Lirael

Please excuse me while I gush about one of my favorite books ever.

SO GOOD.

The world you get in Sabriel is amazing and beautiful and dark and you get EVEN MORE of it in Lirael. Not to mention a protagonist who you might be able to identify with a lot more, if you’re anything like me. I actually love Sabriel, but in a way that absolutely pales in comparison to how much I love Lirael, as soon as I read this book. I didn’t know what I was missing, and then there it was, and it was so satisfying.

Lirael’s journey starts out with less physical journey-ing in the beginning. Sabriel kind of sets off right away in her book, but Lirael doesn’t do that. For good reason. We get to spend some time really getting to know her fears, her motivations, her history, all the feels before we get plunged into more by-the-map journeying.

Mogget is still my favorite, but I know about half the population would like the predominant secondary character in this book more than Mogget. Dog is just—a whole different level. Fans of Ponch from the Young Wizards series will absolutely love her. I absolutely love her, though I still love Mogget just a tiny bit more throughout the books.

I think my favorite thing about Lirael, as a character, is that she’s so awkward. She’s realistic, she’s unsure of herself, but brave when she really needs to be. That rings true, for me. So much of this book hit home with me, right in the gut. There’s so much beauty and darkness warring in this world, and within the characters. Life can be sucky and awful sometimes but everyone is still fighting in the name of Life, metaphorically and literally.

There’s one particular scene where Lirael sort of finds out who she is, and it’s juxtaposed with another character, Sameth, finding out who he’s not, and it’s just beautiful. Perfectly timed, and perfectly at odds, and since you care about the characters you can feel both feelings.

You can probably tell that I enjoy re-reading these books every few years. It’s been awesome to re-read them with actual new content to look forward to, in the form of Goldenhand. New and old fans can be glad that Nix decided to continue this really fabulous series. Keep reading, because you’ll want to get to Goldenhand—spoiler: it’s really good.

Sabriel

The first scene of this book always gets me. It starts out so mundane. And then, all of a sudden, it absolutely isn’t. But in a sweet, introductory way that welcomes you into this amazing world with one of the most brilliant magic systems I’ve encountered.

I first read Sabriel in middle school, back when there was no Creature in the Case, or Clariel, or Goldenhand. It’s actually been pretty surreal, re-visiting this world because there are actual new additions to it. (Can someone go poke Mary Stanton to finish the damn Unicorns of Balinor series already? I’ve been waiting on that since elementary school…)

My doctor asked me what I was reading when I went in for an appointment while I was re-reading this recently, and surprisingly (do doctors have time to read, after all that schooling?) he said he’d read it, and he remembered it as pretty dark, and scary, with dead people, right?

I had to laugh. Though, I think I was pleased that he didn’t say “zombies.” This is NOT a zombie book. No way. The magic in this book is with necromancers, and those are very different things. Personally, I think magic and necromancy are way more cool than zombies.

When it comes down to it, everything about this book is cooler than you might be expecting. I say it’s Young Adult, and then you’re surprised when things get so dark with long-dead spirits and re-born demon creatures fighting to stay in the world of Life. Likewise you might be expecting a dramatic, angsty romance, which isn’t present in this book. I say magic, and some people might scorn it as escapist fantasy (though if you do, be careful about how you tell me that, because it makes me seriously question why I’m still friends with someone when they do that). Instead, you get one of the best magic systems, akin to the Earthsea cycle or The Name of the Wind. The system is actually similar to both of those, but instead of having to know the true “name” of something, you have to know the charter marks that describe all of life and the universe. You have to be able to use the right ones at the right time, and combine them in just the right way, to get the results you’re looking for. It’s an art form in these books, one absolutely at odds with the steady march into “modern” times that you see in the juxtaposition of the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre.

Sabriel is a kickass character. Her dad disappears, and she leaves school to travel into the dangerous Old Kingdom to try to find him. She meets mentors and villains along the way, and manages to stumble into some awkward yet fateful situations. She doesn’t falter, though. She doesn’t whine. She’s one of the most capable female characters I know of, and I appreciate that I got to read her as a young girl, because she’s a great role model.

I won’t say too much about him, because I don’t want to give you any spoilers, but Mogget is my absolute favorite. You’ll see why, when you read these books.

Oh, and speaking of—you’ll want to read all of these books. You can stop at Sabriel if you really really want to. The events of the next book, Lirael, happen a long time after the events of Sabriel, chronologically. BUT you don’t want to read Lirael without having read Sabriel, because Sabriel is a better introduction to the world. Lirael might be too much too quickly, if you don’t understand some of the more basic concepts about how this world works. And you HAVE to read Lirael. It’s one of my favorite books ever. Lirael is one of my favorite characters ever. It gives me that same indescribable feeling that certain sections of Miyazaki movies do. There’s a purity and a I’ll-never-forget-this-ness to Lirael.

The plot is well-paced in Sabriel, the characters are wonderful. The world is genius and the magic system is top notch, especially if you worried about things like Harry Potter spells not coming with any sort of cost from the caster. This magic system is balanced and beautiful, and well worth exploring. I’d say this book (and the Abhorsen series) is great for any reader, really, not just YA fans.

Mother Night

This was a strange book to read leading up to Trump’s America. After all the talk during the 2016 election about how the media, and news reporting, affected the political process, it’s kind of scary to compare that to a Nazi propagandist. Makes you ask yourself a lot of questions that are difficult but necessary. Does Howard W. Campbell Jr’s claim of being an American spy and not believing in the Nazi fanatacism actually matter at all? His actions seem to speak loudly enough, such that the whole world is convinced that he is as fervent a Nazi as Hitler himself.

So much of this book was unsettling and strange. Campbell’s wife’s sister; the American secret agent whom no one else knows about. The polite Nazis who want to support and bolster Campbell.

How powerful is propaganda?

That’s the basic question for any book club reading this one. There’s more, about artists and the masks they wear. About creating art as a form of escapism. About whether an artist should be responsible for the things their creations inspire in the world. By the end of the novel your head is reeling from unanswered questions. Great discussion points, but nothing that can be answered. Only philosophically explored.

I have to say I prefer Slaughterhouse-Five, and of course my favorite Vonnegut: Cat’s Cradle. It’s good to read more Vonnegut any time, certainly. I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this one, though.

The Beasts of Tarzan

Old villains pop up again in this book, which takes place a couple years after The Return of Tarzan. Tarzan and Jane are married, they have a young son, and Rokoff and Paulvitch are back for revenge. Everyone gets kidnapped and separated, and has to fight for survival and escape.

Tarzan ends up on an island with no immediate way off. He takes to his jungle ways and befriends a panther named Sheeta, and an intelligent ape, ruler of his tribe, called Akut.

Man, this was my favorite so far, of the three Tarzan books I’ve read. The animals are clever and beautiful and the way they communicate with Tarzan and he with them is just—wild and awesome. Gives you respect for the animal kingdom, and for Nature. That’s what’s so fascinating about Tarzan anyway, right? How close he is to Nature, to wildness.

This is an excellent read for any fan of Tarzan and of adventure novels. I have to admit, I’ve tried a couple times since to read the next book, The Son of Tarzan. I can’t seem to get through it. I’ll probably give it another go later on, since I love Tarzan so much. But the book is, understandably, given the title, mostly about Tarzan’s son Jack, and therefore not as interesting. Oh well. The Beasts of Tarzan will remain my favorite Tarzan novel for a good long time.

The Return of Tarzan

It was fairly surprising to me, when I read Tarzan of the Apes for the first time, that Tarzan doesn’t pair up with Jane by the end of the book. Tarzan and Jane are just…always together, in all the adaptations and re-tellings. Edgar Rice Burroughs, however, keeps his readers guessing, and takes two books to get there instead of one Disney movie. 🙂

This book deals with the lost city of Opar, and countless adventures and exploits of Tarzan. He’s still a free man, unfettered and unmoored, traveling here and there with friends, getting set upon by thugs and shady characters jealous of his masculinity, prowess, and status as a proper gentleman.

It’s true that too many of the women in these stories are attracted to Tarzan. I suppose if I was a high priestess of a lost city that didn’t really have a thriving community and lots of men to choose from, I would fall for Tarzan when I saw him, too.

Okay, let’s be real. I would fall for Tarzan even if there were a hundred other guys in easy reach. It does come across a bit sexist, though, for women to fall for Tarzan at first sight.

In any case, this was an excellent continuation of the Tarzan stories, and tied up some loose ends that I wanted tied.

Fans of adventure stories will love this, of course, and anyone who enjoyed Tarzan of the Apes basically has to also read The Return of Tarzan. Really. You don’t want to end things at the first book.

The Martian

This book is as good as everyone is saying it is. I really want to watch the movie but refused to do so until I had finished the book. Only took me two nights, once I had a physical copy in hand. It was engaging, funny, suspenseful, and smart.

I cared about the protagonist, wanted him to survive. I mean come on—someone’s left behind on Mars because everyone thinks they’re dead, and this guy just keeps figuring out how to stretch his survival even further? Mark Watney does things I would never have thought of. He’s awesome. He makes mistakes, sure. But he keeps going. He doesn’t give up, and that’s inspiring and really cool.

I really enjoyed the way that Weir peppers in other narrative styles. We get to see the people of NASA back home, figuring out that Mark’s still alive, and banding together to save him. We get to know his fellow Martian mission crew mates, so that we actually feel something for them when they have to make tough decisions. And every once in a while you get a far-distant third-person omniscient narration. After the first time that pops up, I guarantee you will tense up every other time it shows up. It just can’t be good, right? I know something bad is coming. Something bad must be coming. Oh please don’t let him die, don’t let this new thing kill him…

Keeps you on the edge of your seat. Or bed. Or whatever.

I would recommend this book to anyone, really. It’s a great read, not too genre-y, so it shouldn’t throw anyone off that it’s sci-fi (though, if you don’t read sci-fi just on principle…well, you and I don’t see eye to eye). Now go read The Martian.

Gangsterland

This book is smart, and funny, and it surprised me in good ways. I shouldn’t be surprised, of course. If anyone can write a creative, funny, yet still emotionally evocative gangster novel, it’d be Tod Goldberg.

This novel was inspired by a short story that Tod wrote, included in his collection OTHER RESORT CITIES. Those stories are all fantastic, by the way, and you should go read them, too. I read them in undergrad, on assignment from my creative writing professor Tyler Dilts. Then Tyler had Tod come out to our class to talk to everyone, and I stayed after class and grilled Tod about the MFA program he runs, and he invited me out to come visit it for a day. Changed my life.

Tod is an excellent teacher, an amazing program director, and a freaking good writer. You can see that last one plain and simple in GANGSTERLAND. The Chicago Mafia’s best hit man is shipped off to Las Vegas to be put in hiding. He gets facial reconstruction surgery. He goes undercover as a rabbi. Yep, you read that right. Are you imagining all the potential for humor? It’s prevalent. A rabbi quoting Bruce Springsteen like it’s scripture isn’t something you want to miss.

Beyond the comedy, though, Tod weaves in so much good, heart-wrenching emotion. The protagonist is a “bad” guy. He killed people for a living. I couldn’t help rooting for him every step of the way, though. I want him to succeed. I want him to escape the Feds, and live out his life, and reunite with his wife and kid. There’s a nice parallel narrative, following a Fed on the trail to finding this guy. You feel for the Fed, too. You see how things went wrong in his life, and you want him to have a win, even if you want it to be a small one because you’d rather see the protagonist come out on top.

That’s what I mean when I say this book surprised me. I empathized with the characters, which is hard enough to get readers to do. But I empathized most with the one we would traditionally consider the “bad” guy. And I loved every minute of this. Definitely stayed up too late a couple nights, just to see what happened next. I’m excited for the sequel, GANGSTER NATION.

This book is a must-read for anyone who enjoys a good crime novel. It’s great for everyone who doesn’t enjoy crime novels, too. Really. The writing and the characters are what make this book wonderful, and you’re missing out if you haven’t read it. So go read it, and then you’ll be waiting for the sequel as eagerly as I am.

Etiquette & Espionage

I have to admit—I started this one as an audiobook, but had to jump to a print copy in order to stay motivated to finish it. I should have taken my librarian friend’s advice and listened to it on 1.5x speed. It was wearing on me, the length of time it was taking to get through relatively little action. I think the accents and more verbose speech patterns of the characters (germane to their time period and setting) might be contributing factors?

In any case, I got the print copy from our library, and blew through the rest of it in a single night. It was much more engaging as a page-turner than a listening practice.

I like Sophronia. She’s sharp and clever and quick, and doesn’t ask for responsibility but often finds herself taking it on because she thinks it’s the right thing to do. Often, she’s absolutely right. It’s fun reading a character set in such proper times who is actually “progressive” in that she takes charge of her own life and doesn’t always let society dictate what she thinks about herself.

I’m a little on the fence about how and why there are werewolves and vampires in this steampunk world, but they haven’t detracted from the story. They’re more of a curiosity, like a peculiar-looking bookend you want to examine up close. It makes me wonder if subsequent books in the series get into the lore of the wolves and vamps more than the first one does.

The cast of supporting characters are interesting and at times funny. I think I grew to like the story right alongside Sophronia growing to like Madame Geraldine’s finishing school.

Fans of a proper British setting (plus steampunk) and the speech patterns to match it, combined with a clever female protagonist supported in her hijinks by a disparate cast of intriguing bit players, would enjoy this immensely.

Ice Dogs

This book was obviously written by someone who has spent time with sled dogs and the Alaskan wilderness. It was smart, peppered with all these amazing little details that really put you in the world, battling the weather with Victoria and Chris.

This is survival YA, and a fairly short book, so there isn’t a lot of focus on the budding relationship slash potential for romance. These characters have better things to do than moon over each other. Like staying alive.

I thought the suspense couldn’t possibly ramp up higher, because I was guessing this was the kind of book where the characters would get home alive. Like, 99% certain of that. So there was no way to make it worse; they were about to find civilization. Right? Wrong.

Man, was I wrong. This author really captures the struggle super well, and the payoff when they survive is pretty great.

This would be a great book for anyone who likes a competent, outdoorsy female lead, especially in the Young Adult genre. Bonus points for anyone who enjoys a snow/ice/cold setting, and extra extra for sled dogs/huskies.

Insurgent

I see it so, so often in trilogies nowadays. I think I first noticed it when I was reading the Chaos Walking trilogy. Book one is fantastic. Fast-paced, intriguing world, exciting characters. Then book two is kind of a journey, obviously a bridge to get to the finale, but already things are getting sort of bogged down and complicated. And by the time book three comes out, you hardly care anymore, because everything is convoluted and just too much. I was super bummed to feel Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy going in that direction—enough so that I’m so hesitant to read the third book now that it’s out, even though I think his sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph writing is superb.

Insurgent feels like the bridge to an epic finale that I’m not going to care about because everything has gotten way too complicated. When everyone’s in the city, just fighting one particular enemy with a very clearly defined end-goal, it’s great. Throw in more politics, more locations, more types of people, new characters, new enemies…and you’ve pretty much lost my interest.

I think the problem might be in that writers often lose their protagonists while they’re trying to make the world stuff work. All I want is more Tris, and instead I get convoluted busy-ness. And a sneaking suspicion that Roth likes Tobias more than Tris. Which was a total bummer for me, because I like Tris so much more. Even Four is better than Tobias, if that distinction makes sense.

One thing Roth really does well, though, is action scenes. They’re snappy and have a great back-and-forth balancing act that keeps the suspense up. She writes them really well, and that was basically what kept me reading. The action scenes and wanting to know what happens to Tris. These books are quick reads, and it definitely isn’t a waste of time to read them. I just got that sinking feeling during this one that I was entering more convoluted, confusing territories, and that Tris was edging away from center stage.