Mini-Reviews: Station, Artistic, You, Book

Station ElevenArtistic License

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven — This novel centers around an apocalyptic event, a virus that wipes out 99.9 percent of the world’s population. There are two major narratives: one involves a famous actor who dies just as the virus begins to spread, and the other is set several years after the virus, focusing on a traveling theater troupe and orchestra whose motto is the Star Trek: Voyager quote “Survival is insufficient.” I was much more interested in the latter story than the former, and I also found the postapocalyptic landscape somewhat implausible (there’s not a single person left alive who can figure out how to keep a power plant running, yet there are multiple cellists?). So my feelings about the book are mixed, but overall I liked more things than I disliked.

Elle Pierson, Artistic License — When I discovered that Elle Pierson was a pseudonym for Lucy Parker, I downloaded this book immediately! The heroine is a painfully shy art student; the hero is a tough-looking security guard who is extremely insecure about his “ugly” looks. Their budding romance is threatened by the baggage they each bring to the relationship. This book really worked for me because I loved the main characters and how they both cherished the most “unlovable” parts of each other. It’s not quite as polished as Act Like It or Pretty Face, but it’s still a very enjoyable contemporary romance.

It's Not Me, It's YouBook Jumper, The

Mhairi McFarlane, It’s Not Me, It’s You — This is a chick lit novel about Delia, a girl whose life is turned upside-down when she proposes to her longtime boyfriend, only to discover that he’s been cheating on her. She promptly moves out of their shared home and relocates to a new town, where she gets a new job with a shady boss. Ultimately, Delia has to uncover the boss’s shenanigans with the help of several friends, including an abrasive-yet-handsome young journalist—all while her ex-boyfriend desperately tries to win her back. On the surface, the book is about a woman choosing between two men, but really, it’s about the choice between two lives—the familiar vs. the unknown, the safe vs. the brave. I liked this book a lot, and Mhairi McFarlane will definitely be one of my go-to authors for this type of read!

Mechthild Gläser, The Book Jumper (trans. Romy Fursland) — When Amy and her mother move from Germany to their ancestral home in Scotland, Amy discovers that her family has a special legacy: they can “jump” into books and spend time in their favorite fictional worlds. As Amy practices her book jumping skills, she learns that someone is stealing important plot elements from her favorite works of literature (the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, the cyclone from The Wizard of Oz). While solving this mystery, Amy also uncovers secrets from her family’s past and embarks on a romance with unforeseen complications. I really liked the premise of this book, and I was impressed by the ending, which is a little darker and more complex than I’d expected. But overall, this was just an okay read for me. A more interesting take on the book jumping premise is Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series.

Mini-Reviews #11: December, part 1

I can’t believe it’s already New Year’s Eve…time to finish up those 2016 (mini) reviews before 2017 arrives!

skink-no-surrendersomebody-to-love

Carl Hiaasen, Skink: No Surrender — Teenager Richard teams up with the idiosyncratic Skink (former governor, current homeless eco-warrior) to find Richard’s missing cousin Malley. There’s no particular mystery about what happened to her, but the fun is in the journey, as rule-follower Richard finds his worldview enlarged by Skink’s more reckless lifestyle. Overall, while this isn’t really my kind of book, I did enjoy it and may read more by the author. I believe Skink is a recurring character in Hiaasen’s novels, and I’d like to know more of his backstory.

Kristan Higgins, Somebody to Love — Another light, charming contemporary romance from Kristan Higgins. Although most of her books are not serialized, this one borrows the location (and a few characters) from Catch of the Day, and it also features the couple from The Next Best Thing. Having read those two books, I enjoyed seeing how the various fictional worlds overlapped. That said, I don’t think you’d miss anything important if you haven’t read the other two books. I always enjoy Higgins’ books, but this one isn’t destined to be one of my favorites.

old-dogsenvious-casca

Donna Moore, Old Dogs — If you enjoy heist movies, you should definitely check out this book, which involves two priceless historical artifacts: solid gold dog statues. Main characters Letty and Dora are aging ex-hookers who hope to enjoy a lavish retirement by stealing the dogs from a museum exhibit. The trouble is, they’re not the only ones after the dogs…. While I didn’t find this one laugh-out-loud funny, it does include plenty of entertaining mishaps, mistaken identities, and mad schemes of vengeance. Definitely worth reading if the word “caper” appeals to you!

Georgette Heyer, Envious Casca — So far, I’ve found Heyer’s mysteries to be a bit hit-or-miss, but I think this is her best one yet! It’s an English country house murder set at Christmas. Of course, there’s a big family party, and of course, everyone has a reason to wish the estate’s owner dead. The novel is very well plotted, and the solution to the mystery is (in my opinion) utterly convincing. Even if you’ve tried another Heyer mystery and didn’t particularly like it, I’d urge you to give this one a try!

Review: Letters from Skye

Letters from SkyeJessica Brockmole, Letters from Skye

This epistolary novel tells two parallel love stories, each set against the backdrop of a world war. In 1912, Scottish poet Elspeth Dunn receives a fan letter from David Graham, an exuberant young American. Elspeth replies to the letter, and she and Davey soon strike up a regular correspondence. At first they discuss literature and their favorite books, but soon they’re exchanging ideas about everything under the sun, including their most secret dreams. Unsurprisingly, Elspeth and Davey fall in love, but their romance is fraught with complications. When America enters World War I, Davey enlists immediately as an ambulance driver on the battlefields of France. Additionally, Elspeth is already married, so her stolen moments with Davey are as fleeting as they are precious. Meanwhile, in 1940, Elspeth’s daughter Margaret — also involved in a wartime romance — stumbles upon one of Davey’s letters and decides to search for the secrets in her mother’s past.

In theory, I should love this book, since it combines a lot of my favorite things: epistolary novel, WWI and WWII setting, love stories, family secrets. But while I found it an entertaining read, my overall experience was somewhat disappointing. First of all, the story is really about Elspeth and Davey, so the parts about Margaret felt very cursory and not fleshed out at all. I would have liked to know a lot more about her reactions to her mother’s secret, as well as the details of her own romance. Also, the story itself seems very superficial, given the gravity of the WWI backdrop. Even though I enjoy light romances with happy endings, I felt like this book lacked emotional stakes. Elspeth and Davey are likeable characters, and their letters are often very charming, but I was never in any real doubt about the end result of their story. Maybe part of my problem is that this book seems like a copycat of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, only not nearly as good! Overall, this book is a nice, quick read, but it won’t stay with me the way Guernsey has.

Review: Blade of Fortriu

Blade of FortriuJuliet Marillier, Blade of Fortriu

In this sequel to The Dark Mirror, King Bridei of the Priteni believes his mission is to eradicate the Gaels and their Christian religion from his lands. He is a strong king, brave in battle and devout in his allegiance to the old gods, so he’s the ideal person to unite the Priteni against this outside threat. Bridei is planning a big move against the Gaels, but in order to succeed, he needs the help of a foreign chieftain named Alpin. Bridei therefore proposes to offer his royal hostage, Ana, to Alpin as a bride, hoping this will ensure his loyalty. Ana longs to marry for love, but she knows she has no choice in the matter. She sets out for Alpin’s lands in the company of Faolan, Bridei’s most trusted bodyguard, spy, and assassin. As Ana and Faolan travel together, their relationship deepens, but she is already promised to Alpin. And when she finally arrives at Alpin’s court, Ana discovers a shocking secret that will have drastic implications for both Bridei’s campaign and her own heart.

Much like its predecessor, The Dark Mirror, this book is very slow-paced, and I had trouble getting into it as a result. I find the world of this series fascinating; it’s based on historical facts (the Priteni were real, and Bridei really was their king for a time), but Marillier weaves many fantastical elements into the setting. Half the novel focuses on Ana’s story, while the other half follows Bridei’s campaign against the Gaels. Personally, I was much more interested in Ana’s story, especially since I always enjoy a little romance with my fantasy! Interestingly, the story seems very predictable at first, but it eventually veers into an unexpected direction. I wasn’t entirely pleased with the resolution of Ana’s story, but it does provide some interesting avenues to explore in the final book of the trilogy. I’ll definitely be reading The Well of Shades to see how everything turns out, but I don’t think this series is Marillier’s best work. Try her Sevenwaters books instead!

Review: The Shadowy Horses

The Shadowy HorsesSusanna Kearsley, The Shadowy Horses

Verity Grey is a young archaeologist who has recently quit her job at the British Museum and is looking for freelance work. Her former colleague (and ex-boyfriend) Adrian tells her about a potential job in the coastal town of Eyemouth, Scotland, but he is vague about the details. Nevertheless, Verity is intrigued enough to travel to Eyemouth for an interview. There she learns that the head of the expedition, wealthy archaeologist Peter Quinnell, is hoping to find traces of the Ninth Roman Legion, which appeared in Britain in the second century A.D. and then vanished from history. Verity is excited to be part of such a potentially major find — until she learns that Quinnell has no tangible evidence that the Ninth ever passed through Eyemouth. Rather, he is basing his expedition on the word of an eight-year-old boy who is said to have the second sight. Verity is extremely skeptical at first; but the longer she spends in Eyemouth, the more she becomes convinced that something supernatural is at work.

I was surprised to discover that, unlike many of Susanna Kearsley’s other novels, this book is not a work of historical fiction; all the action takes place in the present day. Aside from that, however, The Shadowy Horses definitely has a similar feel to Kearsley’s other books. There is a young, intellectual heroine who is fascinated by history; a story in the present that closely parallels a story in the past; various supernatural elements (in this case, a ghost!); and a romance. These are all things that generally appeal to me in books, but once again, I found myself unable to get emotionally involved with this novel. There is just something about Kearsley’s writing that keeps me at a distance; though her books (including this one) are very readable, I’m never on the edge of my seat, dying to know what will happen next. A lack of dramatic tension, perhaps? Anyway, I did enjoy this book — the bits about archaeology were especially fascinating, though probably a bit outdated now — but it wasn’t anything more than a pleasant read for me.

Review: Life of Johnson

Life of JohnsonJames Boswell, Life of Johnson

James Boswell and Samuel Johnson were unlikely friends: Boswell was a young Scottish nobleman with a penchant for drinking and whoring, while Johnson was poorer, much more devout (in theory, at least), and a good 30 years older. Yet throughout the course of this monumental work, Boswell describes his reverence for Johnson’s intelligence, morality, and literary talents — a reverence so extreme that Boswell took notes on almost every conversation he ever had with the older man. As a result, this biography is stuffed full of Boswell’s personal anecdotes, letters both to and from Johnson, and first-person accounts of other contemporaries who knew him. Near the end of the book, Boswell states: “The character of Samuel Johnson has, I trust, been so developed in the course of this work, that they who have honoured it with a perusal, may be considered as well acquainted with him.” And indeed, anyone who reads this book will come away with an extremely vivid picture of a remarkable man.

This book is so huge and deals with so many things that I don’t quite know what to say about it. At first I was very intimidated, both by its length and by Boswell’s flowery 18th-century prose. But even though it’s not a quick read, this book contains a wealth of fascinating details about Johnson and the age in which he lived. I was struck by how literary the 18th century was, in the sense that seemingly anyone with a claim to intelligence was churning out books and pamphlets. In that way, Johnson’s time is very similar to our own, where everybody can (and does) publish blogs, tweets, and other forms of instantaneous literature. I was also fascinated by Johnson’s unique character; though intelligent, he was often pompous, narrow-minded, and abrasive. I frequently found myself underlining various Johnsonian sayings that were wise, or funny, or both — but I would have hated to be forced to converse with him! Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the time period or who enjoys very thorough biographies!