Books: Assassin’s Apprentice

77197Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
Published March 1, 1996
star-3-half
It’s easy to see why Robin Hobb has remained such a popular writer more than two decades after her debut. Published in 1996, Assassin’s Apprentice features a clear and sophisticated writing style, a sympathetic protagonist who just can’t catch a break, and a number of enigmatic and engaging secondary characters. The problem is that it’s also very much the first book in a series. Does Assassin’s Apprentice lay the groundwork for more dramatic and larger scale challenges to be faced in future books? Absolutely. Does it stand on its own as a compelling novel? Arguably not.

For one thing, it is the very definition of leisurely-paced. Although I was never bored, Assassin’s Apprentice only got its hooks into me late in the narrative. It’s the sort of book I enjoyed a lot while I was reading it, but not one that I had trouble putting down. This is largely because years pass before anything significant really happens. Fitz is a likable enough protagonist that I didn’t mind spending time with him and the hounds, but if I’d been offered the montage or fast-forward version of his childhood, I definitely would have taken it.

It’s also a surprisingly quiet fantasy novel. There’s nothing inherently wrong with quiet sci-fi and fantasy – Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven are all-time favourites of mine – but when the plot moves slowly there has to be something else there to hold interest. Assassin’s Apprentice is well-written, but it doesn’t have the lyrical, haunting prose of Station Eleven, and while Hobb’s debut is populated by interesting enough characters, they and their relationships don’t have the depth I would expect from a character-driven piece.

Often fantasy debuts will info-dump their world-building, eager to show-off everything they’ve planned out. Hobb actually goes too far in the opposite direction for my tastes. The initial impression is of a fairly generic medieval-ish kingdom set apart from any number of other high fantasy worlds only in its custom of naming royal babies after the quality they hope the child will embody (Chivalry, Shrewd, Patience) and in its two kinds of magic – the Wit and the Skill. More is revealed as the narrative unfolds, but it’s definitely a slow burn. Hobb plays her cards close to her chest, which in this case means saving additional details about the structure and politics of her world for future books.

This sounds very negative, and while the book may not have quite lived up to my sky-high expectations, I want to stress that I genuinely enjoyed reading it and have every intention of continuing the series later this year. So let’s talk about what worked for me.

First of all, Fitz. The first-person perspective, even of a man looking back on his childhood, is limiting in some ways (for example the reader hears about a lot of the action rather than experiencing it because Fitz is a child and not always on the frontlines) but it also allows us to empathize with Fitz and the immense loneliness he feels. I found myself more forgiving of Fitz’s flaws and misunderstandings because he is such a young character. It’s hard not to like a character who is so in tune with animals, and I rooted for Fitz throughout.

In general the character work is strong. Drawing on fantasy archetypes, Hobb creates a supporting cast of characters who are multi-faceted, enigmatic, and engaging. I loved reading about Fitz’ complicated relationships with the Fool, Burrich, Chade, and Verity.

I’m also a huge fan of political machinations in my sci-fi and fantasy, so that aspect of Assassin’s Apprentice really appealed to me. It took a long time to get there, but I found the climax of the novel incredibly readable because I cared so much about everyone involved.

Assassin’s Apprentice is a solid effort that undoubtedly sets the stage for later events. Robin Hobb may not have blown me away with her first work, but I’m definitely invested and look forward to seeing where Fitz’s story goes in later volumes.

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January Wrap-Up

We’re not off to a great start 2019! After a lackluster 2018, I was really hoping to start the year off with a couple of five star reads. Alas, it was not to be.

I’m realizing that as much as I love reading, I have trouble doing it consistently or with enthusiasm when I’m stressed/tired due to external factors, and/or when the weather has me down. As someone who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder, I’m impressed that I’ve accomplished as much as I have lately (working full-time hours but sometimes spread over six days in a customer service focused position and not having two days free together all month). The downside is that even though I have all these amazing books to read, I don’t feel like I have the energy or focus to devote to them right now. I’m hoping to find a healthier balance (or at least more engaging books!) in February.

A few bright points:

1. Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy books are as delightful to read for a second time as they were the first time around and the peak January weather we’ve been having has definitely made them the perfect choice this winter.

2, My favourite non-re-read of the month was actually a work of non-fiction! I read VERY little non-fiction, but the combination of birds and British history was pretty much irresistible and I really enjoyed reading this biography of Yeoman Warder Chris Skaife and his special relationship with the ravens of the Tower of London.

3. Although my other reads were on the meh side of things, in one case competent but not provoking any lasting emotional response and in the other light and fun but also predictable and lacking depth, there was nothing I hated reading this month.

The Wildlands by Abby Geni  small 3 half stars + Review
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (re-read)  Reviewed in 2017
The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden (re-read)  Reviewed in 2018
The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife  small 4 stars + Review
Slayer by Kiersten White  small 2 half stars + Review

Book(s) of the Month: Honestly, re-reading Katherine Arden’s first two Winternight Trilogy books in anticipation of The Winter of the Witch was the highlight of my month. I love Vasya and the development of the characters as well as the rich mythology Arden draws upon. These are the perfect read to make it through the snowy, windchill-filled Hell that is January.

Least Favourite: I was disappointed by Kiersten White’s Slayer. One of my favourite YA authors, responsible for writing complicated, three-dimensional, flawed young male and female characters (in her Conquerors’ Saga) taking on slayer mythology? I’ve wanted to read this since it was first announced and, as a massive Buffy fan, this should have been a slam dunk. Instead I was underwhelmed by just about every aspect of this story. There’s enough potential here that I’ll probably pick up the next entry in the series at some point, but it won’t be a priority.

***

A highlight of my month personally was attending the Ontario Library Association Super Conference for the first time! The annual event is Canada’s largest continuing education event in librarianship, but it does focus largely on public and academic librarianship. As a Research Librarian who had worked mostly in financial institutions, I didn’t feel like there was enough programming offered to justify going on my own dime and, to be perfectly candid, many corporate libraries (at least in my experience) don’t bother investing in their employees’ professional development.

I was so thrilled to have the opportunity to attend the conference and soak up the knowledge from more seasoned information professionals, including an eye-opening and thoughtful panel by Ryan Dowd on homelessness in the library. I immediately placed a hold on his book after the session finished and I know that I’ll be using his techniques for years to come. It was also really inspiring to hear about how one library system was breaking down boundaries by going out into the community to engage seniors through VR technology and connecting incarcerated men with their children on the outside through the opportunity to record themselves reading a bedtime story.

I’ll admit it, attending the expo and getting to chat with publishers and vendors was a bit of a thrill. I scored a couple of ARCs for books I really wanted to read (including Charlie Jane Anders’ The City in the Middle of the Night, which I’m reading now), and added a few new titles to my TBR!

It’s been a very tiring month, but certainly a productive one!

***

Coming up in February: Rachel and I finally started our buddy read of Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice! I found it a bit of a slow starter at first, but I also didn’t have as much time or energy to devote to it as I had hoped. I did end up enjoying the book and I suspect I’ll love the rest of the series. I’m also reading The Winter of the Witch and it is every bit as good as I’d heard! February has been packed so far work-wise, so I’m trying not to over-commit with a firm reading list for the month and to do more mood reading. I’m going to try and be more on top of my blogging (and especially reviewing) this year as well.

What was the best book you read this month?

Books: The Ravenmaster

37877606The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London by Christopher Skaife
Published October 2, 2018
star-4
One of my bookish resolutions this year was to read more non-fiction and what better place to start than with a book that lies at the intersection of two of my interests: English history and birds. The Ravenmaster was the rare biography that I not only wanted to read, but eagerly placed on hold at the library. Fortunately it lived up to its promise. Yeoman Warder Christopher Skaife’s passion for his job and the ravens in his care shines through in this conversational and engaging book, aptly subtitled ‘My life with the ravens at the tower of London’.

An old legend states that should the ravens from the Tower of London ever leave, the Crown will fall and Britain with it, so the first thing Yeoman Warder Chris Skaife does every morning is make sure the ravens are still there. Like all Yeoman Warders (less formally known as Beefeaters), Skaife is a retired member of the Armed Forces and now lives at the Tower of London in a largely ceremonial role that involves giving guided tours for the public. His autobiography discusses his previous life in the army and daily life at the Tower, but the focus is on his added duties as the Ravenmaster. Skaife states at the beginning that he is not a trained scientist or ornithologist, just someone who has worked a lot with ravens and therefore knows a great deal about them. In The Ravenmaster, he takes us through the process of ensuring that the Tower’s seven corvids remain happy and healthy, from preparing their meals of raw meat and dog biscuits soaked in blood to the bedtime routine of ensuring that each raven pair is returned to their nighttime cage in the correct order (no mean feat because the Tower’s ravens are flighted!).

Skaife takes a conversational approach to his autobiography that immediately put me at ease. The casual nature of his narration means that this isn’t a book you read for the prose, but Skaife is an affable presence and his passion for both the Tower and his job are infectious. While I thought the book could have used a final round of edits (I really didn’t need the Latin named list of every place in the world ravens call home, or the full list of places named after ravens for example), part of The Ravenmaster‘s charm is that Yeoman Warder Skaife has put so much of himself into the book. I suspect that if I ever met the author, I would already feel like I know him because his sense of humour, work ethic, and chatty, affable style are all on display in The Ravenmaster.

Of course the highlight of the book is the ravens themselves. No bird lover will be surprised to learn that each of the Tower’s feathered residents has its own personality: free-spirited loner Merlina, clever frenemy Munin, knight in shining feathers Jubilee, boisterous bully Erin, her softy partner Rocky, small and shy Gripp, and juvenile Harris. I loved reading about these intelligent creatures and their antics, from Merlina’s ability to spot a Pringles can from far away and claim it as her own to Munin’s great escape from the Tower. Of course Skaife has his favourites. His relationship with Merlina, who will even let him ruffle her feathers, is particularly touching, and readers who want to know more are encouraged to check out the author’s instagram account, where Merlina is a frequent guest star.

Like good biographies and autobiographies should be, The Ravenmaster is personal, informative, and yet entertaining. This is a quick and enjoyable read sure to convert even the most reluctant non-fiction reader.

Books: Slayer

34723130Slayer by Kiersten White
Published January 8, 2019
star-2-half
I belong to a small subset of older millennials who grew up on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy was the first non-animated show that I asked my parents if I could watch, the first fandom for which I read fanfiction, and the first show that had me scrolling through reaction message boards and peeking at spoilers. I was twelve when I started watching Buffy, beginning with season three and backtracking over the summer to catch up on what I’d missed, so this show, more than any other, has had a profound influence on me. I say this so you can understand the depth of my feelings for the Buffyverse. As both a Buffy fanatic and someone who adored Kiersten White’s Conquerors’ Saga, Slayer should have been Christmas and my birthday and an all-inclusive vacation all rolled up into one shiny book-shaped package. Instead it was an underwhelming and, quite frankly, unnecessary read.

As far as I’m concerned, the most important part of any property set in the Buffyverse should be the characters. The realistic pop-culture filled dialogue, the paralleling of teenage problems that feel like the end of the world when you’re living them to dealing with the actual end of the world, and the depth of the relationships (be they parental, sibling, platonic, or romantic) have always been at the heart of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s the multi-faceted, flawed, but trying their best characters who ground a show about high-school/college students fighting evil. I had high hopes that White’s take would give us a slayer for a new generation. Perhaps she would disrupt the problematic white feminism of the original show by giving us a Black slayer dealing with race relations in America, an undocumented or refugee slayer making the world safer even as it underestimates her. How about a Gen Z slayer frustrated with the world she’s been left and dealing with the consequences of instability and working multiple jobs while slaying and being called lazy by boomers? Instead we get Nina, a timid redheaded twin with abandonment issues.

I wanted to warm to Nina, but she’s such an internal, self-doubting character that I had trouble connecting with her. The supporting characters felt similarly under-developed, including the obligatory YA love interest, Nina’s protective, stronger, better faster twin sister Artemis, and never going to win parent-of-the-year mother, Helen. I liked what little we got of Rhys, but Nina spends so much of her time keeping secrets from those she loves that we never get to see her bond with her friends and I had trouble differentiating between the supporting characters. I felt so strongly about all of White’s characters in the Conquerors’ Saga that I expected more from the author when it came to crafting a new chapter in buffyverse mythology.

Although initially jarring, I did like Slayer presents the Watchers’ side of the story. While the show, and spin-off comics, have generally followed Buffy Summers herself, Slayer takes us inside what’s left of the Watchers’ Council (after their headquarters exploded in season seven of the show). There’s a lot of Buffy bashing, and while it’s interesting at first to hear from such a different point-of-view, it quickly grows tiresome, coming across a lot like the season seven scene where Buffy is driven out of her own house by her ungrateful friends. There are plenty of Easter eggs here for fans of the show though, with surnames like Zabuto, Wyndam-Pryce, Weatherby, Post, and Jamison-Smythe popping up early in the book.

I also had trouble figuring out the timeline at first since I could never get into the (technically canonical) season eight and onwards Buffy comics and haven’t been following their events. Basically what you need to know is that Buffy destroyed something called the Seed of Wonder which turned off all magic, ended the slayer line, and made her a pariah among former witches and slayers alike.

There were things I liked. The shared slayer dreamspace is a pretty fascinating idea and I loved the encounters that Nina had with Faith and, most of all, with Buffy herself. I also loved the message this book sends about free will and choice even when you’re born into something or tradition places a set of expectations on you. I found Nina’s character development far too slow for me to fall in love with her, yet I did ultimately root for her and her friends. There’s the potential (yep – I went there) for White to make something interesting out of this planned series, and I love Buffy enough that I’ll probably read the next entry in this series at some point in time, but it’s not something I’ll be running to the bookstore for – and that’s bitterly disappointing.

Stage: Rose

rose

Touted as Soulpepper’s first original musical, Rose boldly defies categorization. It’s based on a children’s book (avant-garde poet Gertrude Stein’s The World is Round) yet there are songs and gags that will fly right over the heads of many little ones. The narrative initially follows a familiar path, as a precocious child grapples with questions of identity and her place in the world, and yet the plot takes bizarre, but often entertaining, twists.  Nine-year-old Rose’s journey of self-discovery brings her face-to-face with a pride of lions, her faithful canine companion Love laments his need to be let outside to pee in the soulful ballad “Let Love Out”, and Rose narrowly escapes from a terrifying group of… otters? While this new Canadian musical hasn’t quite reached the height of its potential yet, it’s still an immensely charming show that delivers big laughs with a lot of heart.

A revelation in Musical Stage Company’s Onegin a few years ago, Hailey Gillis is so genuine and endearing that I connected with the titular Rose immediately. I know this is an odd thing to say about an actress who has proven herself capable of playing different roles extremely well, but Gillis has this truthful, self-aware quality that makes it easy to get sucked into her performances. She brings a warmth and inner strength to Rose, a bright and inquisitive nine-year-old with one big problem – she can’t say her name out loud because she doesn’t yet know who she is.

Peter Fernandes has never been better suited for a role than he is here. I’ve often found Fernandes to be miscast or to have a tendency to be too much of a ham in his past roles, but he brings a boyish charm and humour to the role of Rose’s best friend Willy. Other standouts are Sabryn Rock, as the understandably exasperated schoolteacher who must contend with an unusually inquisitive student, and Jonathan Ellul as Love, Rose’s loyal doggo.

Adapted by Mike Ross and Sarah Wilson, Rose is a departure for Toronto’s largest not-for-profit theatre company, in that it’s not a musical cabaret but a fully-fledged musical complete with dancing. Although the three-piece on-stage folk band, which serve as the narrators of Rose’s story, are firmly rooted in Soulpepper’s musical traditions, additional songs have soul, bluegrass, and traditional musical theatre influences.  The score isn’t particularly earwormy, yet the songs work extremely well in the context of the show. Monica Dotter’s choreography playfully  draws upon children’s musicals of the past to feature obligatory classroom scenes complete with desks and simple, energetic motion. Rose even pokes gentle fun at the genre, but never in a way that feels mean-spirited.

Lorenzo Savoini’s design is simple yet effective, using a colour palate that reflects the iconic blue ink on pink page illustrations used in the original book. Alexandra Lord’s costumes are equally evocative, as she dresses the townspeople of Somewhere in colourful clothing and brings the animal characters (including Love the dog, the pride of lions, and a group of back-up singing bunnies) to life in style.

Full disclosure, I attended a preview performance of this new musical, so it’s entirely possible that some of the issues I had with Rose were already resolved by opening night. The performances I saw were strong and very polished for this early in the run, but the material could use some tightening up.

The biggest problem Rose has is that it’s unbalanced. While the first act is high energy and utilizes the show’s talented ensemble to the fullest, the second act drags. Let’s face it, there are only so many ways to make a character’s solitary climb up a mountain engaging! The loss of momentum is keenly felt in a musical that already runs long (the runtime is two-and-a-half hours) for a show that is ostensibly aimed at children. There are some high points after intermission, including the repetition of a song sung in a round, a lovely long-distance ‘thinking of you’ duet, and a finale that both touches and inspires, but other scenes – especially one involving spiders and a joke about sailors – should be trimmed or cut altogether.

Whether it’s in a book, a ballet, or a play, I value uniqueness and Rose certainly wracks up points for creativity. It’s a madcap musical romp that’s ultimately triumphant and hopeful – the sort of story that, like Matilda or Billy Elliot, encourages us to be who we are and proudly. Like it’s heroine, Rose may still have a way to go before it reaches maturity, but it’s an incredibly entertaining journey nonetheless. If you’re in the Toronto area, Rose is not to be missed.

Rose runs until February 24th, 2019 at the Young Centre for Performing Arts in the Distillery District in Toronto. Peek behind the scenes in this video.

Photo of Hailey Gillis and the Rose Ensemble by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Meant to Read In 2018 but Didn’t Get To

There were A LOT of books I wanted to read in 2018 and just didn’t get around to, so I couldn’t resist participating in this week’s Top Ten Tuesday. It turns out working in a public library is both the best and the worst thing that can happen to your TBR. It’s great to have first access to books, but really messes with your backlist reading when you’re constantly surrounded by what’s new and shiny! Here are some of the titles I didn’t quite get to last year:

1392810. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier
I picked up the entire trilogy at a used bookstore on a friend’s recommendation in 2017, but I still haven’t read any of them. Daughter of the Forest is the first book in a historical fantasy series that takes inspiration from Celtic mythology though, so obviously this is right up my alley! I can’t wait to finally check this out in 2019.

676979. Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault
Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres and Mary Renault is generally viewed as the queen of historical fiction, so I feel a bit like a Fake Fan for never having picked up any of her novels. A close friend has also been raving about her works for as long as I’ve known her, so I really need to make an effort to read some Renault.

284492078. Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
Yet another book that I’m sure I’ll love when I finally get around to reading it! This one is pretty much universally adored throughout the book blogging community and is one of few fantasy novels that my mom’s read that I haven’t (she loved it). I really need to catch up.


178999487. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
In 2018 I crossed one longstanding classic on my TBR off when I finished Jane Eyre. Rebecca has been on that list nearly as long. I ending up opting for different classics than I intended to, reading Anna Karenina and Onegin in the fall instead of Rebecca, but 2019 is the year – I promise!

315486. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
This was on my five star predictions list in December 2017, so it’s about time I pick it up! I’ve seen a stage adaptation of this book (which I adored), and I know it’s one of Rachel’s favourites, so I know I’m going to love it, I just need to set aside the time for backlist reading in order to appreciate it!


328025955. Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

A lot of the books I meant to read last year fell victim to my magpie tendency to pick up new and shiny books spotted at the library instead of what I really wanted to read, or to a lack of time to read. Record of a Spaceborn Few was an issue of availability. Although published in October (in Canada, in the US it came out in July), copies are STILL On Order at my local library. Sigh. My library is wonderful and offers access to so many books I wouldn’t be able to afford to buy/have the space for in my apartment, but the waiting can be killer and the fact that it’s been almost three months and this book is still not available to borrow is definitely a little frustrating. Oh well, there are always other books to read in the meantime.

382553424. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley/The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White
I read Frankenstein over a decade ago in university and remember really enjoying it, but I hoped that 2018 would be the right year to revisit this classic. As an added bonus, I hoped to have the story fresh in my mind so I could pick up Kiersten White’s YA retelling from the perspective of Elizabeth Frankenstein. More than most classics though, Frankenstein feels like a very seasonal read and when my fall filled up and we moved into December, I just didn’t feel like reading it any more. This fall I’m definitely going to get through both of these though!

354854473. The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
One of my most anticipated sequels of 2018 and I still haven’t picked it up! Generally if an author publishes a book a year in a series then I don’t always feel the need to re-read because I remember events well enough to continue on. If it’s been more than a year though, my memory gets a little choppy. I read The Traitor Baru Cormorant in summer 2016 and it’s a (brilliant, brutal) book full of politicking so I felt like I needed a re-read before picking up the next chapter in Baru’s saga, but I just ran out of time in 2018. This year I will definitely be reading both books in this brilliant series.

379697232. The Iliad by Homer/The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
I was first on the holds list at Toronto Public Library for The Silence of the Girls. I checked back daily until it appeared in the library catalogue and had the satisfaction of being number one. But it’s 2019, the book has been published, copies have gone out and come back, and my hold is still set to inactive. Why? Because although I have a pretty good grasp on Greek mythology, I really wanted to read The Iliad first. If you’ve ever looked at a copy of The Iliad though, you’ll know it’s a monster of a book, and (stupidly) I wound up committing to read another monster (Anna Karenina) in Fall 2018, so The Iliad went unread. I’ve enlisted a friend though and we’re planning to start in the next few weeks! Wish me luck so I can cross both of these books I’m sure to enjoy off my TBR in 2019!

771971. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
Of course the number one book I meant to get to last year and didn’t is the first in Robin Hobb’s Farseer series. Robin Hobb has been on my TBR for quite literally years! I’m a huge fan of the fantasy genre and have made strides over the last few years to read sci-fi and fantasy works written by women and authors of colour, but I’ve neglected backlist authors in the genre. I was sure 2018 would be the year and even agreed to be part of a buddy read of Assassin’s Apprentice with a few friends. Well, newer, shinier books came out and I had a tumultuous year personally and I kept pushing back the buddy read. Suddenly it was 2019. So I’m making a public vow that this will be the year I finally read Assassin’s Apprentice! Seriously. If you don’t see a review in a few months time please nag me until you do!

Have you read any of these? Which ones should I bump up my TBR? Let me know in the comments!

Want to join in the fun? Head on over to Top Ten Tuesday, created by The Broke and Bookish and now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl!

Books: The Wildlands

36711026The Wildlands by Abby Geni
Published September 4, 2018
star-3-half
Following her evocative literary debut The Lightkeepers, Abby Geni returns with a contemporary, competent novel that explores many of the same themes. Exchanging the exotic Farallon Islands for rural Oklahoma and the southwest, The Wildlands is an interesting, and at times uncomfortable novel. I enjoyed it, but after wholeheartedly loving her glittering debut, I’d hoped for more from the author’s second novel than I actually got.

Geni returns to the theme of nature and our relationship to it, skillfully depicting the beauty and the danger inherent in the natural world. Like her debut, which paralleled the ways that animal species instinctively survive their harsh environment with the human ability to tell the mind what it needs to hear in order to cope, The Wildlands deals with the aftermath of traumatic events.

After a category 5 tornado decimates their Oklahoma farm and kills their father, orphaned siblings Darlene, Tucker, Jane, and Cora McCloud cope in both healthy and unhealthy ways. Faced with seeing her siblings divided up and placed in foster care, eldest sister Darlene sacrifices her college ambitions to step into a parental role. She takes a job at the local grocery store so she can provide for the family. Three months later, second eldest sibling Tucker walks out after a fight with Darlene and disappears.

The novel is told from two perspectives; an adult Cora looking back on the summer that her nine-year-old self, under the thrall of stories told by a charismatic brother she desperately missed, agrees to accompany Tucker on a cross-country mission she doesn’t really understand, and Darlene’s efforts to rescue her missing sister before it’s too late. Cora’s narration does serve as a softening lens through which to view the erratic temperament and actions of her eco-terrorist older brother. But as his love for animals in their natural wild state and hatred for the human race’s destruction of nature drives him to become more and more radical over the course of the novel it’s difficult to feel anything for Tucker besides discomforted by the power he has over Cora and a searing resentment. Tucker is certainly a realistic character, but we’ve reached the point as a society where it’s downright depressing to read about yet another (admittedly likely mentally unstable) resentful young white man who responds to trauma by committing violent acts while an elder sister, experiencing the same trauma, abandons her dreams to provide for her family.

Like in her previous novel, the author explores themes of storytelling and truth. Tucker ends all of the stories he uses to maintain a hold over Cora with “this is all true you know. This really happened”, and Cora herself is an unreliable narrator because what nine-year-old remembers events and conversations exactly as they happened? Particularly if a part of her is trying to protect the brother she loves. Geni also explores the idea of being in transition between different states of being. Darlene waits for news that her sister is either dead or has been found alive, animals exist on Tucker’s scale between Wild and Tame, and Cora herself, who has two identities over the course of the book.

After the eloquent prose of The Lightkeepers, this was a bit of a letdown. The simpler prose certainly serves the story Geni is telling, but I missed the evocative depictions of nature, the throwback feeling of a novel set in the present but so clearly influenced by Agatha Christie, and the overwhelming feeling of atmosphere achieved in her debut. The Wildlands is a solidly good read with an ending that will satisfy, but will I remember it six months down the road? Probably not.

 

T5W: Most Disappointing Books of 2018

I wanted to start the new year of blogging off on a more positive note by looking ahead to new releases I can’t wait to get my hands on and by looking back on the best theatre I saw in 2018. Now that we’re well into January though, it’s time to reflect on some of the books that not just fell short of the coveted three star or above rating on goodreads, but that were, for one reason or another, downright disappointing.

97817822719255. Clinch by Martin Holmén (translated by Henning Koch)
My rating: 2.5 stars

Admittedly it’s been more than a decade since I tackled a hard-boiled detective novel, but I remember really loving noir classics The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. The problem with novels like these, published in the 1930s and featuring masculine detectives and femme fatales, is that too often they also reinforce homophobic stereotypes. So I had high hopes for Clinch, a novel published in 2016 but set in gritty 1930s Stockholm and starring Harry Kvist, a bisexual ex-boxer out to clear his name. Unfortunately while the concept is there, the execution is sadly lacking. The plot meanders and fails to grab, but more critically I never felt anything toward Harry Kvist beyond a certain detached pity for his situation. Holmén seems to be trying for a rough-and-ready antihero type, but what he ends up with is a man who isn’t very bright, solves literally every single problem he encounters with violence, and has only one redeeming quality – a soft spot for animals. The resulting novel is a muddy mystery that has little in the way of looking for clues or deducing leads and a whole lot of hitting random people in hopes of gaining information. It gets old fast. Yes it’s brutal, graphic, and, to a certain extent, atmospheric, but I just didn’t care. This has to be the first book I’ve read where the protagonist gets crabs though, so there’s that, I guess.

363271174. The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin  (Translated by Anton Hur)
My rating: 2.5 stars
Another case of a terrific idea poorly executed. I hoped that this would be another great East Asian historical fiction read in the same vein as Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Lisa See’s The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, but The Court Dancer is written in a way that keeps the reader at arm’s length so we never connect with any of its characters. Set in the 1880/90s, when isolationist Korea began to open its doors to the west, the book is divided between French diplomat Victor’s time in Korea, where he falls for Yi Jin, a skilled dancer and favourite of the Queen’s, and their time as a couple in Belle Epoque Paris. Unfortunately this is one of the worst paced books I’ve ever read. Quite literally half of the book is spent on Victor trying to gain permission to marry Yi Jun, who is so reticent that the reader has no idea how she feels about any of this. Victor himself is less in love with Yi Jun than he is enraptured by her beauty and the fact that she speaks French, so it’s hard to care at all about them as a couple. I was much more interested in the relationship between Yi Jun and the Queen, so naturally scenes between them occur only in brief flashbacks later on. The Court Dancer is the rare book that manages to be both lethargic and melodramatic, with high drama happening to characters we care little for. As a result, what should be a crushing, soul destroying tragedy is instead merely bittersweet and forgettable. Full review here.

356575113. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
My rating: 2 stars
I tried to foray more into Can-lit this year and the results were decidedly mixed. While I loved Our Homesick Songs, a magic realism novel about the decline of the fishing industry in Newfoundland, and liked Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes, a dystopian love story about the immigrant experience, I barely made it through Ondaatje’s Warlight. The prose, I’ll admit, is eloquent; It’s elegant, poetic, and a little dreamy. But when the characters are dull and the plot non-existent, pretty writing alone is not enough. I never connected with any of the supposedly ‘eccentric’ major or minor characters and got the distinct impression that these were the sorts of character traits that only an author who reads exclusively literary fiction (and who has never picked up a sci-fi or fantasy novel in their life) would consider strange. Ondaatje is an illustrious enough Canadian author, and writes well enough, that I would consider reading more of his works in the future, but this one left me struggling to understand what the big deal is and desperate to cleanse the palate with a more exciting and cohesive read. Full review here.

302013272. The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill
My rating: 2 stars
A textbook case of take the comp titles with a grain of salt. I picked this up because it was being compared to The Night Circus, but tonally the two books couldn’t be more different. I didn’t walk away from The Lonely Hearts Hotel with any swell of emotion, appreciation for the imagery, or sense of magic. In fact, I was mostly just frustrated with this tale of two talented orphans in Depression-era Montreal. O’Neill’s over-stylized prose aims for whimsical charm, but sets a light and casual tone that doesn’t fit the dark and disturbing subject matter. The result is a book that seems to trivialize the very childhood sexual abuse, prostitution, abuse, and drug addiction it depicts. The tonal dissonance is so bad that it’s as if the entirety of Breaking Bad (not just a scene or two or a special one-off episode but the whole show) was told in the style of Pushing Daisies. I wasn’t won over by the romance either. How invested can you be in a ‘love story’ between a pair of characters who haven’t seen each other since they were 15 when all the male character can think about is how he can’t wait to penetrate her? There are some creative ideas here and a few lovely turns of phrase, but I didn’t find the emphasis on quirky descriptions of graphic sex, violence, and abuse nearly as charming as the author obviously does. Also, there are a lot of clowns. Your mileage may vary depending on how you feel about clowns.

13264201. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 2 stars
While one of the classics I read in 2018 (Jane Eyre) ended up on my Favourite Books of 2018 list, Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island tops my Most Disappointing list. Why oh why do we as a society subject children to this deceptively slim volume of tedium masquerading as an adventure story?! It took me two whole weeks and the grim determination to not DNF to make it through these 187 pages. I can sort-of understand why Treasure Island would capture the imagination of readers in the nineteenth century, but this is one classic that the years have not treated kindly. The over-descriptive prose robs the narrative of any sense of tension or urgency, the characters are thinly written, and unless you’re fluent in 19th century nautical slang you’re bound to miss at least some of what’s going on. It’s particularly distressing that this book is recommended for pre-teen and teenage boys – often the most reluctant readers. I appreciate the impact that Treasure Island has had on pop culture, but my advice is to enjoy the media it’s inspired (especially the brilliant television series prequel Black Sails) and leave Treasure Island on the dusty shelf where it belongs. Full review here.

What were your most disappointing reads of 2018? Let me know in the comments!

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