Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry

(Image courtesy of Goodreads.com)

Blah. I was actually all set to do a VanDuinen Studio blog post this week, but that's going to have to wait a week. This book pissed me off so much that I have to write about it.

The Essex Serpent was an impulse grab in the "new" section of the Dexter District Library. I absolutely adored the cover art, and the blurb made the book sound just as interesting. Cora Seaborne is newly widowed and forever a natural sciences addict. She goes to a little coastal town in Essex to look for fossils, and instead stumbles upon the legend of the Essex serpent, which has supposedly resurfaced after decades in the deep. She meets a clergyman in the town of Aldwinter, and their friendship sets up a delightful religion vs. science debate that would've made a great novel, had the author actually continued that line of thinking. Instead, she drops that plot like a hot potato two-thirds of the way through, and the entire book devolves into a description of who is sleeping with who. Not at all what I was expecting, and frankly, pretty boring.

The more I sit and think about this book, the more I remember threads that were never resolved. A big one is the socialist who is fighting for decent low-income housing as a side-plot: she convinces several other characters to join in her fight, then accepts living with her boyfriend in a flat paid for (absurdly) by the man who wishes he were her boyfriend. The legislation she mentions in practically every conversation prior to the end is never voted on, as far as we know.

The Essex serpent itself is also heartily disappointing. There's a steady build-up throughout the first half - mysterious deaths, a girl with webbed fingers who seems to channel some of its energy, a dying woman who can hear it talking, copious amounts of fog. Well, all of that remains unexplained, because the "serpent" is really an overturned boat that finally washes to shore. (Normally I wouldn't ruin the ending in a book review, but I really don't recommend wasting your time on this one!) It felt like a ghost story that ends up resolved as a sheet caught in the wind - the kind of story I avoided as a child by searching in the non-fiction section for my ghosts.

Thankfully, I have several other books on deck. I can quickly forget this one, now that I have this rant out of my system. On to happier reading!

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Supernatural Enhancements - Edgar Cantero

I don't know if I've ever felt so divided in my opinion of a book by the time I finished it. Usually by that final page, I've been able to come to some type of conclusion! But The Supernatural Enhancements is in a league of its own in many ways.

I think I'll do a pro/con list for this one, since the sides are so evenly balanced.


  • The creep factor is definitely there. If you like creepy books, this one delivers. There's both mystery and gore involved, and the mystery was compelling enough to keep me focused past the gore.
  • The two main characters are great. I thought Niamh especially was going to get annoying.  She's introduced as kind of an edgy quirk personified, so I highly doubted that she was going to be well-rounded enough to be readable. Thankfully, I was wrong, and her personality plays very nicely off of the narrator's. They're an amusing and enjoyable pair.
  • Speaking of humor...The whole book is funny. If you have a macabre sense of humor (like I do), you'll definitely get a kick out of this one.
  • There's too much going on. It's a haunted house story at first, then it morphs into a mystery, and finally a murder mystery. Cantero deftly keeps it all together and keeps all the pieces moving, but it's quite the roller coaster for the reader. I kept wishing the story would settle in and focus, but it never really does.
  • Too much is expected of the reader. There are several instances where something clicks for the narrator, but it takes a while for the story to get back around and explain the piece that fell into place. I was under the impression that I was supposed to have made the connection at the same time as the narrator, but it was never fully clear which mystery was being solved at the time (see above: too much happening!). 
  • The end is a little messy. Almost all of the loose ends are tied up by the end, but (without giving too much away) there are some escapees that make me think the author banished them because he didn't want to figure out how to deal with them more fully. It left the climax feeling rushed more than solved, which was a little disappointing.
All in all, I think it's worth a read. It goes quickly and it's a fun practice in mental gymnastics. It's also completely different from anything I've read before - even as an avid reader of supernatural-laden stories, I can't think of anything to compare it to that would give you a full picture. That being said, it  hasn't ended up on my list of all-time favorites, but obviously not every book will.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

To the Bright Edge of the World - Eowyn Ivey

I am back with a book review! (Something something toddlers something something no time to read...) And what a book this was - I actually have a couple more in progress at the moment, but this was the first in a long while that made me make time to read it quickly. I felt like my old, pre-mom self again while reading this one, especially on the nights when I stayed up until 1:30 in the morning because I could not put it down. 🙀

A brief synopsis for context: As the hero of To the Bright Edge of the World, Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester leads an Alaskan expedition (primarily on foot) from the mouth of the Wolverine River to Kulgadzi Lake, and then north to the Yukon River to catch a steamboat back home. His wife, Sophie Forrester, stays behind at their cabin in the Vancouver Barracks, where she occupies her mind and time learning photography. Her subject of choice is birds (a woman after my own heart), particularly nesting birds. The story is written as a compilation of historical documents, transcribed diaries, and photographs, all of which have been organized by a museum director in Alpine, Alaska. It's a great way to organize the text, especially because Ivey did so much research to write this novel. Even though it's fiction, it still feels like history coming alive at your fingertips - at one point I checked her map against Google Maps and got a little thrill from finding that all the landmarks are, in fact, real. I'm ready to pack a bag and see it myself!

I approached this book already predisposed to loving it, since The Snow Child earned a place forever in my heart a few years back. That being said, it's actually difficult to find much of a connection between the two books, other than Ivey's enviable mastery of the language. The one common thread I did pull out was the fantastical nature of the Alaskan wilderness; in fact, in this most recent book, the events tend more toward the supernatural the deeper the travelers get into unexplored territory. There's a really nice tension throughout between what the scientifically-minded Forrester is willing to believe and what he's actually seeing.

I won't spoil the ending for you, but I will say that it is so wonderfully human. I can't even categorize it as "good" or "bad," because it's so much of both blended together. It is an incredibly satisfying ending, which is the most important trait to me. I've officially started following Ivey on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, because I want to know the minute she releases another book!

(Image from Goodreads.com)

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.

The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry

( Image courtesy of Goodreads.com ) Blah. I was actually all set to do a VanDuinen Studio blog post this week, but that's going t...