Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “The Things She’s Seen”

Given my tendency to write long, winding novels that later have to be hacked back like overgrown rosebushes, I’ve come to really respect those writers who’ve mastered the art of trim fiction.

The Things She’s Seen, the work of brother/sister duo Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina, is a prime example. At just 193 pages–half of which are in verse, making them even less text-intensive–this young adult novel nevertheless tackles heavy themes with succinct, heart-pricking grace.

Set in small-town Australia, Things is told in two voices. 15-year-old Beth Teller, recently dead, has lingered as a ghost only her detective father can see. When he’s dispatched to investigate a suspicious death, she accompanies him, desperate to help him survive his grief. Isobel Catching, found wandering near the murder site, is the sole witness of the crime… but will only tell her story in poetic riddles.

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Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “Spinning Silver”

Full disclosure: I bought this book way back in July. But I’ve delayed reading it for this simple reason: Naomi Novik’s last book (Uprooted) ruined my life. While I was reading it, I skipped workouts. Forewent human companionship. Stayed up to 3 am reading, when I had to be into work by 7:30 am. All because I.couldn’t.put.Uprooted.down.

Since the moments in adult life when one can just opt out and read are rare, I knew I had to be strategic about cracking Spinning Silver.

But my self-discipline finally cracked. Again, I stayed up stupid late to finish–1:49 am. (Or so my husband told me after I knocked over our shredder in the dark and woke him up.) But I can now report that if Spinning Silver isn’t quite as compulsion-inducing as its predecessor, it’s still darn good. In other words, if it missed the 99 mark, it scored a thoroughly-deserved 98.

Spinning Silver is an incredibly clever retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, with so much of Novik’s own intricate plotting and world-building woven throughout that finding those Rumpelstiltskin references is like spotting a bread crumb along an unfamiliar and alluring path. At the novel’s heart is Miryem, the daughter of a moneylender. Her talent for turning silver to gold draws the terrifying notice of the king of the Staryk, a race of ice fey slowly burying Miryem’s land under endless winter. Her efforts to save herself and her family entangle her fate with that of Wanda, a peasant girl, and Irina, the new bride of the young tsar… a man whose own secret threatens his kingdom and the Staryks’.

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Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe”

The newest offering by Matched author Ally Condie, The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe is not unlike crowd favorite Firefly in its futuristic-meets-Old West atmosphere. But where Firefly is about traversing the skies, The Last Voyage is all about navigating waterways.

Set on what appears to be a near-future Earth where the human population has fragmented and thinned, The Last Voyage follows Poe Blythe, the 17-year-old captain of the Gilded Lily. A gold-mining dredge, the Lily is designed to scoop up riverine gold for the Admiral, who leads the remote Outpost where Poe’s society resides. But for Poe, who designed the ship’s deadly armor, the dredge is the means to a very different end–revenge against the raiders who destroyed all she loved. But this time, there’s a traitor aboard….

I found a lot to like in Poe’s story. Condie clearly did her research on river-based gold mining and the corresponding destruction. I recently spent a few years living in Suriname, a South American country with a large gold mining sector. My day job at the time included reporting on the impact of mining on Suriname’s rivers and rainforests. The effects are bleak indeed. Condie’s evoking of the heat and noise, grime and devastation of mining is spot-on.

The Last Voyage is also well paced. The novel has a fair number of twist and turns and Condie manages them nimbly–the pace is tight without being rushed. The various story complications unfold gradually, keeping the reader guessing. And flashbacks are skillfully woven throughout, in support of later plot revelations. There’s also disinformation sown by various characters, both intentionally and accidentally. By leaving the reader unsure what to believe, this sprinkling of deception replicates what Poe would experience as she hears rumors and reports, accusations and counter-accusations: deep uncertainty about who to trust.

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Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “The Hazel Wood”

A few posts ago, I wrote about my foray to Washington, D.C.’s East City Bookshop, and my happy surprise when I found that the book I’d purchased was a signed copy.

But that wasn’t the end of the surprises associated with Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood.

I didn’t know much about Albert’s novel prior to picking it up. But it came highly recommended by my friend/book guru Courtney. And I knew the story centered around a mysterious book (à  la The Shadow of the Wind, one of my all-time favorite novels for its book-within-a-book theme). Those twin enticements were good enough to compel me to grab The Hazel Wood.

And I’m 99% glad I took that step of faith. (I’ll circle back to that missing 1% shortly.)

The Hazel Wood follows Alice, granddaughter to Althea Proserpine, the reclusive author of a deeply dark collection of fairytales called Tales from the Hinterland. Alice and her mother Ella have spent years running from the bad luck ceaselessly snapping at their heels. But when Ella is snatched by figures claiming to be from the Hinterland, Alice’s luck goes from bad to bleak. Her search for her mother unleashes things that do far worse than go bump in the night.

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Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “The Silence of the Girls”

I love words. This confession may well elicit a “Duh” response. After all, I’m a writer and editor. Of course words are my thing.

But as I’ve striven to refine my writing style, I’ve woken to this fact: I love words too much. I use 10 when 5 will do. I can be overly indulgent when it comes to visual imagery or emotional exposition. And in my love for lyrical language, I tend to slap on a heaping spoonful where a restrained flourish would serve.

But Booker Prize-winner Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls is a brilliant example of how to use words well. Told from the perspective of Briseis, the queen who becomes Achilles’ concubine in the final months of the Trojan War, The Silence centers on the women who populated the fringes of this legendary conflict. These “silent” figures–Trojans captured throughout the war–are impressed by the Grecian army into a myriad of services, acting as laundresses, nurses, and, of course, concubines.

I was intrigued by the book’s description–I’m a sucker for retellings of literary classics like the lliad–but a little trepidatious, too. This kind of story–particularly told from the perspective of a sex slave–seemed like it could tempt “shock factor” writing: horrifying scenes of rape and violence penned with maximum brutality. Continue reading “Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “The Silence of the Girls””

Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “The Girl in the Tower”

If you’re a regular peruser of my blog, you may have noticed that I’m a fan of novels that incorporate mythology, fairytales, etc. I’m fascinated by the power of such stories–their ability to resonate across time, surviving all kinds of cultural upheaval to touch even modern readers, as they’ve touched readers throughout the preceding centuries. 

I’ll confess: Though I know there’s a wide world of folktales beyond this, I’m most familiar with the Western European canon. This is one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy–it affords a glimpse into the (to me) less familiar world of Russian stories.

Last November, I read book no. 1 in the series–The Bear and the Nightingale (review here)–and quite enjoyed it. Which made me both curious and leery of the sequel. I wanted to know what happened next… but a bad second book can ruin its predecessor. Continue reading “Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “The Girl in the Tower””

Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “Bitter Greens”

When I say I have a lit nerdy soul, I’m not exaggerating. My husband has to give me visual cues to “STOP TALKING” when he sees my impromptu lit lectures are losing our friends. I’ve begun timing myself to ensure I keep my comments about books under two minutes. I’ll often ask loved ones if they’re sure they want me to answer that lit-related question.

The last time I asked this, my brother thought for a minute, then said, “Let me go to the bathroom first.”

Not a good sign.

But that’s why I’m such a fan of Kate Forsyth. Her historical novels are inspired by fairy and folk tales, which is already enough to intrigue me. But even more than this, both Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl (which I adored [review here]) explore possible answers to mysteries in literary history. I think that’s just the coolest spark to start a novel.

Again, lit nerd here.

In the case of Bitter Greens, Forsyth looks to the tale of Rapunzel. She considers how Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, the 17th century French authoress who penned the version of Rapunzel we know and love, might’ve learned of the story. Because the tale, originally written in an Italian dialect, was not translated into a language accessible to de la Force until after her death. Continue reading “Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “Bitter Greens””