SMELLS LIKE DOG – Suzanne Selfors

Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you are “too old” for a book. We can’t outgrow books. It’s impossible. I’m a bookdragon; you can trust me.

 My sister recently sent me the list books for the 2019-2020 Elementary Battle of the Books competition. As my niece will be reading the books, my sister was hoping maybe I could snag some of the books at my favorite used book stores. My first trip out scored four. And of course I’m going to read them before I deliver them to her. Why? Because they’re books!

 Before I get into the review of the first one, I want to ask you to please donate to my niece’s elementary school. It’s a rural public school in North Carolina and many students have little support at home and are not encouraged to read. This Battle of the Books competition excites these children and nourishes a love of reading that will, hopefully, last a lifetime. If you’d like to donate, please click here.  

I’ve never read Suzanne Selfors before, so I had no idea what I was missing.  What an absolute treat SMELLS LIKE DOG was.  It is witty, endearing, sharply written.  It was giving me serious FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER vibes with a hint of Carl Hiaasen (HOOT, FLUSH, SCAT, CHOMP – you get the idea.)  It was a splendid combination that left me smiling.

Selfors opens her book with a letter to her readers that makes it very clear that the story is about a dog and that dog does NOT die.  I(‘m of the opinion that every book with a dog should start in a similar fashion!)

Homer Pudding lives on a goat farm with his older sister, Gwendolyn, who wants to be a taxidermist when she grows up and practices on road kill, a young brother Pip that everyone calls Squeak, a mother who loves him to bits, and a father who doesn’t quite understand him.  Homer’s hero is his father’s brother, Uncle Drake the treasure hunter.  Homer wants to be just like his beloved uncle and his head  (and bookcase!) is full of dreams of treasures and maps and lore.

Then they read in the Sunday paper that Uncle Drake has been eaten by a tortoise.  A representative from a law firm in The City brings the family a letter.  There is also a letter just for Homer.  A letter and an old smelly hound.  Uncle Drake left his most treasured possession to Homer.  But what to make of the smelly basset hound with no sense of smell?  What purpose can he possibly serve?

But there is a gold coin on the dog’s collar and Homer has a clear taste for adventure that will take him far beyond his family’s goat farm and border collies.  With Dog at his side, Homer sets out on his first grand adventure with more questions than answers.  One thing becomes clear, however; Dog is perhaps the greatest treasure in the world.  Dog and family are forever.

And do not ever let any one tell you that you are too old for a children’s book. Pish-Posh, I say.  The problem with “adults” is that they’ve stopped reading.

SHADOW AND BONE – Leigh Bardugo

I’d never judge a book by its cover, but I would be remiss if I didn’t start this post by mentioning how absolutely gorgeous this cover is.  The colors.  The stag.  It’s simply stunning.


As for the book itself, SHADOW AND BONE is a delight, and a quick and easy read.  It’s the first book I’ve read by Leigh Bardugo and the first of the Shadow and Bone Trilogy, which is set in Grishaverse.  Bardugo uses this fantastical setting in the Six of Crows Duology and THE LANGUAGE OF THORNS.  One of my issues with fantasy is the world building element.  For me, it has to be done at a snappy pace with more and more details being fleshed out as the story progresses.  Bardugo did an okay job with pacing in this novel as she built a world and never lost the story in the process.  It does lag a bit in the middle, but that’s not world building so much as a slow burn of a plot, which I don’t mind.  I just hope the series doesn’t fall on its face like several other trilogies I’ve committed myself to over the past few years.  (I’m looking at you Divergent and Hunger Games.)

Alina is an orphan as is her closest friend, Malyen.  They grow up together.  They rely on each other.  They trust each other.  They save each other.  They love each other.  They are both surprised when they realize they are in love with each other.  (Because the reader couldn’t see that coming from a mile away.  Sigh.  Girls are so much more than the men in their lives.  Can we get more Genya?)

They grow up in a world where magic exists and is praised.  Children are tested early to determine if they have any magical skills.  Alina and Mal are tested at the orphanage, which is how the novel opens.  The novel promptly flashes forward and they are serving as soldiers in the King’s Army, having apparently no skillset in the Small Science.

Alina is a junior cartographer.  Mal is a phenomenal tracker. 

“ ‘You’ve never been lost in your life,’ I scoffed.  I was the mapmaker, but Mal could find true north blindfolded and standing on his head.”

The novel is quick to action, with the soldiers crossing the Shadow Fold – a terrifying darkness with monsters swooping from the skies.  There is an attack.  Alina watches in horror as her friend and fellow cartographer, Alexei, is carried off by the winged beasts.  Mal comes to her rescue and is attacked.  In that moment, Alina’s life changes.  Fear pushes light out of her being.  Fear brings her magic to the surface.  And nothing will ever be the same.

Alina is Sun Summoner.  A rare talent the Darkling has been waiting for.  But why?  Does he want her for good or for evil? 

The Darkling is the future.  He is magic and mystery and beauty.  He is riches and wealth and promises.  He will always want her.  Mal is her past.  He is safe and sure and sound.  He is love and faith and hope.  He will always find her.

But Alina… what does she want?  Is she a soldier? A follower?  A leader?  The Saint and Savior they hope she is?  Is she going to be who she wants to be?  Not what the Darkling wants or what Mal wants?  Can she stand on her own?

It’s not a poorly done YA fantasy, but it is very tropey and does play fast and loose with Russian culture.

But that cover… oh man, is she a beaut.


Verity – Colleen Hoover

I have never read a Colleen Hoover novel until now.  I follow her on social media because she is a freakin’ riot and because I have a slight friend crush combined with a wee touch of jealousy.  I know of her books, and her break your heart only to put it back again love stories.  I nearly pulled the trigger on Without Merit, but I didn’t.  I read a sample of All Your Perfects, but I didn’t feel compelled to complete the novel.  Then came Verity, a novel that brought Hoover back to her self-publishing roots and came with a disclaimer that it was NOT a typical Hoover novel – it was a romantic thriller.  Color me intrigued.  I read the sample and downloaded the novel the same night. 

1   1) I loathe e-readers.  I don’t use them.
     2)  I read Verityon my phone in one sitting.
This review will be kept short because thrillers can be easily spoiled in reviews, and I don’t wish to anger the masses.
Verity is a fast-paced, Gone-Girl-esque read.  Struggling author Lowen Ashleigh is hired to complete the remaining books in Verity Crawford’s bestselling series.  Verity writes thrillers from the point of view of the villain.  (Ding. Ding. Ding.)  She’s been injured in a car accident, but her publisher has been less than honest about the extent of her injuries.  They need someone to finish the series because Verity will never write again, and her fans must not know.  Due to a chance (and rather bloody) meeting with Verity’s husband Jeremy, a ready bond is formed between the two.  He convinces her to take the gig, and he ensures she is properly compensated for her efforts.  Lowen needs the money.  She can’t say no.
Lowen expects to quickly go through Verity’s notes, hoping for material that will make finishing the already planned series a breeze.  What she finds is a memoir of sorts, one that she can’t imagine Verity ever wanted anyone to read.  What is contained in that manuscript could destroy the fragile bond that remained between Jeremy and his wife, and Lowen, quickly falling under his spell, is oh so tempted.
Told from Lowen’s POV with snippets of Verity’s writings woven in, this thriller is about obsession, trust and truth (and headboard biting sex).  The reader quickly realizes that all is not right at the Crawford home, and all is not right in Lowen’s head.  As for Verity, her name is telling enough.  The novel shows us to what lengths we go for our own truths and fixations.
The lesson?  Writers are unreliable narrators.  Always.
As for me, I like dark and twisty Hoover.

EDUCATED – Tara Westover

Our minds do the most magical of things with our memories.  We suppress, we embrace, we mold truth into something more tenable, we exaggerate, we deify, we villainize.  Memory is a tricky thing, and we are not to be trusted.
So how do we find the truth in our memories?  How do we distinguish between actual events as they occurred and the reality we’ve created?  Or do we bother?
Memory is a tricky thing.  We all know that.  And if it is how I remember it, even if it’s not as it happened, isn’t that “true” enough?
I recently read a memoir that left me pondering the flaws in memories and questioning the reliability of a narrator.  And after the A Million Little Pieces fiasco, questioning the reliability of a non-fiction author left me quite uncomfortable.  That uncomfortableness made for an uneasy reading.  Twain said that truth is stranger than fiction, but I’ve never read a memoir in which I distrusted the narrator.  Until now.
Tara Westover’s debut novel Educated was published earlier this year and was promptly lauded with praise.  Every book club forced it upon their members.  Every list of 2018 ‘must reads’ proudly listed it, including President Obama’s.  Its cover was EVERYWHERE.  (Allow me a brief tangent to discuss the cover.  I know.  I know. I know.  Don’t judge a book by the cover.  But this was published by Random House – it had an entire TEAM of people to get it right, yet the cover did not fit the memoir.  Yes, the memoir is titled Educated.  But the type of educated Ms. Westover becomes throughout the course of regurgitating her memories isn’t the pencil on paper kind of educated.  I can’t help but wonder if the cover designer was even given a plot summary of the work.)
Boiled down to its roots of a young woman escaping her fundamentalist Mormon family and finding a home and a family in an education, the memoir is heartbreakingly beautiful.  But there are parts that are hard to swallow as complete truth.  Tara wasn’t kept from the “outside” world – she took dance classes, she starred in the small town’s musical, she went on dates (unchaperoned!) with boys to the movies, she wore makeup, had access to the internet, etc.  She didn’t grow up 1800s Laura Ingalls Wilder, despite certain aspects of the memoir that would beg you to believe otherwise. 

Her early childhood memories, told with such certainty, are unreliable as the memories of a child retold through the lenses of an adult.  Memory is funny.  She’s retelling a story she was told, not one she remembers.  Of that I am certain. 

As she recounts stories of  her teenage years, memories that would rest like scars on the skin, I still held her at arm’s length.  She didn’t sound honest.  It didn’t read true.  I was so unsettled by the feeling of not being able to trust the narrator of a memoir that I did my own research upon completing the novel.
The Preston Citizen has archives online.  There are many articles concerning the Westover family. For an off-the-grid family, Val and LaRee and their brood show up quite a bit in the newspaper.  Reading the archives shows a much-loved family of Clifton.  Not only does the paper cover some of the Worm Creek Opera House plays (where Tara and her siblings act and serve as stage managers and stage hands) there is also a brief snippet regarding “Shawn’s” fall – it’s a brief statement that seems to make light of the seriousness of his injuries.  (Shawn is Travis Westover.  Audrey is Valaree.  Why Tara changed those two names, I have no idea.  It’s not like it’s hard to figure out.)  You can also read about her father’s run for mayor, her mother’s BOOMING essential oil business, Richard’s mission trip to California, Lucas’s mission to Australia, Tara’s first place victory in a fine arts competition in 2003 and 2002, the duet she sang with her brother, birth announcements, wedding announcements, and so on.  A brief glance at the archives puts me further at odds with the memoir.
The Westover family is also on social media.  There is a picture of Val from Christmas 2009.  I could not see what Tara describes as scarring that makes people look twice.  “Then I would look at him, too, and notice how the skin on his chin was taut and plastic; how his lips lacked natural roundness; how his cheeks sucked inward an angle that was almost skeletal.  His right hand, which he often raised to point at some feature or other, was knotted and twisted…”  There is indeed some scarring, but not as Tara seems to remember.  The picture was taken in 2009.  The description provided by Tara was from 2010 when her parents visited her at Harvard.
The interview with Val and LaRee’s attorney is also telling.  He calls the book “libelous” but continues to say he has not been retained to bring suit.
I know social media lies.  I know that there is plenty that goes on behind closed doors that people would never believe.  I don’t doubt that Tara had a difficult upbringing, based in large part to her parent’s religious beliefs.  I don’t even question that Tara suffered verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her brother or that her family gaslighted her about it.  But I am unsettled because I could drain pasta in this colander of a memoir. 

I said before that memory is tricky – we create, mold, reimagine, and misremember as we see fit.  We do it for a number of reasons.  Self-preservation.  Love.  Justification.  Attention.  To sell books. 

CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE – Tomi Adeyemi

I teach you to be warriors in the garden so you will never be gardeners in the war.” Tomi Adeyemi, Children of Blood and Bone
You’ve read Harry Potter, right? Or at least seen the movies? Do you remember when they began training to fight? Dumbledore’s Army, they called themselves. Led by Harry, Ron, and Hermione, students learned how to defend themselves against the dark arts. They learned how to fight. A war was coming, and they all knew it. Which side of right would they stand on? Which side of justice would they claim as theirs?
Rowling wasn’t the first to train children to fight the injustices of the world, be they real or fictional, and she won’t be the last – child warriors are at the very core of Dystopian literature. This has all been done before. Stanley Kubrick once said: “Everything has already been done. Every story has already been told. Every scene has been shot. It’s our job to do it one better.”
Enter Tomi Adeyemi and THE CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE.
It is quite the remarkable novel, but it is not without its flaws. The love story, half-assed and out of place, was an insult. This was not, nor should it have been, a struggle of the heart. This novel would have been stronger without that pesky Romeo & Juliet story line. Trust me. Inan’s conflict should never have been with Zelie. It was always with himself, sweet Amari, and his father. Always. That story is written on their skin, in their blood.
But that grimace-worthy love aspect was but a hiccup in an otherwise remarkable debut novel. I don’t want to spoil this novel, because this is the type of novel you wish you could read for the first time over and over again. I want you to devour it. Inhale it.
It’s time to put Harry Potter aside and join the magi uprising. This is what we’ve been waiting for.

The Conquest – Yxta Maya Murray

The Conquest was published in 2002.  Despite a love of multi-cultural literature developing in earnest about that time, I had never heard of the novel or its author, Yxta Maya Murray, until I picked the work up at a used bookstore over a year ago.  (Have I mentioned that my TBR pile could easily claim its own room?!?)
Yxta is a law professor at Loyola.  Her first novel was published in 1998.  Her latest, A Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Kidnapped, was published in 2010.  As of today’s date, there are six novels in her canon and it would appear her fiction has been replaced by scholarly pieces on constitutionalism, rape, and violence.  The Conquest was her first foray into historical fiction, but she did not commit 100%.  In all honesty, there is so much about this novel that is deliciously amazing but it’s still not quite there.  Don’t get me wrong – I thoroughly enjoyed the story – but it’s almost like ordering dinner and finding it good but knowing a little more seasoning would send it over the top.
I think I connected to the main character, Sara Rosario Gonzales, because I personally have had to face my own life while hunting for the identity of an author of a dusty manuscript.  (My search for Hannah Crafts was brief but it has marked me for life.)  Sara is a rare book restorer who works at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.  A dusty 16th century manuscript finds its way to her desk to be restored.  The story of an Aztec princess (named Helen by her captors) enslaved and sent to Europe to entertain the likes of the pope and Charles V as a juggler is considered by scholars to be the work of a monk.  Sara is to restore it, but she finds herself made mad by her quest to prove the identity of the woman who penned it.
The manuscript, which Sara has named “The Conquest,” is provided in bursts of passages while Sara’s own love story unfolds.  Truth be told, I don’t like Sara and I don’t care for her love story.  The sections about her and Karl annoyed me as I eagerly awaited more of Helen’s story.  Sara’s hunt to prove The Conquest was written by a woman is at the heart of the novel.  There’s an intensifying suspense as she checks other historical references, using passages from the manuscript as clues to point her in the right direction.  The life of a painter said to be madly in love with the exotic princess.  Does she show in his work?  The written works of others from the Church, written in secret and not for public consumption, did these tales of sex and gluttony reveal the dark-skinned beauty.  Does she find her way into his journals full of food and scandalous affairs?
As Sara’s love life unravels, she resigns herself to the fact that Helen is fictional and indeed the shocking tale of women loving women and made “mad” by poetry, and pirates and obsidian daggers, and juggling spheres that can stop the Pope’s heart is nothing more than fiction penned the monk it has been attributed to by scholars.  Defeated in love and life, she catalogues the work.  She curses the manuscript for having ruined her life as she has lost Karl, seemingly for good.  She contemplates setting the ancient pages ablaze, but she could never hurt a book.  (I understand that sentiment!)  Then, at her lowest of lows, a letter from 1561, a love letter of course, makes it all worth it.

The novel is a love story that crosses ages and time.  It’s Helen moving heaven and earth for her true love, Caterina, and being blinded by her desire for revenge against Cortez.  It’s Sara spending every waking hour trying to breathe life into a manuscript and a woman no one believes existed in her quest to remember her mother.  Yes, this is a love story between Sara and her mother – Karl was an unnecessary distraction and Yxta didn’t flesh out the mother/daughter relationship the way I would have liked, but it’s a love story all the same.  Helen won’t be forgotten.  And neither will Beatrice.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – A Play by Jack Thorne

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Play by: Jack Thorne
Based on on original story by J.K Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne
I intentionally left Rowling out of my title, because Rowling was largely left out of the script.  For something that bills itself as “the eighth story. Nineteen years later,” Harry Potter and the Cursed Child reads more like fan fiction turned play than something crafted entirely by Rowling.  Part of the issue is the fact it is NOT A NOVEL.  I knew that when it was published.  I wasn’t one of the disappointed readers who lost their wands over the play format.  I knew what I was getting into.  What I had suspected but didn’t know for sure until I read the play was that Harry Potter’s world is best viewed with Rowling’s words.  The play is but bones of dialogue that desperately need to be fleshed out (and by Rowling) to fully join the Harry Potter canon.
There I said it.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a controversial topic among Potter-heads, muggle-born, and the magically inclined.  And for good reason – it simply doesn’t fit and it’s lacking in the magic.  Would this review be the same had I seen Noma Dumezweni breathe life into Hermione?  Or if I had witnessed Anthony Boyle in one of the more interesting roles of the play?  I honestly don’t think it would.  Because there are glints of the magic within the script that would shine on stage.  And oh how I want to see it.  Because the magic of the play itself would allow me to move past parts of the plot that don’t mesh with the Hogwarts I love.  
As for the plot, the idea that Albus would decide his mission in life was to save Cedric Diggory seems too much like holding on to the past, but that’s the idea: Harry cannot escape his past and neither can his children.  Speaking of children, I don’t much mind that Voldemort had a child.  The books imply a dark, sexual tension between him and Bellatrix. Delphi, whose name itself foreshadows the prophecies to come, is a curiosity.  How did Potter not sense something dark when he was in the same room with He Who Must Not Be Named’s offspring?  Had he gone soft since the Battle of Hogwarts?  
And who is the cursed child?  There are a few vying for the title.
Harry Potter AKA The Boy Who Lived
    – He is forever scarred by his past and it truly marks everything he does and everyone he loves, Albus included
Albus Severus Potter
   – Named for two great men and the child of the Boy Who Lived, he never asked to be a Potter.  Expectations weigh too heavily on him.  He is lonely.  (I was horribly disappointed in how his siblings failed to assist him – the Weasleys were a lovingly, large family where siblings looked out for each other – why didn’t James, Albus and Lily have that connection?)
Scorpius Malfoy
    – The Son of a Death Eater who is, in many ways, a male version of Hermione.  A lonely boy, he buries his mother early in the script.  He is nothing like Draco, much like Albus is nothing like Harry.
Delphi
   – Daughter of Bellatrix and Voldemort.  Her father was the Dark Lord she’d never meet (without the aid of some dark and rightly banned magic) and her mother was crazy and locked up for eternity.  She was raised by Death Eaters who didn’t care for her.  An orphan, her search for answers and family love & approval mirrors that of Harry’s so many years ago.  My money is on her.  Harry has love.  Albus has love. Scorpius has love.  There is no one to love Delphi.  There is no father to tell her he’s proud.  No mother to appreciate the strength of her talents.  She is truly the cursed one.
Also, what to make of the fact Rowling ended book seven with  “All was well” when things are so very, very, very far from “well” in the Cursed Child.  

Crossposted on The Barking Bitch

Isabel Allende – Maya’s Notebook

Maya’s Notebook

Isabel Allende
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
Originally published in Spanish as El Cuaderno de Maya in Spain in 2011

The English translation of Isabel Allende’s Maya’s Notebook was published in 2013.  Surprisingly, I found it in a bargain bin a year or so ago.  It’s been sitting patiently in my TBR pile since then.  (We do not discuss how quickly that pile is growing.  I’m just excited to finally be back to reading.  Not reading was like forgetting how to be me.)  Some of you know that I have a love of so-called “multicultural” books, and Allende is one of my favorites.  (The House of Spirits, Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia, and My Invented Country in particular.)  Maya’s Notebook is no exception; Allende is a master story-teller and she uses words in such a brilliant way to paint some remarkable characters and settings.

The novel opens in 2009, a week after Maya’s grandmother, Nini, spirited Maya off to Chiloe in Chile.  The novel is in first person, written as a journal from a broken girl whose road to recovery lies in memories – both the good and bad.  The reader quickly learns that Maya has been sent to Chiloe for her own protection.  Why she needs protection isn’t so readily revealed as Allende, through Maya’s journal entries, crosses spaces of time and countries seamlessly keeping the reader engaged in the 19 year old’s story without giving an abundance of backstory at a pop.  What starts as a very self-absorbed tale of a 19 year old, albeit a scarred one, quickly becomes the story of a country, of a people, and of a family that cannot be bound by words.  As Maya becomes more comfortable with herself and her surroundings, the entries include more details of her past.

Allende takes us from the privileged streets of Berkeley, to a beautiful rehabilitation center in Oregon where Maya is tasked with caring for vicunas.  “…two slender animals with upright ears and the flirtatious eyelashes of a bride.”  Maya stays with the program out of concern for the animals:  “I had to postpone my escape: the vicunas needed me.”  From Oregon, Maya is taken on a hitch-hiking ride to hell with a trucker from Tennessee who says grace over breakfast after drugging and raping her, using his penis and the barrel of a gun to exert his dominance.  The rape is her fare, or so she learns.  This passage in particular is hard to stomach.  The passage left my stomach in knots and a tightness settled in my jaw when reading it.  As for Maya, it took many an entry into her journal and a lot of time in Chiloe to heal, before she could reveal the heartbreaking journey that left her in the care of Brandon Leeman, a hardened drug dealer, and his cohorts in Vegas.  In Sin City, Maya spiraled out of control.  By the time she realized what she’d become, she’d found it too late and too embarrassing to call her Nini for rescue.  When her criminal benefactor is murdered by his own men, Maya’s life of luxury is gone.  Running for her life and quickly withdrawing from the ample substances he’d gotten her hooked on, Maya turns to prostitution.  But Leeman’s criminal dealings and Maya’s involvement in and knowledge of them have made the streets of Vegas deadly; Maya wasn’t just another addict, she was the key to a fortune.  In time, the reader learns that Maya was sent to Chiloe because of Leeman’s murder, dirty cops, and a storage facility with half a million dollars that only she knows the location of.  Thanks to the heart of gold druggie, Freddy, and the Widows for Jesus, she is saved.  Nini and Mike O’Kelly make the drive from California to take Maya back to rehab.  She tells them of the storage unit.  Mike and Nini are comically involved in a group called the Club of Criminals – this comes into play as they use their knowledge to plot Maya’s escape from the States and to destroy the money and the counterfeiting plates found in the storage unit.

Those are the events that led Maya to Chiloe, and while their action may drive the novel, the pace of the Chiloen sections, the descriptions of the people and their own skeletons (child abuse, incest, the scars of the Pinochet dictatorship and the interrogations and disappearances that marked the ’70s) give the story life. Maya learns why her grandmother was forced to leave Chile, what happened to Nini’s first husband, and why the stranger in Chiloe, who hasn’t seen her Nini in decades, was so willing to take her in like a stray dog.  Maya learns who she is.

Interesting note for me: dogs are featured pretty heavily in this novel.  From Daisy, the tiny pup Maya had as a little girl whose memory helps Maya get over her first heartbreak, to the dogs trained by Susan, her father’s wife, to the purebred dogs signaling social class to Fahkeen, the stray described as “a cross between German shepherd and a fox terrier” who appears on page 15 and becomes a much-adored pet who saves her life.  It’s interesting what Allende does with animals in this novel – particularly the dogs.

Maya’s Notebook is a Bildungsroman, and Maya’s journey is as painful as it is beautiful.  I can’t recommend Allende or this novel enough, but I will say that some passages and descriptions may be too intense for some readers.  Happy reading!  You’ll fall in love with Chiloe almost as quickly as Fahkeen fell in love with Maya.


**Cross-posted on The Barking Bitch!

The Mime Order – Samantha Shannon

Back in October, I reviewed Samantha Shannon’s first published novel and the first in a proposed seven book series.  You may remember that I was head-over heals in love with both the story and the writer.  (Literary crush and all that jazz with a touch of jealousy.)  The Bone Season was brilliant – I have not changed my mind.  And Shannon can spin one hell of a yarn. 

I am always wary of sophomore attempts, especially in series, and I can be quite harsh in my reviews of them.  Contracts, agents, demanding publishing companies, etc. can all work together to push a work out before its time, so I was a little worried about The Mime Order.  My concerns didn’t stop me, however, from placing my order and eagerly awaiting the mailman to drop that large hardback with its red cover in my paws.

It was beautiful.  Heavy.  Stunning cover.  Smelled of a fresh printing.  I couldn’t wait to open it up and through myself head and heart first back in Scion.  But life and work got in the way until that gorgeous book was collecting dust on my nightstand.  A few months ago, I dusted it off and snuggled up to it, pulling a near all-nighter.  I have no regrets.

The Mime Order is just as beautifully crafted, though grittier/uglier, as The Bone Season.  Paige continues to grow as an independent woman who literally battles her demons. She spends much of the novel covered in blood and/or bruises, but shows herself to be extremely resourceful and one badass woman.  (Can Ronda Rousey play her in the movie, please?!?)

The love connection with the Warden (yes, he’s BACK!!!) and Nick’s relationship can seem a bit off-putting, especially when juxtaposed to “to the death” fight scenes, but that’s part of what makes this fantastical novel relatable.  Life doesn’t stop or hit pause for love – you squeeze in it when and where you can.

Much like The Bone Season‘s review, I don’t want to say too much because this book is simply too delicious to spoil.

I received an advanced reader’s edition of When the Moon is Low by Nadia Hashimi through The Reading Room.  (Yay! Books!)  With my background in multicultural literature, I was thrilled to get this story set in Kabul by an Afghan American.  This was a story that wanted to be told and a story I wanted to read.

On a whole, Hashimi attempts too much.  She can’t seem to decide if the story is, as billed on the blurb, the story of Fereiba who flees her home with her three children after the rise of the Taliban, or the story of Fereiba’s eldest, who owns a story of survival separate from that of his mother.  Each story is valid, vivid and strong.  Yet, by telling Saleem’s story, she’s done Fereiba a disservice and vice versa.  Don’t get me wrong – Hashimi is a very talented writer – but this novel has an identity crisis — She cannot do both.

Fereiba’s story is much more compelling than Saleem’s I eagerly found myself awaiting her voice to return in Part Two of the novel.  Where did the woman who taught classes in secret until the families no longer sent the girls go?  What happened to a voice that was loud, clear and full of survival?  In Part Two, Fereiba is rendered mute just as effectively as Samira.  Hashimi went to great lengths to paint Fereiba in the vibrant colors of strength, courage, love and grace.  Then, as Saleem rose to manhood, her colors dulled, her ability to think for herself vanished, and she became a shell of the woman I’d so come to admire in Part One.  I wanted to see her journey.  Though it was less treacherous due to the travel documents, the journey was difficult both physically and emotionally – I wanted to know how this STRONG woman handled it.  Hashimi seems to gloss over this with a brush her hand, clearly favoring the seemingly more drama-packed story of Saleem.

Saleem’s story is a classic Bildungsroman with a multicultural slant.  While his section is interesting, it annoyed me because his mother’s journey, with her children, was nearly entirely abandoned for nearly every (if not all) horrible thing a migrant/refugee could possibly face on his journey.  The human trafficking section was like being hit over the head and told “this is wrong.”  Show me.  Don’t tell me.  Just a hint of the horrors Mimi faced and how she wound up working the streets would have proven more effective.  In the same vein, the drug trafficking seemed an afterthought and a poorly developed one at that.  Again, just hinting that Saleem was transporting drugs would have been enough, though, quite frankly, the section does not carry the novel forward in anyway other than physically getting him closer to his destination.  Mimi at least served as a little more; she represents the moment he “became a man.”

By the end of the novel, I didn’t care if Saleem made it across the channel to rejoin his family.  I was frustrated that the book was over and Fereiba, the woman I’d grown to love in a brief one hundred or so pages, never returned with the same heart that beat on first half of the book.