January Reviews

Some ups and downs, but overall a very solid month. I love that I picked up some novels that I wouldn’t normally read, and that I finished one of the series that has been lurking around my TBR for quite a while.

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S. by Doug Dorst & J.J. Abrams

This story within a story was very buzzed about when it came out about a year ago. It’s fascinating to look at. A beautiful old book with yellowed pages and all manner of things–post cards, letters, even a map sketched hastily on a cafe napkin–kept carefully inside. It’s gimmicky, but it works beautifully. Jen and Eric, the two characters who meet and converse in the margins of the novel, are fully formed and their relationship is unusual and complex and really fun to watch. The novel they discuss, The Ship of Theseus, is excellent taken on its own, even though its purpose here is primarily to provide a canvas for the two stories that happen on and under it: Jen and Eric’s and Stratka and Caldiera’s. Jen and Eric discover things together about Stratka and his work through the margins and this haphazard sort of storytelling makes this a book you get to explore, and get excited about. It’s not a sit back and watch the movie happen in your head kind of story, instead I found myself researching and hunting through the pages of the book, looking for answers. It’s hard, but it’s really fun while remaining very serious and engaging.

As a side note: a lot of reviews I saw for this tell you how you should read this book. I would suggest you figure out your own way, don’t hold yourself to any one thing (With one exception: upon opening, definitely take out all the inserts and label them with the page they were stuck in. Then you can keep them out and just refer to them as you reach that page, or you can stick them back in and not worry about losing their place when they invariably fall out by accident.) Personally, I started out reading two facing pages (starting and stopping at paragraph breaks) of Ship of Theseus and then reading all of the margin notes before turning the page. I read inserts as I reached them too. As I got more comfortable and was able to hold what was happening in Ship of Theseus in my head a little better, I’d just read the margin notes as I came to them, jumping in and out of the main text. Then I wound up reading almost all of the inserts ahead of time, which was kind of a spoiler, but I hold to the idea that you can’t really spoil yourself on this book, because figuring out what’s happening is a big deal at any point in the novel. It doesn’t really matter when you do it, only that you do.

Opal, Origin and Opposition by Jennifer L. Armentrout (Lux #3, #4, and #5)

The Lux series rapidly went downhill for me, unfortunately. I liked Obsidian, last month I said I enjoyed Onyx too. I did also like Opal quite a bit, but by the time I was done with Origin things had started to go sour. The high shock cliff-hanger of that fourth book got me to pick up Opposition, but I quickly tired of that one too. The action-y ending got me to finish it, but I almost gave up around halfway through. The problems with the end of the series include a complete and total detachment of its characters from the events around them and its overall lack of depth and thematic complexity. I could not stop groaning in frustration every time Katy and Daemon turned away from some serious problem or serious situation that a loved one found themselves in and instead “got lost in each other” or whatever. Normal, decent people can feel happiness when there’s troublesome times or act on the desire to make the most of a possibly brief amount of time together in a dangerous situation, but this was overkill.

But gratuitous sex scenes aside, this story, in Origin especially, had so much potential to be more than it was. There are these hints at a complex, fascinating, unanswerable question: what makes a hero who kills to protect different from a villain? There’s a character who becomes more and more an antagonist over Opal and Origin who is just trying to save himself and someone he cares about, but meanwhile Daemon and Katy do the exact same thing. Kill other people and risk everything up to and including the fate of the entire world in order to save each other. There are moments when Daemon realizes this, really actively decides that Katy is more important, but he never actually grapples with it with it. Katy has a few scarce moments of moral uncertainty when she kills, but we never see her work through her grief and her moral standards. Because again, screwing your boyfriend in a motel room might help you forget the reprehensible but possibly forgivible stunts you pull, but it doesn’t make them right or better. And one short paragraph of “I’m different now.” doesn’t count as character development either.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I read this over the course of about two months, which is an extremely long time for me. I listened to the audiobook on and off for most of that time, before finishing the last 100 or so pages in one evening. It took so long I think because there wasn’t much of a pull from the plot to keep reading, or to turn the audiobook on when I got back in the car. Still, it’s an excellent story. The timeline bounces between two linear timelines, one starting at the very beginning, the other some years later, though they both come together in time for the climax. Interspersed are the second person, time-independent interludes which are really magical and engrossing. The setting, the circus, is the focus and it’s built beautifully. So, overall, this is a slow burn kind of thing, not a rollicking adventure, though it does have it’s fair share of high-stakes magic.

First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen has been a quietly lingering favorite of mine for some time now. It’s a hopeful little romance/family drama set in a southern town with a large helping of magical realism. I’ve been meaning to pick up her other books and I saw First Frost on a display at Barnes and Noble, not realizing it was Garden Spells‘ sequel until I looked at the synopsis. It turns out it’s what I always secretly wanted from another book with these characters, back when I thought Garden Spells was a stand alone. Bay–who’s a preschooler in the first book–grown a bit older, falling in love with someone she knows for a certainty (it’s her little magical power, knowing where things belong) she belongs with, and having to deal with the frustration of his slow realization. I loved Bay’s story and the dynamic between her and her mother. We also return to Claire (Bay’s aunt) of course and her story was less compelling, a little unintentionally silly sometimes, but also had its moments. My major complaint is that the ending seemed a bit rushed, but maybe that’s just a clue that there will be another sequel after this.

Serena by Ron Rash

I impulse bought this primarily because Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper were on the cover, having staring roles in the upcoming movie adaptation, but also because it sounded unique. Woman hunts down husband’s illegitimate child after she finds out she can’t have her own. Sounded fascinatingly complicated, especially regarding the female characters and action-y and all around cool, dark atmosphere. It definitely had great atmosphere. It’s set in a logging camp in the Carolinas during the Depression and the scenery was depicted really excellently. Rash constructs prose really well. I also thoroughly enjoyed Rachel, the mother of the camp owner’s illegitimate son. She grew up, got smarter, learned what it took and what it meant to be a mother. Serena, the powerful, jealous wife, I liked at first, I thought she had some nuance, but I found her transition into total cold-hearted evil villainess to be jarring and frankly uninteresting. She was intentionally sort of removed and stylized: seen by the other characters as all-powerful, but I thought it would have been more interesting to examine her more complexly. Still, this novel was an interesting change of pace for me and I quite enjoyed it, just not completely.

Here’s the movie trailer. It hasn’t received great reviews, but again, I think the scenery is beautiful. Serena, though, appears to fall flat here as well, which doesn’t bode well. I’ll probably go see it anyway, because I’ve been loving going to the movies lately, but we’ll have to see how well it turned out.

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