I Am the Messenger

I Am the Messenger

Cover image for I Am the Messenger
Cover image for I Am the Messenger

I put a lot of effort into liking this book. The Book Thief is one of my favorite books, so I fully expected to be blown away by this other novel by the same author.

“Ed Kennedy is an underage cabdriver without much of a future. He’s pathetic at playing cards, hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey, and utterly devoted to his coffee-drinking dog, the Doorman. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery.
That’s when the first ace arrives in the mail. That’s when Ed becomes the messenger. Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary) until only one question remains: Who’s behind Ed’s mission?” —Indiebound.org

Have you ever had that reading experience that sort of feels like you’re out of your body? Your eyes are reading the text, and your brain recognizes that you should be connecting to the text and feeling things, but your heart just isn’t there? That’s how this book was for me. I’m not sure if it’s because I had trouble relating to Ed, the deliberate vagueness of the location (which annoyed me to an unreasonable degree), or if the events just weren’t written in a way that gripped me, but I finished this book very reluctantly.

Ed Kennedy is a character that really wishes he were cute and dimensional but is sort of flat and empty. He’s not nearly as amusing as he thinks he is, and even in his moments of introspection, connecting with him is difficult. None of the other characters were really interesting, either. In fact, the only one I felt anything for was a minor character somewhere in the middle who only lasted for a few pages.

The vagueness of the location frustrated me, too. I finally caught on that it was supposed to be Australia, but only because that’s where the author is from. The thing that gave it away was that Christmas happens in the middle of the summer, which was interesting to read about. As for specifics, he just refers to “the city” and “town.” We never get to know anything past that. I do not understand an author’s purpose for doing this, and it irritates me every time I encounter it in a novel. It feels like a glaring omission and makes the text feel dishonest. Is this irrational? Probably. But we can’t help what we like and don’t like.

The plot was odd, too. This go-nowhere kid gets playing cards with missions attached to them. He has to essentially be the guardian angel for the people who are the object of his mission. Sometimes this involves tough love and sometimes it’s an easy fix. What I didn’t understand is why this mysterious person giving him these missions–which are benevolent in nature–would use scare tactics and violence to force Ed to act. It’s incongruous with the nature of the endeavor, and it didn’t give me nearly as much of a warm, fuzzy feeling as if the unseen hand had found less malevolent ways to coerce Ed to do its will. Perhaps Zusak thought the fear and violence would add suspense to the novel, but it didn’t really work for this reader. And the end, though I know it was going for uniqueness and shock value, just felt like a cop-out. I was not impressed.

I know that several people have said they loved this book. I really, really wanted to love it too, but I didn’t. It was painful to read and difficult to finish. I’m going to recommend that, if you’ve never read Zusak, you read The Book Thief (and let it change your life) and just give this one a pass.

A Madness So Discreet

A Madness So Discreet

Cover image for A Madness So Discreet
Cover image for A Madness So Discreet

Where has this book been?! The title seems familiar to me, but I cannot remember if it received any hype, or if I just remember seeing it hit the shelves and fizzle. It deserves more hype than it got, in my opinion, but these days it seems only paranormal romance and fantasy books get any hype at all. In any case, I tore through this one–couldn’t put it down.

“Grace Mae is already familiar with madness when family secrets and the bulge in her belly send her to an insane asylum, but it is in the darkness that she finds a new lease on life. When a visiting doctor interested in criminal psychology recognizes Grace’s brilliant mind beneath her rage, he recruits her as his assistant. Continuing to operate under the cloak of madness at crime scenes allows her to gather clues from bystanders who believe her less than human. Now comfortable in an ethical asylum, Grace finds friends and hope. But gruesome nights bring Grace and the doctor into the circle of a killer who will bring her shaky sanity and the demons in her past dangerously close to the surface.” —Indiebound.org

First, this novel is dark. Really dark. Especially in the beginning. We all know that insane asylums in the 1800s were not happy places to be, and that inconvenient people, especially women, could be remanded to their custody for anything from a fainting spell to infidelity. I assume that this author, having done her research well, did not invent any of the “treatments” inflicted upon our protagonist, Grace. To read the beginning of this novel felt a bit like rubbernecking–you know you shouldn’t look, but you can’t look away.

Grace struggles with the abuse she suffered, first at the hands of her family, and then at the hands of the people who are supposed to rehabilitate her (for an illness she doesn’t have). She is a powerful character with a hold on her emotions that borders on too strong. When she is removed from the clutches of the asylum, the reader hopes that perhaps her life will become a little lighter and brighter. In a way this is true, but in others, those rosy dreams can never be. Her life has already contained too much trauma to leave her completely happy. However, in her new life, she at least has purpose and friends, and the reader can’t help but enjoy her turn in fortune.

For cast of characters, this novel wins a lot of points. From the quirky voice who accompanies her in the dark at the asylum, to the doctor who rescues her, to her irrepressible half-mad friends, to the looming, terrible presence of this novel’s villains, each character is well-formed and wholly believable.

I also really enjoyed this novel for the sheer pleasure of reading about a subject I’d never encountered before. Asylums of this period hold a lot of interest simply for the bizarre way people approached psychology at this point–all the weird pseudoscience swirling around. It’s doubly interesting because it also explores the new fields of criminal psychology and, to a certain degree, forensics. I’ve only read one book about the actual history of early murder (especially serial murder) investigations, and the bumbling about of early investigators and stumped police would be amusing if it weren’t life or death for the people involved.

To wrap this up, this is a great novel. I’d recommend it to any fans of historical fiction, great female characters, and dark, twisted stories in which you’re not sure what’s right and wrong. It’s been out for a few years, and it definitely deserves more attention than it got.

The Nightingale (And Why It Matters)

The Nightingale (And Why It Matters)

The Nightingale
The Nightingale

I have never been a tremendous fan of Kristin Hannah. Before this, I never felt that her novels had much substance. They are frilly chick-lit with very little real value. The Nightingale, however, took my breath away. It is an incredible novel with a lot to say, and it highlights several parts of history that I feel deserve more attention than they have received in the past.

“In love we find out who we want to be.
In war we find out who we are.

FRANCE, 1939

In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gaetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

With courage, grace and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of WWII and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.” –Indiebound

On the surface, this is just a historical fiction novel about two sisters.  It’s not really even about the two sisters together or their relationship. Much of the novel follows both of them separately, except in the few places where their paths overlap. Set in France, it has a natural appeal for me because France is one of my favorite places in the world. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels that way. There are so many depths and layers to the story once you delve deeper into the book. I am really pleased with Hannah for making this novel more than just another empty piece of chick-lit.

Several things set this novel apart for me. The first is that the goal of the novel is a lofty and noble one. Both of the women in the novel recognize the horror of what is happening around them. Rather than choosing the safer path of compliance, as many women understandably chose when their men were gone and their homes were invaded, both of these women live dangerous double lives in order to defend their homeland. They rely on their wits and act in the face of overwhelming danger. They stare their fear in the face and they continue onward in spite of it. Their level of courage is hard to match and it made for a really great story.

What I think is most important and enjoyable about this novel, though, is that this story is not entirely fiction. I do not know if Hannah based her story on any one person in history, but I do know that there were people in France doing exactly what these sisters were doing. One historical figure I read about reminded me so much of Vianne that I thought surely Hannah was inspired by the real woman’s story. The uncommon courage that people found within themselves during this very difficult time is inspiring.

What’s more, it changed my perception of the area and its people during the war. Growing up in the United States, we are taught, in both school and at home, that the United States were the big heroes and we saved Europe from Hitler. That might be one way of looking at it, but reading this kind of novel is important because it makes one realize just how difficult it was for the people under Hitler’s thumb to survive, let alone resist. Though my worldview has expanded drastically since I was a child in history class, I still sometimes sense those lingering prejudices and biases. Reading this novel and others (The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is another that will alter your perceptions of people in Nazi-occupied Europe) helps to combat some of that conditioning.

Here are a few things that I already suspected, but which this novel really helped to drive home for me:

-The people of France, or anywhere else in the Axis-occupied territories, were not cowards, and they didn’t just sit around waiting to be rescued. Hitler was not recognized for the threat that he was until it was too late, and he seized his power by degrees. In hindsight, it is easy to recognize his evil, but no one truly knew or believed how bad it would eventually get. And still, people were resisting his influence from the beginning of his power.

-Not all Nazis were evil. Just because they wore the armband and followed orders doesn’t mean all of them truly subscribed to the message. Many of them resisted in any way they could while still doing the minimum necessary to protect themselves and their families.

-Women played a vital role in the war. Many didn’t wear uniforms; they didn’t fire guns; they didn’t die in trenches. But they did more than “keep the home fires burning.” They protected children. They hid those people wanted by the Nazis. They smuggled fallen pilots out of Nazi territory and kept them from being murdered or made prisoners. They risked their lives to subvert the Nazis in countless ways, and it is a relief to see some of those stories being told at last.

This is a powerful, emotional novel that packs a lot of message in just a few hundred pages. It is beautiful, it is deep, and I believe it is an important work of historical fiction–one of those that reminds us that there are many tales to be told, even when we think we’ve heard them all.

Two Books Read Simultaneously (Because One Scared Me And I Couldn’t Read It After Dark)

Two Books Read Simultaneously (Because One Scared Me And I Couldn’t Read It After Dark)

I have mentioned in a previous post that I am very suggestible. Even the hint of something scary is enough to set my mind whirring into all sorts of horrifying possibilities. So when I tried to read Night Film by Marisha Pessl, I was spooked pretty much constantly.

Night Film
Night Film

“On a damp October night, beautiful young Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Though her death is ruled a suicide, veteran investigative journalist Scott McGrath suspects otherwise. As he probes the strange circumstances surrounding Ashley’s life and death, McGrath comes face-to-face with the legacy of her father: the legendary, reclusive cult-horror-film director Stanislas Cordova—a man who hasn’t been seen in public for more than thirty years. For McGrath, another death connected to this seemingly cursed family dynasty seems more than just a coincidence. Though much has been written about Cordova’s dark and unsettling films, very little is known about the man himself. Driven by revenge, curiosity, and a need for the truth, McGrath, with the aid of two strangers, is drawn deeper and deeper into Cordova’s eerie, hypnotic world. The last time he got close to exposing the director, McGrath lost his marriage and his career. This time, he might lose even more. Night Film, the gorgeously written, spellbinding new novel by the dazzlingly inventive Marisha Pessl, will hold you in suspense until you turn the final page.”–Indiebound

This book is supposedly a thriller, but I would argue it’s slightly scarier than that, although what do I know about true horror? I can’t read it. Books like this are difficult to talk about without giving too much away, so I will just say a few things about it. First, I liked the characters a lot, especially McGrath’s two “sidekicks.” Each main character, even the deceased girl, Ashley, is nuanced and detailed in a way that few authors achieve without seeming to show significant effort. McGrath, though unlikable, is an excellent, flawed protagonist whose mission to prove himself ends up driving the story. My only complaint is that he is not tremendously believable as a father.

There are almost two endings to this story, and I enjoyed that immensely. You’ll see what I mean when you read it.

And again, this book scared the daylights out of me. I could only read it during the day. It’s so spooky, and it hints at some really dark and even perhaps demonic dealings that go on in shadowy locations around New York. There are also pictures in this novel, so you never know when you’ll turn a page and come face to face with something weird and startling. Because of this, I had to have something to read that was definitely less scary, and less adult:

Deep Blue
Deep Blue

“Deep in the ocean, in a world not so different from our own, live the merpeople. Their communities are spread throughout the oceans, seas, and freshwaters all over the globe. When Serafina, a mermaid of the Mediterranean Sea, awakens on the morning of her betrothal, her biggest worry should be winning the love of handsome Prince Mahdi. And yet Sera finds herself haunted by strange dreams that foretell the return of an ancient evil. Her dark premonitions are confirmed when an assassin’s arrow poisons Sera’s mother. Now, Serafina must embark on a quest to find the assassin’s master and prevent a war between the Mer nations. Led only by her shadowy dreams, Sera searches for five other mermaid heroines who are scattered across the six seas. Together, they will form an unbreakable bond of sisterhood and uncover a conspiracy that threatens their world’s very existence.”–Indiebound

All I really want to say about this book (so I can forget about it quickly) is that it is stupid. The plot is stupid, the characters are stupid, and the world-building is stupid. The stupid “mermaidisms” drove me insane (example: their money is called “currensea.” Stop.)!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The lines between the world we know and the fantasy world where mermaids exist are not well-blended, and it comes off rushed and sloppy. This book is about at the quality level of a made-for-TV movie. I’m not interested in the rest of the series. I’m totally disappointed because I think there is a lack of good mermaid literature in the book world, and I was hoping this would make up some ground. It didn’t. Even for children’s level reading, it was bad.

The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist
The Miniaturist

I spent a few weeks in YA-land in November, so I read The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton to escape from that trap. Sometimes it is hard to leave YA-land.

“On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her splendid new home is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant and leaves Nella alone with his sister, the fearsome Marin.

Nella’s life unexpectedly changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish it, she engages the services of a miniaturist–an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie ways.

Johannes’s gift helps Nella pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand and fear the escalating dangers around them. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation…or the architect of their destruction?” Indiebound

Overall impression: I really liked this book. It was skillfully written, with beautiful scene-setting and elegant character-building. Nella is a complicated protagonist, and one cannot help but sympathize with her as she tells her story. She is a girl for whom options are incredibly limited, so she does what people expect her to do and marries a man of means. This action comes with a certain set of expectations for her, but she soon realizes that nothing in the Brandt house is as it seems, and nothing goes as expected. Though things are difficult for her at first, she finds a way to cope, thrive, and love her new home. The reader cannot help but admire her for her wherewithal and yet pity her for her limited circumstances.

17th Century Amsterdam is a fascinating and someone dangerous place. I read a lot of historical fiction set in Britain, so it was nice to get away from that and read something historical from the point of view of a different culture. Nella finds life in the city of canals very different from the country town in which she grew up, and as she explores its culture, streets, and customs, so do the readers.

The most intriguing element of Amsterdam in this story, however, is one mysterious house where no one ever answers the door to Nella’s knock, marked by a strange symbol. Sometimes curtains move in an upstairs window. Somehow, despite this, the miniature figurines she desires are delivered to her regardless of her putting in her order or not. The reader and Nella both wonder and eventually obsesses about the Miniaturist. Who is it? Does he have special powers? Can he see the future, or does he imbue his figurines with the ability to change as Nella’s story changes? Nella must face and seek to answer these questions at the same time that she must adjust to the very normal changes faced by women without many choices and the very real dangers faced by a prominent household in times of turmoil dominated by faith.

This is a book that is slightly under-hyped in my opinion and could get lost in the shuffle of all the over-hyped books being released every Tuesday. I highly recommend this unique and interesting novel for fans of historical fiction and magical realism.

The World of Leigh Bardugo

The World of Leigh Bardugo

9781250027436

I read Shadow & Bone several weeks ago because I had a special $1.99 e-book deal on it come to my email. I had heard good things about it and wanted to read it anyway, but hadn’t given it a very high priority.

Holy. Shit.

Shadow & Bone is one of those books that reminded me why I continue to read YA books well into my adulthood. Leigh Bardugo is brilliant. In a genre heavily inundated with fantasy stories based on Celtic mythology and vampires, this author has constructed a world that is entirely new. With its strong themes of eastern-European nomenclature and mythology, yet possessing its own unique twists, I’ve never read a story like Shadow & Bone.

“Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.

Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life–a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.

Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha . . . and the secrets of her heart.” –Indiebound

This book has everything you love about a YA novel. Danger, romance, a powerful female trying to find her own way separate from the men who would influence her. Darkness. Creepy creatures. Tragedy. Heartbreak. Betrayal. Nothing about this novel is predictable or boring. It kept me engaged from start to finish. When I finished this one, I had to read the rest of the series, too.

97812500444339781250063168

The rest of the series was very strong, too. At the risk of giving away what happened in novel one, I won’t give synopses for two and three. Be satisfied knowing that I simply devoured this series and was completely obsessed. In fact, I wasn’t happy when it ended, and bought all of the short stories and novellas associated with the world in these novels.

1799735317790188

1364316320818790

I love this series. I love everything about it. The plot. The characters. The setting. The darkness. The suspense. The intensity. The fearlessness of Bardugo’s writing. I highly recommend all of these novels. It never slows down. From start to finish, it is beautiful and intense, and I believe you will love it as much as I did.

Dark Places

Dark Places

Enter if you dare
Enter if you dare

There are a lot of people who like Gillian Flynn. I have tried, but I am not one of them. I read Dark Places on my way here to Peru and found that I was so deeply disturbed it messed me up a little bit when I got here.

“Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas. She survived and famously testified that her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, the Kill Club–a secret society obsessed with notorious crimes–locates Libby and pumps her for details. They hope to discover proof that may free Ben. Libby hopes to turn a profit off her tragic history: She’ll reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings to the club for a fee. As Libby’s search takes her from shabby Missouri strip clubs to abandoned Oklahoma tourist towns, the unimaginable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself right back where she started–on the run from a killer.”Indiebound

There are several people I’ve spoken to who think this is Flynn’s best novel. Published before Gone Girl, there was apparently even a flop of a movie made, also. It does have all the elements of a twisted thriller designed to be devoured by readers. It is engrossing and suspenseful. It has a character at the end of her rope, despicably unlikeable, which for some reason makes her story that much more engaging. Can she redeem herself, or was her whole existence ruined when she was seven years old? It’s got gore, and some truly disturbing scenes, and if that is your thing, then it is masterfully written, and you should read it. You would probably enjoy it.

I am able to admit that I recognize how well this novel is written. Flynn is a talented storyteller, and she is not shy in her explorations of the more twisted pathways of the human psyche. Her character is manipulative and useless and fits into her story perfectly. The mystery itself, while incredibly disturbing and brutal, is suspenseful enough to keep even the most disgusted reader (me) reading until the very last page.

If dark, gory thrillers are your jam, then please read this book. You will like it. It will keep you reading long into the night.