Review: By the Book

by the book

Details: Sonneborn, Julia. (2018). By the Book. Gallery Books.

Keywords: Book nerds, retellings, Jane Austen, academia, romance

So, full disclaimer: Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen novel.

Don’t get me wrong, Pride and Prejudice, the perennial favorite, is amazing. Elizabeth is the bookish, sharp witted heroine that we all want to be, and Darcy is the brooding hunk (Kate Beaton has an excellent set of comics on this) with an appreciation for bookish, sharp witted women that we all pine for.

But I always had a soft spot for Anne. Shy and self- sacrificing, I found her journey more interesting in that she learned to stand up to people (especially her crappy family) and fight for her happy ending. And Captain Wentworth is just woof. Honorable and able to see Anne for who she really is, and forgiving? Yes and please. So all this is to say that I had pretty high expectations for this book.

I was not disappointed.

This book was delightful. It was one where I felt warm and fuzzy reading it, like returning to an old favorite but with new surprises. At a few points I made a girly squeal because of the cuteness of something that happened. It was well paced, and the writing was breezy without feeling superficial.

I loved the college setting. It evoked and environment of brick buildings and fall leaves and most importantly, BOOKS. Books were almost a character unto themselves (only to be expected from a retelling), even representing the state of the relationship between Anne and Adam. It also worked well for the placement of the characters in terms of career and love life, like Adam becoming the president of the university, or Rick being a writer in resident (like a soldier wintering for the season! So clever).

Also, Anne was a scholar of women writers who was constantly having to defend why they deserved to be studied. I loved this inclusion of the struggles of women in academia and the literary world.

In terms of the retelling aspect, the book actually combined a little bit of Persuasion with elements of Pride and Prejudice. This is evident in the character of Rick, who is something of a Wickham. He was delightfully despicable. I’m not sure who Larry, Anne’s good friend represented, but he was wonderful and brought great humor to the story.

The only thing I didn’t like was that there weren’t enough interactions with Adam, in terms of rebuilding the tension between them that leads up to the end. The story focused more on her relationship with Rick and her friend Larry, which is fine, but I feel like I needed to see Adam and Anne together more, learning about the people they have become and thus that they are even more in love with each other than ever. I also felt like there needed to be a little bit more of Dr. Russell’s character. In Persuasion Lady Russell is directly responsible for Anne and Wentworth’s parting, and I wanted to see more of that pressure behind this Anne’s decision to end it with Adam.

This is definitely going to be put on myself with other favorite retellings like The Madwoman Upstairs, and right next to Persuasion, so that I can look at my own library and smile.

Excitement Level: Five Austenesque stars

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review: The Thief

thief

 

Details: Turner, Megan Whalen. (1996). The Thief. New York, NY: Greenwillow Books.

Keywords: Thieves!, warring kingdoms, fantasy, old gods

It’s been a year, but I haven’t stopped reading so here is another riveting book review for y’all. And it’s, surprise surprise, a fantasy novel.

Megan Whelan Turner’s Queen’s Thief series has been on my radar for a long time. It comes up constantly on booklists I look at, and I have several friends who have read and loved it.

There’s also the fact that it was originally published in 1996, which was around the time I was moving away from The Babysitters Club and into more fantastical fare. I keep asking myself how the hell I missed this one going into my teens. A fantasy novel about a contrary thief and a curmudgeonly mage on a suicide mission? THIS IS MY CATNIP.

Well, I finally read it, gentle reader. And I must say it lived up to the hype, but not quite in the way that I was expecting.

A small summary: Eugenidies (is that not the best name?), a self-proclaimed master thief, is dragged from the cell where he has been imprisoned for bragging that he will steal the king’s seal. The Magus, the right hand man to the Kings of Sounis, wants Gen’s help in stealing Hamaithes’s Gift, a magic stone that guarantees a king or queen’s succession.

Aaand I can’t say much more without spoiling the plot.

But Rachel, you might be saying, that sounds down right simple as a plot.

Gentle reader, you are correct! It is a very simple plot, and the book itself is a rather gentle fantasy.  While there is some intrigue and definitely danger, reading it was like curling up with a warm cup of cocoa on a snowy day. It was also a pretty fast read. The prose was modern as well, and did not feel like it was written twenty years ago.

And I absolutely loved it.

This book kind of stumped me, especially as to why I liked it so much. It felt breezy and fast on some levels, which is not a bad thing, but not something I would necessarily look for in a favorite book. But I finished it and was kind of bowled over by its wit and the breadth of what happens in such a short timeframe. Turner also sets up some excellent intrigues to be explored in future books, but not by sacrificing the integrity of this story, if that makes any sense.

I think Turner’s talents as a writer are one reason. Eugenides is an extremely likable character for all his foibles, so the reader is eager to follow him on his adventure, mostly just to see how he’ll get out of all his scrapes. He’s a character that fits into a trope I particularly enjoy, which is one who plays the fool but is actually quite brilliant. He is also literally favored by the gods so it is great fun to watch him squeeze out of rather impossible situations.

I also think that while I described the book as gentle, the plot turns out to have a lot of humor and pathos combined with a little political intrigue with tight writing that doesn’t waste a lot on the navel-gazing that some high fantasy falls into.

My particular favorite portion of the book was when Gen is in the temple where Hamaithes’s Gift is kept. You learn a lot about his character and get insights into how the magic of the world works. It’s also one of the most atmospheric portions of the book.

I wish I could say more about the other characters and how the end sets up to the next book in the series, but I think it’s better to just read it and find out. This book holds some nice surprises, and it was one of the pleasures of reading it.

So basically if you’re looking for some fast paced, well written, fun fantasy with a little bit of an edge, this is your book. I’ve already started the second one, and whoo boy, Turner does not let up on her characters. But more about that later.

Excitement Level: Five Stars!

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

 

 

 

“Don’t Judge a Book by its Movie”: Adaptations

 

The Magicians has been sitting on my shelf for a long time. I’ve had several people tell me to read it, and since it is often lauded as Harry Potter for grown-ups, I really should have read it before now. But of course, life and a ridiculous penchant for buying too many books, plus an outrageous TBR pile put the project on hold.

But then Syfy (God, I still hate that pretentious respelling. Why can’t we just be good old fashioned Scifi?) decided to do their mini-series and I thought it was about time I give it a try. This is not really a review of the book, but I will say that, only having read the first one, I did enjoy it. The characters are a little hard to like sometimes (Quentin in particular does not change as much as I would have expected), but I thought the magic system was really cool, and I enjoyed the meta Narnia parallels.

Upon finishing the book, I decided to give the mini-series a try. I’d heard good things already, but I am always suspicious about book adaptations. I think all readers are, and for good reason. We have been burned many, many times. Too often our precious stories fall into the hands of people who could care less and what we are left with is a puddle of half-assed cinema that doesn’t even come close to capturing what we felt when reading. They make changes, cut out important things and add in events that never even happened. Characters are miscast. It’s wholesale slaughter. My favorite example of this is the Ella Enchanted movie, which is so removed from the source material that I wonder how they even got away with using the name of the book.

So, I was not entirely surprised when upon watching the first episode, there were deviations from the book. A lot of deviations. But, surprisingly, I liked it. The changes created a story that stood apart from the book, but still retained the spirit of it. It is an homage to The Magicians more than an adaptation and it works. You have the feel of The Magicians, the atmosphere and general architecture. Despite the differences, it is still believable that this is the same story. This is not the first time I have been accepting of changes from book to film. Many people complained when Tom Bombadil was left out of the Lord of the Rings films. It never bothered me. As much as I love Tom, I found Peter Jackson’s explanation of why he wasn’t included in the cast satisfactory. Tom did not contribute directly to the narrative of the ring, which is the main story they were trying to tell in the film. The story still worked without him, despite his awesomeness.

I guess I find myself wondering what makes changes acceptable when it comes to adaptations. Reading is a deeply personal experience, so of course there are going to be people who are dissatisfied no matter what. But there are adaptations that are universally hated while some who had significant changes seem to work.

My personal theory is that as long as the story is generally intact, as long as the characters feel authentic to what the represented in the book, the adaptation will work. Harry Potter worked well, despite changes, because it still felt like Harry’s story. It still represented the world J.K. Rowling created. When adaptations are not authentic to this aspect of the book, they fail. See again, Ella Enchanted. The book deals more with the consequences of not being able to make your own choices. The movie did not really touch on this theme at all, adding song numbers and a weird villain that completely detracted from what was great about the book.

I could be way off base. I’m sure that people can come up with some great examples of adaptations that while essentially true to the book, failed. I would love to see some of these examples so I can further refine this theory. In the meantime, I’m going to finish The Magicians.

Review: Madly

Arrows through a heart against a pink and purple background.
The cover art is gorgeous.

Details: Alward, Amy. (2015). Madly. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Keywords: young adult, alchemy, magical potions, The Amazing Race, The Wild Hunt, royalty

Madly occurs in an alternate contemporary universe where alchemy and magic co-exists with modern technology. When the princess of the realm poisons herself with a self-administered love potion, the royal family calls upon every alchemist in the land to develop a cure — which includes Samantha Kemi, the latest alchemist in the long line of the famous (but now disgraced) Kemi Alchemists. Gifted at her work and possessing a true affinity for alchemy, Sam is keen to participate… but encounters a few barriers:

  • Her grandfather resents the royal family for a long-ago betrayal of the Kemi Family, and because of this longstanding grudge, refuses to help the princess. This means Sam is unable (at first) to participate in Auden’s Hunt.
  • The Kemi Family lack the funds and many of the material resources to travel around the world in order to retrieve the ingredients for the remedial potion. This is in direct contrast with the most well-known competitors, the corporate magical alchemists (I can’t believe I just wrote that phrase…), ZoroAster Corporation.
  • Sam has a crush on her fiercest competitor… who was the intended object of the Royal Princess’ love potion.

Madly read like a fantastical version of the reality show The Amazing Race. But in this version, contestants race against time around the globe to retrieve magical ingredients for an alchemical concoction while the princess slowly – and then quickly – goes mad. Parts of the novel that pertain to the Auden’s Hunt were absolutely convincing and enjoyable: The reader has no doubt of the realm being in danger, or of Sam’s new found resourcefulness in retrieving magical items from remote locations.

However, the romance is really forced. And while the romance between Sam and her crush, Zain Aster, contains pivotal plot points (especially for the Princess’ eventual recovery), the supposed rapport between the two characters felt stilted and odd. At times, I found myself a) not believing the romance, and b) giving no cares at all for happy ending between these two. Overall, though, the premise of the novel was fresh and original, the pacing was strong, and the secondary characters are a delight to read.

Excitement Level: Three stars.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: Fortune’s Pawn

Woman in a space suit with a virtual dashboard.
Space Opera FTW

Details: Bach, Rachel. Fortune’s Pawn. New York, NY: Orbit.

Keywords: space opera, female mercenary, aliens, mystery

Fortune’s Pawn is a solid space opera that features a young and ambitious mercenary who signs on with a ship with the prescient name of The Glorious Fool. Deviana Morris quit the infamous Blackbirds mercenary band in order to pursue her eventual ambition to become one of her home world’s finest armored warriors, the King’s Devastators — and Devi discovers that a successful year upon the Fool can translate a successful entry into the Devastators. However, once Devi is on-board the Fool, she realizes that nearly every member of the ship has significant — and dangerous — secrets to hide.

I love a good space opera. The sheer escapism in this genre has always captured my imagination. Many of the operas I read have borrowed heavily from the themes associated with the Western genre, such as the lone lawman striving to do good, despite his / her own moral failings. Or space as the hostile and inhospitable backdrop against which the depravity of men (and aliens) are showcased. Or a simple old-fashioned revenge story. The author, Rachel Bach, has certainly conveyed these elements in this first novel of her trilogy. I enjoyed it so much that I plan to read the second two in this trilogy.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Deviana’s exploits, I did at times wish for a bit more inner conflict to develop her into a more nuanced character. Deviana is a mercenary heroine with speed, strength, experience, resilience, and smarts. In essence, she is a badass. If you like this character type, you certainly won’t lack for it in Fortune’s Pawn. However, in the post-Buffy era, tough female heroes who kick butt and save everyone is almost passe. Perhaps I’m selfish, but I’d like a little more of Deviana.

Excitement Level: Three and a half stars.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.