Book Review: Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor

Beautiful prose, an amazing story, fascinating characters, Strange the Dreamer delivered an experience above and beyond my expectations. When a fellow writer, who also loves all the pretty words, gushes about a book, you know you have to go read it. A huge thank you to Candace for recommending it, you can go check out her review here.

The Story

Lazlo Strange, an orphan child raised by monks and librarians, possesses an unusual passion for a legend that most dismiss as a fairy tale. He dreams of a place called Weep, an unusual city held under an unusual curse – anyone who speaks or thinks the name of the city experiences a feeling of dread paired with the taste of ashes. But, unlike other people, Lazlo remembers a time when the town had a different name, a beautiful name that filled the mind with wonder and butterfly wings. He also remembers the day when that name was stolen from him.

It is this theft that drives him to study everything there is to know about Weep. He hopes that one day he can find that name that once filled him with so much delight. As he grows older, it is this study that gives him a unique understanding of the legendary city. When a delegation from Weep visits his city seeking adventurers and scientists, Lazlo feels compelled to go with them – and despite his lack of real skills, is allowed because he knows stories. The leader of this delegation, none other than Eril-Fane the Godslayer himself, seeks the best scientists to rid Weep of the floating citadel shaped like a massive seraphim who’s outstretched wings prevent sunlight from reaching the city.

When Lazlo reaches Weep he encounters a strange blue girl in his dreams named Sarai. Lazlo doesn’t know that this is a marking of the cursed godspawn and the two of them instantly form a bond that is beyond friendship. His glorious imagined vision of Weep fills her with such delight that she can’t help but want to be part of it and the man who envisioned a world filled with so much joy and magic.

Naturally, none of this can last. Every element that brings Lazlo and Sarai together will be challenged. Eril-Fane wants the citadel which is Sarai’s home, destroyed. One of the scientists, Thyon Nero, is determined to undermine Lazlo’s every step. Minya, Sarai’s sister, wants Eril-Fane and all that dare threaten the citadel including Lazlo, dead, and wants Sarai to do it using her godspawn power over dreams.

Does anyone get what they want? In the way that only a truly masterful storyteller can manage it, the answer is both yes and no. I won’t elaborate further. No spoilers for you. But, if you’re dying to find out, here’s an amazing synopsis that covers literally everything.

My Review

This book blew me away. I’m a huge sucker for gorgeous prose and metaphorical language, not to mention amazing sensory detail, so all the poetic phrases were indeed welcome. In fact, I loved it so much that I immediately sought out the sequel, Muse of Nightmares.

With fantasy titles there comes an expectation of a complex storyline. While Strange the Dreamer has a complex story, the reading experience doesn’t feel complicated. The story alternates between Sarai and Lazlo’s experiences and as they draw closer together, the experiences draw closer as well. The main conflicts are always clear in the characters mind so as readers we know not only what that character wants, but why it’s important.

What does feel complicated is how the prose is assembled. While most fantasy titles published today stick almost exclusively to third-person limited, where we witness the story through the eyes and experience of the main character in third-person, Strange the Dreamer swings in and out of omniscient. This is usually frowned upon, mostly because when done poorly it’s jarring and distracting – and it’s almost always done poorly. For Strange the Dreamer, it feels right. We flow from one character’s thoughts to the next and the technique in Taylor’s hands gives the prose a very appropriate dream-like feel.

The characters were expertly created to be not only unique and well constructed, but unusual enough in each of their motivations to give the story multiple layers of interest. There’s not an ordinary character in the entire book, and that’s impressive for an epic of this size. In addition, the settings were also crafted with the same amount of care making them not only unique, but supremely interesting as well.

So yeah. I’m kind of in love.

My Recommendations

This book is still in YA fiction, but it reads much older than that. The recommended reading age starts at 9th grade, and I agree. There’s just enough adult themes and yearning that it might be harder for younger readers to relate with. There’s no swearing, minimal and appropriate gore, and it does tease at nudity, but never actually gets there. The kissing scenes do get quite descriptive, but don’t progress to anything more.

I mentioned gorgeous poetic prose throughout the book. This might make it harder for those who struggle with metaphoric language to enjoy the story, simply because everything is drenched in it. It also slows down the pacing enough to frustrate those who really want to see what happens next. For me, this wasn’t a problem because the beauty of the journey was just as rewarding as getting there.

Also, if you don’t like fantasy because there are elements that are hard to believe, you might struggle here as well. All significant story elements are anchored in entirely speculative elements. However, all of the motivation is strictly tied to realistic emotional responses which humanizes the unfamiliar and makes it all easier to digest.

I give Strange the Dreamer a rare 5/5 for excelling in all critical storytelling elements and doing it beautifully.


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Book Review: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

This book has been on my “to be read” list for ages and I finally got my hands on it. There has been a lot of hype about it in my writer circles, so I was eager to see what all the fuss was about. Initially, I thought that this might be a steampunk story with a Cinderella twist because of the original cover – a woman’s foot in a high-heeled shoe that was transparent enough to show that the foot was mechanical inside.

Nope. Not steampunk. Not even close.

The newer cover which is a much closer fit to the elements of the story.

The Story

Cinder, is a gifted mechanic, which is good, and part cyborg, which is bad. As you can guess, she’s the Cinderella in our story and has a nasty stepmother as well as two sisters, one who’s kind and the other who is cruel. There is a ball, and a prince, and a lost foot, and even a special vehicle that get’s Cinder to the ball. But, there’s no fairy Godmother.

The other part of this story, strangely enough, is an Anastasia story. There is a lost heir to the Lunar throne, one who, if found, could remove the current wicked Lunar Queen and restore justice and ensure peace between Lunars and Earthens.

And then, there’s the world the story is built within. In this Cinderella story, we are taken to the future where there is a pandemic running wild with no cure. Yeah, I didn’t see that one coming either. Guess I should have read the back cover blurb… Oops. The story is set in New Bejing 126 years after World War IV.

All of these disparate elements come together in a cunningly woven story where Cinder is driven to desperate measures to escape her situation only to find she’s not only needed, but a vital part of solving a much larger issue.

My Review

This was a fun romp through an interesting and well-constructed futuristic world. Meyers has put a ton of effort to weave together fantastical ingredients into a realistic gritty world. Cinder takes the Cinderella role and pushes the boundaries further by first, being really good at something unexpected, and second, wanting something else than to go to the ball and be with the prince.

Part of the fun in this book is seeing how the Cinderella trope is turned on its head and which parts of the story remain faithful. Instead of cute cartoon mice, we have a spunky android helper who’s obsessed with fashion and Prince Kai. Instead of a pumpkin carriage, we have an old gasoline powered car that Cinder fixed herself as an escape vehicle to be able to leave the city, where hover cars couldn’t go. And instead of a huge search to find a missing shoe, Cinder loses her cyborg foot, revealing to the prince that she’s not quite human.

There are a few things that irritated me personally. Meyers doesn’t shy back from letting people who are important to main characters die. There are three instances where we as the reader are teased along that there might be a cure to save these people and it’s all a matter of beating the ticking clock. In most stories, one of these will survive in a dramatic scene where the cure comes at the last possible second. While I see why Meyers chose to not follow the traditional footsteps, as it makes for a much more devastating loss for Cinder, but as a reader I don’t like to be led along to then be robbed of a successful rescue.

The earlier cover with the high-heel shoe and reveal of the cyborg foot.

Recommendations

This makes for a great young adult sci-fi. It’s got lots of action, some tasteful romantic leanings, quite a bit of angst and drama, and great world building. Yes, there are some mild descriptions of blood and injury, mostly relating to the plague like pandemic that’s riddled through the story, but they aren’t excessive or over the top.

For those who love adaptations, this one does a solid job taking the Cinderella story and elevating it to something with more stakes.

I enjoyed Cinder and give it a 4 of 5 stars for being thoroughly entertaining but doing a few things that misled the reader in an annoying way.

Book Review: The Fork, The Witch, and The Worm, by Christopher Paolini

The full title of this book is as follows (this is important later, so pay attention):

The Fork, The Witch, and the Worm: Tales from Alagaesia, volume 1: Eragon

Pretentious much? Not only does this title promise that there will be more of these, but from differing characters as well. This book is a tiny thing, especially when compared to the other Paolini books. It’s slightly bigger than my hand and the text and margins inside are both abnormally large. The publisher wanted this to look longer than it actually is. I don’t know about you, but that feels a lot like lying to the reader. Not cool.

The book itself looks for all the world like it should be a novel – meaning a single cohesive story. It’s not. I should have read the title closer where it said “tales” as that was the only hint that this book is actually an anthology. This makes lie #2 in my book. If you read the title page and acknowledgements, you learn that Paolini’s sister wrote the second of the three stories.

The Witch part of the story, “On the Nature of Stars,” is hers and her name isn’t mentioned anywhere on the cover. Rude.

Do I have strong feelings about this? Yes. Yes I do.

The Story…?

There are three distinct short stories within this book and each one is named in the title. The first, “A Fork in the Road,” centers around a young girl who has been bullied and ends up telling her story to a stranger enjoying the fire at her parent’s tavern. The stranger ends up being something more than he seems and gives the girl a fork while teaching her a lesson that even the littlest things can make a difference. It’s a nice little story and has one of the main cast of the Inheritance series playing the role of the stranger, which isn’t revealed until the end.

The witch part, “On the Nature of Stars,” is a bit stranger. It takes the characters of Angela the healer and Elva, the girl Eragon inadvertently cursed, and fills in a chunk of the story where they go off together. So … it’s fanfiction. We get to see Angela get her own point of view, which is a nice change, and we see an effort to make things better for Elva, which was something I always thought should have happened in the original story. This story is one of the better bits of the book. Well done, Angela Paolini. Yes, Christopher borrowed her name when he wrote the character of Angela the Healer initially. I find it almost too on the nose that Angela, the writer, chose to dive deeper into that character. But that’s just me.

Then, there’s “The Worm of Kulkaras” which the scene depicted on the cover. I had high hopes that this would be an awesome dragon story. And … it’s not. The story is about Ilgra, an Anointed Urgal (they are the one’s with horns) seeking revenge after a dragon killed her father then took up residence on the nearby mountain.

These three stories are connected by a narrative led by Eragon himself as he works to make Mount Arngor the new home for the surviving dragons and to protect their eggs. Each of these stories are presented to him to help him cope as he struggles with the pressures of leadership.

My Review

I wanted to love this, I really did. I wanted to be able to fall into the story, or stories as it were, and relive a taste of the larger story contained in the Inheritance Cycle. Instead, I found the forced construction of having Eragon trying to fit these three stories into his narrative uninspired and clunky. He starts the story overwhelmed and tired and being a bad leader because he can’t take a break. The random stories are forced on him to teach him how to be a better leader, kind of, and he feels magically better for having experienced each one, even though we don’t really see him internalize anything. In the end, he’s a calmer, happier person but hasn’t overcome anything major other than being bad at managing his own time.

As for the three stories, the one that captured my imagination the most was the one written by Angela. There is an otherworldly quality to the descriptions and how the story unfolds as we are seeing the world from a character who has always been a bit of a mystery. The writing is evocative, the danger and stakes meaningful, and the characters interesting.

The other two short stories didn’t leave much of an impression. The main character of “A Fork in the Road” is a whiny girl who was forced to do a mean thing out of peer pressure and lost a friend for it. From the start, this isn’t a story I’m super interested in. I was supposed to get some lovely magic and wonder and instead I got a story that teaches young people to be brave by winning a barfight with magic and a fork.

As for the dragon story. Sigh. I get what Paolini was trying to do by writing it in a new voice to match the storytelling cadence of the Urgals, but it was downright irritating. Each sentence followed the same construction of using a prepositional phrase before completing the thought.

Literally. Every. Single. Sentence.

Sidenote: When I was a younger writer, I thought that particular construction made the words feel more important and artsy and tended to use it far more than anyone should. Several years and multiple editors later, I’ve learned better.

That, and I felt cheated by the climax. The story spent way too long building up to one ending and then pulled a rabbit out of the hat by throwing in something the reader had no idea was a threat. There was some nice action there, but the main character gets cheated by not getting the thing they wanted or the thing they actually needed. What she got instead was for the dragon to not think she was nothing, which was never an explored theme of the story.

My Recommendations

If you love Paolini and were hoping for something that broadened his created universe, this might book will leave you frustrated. There’s just enough there to tease at a few cool possibilities of something, but it left me wanting. For those diehard fans, the places it connects with existing characters were nice, but not substantial and not nearly enough.

As for it being an interesting fantasy book, if you hadn’t read the other Eragon books, the interconnecting narrative doesn’t have enough substance to stand on its own and the short stories aren’t super compelling.

It’s clean and the violence is typical for a YA fantasy.

I give The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm 2/5 stars for failing me on so many levels but having a few nice bits of writing.

Book Review: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg Mckeown

This is my non-fiction pick for the quarter and it definitely met expectations. It seems that for many, doing more and being increasingly busy is a fail proof way to find success. The ideas inside this book argue that this philosophy is not only wrong, but it can actually prevent success. It comes down to a forest and trees problem. If you are too caught up in the trees, meaning meaningless or unproductive tasks, it’s all too easy to not see the forest, or the big picture. For someone who constantly feels that push to do more, this is a welcome message.

What is Essentialism?

Put simply, essentialism is a conscious effort to pare down efforts and activities so that you spend your energy only on projects that are meaningful and help make progress towards a goal. This means only taking on projects and assignments that make sense for you both personally and career wise.

Mckeown uses the example of life being like a well-organized closet. When a closet is cluttered and full of clothes that we don’t love or don’t fit, it’s hard to make decisions on what to wear. It’s hard to find what we need. Facing that mess is daunting. To organize a closet that’s stuffed to the roof with needless items requires lots of decision making and time. Items that are no longer needed must be disposed of. This requires time and planning or they might end up in bags somewhere else, like the basement.

Once the closet is clean, it is so much easier to see what is available and what we need to replace. Less time is made daily on deciding what to wear leaving more time and energy for more important tasks. However, a system needs to be put in place to maintain this clean space or in a matter of months, the closet will be cluttered and need to be cleaned out again.

We must regard our lives much like a closet. If we know exactly what our style is, and what fits us, it’s easy to choose the outfits and activities that work for what we are trying to achieve. This is the same as making smart goals that are measurable and on a time table. If we don’t know what we are trying to achieve, then it’s impossible to decide what activities and efforts will get us there.

By learning what is essential for us personally, we can easier choose what we need to do, or need to say no to. Often saying no can be the hardest part. However, with time, being clear on your needs and being understanding of the needs of other can only garner more respect.

My Review

This was a timely message for me. I suffer from “got to do everything” syndrome and very rarely say no to projects unless it clearly doesn’t fit my schedule. Reading the different examples of successful people who employed these ideas helped reinforce the idea that more isn’t better and quality is always better than quantity.

The book is well written, insightful, and full of great examples. Like most non-fictions, it does tend to repeat itself to emphasize the main points and themes. This comes with the territory and is expected, so I can’t fault it. Since I was listening to the audiobook while doing mindless chores, the repetition was helpful.

Recommendations

For all of those overachievers out there who are killing themselves to get ahead, this is a must read. It teaches the importance of prioritizing efforts and being mindful of the big picture, which is extremely helpful for those who always find there is too much on their plate.

This book was intended for business people and those who are working to get ahead in their careers or entrepreneurial endeavors. Which means that those of us not working in a corporate atmosphere might not relate to the majority of the examples, myself included. I don’t work in a corporate environment, but I do manage lots of details and schedules and am working to elevate my writing career one task at a time.

This book might be super frustrating for those of us who can’t be in charge of their schedules and plans, such as full-time parents with young children and babies in the home. That said, there are some important ideas that are beneficial to them as well, such as finding mindfulness in each task and being present.

I give Essentialism 4/5 stars for reminding me that there is power in simplicity.


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Book Review: Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

I have a love hate relationship with Neil Gaiman’s writings. I love how he uses language to create an otherworldly sense of place and characters that are always far more than what’s happening on the page. But, many of his writings do nothing for me. With each new book, I start reading with the hope that this one will scratch my Gaiman itch. Sometimes those hopes are dashed.

So it was with reluctance that I picked up this collection of his shorter works. With so many different offerings, I knew there would be several I would truly enjoy and then there would be others that I probably wouldn’t like at all. And.. I was right.

This is also why it’s taken me the better part of a year to finish reading all of them. After each disappointment I’d put the book down as if I were punishing it. When enough time had passed, I’d pick it up and give the next story a try.

A sampling of my favorites

Instructions

This poem holds tiny pieces of other stories I have grown to love. There is an element of mystery and whimsy as the poet instructs the reader along a cryptic journey giving very specific instructions that feel as if they are meant to either enchant the reader or keep them from harm. The further into the poem the reader ventures, the deeper they find themselves in a wondrous land of fairy tale and magic.

As with many profound tales, this poem wanders itself into a circle and the reader finds themselves back where they started, only changed.

Goliath

I feel this story is inspired by the Matrix, but one that feels more faithful to how being a consciousness living in the confines of a computer program might work. Our main character is literally larger than life, a Goliath of a man. Throughout his life, he experiences odd shifts where he knows something has changed, but he can’t quite put his finger on it. With each shift, he becomes more convinced that his life is nothing more than a sham covering up something much deeper and darker than he can imagine.

When the truth comes for him, he’s ready to face what real life looks like and take up the duties he has been training for since his “life” began.

Sunbird

As someone who loves experiencing culture through food, this tale of rare Epicurean delights was as fascinating as it was delicious. The aptly named Epicurian Club has set out to consume the world’s rarest delights, ranging from extinct species to all the different beetles of the world. They go to great lengths to challenge their tastes and stretch their palates. When the mention of the rare and exquisite sunbird piques their attention, they make plans to travel to Egypt to try it. Needless to say, the so called sunbird has a few mythical qualities of its own that makes this story even more delectable.

My Review

This isn’t the easiest book to simply sit down and read through. As with many Gaiman stories, the enjoyment of reading comes from paying attention to all the subtle details that rise to the surface or are brushed past in the narrative. This level of reading intensity makes it hard to find uninterrupted time to enjoy each work the way it was intended to be read, that is, slowly and with attention to detail.

Personally, now that I’ve read Gaiman’s shorter works, I can see why I favor his novel length stories better. If I’m going to invest that kind of time and attention to a story, I want to experience it for a long time and dive deeply into these characters and conflicts. There is always so much going on that it feels like the shorter works don’t do these stories justice.

Recommendations

If you love a story that stretches your thinking and challenges reality, you’ll find several works in this collection that will fill that need. While these all are speculative fiction, they swing back and forth from science fiction to fantasy, often capturing elements of both in tandem. There’s also a healthy dash of elements of folklore stirred in for even more depth.

However, this isn’t for light reading by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is it a book for younger readers as the subject matter tends to dive into deeper topics and there is coarse language and graphic descriptions.

While in the end I’m glad I gave the collection a try, I would be hard pressed to recommend it to anyone but those who already like Neil Gaiman’s writings.

I give Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things 3 out of 5 stars for stretching my thinking but not scratching my literary itch.


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Book Review: Verses for the Dead by Preston and Child

This is a year of trying lots of new things, including authors I hadn’t read yet. I’d heard of the Pendergast novels off and on for ages, they are one of those staples of genre fiction that have collected a wide fan base and end up being referenced at writing conferences. A friend of mine had enjoyed the books and we needed a fresh read for our very casual book group so we chose the most widely available title in the library system, the 2018 release Verses for the Dead.

The Story

This book is very much a murder mystery. It starts with the discovery of a human heart found on a gravestone in Miami along with a cryptic note signed by a Mr. Brokenhearts. Enter Agent Pendergast, FBI. He’s got a remarkable track record when it comes to the tricky cases, and this murder is shaping up to be exactly that, tricky.

However, he’s unpredictable and tends to do things in unorthodox ways that leave a body count higher than what his superiors are comfortable with. For this reason, on this case he’s forced to accept the unthinkable–a partner.

The mystery unfolds as our duo work together to piece together the clues. Their murderer follows a bizarre M.O.: He cuts out his victim’s hearts and then leaves them on the graves of suicide victims. If Pendergast can’t find the connections between the victims, he’s sure more women will die in the same horrific way.

Through many twists and failures, we watch as Pendergast works through the case in a way reminiscent of Sherlock, finding the tiniest clues and using them to track down the killer.

My Review

As someone who doesn’t read a lot of mystery novels I can’t say if the pacing of this one was intentionally slow and methodical, or if it was just a slower read because clue hunting, while interesting, isn’t exciting. The way the different ideas came together, and the way it truly took a team of experts to help the case along, made for interesting reading. And, there was an action-packed danger-filled conclusion, so I can’t complain too much.

There is a reason these books are popular. The writing is solid and clear, the characters fleshed out and interesting, and the different settings vibrant and lifelike. There is always a sense of more going on than what happens on the page, especially with Pendergast’s character, which leaves the reader eager to see what else they can learn about him.

While most of the books in the Pendergast series are flagged as standalone reads, there is a lot of backstory about Pendergast himself that I feel I’m missing. I’m considering reading more, if only to learn more about him and why he acts the way he does.

Recommendations

If you like murder mystery, this is a solid one. A word of warning for the squeamish, there are graphic crime scene descriptions, autopsies, and naturally, a few murders witnessed first hand. There is also a reasonable, but not overwhelming amount of swearing. The clues are not super obvious at first, but like any good mystery start clicking together as the story moves forward only for there to be a subtle twist that changes everything.

If you tend to need things that feel like they’re moving and making progress quickly, this might be a frustrating read. Everything Pendergast does is methodical and deliberate so even when he’s rushing, there is still a sense of calm and stillness. This makes it all the more exciting when his feathers do get ruffled during the thrilling climax, but for some that might not be enough.

I give Verses for the Dead 3/5 stars, a solid read but at times too slow and deliberate.


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Book Review: The Dark Hero by Ken Mears

I know I’ve said this before, but having authors as friends comes with lots of great perks, one of which is that I’ll never run out of reading material. Ken Mears and I met at Wizarding Dayz last year through a mutual friend. He’s an amazing teen with lots of potential and I am glad to help him on his journey. The Dark Hero is his second middle grade book and part of The Stones of the Middle Lands series.

The Blurb

For the past year, James has been remembering his past. From what he can gather, he may not have been the person he thinks he was. Even more worrisome, he is having nightmares about his past, and he has to wonder if they really are memories. With his thoughts darkened and cruel moods coming over him, James has to wonder. Is he a good person?

After being separated from James and Fenn for a year, Aaron has seen some changes he doesn’t like. With his friends closer than ever, Aaron starts to feel ostracized and battles with jealousy. And with his brother, Kai getting bolder and stronger, Aaron is realizing he can’t be nearly as protective of his kid brother. How can he overcome his jealousy and protect his brother from harm?

General Xanog has been beaten time and time again by James, resulting in his body being defaced with mechanical parts. Xanog has been plotting his revenge, seeking out any way to channel his anger towards vengeance. But something more concerning has arisen. The mysterious new leader of the trolls, The Malevolent One, has been controlling the trolls with no regard for their individual well being. While The Malevolent One presses for more control over Xanog and the rest of the trolls, he starts to consider: Does he have a bigger enemy than James?

My Review

This story is full of adventure and action. From one chapter to the next, James quests forward with his band of trusted friends to find the magical Peacekeeper Stones. There are battles, monsters, and fantastical settings as well as dragons, trolls, and near-death experiences.

There is also a lot of heart and moments of introspection as James learns more about his past and struggles to make peace with it as he moves forward. Several of his friends have changed and matured since his last adventure with him and he must adapt and accept them for who they are.

For a teen writer, I give Ken all the kudos in the world for taking on such an ambitious project and creating a book that’s both entertaining and has some depth. He’s got a great ear for character dialogue and his creativity shines through his unique settings and monsters. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for him.

Recommendations

This is a story for older middle grade readers. Considering the age of the main character, he’s 16, and how the quest is ultimately to save the world, it feels closer to a young adult read. The main character also gets seriously injured several times, enough to where a younger reader might be turned off from the story. The only thing that keeps it back in the middle grade category is that the focus of the story stays solidly on adventure and a sense of wonder.

I imagine this book being great fun for 5th and 6th grade boys who like adventure and danger.

As of July 15th, 2020, The Dark Hero is only available at the author’s website.


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Book Review: Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

There are only a handful of books that have stuck with me even years after reading them. This is one of them. Flowers for Algernon is as fascinating as it is heartbreaking. It was originally written as a short story in 1960 and won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story, then it was adapted into a novel which went on to tie for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1966. There have been dozens of references to the story, including one on the Simpsons on the 2001 episode “HOMR.”

The Story

Charlie Gordon is a 32 year old with an IQ of 68. He begins the story working menial jobs at a bakery to keep from needing to live at a state institution. From the beginning, he has this drive to better himself and to do so takes reading and writing classes at a special school. Two researchers have discovered a way to increase intelligence through a surgical procedure and Charlie’s teacher, Alice, recommends he try the procedure.

Over the course of three months, Charlie’s IQ shoots to 185. Suddenly he no longer fits into the world he’s always been part of. He realizes that his coworkers at the bakery, who he always thought were his best friends, have been mocking him all along. The researchers continue to treat him the same way they’d treat a child, even when his intelligence exceeds theirs. He tries to fix broken ties with his parents only to learn that they no longer recognize him.

Determined to further the research that made his new intelligence possible, he continues writing reports and caring for the mouse they first experimented on, Algernon. However, he discovers a flaw in the theory that could cause the procedure to revert. This flaw is confirmed when Algernon starts behaving erratically and eventually dies.

He knows he will lose his new found abilities as well, but now has a much greater understanding of what that means. After he regresses, he remembers that he was once a genius. He can’t stand being pitied and so chooses to live in a state-sponsored home for the mentally handicapped where no one knows about his past.

His last writing is asking someone to put flowers on Algernon’s grave behind his old apartment.

My Review

The story itself is a fascinating exploration of what it means to be changed in a fundamental way only to have it taken away. But, what makes it powerful is how it’s delivered. The story is written in a series of letters that Charlie writes as part of a continuing assignment to his teacher Alice. In the beginning, we see that he struggles with putting together even the simplest of sentences and spelling is a huge challenge. But, even through that, we see his drive to be better, to be smarter.

Through each letter we see first hand how the procedure is changing him. The sentences become more complicated and the thoughts behind them more nuanced. The spelling issues disappear. As we reach the pinnacle of his intelligence, we see him pass into the language of complicated academia as he starts understanding the research behind his procedure in a much more detailed and granular way.

And then he starts to slip, and what’s so heartbreaking about it is that he can feel it happening. He knows what life was like before and he is terrified to return to what he once was. The sentences grow simpler and the structure and spelling decline until we return back to the beginning, but with one fundamental change. He remembers what it was like when he was smart and knows he can never go back.

Where many books rely on the artistry of the wordsmithing paired with the story to make them powerful, this one is powerful because it strips that away and lets us see pure character and how this huge change affects him.

It’s a beautiful work and deserving of the awards it’s received along the way.

Recommendations

This book is emotionally hard hitting. It touches on important themes such as the treatment of mentally disabled, the conflict between intellect and emotion, and how past events affect someone later in life. I’d only recommend this to readers who like stretching the boundaries of their experience. It hits many of the same notes as the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, when it comes to capturing the experience of the mentally disabled, and does an admirable job.

If you like digging deeply into another person’s world, even when that world is fraught with very real challenges, then this book is for you. But, if you are sensitive (like at all) to any of the issues already discussed, then this book might be too painful to read.

I give Flowers for Algernon a rare 5/5 for challenging my world view and sticking with me.


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Book Review: Ghost Story (The Dresden Files) by Jim Butcher

I did something terrifically stupid by making an assumption that wasn’t true. Somewhere between hearing Dresden fans rave about the books and using the internet to answer a question, I decided that it didn’t matter what order the Dresden Files were read in.

Short answer: It does.

Slightly longer answer: The book still stands up on it’s own, but you miss hoards of character development and relationship backstory which sucks some of the deeper meaning out of it.

Do I regret my decision to dive into the story where I did? Yep. The longer I think about it, the more I realize just how badly I’ve shot myself in the foot. I’ve robbed myself of all those fabulous ah-ha! moments as the story unfolds. Bad author, no cookie. Feel free to chastise me in the comments.

The Story

Harry Dresden is Chicago’s first and only Wizard PI. In Ghost Story, he is stripped of all of his usual tools needed to solve cases. He can’t use his magic, can’t interact with the physical world, and can’t even talk to the people he needs to get information from. Even still, with all of this drastic change, he’s got a huge problem to solve and not much time to solve it.

Three of the people he loves most are in danger. To save them he has to solve his own murder. To make matters worse, there is a huge power vacuum left in the world from Dresden’s actions in the previous book. Several nasty entities are rushing into position to take advantage of this opportunity and are creating chaos and havoc at every turn.

My Review

As my first foray into the Dresden Files, Ghost Story was probably the worst possible place to start the story. That didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. It simply means I’m still kicking myself for not asking an actual Dresden fan where I should start (for those just joining us, it’s at the beginning).

Judging from the thin slice of the Dresden universe I enjoyed, the fans are right. There’s a lot to cheer for here. The characters are fun and unique, the settings gritty and realistic, the narrative voice entertaining, and the overall story is just the right amount of twisty to keep me interested.

I can’t judge Ghost Story against the other books in the series because I did a dumb. But, from the reviews and articles I’ve read, many fans weren’t crazy about the book compared to their love for the other books. Part of this might be the drastic change in Dresden himself where the most entertaining and compelling parts of his character were taken from him and he was forced to flounder in a new and unexpected way.

For me this universe was a new interesting place to explore and I didn’t have any expectations that I hoped the story would meet. I enjoyed the story enough to most likely pick up the other ones, in order this time, and dive into the world the way it was meant to be experienced.

Recommendations

Start at the beginning. No, really. If you’ve never read any of the Dresden Files, don’t start here.

For being a gritty, crime-solving, Wizard PI novel, it’s a pretty clean read. Swearing and intimate content were at a dead minimum if there was any. Dresden’s preferred swear is “Hell’s Bells” if that’s any indication. There are a handful of graphic injuries and intense fight scenes, none of which bordered on horrific for me, but were present.

I’d recommend this for those who like urban fantasy and a story that seems straight forward on the surface, but gets deeper and more complicated the further you dig in. For the graphic stuff and story complexity at the end I’d recommend this for readers no younger than 15.

If you saw urban fantasy and thought sexy vampires would be featured prominently in the story, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

I give Ghost Story 4/5, a good read and entertaining, but I didn’t leave it thinking “Wow.”


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Book Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

There are a few books out there that polarize readers to either loving them or hating them, and this is one of them. I picked up The Slow Regard of Silent Things after finishing the first and second books of the Kingkiller Chronicles and was wringing my hands waiting for the next one. I loved the poetic language that Rothfuss used in his epic fantasy and was curious to see how he would handle novella length fiction.

I was one of the readers that loved this book, not because it had a riveting story or action-packed sequences or amazing magic, but because it was so drastically different than any other story I had ever read. And that was a good thing. I’ll probably say this a few times but Rothfuss uses language beautifully.

The Story

This book isn’t technically a story at all. Rather, it is the reader following a truly unique person through their day-to-day life. Auri is no normal person either. She lives in the complex maze of underground tunnels, sewers, and vent shafts that exist beneath the university in the Kingkiller Chronicles. Her life is guided by her own super enhanced intuition which make her feel more ethereal than human at times. For example, there are a series of doors that change what they are and where they lead according to the feelings they share with her. One of these doors is always a door she must not pass through.

The one part of her life anchored in reality is Kvothe (the main character from Kingkiller Chronicles). He is one the few people she will allow to see her. One of the most unique sections of the book describes in detail how she wants to make him a bar of soap that is truly his. In language that slips in and out of poetic flow and narration, we watch as she finds the ash, oils, and fats, along with different fragrances that capture her impression of him. It’s not the soap making process that makes this action compelling, but her need and emotional weight that she assigns each action.

The book ends with her gifting the soap to him.

My Review

For me, book was lovely, different, and proved that sometimes there doesn’t need to be a compelling story to create a compelling narrative. Sometimes, all you really need is a character that is so unique and different that it’s fascinating to watch what she will do next, how she will do it, how she thinks about it, and how her emotional journey progresses.

I can see why some people didn’t like this book. Because there isn’t a concrete problem for Auri to solve and she does not grow or change in the course of the story, some may argue that there is no point to reading it. They may argue that because of this there is nothing to be gained from reading her experience. I would argue that they missed the point. This book isn’t meant to change the character. It changes the reader. It opens up the eyes of possibility, showing how different people can be from each other but how they can be driven by the same fears and loves.

All things considered, of all of Rothfuss’s works, this book is one I would consider reading again to unlock more of the secrets held there. I have a feeling a second read-through would reveal even more about this unique character and why her being so different is so important.

Recommendations

Understandably, this book is not a fast or easy read. It requires attention to detail and patience as events and actions unfold. For those who like a beautiful read and are not tied to absolutely having to have a strong plot and a strong conclusion, I would wholeheartedly recommend this book.

I would not recommend this book for anyone other than the most ardent readers. It would not hold the attention of those easily bored or discouraged, especially if they were hoping for a story to dig their teeth into. I also wouldn’t recommend this for extremely literal thinkers as the poetic language leans heavily on metaphoric language.

My personal rating of the Slow Regard of Silent things is a very rare 5/5.


The release of my second book this last weekend went very well. To celebrate, I gave away over 2000 ebook copies of book one, Stonebearer’s Betrayal, to people all over the world. If you were one of them, thank you for taking a chance on this fantasy series, I hope you like it. If you end up reading it, please consider dropping a review, it’s the best thanks you can give to an author.

If you missed your chance to pick up Stonebearer’s Betrayal for free, the ebook is still available for a steal at $2.99.


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