--a hacker and coder--and like his two best friends, he spends much of his time playing virtual games in the Sleep.

That is, until he witnesses a horrific suicide (a real one) inside the VirtNet and hears about Kaine, a hacking genius who has somehow managed to evade authorities and kidnap and torture some of the best and brightest in the VirtNet. Now the VNS (the VirtNet Security) has a real problem: how to capture a man who has so far eluded all attempts. Their answer? Recruit a bunch of hackers and see what they can do. Michael, along with his friends Bryson and Sarah, agree to help, thinking this will just be a more advanced version of their usual games. When they realize how serious Kaine is, they try to back out, only to find themselves threatened by VNS. They go back into the VirtNet, following a trail of clues that take them to unimagined parts of the virtual world and to secrets they never suspected.

The story/plot here is great. While I suspected part of the final plot twist, I didn't see all of it coming and the book packs a pretty good surprise. Dashner's story moves along quickly (I read most of it on a 3 hour car ride this afternoon) and the virtual world he creates is interesting. The writing itself isn't quite as winning: the writing never got in the way of the story, but it wasn't ever outstanding enough for me to slow down to savor the writing (as, say, with Gaiman's books). And I never really connected to the characters, who weren't especially distinctive to me. However, the plot is strong enough that these complaints won't really matter to most readers. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Ocean at the End of the Lane

128. Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LaneI think if I could write like Gaiman does, I might die of happiness. This book was short--but so lovely. Reading it felt very much like being immersed in one of those strange dreams where you wake not quite certain what is real and what isn't. Whimsical, lyrical, bemusing--all of those words fit this book.

The protagonist (I don't know that he's ever named) returns home to a rural part of England for a family funeral and finds himself drawn to the pond at the end of the lane. While there, he's overcome with memories from his childhood--particularly of the family who lived at the end of the lane and the daughter, Lettie, who insisted that the pond was not a pond, but was, in fact, an ocean.

As a seven-year-old boy, he wandered one night with Lettie across the boundaries of worlds and inadvertently became a door for something otherworldly to return home with him. His and Lettie's quest to send the being back where she belongs launches them on a series of mini-quests and encounters with curious creatures: some lovely, some haunting, some horrifying.

The story is simply told, but it has some lovely reflections on the nature of memory, on being a child (being both powerless and insightful), on the untrustworthiness of adults, and on the elusive nature of reality. A quick read, but a great one.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014


127. Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell

I may be about to go fangirl myself on Rainbow Rowell. I've read two of her books in the last two weeks--and I loved Eleanor and Parks, but I think I may have loved this one even better. It speaks to the secret, hidden nerd heart that I carry around with me all the time.

FangirlCath is a twin who's grown up with her sister Wren as her side-kick in everything: from surviving their mother's departure just after 9/11 to writing fanfiction about Simon Snow (a fictional character that's part Harry Potter, part Mortal Instruments). But when they go off to college and Wren wants more independence (aka, she doesn't want to be Cath's roommate, to be instantly branded by her twin identity), Cath feels more than a bit lost. She throws herself into her fan-fic--her Carry On, Simon has over 30,000 hits on the fanfic site she frequents. But of course, real life also intrudes, and Cath has to negotiate living with an abrupt, sometimes rude roommate, the boy who's constantly at their dormroom because of her roommate, the boy she's begun meeting at the library for curiously intense co-written stories, and her father, who may or may not be coming apart at the seams during her absence. Not to mention the increasing distance between her and her twin.

Cath's story alone is lovely: heart-felt and real. But Rowell intersperses Cath's story with bits from the made up universe of Simon Snow--excerpts from the "real" books, and Cath's fanfiction. By the time I hit the end, I'd seen not only Cath's evolution as a writer, but I had a good sense of why she loved the story characters so much (heck, I loved them too, and I'd only read short excerpts). Rowell's almost flawless integration of these three levels of story is only one of many reasons that I loved this book.