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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: 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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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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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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Review: Room

Room ruined my entire day. I feel like I’m probably in the minority with the revulsion I felt for Emma Donoghue’s novel, but I just couldn’t get into it. It’s another novel in which the horrific things that occur made my stomach twist, and gave me nightmarish mental images that I couldn’t shake. Room

Room is told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack, who we quickly learn is being held in captivity along with his mother in a single room. Jack accepts his strange environment as the norm, since he’s never known anything else, but his mother recognizes it as her prison for nearly a decade at the time the narrative starts. Jack serving as the narrator worked to underscore the peculiarity of their situation, as his innocence stands in sharp contrast to what the reader understands the reality of the kidnapped mother and her son, born of repeated rape.

However, Jack serving as the narrator was also a major irritant for me. His language is, obviously, that of a small child. I was put off by the combination of poor grammar and syntax almost as much as by the plot. Also, I found myself skeptical of the things that Jack did or didn’t know and understand. Jack will know an advanced word or concept, and then a few pages later won’t know a basic word or idea. I admit I’m a stickler for continuity, and I felt there were contradictions here. Enough on style, however; let’s move on to substance.

(Spoilers to follow!!!)

Now, the first half or so of the novel takes place in Room, but Jack and his mother eventually make their escape. I was hopeful that things would improve once they were out of captivity, but there was still a lot of pain and negativity. Their hospitalization and attempts to reacclimate to society are heart-wrenching. It’s to be expected that a kidnapping victim held for many years would struggle upon their return, but it was hard to read nonetheless. The immensity of the issues Jack and his mother face is boggling, and the mixed reaction — even from family and friends — to their return makes the process even more turbulent. There is some optimism, but not much. This is a rough read, especially in light of current events (specifically, the eerie similarities between aspects of this novel and the imprisonment and rape of the three women in Cleveland).

I don’t have much else to say about this novel, except that its ending is pretty anticlimatic. It neither goes as far nor as deep as I was hoping. This novel is a quick read, but a deeply troubling one. Should you decide to take it on, have something to cheer you up on standby. You’ll need it.

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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