Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Shadow Land - Elizabeth Kostova

I've written about Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian previously - I loved that book. I'm going to ignore the fact that her second book, The Swan Thieves, exists at all. It's better that way.

Last night, I finished her third book, The Shadow Land, which takes place in Bulgaria. Although it is a work of fiction, this novel nevertheless delves deeply into the period of Soviet control that occurred after WWII (from 1944-1989, and primarily from 1944-1962, as she notes in her Author's Message at the end). Labor camps, discrimination, and punishment without trial or sentencing were rampant. It's books like these that remind me how much world history, even relatively recent history, I don't yet know.

Much like The Historian, this tale unfolds through current events in the life of our main character, Alexandra Boyd, and via written accounts from other characters. I love Kostova's method of blending several distinct stories and timelines into one cohesive story. Not every author can create such complexity while maintaining an identifiable thread throughout. The woven plot of The Shadow Land made it particularly hard for me to stop reading at a reasonable hour of the evening, because she gives away so little of each story at a time. I wanted to know everything about each person, which meant reading huge chunks at a time. This came in handy when I hit the firsthand account of a prisoner in one of the Bulgarian labor camps. The imagery was brutal. Let's just say the guards' weapon of choice was the wooden club. As much as I wanted to know everything, I had to put the book down and recover from a couple of the more stomach-churning sections before I could continue.

That being said, this book wasn't quite as magical as I wanted it to be. A few of the story lines were wrapped up a little too perfectly to be believed. If that was the case in The Historian, I didn't notice, because my disbelief was already happily suspended for the historical fantasy. The Shadow Land is a more conventional work of historical fiction, though, so those instances were jarring and a little annoying. In fact, they become more annoying the further I get from having finished the book, because I keep ruminating on them - it's definitely clouded my overall judgment. To me, it just feels like the author trying a little too hard to show the reader how clever she is. As a writer myself, I know firsthand how tempting that can be to do, but it rarely makes for a fun read.

Still, I'm glad I read this one. If anything, reading a "close but not quite" book is the best thing for me, because it serves as inspiration to work on my own novel. My critiques turn into clearly-defined goals for my own writing. I can't wait to have it finished, so I can share it with all of you!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

An Evening with Dawes

A few years ago, when Bryan and I were still engaged and in the midst of planning our wedding, my dad called and told me about his latest music obsession: a band named Dawes, who'd just put out their sophomore album called Nothing is Wrong. He said I had to give them a listen, especially since one song in particular made him think of me every time he heard it:

Somewhere a pretty girl is writing invitations
To a wedding she has scheduled for the fall
Her man says, "Baby, can I make an observation?
You don't seem to be having any fun at all."

She said, "You just worry about your groomsmen and your shirt-size. 
And rest assured that this is making me feel good."
I think that love is so much easier than you realize
If you can give yourself to someone, then you should

Cause it's a little bit of everything
The way you joke, the way you ache
It is getting up before you
So I can watch you as you wake

So on the day in late September
It's not some stupid little ring
I'm getting a little bit of everything
-Dawes, "A Little Bit of Everything"



How could a bride-to-be resist falling in love with those words? It would've been our father/daughter dance song, if the first half wasn't about suicide and departed sons (you know, minor details). I more or less kept up with their career from there, making sure I listened to anything new they put out and smiling whenever 107.1 played one of their songs. I couldn't quite match the passion Dad had/has for them, but then again, he hasn't fully jumped on board the Arctic Monkeys train, either. We each have our obsessions....

This past Christmas season, Bryan was scouring the internet for gift ideas for Dad. Lo and behold, Dawes was touring for their most recent release, We're All Gonna Die. That was a no brainer! He bought two tickets for the March 18 show at the State Theatre in Kalamazoo, enabling our first father/daughter solo time since Liv was born and setting up his own father/daughter evening in the process. It was an exceptional show, with two full sets plus an encore where they laid everything out in a flawless performance. I've had one song or another stuck in my head every day since Saturday. (And yes, they played "A Little Bit of Everything" 😍)

I know everyone listens to music for different reasons. Some people hear voices first, while others hear the instrumentation or rhythm patterns. Personally, I listen for clever lyrics. If you're like me, it's really hard to top Dawes (plus they have great voices!). If you need more examples, here are a couple of the songs that have been on rotation in my head:



And yes, I do now own a T-shirt that says "We're all gonna die." That seemed like a necessity after the show.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Looking Ahead

I've been reading much slower than usual lately, but I'm really excited about the newest additions to my queue. Have you read any of these? What did you think?


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (BBC America)

October disappeared in a blur of red and gold and rain and football. I had plans for two more Halloween-related posts, so I'll include those now as honorable mentions:

Night Film, by Marisha Pessl. This was one of the most gripping books I've ever read. It follows a journalist who becomes obsessed with a particular film director with an unusually dedicated fan following. The journalist gets sucked into the cult-like culture surrounding this director, ultimately risking his life to get to the bottom of the case. This story is a beautifully-wrought investigation of our fascination with mystery, our imaginative power, and whether it's ever worth it to pull back the veil.

The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill. This is a horror novella that I would recommend to any lover of the genre. I'd heard it was creepy, and I was intrigued by the movie trailers, so I rolled the dice and picked up a copy. I spent most of the book thinking, "This is fun, but I've read creepier." Until the end. Oh, the end. The end carries the entire punch. I had chills running down my spine for days.

And now, the actual reason for posting: the crazy, unpredictable new TV show that is BBC America's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. Dirk Gently is a Douglas Adams creation, and though I haven't read that series of books, I'm always up for some Douglas Adams screwiness. (And yes, Bryan, I will read the books!) Man, this show delivers. Bryan and I counted 11 casualties in the first episode, none of whom died of natural causes. There is a kitten, there is a corgi, there is a downtrodden Elijah Wood, there is a holistic detective who I can only compare to Matt Smith's Doctor, and I have no idea where the story is going. I love it.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

In recent news, I attended my first writer's conference! My friend Robin and I attended the Women Writers of Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti this past Saturday, and we came away feeling invigorated. If any fellow writers have been toying with the idea of going to a conference, grab a friend and check one out - you never know who you might meet while you're there!

Since I started the month with Unnatural Creatures and because it's October, I'm going to continue with the somewhat spooky theme. I decided I didn't have the time nor the energy to decorate my house for Halloween this year, so I have to celebrate somehow.

This week's (well, last week's belated) feature is The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova's absolutely amazing debut novel from 2009. I've read it three times so far, and I'm starting to feel the itch to read it again. At 676 pages, it's definitely meaty enough for the reader to get something different out of it with every reread.

My first time through, I could barely put the book down to sleep and do actual adult things like go to classes or cook dinner. The story follows a father-daughter duo as they go on the hunt for Vlad the Impaler, who inexplicably is still around (in a sense) to cause trouble. I say this in a light-hearted tone, since this is a blog post and all, but the book itself is downright chilling. I was captivated by Kostova's writing; at times, the plot is unfolding as a story within a story within a story, and yet the reader never gets lost in the timeline. As a writer myself, I am in awe of the skill she wielded in order to pull that off.

The second time through, the whole story started to really sink in for me. I savored it a bit more, since I knew the overall arc but was still pleasantly surprised by some of the twists hadn't remembered. The third time around, the characters felt like old friends welcoming me back into one of my favorite fantasy lands.

Kostova herself has an MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won one of the prestigious Hopwood Awards for The Historian, which at the time was her novel-in-progress. When I was an undergraduate, I applied to the Hopwood Awards and the U of M MFA program, both to no avail - in my head, Kostova has become a symbol for the writer I want to be but am not yet. Even writing this blog post about The Historian gives me the itch to work on my own novel, which I started with a similar historical fantasy perspective in mind.

On a different note, I've noticed that my readership numbers are slowly climbing the past few posts (yay!). To any newcomers who'd like to follow my unpredictable schedule, please sign up for the email list to be notified whenever a new review is posted! Also, if you know anyone who'd appreciate the blog, please share. :) There will be another post later this week, barring any disasters with my project for work, and it too will follow the Halloween theme.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Unnatural Creatures - Edited by Neil Gaiman

Welcome back! I found myself missing my blog, so I stuck baby in her pack 'n play with a bunch of toys and grabbed my laptop. It's not her absolute favorite set-up, but she usually entertains herself for a few minutes, at least.

Needless to say, life has been INSANE. I'm slowly studying the ins and outs of owning one's own business, but that of course has to take a backseat to the technical writing that brings in a more immediate paycheck. Plus, you know, the crawling, babbling baby. Sometimes (very infrequently), I sleep.

I've been reading much more slowly than ever before (see above), but I did take the time to finish the Unnatural Creatures collection edited by none other than my favorite author, Neil Gaiman. It's safe to say that I've never read a more carefully-curated collection of short stories in my life. Every single story seemed like something that could have come from his own pen, which tells me there's a whole new list of authors I should be exploring.

Gaiman did include one of his own, "Sunbird," which is a delightfully odd little tale about the most adventurous foodies you'll meet. It was previously published in one of his own collections, but I always enjoy coming across it.

This is probably going to sound really weird, but even though I really enjoy writing short stories, I often have trouble focusing on anthologies enough to remember the individual stories long-term. So, for this review, I figured it'd be an interesting test to look over the table of contents once I'd finished the entire book in order to see which ones stand out the best in my mind. The list includes: "The Griffin and the Minor Canon," by Frank R. Stockton; "The Cockatoucan; Or, Great-Aunt Willoughby," by E. Nesbit; "The Smile on the Face," by Nalo Hopkinson; and my absolute favorite, "Come Lady Death," by Peter S. Beagle. Overall, save for one story ("The Compleat Werewolf), this was a really enjoyable read.

Better yet, when I did a little digging, I discovered that the proceeds from this collection benefit 826DC, a youth literacy nonprofit/Astounding Magic Supply Company. The 826 network is an amazing community, providing homework help, field trips, and writing inspiration to young explorers across the country. I had the pleasure of volunteering and later interning for 826michigan, the Ann Arbor branch that masquerades as a robot supply company. They even recently expanded to Detroit, so if you live in either area, stop in and say hi to the lovely staff!

So, in conclusion, Neil Gaiman's fingerprint + support for 826DC makes this one of my favorite short story collections ever. I'm excited for babe to be old enough to share it with her and watch her imagination run wild.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The City of Mirrors - Justin Cronin

It was a long break between posts, but this was a long book! At 598 pages, The City of Mirrors is definitely not for the casual reader (and neither are the first two books of this trilogy). There was also a nice long vacation in Marquette and Northport in there, not to mention my return to technical writing, so I've been a bit distracted. (The technical writing is not nearly as fun as this, of course, but someone actually pays me for it.) It took a full two months for me to read the book, but read it I did.

Truth be told, I'm not even sure how to review a book that so completely captivated me. I haven't fully detached myself from that world yet to be able to logically assess the book's strengths and weaknesses, nor am I in any hurry to do so. The more I read, the more I was struck by the thought that words are the closest thing we have to magic in our modern world. They transmit ideas. They give meaning to every gesture we make. They let us share every feeling we experience within ourselves. They build upon themselves to create histories, histories we can reference as we forge new paths in life. Without this shared foundation, it would be impossible to understand one another, yet we just as often tell stories of fiction as we do stories of history. Fiction becomes intertwined with fact in ways that tug at heartstrings and influence decisions. What is that, if not magic?

This meditation was born from my sense, toward the middle of the novel, that I was reading modern a reworking of The Return of the King. Virals (bloodthirsty, vampire-adjacent monsters) come raining down upon civilization, decimating a population that had barely begun to rebuild from the last siege, evoking the same sense of desolation as the flood of orcs that all but takes over Middle Earth. In the midst of the despair, there are a few bright spots of hope: individuals who won't give up fighting for their loved ones until their dying breath. Peter Jaxon is Aragorn, the man who never sought power but was too disciplined and brave to avoid becoming a leader. Timothy Fanning is Sauron, the ultimate source of the evil that has spread across the country. My dad and I talked at some length about who serves as Frodo in this analogy. I think arguments could be made for both Amy Harper Bellafonte and Alicia Donadio. They seem to pass the torch back and forth a number of times as the plot unfolds. The parallels aren't perfect, nor do I think they should be. As it stands, the allusion is subtle yet powerful, making The City of Mirrors an appropriately epic conclusion to The Passage trilogy.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Medusa's Web - Tim Powers

I managed to read a book! It felt great just to get from cover to cover, and luckily, Medusa's Web is also a really fun read.

As far as Tim Powers' work goes, I wouldn't say this is the book to start with if you want to get familiar with his wonderfully twisted imagination. I started with Three Days to Never, which obviously got me hooked, and the subsequent Hide Me Among the Graves was just as good. Start with one of those, then hit Medusa's Web and Last Call. (Dad also loves Declare, but I have yet to get my hands on a copy of that one!)

The only reason I don't recommend this one to start is because the beginning is incredibly confusing. The characters travel through time and space by looking at images called "spiders," which are abstract doodles with eight legs, as it were, radiating out. Once a person sees a spider, they fall into nothingness for a moment, then they "wake up" into two dimensions and have to find their way into the third. I don't know if it was the fact that my mind is often in ten places at once, or if it was the extreme lack of sleep, or what, but it took me a couple of chapters to fully grasp what the hell was going on. Given how it feels for the characters, I can't decide if that disorienting introduction for the reader is off-putting or a stroke of genius. As soon as you get the hang of it, though, the plot is gripping, full of peril, and comes to a satisfying conclusion.

A small, stupid aside: this story is set in Hollywood, and there's a fair bit of "turn left on this street, turn right and head toward Y street," etc. It reminded me a little too much of SNL's Californians sketch and made me giggle like crazy. Yep, I'm that mature.

Next up: Justin Cronin's trilogy-concluding The City of Mirrors. I definitely recommend The Passage and The Twelve, and given it's debut spot at #1 on the NY Times bestseller list, I think I'll love this one just as much.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Syfy's The Magicians: A Retrospective Update

Welcome to the redesign! I still have a few changes to make, but I'm loving the progress so far. Don't forget to sign up for email updates to guarantee that you see new posts! I've heard that there's a bit of a time lag, but it's still more reliable than the ever-changing Facebook algorithms.

The first season of The Magicians ended a couple of weeks ago, so I've had plenty of time to mull over my reactions to the show (which took a day or two, and then I procrastinated a bunch). Season 2 is already a lock, set to air in 2017.

I'll certainly watch season 2, but I was ultimately disappointed with season 1. It started strong; I loved the first 3 or 4 episodes. There were obvious plot tweaks that helped transition the material from book to screen, but I understood and agreed with those changes. The characters were still true to their origins and fun to watch. As the season developed, though, the storyline started running off the rails. I was feeling uneasy by the middle episodes, and I was completely flummoxed by the end. Julia's story in particular took a cliff dive - I actively hated her screen time. There's a brief respite when she and Quentin make it to Fillory, when their chemistry really recalls their friendship and the magic from the beginning of the series, but that's quickly stolen away again.

Another issue I had was the gore. It was completely unnecessary. The books are far from clean, often touted as "Harry Potter with drugs and sex," but they didn't feature grisly murder after grisly murder. That addition may have upped the drama, sure, but it seriously took away from the fun.

So why will I still watch the second season? Complaints aside, there are some elements that I kept loving throughout the season. Eliot and Margo are great characters who get even better when they're together. Eliot is far and away my favorite part of the show, mostly because he's the closest to being the book character come to life. Penny's actually better in the show than he is in the books - he's a much more lovable grump on screen. I'm also dying to see more of Fillory! The magic looks awesome no matter what, but Fillory is the perfect setting for it. 

I know I said in the first post that we shouldn't expect the show to be identical to the books, but I honestly wanted it to be a little closer in comparison. Here's hoping they fix the mess that is Julia's story next season!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Everything You've Come to Expect - The Last Shadow Puppets

All right, the time has come for this review: I've listened to the new album approximately 4,516,784 times. (Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but I'm sure Bryan would agree with the sentiment. Poor guy.) I've had time to let it sink in, study the lyrics like it was my job, and compare it to the 2008 album The Age of the Understatement.

That comparison between the two albums is no easy task. They're completely different animals. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's astounding to realize how much has changed in the past 8 years for these artists.

The title track is my absolute favorite song on here, closely followed by the wonderfully weird "Dracula Teeth" and the could've-been-ripped-from-Suck-It-and-See "Miracle Aligner." The three songs have been stuck in my head on a pretty regular rotation since the first time I listened. "The Element of Surprise" is a song that makes me want to be a better writer - it features some of the most clever lyrics I've ever heard. Some highlights:

  • "There's a set of rickety stairs / In between my heart and my head / And there ain't much that ever bothers going up them."
  • "Why colour in the lines if you're just painting it black?"
  • "I thought they were kisses but apparently not / Do you end all your messages with an 'X marks the spot'?"

...I get jealous just typing those up. I wish I'd thought of them first.

Unlike The Age of the Understatement, though, there are some dull spots on the album: I never really register that "Used to Be My Girl" and "She Does the Woods" are two different songs, because neither one grabs my attention. Then there's "Bad Habits," which is easily the worst song on the record. By far. I'm not one to skip tracks as I listen to albums, because I like to hear how artists weave their overall stories, but in this case, I'm tempted to do it every time that song comes on. You could even guess it's a clunker just by looking at it on the page: it has half the lyrics of any other songs on the album, and is populated instead by over-the-top, stereotypical-rock-star "oohs" and "yeahs." I'm cringing just thinking about it. The best part about it is that it's pretty short, so it doesn't completely cloud my view of the rest of the album.

At the end of the day, I think the biggest takeaway from this album is that it is most definitely Alex Turner's side project. The Age of the Understatement was very much a dual effort between Turner and Miles Kane, and it comes across as a carefully-crafted masterpiece of a debut. Everything You've Come to Expect is much less balanced; Kane may have suggested a few lines here and there, but the bulk of the writing has Turner's fingerprints all over it. This is definitely a fun album to listen to, but it's definitely not what I was expecting as an Age of the Understatement follow-up.

(Sorry. Couldn't resist the cheese. They made it so easy. An apology video.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Girl in the Spider's Web - David Lagercrantz

We're going to see how this works on mobile, because the laptop is too cumbersome with baby! Apologies for any weird formatting or missed auto-correct shenanigans.
I finally finished a book! I focused on The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz, mostly because it was a library book and I was determined to get it done before I would have to renew it.
If I were to use the Goodreads system to rate this one, I'd probably give it three out of five stars. I liked it, but sadly, I didn't love it. I'll start with the positive: Lagercrantz did a phenomenal job picking up the characters and mimicking the style of the original Lisbeth Salander series. All of the original characters he brought back sounded almost exactly like Steig Larsson's creations. That is no easy task! Because the transition was so seamless in that regard, this book was as quick and almost as engaging to read as its predecessors.
Unfortunately, there were a couple of negatives, as well. Although the characters remained true to themselves, I got the sense that they weren't pushed to do anything new in this one. Blomkvist cracked a big story, but he was clearly smarter than the villains and therefore was never really in danger. Lisbeth did more of the life-threatening work, but after the trauma she endures in the first three novels, working with a bullet hole in her shoulder seems like next to nothing. And that leads into my biggest complaint - this novel lacks grit in a major way. There are violent scenes, but most of them - indeed the worst of them - happen offstage, as it were. For normal mysteries, that would be fine, but Lisbeth Salander's world was built on violence. It's what made her the woman we meet on the page, and it's how she's forced to survive. Without the violence, the book loses that sense of urgency that made the trilogy so great.
Of course, like most mystery authors do these days, Lagercrantz left the door wide open for a sequel. I'm sure I'll read it when it's out, but I won't hold any illusions about how it's going to hold up to what is easily my favorite mystery series in print.

The Shadow Land - Elizabeth Kostova

I've written about Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian  previously - I loved that book. I'm going to ignore the fact that her sec...