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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: The Cabinet of Curiosities

I picked up The Cabinet of Curiosities, co-authored by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, for two reasons: The Cabinet of Curiosities

1. This past semester, I took an archival literature class that focused for some time on the phenomena of cabinets of curiosity, and how the form and function translated to literature. Hence, the title caught my eye.

2. I am incapable of leaving a bookstore — especially Bookmans — without buying something.

The novel opens with the discovery of an underground tunnel beneath a construction site in New York City, in which the bones of 36 murder victims are found stuffed into bricked-over alcoves. The charnel immediately catches the attention of FBI Special Agent Pendergast, who enlists the help of Nora Kelly, an archaeologist working at the Museum of Natural History. Nora in turn engages her boyfriend, reporter William Smithback, to help delve into the mystery. One note on the characters and their back-stories; this novel seems to be one of a series, since it refers to past events that the authors seemed to think I should be familiar with, but reading it on its own was generally not a problem. More than anything, it was just vaguely bothersome in those moments when previous events were referred to without explanation.

The investigation into the 36 century-old murders takes on a new urgency when new victims displaying the same kill signature begin to show up around the city. It seems that their is a copy-cat killer on the loose, but why? And what drove the original killings in the first place? The investigation takes place both on the streets of New York, as well as in the sprawling archives of the Museum of Natural History. The archives hold an astonishing amount of material, from artifacts to personal correspondence between scholars to known frauds. Among all of it, Nora and Pendergast find clues to the hows and whys of the killings of the original victims, as well as hints to why it might be happening again.

This novel is interesting, with a significant number of unexpected plot twists. However, I feel that the dual authorship had one major pitfall: it made The Cabinet of Curiosities significantly longer than it probably should have been. The novel is 629 pages, and it drags in some sections. Everything does build toward the final unveiling, but I think some sections could have been tightened up, shortened, or dropped entirely. For example, while I understand making a reader want to care about the victims, I don’t feel the need to have an entire chapter devoted to introducing that character solely so they can be found dead ten pages later. Maybe this is just me being crotchety, but I kept feeling like the novel needed to be more streamlined. This, really, is my main gripe with the otherwise solidly decent mystery. It’s good summer reading, though. I myself read much of it by the pool, and I can’t recommend that methodology (read, swim break, read, read in the pool, nap, read, swim…) enough.

While this was a unique novel, especially given the lens through which I was reading, thanks to my recent coursework, I wouldn’t put it at the top of my to-read list. It’s good, not great. I’ve recently read multiple books that I enjoyed more, including other  mysteries. I think I’m going to step away from mysteries — especially murder mysteries — for a while, since I don’t want to burn myself out on them. Let’s see about queuing up a lighter read next.

Happy Reading!

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Review: The Last Child

The Last ChildJohn Hart is a great author, and his style is bitingly realistic and engaging. Now… having said that, I have to say that reading The Last Child was not a particularly pleasant experience for me. In fact, it literally made my chest hurt at times. While this can be attributed to strong writing, it can also be due to the content and plot of this novel.

The plot focuses on thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon’s search for his twin sister, who was kidnapped one year before the opening of the novel. In that year, Johnny’s father abandoned Johnny and his mother, Katherine, and in his absence she has taken up with a drug-addicted, power-hungry abuser. This man sexually and emotionally abuses Katherine, gets her addicted to pills, physically abuses Johnny. Through all of this, Johnny refuses to give up his search for answers in his sister’s disappearance. It’s a tough read, no question.

I have trouble recommending this novel solely because of the emotional toll it took on me. Bleakness and violence saturate the story, and I’m the type of reader that feels that sort of thing very deeply. It’s made worse by knowing the sorts of things that are described in this book, though fictional, happen in real life, every day, to many people around the world. Kidnappings, broken families, murder, and abuse. Families that never get answers, or get answers they wish they’d never heard. That, really, is what became almost too much for me. The reality behind The Last Child is even more depressing than the novel itself.

While it’s hard to handle emotionally, the mystery aspect of The Last Child is strong. Johnny’s search is mirrored by a detective’s more official investigation; Detective Hunt is invested in the case to the point of obsession. While he publicly rebukes Johnny for skipping school and endangering himself in his investigations, Hunt secretly is rooting for the boy. The reader is put in a similar position. I felt myself holding my breath, willing Johnny to succeed, heart racing in the most harrowing scenes. I wanted to grab on to this young boy and keep him safe, yet I had to keep watching him plunge further down his path to the truth.

This novel, if you can stomach it, is certainly worth your time. (HALFSIES SPOILER!!!) Don’t hope for any happy endings, though. I held on to hope for nearly the whole novel, only to have it dashed near the end. There is closure and resolution, but much of it is still achingly sad. While there is some measure of peace, and the ability to look forward, it’s hard to imagine the characters fully leaving behind all that has happened. As a reader, I know I’m still having trouble doing so.

While this one wasn’t, I wish you, as always, happy reading.

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Review: Inferno

I am currently basking in the glow of smug self-congratulation. I didn’t figure out the whole mystery in Dan Brown’s latest novel, but I figured out where the characters needed to be — and well over a hundred pages before the protagonist, Robert Langdon, did. I suspected it even earlier, but my personal confirmation still came well before Langdon sorted through everything. High fives all around!

Confession: I do feel a tiny bit like I cheated, though, simply because this mystery was firmly in my wheelhouse. My specialties are Medieval and Renaissance literature, as well as Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance history, with a sub-specialty in history of the Crusades. Even more specifically, the disastrous 4th Crusade. No spoilers, but if you read this novel, you’ll see why I nailed it. Plus, on top of all that, I’ve even been to the place where I knew they needed to go. I have photos of it and everything.

InfernoPoint is, I felt right at home in Inferno. The novel features Robert Langdon, who Brown also chronicled in Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, and The Lost Symbol. Out of the previous novels, my hands-down favorite was Angels & DemonsInferno is now a rather close second favorite, and it more than made up for my disappointment with The Lost Symbol.

The main plot of Inferno opens with Langdon’s mysterious awakening in Florence, Italy, after what seems to have been some sort of catastrophic incident in which he was non-fatally shot in the head. Langdon is suffering from retrograde amnesia, and has lost two days of his life. He has no idea what he’s doing in Florence, or why he’s carrying an artifact that doubles as a concealed projector of a painting depicting the levels of Hell described in Dante’s Inferno section of The Divine Comedy. Langdon soon finds himself groping blindly to figure out not only what he is investigating, but why. Along with a doctor who was treating him at the hospital, Langdon begins unraveling a complicated riddle centered on the famous poet Dante Alighieri and his enduring masterpiece, The Inferno.

Much like the previous novels, Langdon is a sort of academic James Bond. However, where The Lost Symbol veered too far into spy/action-hero territory, Inferno stays believable. Everything Langdon does has grounding in his background as a professor and well-known speaker and author, and the stunts he pulls — while impressive — are not out of the realm of possibility for any fit adult. Langdon focuses on the mysteries embedded in the poem and the myriad art it inspired. The number of parties involved in the hunt is large, and their allegiances shift more times than I could count. Hidden motives abound. There are twists upon twists, and just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, Brown yanks the rug out from under you by revealing yet another red herring. While I did guess the correct location, the characters, I admit, stumped me; the final reveal caught me quite off-guard.

I enjoyed Inferno immensely, and not just because the mystery fell within my areas of study and (minor) expertise. The novel is smart, fast-paced, and engaging. It manages to be thrilling both in terms of pure entertainment and the scholarly bent for which Brown has become famous. Each of his novels feels like a tour through the various locations, and I always come away with a vivid impression of the art, architecture, and culture of the novel’s respective city or cities. Personally, I think this is one of the best things Brown has written to date.  In a recent interview, Brown discussed his writing methodology, part of which is a focus on what he withholds from readers, saying, “A reader’s desire to guess what I’ve hidden is always more exciting than anything I can show.”

Dan Brown certainly kept me guessing, and kept me hooked. This novel is a continuation of the best traits of his earlier novels, and happily it purges the excesses that plagued The Lost Symbol. On top of the surface entertainment value, Brown poses some very interesting ethical questions, and draws readers’ attention to some serious issues that the world is facing today. Even after finishing the novel, I’ve been thinking — and thinking hard — about the problems highlighted, and the potential solutions proposed by the various characters. The novel ends without definitely answering any of the questions, so I feel safe in assuming that I’m doing exactly what Brown wants from his readers: thinking about not only the novel, but the broad implications of a pressing social issue. Kudos to Brown for both the novel and the considerations that I’m sure I’ll be mulling for some time to come.

Happy Reading!

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Review: Dead Ever After

(NOTE: No spoilers for this novel, but there will be spoilers for books #1-12.)

After fourteen years, Sookie Stackhouse’s adventures are over. Charlaine Harris’ thirteenth Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire novel is the last, as the title — Dead Ever After — indicates. I’m sad the series is over, but I think Harris was right to end it on her terms, the way she always envisioned, rather than dragging it out simply for the sake of producing more novels.

Dead Ever AfterThe novel begins at a crossroads, where two men are meeting a devil. The men, who remain nameless for some time, wait in the French Quarter of New Orleans to sell their souls, each for a distinct price.

The action then jumps to Mexico, where two men — also nameless — collaborate in a scheme to exact revenge against Sookie Stackhouse for some unknown reasons.

Harris, as you can see, starts the action immediately, but the reader is left in the dark about who these men are or what motivates them. Though Sookie is mentioned, we don’t get to her familiar narration and storyline until roughly twenty pages in. Sookie’s narrative begins the morning after [*MAJOR SPOILER FOR BOOK #12!!!*] she uses the cluviel dor, a magical relic from her fairy relatives that has the power to grant one wish, to raise Sam from the dead.  Somewhat unsurprisingly, Sam is stunned and overwhelmed by the experience, and is acting like a totally different person, especially  around Sookie. Meanwhile, Eric, Sookie’s vampire boyfriend, is furious at her for not using the cluviel dor to benefit him. Eric is still bound up in the negotiations for the marriage contract for his impending nuptials with Freyda, the Queen of Oklahoma, a process that hurts and humiliates Sookie every step of the way.

With all of this already straining her sanity, Sookie’s life gets immeasurably worse when her former friend Arlene shows back up. Arlene, though never a good friend to Sookie, broke all bonds when she tried to help her new anti-vampire/were/magic friends crucify Sookie. Luckily, Sookie evaded their cruel plan and Arlene and her accomplices all went to prison for attempted murder. Now, though, she was bailed out for reasons unbeknownst to her or Sookie; they quickly become apparent, however, when Arlene turns up murdered, with evidence planted on her body that points to Sookie as the perpetrator.

The bulk of the novel focuses on Sookie’s attempts to exonerate herself, alongside a group of her friends, including Amelia, Bob, Mr. Cataliades, Diantha, Quinn, and Barry. I really enjoyed this book; I flew through it under two days. The one facet that surprised me somewhat is how small a role the vampires played in this novel. Bill, Eric, Pam, and the usual assortment are present, but remain mostly in the background. Even the shifters take a notably smaller role. Unlike the previous installments in the series, this book is not about a vampire and/or shifter mystery adventure that spills over into Sookie’s life, but rather entirely Sookie-centric in both the focus and scope.

Without going into any spoilers, I will say that it ended the way I pretty much always expected it would. I was pleased with this ending, because I really do feel like Harris hinted in this direction throughout the dozen books leading up to this one. I wouldn’t say things were completely tied up or closed off, but it’s very clear how things will play out in Sookie’s future.

I’ll miss looking forward to a new Sookie Stackhouse novel every summer, but I’m sure I’ll find another series that will hook me in no time. (Plus, there’s still the bulk of my Masters’ Exam reading list to work through…)

Happy Reading!

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Review: Neverwhere

I just outright devoured Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. As the first book I’ve read since the end of the semester, it was bound to be a relief from the academic grind, but this was a particularly satisfying choice. I started the book around 8:30 in the morning, and had finished it by 4:00 p.m. (See? Devoured.) Gaiman’s pacing in the story had much to do with my reading pace; his novel starts off at a run, and never really slows down until the final chapters.

The reader is introduced to Richard Mayhew, a young Scottish man living in London. His life is fine, but rather lackluster. This all changes dramatically when he refuses to ignore a hurt young woman laying, filthy and bloody, on the sidewalk. Though his fiancee breaks up with him for doing so, Richard picks up the girl and, when she panics at his offer to take her to a hospital, takes her back to his flat to tend to her. The girl is named Door, and is not from the same London that Richard inhabits. Instead, she is from the shadowy second city — London Below. This underworld exists side-by-side with London Above, as the secretive residents of London Below refer to it, but few people can even see the people or the signs of this separate civilization. Door explains that people fall through the cracks in the city, and end up in the realm of magic and darkness.

Despite Door’s efforts to shield Richard from her world, she needs his help. Door is being pursued by two assassins named Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar; she doesn’t know who sent them or why, only that they are lethal and terrifying. The two men are one of Gaiman’s best achievements in this novel. They are quietly horrifying, sadists that maintain polite tones and grammatical correctness as they chase down their prey. Several of their scenes made the hair on my arms stand up. These two men are working for a secret employer, likely the same person that ordered the brutal murder of Door’s family prior to the events of the novel.

As he contacts people from her world, Richard becomes more and more entangled in the web of London Below. Door attempts to leave before any real damage is done, but Richard slips into her world against their best efforts. Richard is literally no longer visible to the people in London Above, and even the people that can see him don’t recognize him. Their gaze simply slides off him, and they forget about him as soon as their attention wavers. His job is gone. His apartment is sold out from under him. His fiancee forgets he ever existed. Left with nothing, Richard has no choice but to enter London Below and search for Door in hopes of finding someone to help him.

In London Below, Richard is utterly out of his element. He obtains a guide of sorts, but she soon disappears under murky circumstances. At the vibrant floating market, Richard is able to ask around — trading a hankerchief for information — and is directed to where he can find the pixie-like Door. Door and her allies, a  bodyguard as brutal as she is beautiful named Hunter and the well-connected but definitely shady Marquis de Carabas, initially want nothing to do with a bumbling outsider. Door, however, is soon overcome by guilt and allows Richard to tag along with them.

Richard is overcome by the world around him, which defies reality. The group’s adventures come fast and heavy, with injuries, fights, and even deaths along the way. Their quest is mercurial, as are Door’s supposed friends. Richard discovers a side of himself that he never knew existed, and begins to come into his own. The characters are interesting and engaging, and each is more well-rounded than I initially expected. Gaiman paints flaws into each of them, but it’s hard to hate any of the motley crew, even the one (*mini spoiler alert!*) who turns out to be a traitor.

I enjoyed Neverwhere, though there were a few loose ends at the close of the novel that I rather wished had been addressed. I did like the ending, though, despite the minor unfinished business. Neil Gaiman’s adventure is a fast, easy read, good for escaping the ordinary, if only for a few hours.

Happy reading!

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Review: Mr. Darcy, Vampyre

[Warning: contains minor spoilers. Nothing major, though — promise!]

What’s this rolling toward me? It’s a bandwagon! I do believe I’ll hop on for a little while.

As much as my inner book snob hates to admit it, I just read (and liked!) a total pop culture riff on a classic. I didn’t mean to, at first. I was in the check-out line at Bookmans, and the hugely popular “Austen + Monsters” genre table caught my eye. I picked up Amanda Grange’s Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, ready to rant about the desecration of Pride and Prejudice, but damned if the blurb on the back didn’t kind of sound awesome. It began, “A married man in possession of a dark fortune must be in want of an eternal wife…” I have to admit, I was amused by the play on the famous first lines of the original novel. I also liked that it wasn’t a rewrite of Pride and Prejudice itself, but rather a continuation of Austen’s work, with the additional “What if…?” of Darcy being a vampire. (Or, as the Regency-era spelling throughout the books insists, “vampyre.”)

The book begins in October of 1802, on Jane and Elizabeth Bennet’s joint wedding day. Jane, of course, marries Mr. Bingley, while Elizabeth is wed to Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth is overjoyed to be married, but senses that Darcy has misgivings. The feeling that her new husband regrets marrying her troubles Elizabeth immensely, despite Darcy doing all he can to allay her fears.

Now, given the title, any reader who has in fact looked at the cover can guess what’s going on here. The point of the novel is not the mystery of whether Darcy is a vampire or not. Instead, it’s a question of whether Elizabeth will realize it, and when she does, what will happen. Grange drops an absurd number of clues in front of Elizabeth, who seems to go back and forth between guessing the truth and willfully deluding herself. Darcy cancels their planned honeymoon in the Lake District of England, and instead whisks Elizabeth off to Paris. She meets more of Darcy’s family (i.e., fellow vampires) and mingles with Parisian society. Darcy vacillates between being attentive and loving, versus brooding, cold, and distant. Elizabeth is constantly surprised and puzzled by his actions, especially his announcement that they must go visit a distant relative that lives in a remote castle in the Alps. The situation becomes even worse when Darcy’s formidable aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, shows up to once again rail on about how the wedding was a mistake and Darcy should never have married Elizabeth. While Elizabeth is simply hurt because she feels that Lady Catherine disapproves of her family and lack of money, the reader senses a much darker undertone, knowing what Darcy and his family are. Lady Catherine does not simply refer to social class when she tells Darcy that Elizabeth does not belong in their world.

Darcy and Elizabeth travel through the Alps, staying briefly at the castle of the mysterious Count. Their time there is not happy however,  as Elizabeth has terrible nightmares and the castle overwhelms her. Finally, unexpected violence forces them to flee the castle. The couple, despite their obvious strain, cling to hope as they travel over the mountains to Italy. Their adventures continue in Venice, especially when they meet an Italian prince who takes a great liking to Elizabeth. The prince invites them to Rome, but things take an extremely dark turn soon after they arrive at his villa. Elizabeth is forced to come to terms with the reality of her marriage, as well as the fact that outside forces are seeking to tear her from Darcy at any cost. Elizabeth must decide how far she is willing to go for the love of her life, regardless of whether or not she might get her dreamed-of happy ending.

This novel is well written, and I was impressed and pleasantly surprised by Grange’s level of commitment to the time period and Austen’s original work. Pride and Prejudice is not cheapened by this sequel of sorts; in fact, it was kind of fun to read Mr. Darcy, Vampyre and look back at the events of Austen’s novel and analyze them with the new notion of Darcy, Georgiana, Lady Catherine, and Anne all being vampires. It certainly would explain a lot about the way they acted (and why Anne never died, despite her poor health). I have also come to terms with the widespread revisiting and re-imagining of classic novels. Though not all of the new alterations are for me, I have realized that they’re at the very least keeping the classics alive, and using the modern trends to hook new readers who might not have read them otherwise. Obviously, I hope that reading a zombie/vampire/monster novel based on a classic would eventually lead a reader back to the original work, but even if not, at least people are reading. That’s what’s most important to me, at the end of the day.

Happy reading!

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