Review: If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

If on a winter’s night a traveler
Outside the town of Malbork
Leaning from the steep slope
Without fear of wind or vertigo
Looks down in the gathering shadow
In a network of lines that enlace
In a network of lines that intersect
On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon
Around an empty grave
What story down there awaits its end?

★★★★☆

Writing reviews for terrible books is easy, but trying to gather my thoughts about good books is so much more difficult for me. Because I loved this—it was brilliant. It was also boring (not in a bad way, oddly enough). So those two words are what I’m sticking with: Brilliantly boring. Or boringly brilliant? It reminded me a lot of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, though with a definite plot and a lot more intrigue.calvino

It was a book about books, about beginnings, a book in which any reader will doubtlessly see reflections of themselves. (Half of my copy is dog-eared and highlighted.) The story revolves around a main character (“the Reader”) who begins reading If on a winter’s night a traveler only to find that his copy cuts off just as it gets interesting. When he goes on a journey to find the rest of the book, he manages only to find a trail of other story beginnings, each of them just as magnetic as the last, and each cutting off just when the story really starts to suck you in.

I’ve always found myself uneasy about the “beginnings” of stories. I dislike the weightlessness of it, the feeling of being on the edge of a cliff and deciding whether or not to jump. This probably sounds like the antithesis of what a reader should be, but let me explain: I’m one of those readers who likes to be in the thick of things already; it’s one of the reasons I disliked the first ASoIaF book but have loved the rest of them (and would probably love the first, too, if I ever get around to rereading it). I hate not knowing what’s going on, though I do love the slow discovery of it.

But somehow, Calvino transformed this uneasy feeling of the “beginning” into an entire book, making a novel that never fully moves past that act of initial discovery. Every time the Reader and I set out to begin the next story, I found myself embracing the weightless, ungrounded feeling, and every time, just as my environment slipped away and I entered the story fully, it was ripped away. Calvino succeeded in this every time, with every new story, easily making the Reader’s struggle, his irritation at being interrupted right when it was getting good, my own.

Now, I could have probably given this five stars, because it was, as I said before, brilliant. It’s one of those novels where, as I was reading, I was consumed by it, but after I finished I had to admit it wasn’t an all-time favorite.

So in the end, it’s not a book I’ll feel a connection to down the road, although I’m glad I read it and will definitely recommend it to others.

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Review: Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

★★★★☆

This will be a semi short/messy review since I already did a proper one for Six of Crows here.

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LOOK AT THIS BEAUTIFUL BOOK. LOOK AT IT.

This was super enjoyable; I read it in the car, at work, till two in the morning, in the bathroom, while stuffing Chipotle into my face, etc. (None of those things at the same time, though, just to be clear.) BUUUTTTTTT, for the sake of honesty, it didn’t blow me away, even though I’ll say I loved the duology as a whole and Bardugo is a god damn genius when it comes to crafting characters.

To begin, there was a loooooot of deus ex machina going on here. I mean truly every scene where the odds were totally beyond their scope, where everything was hopeless, one of the characters would find this new power inside them and it would work! perfectly! each time! For instance, [SPOILERS BELOW]

  • Jesper learned that one of the reasons he might be such a good shot is because he’s a Fabrikator. Cool idea, and I’d assumed from the beginning that that’s why he was a sharpshooter, but then he went on to make an impossible shot where the bullet actually curved in midair around a corner and hit the person in the chest. SO YEAH it was cool, but like… too cool and too convenient. I have a problem with that.
  • Nina learns that after using jurda parem, she can’t control her powers like she used to. Then, against impossible odds, she finds she’s able to control dead bodies. Which was super gross to begin with, but she uses these CORPSES to not only defeat her enemies but then miraculously carry a net out under Inej right when she falls off a grain silo (this probably sounds super weird if you haven’t read the book, lmao). I’ve read other reviews for Six of Crows that mention the total lack of morals that these characters have, and I hadn’t had a problem with it because that’s the story, and I’ve read Game of Thrones which is a hundred times worse. People are sick and self-serving for the most part (can you tell I’m an optimist?), so these lawless characters didn’t make me grimace. But this… using dead people as props and controlling them… I had been gobbling up the pages and then that happened and I was like

It threw me off to such an extent that I wondered if I could recover from it and still enjoy the book. There are other instances too, but those are two that really annoyed me. And I mean, it wasn’t TOTALLY terrible because inklings of these abilities were sprinkled through earlier on in the story, but it was still just cringe-worthy in my opinion.

Other than that, the book was good but long and rambling in a lot of ways. It didn’t have a clear plot like Six of Crows; it was more a jumble of a bunch of Kaz’s failed plans and then the gang recovering from the previous heist and doing something else to get their money back. It wasn’t that it wasn’t fun to read, but it seemed like the book was a lot longer than it really needed to be and like the author couldn’t come up with one central heist to cover the length. It was a lot of back and forth, and that constant planning, executing, OOPS WE’VE BEEN BACKSTABBED or OOPS IT’S A TRAP, failing, replanning got dull after a while, to the point where I was skimming the more politic-driven scenes to get to the parts I cared about, aka the action and the kissing. (I’m not too ashamed.)

Last but not least, perhaps my BIGGEST issue was (pretty major spoiler ahead so don’t click unless you’ve read the book) Matthias’ death. It was, to put it shortly, completely random, out of place, and wholly unnecessary. It added absolutely nothing to the plot, it was brought on by a random character that was never explained or even reintroduced or ANYTHING, and it was just hard to read because of how forced it was. I have this very strong feeling that Matthias was killed off because someone, probably an editor or something, was like, “Listen, your readers are probably expecting one of these guys to die in the end, so we’ve gotta kill someone off. Who’s your least favorite?” The problem is that he was killed off in the most random way possible, like the heist was done, everything was falling into place, but NOPE: [insert random character death here]. I HATED IT. HATED IT.

Honestly though, the terribleness of those few things was BY FAR made up for by the adorable romances between Wylan/Jesper and Kaz/Inej, the wonderful character development, and the exquisite world-building. I’m not exaggerating when I say that these are some of the most believably invented characters I’ve come across lately. I’ve been so fed up with YA books lately; it’s all so boring and manufactured. But this wasn’t at all. I couldn’t contain the ~~feels~~. Also, Wylan and Jesper honestly overtook Kaz and Inej as my favorite pairing in this, and I ended up liking Wylan even more than Kaz.

Okay, enough fangirling. GO READ THIS DUOLOGY. YOU WILL NOT REGRET IT.

Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

★★★★☆

Although I’ve barely watched The Daily Show, I had seen Trevor Noah in a clip or two on Facebook and knew I liked him. This book solidified that feeling, and listening to him actually tell the story made me feel like I knew him as a friend.bornacrime

This was my first time listening to a book on tape and let me say, this will have to be the way I listen to *all* autobiographies from now on. This is also perhaps the first time I’ve ever read/listened to an autobiography, or a biography, for that matter. I’m really not big into non-fiction, so having a book on tape to listen to on my commute helped me dip my toes into the genre.

Since this is one of the first autobiographies I’ve ever read, I don’t know how to compare it to others, and I don’t know what the ‘norm’ is for them. So while Born a Crime felt more like a collection of scattered childhood stories than anything cohesive, I’m assuming that’s what most autobiographies are; a glimpse into the major recollections of someone’s life. Sometimes the stories were short and sweet, sometimes they were silly, and others, like the story about Trevor meeting his father again after years of separation, were enough to make me cry. And don’t get me started on the ending. Born a Crime is, more than anything, Noah’s powerful ode to his fiercely religious, fiery, devoted, loving mother.

Noah covered a lot of ground—apartheid, racism, sexism, classism, and about a billion other isms—and explained things in a way that was easy for a dumby like me to understand while never talking down to the reader/listener. Before beginning this I knew only the very basics of apartheid—I knew very little of what it was or how it impacted life in South Africa, and although I’m by no means an expert on it now, I know more now than I did before, and that’s always good. Any book that can teach you something about the world is worthwhile.

Still, Noah didn’t really go into how he got where he is now, being a host on The Daily Show. There were a few mentions on how he had begun touring the South Africa and doing comedy routines, but he never actually told us how he got into that position, or how he decided to become a comedian. These insights would have taken the book from being a collection of memories and transformed it into something bigger.

I gave this four stars because of the nonlinear approach it took to storytelling. Though all of the stories were entertaining, few of them connected in a bigger way, so occasionally after a particularly short, seemingly pointless snippet (there were a few of these at the end of chapters or in the middle of two longer stories) I would think, “Okay, and…?” Still, it was heartfelt and fun to listen to (and made me cry twice), and I would definitely recommend the audiobook to anybody.

Review: The New Policeman by Kate Thompson

 

★★★★☆

I have a lot of books. Last I counted, it was nearly 250—and about 98% of these are Goodwill or secondhand finds. The problem with this is I’m a notorious procrastinator when it comes to reading the stuff on my shelves. With so many new, shiny books cominnew-policemang out constantly, and so many more popping up on my Goodreads suggestions, it’s hard to get around to actually reading the things I already own. Besides, what’s the harm in buying more books? So although I bought The New Policeman and its sequel, The Last of the High Kings about four or five years ago (purchased for probably a dollar or so each at a library book sale), they’ve ended up sitting on my shelf ever since. I was interested enough to buy it for a bargain, but I guess I couldn’t muster enough interest to put the time into reading the first one. Series are such a big time investment that I always hesitate to start.

Luckily, this year I decided on a new method of choosing my next book. Using a cute wooden bowl I found at Goodwill, I filled it with all the titles of the unread books on my shelves, so now whenever I’m ready to read a new book, I just mix the names around and pluck out my next book title.

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This method has worked so wonderfully and has actually gotten me to start reading some of the books I’ve either been hesitant to read or uncomfortable with for whatever reason—my next book, The Devil in the White City, is in a genre I’ve always been wary of: nonfiction. But because of this new method I’m going for it instead of opting for something more familiar, like YA fantasy (which, admittedly, I’m starting to detest).

Either way, I’m glad I finally got around to it! The New Policeman was a really fun middle grade novel set in Ireland, and it centers around a boy named J.J. who feels stretched too thin in a world where there is simply not enough time. (Obviously this main conflict makes it instantly relatable to basically any reader in the world.) So when another year rolls around and his mother is on the verge of celebrating yet another birthday, she wishes only for more time. When J.J. sets off on a mission to buy her some time, he soon discovers that the time from their world is leaking into Tír na n’Óg, the land of eternal youth, and he has to find a way to make it stop.

The book had a great balance of realism and fantasy, and it focused heavily on traditional Irish folklore, music, and dance. For people who can read music, the book includes after every chapter a short scrap of traditional Irish sheet music, so it might be fun to play along.

Overall I found this to be a wholesome middle grade book that shows the loving and trusting relationship between a mother and her son. This is one I’d suggest to any parents looking for reading material for their children, and especially any parents looking to introduce their children to Irish mythology or perhaps traditional Irish music. Even if you’re not Irish, this was simply a great, quick read with an interesting premise, and concise, effective writing that made me keep turning pages to solve the many mysteries. I’m definitely going to be reading the next two in the series!

Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

★★★½


This was un-put-downable.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 8.03.53 AMI love different fantasy. I can’t stand wizards and dragons anymore for some reason. This was certainly different. The worldbuilding is incredible and immersive; set in a desert, with Roman-esque names, an underground resistance movement, prophecies, immortal Augurs who can hear your thoughts, brutal slavery, interesting cultures, face-sucking silver masks, and a school that puts its students through hell to become master weapons. It’s dark as hell but infused with Laia’s enduring hope, and that’s what made this into the classic it’s being touted at.

There’s great character development, too. I started off not liking Laia very much, but she grew into a pretty great character. I wouldn’t say she’s badass, but she’s strong and smart and not afraid to go through horrendous trials to help those she loves.

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The Commandant, Laia, Helene, Elias, and Marcus. Art by Annalise Jensen.

Elias, on the other hand, is my newest book-boyfriend. Oh, how I love those tortured, honorable, hunky souls. And Helene—damn. I absolutely love her. She was by far the most nuanced character in the book.

I’m definitely a Helene/Elias shipper, though, and didn’t really like the insta-love between Elias and Laia (or Keenan and Laia, tbh). This is one of the reasons I didn’t give it 5 stars; there was a lot of insta-love surrounding Laia—who, conveniently, doesn’t know how drop-dead gorgeous she is (ugh). This basically transformed into a love-rhombus, which is so much worse (in my opinion) than a love triangle.

Curmudgeonly bitching aside, this was an awesome book and I’ve already pre-ordered the sequel. If you’re like me and can’t stand love-triangles/parallelograms/etc, still give this book a chance cuz the lovey-dovey parts are easy to gloss over.

I’m pretty terrible at writing reviews when I really like a book—all I can think was “IT WAS AWESOME, OKAY?!” But just know that the hype IS REAL. This is a great book, and I absolutely can’t wait to see where this series goes.