A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness – Book Review

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
Published by Penguin (Non-Classics) Paperback, an imprint of Penguin

Diana Bishop comes from a family of witches with illustrious lineages, but there are few things she detests more than using magic. Sure, when the washer is threatening to flood the house she might make an exception, but in general she wants to get by in the world on her own merits, not by magic. She is forced to change her attitude, though, when in the course of her research, she accidentally discovers an enchanted and long-lost alchemical manuscript that many in the magical world would kill for. Suddenly, Diana finds herself caught between the witches, daemons, and a handsome vampire named Matthew Clairmont. Now Diana must decide who she can trust and find out if she can control her power, before she is destroyed by forces she does not understand.

Deborah Harkness is a fabulous creator of worlds. Her witch/vampire/daemon mythology is almost instantly engaging, and is spread out enough throughout A Discovery of Witches to keep readers (or me, at least) anxiously reading to figure out the next piece of the puzzle. There is some serious initial shadiness in Diana and Matthew’s relationship that feels a bit Twilightish, but eventually they grow into a greater parity – although there is still some problematic hiding of facts on Matthew’s part that I hope will become less of an issue as the trilogy progresses. I must admit, though, that it adds to the dramatic flair of Harkness’s story to have these things revealed slowly, as Matthew is essentially forced into them.

A Discovery of Witches is an incredibly addictive novel in the vein of The Historian, but with a somewhat faster moving plot, there is even a similar theme of scholarship. I can’t wait for the next book in the series, Shadow of Night. Highly recommended.

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The Taker by Alma Katsu – Book Review

The Taker by Alma Katsu
Published by Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

It is a cold, dark night in Maine when a murder suspect shows up in Dr. Luke Findley’s ER and shakes up his life. Lanore McIlvrae is beautiful, but there’s something more to it than that. Lanny swears to Luke that Jonathan, the man she killed, died at her hands only because he requested it, because it was the only possible way that he could die. From there, Lanny begins relating to Luke the incredible – and apparently true – story of how both she and Jonathan became immortal, some 200 years ago.

There is not just one story in The Taker, but actually three, all of which are nestled inside one another like matryoshka dolls. The reader not only sees Luke and Lanny in the future and learns how Lanny came to be immortal, but the story of Adair, the man who made Lanny what she is, is told as well. Katsu does this surprisingly well, it is always clear which time period the reader is in, both with place names and dates at the beginning of every chapter that switches, and by switching tenses and points of view when the story changes. In this way, Katsu seamlessly weaves together the strands of her story.

What did not work as well for me was the story itself, particularly the relationships. I have no idea why Luke is so taken with Lanny that he would essentially abandon his life for her, nor why Lanny is so obsessed with Jonathan. I wish Lanny’s early declarations to Jonathan that they were destined to be together were explored more fully. In some ways she is obviously right, but it is unclear how at a young age she would be granted this sort of insight into her future. These infatuations were stated, but never seemed fully developed to me. Equally weak was Lanny’s revelation about Adair that brings about the climax of the story. It was too sudden, too out of nowhere.

The Taker is a book with very real strengths, strengths which bode well for Katsu’s continued success. I simply wasn’t able to connect with the characters enough to understand their motivations, but this was likely a very personal and subjective reaction, and others might feel very differently (and others whose opinions I respect have, in fact, felt very differently), so I certainly do not intend to warn any readers away from The Taker, but just to offer a different perspective. Prospective readers may, however, want to be aware of the repeated sexual abuse and sadism, which will likely turn some off.

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* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire

Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire
Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins

Out of Oz is the final volume in the Wicked Years series. I have previously reviewed the 3rd book, A Lion Among Men.

From the publisher:

Once peaceful and prosperous, the spectacular Land of Oz is knotted with social unrest: The Emerald City is mounting an invasion of Munchkinland, Glinda is under house arrest, and the Cowardly Lion is on the run from the law. And look who’s knocking at the door. It’s none other than Dorothy. Yes. That Dorothy.

Yet amidst all this chaos, Elphaba’s granddaughter, the tiny green baby born at the close of Son of a Witch, has come of age. Now it is up to Rain to take up her broom—and her legacy—in an Oz wracked by war.

I approached Out of Oz with no small measure of trepidation. I absolutely adore Wicked, although it is slow at times, but I have had unending trouble with Maguire’s other books, both in and out of the Wicked Years series. I am not a particular fan of either Mirror Mirror or Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Of the other books within the series, I was disappointed by Son of a Witch and really very much disliked A Lion Among Men. Why, then, did I bother reading Out of Oz?

Well, other than my love for Wicked, three factors conspired to make me read Out of Oz: 1) It showed up at my door, if it hadn’t, I would have been unlikely to seek it out; 2) It is the final book in a series I had until now read in its entirety; 3) Maguire was at Unabridged Bookstore in Chicago, and was absolutely charming during the event, talking about the book in a way that intrigued me.

So, was it worth it?

Out of Oz is a worthy finale to the Wicked Years series. Here, the story is brought back more closely to Elphaba’s family, and the plot provides a rough parallel to Dorothy’s original trip to Oz. Here, as in the first time Dorothy appeared in Oz, a group held together by some rather odd bonds must discover their own strengths, braving both the Emerald City and certain forces out in the wild. By tying more closely into the initial story, it becomes a more interesting story, less like something simply attempting to milk the success of Wicked.

If you’ve read the rest of the series, you definitely should pick up Out of Oz. If you’ve only read Wicked, skip right past Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men and receive closure on the story with Out of Oz.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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The Map of Time by Felix J Palma – Audiobook Review

The Map of Time by Felix J Palma, translated by Nick Caistor, narrated by James Langton
Published in audio by Simon & Schuster Audio, published in print by Atria Books, both imprints of Simon & Schuster

Synopsis:

After H.G. Wells publishes The Time Machine, the idea of time travel becomes all the rage in Victorian London, giving rise to, among other things, hopes of a better world and time tourism. Unsurprisingly, H.G. Wells finds himself in the middle of all of these plots and dreams, even if not always willingly. In The Map of Time, Palma weaves together three highly interrelated plots of time travel and the way it affects the lives of those involved, beginning with a man whose lover was murdered by Jack the Ripper, and who simply can’t bear to continue living in a world without her.

Thoughts on the story:

In the first section of the book in particular, the characters involved tend to go on expository flights of fancy. Far more of this section is exposition than any actual movement of plot. However, I begrudgingly admit that the information was more or less pertinent and interesting, and in such a long book, conveying it in a manner less resembling an info dump would have been space prohibitive. What is more important is that Palma created three novel-length stories that intertwine beautifully, all with Wells and time travel in the middle.

At times I wondered if all should really have been put together into a single book, but all depended on one another to such an extent that I was unable to decide whether they were even separate stories at all and can’t help but agree with the decision to keep them in a single volume. The most remarkable thing, is how quickly Palma was able to re-engage me each time we transitioned to a new section of the story. Part of this was the continuity with Wells, but part is also simply his gift for creating characters who are instantly interesting.

Thoughts on the audio production:

One potential downfall of audiobooks is that when things get boring, you cannot simply skim. With the tendencies that Palma’s characters had towards excessive exposition, I was afraid that this might be a serious problem. Instead, Langton’s extremely able narration kept things going. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t space out a bit during some of the extra-long histories of time travel, but Langton always kept me wanting to come back. For more complete thoughts on the audio production, please see my Audiofile Magazine review.

Overall:

An incredibly entertaining and engaging read or listen.

Buy this book from: Powells: Print* Indiebound: Print* Audible.com

I’m launching a brand-new meme every Friday! I encourage you to review any audiobooks you review on Fridays and include the link here. If you have reviewed an audiobook earlier in the week, please feel free to link that review as well. Thanks to Pam for creating the button.

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Zone One by Colson Whitehead – Book Review

Zone One by Colson Whitehead
Published by Doubleday Books, an imprint of Random House

Everyone has a Last Night story, and now that the world is rebuilding, people have the time and energy to share them. The man now nicknamed Mark Spitz has even figured out different levels of his Last Night story to tell depending on his acquaintance with the listener. The government in Buffalo is looking to the future, though, and part of that means reviving New York City. Mark Spitz is part of a team of civilian sweepers clearing New York of the last few remaining straggler zombies.

Zone One is, without a doubt, the most introspective of the zombie novels I have read. Mark spends a good deal of time dwelling in the past, resulting in occasionally choppy transitions between the present zombie search-and-destroy mission and the past, both before and after the traumatic events of Last Night (Mark, like essentially every other survivor has PASD: Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder).  Interestingly, actual zombies played a relatively small role in Zone One, Spitz comes into contact with them only rarely, either in the present or in his memories, with Whitehead focusing more on the psyche of the survivor than the actual end of the world.

This is a fascinating approach to a post-apocalyptic novel, but it is one that would have worked better had Mark Spitz been a more compelling character. Certainly part of the issue is the stress disorder associated with the end of the world, something like that does not make for a terribly personable character. Spitz’s extreme mediocrity is drilled into the reader, however. We are told over and over that he is exactly average, even painfully average, never any grade but a B, never excelling in any way, other than perhaps his aim in killing zombies. The real problem is that Colson Whitehead – 2002 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship – doesn’t write ‘extremely average’ well, as is evidenced by this reminiscence of Mark’s about the apparent normalcy of his home on Last Night:

Normal was the unbroken idyll of life before. The present was a series of intervals differentiated from each other only by the degree of dread they contained. The future? The future was the clay in their hands.

A thoughtful and beautiful passage, to be sure, but not one that is particularly believable from the head of someone without any great mental ability. Passages like this are also not rare, one could open to almost any page and find one. This fairly significant flaw in characterization makes Spitz a two-dimensional and therefore less interesting character, which in turn lessens the emotional impact of the attempted rebuilding of our world after devastation by such an insidious plague.

All this being said, Colson Whitehead’s general depiction of life after zombies seems to be almost painfully on cue, from the cheesy, manipulative symbols put out by the government in Buffalo to the ability of those with significant personal problems to detach from the danger in their everyday lives in order to focus on sensationalized stories, such as a the survival of a set of triplets in a far-off survivor camp.

Zone One is certainly an interesting and realistic take on a post-apocalyptic world, but an unbelievable protagonist makes it less successful than it might otherwise be, and some fans of zombie lit may be surprised and disappointed by the near lack of zombies.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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