Review: City of Lost Dreams

City of Lost Dreams(Warning: Contains minor spoilers.)

I recently read Magnus Flyte’s second novel, City of Lost Dreams, the sequel to City of Dark Magic (for which you can read a review here). It’s fluffy and fun, but not quite as sharp as its predecessor. The story picks up over a year after the events of the first novel, and Sarah Weston finds herself once again in Prague, visiting Nico, her now-ex-boyfriend Prince Max,  and her friend Pollina, who is dying of a disease that no doctor can quite pin down. Sarah is there to try and help Pollina; she pursues answers from a brilliant doctor in Vienna while Nico explores older alchemical cures that might be applicable to Pollina’s case. City of Dark Magic

As in City of Dark Magic, modern action combines with historical fact and fiction, as the past comes to life in both Prague and Vienna. As Pollina’s friends become more and more desperate to save the young musical prodigy, the odd events that seem to constantly unfold around Sarah, Nico, and Max become stranger and stranger. This is the best aspect of the novel, in my opinion: the mystery of how and why these occurrences keep piling up, and how they are all related. The reader is just as confused as the characters for much of the novel, and the eventual resolution does tie everything together in interesting, albeit occasionally vaguely unsatisfying, ways.

While I enjoyed the mystery/adventure aspects of the story, there were features that stretched my patience as a reader. The narrative is a bit jerky and disjointed, especially with the addition of full chapters from another book (an in-world manuscript being written by one of the characters). Though the manuscript chapters did eventually lead to an explanation of some of the mysterious events, I didn’t like the style or tone of them, nor did I appreciate being forcibly yanked out of the main storyline with no explanation. The authorial voice grated on me for some reason; I think it was largely because I didn’t feel that the tone/syntax/word choice was at all appropriate for the character, given their background and personal history. Thankfully, the irritating voice is strictly confined to these “other” chapters. As I said, it does contribute to understanding events later on, but I just didn’t enjoy the asides when they came up every so often.

As with the previous novel, City of Lost Dreams requires an enormous willingness to suspend disbelief. I don’t know why, but I had a hard time with that in this novel. I think it is in part because City of Lost Dreams combines genres and expectations in a way that few other books do. While this makes it unique, to be sure, it also stretches the limits of what I understand and am willing to tolerate in terms of the rules of the novels’ universe. I can do sci-fi and fantasy — in fact I enjoy both very much — but I like the rules of the world to be more or less strightforward. Here, I felt like to many things were fluid that ought to have been static. However, despite my occasional frustration or skepticism, I did enjoy the novel overall.

I’m interested to see whether a third novel will eventually join the series, as City of Lost Dreams left the storyline open to continue should the authors wish to do so. As of right now, I’m mostly sure that I would read another novel in this vein, but I think it would have to make a pretty strong case to get me to stick with a series beyond that.

Final call: a fun book, more than a little odd. Not a must-read, but recommended for people who enjoyed City of Dark Magic and want either more adventures and/or more closure.

Happy Reading!

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Review: City of Dark Magic

City of Dark Magic, written by Magnus Flyte (pen name for Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch), is a fun, breezy mystery full of both vivid history and lurid supernatural. It’s a quick-paced little novel, by turns light and dark, serious and ridiculous, campy and straight-faced. Do not come into this novel expecting a historical mystery/thriller a la Dan Brown. City of Dark MagicWhile City of Dark Magic is undoubtedly well-researched and full of interesting cultural and historical information, it is also a romp through the Czech Republic with an unabashedly magical re-imagining of major people and events.

The story follows Sarah Weston, a PhD student focusing on music and the emerging field of neuromusicology. After her mentor dies while working on a project in Prague, Sarah is contacted to fly to Europe to complete his work. Once in Prague, she is torn between investigating the suspicious circumstances surrounding her mentor’s death, finishing his work, and pursuing her own interests — both academic and decidedly not so.

Confronted with mysteries both old and new, Sarah must sift through the people and places around her to determine what’s real, a lie, a hallucination, or magic. The fabric of time is thin in Prague, and Sarah begins to find herself slipping through the portals (especially with the help of a mind-expanding drug provided by a dwarf that knows far more than he’s telling). Historical drama meshes with modern political intrigue, creating a panorama of suspense through the centuries. Glimpses of the past begin to provide insight to the modern side of the mystery, in which Sarah finds herself facing off against a ruthless U.S. Senator with countless hidden allies around the world. Agendas overlap, then clash, and it becomes more and more impossible for Sarah to determine who she can actually trust.

The supernatural and mystery aspects of City of Dark Magic are the strongest aspects of the novel; the love story subplot, while fun, is really dispensable when you get down to it. Yes, it’s exciting and very romantic-comedy for the American student to fall for a European (though raised in the U.S.) prince, but it also doesn’t add much to the novel or growth of the characters apart from random opportunities to have sex. As much as I liked this novel, I really felt like the sex scenes were thrown in purely for the sake of having sex scenes. And, while I’m all for some literary sexy time when appropriate to the plot, I just felt like I wouldn’t have missed anything and nothing would have changed had those scenes been cut.

My other major issue with the novel was the ending, which felt like it both came out of nowhere, and resolved very little. Of course, magic played a major part — but given the supernatural bent of the book, I had no issue with that — but it just felt all too convenient. It cut off one storyline without warning or subsequent follow-up, but left another dangling. City of Lost DreamsNow, I have since found out that there is a sequel coming out in November, titled City of Lost Dreams, so I assume the threads left unraveled will be pursued in the forthcoming novel. That does make me feel better, though the ending still left me a tad dissatisfied.

I recommend this book, but with the admonition that you don’t take it seriously, at all. Just have as much fun reading it as the authors seem to have had writing it, and you’ll be in a good place. Despite my reservations, I’m definitely planning on reading the sequel to see if City of Lost Dreams follows the plot lines that were unresolved in City of Dark Magic. I suppose that’s my bottom line: fun, interesting, more than a little silly, and good enough to get me to read the second novel.

Happy Reading!

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“Mourning his loss as a man and a king”

Irish poet Seamus Heaney has passed away today at the age of 74. Seamus HeaneyThe Nobel laureate is considered one of the greatest Irish poets, and his work is felt by many to capture the essence of Ireland and the Irish condition. Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, and was also awarded the Golden Wreath of Poetry, the E.M. Forster Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the PEN Translation Prize, T. S. Eliot Prize and the Whitbread Prize twice over the course of his career.

Heaney’s poetry collections include Death of a Naturalist, Door into the DarkNorth, Seeing Things, The Spirit Level, and Electric Light, among others. He also wrote prose and plays, as well as did extensive work translating poetry.

Along with his incredible body of poetry, Heaney is also famous for his excellent translation of the Old English epic Beowulf, from which I offer the final lines in his memory:

young Heaney“They extolled his heroic nature and exploits

and gave thanks for his greatness; which is the proper thing,

for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear

and cherish his memory when that moment comes

when he has to be conveyed from his bodily home.”

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Review: Gone Girl

I read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl nearly a month ago, but have taken my time in posting a review. Mostly, I just wanted to sort through my feelings about this novel before I committed anything to the digital page. At first I thought I didn’t like this novel, despite being completely unable to put it down. Then I thought I did like it, just not as much as everyone else seemed to. Finally,  I realized that this is a gripping thriller, but I hated the main characters to the point that I didn’t really care what happened to them, and rather felt they got what they deserved. Gone Girl

Gone Girl is the story of the disappearance of Amy Elliot Dunne, the wife of Nick Dunne. Flynn follows the narrative in two strands, with each chapter alternating between Nick and Amy as the narrator. Each chapter is headed with either a date or the number of days since Amy’s disappearance. The first section of the novel is comprised of the initial days after Amy’s disappearance as told from Nick’s point of view, and entries from Amy’s diary that span the years between their first meeting and the present.

The fast-paced opening chapters work well for the novel, as do the mysteries that pile deeper by the page. Nick admits that he’s a liar — even keeping a tally of the lies he tells the police in their investigation — but for the most part you don’t know which statements in particular were the lies, or why he told them. My disgust with the characters began to emerge at this point, but I was still undeniably hooked on the novel. I felt like I couldn’t stop reading, no matter what. When the truth behind Nick’s behavior is finally revealed, the picture shifts to include all this new information, but Flynn has many more revelations to come.

The major twist in the novel comes in the second section, and I have to say, though I guessed at part of it, I did not even begin to grasp the enormity of the situation. It was during this second part of Gone Girl that I decided I had no love left for any of the main characters, and realized that I was so turned off by them and their behavior that I didn’t really care if they lived, died, got sent to prison, or received any other consequence that might come to pass. Flynn is a strong writer and a fantastic storyteller, but I felt that she perhaps went a little too far in how grotesque she made the characters. Flawed is to be expected. Dark is acceptable. But under whatever nastiness is shown, there has to be something left for the reader to root for or to care about in their protagonist. I didn’t find that here, and instead felt I was left with only villains. Or perhaps that was Flynn’s point: evil only begets more evil, whether karmic or otherwise.

The novel, as I said, is a nail-biter. I read it pretty quickly, even though my pace slowed in the latter portions. As the mystery is wrapped up, Gone Girl transitions from the kidnapping/murder investigation to more of a spy-game feel, where hidden agendas, retaliation, and covert warfare drive the plot. You should know going into it that this novel is dark and twisted, and that there are no real happy endings — nor does anyone really deserve them. If you can overcome your revulsion to some of the characters’ major features, you might even like this novel more than I did. But then, I’ve always been one to hold a bit of a grudge.

Happy Reading!

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A Must-Read Essay

Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at University of Virginia, recently published an essay entitled “The Ideal English Major.”

I strongly urge you to read it, whether you’re an English major or just an avid reader and writer. It is wonderful in many ways, and — without hyperbole — one of the best explanations I’ve ever read of what I do and why I love what I do. You can read the full essay here: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Ideal-English-Major/140553/

Some highlights:

Becoming an English major means pursuing the most important subject of all—being a human being.

***

The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be John Milton, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe? What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games?

***

Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. [...] Given the ragged magnificence of the world, who would wish to live only once? The English major lives many times through the astounding transportive magic of words and the welcoming power of his receptive imagination. The economics major? In all probability he lives but once. If the English major has enough energy and openness of heart, he lives not once but hundreds of times. Not all books are worth being reincarnated into, to be sure—but those that are win Keats’s sweet phrase: “a joy forever.”

***

The English major at her best isn’t used by language; she uses it. She bends it, inflects it with irony, and lets hyperbole bloom like a firework flower when the time’s right. She knows that language isn’t there merely to represent the world but to interpret it. Language lets her say how she feels. The English major believes in talk and writing and knows that any worthwhile event in life requires commentary and analysis in giant proportion. She believes that the uncommented-on life is not worth living. Then, of course, there is the commentary on the comments. There must be, as Eliot says, a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of the toast and tea—and a few after as well. But I sometimes think that the English major’s most habitual feeling about the linguistic solution in which she swims isn’t practical at all. What she feels about language most of the time is wonder and gratitude. For language is a stupendous gift. It’s been bequeathed to us by all of the foregoing generations.

***

The English major: in love with language and in love with life—or at least hungry for as much life as he can hold. But there’s something else, too. The English major immerses himself in books and revels in language for a purpose. You might even call it a high purpose, if you’re disposed to such talk.

***

What we’re talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person.

Edmundson has captured the essence of my love of language, reading, and writing beautifully and simply. Well done!

Happy reading!

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Review: Deadline in Athens

Deadline in Athens, by Petros Markaris, is a novel that feels almost like a time capsule or microcosm of Athens, Greece. Having lived and studied in Athens during my undergraduate years, I was as interested in the setting and backdrop of this novel as I was in the plot. Deadline in AthensThe writing evokes sights and sounds, as well as the general social and political feelings of the bustling Greek city. The main character is police inspector Costas Haritos, a gruff cop with problems pervading both his personal and professional lives. He is by no means a knight in shining armor, but a flawed man that takes some getting used to.

The novel begins with the brutal murder of an Albanian couple, which the Greek police cursorily investigate. The general sentiment in the novel is that the Albanians in Greece are a bad element of society, and that it’s no tragedy that two of them have turned up dead. When another Albanian is arrested for the murder, one character even comments that it’s a good day when three Albanians are taken off the streets of Athens. The ingrained racism is off-putting, but is also a reality that I noted during my own time in Greece.

While the policemen are congratulating themselves on closing the case, a reporter named Yanna Karayoryi breezes into the station and tells them that not only did they get it wrong, but they also missed a crucial element: a child. Karayoryi proceeds to announce this on the evening news, much to the chagrin of the police. Haritos is furious that the reporter is either lying or not sharing all she knows, but before he can press her for more information, Karayoryi is also murdered.

Haritos must investigate Karayoryi’s murder as well as continuing to try to run down the truth of the alleged missing child. The closer Haritos looks, the more potential motives and murderers he uncovers for each victim.  Connections are made and then broken within pages. The investigation is murky and tangled, with many red herrings and unexpected twists. The story lagged a bit in parts, though sometimes small details that emerged in seemingly unimportant passages would then become important clues later on. I got a few things right, but the big reveal was not what I was expecting at all.

A really singular aspect of this novel is the competition and animosity between the police and the news media. The reporters consider it a victory if they can scoop the police and flaunt it on television, while the police are constantly trying to keep the reporters at arm’s length from the investigation. Cooperation is minimal and grudging. In the United States, we’ve become highly used to crime as entertainment, whether fictional (a la CSI and Law and Order) or real (on the news, as well as shows like Nancy Grace). In Deadline in Athens – get the pun, by the way? — the investigations aren’t just about ratings; they’re about establishing a new order in a nation that is still finding its modern identity.

I don’t know that this book would have wide appeal for the general American audience, simply because it is so rooted in the culture of practices of Greece. Familiarity with Greece — especially Athens — was really the main thing that kept me tied to this book when the mystery aspect wasn’t engaging me. It’s an interesting read, an unusual and unique mystery, but it’s not what I would consider a thriller. The suspense is there in parts, but it wasn’t hard to put down the way some mysteries are. I enjoyed it, but it also took me considerably longer than I expected to finish it. It’s a dark, gritty novel, with many noir aspects. It’s a worthwhile read, but not necessarily a fun one.

Happy Reading!

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Review: A Dog’s Purpose

A Dog's PurposeNo two ways about it; A Dog’s Pupose is a must for dog owners. W. Bruce Cameron’s novel is heartwarming, insightful, and poignant, especially if you love dogs. The novel follows one dog — who narrates the novel — as he is born and reborn (reincarnated) over the years. Each life is enormously different from the previous one, and leads the dog to begin questioning what his purpose is in life. As he looks for his own meaning, the dog also explores human nature, family, and the relationships that shape us.

The novel opens with the dog being born as a stray mutt, scrounging for food in garbage cans and shying away from humans. He is eventually scooped up and taken in by a woman who collects stray dogs without a second thought, opening her home to an enormous pack. She names the narrator Toby, and he has a generally happy, but all-too-brief life in her home. His first death is horribly depressing, and reaffirmed my belief in adopting from shelters and/or the pound whenever possible.

The narrator is soon conscious that he has been reborn as a golden retriever, in what most readers should recognize as a puppy mill. It’s an inauspicious start, but after several close scrapes, the dog is rescued and taken home by a woman as a gift for her young son, Ethan. Ethan names the puppy Bailey, and the boy and dog immediately form an unbreakable bond. Much of the story is a dog’s-eye view of the daily world, with amusing interpretations of human behavior. However, Bailey also delves into darker, more complex issues, such as why the frightening boy down the street seems broken inside. In another instance, Bailey and Ethan get lost in the woods together, and must rely on each other to survive. The family loves Bailey, even when their own lives take sad and unexpected turns.

Bailey witnesses and plays his part in many events over the years, growing up alongside Ethan. The pair have over a decade of adventures and mishaps before Bailey grows old and tired, and eventually the family must make the hard decision to put him down. Anyone who has ever had to put a beloved pet to sleep will absolutely empathize with that scene; I had to stop reading for a few minutes to cry and hug my dog. This second death, while sad, is easier in some ways than the first, though, since at least in this life Bailey had a good long life full of love and happiness.

In his third incarnation, the dog is startled to realize that he is a female German Shepherd. As a puppy, the dog — soon named Ellie — is adopted by a police officer and is soon trained for the K-9 unit.  Ellie is an elite search-and-rescue dog, and has a strong working partnership with her handler Jakob. Jakob likes and is proud of Ellie, but does not love her the way Ethan did. Ellie’s life as a police dog is difficult, but also rewarding in its own way. Over the course of her life, Ellie faces danger, different handlers, natural disasters, and injuries. She also has a loving home for many years, and is proud of the work that she does to help people. Ellie once again lives a long and fulfilling life before she is taken to the veterinarian for the final time.

The dog is honestly surprised to find himself a puppy for the fourth time, this time as a black Labrador. His puppyhood is not happy, and I was fairly stressed for several chapters. The dog is determined to find his purpose this time around, and fate lends a hand when he is abandoned in an area that it turns out he recognizes. Without going into any spoilers, the dog (eventually named Buddy, the same as my dog!) finds himself determined not just to improve his own life, but to fully change the lives of the humans around him as well. Buddy is a miracle dog, with each life building on the ones before it. The memories from one incarnation often come back to serve him in the subsequent life. He is intelligent, loyal, and loving, with an endless capacity for optimism and courage. He is everything we hold up as to why canines are man’s best friend.

My dog, Buddy (adopted from the pound in Dec. 2010)

My dog, Buddy (adopted from the pound in Dec. 2010)

Cameron’s novel is well-written, exciting, and a pleasure to read. The action traverses the ranges from the everyday humdrum to the nail-biting extremes. It’s impossible not to love the dog narrating the novel, and my affection for the fictional dog only made my all-abiding love of my own dog all the stronger. I started wondering what my Buddy is thinking, why he reacts the way he does in any given situation, and even how he views my daily habits.

BuddyI highly encourage people to read this novel, especially dog owners. I think that A Dog’s Purpose is easily accessible to all readers, but the depth of meaning and understanding will be much greater for dog people, as will be the emotional impact of the stories. We have very special relationships with our dogs, and the novel reflects that. It both offers a potential insight into the thought processes of a dog, as well as encourages humans to be better, more respectful companions to their canines. The ending, while bittersweet, encapsulates everything that a dog owner already knows deep down: the purpose dogs play in our lives, and our purpose in theirs.

Much love, and Happy Reading!

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