Books & novels & stories, oh my!, Ramblings, Randoms

{A Literary Love Letter} The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson

We need to talk about this book and its author. I am still not over this book and this review is more like a love letter to its magnificence than anything. Seriously, it’s that good.

As a classicist at heart, discovering new favorites is a rare occurrence. Despite having plunged into the sometimes murky and cliche-infested waters of YA fiction in recent years, I am still a die-hard lover of literary fiction and authors whose works are both timeless and outstanding. Enter, Stage Right, Mr. Denis Johnson, an American author and playwright with a slew of critically acclaimed books, who sadly passed away in May of last year. I hadn’t heard of Denis Johnson before last month, mainly due to the fact that I suck at crawling out from underneath my literary rock (what is wrong with me?!). I love so many legendary American writers, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Capote, etc., but it’s rare for me to step outside of my 20th century bubble when it comes to great literature. Denis Johnson was introduced to me through a fellow classics aficionado on Bookstagram, and after hearing about the power and beauty of this man’s words, I knew I had to read something of his.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is a short story collection (2018), his first since the success that was Jesus’ Son (1992), and upon opening that first page, I had no idea that I was about to fall in love. It is commonly known that I am a Joycean, i.e. an obsessive fan of James Joyce, and that obsession makes me judge literary fiction with a wry and cynical approach, often comparing other authors to my beloved James. I know, I know; it’s not fair to compare different styles and genres to a single specific one that I happen to love with the fervor of a religious zealot, but it’s more like: “Did they make me feel the same way his works did? Did they make me fall in love with their words, characters, and stories? Did they make me want to read this again and again, just to relive certain moments?”

That hasn’t happened in nearly a decade, since I discovered James Joyce 11 years ago. But it happened this month when I read this book. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden had me hooked from the first line and with every page, Johnson sunk that hook deeper and deeper into my gut. I laughed, I cried, I smiled, I was confused, surprised, elated, contented, bereft, heartbroken. I was an emotional mess throughout this book. With a style that is wholly unique, Johnson manages to hold your mind, heart, and soul hostage with his words. Whether it’s the story of an addict trying to stay sane while he’s in rehab, of a poet who is weirdly obsessed with Elvis conspiracies, or of a man questioning his life as he trudges through it day by day; it is written with such a masterful hand that you can’t help but continue reading.

His writing style itself is simple yet nuanced, raw yet beautiful, direct yet haunting. There is a slight tinge of stream-of-consciousness, which I absolutely adored (because, duh Joyce), and yet everything melded together so perfectly that it was like watching one wave curl into another and another, until you were lost in his ocean of words. The stories themselves deal with so many themes, such as death, guilt, loss, the mysteries of the universe itself manifesting themselves in a single life. It’s as if every character leaps out of the page, sits down beside you, and tells you their story. If you asked me to pick a favorite, I couldn’t. Each story reads like a short novel, full of purpose and meaning, not once dropping the ball on character development, plot execution, or immaculate writing. With moments that reminded me of Faulkner, others that reminded me of Joyce, I realized halfway through the first story that this writer was a master of storytelling. I had to force myself to put this down to do basic human things like eat and sleep. I was enthralled and still am.

Without a doubt, I’ll be buying the rest of Johnson’s bibliography, because this book was incredible. If you are a fan of literary fiction or simply a fan of great writing in general, then I would wholeheartedly recommend this book. In other words, please read this book. It is amazing. If I could give it 5 million stars, I would, but I’ll settle for 5 stars and I could continue gushing about it for the next ten years, but you get the picture. I’m so grateful to have discovered this author’s voice, albeit a little late, but he just scored a place in my top five favorite authors list. Better late than never, amirite? Also, I just ordered myself a copy of another Johnson masterpiece. As always, happy reading!

 

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Books & novels & stories, oh my!

{Book Review} Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg, Laura Whitcomb, & Camille Goldin

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Most, if not all, writers write because they need to write. It’s not a choice, but a calling that cannot be ignored. With that in mind, many writers toil away in their pajamas, nursing their fifteenth cup of coffee, and bleed their souls onto screen or paper with one hope: to be a published author. It’s the ultimate dream, isn’t it? I can tell you that it’s been my dream since I was six years old. But how do you get from an idea to a published novel? It’s not like you can walk up to a stranger on a bench and ask them “Hey, um, do you know how I can get a publishing deal” as if you’re asking them for directions. Well, this book breaks down the entire process for you, from start to finish. That’s not to say that it’s the greatest book on the craft and profession of writing that I’ve ever read, but it’s still pretty good.

Thoughts:

The great thing about this book is the fact that it’s so comprehensive. It covers the entirety of the publication process, from finding your idea and turning it into a published book. I loved the advice, tips, and some of the exercises included throughout the book, as well as the writing style and approach of all the contributors. It was especially useful since I have just started planning my second novel (while trudging through the quagmire of editing my first one), and it gave me plenty of motivation and guidance on how to approach this new project.

However, since the book is written by a published author and two agents, it is heavily biased towards traditional publishing. This was my main issue. Indie and self-publishing get a couple of mentions, but are presented as being not as great or as glamorous as traditional publishing.

Well, what’s wrong with that, isn’t traditional publishing bigger and better anyway, you ask? While it’s true that traditional publishing has farther reach, better marketing and distribution, and seemingly unlimited resources, it is a highly exclusive and persnickety industry. How many books from authors outside of the US and UK do you see in a bookstore? On your bookshelf? At the library? While, of course, anyone from any country with a voice and a story to tell can land a publishing deal and get their books to eager readers all over the world, it’s harder to do that with one of the Big Five (please tell me your secrets). It can happen, but it’s a rare occurrence, to say the least.

This is starting to sound like a rant, but it’s an honest review of how this book made me feel as both a writer and a reader. Despite being extremely helpful with regards to planning and writing your first novel, this book felt a bit biased to me as an international writer. It made me feel like if you’re not American or British (or planning on moving to the US or UK any time soon), then you have no chance of getting published, which kind of defeated the purpose of it being helpful to all aspiring writers. There a couple hundred countries in the world, so why limit the successful pursuit of publication to a select few? Don’t get me wrong; I love countless authors spanning different genres and decades, but they also span the globe.

Like I said, this book was great in terms of practical advice and guidance, so it gets 3 stars for that and the countless recommended books on writing (which were awesome choices and can be purchased online if they’re not locally available to you). If anything, this book made me even more hellbent on getting published one day, whether it’s in Oklahoma or Timbuktu. Your First Novel comes out on February 16th, 2018. As always, happy reading, and to my fellow writers, happy writing!

*Thank you to NetGalley, F+W Media, and Writers Digest Books for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review*

 

Books & novels & stories, oh my!

The Spaces in Between by Collin van Reenan

37550969._UY391_SS391_I love stories that can creep me out, even though I’m a total scaredy-cat when it comes to all things creepy. When I read the description of this novel by Collin van Reenan, I thought it sounded like something that had the potential to be thoroughly entertaining while also being nightmare-inducing. In both those regards, it did not disappoint. What made this story even more compelling was that it’s based on a true story, and written in the form of a personal account of the events, with input from the psychiatrist who treats the main character. With plenty of mystery and suspense, van Reenan pulls you into this story with skill and subtlety, challenging your consciousness and your common sense. Is it a ghost story or a mystery? Is it a psychological thriller or a crime novel? To me, this book defies categorization and creates a genre of its own.

Quick Summery:

It’s Paris in 1968, and Nicholas is a young student struggling to keep his life together when he finds himself without a visa, money, or a home. When he’s offered a position as an English tutor, which includes food, lodging, and a generous salary, he believes that all his problems are solved. He will have a roof over his head, money in his pocket, and a hiding place from the police. But there’s something strange about this family and the house they occupy: they live and act as though they’re living in the past, and require him to play along with their rules and adhere to their archaic lifestyle. What follows is a macabre and disturbing experience that leaves young Nicholas teetering on the edge of insanity and blurring the lines of fiction and fact.

What I Liked:

  • Writing Style: It’s quite obvious from the first few pages of this novel that van Reenan can write beautifully, with a subtlety that pulls the reader in and makes them want to keep reading long after bedtime. I felt as if I were seeing the house and its occupants through Nicholas’s eyes the entire time and his panic was almost palpable. The descriptions were haunting and memorable, while the events were shocking and riveting, and they made the story come alive.
  • The Psychological Aspect: Since the novel is written as an account of Nicholas’s experiences in the house, there was a sense of uncertainty throughout the novel. Usually, when you have an unreliable narrator, it’s difficult to make them credible, but van Reenan manages to do this perfectly. Not only are we invested in the main character’s story, but we feel what he feels and see what he sees, making the twists and turns all the more fascinating.
  • The Plot: While I had some issues with the plot (which I will discuss later), I loved the story itself, and was drawn into it like a moth to a flame. You never know what fresh hell is lurking around the corner for our poor protagonist and it makes you want to keep turning page after page to see what happens to him and how he ended up where he was.

What I Disliked:

  • The Romantic Arc: While the story revolves around Nicholas and his descent into madness, there is a half-baked and rushed romance thrown into the mix that I didn’t really like. It’s one of those insta-love scenarios and Nicholas just kind of goes along with it in a “Oh, well, I guess this is happening” sort of manner. Despite adding an element of confusion to his overall experience, it became annoying after a few pages, because it was all he talked about. “Oh, no, I think I cheated on her after being together for like, five minutes,” and “Oh, no, I think I like this other chick too even though I met her two minutes ago.” It made me want to slap some sense into him. Granted, he’s in his early twenties, so this immature and impulsive kind of thinking is normal, but it was kind of annoying. I mean, it all happens in a matter of days, and he’s only encountered the lady in question like two or three times before the sudden plunge. It was just a little unbelievable to me.
  • The Intertextuality & Languages: Don’t get me wrong. I love the use of intertextuality and different languages in literature. I’m a Joycean, and therefore heartily support it. However, here, it was a bit confusing at times. There were a lot of religious texts thrown in, some random bits of Latin and Russian, lots of French (which I speak, thankfully, so I was able to understand those bits), and nothing was ever really explained or translated. I think that a glossary of terms would have been helpful in general, because not everyone can speak like five languages.
  • Anya: I hated this character. Their relationship was unclear and her flippant behavior was confusing. Out of all the characters, I ended up hating her the most, purely for those two points. Despite being one of the characters with a larger role throughout the story, it felt as if her personality changed on a whim and for no particular reason, which made her annoying and irrelevant. The other characters were wonderfully developed, yet with her, I felt as if she went from being important to being arbitrarily irritating.

Verdict:

All in all, I quite liked this book, and it left me feeling a little bereft. I also have a weird fear of Russian samovars now, so, thanks for that, Mr. van Reenan. I give it hearty 4 stars, mainly for the writing, the plot, and the splendid execution of such a strange story. This book was captivating, suspenseful, and entertaining, and if you’re a fan of mysteries or psychological thrillers, ghost stories or crime novels with a macabre twist, then I would definitely recommend this book. The Spaces in Between comes out on February 15th, 2018!

*Thank you to NetGalley, Collin van Reenan, and RedDoor Publishing for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review*

Books & novels & stories, oh my!

The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller

34325070Have you ever wondered how magic would play into our daily lives? Or how much easier it would be to travel if we could all just fly? Or how much less painful it would be if you could get a tattoo without having to sit through hours of needle poking? Whether you’ve asked yourself these questions or not, this novel will answer them for you. In this historical fantasy set in WW1 America, Miller combines magic and science to create something new: Empirical Philosophy, an arcane mix of the two. In this exciting debut from ER doctor turned author, Tom Miller, we are taken on a whimsical journey through history with elements of magic, adventure, and a whole lot of imagination.

 

Summary:

Robert Weekes, the son of a veteran philosopher and a talented sigilrist in his own right, is a man in a world of women. The arcane art of Empirical Philosophy is a field dominated by women, as they are naturally more gifted in it. However, one day, disaster strikes, and Robert is forced to test his own limits in order to save the day. His daring rescue earns him a spot in the all-female program at the prestigious Radcliffe College to become a bona fide philosopher. Throughout his time at Radcliffe, he is faced with both physical and emotional struggles, as he fights to prove his worth as a male philosopher among his female peers, and deal with the constant threat from the anti-philosophy lunatics known as The Trenchers.

What I Liked:

  • The History: This was probably my favorite aspect of the book, as it took real historical events and re-imagined them. By inserting this unique form of magical science into the mix and creating a new and interesting narrative, Miller was able to transport us into a parallel universe, in a way, and show us what history would have been like if magic were real. It was really fun to read and it gave the story a certain depth and provided vital background information.
  • The Premise: I really liked the premise of the story, as it sounded like it would be a really unique and fun experience. Despite some issues with its execution (which I’ll discuss later), I thought that the idea of a man trying to earn his place in that world of strong, brave women to be really wonderful. I also liked the whole Trencher issue that was prevalent throughout the novel, because it brought a bit of the real world into the fictional one, and who doesn’t love seeing the bad guys get their butts kicked?

Half & Half:

  • The Characters: I’ve never been torn like this before, but I was conflicted about the characters as a whole. Robert himself was portrayed as the innocent, golly-gee-shucks-mister country bumpkin, which was endearing, but we do get to see him develop throughout the novel, which made me like him more. However, while a lot of the women in the background, such as classmates, relatives, professors, etc., are portrayed as these strong, fearless, and powerful women, most of the main female characters were paradoxically stereotypical or awful. It made me really mad, because so many women who are integral to Robert’s story are portrayed in the same way; they’re brave and badass one minute, then cliché and hysterical the next. Men can be whiny and hysterical, too, ya know. For a novel that aims to portray women as powerful, this felt slightly sexist. Granted, the era that the novel is set in was still pretty misogynistic and narrow-minded, but seeing as how the role of women as heroes in this story was so significant, I wasn’t expecting half of them to be relegated to sniveling little princesses.

What I Disliked:

  • The Plot: I can’t say that I completely disliked the plot, because there were some parts of the story that were really captivating. However, what starts out as a journey of proving one’s worth and following one’s dreams quickly turns into an account of college life with the addition of a non-sequitur romance. I found the love arc to be slightly unrealistic, because it was one of those dreaded “insta-love” situations, and while those might work in some cases (albeit rarely), it did not work for me here.
  • The Writing: Just to clarify, the writing itself was good, without any glaring errors or miscommunications, but I did have some issues with the way the story was written and structured. There was just too much focus on the technical aspects  of empirical philosophy. Some of the descriptions of his flying escapades were just so long and they really didn’t need to be. Then there were the technical terms, which became superfluous after a while, because by Chapter 10, I’d pretty much memorized the process, so I didn’t really need another page explaining or describing it yet again. The whole concept of “empirical philosophy” was also barely explained and I couldn’t picture it for the life of me. Did they throw the sand/powder/minerals in the air and draw? Did they control the particles themselves? And why was it called philosophy? Why not just stick with sigilry, since it’s included in pretty much every field of this fictional magic-science?

Rating:

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what rating to give this book, because while I enjoyed some aspects, others really irked me. But it was a fun read and a truly unique concept, so I can’t hate on it. So, based on all these reasons, this book gets 3 stars from me. If you’re a fan of historical fiction and fantasy, then I would definitely recommend this book. Maybe I just wouldn’t cut it as a philosopher and that’s why I had so many issues understanding some things, haha! Sorry for the rambling review, but as always, happy reading!

*Thank you to Simon & Schuster and to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

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{Review} The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

35004343I’ve always been a fan of fairy-tales, especially those written by (or in the style of) the Brothers Grimm. So, when I read Arden’s first book, The Bear and the Nightingale, I was transported to a dark, eerie forest in medieval Russia, filled with sprites and mysterious shadows lurking between the trees. I knew I had to read the second book of the Winternight Trilogy as soon as humanly possible. That was the plan. Unfortunately, I’ve been swamped with finishing and editing my own book and work for the past few months, and I didn’t have time to finish this beauty, much less write a decent review. So, here we are, finally, and I now have both the time and brain capacity to tell you a little more about The Girl in the Tower.

Quick Summary:

While bandits roam the countryside, burning towns and kidnapping young girls, the royal court is in tumult. The Grand Prince embarks on a journey to stop these bandits, alongside his trusted companion, Sasha, and together, they plan to save their people. During this journey, they come across a brave young boy, and only Sasha recognizes him as his own sister, Vasya. Without exposing her secret or her past, they must all work together to put an end to the slaughter.

Things I Liked:

  • The writing: Adren’s style is not only reminiscent of age-old fairy-tales, but it is its own brand of fantasy altogether. The way she weaves history and fantasy together is nothing short of magical, and just like The Bear and the Nightingale, I fell in love with her writing style yet again with this book. This being the second book in the series, there wasn’t as much world-building and character set-up, which makes sense, as we are already familiar with the setting and the characters. I always hate it when authors tend to regurgitate every little detail about the world and the characters in a sequel, so it was definitely a big plus for me here.
  • Vasya: I LOVE Vasya. Back in the first book, we saw her grow up from a strange little girl to a rebellious and reckless young woman. Here, we see her truly grow into a formidable and courageous hero, who refuses to bow to the wills of men and society (more on those two aspects later).
  • Atmosphere: The mood of this book, just like its predecessor, is enthralling. Arden’s descriptions, her dialogue, and her inclusion of traditional Russian folklore help to create a truly unique and captivating world for the reader. Throughout the whole book, you feel as if you’re the one sitting in front of a cozy fire and listening to a grandmother tell you a story.

Things I Disliked:

  • Most of the male characters: I just hate that Konstantin guy. WHAT IS THE POINT OF HIS EXISTENCE? And most of the men in the story – though portrayed accurately given the time and place of the book – are just contemptible human beings. They’re about as useful as a windshield wiper on a goat’s ass, yet they spend the entire book being chauvinistic jerks. While this is an important aspect of the story, it just bothered me at some point, because none of them undergo any sort of development or change.
  • Plot: While I loved the fact that this sequel involved Vasya becoming a badass warrior and flipping off the patriarchy, I didn’t really like the fact that so much of it was focused on her brother. He was kind of in the background of the first novel, so I didn’t really care much for him, despite the fact that he seems like a cool guy. He was also a badass, but I wanted more Vasya than Sasha.
  • The names: I’m familiar with the traditional Russian naming (and nicknaming) system, but everyone just had too many names. I kept getting lost and confused between the characters, because I just couldn’t keep track of who was who. I’m glad there was a glossary and explanations at the end of the book, because that was immensely helpful, but I just wish everyone could stick to one name.
  • The female characters: Aside from Vasya, all the women in this book were wilting flowers who served no purpose other than popping out babies and crying over their husbands/fathers/brothers/male relatives. I understand that it’s a significant aspect of the society at the time that this book was set in, but I just wish one of them could have had a role other than wife/sister/nun/baby-maker or at least a spine. Olga (Olya?) was somewhat better than the other women, but not really.

Thoughts:

I have so many issues with this book due to my own loathing of misogynistic, patriarchal mores, but it was so beautifully written that I can’t help but love it. Obviously, the social aspect is meant to portray the harsh realities that Vasya had to deal with, but it just bled into the other characters so much that I just wanted her to set fire to everything and go live in the forest with all the sprites and goblins (or whatever they are, I won’t even try to rewrite or pronounce their names). HOWEVER, due to the fact that I adore Arden’s writing style and the brutal beauty of her stories, I am inclined to give this book 4 stars, because it truly is a magical work of art. I have yet to come across a modern fairy-tale type book with the same level of historical accuracy and literary beauty as this, and for that, I would recommend this to any fellow lover of fairy-tales, retellings, or good old-fashioned fantasy.

Books & novels & stories, oh my!, Ramblings

{Review} Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

After the trainwreck that was Zenith, I felt like I needed a break from young adult fiction/fantasy for a while. I tried reading some general fiction I had lying around, some ARCs that have been waiting in the corner with cold, judging stares, but I couldn’t read anything. You know the kind of book hangover you get when a book is so awful that it almost ruins the concept of literature itself for you?

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Yeah, that. But then I picked up Nevernight, and having only attempted to read Illuminae by Jay Kristoff (and failing miserably, because my brain couldn’t process it), I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew was that I wanted something good to read after having spent a month bashing my head against a wall with the trainwreck book. And lo and behold, I freaking LOVED IT. So much so, that I’m including gifs. Why hadn’t I picked this book up sooner?!

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Okay, so before I get to the part where I ramble on about how awesome Nevernight is and how much I’d love to have a cussing battle over a couple of whiskeys with Mr. Kristoff, I’ll give you a little summary.

Summary:

Nevernight is the first novel in a series called The Nevernight Chronicles, and it tells the story of Mia Corvere, a young but deadly assassin with a vendetta. When Mia was only ten years old, her family was ripped apart by the treacherous and power-hungry consul and his lackeys. As she grew up, she trained in the art of death and vowed to avenge her family, no matter the cost. With powers that even she can’t fathom, she embarks on a perilous journey to a famed school of assassins that will either turn her into one of the deadliest killers in the world or leave her dead before she even gets the chance.

Thoughts:

  • Writing: Okay, firstly, I absolutely adored Kristoff’s writing style. It’s unique and weird in all the right ways, and needless to say, HILARIOUS. It was hard to get used to, at first, but once you get over the novelty of it, it becomes one of the best aspects of this book. I wasn’t expecting the amount of colorful language, but I loved that, too. As someone who is a fan of linguistic embellishments of this sort, I applaud Mr. Kristoff on his expertise in this fine art. Also, Mister Kindly is one of my new favorite characters and I don’t even like cats.
  • Characters: I fell in love with Mia within the first couple of chapters. That doesn’t happen very often. In contrast to many (if not most) heroines of modern YA/NA fantasy, she was no wilting flower pretending to be a badass. No, she is a badass. Hell, even I was kind of afraid of her at some points. The rest of the cast was also very well-written and every character was well-developed, even the ones you’re meant to hate. And without spoiling anything for those who haven’t read this book: the fact that I was completely horrified and flabbergasted by the outcome with that one character is just a testament to Kristoff’s story-weaving skills. Holy shit. I wish that character were real so that I could junkpunch them. To say that I was lulled into a false sense of security would be a tragic understatement.
  • Plot: The plot itself was so complex and intricate that I found myself stressing out about it. I wanted Mia and the supporting characters to be okay, to win, to succeed. While the first 30% took me a couple of weeks to get through (because I had a metric shit-ton of editing to do and couldn’t really focus on reading), the remaining 70% took me a few hours. I wanted to go to sleep, but I needed to know what happened next more than I needed sleep (at 5-freaking-AM).

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Verdict:

I thought that this was going to be another one of those assassin-chick stories, where the heroine goes on an adventure, meets a stupidly handsome guy, and they bring down the bad guys together between bouts of awkward sex. But it was nothing like that. Sure, the main character is 16 years old and she happens to be this ridiculously gifted assassin (and there are a couple of awkward sex scenes), but the way it was executed made you forget her age and the love arc in this book was perfect in its harsh reality. All the things that other authors executed with an unhealthy dose of cheese, this author executed with finesse and originality (and no hint of dairy products). So many YA/NA fantasy novels or series make the mistake of foisting off their MCs as these prodigies who act like adults before they’ve even hit puberty, but this book makes it clear that Mia is young, messed up, and imperfect.

So, with all that being said (and be glad I’ve only rambled this much, because if I could mention spoilers, this would be much longer and more rambling), I give this book 5 bright and shiny stars. If you’re a fan of fantasy, badass heroines, non-cheesy love arcs, and witty banter, then I would highly recommend this book. This book is now tied for first place with Artemis (by Andy Weir) in my top five list.

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Hats off, Mr. Kristoff.