Sunday Sum-Up

Another week has gone by, and once again I don’t know where the time has gone. I’ve spent my days getting the last few things done before I pack up and head to the airport on Tuesday. I bought a watch, got in touch with my hotel in Reykjavic about mundane things like check-in time and parking, and have been trying to get over the fact that my first time driving in a foreign country will be a stretch of highway about 40 miles long after a night of very little sleep. Fun!

Needless to say, it’s going to be a busy, busy week. Today, my book club is going to an orchard to Nebraska City (about an hour and a half drive away) to pick peaches, and then if it doesn’t starting pouring tonight I’m planning to go to the annual lantern float at a local park tonight. Then tomorrow I’ll be packing, Tuesday I head to the airport, and Wednesday my adventure in Iceland begins! I’ll update as I can while I’m away, but no guarantees.

And now for books!

I finished up a couple of in-progress books, started and finished another, and finally remembered a short story by my favorite mystery writer.

24612045I listened to the audiobook version of Eddie Izzard’s memoir, Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens, narrated by Izzard himself. While I do love Izzard’s comedy and the random little asides he has in his stand-up routines, I wish I had read this book instead of listening to it. There are tons of footnotes, especially early in the book where Izzard finds it necessary to explain the 1960s and 1970s British culture of his childhood. He interrupts the narrative to read the footnotes and it really disrupts the flow of the story. Had I read the book, it wouldn’t have been so distracting. It does get better as it goes, with fewer footnotes and a faster-paced narrative, but that’s something like eight hours into a twelve hour work.

644655I also finished up Ann Cleeves’s Raven Black, which is the first of her Shetland Islands mystery series. I’m not sure what to think of this one. The story was interesting, the writing was good, and the characters were interesting, but 1) it didn’t spend that much time with the detective, Jimmy Perez, who was wonderful in the television show, Shetland, and 2) the show follows the book fairly closely, so I spent the whole book knowing whodunnit, wondering how they were going to find the killer there vs. how they found the killer on the show. I might give the next book a shot. We’ll see.

 

 

25908693I started and finished The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, and it was wonderful! The only problem I had with the book was that it wasn’t long enough. It’s about 260 pages and covers almost twenty years of A.J.’s life, so Zevin has to race through the story. Her characters were complex and interesting, and the story was engaging, so she could have spent more time engaging with the characters and taking a deeper dive into their lives. That said, I enjoyed this book immensely and would definitely recommend it.

 

 

The last thing I read this week was a Barker & Llewelyn short story by Will Thomas, An Awkward Way to Die. I knew it was coming out at the beginning of August, but I’d forgotten all about it until I saw a posting about it on Facebook. It’s short, fun, and provides a little taste of my favorite detective duo until the next book in the series comes out this fall.

I’m currently reading H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. It’s a memoir of the author’s life in falconry and her training of a goshawk, how she recovered from her grief after her father’s death, and her relationship with a particular book by T.H. White. It’s not a linear narrative, so it’s initially a little strange but once you get used to it, it’s rather beautiful. I’m about 15% of the way through it.

And that’s all for now! If I don’t get moving I’m going to be late for peach picking!

Have a great week, everyone! I’ll write more when I can!

Review- The Curse of Chalion

61886The Curse of Chalion
by Lois McMaster Bujold
496 pages
Published 2000

From Goodreads: A man broken in body and spirit, Cazaril, has returned to the noble household he once served as page, and is named, to his great surprise, as the secretary-tutor to the beautiful, strong-willed sister of the impetuous boy who is next in line to rule.

It is an assignment Cazaril dreads, for it will ultimately lead him to the place he fears most, the royal court of Cardegoss, where the powerful enemies, who once placed him in chains, now occupy lofty positions. In addition to the traitorous intrigues of villains, Cazaril and the Royesse Iselle, are faced with a sinister curse that hangs like a sword over the entire blighted House of Chalion and all who stand in their circle. Only by employing the darkest, most forbidden of magics, can Cazaril hope to protect his royal charge—an act that will mark the loyal, damaged servant as a tool of the miraculous, and trap him, flesh and soul, in a maze of demonic paradox, damnation, and death.


My Thoughts

I came across The Curse of Chalion while wandering around Barnes and Noble one summer day some years ago. I was in the midst of a reading slump, having finished up the latest volumes of the various series I was reading. I was having a hard time finding new titles to read, as at the time I was stuck to the fantasy genre and read very little outside of it. But it had come to a point where new series/trilogies just weren’t appealing to me. It seemed like everything was either overly formulaic or trying too hard to be original. I’d picked up a variety of standalone novels and been utterly unimpressed with any of them. So I didn’t have very high hopes when I came across this little paperback book with a shiny gold cover.

The synopsis was interesting, though it sounded like most of the others, which promised world- or kingdom-ending consequences if the protagonists failed in their missions, but they rarely delivered on those promises. So I bought the shiny little book, took it home, and cracked it open.

I was hooked from the very first page.

There aren’t many openings that can paint such a vivid picture of a world, the people who inhabit it, their culture, and establish a fascinating main character within the first few chapters, but Bujold accomplishes just that. From the first few pages, you understand Cazaril and his motives. He begins the story as a broken man, recently recovered from injury and illness after his enslavement at the hands of his country’s enemies. While he wants nothing more than a quiet life, he is given the job as secretary-tutor to a teenaged princess. He must teach her about the world they inhabit and how to survive the deadly game of court politics, even as he strives to keep his enemies at bay as he seeks a way to end the curse that hangs over the royal house of Chalion.

It’s a daunting task. Writers with less skill than Bujold would spend several books explaining the world of the five gods, letting the details bog down the plot until it turned into a multi-book saga no one wants to read. But Bujold is better than that. She can paint a picture of a far away county with a few deft strokes and provide a wealth of sensory detail without chattering on about inconsequential bits. Bujold’s story is so engaging that she needs only mention the orange blossoms once or twice to fill your imagination with the scent.

The characters, too, are so fleshed out that they feel real. I don’t need to imagine what actor might play Cazaril. His oft-maligned and patchy beard is as perfectly imaginable as the determined look on the Royesse Iselle’s face, or Lady Betriz’s dimples. Everyone, from Cazaril on down to minor characters is believable, even the villains. The dangerous dy Jironal brothers are treacherous in their own way, but never become the mustache-twirling, melodramatic arch-villains with a master plan to take over the world. Their motives are just as human as everyone else’s, their vices and virtues as recognizable as their own.

“This wasn’t prayer anyway, it was just argument with the gods.
Prayer, he suspected as he hoisted himself up and turned for the door, was putting one foot in front of the other. Moving all the same.”

-Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion

Religion plays a major role in the story. Unlike many fantasy stories I’ve read, you don’t have a God of Death, a Goddess of the Harvest, or a God of Trees or whatnot (or, as Eddie Izzard might say, “Jeff, the God of Biscuits and Simon, the God of Hairdos”). The Chalionese religion suffuses the lives of its followers, regardless of their piety. Just like the Christian church did in the medieval world (and still does, to a great degree). There are temples to all five gods, a religious hierarchy, and living saints. There are sermons and prayers, holy days, funeral rites, and marriage customs. The people offers prayers and offerings, and while some do it with true faith guiding their actions, others merely pay lip service.

And when a god appears to someone, that person undergoes a fundamental change in perspective. To brush up against the divine is to be forever changed.

This notion– that gods are beyond anything the human mind can truly comprehend– is not something that often comes up in fantasy novels. Often, when a god is mentioned at all, he/she/it seems to be altogether human in their perspective. Their wisdom is often that of a college professor- like someone who has read more books than anyone else. Their influence is direct and obvious, like the Dungeons and Dragons cleric who prays for a resurrection spell and is granted it.

The Chalionese gods are more ambiguous. Did the Lady of Spring guide Iselle when she lit the first flame during the Daughter’s Day rites, or did Iselle manage to light the flame on the first try because she is young and has steady hands? Did the crow fly to Cazaril because he’d been feeding it, or did the Bastard guide the crow? These questions come up, but it’s impossible to answer them for sure because the divine is ineffable. Only a living saint can see the proof of a god’s hand, but being a saint in Chalion is to be marked as utterly different.

Bujold’s prose, too, sets The Curse of Chalion apart. It is lyrical at times, or philosophical; economical when it comes to Chalion’s history, and sarcastic when Cazaril is feeling snarky. It is never clunky or clumsy. It’s light enough on its feet to dance around the reader, but never gets so full of itself that it leaves the reader behind.

“Any man can be kind when he is comfortable. I’d always thought kindness a trivial virtue therefore. But when we were hungry, thirsty, sick, frightened, with our deaths shouting at us, in the heart of horror, you were still as unfailingly courteous as a gentleman at his ease before his own hearth.”

“Events may be horrible or inescapable. Men have always a choice – if not whether, then how they may endure.”

-Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion

There are few books that I declare to be favorites after the first reading. It often takes multiple readings for that declaration. The Curse of Chalion took one of those top spots in my heart from the first. I take great care with my books– I want them to last forever– but my shiny gold paperback copy is starting to fall apart. The front cover is slowly coming away from the spine and I fear the first couple of chapters will go with it. While I have a digital copy, I don’t think it will be long before I go in search of a new, physical version.

The Curse of Chalion doesn’t show up on many ‘Top Ten Fantasy Novels to Read This Summer/Winter/Before You Die’ lists, and that’s a shame. It doesn’t have bold print “New York Times Bestseller” tag on the top, and it’s not new enough to have a flashy book trailer. No one is making a movie or TV series from it. Come to that, I can hardly find it in bookstores. If you can track it down, though, or download an eBook version, it would be well worth your time and money. Cazaril is a different kind of hero from any other you’ll find. His story is complex, beautifully written, and utterly engaging.

 

Review- Crown of Midnight

DSC01749Crown of Midnight (Throne of Glass #2)
by Sarah J. Maas
418 pages
Published 2013

From Goodreads:  “A line that should never be crossed is about to be breached.

It puts this entire castle in jeopardy—and the life of your friend.”

From the throne of glass rules a king with a fist of iron and a soul as black as pitch. Assassin Celaena Sardothien won a brutal contest to become his Champion. Yet Celaena is far from loyal to the crown. She hides her secret vigilantly; she knows that the man she serves is bent on evil.

Keeping up the deadly charade becomes increasingly difficult when Celaena realizes she is not the only one seeking justice. As she tries to untangle the mysteries buried deep within the glass castle, her closest relationships suffer. It seems no one is above questioning her allegiances—not the Crown Prince Dorian; not Chaol, the Captain of the Guard; not even her best friend, Nehemia, a foreign princess with a rebel heart.

Then one terrible night, the secrets they have all been keeping lead to an unspeakable tragedy. As Celaena’s world shatters, she will be forced to give up the very thing most precious to her and decide once and for all where her true loyalties lie… and whom she is ultimately willing to fight for.


My Thoughts

I read Crown of Midnight as a buddy read with Danielle over at Books, Vertigo & Tea. I probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise. I found the first book, Throne of Glassdisappointing, as Celaena read like a wish-fulfilling Mary Sue instead of a fully fleshed, dynamic character, and Maas’s writing was clunky and uninspired.

Crown of Midnight… is marginally better. Celaena has more depth this time around, and because the story is not lurching toward the end of a protracted contest there is more time to explore her growth as a person and develop her relationships, both romantic and platonic. She’s an assassin with a heart of gold, and it’s made clear early on that she’s only pretending to carry out the king’s orders. Celaena’s ruses go off without a hitch, so that even her closest friends believe that she’s killed all those people.

And, of course, her friends- Chaol, Dorian, and Nehemia- look at her sidewards because Celaena is an awful person for killing them (even though she hasn’t). Despite the fact that they already knew she was an assassin.

What did they think she did before they met her? Skip through meadows and pick flowers while singing to the animals?

*sighs*

Odd expectations of an assassin’s morality aside, the other characters did a little growing up, too. Dorian rose in my regard after he made a particular discovery, though he’s still content to sit back and watch his evil father continue to plan evil things. It seems his idea of ‘making a difference’ is to object to some of dad’s plans in the council chamber, but his objections hardly seem to make much of a difference. I’m sorry, Dorian, but you can’t just thumb your nose at authority and expect things to change on a fundamental level.

Nehemia continues to be one of the most interesting characters in the story, but alas, we hear more from a doorknob than we do the princess of Eyllwe.

Maas’s writing has improved since the first book though the prose is still workaday, walking from one event to the next and doing its job without much flair, like it just wants to get through the day so it can go home and take a nap. Plot twists are telegraphed so far in advance that you could use binoculars to see them coming. There’s no surprise to them, just the satisfaction of knowing you were right.

I have had an issue with the lack of specificity in the two books. We’re accustomed to fantasy novels having foundations in historical lands, whether it’s the Anglo-Saxon-based setting of Tolkien’s Rohan, the medieval Russia of Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, or the late-Renaissance Amsterdam-like atmosphere of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. The world of Throne of Glass is harder to pin down and so it’s harder to get a sense of the place, as Maas pulls from a variety of sources to inhabit her world. The character of Baba Yellowlegs, for example, is analogous to the crone Baba Yaga from Russian tales, while the fae spoken of in other parts of the books resemble those of Welsh and Irish stories. In the first book Celaena listens to minuets, a type of dance popular in eighteenth century France. While I realize that Celaena’s world has a variety of cultures, the lack of specificity about any of them makes it difficult to get a concrete sense of the place and thereby get lost in the world. I kept coming across vague terminology (or things that were just used incorrectly) which would make me stop and ask, “What kind of weapon is Celaena using? It just says ‘sword’. There are a lot of different kinds of swords”.

And so, while the characters have grown more likeable in Crown of Midnight, and there is some political intrigue going on, I just don’t have enough interest in the story to want to go out and read the rest of them. I’ll be the first to admit that I am a snobby reader, but when there are so many amazing fantasy novels with more engaging stories than those of the Throne of Glass books, I just can’t see myself taking the time away from them to read about characters I only sort of like.

Review- Red Sister

25895524Red Sister
by Mark Lawrence
469 pages
Published April 4, 2017

From Goodreads: I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin.

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.

But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.

Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive


The teenage-girl-assassin theme feels likes it’s all over the place these days. Or it might just be because a few books get all the press, making it feel like it’s all over. I don’t know. I haven’t read All The Books, so maybe it’s a new trope that I’m only brushing the edges of.

I had much higher hopes for Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister than I had for Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass since I’ve heard nothing but good things about Lawrence’s books.

“It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.”

– Mark Lawrence, Red Sister

An opening line like that carries with it a promise of a strange story. Who would want to kill a nun, and why would you need an army to do so? The nuns of this story, of course, are not the sort we would think of today, in crisp black and white habits. The sisters of the Sweet Mercy Convent are trained as warriors, whether with weapons or with magic, and it truly takes an army to bring one of them down.

The nuns’ training takes ten years to complete, and it is at the beginning of this process that we meet Nona Grey, one of the newest and certainly the bloodiest novice at this peculiar convent. Nona has secrets. A lot of them. They’re what took her from her home, nearly to the gallows, and finally to the relative safety of the Sweet Mercy Convent.

I say ‘relative safety’, because, in spite of the Sisters’ abilities, danger swirls around the nuns and their students. From day one, the girls’ lives are in danger while the abbess plays a risky political game. Through all this, Nona must learn who to trust– and when.

It should be disturbing to read about girls as young as ten learning how to kill people. They’re children, after all, and should be taking lessons about reading and writing, but the world of Abeth and the Corridor in the ice is a brutal one. Their sun is dying, the ice is encroaching, and powerful men don’t care if the target of their vengeance is a skinny little girl. To keep themselves alive, these girls must learn the tricks of their deadly trade. Sending a young girl off to learn the assassin’s trade is obviously not a new thing. In both Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass  and Robin LaFevers’s Grave Mercy, the worlds those heroines face are also dark and dangerous. But Mark Lawrence succeeds with Nona where Maas and LaFevers failed with Calaena and Ismae because Nona is a flawed character. She is young and naive, though she thinks she understands the world because her life has been hard. She has trouble making friends, and she has trouble with her lessons. She assumes things about other people that  aren’t true, and then she acts on those assumptions- often with terrible consequences. In other words, Nona acts like you would expect a girl to act in her shoes. Lawrence lets his main character act like an idiot and be beaten (and take a beating), then lets her pull herself together and learn from her mistakes. Just like a normal person would.

I think that letting your characters fail is one of the marks of a great writer. It’s easy to fall in love with one of your characters. They start to feel real after a while, and it’s hard to let them be humiliated. Who wants that to happen to their precious creation? But if humiliation (or injury or even death) are what the story demands, then that should happen. I didn’t think Nona was going to die, but there were times where I wasn’t sure she would come out the other side of whatever trouble she found herself in. Or something could have happened to one of the other girls, like Hessa, Ara, or Clera. There was a constant tension– whether it was a childish rivalry for another girl’s attention or a fight to the death– that kept me fully engaged in the story. I hated to put it down and came back to it as soon as I could.

The rest of the elements are expertly handled, as well. The worldbuilding is completed in multiple ways, and the way it is presented feels perfectly natural. Nona, being an uneducated child, must learn about the world she inhabits and so the reader learns along with her. There is the sense that this is a very old world with a complex history, but Lawrence never delves into a hundred generations of begats, nor does he have his teachers drone on about this king or that. The politics are introduced as Nona sees them and while they’re important to the story, they’re often secondary to it. The relationships between the girls drive the events, not some far away Emperor’s pronouncements.

And while I’m mentioning relationships, I’m going to turn back to the characters because the relationships the girls in the Sweet Mercy Convent have are wonderfully realistic. They’re a disparate group of girls with differing skills and strengths, flung together almost at random. They share sleeping quarters, meals, and sometimes clothes, and while this draws many of them into lifelong friendships, it pushes others apart. There are rivalries to match just about anything in Game of Thrones, and hard lessons about friendship and trust.

Another important thing? There is no love interest. There are no love triangles. Nona isn’t some great beauty from the wilderness, just waiting for someone to wash off the dirt and give her a pretty frock to turn her into the pretty, pretty princess of the prince’s dreams. That falls to one of the other girls before the issue of beauty is dropped on the wayside behind their training. The girls don’t have time to stress out over tangled hair and make-up. Nor do they have the energy or inclination to worry about boys. Not that they would have boys to pine over in an all-female convent, but they’re aware of boys, of marriage, and of the things that men and women do together. But there’s no romantic love in this book, only the love between friends, a relationship that is all too often cast aside when a hint of romance enters the picture.

As dark as it can be, Red Sister is an incredible book. It’s plot structure, world-building, characterizations, and writing are hard to beat in the dark fantasy genre. I started reading it a little after midnight on Monday and finished it on Tuesday afternoon. It’s a rare book that is so enthralling that I will spend all my spare time reading it, and Red Sister is one of the few.

Review- The Ballad of Black Tom

26883558The Ballad of Black Tom
by Victor LaValle
149 pages
published February 2016

From Goodreads: People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn’t there.

Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father’s head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.

A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?


My Thoughts:

I first came across this book while reading an article about standalone fantasy novels on BookRiot, and after seeing that it was one of NPR’s best books of 2016 and was on shortlists and finalists for awards like the Hugo and Nebula, I decided to give it a try. When I picked it up at the library I was surprised to see how short it is- just 149 pages. But LaValle packs a lot of story into those pages, and he doesn’t need a single word more to complete the story.

In Jazz Age New York (1920), Charles Thomas Tester has learned a few things in his twenty years- that life is unfair, that life as a black man is especially unfair, and that you have to take care of your own because no one is going to help you out. He knows he’s at the bottom of every power structure in the city, and he knows there’s nothing he can do about it. So he hustles and takes odd jobs to keep food on his table and a roof over his father’s head.

And so it goes until two of his side jobs collide and keep colliding until Charles Thomas Tester reaches his breaking point and he realizes that the world around him isn’t just indifferent to his plight, it actively hates him. When he’s offered a chance to change that dynamic, he leaps at the opportunity.

“I bear a hell within me,” Black Tom growled. “And finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin.”

– Victory LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom

There are two other major characters in this book, but to discuss them very much would spoil the story. Suffice it to say that they are white men- a wealthy dabbler in the black arts and a policeman who thinks he’s doing the right thing. They both imagine themselves to be high up in New York’s food chain. They’re white men, after all, and with either money or authority, why shouldn’t they see themselves as better than the rabble around them? This naive, racist perspective leaves them both woefully unprepared for the dark forces that lurk just beyond the range of human perspective. And it’s their own foolish actions that lead to doors being opened that should have remained closed.

Like any book worth the paper it’s printed on, the issues at the heart of The Ballad of Black Tom speak to more than just the time period it’s set in. Police violence against the black community, fear of immigrants and the cultures and religions they bring, and Authority’s sense that it can blithely walk all over the Little Guy and expect no repercussions are all issues that resonate as strongly in 2017 as they did in 1920.

There are more than a few whispers of H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos in this story, but it’s the fallout from pushing a man beyond his limits that makes this story unsettling. We can easily dismiss the idea that ‘dead Cthulhu waits dreaming’, but we can’t dismiss the fact that ordinary people can pushed into doing monstrous things. It happens every day.

Review- Practical Magic

22896Practical Magic
by Alice Hoffman
286 pages
Published 1995

From Goodreads: “[A] delicious fantasy of witchcraft and love in a world where gardens smell of lemon verbena and happy endings are possible.”—Cosmopolitan

The Owens sisters confront the challenges of life and love in this bewitching novel from New York Times bestselling author Alice Hoffman.

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town. Gillian and Sally have endured that fate as well: as children, the sisters were forever outsiders, taunted, talked about, pointed at. Their elderly aunts almost seemed to encourage the whispers of witchery, with their musty house and their exotic concoctions and their crowd of black cats. But all Gillian and Sally wanted was to escape.

One will do so by marrying, the other by running away. But the bonds they share will bring them back—almost as if by magic…

“Splendid…Practical Magic is one of [Hoffman’s] best novels, showing on every page her gift for touching ordinary life as if with a wand, to reveal how extraordinary life really is.”—Newsweek



My Thoughts

The more of the Goodreads Monday tags I do, the more I’m grateful for having started doing them because they’re reminding me of some great books that have been languishing on my TBR list. The Glass Universe was like that, and so was Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic. I’ve written before about how much I enjoyed the movie when I finally sat down and watched it (I still want to live in the Aunts’ house, or even just have their yarn winder). The book, of course, is different from the movie, but both are wonderful.

The basic plots are the same- Sally and Gillian are sisters who are raised by their Aunts Frances and Bridgett. They’re close as children but then grow apart. Sally, the dependable and dutiful sister stays home, falls in love with and marries a local man and has two daughters with him before he is struck and killed by a car. Gillian leaves town as soon as she’s eighteen and runs from one disastrous relationship to the next until events force her to return to her childhood home. One of the film’s biggest departures from the book is that Sally continues living with the Aunts in the movie. In the book, she moves away to build her own life with her girls, away (she thinks) from the witchy happenings in the old Owens household. Another major departure is that Sally’s daughters, Antonia and Kylie, are little girls in the movie, and in the book you see them grow into teenagers.

Again, I think both book and movie are fantastic, and I can see why they director made the changes for the movie. The book, being a book, is better able to delve into complex issues of love and loss, the bonds of family, and why women might make the sorts of mistakes they do when love and infatuation are involved. There is a lot about growing up, too, and how strange and upsetting it can be to wake up one morning and realize that you’re not a little girl anymore.

“Trouble is just like love, after all; it comes in unannounced and takes over before you’ve had a chance to reconsider, or even to think.” 

-Alice Hoffman, Practical Magic

Love is at the center of this book. The love that sisters share, lost love, a mother’s love for her children, and love that isn’t really love at all. What sets the book apart from the movie is the book’s ability to get into the heads of the characters to see what drives them and why they make the choices that they do. Gillian’s choice to stay with her abusive boyfriend, Jimmy, makes a sad kind of sense when seen from her point of view. She doesn’t believe she deserves happiness, and thinks she can change him. Sally’s grief at her husband’s early death drives her away from the Aunts and into something like a normal life, but you can see why she doesn’t really go and live her life. She’s consumed by the idea that her little world will fall apart without her and having that illusion shattered nearly undoes her.

Sally’s daughters, on the other hand, are only starting to learn about the world. Antonia is a selfish sixteen year-old who torments her little sister, but then has her world turned upside down when Kylie turns thirteen and starts to blossom. Kylie herself is baffled by this change, and it nearly wrecks the only real friendship she has. Everyone in the Owens household is, at one point or another, so focused on their envy, frustration, and misery that they can’t see the outside world and its effects on them. They, like real people, have a hard time swallowing their pride enough that they can talk to the people around them and work out the problems that are making them unhappy.

All of the characters in Practical Magic are beautifully drawn and complex. They have good points and flaws and they learn and grow throughout the book. Their relationships are such that the magic of the title is almost secondary to everything else, even though Hoffman scatters folk wisdom and magic throughout the story, whether it’s the Owens women’s beguiling beauty, their magical soap, or giant lilacs blooming out of season.

Hoffman’s writing is gorgeous, too, creating a believably magical world out of ordinary neighborhoods and revealing the issues the Owens women face without getting sentimental or dull about them. Their fear, misery, happiness, and love feels as real as if it’s happening to you, making Practical Magic impossible to put down. Almost like someone’s cast a spell over you.

Review- Throne of Glass

514nd2R1-rL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Throne of Glass
by Sarah J. Maas
404 pages
Published 2012

From Goodreads: After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince. Prince Dorian offers her her freedom on one condition: she must act as his champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin.

Her opponents are men-thieves and assassins and warriors from across the empire, each sponsored by a member of the king’s council. If she beats her opponents in a series of eliminations, she’ll serve the kingdom for four years and then be granted her freedom. Celaena finds her training sessions with the captain of the guard, Westfall, challenging and exhilarating. But she’s bored stiff by court life. Things get a little more interesting when the prince starts to show interest in her … but it’s the gruff Captain Westfall who seems to understand her best.

Then one of the other contestants turns up dead … quickly followed by another. Can Celaena figure out who the killer is before she becomes a victim? As the young assassin investigates, her search leads her to discover a greater destiny than she could possibly have imagined.


 

My Thoughts:

I don’t like to dismiss things out of hand just because they’re popular. That’s lame, and I don’t like to be That Guy over in the corner, whingeing about how Such-And-Such thing was great before it was popular, but now it’s been ruined by fame. No one likes That Guy.

So after seeing Sarah J Mass’s books pretty much everywhere online and in bookstores, I decided to give it a shot. It couldn’t be worse than Grave Mercy, after all, and I thought I might be pleasantly surprised, though the synopsis didn’t give me much confidence- a royal competition involving assassins and thieves, after all, doesn’t sound terribly likely as a premise, and I tend to despise love triangles.

Still, I carried on. Perhaps the characters were super interesting, or the world building allowed for a competition between assassins to make perfect sense. And the love triangle, people said, was not a major part of the story. So off I went into the world of Adarlan.

And I have  to say, I was not impressed with the place or its people.

Let’s start with the main character, Celaena Sardothien. At seventeen, she was the most feared assassin in Erilea until she was betrayed and sent to the salt mines of Endovier. After a year in a place where most people die within a month or two, she’s dragged out of it in order to compete against a bunch of assassins and thieves so Adarlan’s king can find himself an assassin to do his dirty work. Celaena emerges from a year in a salt mine bony and dirty, but otherwise healthy. And perfectly capable of drawing a bow, wielding a sword, throwing knives, and climbing sheer walls after resting up a little. The part of my brain that cries out for reality went off a hundred times, but I ignored it and carried on only to discover that, not only is Celaena young, feared, the very best at what she does, and able to recover from deadly situations in record time, she is also exquisitely beautiful, loved by animals, can pick up pretty much any weapon and use it expertly, and, oh yeah, the Crown Prince and his Captain of the Guard are both in love with her.

Of course.

Now, the big problem I have with flawless characters like this is that they’re boring. If they’re accomplished at everything, then what can they learn? How can they grow? What is it about them that’s going to change by the end of the book? If they’re already flawless, then where’s the tension? I knew going into Throne of Glass that Celaena was going to win the competition. How could she not? No one else could hold a candle to her abilities, and no one had a snowball’s chance in hell of beating her, because she was the novel’s wish-fulfilling Mary Sue.

So I looked to the other characters for interest. Crown Prince Dorian, for example, for Captain Chaol Westfall. Neither of them were the male equivalent of the Mary Sue character (a Marty Stu, if you will), but their interesting qualities waned at exactly the same time that they fell for Celaena. Suddenly they were no longer players in a larger game. They served only to be Characters Who Adored Celaena.

The one who proved to be the most interesting was Princess Nehemia, a resident ex-royal from a kingdom recently conquered by Adarlan. She is smart and beautiful, too (because everyone in Adarlan is, apparently, smart and beautiful, except for the thieves and assassins Celaena competes against), but she has a head for politics and it is difficult to tell how, exactly, she is serving her people. Is she merely a political representative/hostage from her homeland of Eyllwe? Or is she quietly aiding a rebellion against Adarlan? It’s hard to tell, and while Maas devotes some ink to the subject, she only touches on it now and then. Perhaps it’s fleshed out in the next book. I don’t know. I haven’t read that one.

The characters aren’t the only disappointing element of Throne of Glass. The prose is clumsy and often awkward, with many words and phrases used in such as way that I would stop reading mid-sentence and think, ‘is that how that phrase is supposed to go?’ or ‘I wonder if Maas knew the meaning of that word, because that’s not how it’s normally used’.  I don’t demand that every sentence be graceful and perfect in every grammatical way, but if the prose itself knocks me out of the story, then that’s a problem.

I can understand the appeal of Throne of Glass. Who wouldn’t want to imagine themselves in Celaena’s shoes and be fearless, young and accomplished, as well as beautiful and beloved by two handsome and accomplished men? But ultimately, I found the characters to be uninteresting, the story predictable, and the world building to be lackluster at best. Maas’s writing did improve as the book went on, but in the acknowledgements at the end she says she spent ten years working on this book. For all that time spent on the writing, I would expect Throne of Glass to be far better than it is.

If you’re looking for a fantasy trilogy about a teenaged assassin, I would recommend Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, by now a classic fantasy story about a prince’s bastard son taken into the palace and given to the royal assassin and spymaster. Hobb’s writing is excellent, the story is tightly knit and believable within its well-crafted world, and for all his flaws and mistakes FitzChivalry Farseer is a far more interesting and sympathetic young assassin than Celaena Sardothien.