Tag Archives: Fiction

Sarah Waters – The Paying Guests (2014)

PayingGuestsWith her novel The Paying Guests, Waters looks at postwar 1920s London, but through a very unique lense. We are first introduced to the Wray family, spinser Frances and her mother who live together alone in a townhouse. Due to the deaths of the men in the family, Frances and her mother are forced to rent out a room in their house to a young couple, Leonard and Lillian Barber. While initially Frances is suspicious of the the couple, she then strikes up a friendship with Lillian which develops into something much more.

Without giving too much away the story is essentially about the blossoming friendship and eventual affair that occurs between Lillian and Frances set against the backdrop of 1920’s London, a time in which class and gender structures were very much in flux. While I very much enjoyed the story as well as Waters’ writing style, so much of this book seemed so very long. There were parts that dragged on forever without ever really coming to a conclusion. Waters’ writing is great, but the editor really should have cut this book down about 100-200 pages. The unnecessary dialogue and inner thoughts detracted from the rest of the book.

As a feminist scholar specializing in female sexuality in Victorian England, Waters certainly knows her subject and sets the scene beautifully. She is not unfamiliar with creating a dramatic story and does so quite well. Even though the book runs a bit long in places, it is still a worthy read and a great piece of historical fiction.

Lev Grossman – The Magicians (2009)

TheMagiciansI originally had this book described to me as “Harry Potter meets The Catcher in the Rye.” As a fan of both those things I was intrigued. While Grossman does draw inspiration from Harry Potter, making casual references to the series and subtly mocking it, this book was much more of a dystopian version of the Narnia series.

The book starts off at Brakebills, a special school for young magicians (much like Hogwarts, leading to the comparisons to Harry Potter), but moves much farther past that. The characters in the book are older than Harry and his friends, and as such are much more prone to vice. They drink, do drugs, have sex, and use magic for their own personal gain. While magic is the driving force behind this book, the characters still live in the real world which is much less fantastical than other fantasy series. Magic is something that is hard, and it does not necessarily solve all the problems.

Even when the group of friends travel to Fillory, the magical Narnia-esq realm, magic is still a very dangerous thing. This novel is a very weird, twisted, cynical, and bitter look at the fantasy books that we all read growing up. In Grossman’s world, magic is not some wondrous problem solving thing. With or without magic, people are still people and will make mistakes and be corrupted. Using magic, even for good, changes a person and has the ability to break them.

The only problem I had with this book is that on a number of occasions very strange and random things happen, (like the group is all turned into geese in order to fly to the South Pole), or Grossman will be building up to a major event, which will quickly be resolved by magic but in a very uneventful way. I think Grossman was doing these things on purpose, but they bothered me nonetheless. There are still two more books left in the trilogy and I’m excited to see where those take us.

Harper Lee – Go Set A Watchman (2015)

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanThis book has been out for a while now, and the initial uproar that surrounded its publishing has died down. I’ll admit, like most fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, I was skeptical when this sequel was announced and suspicious of the circumstances surrounding it. After reading it, I stand alongside those who believe that it should have never been published in the first place.

It’s not even that the characters seem completely different from their TKAM selves, or that Atticus is now a racist (there have been a number of interesting think pieces written on this, about how Atticus had always been a racist but in Mockingbird, it was a kinder, gentler racism). The whole novel was just kind of confusing. As a continuation/sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, this book is bad, but as a stand alone novel it’s even worse.

It shouldn’t be surprising that this reads like an unfinished manuscript, because that is exactly what it is, and the publisher was very forthcoming about this. Lee switches perspectives multiple times which makes this very confusing. The bright points in this book are definitely the flashbacks and so it’s easy to see why, in 1960 Lee’s publisher told her to write that story instead.

I look at it this way, even though Go Set a Watchman is a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, it was written first. This was the first iteration of Scout and Atticus that Harper Lee envisioned; this was her draft. To Kill a Mockingbird is the final product, and that is the Atticus that we should remember and cherish.

Susanna Kearsley – The Firebird (2013)

FirebirdIt wasn’t until after I finished this book that I realized it is part of a series, and is meant to be read after The Winter Sea. (I have both, but grabbed this one first). I friend of mine however assured me that it didn’t really matter as there is no real plot continuity between the two books.

This book follows Nicola, a young woman with a an extraordinary gift that allows here to see glimpses of the past when holding an object. Working with fine art and antiques, this gift comes in handy. Nicola becomes drawn to an object however, a firebird from Russia, which takes her on a whirlwind tour through the Jacobite Revolt to the Imperial Russian Court in search of the young woman she saw when holding the bird, Anna. The story shifts between present day Nicola, and her traveling companion and similarly gifted romantic interest, Rob, and the 1700s where Anna is living.
I found that this was a good work of historical fiction, dealing with a time period that doesn’t get much attention in novels (The Jacobite Risings), but the writing and story didn’t really do anything for me. I know a lot of people, who this kind of story appeals to will disagree with me, but personally I didn’t love this as much as I thought I would. I still enjoyed Kearsley’s work and am still planning on reading The Winter Sea, even though I am not dying to do so.

Marissa Meyer – Cress (2014)

CressThis novel, the third installment of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, focuses heavily on the character of Cress, a futuristic Rapunzel who appears briefly in Cinder.

We learn that Cress is a shell, a Lunar girl born without powers, but having proven to be adept with technology is saved by one of Queen Levana’s servants and kept in an isolated satellite (much like Rapunzel’s tower). From here she is tasked with tracking and capturing Cinder, but uses the opportunity to have the crew come and save her. As expected, plans go awry and the different characters find themselves stranded in difficult situations.

Cress and Thorne are thrown together and end up lost in the Sahara desert while Cinder, Wolf and Lunar guard Jacin track down Dr. Erland in the North of Africa. The crew try and come up with a way to defeat Levana and intend to disrupt the royal wedding before traveling to Luna to start a rebellion.

We see less of Scarlet in this book as, having been captured by the Lunars is held as a prisoner on Luna. Her story is compelling however as it seems as though the Queen’s mentally unstable step-daughter shows an interest, and kindness to her. This step-daughter, Princess Winter, only appears briefly but probably has a much bigger role to play in the upcoming installment to be released in November.

There is a lot of keep track of in the book, and while I was disappointed when all the romances seem to be heading (I was pulling for Cinder and Thorn although that seems unlikely), I thought that this novel stood out from the previous two. There’s a lot of plot development and Meyer leaves the reading with a great deal to look forward to. It leaves off in an interesting place, and I cant wait to see how she resolves everything.

Patrick Rothfuss – The Name of The Wind (2007)

NameOfTheWindAside from Game of Thrones, I don’t find that I read that many books that can be classified as Fantasy. I had this recommended to me by a friend though, and while I was a bit unsue at first (Fantasy books tend to be enormous), I’m so glad I read it.

While I tend to think of all Fantasy as being the same, battles with mystical creatures much like Lord of the Rings, etc, Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind proved to be something else entirely. It’s a bit strange actually, nothing really happens in this books, the first installment of a trilogy, and yet I was totally drawn in and compelled to keep reading.

We meet Kote, an innkeeper in a small town and learn that he is the fabled Kingkiller, one responsible for staring the current war, in hiding. He meets a scribe who wants to write down his story so Kote begins to relate his ubringing, the loss of his parents, and then his time spent at the University, which takes up the majority of the book. The University is like Hogwarts but a bit less fantastical. Kote, or Kovothe as he was then known, studies to be an arcanist learning the rules which govern sympathy, which is essentially a very specific type of magic. It’s hard to explain here, but Rothfuss does a good job in the novel. Kvothe’s goal is to learn the name of the wind and thus exercise power over it. Along the way Kvothe makes friends, and enemies, and well as tries to win the heart of Denna, a girl impossible to pin down, while trying to find out what he can about the mythical Chandrian who killed his parents.

The book ends, as I said, without many events occurring or any kind of dramatic climax, but it is clear that Rothfuss is setting the stage for the next two books. I have already started reading the second installment and hoping that there isn’t too long of a wait for the third.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – Americanah (2013)

americanahI don’t think there are enough words to accurately describe how much I loved this book. I wasn’t familiar with Ngozi Adiche until I heard about this novel and now I cannot wait to read more of her work.

Essentially Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze who are young and in love when they leave their home in Nigeria and head west. While Ifemelu ends up in America, Obinze, finding post 9/11 America closed to him, takes up a dangerous life in London as an undocumented immigrant. While the story is about the relationship between these two characters, Ifemelu’s journey is by far the more compelling.

The story of Obinze sheds important light on racism and the danger that undocumented immigrants live in every day, but the plot involving Ifemelu, who is despite her academic success is forced to grapple with what it means to be black, is by far the most important part of this novel.

The title itself refers to Ifelemu’s journey from Nigeria, to the hallowed halls of Princeton, and back. Once back in Nigeria she looks at everything through the eyes of an American leading her friend to call her an Americanah.

Ngozi Adiche grapples with the issues of race, love, and identity in such a brilliant and beautifully written way, grasping the nuance often involved with tackling such issues. As an African Americna female herself, she is probably able to draw on her own experiences to make this novel as rich as it is. I really don’t have much else to say, this was definitely one the best books I’ve read all year.

Louisa Locke – Maids of Misfortune (2009)

MaidsofMisfortuneWhen I bought this, I had originally thought it was a non-fiction book about the lives of domestic maids living in Victorian San Francisco. Instead I found myself reading a, quite sloppy, murder mystery set in Victorian San Francisco. I am all for historical fiction and murder mysteries, but this was just bad historical fiction.

Personally, I consider subtlety to be a marker of good historical fiction. The reader should know where they are in time and space, but should not need constant reminders. Locke however feels the need to constantly remind her readers that they are in San Francisco in the late 1880s by cramming every single stereotype associated with the Victorian period into her work. I will give you some examples:

Annie (the main character) is a clairvoyant and constantly remarks about how her customers as obsessed with the unknown. (The steryotype that everyone in the Victorian era was obsessed with the spiritual realm)

Annie goes to a dance and wear a dress showing her ankles and is therefore mistaken as a prostitute

Annie makes a male character, Nate, blush when she says the words “legs”

Everyone in San Francisco hates the Chinese expect for Nate and Annie because naturally, as the heroes of the story they cannot be racist or sexist.

The plot of this story was not bad. It is a murder mystery and has enough suspense that I wanted to know what happened. It turned into a bit of a romance however (and a messy one at that), and wading through the info-dump of Victorian clichés was a bit more than I could handle. This book is part of a whole series, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the rest anytime soon.

Max Brooks – World War Z (2006)

WorldWarZThis book has been out for a while now, but having never been huge into the Zombie craze, I wasn’t dying to read it. I have always however found the premise interesting and my curiosity brought this book back to my attention. Essentially Max Brooks is inspired by Studs Turkel’s The Good War in writing this book and aims to replicate his style. As The Good War is an oral history of the Second World War, World War Z is an oral history of the Zombie apocalypse.

The story is presented through a series of interviews with various fictional characters about their experiences with the Zombie War. The book takes the reader all around the world, similar to The Good War, but a major theme is that of American isolationism, which is interesting given the climate in which Brooks was writing.

I personally didn’t love this book, but it is a fresh and interesting take on the dystopian future genre. Fans of the Walking Dead or other Zombie themed tv-shows/movies will probably love this book. As I said however, Zombies were never really my thing so it’s hard for me to fangirl about this as much as some other people have.

Wayne Grady – Emancipation Day (2013)

EmancipationDayThis book has been getting a lot of buzz in the past year from Canadian book reviewers, mostly for the style of writing. I will agree that Wayne Grady has written this book in a rhythmic way that evokes the jazz music that appears throughout the story. The music is not the driving force as it is in Half Blood Blues however, but rather belongs in the background, providing ambiance music to set the scene. As much as I enjoyed Grady’s writing, for me the story was about 60% there.

Essentially Grady is telling the story of Jack, an African American boy who is born with white skin. He grows up in Windsor Ontario during the 30s and 40s before the outbreak of the Second World War. During the war, while stationed in Newfoundland Jack meets Vivian and marries her but tries to keep his family a secret. Things get complicated however when the pair travel to Windsor to meet his family and Vivian finds out she is expecting a child.

It’s a good story, but I feel like it either should have been a lot longer, or much shorter focusing in on Jack’s refusal to acknowledge, and even hatred of, his own race. There is so much interesting emotional stuff to dissect with his character which wasn’t really done. There is no real climax or conclusion to the novel, and the characters do not really develop. I still liked the book but I’m not so sure if it deserves all the immense praise it has received.