Library Scavenger Hunt: June

This month’s challenge was to read a book that’s thinner than your little finger, and I decided to take the opportunity to pick up a book which I’d been dithering over whether to just get rid of or not (yes, I’m cheating again this month 😓), Jack London’s Before Adam, which at 125 pages in paperback is just a smidge smaller than my (not particularly little) little finger… 😊 (And, having read it, I think I will be passing it on after all, but at least I’m making an informed choice!)

BEFORE ADAM
Jack London

A modern (at the time of writing, i.e. 1906) American man experiences the life of his prehistoric ancestor through a series of vivid and terrifying dreams, and as “Big Tooth”, he makes friends – and enemies – and learns about the beauty and danger of the younger world.

I was dubious about this book for a number of reasons… while I find prehistory interesting in a historical sense, as the setting of a novel it intrigues me not at all, and added to that, the basic premise of past lives/ancestral memory is one that I find distinctly off-putting*. So why, you may ask, did I not just dismiss this unread? There were a number of reasons (with varying levels of compelling-ness): 1) I really liked both of the other Jack London books I’ve read (The Call of the Wild and White Fang, naturally); 2) It was a gift, and I really dislike having to admit to people that I didn’t even bother to read the books they gave me 😓; and 3) It’s super-short, so if I did end up hating it, at least I wouldn’t have wasted too many hours of my life.

It would seem that this particular risk payed off, however! I’m far from in love with Before Adam (and it’s definitely my least-favourite of the three Jack London books I’ve read), but I found myself pleasantly surprised by it. It starts slow, and ends abruptly, but I found the bulk of Big Tooth’s life to be quite gripping, and while I found myself predictably frustrated whenever the narrator broke up the story with his (then-)present-day observations, this happened a lot less than I was expecting, once I’d got through the first couple of chapters.

*An aside: I don’t know why I dislike past-life stories so much, since I’m completely down for reincarnation ones – though I’m guessing it has something to do with the recollectory nature of the former, or because most of the reincarnation books I’ve come across have more of a mystical feel to them, and don’t try to bring science into it…

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

Library Scavenger Hunt: May

This month’s challenge, in honour of Japan’s new Reiwa era (the name of which is drawn from the words for “fair” and “gentle”), was to read a book with one of those two words in the title, and it proved to be more of a struggle than I was expecting! I wasn’t able to find anything that I’d specifically been meaning to read, but while browsing my library’s ebook collection, I came across an M.C. Beaton book that fit the challenge, and since I’d been interested in reading one of her (many, many) books for a while, I decided to give it a go…

(It was a bad decision. 😑)

DEATH OF A GENTLE LADY
M.C. Beaton

Everybody in the small Highland town of Lochdubh thinks that Mrs. Gentle is wonderful, but local policeman Hamish Macbeth has seen a more malicious side to her – so he’s the only one unsurprised when she’s murdered, and her own family are the prime suspects.

I made a few mistakes in choosing this book; I’ve been curious about Beaton’s writing for a while, but Death of a Gentle Lady was probably not a great one to start with, firstly because it’s the twenty-third book in a series, and secondly – and most importantly – because it’s a murder mystery, and I’ve never read a murder mystery that didn’t bore me to tears (except Fatherland, but I liked that for other reasons).

So you won’t be surprised to hear that I hated it. The characters (both new and recurring) were flat, the writing plodding, the mystery contrived – all its major developments coming completely out of the blue – and the investigation dull, and despite the extremely short length of the book (the edition I found was 177 pages, of which the last 15 or so were actually a preview for the next book), I really struggled to get through it. In the book’s defence, I expect that many of the recurring characters would have felt less one-dimensional if I had read at least a few of the other books in the series, but that’s not an excuse that holds up for any of the other problems I had.

On a more specific note, there were two small but persistent annoyances in this book: One of the new characters introduced was a Russian detective whom Beaton kept calling “Putin-like”, which I thought was a lazy description at best, and xenophobic at worst; and it was also rather tedious how the female characters seemed to throw themselves at Hamish, and continued to do so despite his very wishy-washy attitude towards even the ones that he’s supposed to have a history with.

Anyway, the tl;dr is that this was definitely not the right book for me, but at least I’ve learnt that there’s no point in my picking up any more of Beaton’s books.

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

#TomeTopple Readathon: Update 2 & Review

JUST FINISHED: Eragon by Christopher Paolini. [497 pages]

When a mysterious rock appears before Eragon in a blaze of magic, he has no idea that it’s about to hatch into one of the first dragons to be born in Alagaësia in close to a century, or that the almost-forgotten legacy of the Dragon Riders has just become his inheritance.

I’d realised before I decided to read this that it’d had pretty mixed reviews, but I had no idea it had reached such Marmite levels of polarising-ness… Have I become that rare person who has no strong opinions on Marmite? No, Marmite is gross, but my views on this book are very centrist; buried beneath the fanaticism and vitriol, I think both proponents and detractors of it have made some good points. But before I go into the book’s pros and cons, I want to address the thing that always, always seems to come up in every defence of Eragon: Paolini’s age when he wrote it.

So, people seem to love to excuse the poor writing in this book by citing the author’s age, but I really don’t think this defence has any merit; there is, after all, no junior league for writing. Eragon is competing for your attention with every other book that’s ever been published, and should therefore be judged by the same standards. Yes, it’s pretty impressive that a teenager managed to write a book good enough to be published, but while his age might make people more inclined to forgive the book’s flaws, it doesn’t change the fact that those flaws are there, and they still have an effect on the reading experience.

In actuality, while the writing isn’t super-great, it’s nowhere near as bad as all the criticism might lead you to believe, and in particular Paolini seems to really excel at describing things very vividly. I did have a problem with the dialogue, however, in that it was often very stilted and over-formal (for instance, when he meets the dwarven king in Tronjheim, he seems to be using almost ceremonial language, but it’s difficult to imagine where he might have learned to speak in such a way). I only found this occasionally distracting coming from most of the characters, but it was especially unconvincing coming from illiterate farm-boy Eragon.

One of the most common criticisms I’ve seen of Eragon is that it’s unoriginal, and I’m inclined to agree; it reads like Star Wars set in Middle Earth, with added dragons, and a liberal dose of fantasy tropes that render the plot predictable, though not unenjoyable… The influence of The Lord of the Rings on Eragon‘s setting is particularly noticeable throughout the book, but while this perhaps shows a lack of… world-building initiative (?), it doesn’t automatically make the book bad. After all, one of the reasons The Lord of the Rings is so popular is that it takes place in such a rich, compelling world, and Alagaësia has managed to retain a lot of that charm.

On the whole I found the world-building rather lazily done. The world itself is, as I mentioned, quite interesting, but it’s built up chiefly through massive info-dumps from Brom. Naturally this tapers off as the book goes on; after all, the more of the world we’re told about, the less of it we need to be told about, but it made the first half of the book a bit tedious – and it definitely didn’t make me care much about Brom. And speaking of Brom, what he was and wasn’t willing to reveal at any given time seemed extremely dramatically convenient in a very unrealistic manner.

Characters that I did really enjoy included Saphira and Murtagh, who were hands-down the most realistic and compelling members of the cast. Arya I also thought had potential, as she was interesting in the scenes that she was conscious for, even though there weren’t very many of them. I imagine that she’ll be getting a lot of development in the later books, however, as she seems to be a pretty important character to the series as a whole.

Eragon (the character), on the other hand, was really frustrating, and swung from eye-rollingly stupid to super-genius and back again on a regular basis. He was incredibly overpowered, as well (and gave off some definite teenage wish-fulfilment vibes). For example: Only a couple of chapters after he begins to learn to read, he is able to competently (if not confidently) read inscriptions in “the ancient tongue”; he’s able to match Murtagh with a sword only a few months after first handling one; and his dream visions are apparently an incredible, unprecedented feat. Saphira’s powers also seem very random and vaguely-defined, but were less annoying because she used them much less frequently. (And hopefully more will be explained about the strengths and limitations of dragons’ powers later in the series.)

Lastly, for a book that’s supposed to be all about dragons and dragon riders, it’s surprising how much this book focuses on Eragon exclusively; namely on how being a Rider effects him and his powers – Saphira isn’t even present for much of the book! In its defence, the characters are trying to keep her hidden for much of the story, but it’s notable that she doesn’t show up until the very end of the climactic fight between Eragon and Durza. When the narrative did focus on exploring their relationship, however, I found it one of the most compelling aspects of the book (and I was especially pleased that Saphira wasn’t shy about pointing out when Eragon was being an idiot 😉).

My main problems with Eragon were all the info-dumps, the distractingly unrealistic dialogue, and (less frequently) how overpowered Eragon was. Ultimately, however, I enjoyed myself with this book, and wouldn’t be adverse to picking up the next one (though realistically I doubt I’ll get to it, as there are myriad other books that are higher up my to-read list). For younger readers, I think this makes a pretty solid introduction to the fantasy genre; for everyone else, temper your expectations and you might have fun.

CURRENT READATHON STATUS: Super-satisfied with my progress so far; I might even be able to get through a third book before the readathon ends! 😁 I’m a little frustrated, however, that it turns out that if I’m being really nit-pickey (which I often am), none of the books I chose should count for the challenge; Cloud Atlas because I had already read the first 100 pages, Eragon because the last 20-ish pages turned out to be a sample chapter for the next book, and The Stranger from the Sea because, although the edition I was looking at on Goodreads was 512 pages, the copy I managed to find at the library was only 499… 😓 I’m still counting them, obviously, but it’s a mildly unhappy coincidence.

On a more positive note, however, Eragon is also my pick for the Library Scavenger Hunt this month! The challenge was to read a book with a name in the title, and this was the only one on my (e-)shelf that was also 500+ pages (or claimed to be!). And I suppose what I’ve learned from all this is that readathon-review-formatting trumps LSH-review-formatting… at least for now. I leave it to you guys to determine whether that’s a valuable lesson or not. 😋

Tomes Completed: 2
Pages Read: 918
Challenges Completed: 5/5

Library Scavenger Hunt: March

March’s challenge was to read a book with an adaptation, and since I’d had the Kate Bush song stuck in my head for a good two weeks at that point, Wuthering Heights seemed like the obvious choice. Once again, however, I have a small confession to make: I didn’t get this from the library, as it’s one that I’ve owned on kindle for some time, and I’m pretty sure we have several copies around the house as well; I actually ended up reading mainly from what I believe is my mum’s old copy (with this weird piece of cover art by Paul Hogarth)…

As I mentioned in last month’s LSH post, I’ve decided to really focus in on whittling down the number of books on my already-owned TBR shelf, so this pick wasn’t entirely in keeping with the spirit of the LSH, but I’m still finding that the challenges are doing a good job of inspiring me to read books that I’ve been putting off for one reason or another… so I’ll be keeping with it for now. Anyway, on to the review:

WUTHERING HEIGHTS
Emily Brontë

As a child, Catherine Earnshaw forms a strong bond with the wild urchin Heathcliff whom her father has taken in, but their relationship is shaken by her decision to marry another man. Years later, their children become friends, and find themselves pawns of Heathcliff’s vengeance.

Considering how well known Cathy and Heathcliff are, I was surprised that less than half of Wuthering Heights is actually dedicated specifically to the two of them; the impact of their relationship is definitely felt throughout the novel, but the focus of the book was primarily on the effect that that relationship had on the lives of the people around them… and most particularly on the lives of their children, who are the central characters of the majority of the book.

This was definitely a bonus for me, as although Cathy and Heathcliff were both quite interesting characters, this part of the story can be summed up as two horrible, selfish people doing their best to ruin their own lives as well as the lives of everyone around them. The second-generation characters (Cathy-the-younger, Linton and Hareton) were on the whole much more sympathetic; understandable within the context of their lives, if occasionally almost as horrible as their predecessors. And while she also had her petty moments, I thought that Nelly, Cathy’s servant/childhood friend, made for an excellent choice of narrator, as she was close enough to the main events to know a lot of the intimate details of it, but far enough removed that much of the situation remained a mystery to her.

For Mr. Lockwood’s part, he was an essential component of the story’s set-up (his introduction after the events of the story, but before Nelly’s recounting of them, shows us a tantalising glimpse of the future to leave us guessing at how it came about), but his role thereafter seemed rather redundant; I’m glad that his appearances in the story dropped off after a little while, and kind of wish that his final scene had been told from Nelly’s perspective instead.

I tend to struggle with books when I don’t like the characters very much, so (unsurprisingly) I found Wuthering Heights a little difficult to get into, but by the halfway point I was 100% invested. The plot, though often melodramatic enough to remove all believability, was incredibly gripping; the second-generation characters were (usually) likeable despite their flaws, and their individual struggles under Heathcliff’s tyranny were compelling; and the nightmarish atmosphere that suffuses the novel is spine-tinglingly affecting. This was a three-star read for me, but definitely a high three stars – and I’m looking forward to seeing how Emily Brontë’s most famous novel compares to her sisters’!

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

Library Scavenger Hunt: February

This month’s challenge was to read a short story, and my pick ended up being something I actually already had on my (digital) shelf, which may end up as a trend for 2019, as I’d really like to focus on cutting back the number of unread books I own… 😓 So this isn’t entirely in the spirit of the LSH, but oh well. Here’s what I thought of…

THE LOST SISTERS
Holly Black

[Warning: This is a spoiler-free review, but if you haven’t begun the series at all, then click here to check out my review of The Cruel Prince.]

After the events of The Cruel Prince, Taryn writes an apology to her sister Jude, explaining the secrets she kept over the course of the book, and her reasons for keeping them.

Taryn & Jude’s complicated relationship was one of my favourite things about The Cruel Prince, so it was really interesting to finally get Taryn’s perspective on everything that happened, and I also really enjoyed the way that this short story was written; the majority of it was Taryn recounting the book’s events, but she also included bits and pieces of various fairytales from their childhood, all with a slightly dangerous edge born of their less-than-amazing experiences in Faerie.

If I had one complaint, it would be that there were a couple of scenes that seemed like they were mostly just lifted from The Cruel Prince, and Taryn’s perspective didn’t add much to them, but whenever this happened it was for scenes important enough that the story might have felt a bit fragmented if they’d been left out entirely… and in any case, it was a pretty minor issue. Overall, I think The Lost Sisters makes a great addition to the Folk of the Air universe, and I’m left feeling even more excited for The Wicked King than I already was. (Which, given that I’m not likely to be able to read it any time soon, might not be as good a thing as it sounds. 😅)

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

Library Scavenger Hunt: January

This month’s challenge was to read a book with your favourite colour on the cover, which in my case is orange, and I was pleasantly surprised upon arrival at the library to be reminded that the paperback version of Release – a book which I hadn’t had specific plans on reading, but which I had a good reason to think I might like (that being its author) – is, in fact a glorious celebration of the colour! 🍊 There were a few other interesting-looking orange books that I spotted, too, but to be honest, it wasn’t much of a competition… thus:

RELEASE
Patrick Ness

Adam’s ex-boyfriend is moving away, and Adam’s not entirely okay with this, even though he’s trying to at least pretend that he’s moved on. But despite the many crises (including but not limited to: his ultra-religious family, his creepy manager, and his own conflicted feelings) that are threatening to tear his life apart, he’s determined to make it to the farewell party. Meanwhile, the ghost of a local murdered girl has emerged from the lake, and is hunting her killer.

If that last sentence seems random, it’s because it is. I really liked this book, but it was despite the supernatural sub-plot, not because of it, and had the ghost-story sections been longer, I probably would have rated the book lower. I get the feeling that Ness was aiming for a Pan’s Labyrinth-style atmosphere, but the two storylines were just too disconnected for it to work; apart from a brief scene at the very end, there was no character crossover, and neither plot had any impact on the other.

However, the main part of the book, Adam’s story, was amazing. His strained relationship with his parents was poignant, and provided a dramatic contrast to the heartwarming bond he had with his best friend Angela, who in my opinion was one of the highlights of the whole book. And although his failed romance with Enzo seemed like more of a focal point of the story than his new relationship with Linus, I found myself surprisingly invested in the success of the latter.

This is not a long book (the entire story takes place over the course of a single day), but it feels incredibly substantial; powerfully written, and dramatically plotted. The two wildly different storylines make it hard to rate, but on the whole I felt that the greatness of Adam’s tale outweighed the book’s more lacklustre parts.

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

Library Scavenger Hunt: December

The final LSH challenge of 2018 was to read a book with a lamp on the cover, and although I had a backup pick in the form of The Bedlam Stacks, in case my reservation didn’t arrive in good enough time, I knew pretty quickly what my first-choice book was going to be, as I’ve been wanting to read more from this author for a while now. And as luck would have it, my library came through for me again this month, so I’ve spent the last week or so reading (and pondering)…

THE TRANSMIGRATION OF BODIES
Yuri Herrera
(translated by Lisa Dillman)

An epidemic is spreading across the city, and a young man and woman have died, but whether it’s by chance or design is up to the Redeemer to discover – and his also is the faint (and growing fainter) opportunity to keep their feuding families from all-out war.

My decision to pick up The Transmigration of Bodies was based primarily on my previous enjoyment of Signs Preceding the End of the World; it’s a very short book, with a heavy focus on crime, and none of these are things that I would usually gravitate towards, but I was drawn in by my appreciation for Herrera’s writing (and further reassured to see that Transmigration and Signs also share a translator)… And although I didn’t like this book as much as Signs, I’m glad to have read it.

As I almost expected, I didn’t really like a lot of the characters. The Redeemer – our protagonist – grew on me after a while, but I particularly disliked our introduction to him, where he comes across as an old man perving over his young neighbour (though in fact I don’t think we’re ever told how old he actually is), and most of the other characters came in and out of the story very quickly, which is to be expected from a novel this length, but disappointing nevertheless, as some of them seemed quite interesting. (The sister of one of the two deceased, known only as the Unruly, was my favourite.)

That said, what I was hoping to get out of Transmigration was not pure enjoyment, so much as a thought-provoking reading experience, and that was something that Herrera delivered in spades; he’s an absolute master of making a huge impact in a tiny amount of space. In this case, the story’s dark premise allowed for some really interesting discourse on violence and its consequences, and the eerie emptiness of the unnamed, plague-ridden city makes for an excellent backdrop, and was a huge highlight of the book for me.

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]