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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: 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: 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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