The City of Brass

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I looked at my shelves the other day and realized that there was nothing on my there that I was truly interested in reading at the moment. This has been a big problem for me in the past year, so I took a couple of bags of books and sold them to a secondhand bookstore. While I was there and because of my reading slump, I decided to buy one book that I was interested in reading right that second, take it home, and read it immediately. So, I did.

Nahri scrapes by in 18th century Cairo by being a little shady in her business dealings. She steals, lies, and cheats her way to a meager living every day. It helps that she has some magical abilities like healing small wounds and instantly understanding most languages she hears. When she attempts a ritual to remove the supposed spiritual possession from a child, she accidentally summons a real djinn. Dara the djinn introduces Nahri to a hidden, magical word populated by the djinn, their descendants, and a whole host of strange mythological beings. Nahri quickly learns that she has a stake in this magical world that she never asked for.

I haven’t had this much fun reading a book in a while. In many ways, this book is nothing too ground breaking or special, but there’s actually quite a bit going on under the surface. To begin with, this is a novel based on Middle Eastern mythology and Islamic beliefs. The author herself is a Muslim convert. The novel is told in third person perspective with a focus on the perspectives of Nahri and Ali, a prince in the djinn’s world. The world is expansive and the characters are interesting, but the novel suffers from a few issues and tropes common to recent fantasy releases. However, it has a lot more complexity and heart than many overly hyped reads in the same vein.

Although this book is classified as adult fantasy, it reads a little younger. The writing itself, some of the plot devices (read: tropes), and some of the characters come off a bit “less adult” than I usually read. There’s actually quite a bit of violence and some adult themes though, so don’t be too turned off by the slight YA feel. If anything, it just reads more quickly because of this, but it does not feel overly childish. If you usually read adult fantasy, you may have some issues with the writing, but if you usually read YA and are looking to dip your toe into adult fantasy, this would be an excellent starting point.

A few common complaints I see from other reviewers are that the world is too confusing (there’s a glossary in the back of the book!), there is a lot of information dumping, and that the plot becomes too slow in the middle of the novel. I would say that I partially agree with all of those comments, but I feel like the book deserves a little defense in those respects. The world building of the novel is actually quite good in my opinion. The world feels “off the page,” meaning that it feels like it has a long, rich history intertwined with some of familiar real-world history. Does the mythology and history of the world get “dumped” on the reader all at once? Maybe.

The book is packed with action and adventure, but near the midpoint there is a definite dip in action. There is a long travel sequence in the early to middle part of the book. During the traveling, the characters discuss the history of the world at length. Because this information about the world is sandwiched between so much action and because of the complexity of the world, I can see why many readers complain about the slowness of the middle of the novel. While I do wish that the travel scenes were shorter and that the world building was woven more smoothly throughout the novel, it isn’t a major issue in my opinion. However, I do feel like too much of the history/mythology of the world was packed into the first book in the series. The end in particular felt as if the author was throwing a lot of mythological curve balls at the reader to add twists and complications to what you thought were the rules of the created world. This was a bit confusing, but it also intensified my desire to read the sequel so that I could hopefully get some answers.

Remember when I mentioned tropes earlier? As with many fantasy novels, we have the “normal girl finds out she is special and has to save the world” plot. Although the first book is not yet focused on saving the whole world, it hints at larger evils and problems to come in the subsequent books. To me, the more egregious trope is the dreaded love triangle. I hope that the sequel dispels the implications that a love triangle is developing, but it is a possibility that it may become more integral to the plot as it moves forward. There’s also (unless I am reading it completely wrong) some hope of a bi/gay relationship between a couple of the characters. Despite all of the romantic speculation, I would not say that this book is a romance masquerading as a fantasy, as some YA and adult fantasy seem to be guilty of doing. Although the romantic pairings have some importance to the plot, it does not distract from the major plot devices so far.

This review actually turned out to be pretty long, so I think I will wrap it up. The final verdict: The City of Brass is an imperfect but extremely entertaining and interesting fantasy novel. It gets tangled up in a few tired tropes, but it is overall worthy of some recognition for its representation, creativity, world building, and endearing but flawed characters. I thoroughly enjoyed reading The City of Brass, and I plan to pick up the sequel, The Kingdom of Copper, released on the 22nd of January in the U.S. I gave The City of Brass a rating of 4 out of 5 stars.

 

Deathless

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So, I really like fairy tales, folklore, and mythology. I also like the fantasy genre. If you give me a fantasy novel that has a lot of inspiration from the fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, I am almost certainly going to love it. Meet Deathless, a fantasy novel with a heavy dose of Russian folklore and fairy tales.

Marya Morevna is a human girl living in Russia during the Russian Revolution. Throughout her childhood, Marya occasionally saw glimpses of what she called “magic.” Her sisters married birds who turned into men before her eyes, and she has seen domovoi meetings within her family’s home. So, when another bird-turned-man shows up at Marya’s door asking for her hand in marriage, she isn’t too surprised. In fact, she expected it and waited eagerly for the day. However, her husband to be isn’t quite what she pictured. What she does not yet know is that her future husband is Koschei the Deathless.

I could say more. I could say a lot more, but just know that this novel is packed with Russian myths, history, and culture. I will admit that a lot of it went over my head in the early chapters. Since I never studied much Russian anything in college, I was torn between looking up the tales and avoiding them like the plague because of possible spoilers. If I could go back in time before I started the novel, I would probably brush up on the stories about Koschei as well as other Russian mythological creatures and figures. Doing this might help add some context to the references and make it easier to picture some of the other creatures/characters. Even though the author takes her own creative liberties with certain details, having some foundation of what she is describing would have helped me at least.

OK, onto the regular stuff. How are the characters, plot, and everything else? Pretty great, actually. Marya grew as a character at a believable and nonlinear pace. She started out as a young, naive girl, and even though she did something brave, strong, or clever, that does not mean she will always be brave, strong, or clever in the future. Sometimes she regressed a bit as she progressed, and I found that to add a lot of depth and realism to her character. She also struggled with morality, power, and relationships. Marya is flawed and imperfect, but it is impossible not to cheer for her and her fiery spirit to succeed. The other “demons” in the story, like Koschei, were lively and well written, but some of Marya’s less important friends and allies didn’t make as much of an impression.

I admittedly struggled with the plot of the novel, but I think that was more of a problem with my own mindset than it was with the book itself. I got into a horrible reading slump at end of November and start of December that made me not want to pick up anything. The beginning of Deathless went a bit slowly as we are introduced to Marya and watch her grow up. When Koschei entered the picture around fifty pages in, the plot sped up, as did my interest. Without my reading slump, I would likely have had no issue with the pace.

Deathless is a very unique read that fans of Russian folklore or general fantasy might adore. My verdict is a rating of 4 out of 5 stars, but I would not be opposed to changing my rating to a 5 when I inevitably reread this one.

 

Mira Corpora

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This was a weird one. I keep seeing a specific line associated with this book everywhere. This novel is supposedly “a coming-of-age story for people who hate coming-of-age stories.” That alone got my attention. I am not a big fan of coming-of-age stories any more, but that’s a unique way to sell your book.

Mira Corpora is a fantastical autobiography. Some of it might be true, but there’s probably at least a little extra magic and drama thrown in. It is written as if the author, Jeff Jackson, went through everything, but it is also implied that some things are made up. I would put aside guessing what is true and what isn’t while you read the novel. Just enjoy the wild ride. It is dark, heartbreaking, and haunting. There are homeless feral children, a missing rock star, and a boy who seeks to find himself by himself.

Mira Corpora is not an enjoyable read in the same way that A River in Darkness is not “fun” to read. At least some of Mira Corpora really happened, and Jeff Jackson is just a kid throughout most of the book. There are some terrible things that happen to him, so I’ll just say that a broad trigger warning is probably needed for this one. If you can get past poor Jeff’s trials, it has a very interesting but meandering plot. Parts were surreal and felt like a drug-induced haze. Other parts are just tragic. The main character’s growth is easy to see. There are part or section headings that tell how old he is, but beyond his age, he slowly becomes more self assured and confident, while the earlier sections have a touch more innocence and child-like wonder.

I’ve really never read anything quite like this, so I am having a lot of trouble reviewing it. Think of something like Lord of the Flies, but with one kid trying to survive, some untrustworthy adults in our often strange and unforgiving society, and scenes that almost make you feel high but also sad. If you’re looking for something truly different and you want a book that is “a coming-of-age story for people who hate coming-of-age stories,” this might be for you. At the very least, the novel made me want to know more about the author’s life. Three out of five stars for Mira Corpora, mainly because there’s a lot to digest, and it was a bit too dark for my mood when I read it.

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky

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I am back with another Two Dollar Radio book review. You know those “blind date with a book” things where you get a random book? The book might be wrapped up so you can’t see the cover, but a few details, like themes, setting, similar titles, are usually written on the wrapping. Anyway, I bought some surprises, and I was pleasantly surprised that I liked what I got!

Leah Shepherd’s life is rather mundane these days. Her job is to assist poor women and children at a nonprofit organization in Kentucky. She is not married and has no children, but she is active in her church and helps little old ladies. However, when Leah was a young girl, her brother Jacob went missing. His disappearance has haunted her for many years, but now she may have to confront her troubling past. A man contacts Leah at work claiming to be her lost brother.

There’s a mystery in this novel, but I am not sure if I would call it an actual mystery novel. The plot feels too quiet, too literary, and too experimental to appeal to readers who love traditional mysteries or thrillers. The prose in Ancient Ocean of Central Kentucky is very descriptive and very beautiful, but it is also a little on the experimental side because the author does not follow traditional grammar rules. There are incomplete sentences, run-on sentences, and though it is not written in verse, it at times reads like poetry. The feeling of the novel rests on the prose. Short, choppy lines make the plot hurried and urgent, while long, lazy lines evoke the slow, sticky feeling of a warm summer day. The author uses descriptions of people, places, and random objects to paint his settings. The description at times feel random in what is focused on or mentioned, but together, the lines paint a very realistic and lively sense of place.

The plot itself is realistic, but the writing gives the novel a surreal, dreamy quality. Much of the novel is in a kind of stream of consciousness style. Time periods, perspectives, and settings all come and go between paragraphs, but there are many page breaks between the paragraphs, so it does not feel too confusing. This is the kind of novel that you read less for the plot or character development and more for the feeling the words on the page evoke within you. The author gives a clear picture of the characters because he uses the same descriptive style. We may never find out exact answers about the characters’ lives, but we are given just enough details and scenes to ascertain who these people are and what drives them. Leah, of course, is the main focus, but even the nameless women who come into her office seem like real people.

This is a very unique novel in its writing and plot, but I wouldn’t say I felt confused during my reading experience. However, at times I felt like I was taking a peaceful but un-directed float down a lazy Kentucky river in the summer. If this sounds like your kind of thing, go for it. I had a great reading experience with this novel, and I hope other readers also give it a chance. I rated Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky four out of five stars.

 

All the Missing Girls

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Nicolette Farrell is back in Cooley Ridge, North Carolina for the first time in ten years. As a teenagers, Nic, Beth, and Corinne tore up their small town. They were always taking risks, causing trouble, and the rumor was that they swapped boyfriends sometimes. Those wild, carefree days came to an abrupt end when Corrine disappeared. After her disappearance, Nic moved away from everything she knew to start a new life. Now Nic’s father is ailing, and her brother has called her back to help sell their father’s house. But soon after Nic returns, another young girl goes missing.

The gimmick of this thriller is that it is told backwards. There are few chapters in “present time” to orient the reader, but then the story skips ahead a couple of weeks. From then on, each chapter tells about the previous day’s events. So, after the first few chapters, we start on Day 15. The next chapter is Day 14, then 13, 12, etc. Slowly everything is revealed about Nic, her past, Corinne’s disappearance, and the new disappearance Nic is present for. This is a creative way to organize the plot, but I felt that the execution was imperfect. I am not saying I could do better, but as a reader, it was sometimes a bit hard to keep things chronologically in my mind when the book/plot was going backwards. Beyond that, there was not anything too special about this thriller. It did the small town mysterious vibe very well though.

Organizational choices aside, how was the rest of the novel? It was OK. There were a good number of twists, and some caught me by surprise. There were quite a few secondary characters that matter to the plot. They are written well enough to not be confused with each other, but none of them stand out. I had to look up some of the characters’ names (including the main character’s) even though I only read the book a week ago. No one was very memorable.

Some of the conflicts in the novel made me frustrated. I am beginning to really hate when characters have disagreements that are easily solved by simply communicating. I realize that miscommunication happens a lot in real life, but sometimes these characters (mainly Nic) would neglect to tell another character something important, only to have it come back to bite them in the ass later or it created some misunderstanding that could easily have been prevented. Nic is a character that has a lot of secrets, but I could not always get behind her actions and decision-making. Still, she was not as frustrating as the main character in The Woman in Cabin 10

So, yes, this was a very “OK” read. It was nothing too special, but I did blow through the first half of the book in one day. Of course, it took me about a week to pick it back up again and finish it. If you would like to read a small town domestic thriller with a uniquely organized plot, you might want to try All the Missing Girls.

Found Audio

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I went on a small bookshop tour of Columbus, Ohio for my birthday this year. To my surprise, Columbus has a small independent publishing company called Two Dollar Radio. They have a cute, trendy, minimalist cafe/bookshop where you can stop by, have a coffee, grab a bite, study, or buy books. I did the latter, picking up two small, sci-fi/fantasy paperbacks. The first of which is Found Audio by N. J. Campbell.

The note under this title described it as, “Indiana Jones meets Inception.” An audio and recording expert is approached by a strange man with three cassette tapes. The man pays the expert a large sum of money to find out everything she can about the cassettes. The book takes the reader through the content of the tapes and the mysterious events surrounding them. The tapes are primarily a recording of a journalist who is recounting his strangest journalistic experiences. These experiences include a delirious treck through a swamp in the Bayou, meeting a monk in the Walled City of Kowloon in its final days, and a tent city populated by dreamers in the desert.

The “chapters” in the novel include introductory and concluding notes by the author (who supposedly found the audio and transcripts), a note by the audio expert who transcribed the tapes, and the transcript of each of the three tapes. What’s the plot? There really isn’t one. The transcripts of the tapes tell the story of the journalist and his adventures, but what’s the point? Surreal scenes as well as symbolic imagery and thought-provoking ideas leave a lot up to interpretation. The point of the novel is not so much the actual narrative recorded on the tapes but more about the journey of self-discovery that the journalist goes through. The novel is very intelligent and dives into the ideas behind consciousness, dreaming and dreams, fulfillment, and life itself. The characters are somewhere between completely missing to underdeveloped to mysterious. We get glimpses of many characters, but the journalist is our main point of contact as he narrates. His first-person narration lets us get inside his head, but anything beyond his direct experiences often remains a mystery.

If you’re looking for a cohesive plot with a concrete conclusion, look elsewhere. I do not by any means think that Found Audio is a bad book. I really liked it, but describing it as Indiana Jones meets Inception is little off the mark, but in some ways, it is also spot on. Don’t go in expecting an exciting adventure novel. This reads more like a mini Murakami novel with its depth and surrealism. Found Audio is a breath of fresh air, but you should be in the mood to read something experimental. I gave Found Audio 4 out of 5 stars, and I will be picking up more from Two Dollar Radio when I am craving something unique.

The Incarnations

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I have barely been reading lately, and I hate it. I apologize for missing a few weeks of reviews. I started a new job, and it has been occupying a lot of my time. But you’re not here to read about all of that, are you?

The Incarnations follows a man who has a not-so-great job. Beijing taxi driver, Wang Jun, lives a dull, modest life with his wife and daughter. One day Driver Wang finds a letter in his taxi from someone who knows all about his life. The letter almost sounds like the writer is stalking him. Driver Wang keeps the letter to himself, but more and more letters find their way to him. The mysterious writer claims to know Wang from their previous lives. The letters go into great detail about who Wang was in his past lives, and they begin to urge Wang to leave his wife. Wang feels himself drawn to the letter writer, but the writer is convinced that Wang is his/her true love.

My favorite thing about this book was its writing. The novel takes place right before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The descriptions of Beijing as it prepares to host an international competition are claustrophobic, dirty, frantic, and at times dystopian. Quite a few scenes also take place in China’s past via Wang’s reading of the mysterious letters. The author describes the cruelty, poverty, and riches of past eras just as well as she details modern Beijing. The novel includes many nods to true historical events and people, but it also includes some folklore and mythology.

The characters are well-rounded for the most part, but the characters from the historical sections feel a bit more flat and fairy-tale like. We are led to believe that certain characters are Wang’s past selves, but they do not always feel like present-day Wang. Perhaps the historical characters give insight to parts of Wang’s inner self that he represses, but there is a chance that Wang or the letter writer are unreliable narrators, which adds another layer to the story.

The plot of the book had a lot of promise, but in the end, it did not satisfy my expectations. The historical sections did not feel like they meshed well with the modern parts. Despite how prevalent the historical portions were, they did not feel like they had much impact on the overall plot. Perhaps if there was more of an echo of repeated events and character actions between the past and present sections, the novel as a whole might feel more cohesive. I also felt like the novel ended too soon. I am very interested in knowing the outcome of some of the ending events.

This is a book that definitely gives you a lot to think about. It might even be a solid book club selection. The plot, historical facts, folklore, and daily life in Beijing make it a smart and expansive novel, but the execution could have been slightly tighter. I gave The Incarnations 3/5 stars.

Heart-Shaped Box

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If you’ve been following this blog for a bit, you know that I have become a fan of Joe Hill’s novels. I read and loved NOS4A2, and I read and liked Horns by him. So, I decided to go back to his first novel. Unfortunately, I didn’t love it as much as the previous two I have read.

Judas Coyne, an old rock/metal star, buys a ghost online. Judas does not quite believe in the ghost he is supposedly buying, but it is in his image to like Gothic or macabre items. Plus, he’s rich and a bit bored. He soon finds out that the ghost is indeed real. In fact, it has ties to Judas’s past and wants revenge. It is out to kill him and everyone he loves, and the seller has a no returns policy.

So far, I would not really call any of Joe Hill’s books scary. His novels tend to be a mix of horror elements, cool characters, an adventurous plot, and a dash of a romantic subplot. I would say that all three of his novels that I have read contain these themes. Personally, I like this mixture, but if you’re looking for a real scare, I would look elsewhere. Since this was Hill’s first novel, it simply isn’t as polished as his others. The plot itself is interesting, but it feels thin compared to his newer works. The best part of the plot (and the scariest parts) took place in Judas’s home in the first half of the novel. After that, the plot dragged a bit with a lengthy road trip. The ending felt a little sudden and chaotic after the relatively dull middle section. Hill’s novels tend to have some paranormal/magical elements in them, but in his later works he does a better job of describing the images and explaining the paranormal logic or magic behind these scenes.

Character-wise, I did not connect with Judas and his friends. Judas felt like the stereotypical aging rocker who has a much younger groupie girlfriend. Marybeth, his girlfriend, felt like a slightly more original character, but only slightly. The best characters in my opinion were Judas’s dogs and Marybeth’s grandma. I just love a badass no-nonsense grandma character.

I was slightly disappointed in Heart-Shaped Box, but only because Joe Hill’s newer works are just better. He’s definitely improved as an author, and I would still highly recommend NOS4A2. I will definitely be reading The Fireman and Strange Weather by him in the future.