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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: 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: 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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Review: The Secret Lives of Dresses

Finally, I kept my promise to myself to read something that was — unlike my last few books — actually happy. Erin McKean’s The Secret Lives of Dresses deals with some tough issues that many readers can relate to, but balances the sad, poignant moments with humor and optimism. The novel begins with Dora (the protagonist) sobbing in her car as she drives through North Carolina to the bedside of her beloved grandmother Mimi, who has suffered a terrible stroke. Dora was orphaned as an infant, so Mimi is all she really has by way of family. Dora is introduced to the reader as a bit of a drifter; not unmotivated or unintelligent by any means, but simply unsure of her path and her passions in life. I’m pretty sure everyone can relate to this at least a little bit. (I know I didn’t truly embrace my passions and my goals in life until I was in college, and I feel like my path is still shifting as I learn and grow in the “real world.”)

When Dora reaches Forsyth she is taken to the hospital by Gabby, a relation of some sort who lives with Mimi. Gabby and Dora are very close, but even Gabby can’t ease the fear that Dora has when she considers losing the last link she has to her deceased parents. Dora quickly settles into a routine in Forsyth, centered on running her grandmother’s vintage clothing shop and visiting Mimi in the hospital. A colorful cast of characters complement Dora’s life, ranging from the exceptionally awesome Maux, Dora’s friend who also works in Mimi’s shop; Conrad, the contractor and architect who seems to be the only person truly able to comfort Dora; to Camille, Dora’s aunt and a perfectly heinous individual. McKean does a phenomenal job painting Camille as the woman in everyone’s family who everyone — whether secretly or openly — can’t stand. Camille is introduced “rolling up to the front door like an ocean liner” and quickly establishes herself as the sort of woman who immediately makes “everyone near her sullen and unresponsive.”  She named her daughter Tyffanee. Worst of all, Camille is planning on taking over Mimi’s and transforming from a vintage boutique into a horrifying tourist trap of a store, selling t-shirts, junk souvenirs, and tacky jewelry. Oh, and she tries to start that process while Mimi is still in a coma. There is no way you can read this novel without having a visceral reaction to Camille and everything she stands for.

The novel is mainly rooted in the present, but has periodic vignettes from Dora’s past. Ranging from her childhood to recent events in her college life, these memories make Dora a much more three-dimensional character as the reader learns about her youth without her parents, her awkward high school years, and her collegiate experiences. One particularly evocative moment centers on a memory when Dora was very young and her teacher had the class draw family portraits. Another child pesters Dora as to why she has no mother and father in her drawing, and my heart ached for the little girl as the teacher publicly labeled her an orphan, without regard for Dora’s own feelings. For me, especially as a teacher thinking about my own students’ often complicated home lives, few other parts of the novel packed quite as much emotional weight as that one scene.

As Dora struggles to cope with the idea that Mimi isn’t going to get better, she discovers not only her deeply buried love for vintage fashion, but also the “Secret Lives” that Mimi had been writing for the items in her store. Unbeknownst to Dora, Mimi had for years been writing stories from the dresses’ point of view about where they had come from, what they had seen, and what type of women had worn them. The stories are lovely, descriptive, and engaging: sometimes funny, occasionally shocking, and always memorable. The customers love the stories, and soon Dora falls under their spell as well, despite her feeling of betrayal about Mimi never having told her about them.

Over the course of the novel, Dora finds that she can no longer put off deciding what to do with her life. It’s a scary decision, and McKean writes it in such a way that I truly sympathized with Dora and related to all her fears and hopes. I think every reader can also relate to the feeling of being torn between one thing that you wanted for so long it seems crazy to give up on it, versus something new that you never would have guessed you couldn’t live without. This applies both to Dora’s life choices, as well as her relationship potential. I found it incredibly hard to see anything likable about Dora’s longtime crush Gary (though that may have been McKean’s point), and couldn’t believe any woman be able to resist a man like Conrad in her life.

The Secret Lives of Dresses is a fun read. It’s not always light, but it handles pain and loss in a true-to-life manner; McKean does not deny sadness or anger, but refuses to let her heroine get dragged under by them. Dora is spunky and likeable, the kind of woman that few people are confident enough to be (even Dora isn’t sure she’s confident enough, half the time). This is definitely a novel aimed at females, but I would not under any circumstances call it “chick lit” — a term I detest regardless. It’s the type of book that simply leaves the reader feeling happy and slightly mushy in the best possible way. It’s a bit like a Disney movie in that way. It also made me want to dress like a vintage goddess, but that may not be a realistic goal. Then again, however, I just might be able to pull it off. I bet Erin McKean would tell me I could.

Happy reading!

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