madNbooks

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Hello, beloved bibliophiles of the internet, and welcome to my little blog. Here you will find reviews great and small on just a small fraction of the books that I read. (Give that I read 391 books in 2015, that would be an awful lot of reviews to write.)

I am a “jack of all trades” and “master of none” kind of reader: if it grips me, I don’t care within what genre it resides. I will read it.

You may also find some more academic pieces that I wrote at different points in my schooling and some that were written a little later. What can I say? I love talking about books, so I use this small little corner of the internet to do so.

If you want to hear more from me, check out the The Book Table podcast I both produce and participate in over at Backroom Whispering Productions. I not only discuss books, literary themes, and writing with some other fiercely intelligent folks, but I try to make sure I promote titles within the discussion as well, either by the same author or by authors whose works are similar. Maybe you’ll hear about a title that interests you!

Review: Good Morning, Midnight

Good Morning, Midnight
Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a beautiful book — and all the credit for me even knowing anything about it goes to my friend Rebecca Kordesh. She sent me scattered passages from this book and I fell in love with the language; it’s meter, it’s cadence, and it’s surprising gentleness.

Gentleness isn’t something I usually notice when it comes to writing, and despite some of the intensely emotional moments, Ms. Brooks-Dalton writes such lush description and emotional depth without become heavy-handed.

When I read this book, I was reminded of the brilliant Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, a book which surprised and enthralled me in its quietness and its brilliance. Good Morning, Midnight is similar only in that it too seeks to examine the human condition, especially in isolation, while also discovering the surprising connections between the most disparate of people — whether it be by location, age, religion, race, sex…any of it. In the end, there always seems to be the tiniest and most delicate of threads of connective tissue, and it’s absolutely beautiful.

This is not a fast book, this is not a loud book. It is quiet, it is slow; but it knows what it’s doing. It leaves you with questions while challenging you to think and meditate on some of the greatest and most mysterious philosophical questions you can, especially when you must turn those questions upon yourself.

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Review: The Black Country

The Black Country
The Black Country by Alex Grecian
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very much like The Yard, Grecian’s follow-up novel in his London Murder Squad series uses his historical backdrop as a way to write an engaging mystery. Where last time he made use of the birth of forensic science in the wake of Jack the Ripper, here me makes use of the fear initially stirred up by “King Cholera.” A quick little brush up on that moniker: a major outbreak of cholera hit London in 1832 where, in that city alone, it claimed over 6500 victims (and around 55,000 across the UK), which is where the disease earned its name.

In the case of this novel, it’s not cholera — revealing which epidemic in particular is major spoilers, so you’ll just have to read to find out — but the way in which the story unfolds around this disease has the same feel, even if it is taking place in a small town versus London prosper.

I think readers will find the “mystery reveal” a little more twisted than the first, but still interesting from a psychological standpoint. Like the previous novel, the treatment of children in this Victorian society is a focus, and I hope that it continues to weave its way as a kind of pervasive series theme through the rest of the books. Perhaps it is because violence around children is considered all the more horrific; violence done by children all the more disturbing; violence to children all the more tragic.

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Review: The Yard

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The Yard
The Yard by Alex Grecian

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Upon finishing this book, my gut reaction in pitching it to people was to highlight its similarity to The Alienist by Caleb Carr, a fantastic historical-fiction mystery set in turn-of-the-century New York City that involves a serial killer and the beginnings of modern forensic science. The Yard is set in the aftermath of Jack the Ripper London and features serial killers as well as the beginnings of modern forensic science. Despite location differences, the bare bones of these novels are very similar.

And yet when I think about The Yard in retrospect, I realize that this comparison is unfair to both of these novels, because while the bare bones are very similar, these novels are very different. Where The Alienist used the mystery to highlight the historical fiction nature of its narrative and truly immerse you in the time period, The Yard uses its time period to highlight its mystery and the characters within it; the “history” part of the historical fiction angle of this novel is, in a way, wholly unimportant.

I don’t mean this as a criticism — not in the slightest — because this focus on the mystery over the history was totally fine for me. This may sound strange, as I’ve railed against other books for doing the same thing, but it comes down to execution. Grecian executes his mystery well, because it’s not really about “whodunnit,” not entirely. You see, we’re introduced to the antagonist quite early, and it becomes more about the antagonsit’s motives, his game of cat-and-mouse with Inspector Day, and how many things are all converging at once upon the single opening murder. It’s an interesting little web of people all getting closer to the heart of a mystery that’s getting revealed to us more and more as the story progresses.

The historical fiction part of this novel is enough for you to get a sense of the time: Victorian London in the wake of Jack the Ripper. The constabulary force has taken a public opinion beating; they’re overworked and undermanned. Social injustice is even more blatant and bile-inducing. This is really all you need to know outside of anything relating to the mystery. Beyond that, I’m sure there are any number of historical errors — did they really use the term “beat cops” and cops walking their “beat”?? — but, in my case, I didn’t mind them all that much because, again, the history is really not the focus of this story. The focus is the characters and mystery they inhabit.

If you can overlook those things, then this book is a fun and fast and features some characters who are worth following into a second book.

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Review: Augustus

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Augustus
Augustus by John Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is beautiful.

I’m a Classics nerd and junkie — I love anything and everything to do with the times of Hellenic, Hellenistic, and Roman culture. It’s a lifelong love and obsession, fostered at a very young age by my maternal grandfather, a now-retired professor of the Classics.

And here I’m given Augustus, an epistolary novel told almost-exclusively from the letters and viewpoints of everyone but Octavius (later Augustus). We see him through his friends, his enemies, his family, and only in the last bit of the book, as he closes out his life, do we hear about Octavius in his own words. Fictional words, of course; it is the poetry of Williams’ writing, not anything from Augustus himself.

Here’s what’s the most interesting, to me, about this book: I’m on the fence about how I feel about the first Roman emperor. On one hand, yes, he did some amazing things in securing Roman dominance and its already-established borders — he launched few new military campaigns, instead focusing on what Rome already had and making sure that it was truly secure. I think this is a great idea, given Rome had been engulfed in civil warfare for the past century. But on the other hand, Augustus was a bit of a tyrant; I bristle at his “marriage laws” and the idea that the State would be so involved in the private lives of its citizens. It was a political move (I hope), stopping the use of sex as a way to gain power, but at the end of the day that’s really not the State’s business. But I digress…

So I went in with a lot of mixed feelings about Augustus: he was good and bad, had flaws, made some interesting decisions, and did, it should be noted, suffer a good deal of personal tragedy. This book is, without question, overwhelmingly positive towards Augustus. Every potentially negative decision is given positive reasoning behind it, anything tyrannical checked by being shown as somehow “absolutely necessary” for the stability of Rome or, like with the banishing of his daughter, to save someone’s life. This is, of course, fiction, and Williams is absolutely allowed his bias. I didn’t want Augustus to be some kind of mustache-twirling villain, but having him be 100% positive is a little jarring and, admittedly, irritating.

And yet, at the end of it all, I did not care. Williams’ writing is so beautiful that it’s practically poetry. He writes each person’s voice so well — from Julia to Tiberius to Antony to Cicero to countless others — and when he finally reaches Augustus himself…you know you’ve reached a kind of coup de grâce of his writing. It’s so beautiful, that I found my irritation with the sea of positivity melting away; I was hanging on every word from Augustus. I was caught into his cult of personality, even if it was, in this case, a fictional one.

This book is a triumph. It’s beautifully written, and plays with history in a way that is respectful of what we “know” happened while also injecting subtle fictions that weave interchangeably with the facts. It is the portrait of the first Roman emperor through the eyes of all but him, but when he takes the stage, it could be a one-man monologue onstage and hold its audience captive. It really gripped me, at least.

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Review: The Bone Witch

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The Bone Witch
The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

**Thank you to Sourcebooks Fire for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via Netgalley for the purposes of review**

I cannot tell you how many times I had to stop this book; how many times I paused and walked away; how many times I seriously considered abandoning the endeavour of reading altogether.

Having now perused other reviews of this novel, I know I was not the only one. This book suffers from an atrocious pacing problem: it’s slow to the point of glacial. I find this incredibly frustrating because it’s got a fantastic premise, and promised to have a lot of great fantasy-action in it. And, sure, those things are there…in the far back of the novel. You have to trudge through pages upon pages of description that advance neither the plot nor the development of characters and that, instead of immersing the reader in the world of The Bone Witch, manage only to distract and bog down the story.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about lush and evocative description, but in moderation.

But even more than the over-abundance of purple prose is the lack of dimension to the characters. They’re straightforward to the point of being flat. I struggled to care for them and their actions throughout the entirety of the novel, and when you’re dealing with necromancy — something that should be absolutely amazing in this novel — the fact that the necromancer and the reincarnated are both wholly wooden is frustrating. They’re boring, and in a world that should have been interesting, but comes off as a combination of contrite and confused. While you certainly don’t want a brick of boring exposition, this novel really could have used some, especially in its first half.

Instead of over-describing everything, perhaps the author could have taken the time to develop her world and characters. I’m sure there are people who will love this book, who won’t mind that you have to slog through a veritably brick wall of a first two-thirds, a love triangle that doesn’t need to exist, and personality-less characters. Unfortunately, this book just didn’t do it for me.

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Author Thank You: Jennifer Niven

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“The thing is, there are good days and bad days. I feel almost guilty saying they aren’t all bad.”

Dear Jennifer Niven,

We’ve actually met once, back in 2015 at NoVa Teen Book Fest — I had an ARC of All The Bright Places with a billion little blue and green post-it flags sticking out of it. I’m not very great at meeting people whose work I admire; I tend to go bright red in the face and start anxiously babbling and word-vomiting whatever runs into my mind first and it doesn’t usually end well. But you were so very kind and sweet, and meeting you was the high point screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-12-23-12-pmof my time at NTBF15, not only because of this meeting and all the talks I heard you give over the course of the day, but because of your book — the very thing that brought me to NTBF15 in the first place.

I picked up that ARC of All the Bright Places in the very start of 2015 and was left in pieces. There I was, 23 years old and recently unemployed, going to therapy every week to recover from an eating disorder while being told that, in addition to the depression I’d suffered from on-and-off for some time, I was also suffering from anxiety along with ADHD. I was a molotov cocktail of emotions, a powder keg about to explode, and I suppose one wouldn’t think that a book like yours, so tragically beautiful and heartbreaking, would be the very thing I needed in that moment.

But it was, because in that moment I needed to feel and scream and rage and bang my head and hands against the wall. Through Finch, I found all that tumult — he was as close to my own swings in temperature as I’d ever found in a character. All those post-it flags, they were probably 90% Finch — they were the moments I recognised in myself in some way, shape, or form. So many authors, especially in the Young Adult writing community, have attacked the topics of mental illness, suicide, loss, and grief…but very few had done it with some elegant ecstasy and subtle passion as you did with this book. And Violet — lovely, lovely Violet — it was through Violet that I found that way to do more than cope with things that ripped me apart. Her story, seemingly so much quieter than Finch’s, was just as powerful, just as helpful.

I didn’t get the chance, I don’t think, to say thank you during that brief meeting with you. That your book, in a way, helped save my life. That Finch and Violet, these broken and flawed human beings, were what I needed in that very moment, and in so many moments after that first read. I can see the marked improvement in my own mental health and ability to recognise my own “temperature fluctuations,” as it were, because I experienced it through them.

You wrote such a bright book that holds a very bright place in my heart. And I can’t say thank you enough for that.

Sincerely,
Madeleine

Review: This Is Our Story

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This Is Our Story
This Is Our Story by Ashley Elston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**Thank you to Disney Hyperion for providing me with a digital ARC of this novel via Netgalley for the purposes of review**

I don’t think I would have known anything about this book if it weren’t for a call that Netgalley hosted, and when this book was described, I knew that I had to try and get my hands on it.

“Five boys go on a camping trip, only four come back alive.” How can anyone resist something like that? And with such a striking cover as well — yes, never judge a book by its cover, but this is a truly well-designed cover.

I think YA thrillers are an interesting beast: they need to evoke a “traditional” adult thriller in their pacing, their sense of urgency, and in their pervasive darkness. But the protagonists are young adults; they do not have the same resources or tactics as, say, the detectives or lawyers of other popular thrillers marketed at adults. I find this often makes the actions of the protagonists more interesting, because they have to use methods that might be considered unconventional in order to makeup for their lack of readily available resources.

In the cast of this novel, several things stand out to me: first is the alternating narration. Part of this book is written as narration from the “River Point Boy” who actually committed the murder; his identity, however, is left a secret until the big reveal at the close of the novel. I like this tactic; I like hearing the inside of the killer’s head, and I like getting it in teaser-like chunks. It’s what I like the call the “Scheherazade effect”: giving me only just enough so that I always come back wanting more.

Second is the other perspective we get in this novel from Kate Marino. She’s a senior high school student interning at the DA’s office and has a bit of a history with the River Point Boys, especially with the victim, Grant. There’s a good fire lit in her to solve the case, both for “professional” and personal reasons, which is refreshing — had it only been for the personal reasons brought to light early in the novel, I might have found Kate a little on the side of irritating. But she’s strong and adamant in her convictions, and has a constant drive that makes her a compelling protagonist.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the ending in some way. Revealing the “whodunnit” of any thriller is, I think, both the most paramount and most dangerous part of said novel. It’s paramount because, after all, we’ve been chasing the “who” for the entire novel, so it needs to be worth everything we’ve read, but the characters also need to have earned their discovery. But the danger comes not only in the potential of not earning the ending, or making it worth the reader’s while, but more in that it’s the end. It’s like the deflation of a balloon sometimes, and there’s often nothing the author can do about that feeling. I think of the line from the musical Hamilton: “And just like that it’s over / we tend to our wounded, we count our dead.”

That’s sort of the best way I can describe reaching the end of This is Our Story…suddenly, it’s just over.

And that’s not the fault of the book in any way — I say this as a kind of criticism, but it’s also a criticism for which I see no other option. That’s just how this story was inevitably going to end. It’s just the nature of the genre.

On the whole, this is a well-writte, well-devised, and tension-riddled YA thriller of a high caliber. It’s got more than enough intrigue to satisfy the appetite of any fan of the genre, as well as maybe convert a few new readers. I look forward to more work from this author.

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