Adult Fiction, Book Review, Fantasy/Magical Realism

The City of Brass

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I looked at my shelves the other day and realized that there was nothing on my there that I was truly interested in reading at the moment. This has been a big problem for me in the past year, so I took a couple of bags of books and sold them to a secondhand bookstore. While I was there and because of my reading slump, I decided to buy one book that I was interested in reading right that second, take it home, and read it immediately. So, I did.

Nahri scrapes by in 18th century Cairo by being a little shady in her business dealings. She steals, lies, and cheats her way to a meager living every day. It helps that she has some magical abilities like healing small wounds and instantly understanding most languages she hears. When she attempts a ritual to remove the supposed spiritual possession from a child, she accidentally summons a real djinn. Dara the djinn introduces Nahri to a hidden, magical word populated by the djinn, their descendants, and a whole host of strange mythological beings. Nahri quickly learns that she has a stake in this magical world that she never asked for.

I haven’t had this much fun reading a book in a while. In many ways, this book is nothing too ground breaking or special, but there’s actually quite a bit going on under the surface. To begin with, this is a novel based on Middle Eastern mythology and Islamic beliefs. The author herself is a Muslim convert. The novel is told in third person perspective with a focus on the perspectives of Nahri and Ali, a prince in the djinn’s world. The world is expansive and the characters are interesting, but the novel suffers from a few issues and tropes common to recent fantasy releases. However, it has a lot more complexity and heart than many overly hyped reads in the same vein.

Although this book is classified as adult fantasy, it reads a little younger. The writing itself, some of the plot devices (read: tropes), and some of the characters come off a bit “less adult” than I usually read. There’s actually quite a bit of violence and some adult themes though, so don’t be too turned off by the slight YA feel. If anything, it just reads more quickly because of this, but it does not feel overly childish. If you usually read adult fantasy, you may have some issues with the writing, but if you usually read YA and are looking to dip your toe into adult fantasy, this would be an excellent starting point.

A few common complaints I see from other reviewers are that the world is too confusing (there’s a glossary in the back of the book!), there is a lot of information dumping, and that the plot becomes too slow in the middle of the novel. I would say that I partially agree with all of those comments, but I feel like the book deserves a little defense in those respects. The world building of the novel is actually quite good in my opinion. The world feels “off the page,” meaning that it feels like it has a long, rich history intertwined with some of familiar real-world history. Does the mythology and history of the world get “dumped” on the reader all at once? Maybe.

The book is packed with action and adventure, but near the midpoint there is a definite dip in action. There is a long travel sequence in the early to middle part of the book. During the traveling, the characters discuss the history of the world at length. Because this information about the world is sandwiched between so much action and because of the complexity of the world, I can see why many readers complain about the slowness of the middle of the novel. While I do wish that the travel scenes were shorter and that the world building was woven more smoothly throughout the novel, it isn’t a major issue in my opinion. However, I do feel like too much of the history/mythology of the world was packed into the first book in the series. The end in particular felt as if the author was throwing a lot of mythological curve balls at the reader to add twists and complications to what you thought were the rules of the created world. This was a bit confusing, but it also intensified my desire to read the sequel so that I could hopefully get some answers.

Remember when I mentioned tropes earlier? As with many fantasy novels, we have the “normal girl finds out she is special and has to save the world” plot. Although the first book is not yet focused on saving the whole world, it hints at larger evils and problems to come in the subsequent books. To me, the more egregious trope is the dreaded love triangle. I hope that the sequel dispels the implications that a love triangle is developing, but it is a possibility that it may become more integral to the plot as it moves forward. There’s also (unless I am reading it completely wrong) some hope of a bi/gay relationship between a couple of the characters. Despite all of the romantic speculation, I would not say that this book is a romance masquerading as a fantasy, as some YA and adult fantasy seem to be guilty of doing. Although the romantic pairings have some importance to the plot, it does not distract from the major plot devices so far.

This review actually turned out to be pretty long, so I think I will wrap it up. The final verdict: The City of Brass is an imperfect but extremely entertaining and interesting fantasy novel. It gets tangled up in a few tired tropes, but it is overall worthy of some recognition for its representation, creativity, world building, and endearing but flawed characters. I thoroughly enjoyed reading The City of Brass, and I plan to pick up the sequel, The Kingdom of Copper, released on the 22nd of January in the U.S. I gave The City of Brass a rating of 4 out of 5 stars.

 

Book Review, Nonfiction

From Here to Eternity

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Last year I reviewed Caitlin Doughty’s previous book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which was her memoir that discussed her experience in the death industry. From Here to Eternity is Doughty’s travel account of death rituals from around the world. She visits places in the U.S. where they have open air cremation, Japan where they combine technology and old practices, Indonesia where in some places they keep their dead at home for months to years, and Bolivia where an old skull can give you financial advice. These places (and more!) offer a different kind of send off for the body and the spirit of the deceased. Doughty interviews both those in the death industry and normal mourners to give an expansive look at death practices in different cultures.

Doughty gets a lot of flack from traditional funeral homes in the U.S. She has become a green burial boogeyman to them because she advocates for more eco-friendly and cheaper options for mourners instead of the pricey and unnecessary casket and embalming process that many funeral homes push hard. Some may call her a kind of “death hippie” because of these ideas, but I at least think that she makes a lot of good points. As I said in my review of her other book, I don’t think she comes off too preachy about her ideas because she is only advocating for more options, not saying we should all do things her way.

She also encourages Americans to take a look at how we avoid death in our culture. Many of the cultures she discusses in her book get up close and personal with death. They confront it by taking care of the deceased’s body, incorporating death into festivals and art, and making death a less somber and strained affair. I think the following quote sums up the book nicely:

“Many of the rituals in this book will be very different from your own, but I hope you will see the beauty in that difference. You may be someone who experiences real fear and anxiety around death, but you are here.”

Here you are. As I’ve mentioned before, I had actual panic attack when thinking in depth about death. Doughty’s wit, humor, and factual information has comforted my own death anxiety because I was finally able to confront my fear and mostly conquer it. From Here to Eternity does not have to be about death advocacy or avoidance; you can simply enjoy learning about the death rituals in other cultures, which is extremely interesting itself. But it would be a disservice to Doughty not to mention the underlying ideals she works so hard to bring to the forefront of American culture.

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Children's Fiction, Fantasy/Magical Realism, Young Adult Fiction

Odd and the Frost Gaints

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What would 2019 be without some Neil Gaiman? The edition I chose to read is illustrated by Chris Riddell, who sometimes provides illustrations for Gaiman’s works as well as writes and illustrates his own books. He and Gaiman have worked together on editions of Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, The Sleeper and the Spindle, and Fortunately, the Milk… I absolutely love Gaiman’s fun, fantastical stories being accompanied by Riddell’s fairy tale-esque, full-of-personality illustrations.

Odd and the Frost Giants follows a boy named Odd. Odd’s father died in a Viking raid, and his mother married another man she was not in love with. Odd, unhappy with his new living situation, leaves his village to stay in his father’s woodcutting hut. He meets three strange animals in the forest who are much more than they appear to be. It is up to Odd to help the animals reclaim their true forms and their homeland.

In case you don’t already know, Odd and the Frost Giants is a short, lighthearted story about the Norse gods Odin, Thor, and Loki. Picture it as Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology-lite. It is a simple adventure story that would be appropriate for both young and older readers, but the language is not overly simplistic. If you have some knowledge of Norse mythology, you will find a few Easter eggs and nods to other Norse myths in Odd, but having little to no knowledge will not hinder your enjoyment of the tale at all.

I would recommend Odd and the Frost Giants to anyone who enjoys an adventure story, Norse mythology in a more lighthearted structure, and fans of Gaiman’s other writing. Odd and the Frost Giants is a quick and enjoyable read, but it is not necessarily the deepest of Gaiman’s work, if that is what you are looking for.

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Historical

The Essex Serpent

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Cora Seaborne’s husband has passed away. She isn’t terribly upset about this, but she knows she should act the part of the bereaved widow. Cora is a free spirit who enjoys nature and science. A woman being interested in these “masculine” subjects is frowned upon in 1890’s England, but she does not care. Upon hearing about the sightings of the “Essex serpent,” Cora moves herself, her son, and her female companion to the countryside to investigate the serpent. However, Cora finds much more than a mythical beast. She finds love, friendship, and her identity.

If I had to describe this novel in one word, I would choose slow. The pace of the plot and character development is steady but slow, which may turn off some readers. If you want to relax, enjoy beautiful writing, and read about some Victorian romantic drama with a touch of feminism, I would say that The Essex Serpent is a good fit. Personally, while I enjoyed what read, I had to push myself through the first 100-150 pages. I listened to most of the novel on audio book just to get into the story. However, once I become attached to the characters, it became a much more enjoyable reading experience.

Despite my summary and most blurbs going on about Cora, there are at least a dozen other characters in the novel that get not insignificant page time. Most of them are well developed with their own beliefs, personalities, and relationships. (There are a few that I would have liked to see more of, particularly Cora’s son.) There are also love triangles and romantic pairings everywhere. The book is less about the mythical serpent and much more focused on the relationships (both romantic and not) the characters have with one another. This is not a bad thing, but it should be said so that no one gets the wrong idea about the plot. Yes, the serpent is alluded to often and has an effect on the townspeople, but it seems secondary to the lives of the main characters.

I was slightly disappointed by The Essex Serpent, but I had very high expectations for the mythological aspect of the novel. This is much more of a Victorian romance with a bit of folklore thrown in. Still, I would give The Essex Serpent a 3.5 out of 5 stars for its beautiful writing and strong characters.

Book Review

Alice’s Adventures Under Ground

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Alice’s Adventures Under Ground is, from my understanding, the original manuscript that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) gifted to Alice Liddell (the real life inspiration of Alice the character). Dodgson drew some amateur illustrations to accompany his original story, but this edition has illustrations by Charles Santore that were inspired by Carroll’s original sketches. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the title for the expanded version for publication.

Alice’s Adventures Under Ground is missing some of my favorite characters and scenes, like the Mad Hatter and March Hare, but most of the story is in tact. It is interesting to see the “early draft” of the Alice that I know and love, but there isn’t a lot of new content– besides the illustrations of course– to see in this book. This is mostly a collector’s piece, and it is beautiful. The edition is a small hardback with a cutout in the cover where the illustration of Alice is placed. Inside there is a short note from the publisher that explains the history of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, an introduction by Michael Patrick Hearn, the story itself, and lastly, a Q&A with the illustrator, Charles Santore.

If you still need a gift for an Alice fan, perhaps get them Alice’s Adventures Under Ground as it is a nice edition to round out their collection.

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Fantasy/Magical Realism

Deathless

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So, I really like fairy tales, folklore, and mythology. I also like the fantasy genre. If you give me a fantasy novel that has a lot of inspiration from the fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, I am almost certainly going to love it. Meet Deathless, a fantasy novel with a heavy dose of Russian folklore and fairy tales.

Marya Morevna is a human girl living in Russia during the Russian Revolution. Throughout her childhood, Marya occasionally saw glimpses of what she called “magic.” Her sisters married birds who turned into men before her eyes, and she has seen domovoi meetings within her family’s home. So, when another bird-turned-man shows up at Marya’s door asking for her hand in marriage, she isn’t too surprised. In fact, she expected it and waited eagerly for the day. However, her husband to be isn’t quite what she pictured. What she does not yet know is that her future husband is Koschei the Deathless.

I could say more. I could say a lot more, but just know that this novel is packed with Russian myths, history, and culture. I will admit that a lot of it went over my head in the early chapters. Since I never studied much Russian anything in college, I was torn between looking up the tales and avoiding them like the plague because of possible spoilers. If I could go back in time before I started the novel, I would probably brush up on the stories about Koschei as well as other Russian mythological creatures and figures. Doing this might help add some context to the references and make it easier to picture some of the other creatures/characters. Even though the author takes her own creative liberties with certain details, having some foundation of what she is describing would have helped me at least.

OK, onto the regular stuff. How are the characters, plot, and everything else? Pretty great, actually. Marya grew as a character at a believable and nonlinear pace. She started out as a young, naive girl, and even though she did something brave, strong, or clever, that does not mean she will always be brave, strong, or clever in the future. Sometimes she regressed a bit as she progressed, and I found that to add a lot of depth and realism to her character. She also struggled with morality, power, and relationships. Marya is flawed and imperfect, but it is impossible not to cheer for her and her fiery spirit to succeed. The other “demons” in the story, like Koschei, were lively and well written, but some of Marya’s less important friends and allies didn’t make as much of an impression.

I admittedly struggled with the plot of the novel, but I think that was more of a problem with my own mindset than it was with the book itself. I got into a horrible reading slump at end of November and start of December that made me not want to pick up anything. The beginning of Deathless went a bit slowly as we are introduced to Marya and watch her grow up. When Koschei entered the picture around fifty pages in, the plot sped up, as did my interest. Without my reading slump, I would likely have had no issue with the pace.

Deathless is a very unique read that fans of Russian folklore or general fantasy might adore. My verdict is a rating of 4 out of 5 stars, but I would not be opposed to changing my rating to a 5 when I inevitably reread this one.

 

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Contemporary

Mira Corpora

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This was a weird one. I keep seeing a specific line associated with this book everywhere. This novel is supposedly “a coming-of-age story for people who hate coming-of-age stories.” That alone got my attention. I am not a big fan of coming-of-age stories any more, but that’s a unique way to sell your book.

Mira Corpora is a fantastical autobiography. Some of it might be true, but there’s probably at least a little extra magic and drama thrown in. It is written as if the author, Jeff Jackson, went through everything, but it is also implied that some things are made up. I would put aside guessing what is true and what isn’t while you read the novel. Just enjoy the wild ride. It is dark, heartbreaking, and haunting. There are homeless feral children, a missing rock star, and a boy who seeks to find himself by himself.

Mira Corpora is not an enjoyable read in the same way that A River in Darkness is not “fun” to read. At least some of Mira Corpora really happened, and Jeff Jackson is just a kid throughout most of the book. There are some terrible things that happen to him, so I’ll just say that a broad trigger warning is probably needed for this one. If you can get past poor Jeff’s trials, it has a very interesting but meandering plot. Parts were surreal and felt like a drug-induced haze. Other parts are just tragic. The main character’s growth is easy to see. There are part or section headings that tell how old he is, but beyond his age, he slowly becomes more self assured and confident, while the earlier sections have a touch more innocence and child-like wonder.

I’ve really never read anything quite like this, so I am having a lot of trouble reviewing it. Think of something like Lord of the Flies, but with one kid trying to survive, some untrustworthy adults in our often strange and unforgiving society, and scenes that almost make you feel high but also sad. If you’re looking for something truly different and you want a book that is “a coming-of-age story for people who hate coming-of-age stories,” this might be for you. At the very least, the novel made me want to know more about the author’s life. Three out of five stars for Mira Corpora, mainly because there’s a lot to digest, and it was a bit too dark for my mood when I read it.

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Mystery/Thriller

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky

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I am back with another Two Dollar Radio book review. You know those “blind date with a book” things where you get a random book? The book might be wrapped up so you can’t see the cover, but a few details, like themes, setting, similar titles, are usually written on the wrapping. Anyway, I bought some surprises, and I was pleasantly surprised that I liked what I got!

Leah Shepherd’s life is rather mundane these days. Her job is to assist poor women and children at a nonprofit organization in Kentucky. She is not married and has no children, but she is active in her church and helps little old ladies. However, when Leah was a young girl, her brother Jacob went missing. His disappearance has haunted her for many years, but now she may have to confront her troubling past. A man contacts Leah at work claiming to be her lost brother.

There’s a mystery in this novel, but I am not sure if I would call it an actual mystery novel. The plot feels too quiet, too literary, and too experimental to appeal to readers who love traditional mysteries or thrillers. The prose in Ancient Ocean of Central Kentucky is very descriptive and very beautiful, but it is also a little on the experimental side because the author does not follow traditional grammar rules. There are incomplete sentences, run-on sentences, and though it is not written in verse, it at times reads like poetry. The feeling of the novel rests on the prose. Short, choppy lines make the plot hurried and urgent, while long, lazy lines evoke the slow, sticky feeling of a warm summer day. The author uses descriptions of people, places, and random objects to paint his settings. The description at times feel random in what is focused on or mentioned, but together, the lines paint a very realistic and lively sense of place.

The plot itself is realistic, but the writing gives the novel a surreal, dreamy quality. Much of the novel is in a kind of stream of consciousness style. Time periods, perspectives, and settings all come and go between paragraphs, but there are many page breaks between the paragraphs, so it does not feel too confusing. This is the kind of novel that you read less for the plot or character development and more for the feeling the words on the page evoke within you. The author gives a clear picture of the characters because he uses the same descriptive style. We may never find out exact answers about the characters’ lives, but we are given just enough details and scenes to ascertain who these people are and what drives them. Leah, of course, is the main focus, but even the nameless women who come into her office seem like real people.

This is a very unique novel in its writing and plot, but I wouldn’t say I felt confused during my reading experience. However, at times I felt like I was taking a peaceful but un-directed float down a lazy Kentucky river in the summer. If this sounds like your kind of thing, go for it. I had a great reading experience with this novel, and I hope other readers also give it a chance. I rated Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky four out of five stars.

 

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Mystery/Thriller

All the Missing Girls

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Nicolette Farrell is back in Cooley Ridge, North Carolina for the first time in ten years. As a teenagers, Nic, Beth, and Corinne tore up their small town. They were always taking risks, causing trouble, and the rumor was that they swapped boyfriends sometimes. Those wild, carefree days came to an abrupt end when Corrine disappeared. After her disappearance, Nic moved away from everything she knew to start a new life. Now Nic’s father is ailing, and her brother has called her back to help sell their father’s house. But soon after Nic returns, another young girl goes missing.

The gimmick of this thriller is that it is told backwards. There are few chapters in “present time” to orient the reader, but then the story skips ahead a couple of weeks. From then on, each chapter tells about the previous day’s events. So, after the first few chapters, we start on Day 15. The next chapter is Day 14, then 13, 12, etc. Slowly everything is revealed about Nic, her past, Corinne’s disappearance, and the new disappearance Nic is present for. This is a creative way to organize the plot, but I felt that the execution was imperfect. I am not saying I could do better, but as a reader, it was sometimes a bit hard to keep things chronologically in my mind when the book/plot was going backwards. Beyond that, there was not anything too special about this thriller. It did the small town mysterious vibe very well though.

Organizational choices aside, how was the rest of the novel? It was OK. There were a good number of twists, and some caught me by surprise. There were quite a few secondary characters that matter to the plot. They are written well enough to not be confused with each other, but none of them stand out. I had to look up some of the characters’ names (including the main character’s) even though I only read the book a week ago. No one was very memorable.

Some of the conflicts in the novel made me frustrated. I am beginning to really hate when characters have disagreements that are easily solved by simply communicating. I realize that miscommunication happens a lot in real life, but sometimes these characters (mainly Nic) would neglect to tell another character something important, only to have it come back to bite them in the ass later or it created some misunderstanding that could easily have been prevented. Nic is a character that has a lot of secrets, but I could not always get behind her actions and decision-making. Still, she was not as frustrating as the main character in The Woman in Cabin 10

So, yes, this was a very “OK” read. It was nothing too special, but I did blow through the first half of the book in one day. Of course, it took me about a week to pick it back up again and finish it. If you would like to read a small town domestic thriller with a uniquely organized plot, you might want to try All the Missing Girls.

Book Review, Nonfiction

The Genius of Birds

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I find the study of psychology extremely interesting, especially animal psychology. In fact, it was my first major in college, and sometimes I imagine what it would have been like if I never made my switch to English. Since psychology and nature are two of my favorite non-fiction subjects, The Genius of Birds was a great fit. I would not say that I have ever been specifically interested in birds themselves, but the book bragged that some birds’ intelligence is on par or even surpasses other animals’– even primates– critical thinking skills. Thoroughly intrigued, I dove in head first.

Jennifer Ackerman definitely did her research. The book is packed with facts and interesting research results. Not everything is conclusive, but the information is presented in a way that makes you think without making too many bold claims. Since a lot of the research is recent, the book feels very up-to-date, but the author also compares what we thought we knew about birds to what we think we know now. Ackerman discusses various aspects of birds’ minds, including their critical thinking skills, their socialization practices, the importance of birdsong, how birds navigate their world, and how climate and human populations impact birds’ cognitive abilities. The information is fascinating and easy to read. As I said, I went in knowing only some bird basics. I knew that crows and parrots were considered intelligent, and I could name the commons birds native to my area. Beyond that, I was a blank slate in bird knowledge. The writing is almost conversational, with a welcoming and relaxed tone. Unlike some books of this nature, the author does not insert herself into the writing very often. She states the facts between some orienting information about her own experiences, but the actual facts fill the pages.

As a teaser, a few of the most interesting things I learned were that some birds make and use tools. Some keep their homemade tools and even modify them as time goes on. The book also makes a comparison between bird song and human language because birds learn their songs in a similar way to how humans learn languages. Some birds even pass down and modify their songs over generations. I found the book difficult to put down. Nonfiction usually takes me longer to read, but I flew (pun slightly intended) through this. Five out of five stars in my opinion, and I believe that this is the first time a nonfiction title has gotten this high of a rating from me!