Review: The Yard

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

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

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

“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

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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Author Thank You Note: Pierce Brown

Outgoing transmission: Pierce Brown
Subject: Thank You

Of all the authorial thank you notes that I wrote for this month — several of which are wholly ridiculous in tone — yours proved the most difficult to write. You are currently reading the results of attempt number nine ten

Where to begin? I regret to say I went into Red Rising with a good deal of reservations: it was blurbed to appeal to fans of The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game (I am, alas, a fan of neither), and its jacket description made it sound like every other class system-based dystopia that had flooded the market for the past few years, or so it seemed to me. But that cover was so striking — a bright red wing on matte black — that I did what I usually tend to do in situations like these: I shrugged and bought it while thinking “Eh, why not?” (This seems to be how most of my best and worst ideas start.)

I began with the audio — I can’t remember what exactly I was doing that fateful evening, but I needed to be hands-free — and from the moment Tim Gerard Reynolds read that first line, it was like one of those moments in a film where the protagonist pauses what they’re doing and the camera pushes in with a tightening, shadowy ellipse to form a spotlight, the world around them having faded away.

“I would have lived in peace. But my enemies brought me war.”

I’m a sucker for a good revenge plot; I stand by my opinion that The Count of Monte Cristo is probably the best revenge plot ever crafted. I love me a good revolution tale; American Revolution history is some of my favourite from this country and, oh yeah, Star Wars Rebel Alliance all the way. I also cannot resist a war story; I’m a rather odd child who knew Homer’s Iliad before Harry Potter.

So getting your story, complete with Classical allusions and pop culture easter egg-like references that kicked my high-functioning ADHD mind into full-on literary analysis mode was like getting the book I’d never dared to want, because there was no way in heaven, hell, or earth that it could exist.

And I don’t just love your trilogy because you’re a master of your craft and tell a heart-stopping story; or because you created and developed characters so beautifully flawed and tragically human that they transcend the confines of the page; or even because finding all those little allusions and references brings me inexplicable joy. I do love your trilogy for all those things, but I really want to thank you for how thoughtful your books are.

Your books dared to ask a great deal of deep and difficult questions. What happens after revolution? What happens when you gamble and fail? When you lose a battle but must continue the war? How do you deal with grief and rage and hate?

How do you not only live, but live for more?

I got to question and consider the world of your own making and the consequences of every small action, or even the lack of action. And then I got to apply it to my own life — which, in the wake of everything that has happened in 2016, meant an awful lot of thinking and drinking and more thinking.

But there is also a part of the story I didn’t mention, about when I picked up your first book back in 2014…it wasn’t a great time for me. I was going through what can only be described as a complete existential, quarter-life crisis. I’d graduated university without a job in my field, was working full-time at a bookstore which, while not terrible, was not what I wanted. I was just entering treatment for an eating disorder, which would lead to me (finally) getting diagnosed with anxiety and adult ADHD alongside depression, which I knew I’d dealt with since high school. Everyone around me was getting married, buying houses, raving about their dream-jobs and, well, needless to say, I felt very stuck and worthless and useless.

You didn’t really need to know all that, I suppose, but it’s the only context I can offer so that when I say your books were not only what I needed in that moment, but were what helped to spark a little fire to dare, to try, and to at the very least pretend to be brave…I’m not trying to be sycophantic. I may be prone to hyperbole in some things, but I don’t exaggerate when I say that your books had a profound impact upon me — upon my behaviour, my thought processes, philosophies, and just overall personhood. I can look at my short twenty-five years and find that point at twenty-three in late 2014 that denotes the shift of “before Red Rising” and “after Red Rising.

I hadn’t been able to live in peace but I started to find a glimmer of it in Darrow’s war. 

And as if that wasn’t enough, it wasn’t too long after I got diagnosed with Bertolotti’s Syndrome in late 2015 that I got to read Darrow scratching and clawing and working his own way back to recovery in Morning Star…just as I was going through physical therapy so I could go through everyday life with minimal pain or discomfort. It was this strange sort of inspiration, the rationale of “Well Darrow could come back from that, so surely I can grit my teeth and push through whatever’s happening here.” It’s not that I hadn’t thought that way before Morning Star, but something about the visceral way in which you wrote Darrow’s journey put everything happening in my own life into sharp perspective and helped me to hone my focus.

Simply put: your books changed my life.

So, thank you, Pierce Brown. Thank you for crafting this story. Thank you for writing it down and sharing it with all of us. In this all too often dark and terrifying world that sometimes likes to knock us down and basically beat the shit out of us, you gave us a trilogy about a rising tide of sons and daughters whose grit and humanity and glorious hope blazed with such ferocity that they shone brighter than the morning star itself.

And it’s a bloodydamn, gorydamn beautiful thing.

Per aspera ad astra and sincerest thanks,

Madeleine C.

PS. Also, you like Star Wars and puppies, so I should have known that would mean your books were going to be amazing.

Review: All Our Wrong Todays

All Our Wrong Todays
All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**Thank you so much to Penguin Group DUTTON for giving me a digital ARC of this novel via NetGalley for the purposes of review**

I don’t usually like comparative blurbs, but the best way I can describe this book is that it’s some sort of combination of Back to the Future meets Dark Matter. There’s time travel, there’s existential crisis, there’s fighting to belong — really, there’s just an awful lot in this book.

It starts in what can only be described as a technological utopia: the world imagined by the 1950’s as what today would be. All problems solved, diseases readily cured or curable. But, of course, that’s not enough. Our protagonist, Tom, doesn’t fit into this utopia: he feels adrift and afloat, unloved by his father who views Tom as a disappointment at best. In a way, I think of something like what The Great Gatsby was poking at: that the idea of the American Dream, the utopia where every problem is seemingly solved, is, ultimately, a lie. That it’ll all come crashing down in the end because we, as humans, continue to want.

Tom lives in a world where, arguably, he has everything. And he is wholly discontent. This is, of course, where the plot comes in: he makes a mistake. He messes up. And so now, basically, the entirety of reality hangs in the balance while Tom is stuck in our 2016. To him, it’s a dystopia nightmare, a hell of our own creation. And yet it is in the perceived hell where people are more “wanting,” where we don’t have everything solved for us, that he starts to find himself fitting in. His father doesn’t look at him with such disdain and he even meets someone — there’s always someone — to whom he feels an electric kind of connection. Perhaps Tom’s soulmate?

What is, on the surface, a story about time travel, ultimately becomes more a story of identity, of self-acceptance, and even (just maybe) a bit about the American Dream and what it really means for something to be “perfect.”

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