TAG – Year-end Superlative Tag

Well that was awhile when I last talked about really well…anything. It must have been the holidays. So here’s a quick  but interesting way to look at 2016 in terms of my reading.

For the books that I’ve already reviewed and mentioned, I’ll link them so that you can see even more of my thoughts on the book.

As usual, thanks the brilliant abookolive this idea. Also, check out the original tag.

Here goes:

1. Most likely to be in the movies: The book that would make the best movie

Veronica Mars: Mr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas. This is rather a cop-out since the franchise initially is a TV show (which everyone should go watch if you haven’t already!) along with a movie funded via Kickstarter. But I think Thomas does an excellent job of continuing to provide new installments in the Veronica Mars universe, and of course I always wish to see my favourite characters on-screen again. It will be great if they can make another TV or mini-series based on this book (and the other Veronica Mars book).

However, this is not just a screenplay thrown together in book format. It is an actual proper novel, and I think it reads very well – it just also happens to convey the spirit of the characters and the town very well. I do encourage people to check out the books, but I will say that the reading experience will be so much richer and entertaining if you have already at least watched or know of Veronica Mars and its various characters since it really does not attempt to provide a full back-story.

2. Biggest drama queen/king: The most (overly) dramatic book.

At first I cannot think of anything and plan to just say I read nothing dramatic in 2016. Then I remember I read Tell Me Your Dreams by Sidney Sheldon. And that immediately cinches the answer.

While I will attempt to not spoil anyone, let’s just say that this book is filled with dramatic walking cliches and mind-boggling plot twists that are hard to care for. At first the three different protagonist voices are interesting; by the end while they did not blur I also did not care about them and their tenacious connection to murder (if you’ve read the book you will know what I mean). Also, the way that the murders are handled and the ultimate verdict – there are some pretty last minute throwing oneself at the judge’s mercy after said judge has been supposedly very against the criminal – is just over-sensationalized without any actual emotional connection. Given all the character problems and high body count, this should have been an adrenaline filled read. Instead, I just wanted to reach the ending to see if the payoff is remotely worth it (unfortunately it isn’t in my opinion). If you are interested, read a couple of chapters. The writing style and overall storytelling pretty much remains the same throughout the entire book.

3. Best dressed: The book with the best cover

The Muse by Jessie Burton. The cover is gorgeous. If I end up buying a copy of the book, it will definitely be because due to the allure of the cover.

4. Most creative: The book with the most unique plot, characters, or structure

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All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda. You can’t really get more creative with structure than telling a mystery backwards. While I will not say that the concept has been executed brilliantly, this is a solid read for its protagonist and the setting. The mystery is not too shabby either.

5. Most popular: The book with the most ratings on Goodreads

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Out of all the covers, this is my favourite due to the mystery and the sharp contrast! Photo Credit: http://covers.booktopia.com.au/big/9780099771517/memoirs-of-a-geisha.jpg

If I include my re-read for the year, it will be Memoirs of a Geisha coming in with over 1 million ratings on Goodreads (Yes I am quite surprised as well). I think it may have to do with it being an older book – published since 1997!

Excluding Memoirs of a Geisha, it will be Yes Please by Amy Poelher with 220,000 ratings. I love her and the book – its less hilarious than you might expect but I like all the moments about life and just being Amy Poehler sprinkled in. Still, it only has about a fifth of the ratings that Memoirs of a Geisha has. I don’t even want to think about some of the books that I’ve read this year and the number of ratings compared to that.

6. Most likely to succeed: The book that is going to be appreciated for many years to come

A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout or Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. (I couldn’t stop at one for this question) Or at least I know I will appreciate them in many years to come. Both of them have beautiful writing, a compelling narrative and ideas that make you think and stick to your mind long after the read is over. Since they are vastly different books – the first one is a memoir about being a hostage in Somalia while the other is fiction focusing on a girl with multiple reincarnations of her life in the early 20th century—it is hard to compare them beyond that, but I love them for exactly the way that they are.

7. Class clown: The book you couldn’t help but laugh at

I got slightly confused for this one – one that I will laugh at because I find it funny, or one that I will laugh at because I find it ridiculous and am probably borderline mocking it? Since it says class clown I am going for the former. I would choose Yes Please—particularly the audiobook with Amy Poehler herself narrating it—but since I have already answered it with an earlier book, I will go with Graduates in Wonderland. While it is not a partiuclarly humourous book, it is a very honest book about the early years of being an adult and a solid friendship between two college graduates stuck in opposite ends of the world.I chuckled multiple times when reading this book and it made me miss my oversea friends even more.

8. Most improved: The book that started off slow, but really picked up

Definitely The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman (here, here, and here for all three books). It is hard to imagine how much I adored the Fillory gang by the end of the third book given my reaction towards Quintin throughout the first book. It is a more than solid trilogy that requires you to read all three installments before properly assessing it.

9. Cutest couple: The cutest couple in a book

I barely touched upon it in my review, but Cassie and Sam from The Likeness by Tana French. I understand that there are a lot of people that want Rob and Cassie to be a couple, but I actually really adore the dynamics between Sam and Cassie in the second book. They are sweet towards each other without it being insta-love or overly sickening, and I can actually see them being together and supporting each other in the long run.

10. Biggest heart breaker: The book that broke your heart

One of the short stories from A Year of the Ravens – all of them are fabulous and does an excellent job in painting the Roman invasion of Britain, but I particularly adored The Daughters by E.Knight. It may be because it is the last short story in the book – I read them chronologically—but I think she just does an excellent job of humanizing and giving life to Boudica’s daughters who are just as integral to the rebellion but hardly get a mention. I particularly loved the names that Knight gives to the two daughters.

Anyways, I hope this gives a good flavour of the books I’ve read in 2016 (some of the reviews will be coming up shortly!)

 

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Review – A Year of Ravens

What a powerful book about a powerful woman leading a group of warriors in an attempt to overthrow the shackles of Rome! I never read or even properly understand Boudica’s tale, other than the fact that she is a warrior queen who has led her tribe to almost succeed in humiliating Rome in its subjugation of Britain.  I certainly do not realize that there are several other crucial characters to this dramatic tale, and I am so glad to have lived through the year of rebellion with the seven authors that have brought the conflict alive.

Since it is an anthology, I will be reviewing the individual stories in a moment. I do want to take the time to compliment every author for their skills in bringing Ancient Britannia (although nobody at that time would have actually called Britain that) alive and showing how complex both the Romans and the natives are. While my tastes may be subjective, I cannot deny that all the authors have clearly done their research (above and beyond) to ensure that the reading experience is authentic as possible. None of the authors shy away from the bloodiness and awfulness that rings historically true to that period. Finally, this is a collaboration between authors who are not only great at their craft but clearly enjoy working with each other (read Kate Quinn’s hilarious take) as they meticulously plan the novel as a whole to ensure the protagonists from each individual story slip in and out of other stories seamlessly.

As for my individual take on all the stories themselves:

The Queen by Stephanie Dray—This is a fantastic story that sets the stage for both the novel itself and the historical events that will unfold. Dray explores Queen Cartimandua, a client queen of Rome, who chooses to protect her people through diplomacy and appeasement. But do not think that this is a spineless queen; Cartimandua is unafraid to make unpopular choices and is willing to stick to her principles. I love Cartimandua’s voice, particularly because Dray gives her enough characteristics to be a three-dimensional individual. I also find it fascinating that Cartimandua can almost be viewed as an anti-heroine in her own story, because while I understand Cartimandua’s choices and justifications completely it is apparent that few around her can. In fact, most around her are very likely to misinterpret her actions as evil. I thoroughly enjoyed this queen’s story that I almost forget that the book is about Boudica and her rebellion. Dray does explain the political situation that will lead to Boudica making the choices that she did from Cartimandua’s POV, and I finished the story with great satisfaction yet great pity that this queen is not more celebrated. (Plus, excellent Roman POV character in the form of Decianus Catus who is usually the villain in the Boudica story, but I am pleasantly surprised here)

The Slave by Ruth Downie—After the brilliant beginning by Dray, I jump into this story hungry for Boudica’s tale to begin. And so the infamous events (I will not spoil it in case some people don’t know what they are since I do not initially, but let’s just say that it involves a lot of violence, cruelty and humiliation) all from Ria’s POV. Ria is a slave (as noted by the title) but more importantly, also an illegitimate daughter of the late king. While I have trouble figuring out the direction of the story at first, Ria captures my attention completely. Given her status, she has little (if any) autonomy and is always trying to make the best of her situation but somehow fails. In fact, another interesting thing that I find is that Ria can also easily be considered an anti-heroine, since some of her actions can be misconstrued despite her better intentions, such as giving away a large box of silver to the Roman soldiers. Still, what I admire about Ria is that she tries to make a better situation for herself, and since this story like all the others is historically accurate, it does not usually happen. Finally, I love how Downie introduces all the important players on the British side of this war: Boudica, her two daughters, her right hand, and other warriors. It is through Ria’s eyes that I can see the wisdom and cunning of Boudica for the first time, and I can understand why she inspires her warriors to rebel against Rome.

The Tribune by Russell Whitfield—This is the story that introduces the Roman military POV as well as the major players on the Roman side. It is also the story that completely exposes how hypocritical Romans can be while trying to conquer a province just because they are Romans. It is told from Agricola’s POV, and this is a story where it focuses on two things: huge character growth and plenty of battles. If you like action and battles, I am certain that you will enjoy this story. Whitfield really pulls no punches here as the gore is in spectacular but tasteful detail. Agricola at the beginning of the story is someone who is at Britain just so he can advance his career, but he definitely experiences huge character growth by the time he reaches Mona. A decent story that is important to the rebellion, but it is not my favourite since I do not respond will to action-heavy stories.

The Druid by Vicky Alvear Shectar—If the last story exposes hypocrisy, this story exposes some hypocrisy as well as major misunderstanding between the British (or whatever the people identified with themselves back then) and the Romans. This is told through a duo POV, from a captured Roman as well as a young Druid priest. Both hate each other yet “need” each other throughout their journey, and both have plans for each other that they will not verbalize but are constantly thinking. This is also a story that really explores the customs of the Druids and how they are integral to the society. That ending definitely brings shiver down my spine (in a good way)!

The Son by S.J.A Turney—The POV character for this story must be one of the most interesting and conflicted characters in this collection, particularly in terms of personal identity. Andercarus is the son of the right hand man of Boudica, but he is also one of the hostages that has lived with Romans for the majority of his youth. He therefore is someone who belongs in both worlds yet is seen as alien by both groups of people. This struggle is one of his major problems throughout the story, the other being his brutish adoptive brother. While Andercarus is struggling to ensure that he stays honourable to both groups of people, the sacking of Londinium looms ahead. The Romans chooses to abandon the city to its fate, recuperating and gathering strength for the future.  On the other hand, the rebels are ecstatic and high on adrenaline as they believe victory is within their grasp after the collapse of multiple cities. This is where savagery is displayed on the British side and shows that neither group has a higher moral ground than the other.

The Warrior by Kate Quinn—I am unsure if I have mentioned it, but Quinn is one of my favourite authors. I am always astounded by the quality of her work, and I have high hopes for this particular short story. Luckily, my hopes are not dashed. Quinn really brings out all her tricks and craft here by weaving a compelling story with plenty of snappy dialogue. It is from Valeria’s (the unfortunate wife of Decianus Catus as she is now a captured slave) and Duro’s (Boudica’s right hand man) POVs. They hate each other before they even set eyes on each other, and neither is afraid to demonstrate it. Particularly Valeria, and I find it very amusing since she is in such a reduced position given the dramatic change in her status. However, it is also through this story that we eventually see while there are plenty of misunderstandings (as highlighted in The Druid) there are also commonalities between the two groups of people. Aside from the great battles that serve as the climax of the story (which are again very brutal and very bloody but very realistic and impactful), what I think is truly moving and satisfying is the character arc. Both Valeria and Duro are unpleasant supporting characters when they are first introduced in the other short stories. But Quinn manages to flesh them into three-dimensional people while still retaining their voices from all the other stories. I highly enjoyed this story, although I do have some pangs that the characters did not meet under better circumstances (since they totally will have made an excellent power couple that will dominate everyone else).

And finally…

The Daughters by E.Knight—Since Quinn is one of my favourite authors and I thoroughly enjoy her story, I believe that The Warrior will emerge as my favourite story in this collection. Not after reading this one though. This is an emotionally charged ending from the POV from Boudica’s daughters. It is also fitting that their stories come last after they have appear in some capacity in almost all the other stories, either in passing or as supporting characters. While there is already some growth to the princesses since their father’s death (and the many awful changes that have occurred in one year) this story really encompasses all of that growth. There are flashbacks that reference to both princesses’ lives before the rebellion begins and it shows how they eventually live up to their names, their people, and the destinies that they are meant to fulfill. I will not lie; tears are shed throughout parts of this story because I truly connected with the two princesses and everything that they endured. It is also a beautiful ending by Knight, and while there is no way of verifying what the princesses are like in real life, it is a pity that the world does not know more about these very brave girls who rise above their circumstances to be strong females.

This is a beautiful novel and an impressive feat overall. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the fascinating rebellion that Boudica sparked. I also highly recommend reading the stories in order. While each story is structured to be an individual story, there are multiple easter eggs and threads that run throughout that will be experienced best when reading the novel in chronological order.

Review – A House in the Sky

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I had always been interested in reading this book due to its subject matter – if nothing else this was a memoir about enduring through the harrowing times as a hostage in the most dangerous country in the world. But I was shocked at the reviews that I was reading. While most praised Amanda Lindhout for her courage, many also commented on her naivety and how the book devoted an unnecessary amount of pages about her prior travels. Some people even felt like they were reading a travel log of Amanda’s!

Still, I had finally obtained a copy of the book and I wanted to see for myself what Amanda’s experiences were like, and I was so happy that I did. Far from being a one-dimensional account of her just listing off all the places that she visited culminating to Somalia, I thought her earlier travels were an integral part of the book for two reasons. Firstly, it illustrated Amanda’s insatiable wanderlust and curiosity to explore the world and experience it. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride as I was exposed to the various places that she visited, the culture that she managed to absorb and the sheer freedom her adventures. It also exposed her way of thinking and provided an explanation (albeit it was a rather naïve explanation—that I would not disagree) of why Amanda believed it would be an excellent opportunity for her to attempt to visit Somalia. I also found her choice of a career to be interesting—I’ve always been pretty focused on what I want to achieve and strived for it as much as I could—since she seemed to organically develop her interests and skills overtime. Albeit again, I’m sure there are people who would argue that her chosen skillset as a news reporter or a photojournalist was impractical, but I applaud Amanda for choosing to live her life on her terms. She got to explore the globe and visit places that struck her fancy whenever she wished.  Did it lead to the greatest of consequences? Absolutely not. And yet when reading about Amanda’s experiences that ultimately led her to Somalia, I wonder if she would abandon travelling and trade in for a “safer” life. I very much doubt it.

And of course, there was the bulk of the book where she was imprisoned as a hostage alongside with Negil Brennan and where all her nightmares began without end. It was an absolute horrific experience and it became extremely powerful, as she had to dig deep inside herself to still be a person while all her captors believed her to be property or a bargaining chip more than anything else. There were plenty of dark moments, and while it was not a graphic description there were certainly chapters that spoke of the darkness that she was drowning in. When reading about her captivity, I could not imagine how most other people would have survived the ordeal. It required a certain resilience, courage, faith, and forgiveness to have endured the captivity. Somehow Amanda’s coping strategies worked. Even in her worst moments, she managed to isolate the pain that she was suffering physically and made promises to herself that she would fulfill once she was released.

It was also highly fascinating to be given a glimpse at who were her captors—teenage boys and warring gangs—as Amanda tried to humanize herself and Nigel. She would always use their names and attempt to make conversation with them, even converting to Islam for the hope that they would treat the hostages better. Some of the most interesting (but not totally surprising) parts were when the captors would all want to speak with her and Nigel to practice their English, and how one of her captors would keep asking her what America would be like since he received an opportunity to study there. Despite their constant rejection of all things Western, it was obvious that even their captors were somehow infatuated and disgusted at the same time. All this amidst a backdrop where Nigel and she could lose their life at any second as the captors continuously called their families for ransoms, and always dissatisfied with the answer.

Sandwiched somewhere between her travels and her captivity were the relationships that Amanda had with everyone in her life. Certainly her relationship with Nigel was discussed quite thoroughly in this book given everything they have gone through, but it was also her relationship with her mother and friends and family that formed a three-dimensional person. Amanda was—and probably is—certainly not perfect; she could be petulant and naïve and full of herself at times, but she was very real. While her finer qualities may not be apparent until she had to undergo some horrific moments, at the end of the day she emerged as the stronger person as she walked away not vengeful or spiteful, but compassionate and forgiving. It was this character growth along with her life experiences that made this such a wonderful read for me.

This was a powerful and authentic story, and Amanda fully embraced all her darkest moments to share her experiences and share her positive energy with the world. Alongside Amanda was Sara Corbett, and between the two women this was a very smooth and engaging read. It was polished and fast-paced as well as heartbreaking. Words were almost not enough to describe my emotions when it comes to this book – it was a rollercoaster ride from the happiness and freedom to the despair and the fear of death and everything in between.

When I finished reading the story, I hope to have just even a bit of Amanda’s courage and resilience as I face any obstacles ahead of me. Because if I have learned anything from this book, it is that while there can be many dark moments in the path ahead, there is also plenty of energy and depth inside myself if I look deep enough to get through the less glamorous moments. This is not a story that I can or wish to forget any time soon.

Review – All the Missing Girls

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In the tradition of the book, let’s start with the end and go backwards (although not completely, since I don’t have that much skill to craft such a tight narrative). But let’s just say I adored the book, and we’ll go from there.

First of all, I have never lived in a small town in my life. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be to know the names of all your neighbours in the same street, let alone in the same town. And definitely not have people remember you for all your shenanigans a decade ago and have them define you even in the present day.  Yet this is exactly the world that is introduced in All the Missing Girls, along with the very unique storytelling method.

The plot premise is very simple—a girl disappears from a small American town that is connected to the disappearance of another girl ten years ago, and the main players in the story are somehow connected to both incidents. Yet Miranda makes this mystery story thrilling with a new storytelling format—by telling the story backwards. I am utterly intrigued by this unique method, and I think it serves the story quite well.

It is like peeling an onion—after one layer, there are only another million layers waiting to be revealed. Miranda manages to heighten the tension this way, as events and individuals are referenced in a casual manner but are not elaborated upon until further in the novel. This manages to pique my curiosity as I wonder how all the previous events will connect and come together as a cohesive story. Along with the story being told backwards, there are also flashbacks or explanations of what occurred ten years before that leads to the disappearance of Corinne. The pacing of the novel is excellent, and I am always eager to continue finding out what happened the day before. There is almost a sense after each chapter there is a reset, since the story is told backwards and the chapter ends at the end of the day. Once the chapter ends a brand new day stretches before the reader, and it feels like that are multiple possibilities that can alter the outcome of the case, or at least alter the perception of the known facts.

However, this does not mean that the storytelling method is perfect. It is inevitable that many elements are deliberately written to confuse the reader and to act as red herrings. This I can live with, as it is a mystery and I like having the suspense throughout the book. What I find to be annoying is that there are specific references that are mentioned in the later days but are never properly explained or elaborated on afterwards, causing plenty of loose ends. For example, Nicolette and Corinne are best friends along with a third girl named Bailey. Bailey is referenced very briefly, and Nicolette cites this is due to the two girls drifting apart after the disappearance of Corinne. Yet Bailey appears sporadically in a couple of scenes and takes certain actions that require at least a strong connection if not a friendship with Nicolette, but it is never explained and instead Bailey is never referenced at all in the latter half of the novel. This is just one detail, and there are many details that are given the brush aside treatment in this story; it will not hamper the enjoyment of the overall story as well as understanding what happened to the characters, but it does cause frustration for people who want to know more about how the various small details fit together.

The strongest parts of the book for me are definitely the narrator as well as the setting of the book. Nicolette is a fabulous and highly interesting character, and has many complexities and contradictions about her. She is part of the onion symptom as she constantly reveals new information about herself through all various interactions with people that she meets throughout the book. At the beginning of the book, she is a twenty-eight year old woman who has escaped Cooley Ridge—her town—for ten years and reluctantly goes back due to her father. She has already survived the disappearance of a best friend and left her past in Cooley Ridge, including her relationships with her brother and the rest of her posse. As she immerses herself back in Cooley Ridge over a span of 15 days, her brittleness begins to show and the life that Nicolette reinvents herself in the present does not fit with her past. I love her strong attachments to her town and to her group of friends despite her constant denial, and her courage to confront the past before as she accepts herself for who she is. There is a reoccurring theme that one cannot abandon or outrun their past, and I think that Miranda showcases this wonderfully throughout Nicolette. I completely understand her even though I do not relate to her at all times—she is the not-really-mean-girl-but-definetely-part-of-the-popular-it-gang-girl—and while she is not the most likeable person I always want to know more about her.

As for Cooley Ridge itself, I think it is an excellent illustration of what a small town is like. Gossipy people with memories that stretch back an eternity, rumours and innuendos become facts and urban legends, and judgment is passed before evidence is collected. It is in this seemingly idyllic town on the outside—how can it not be gorgeous, it is in the mountains and it seems always sunny—that are more than a few skeletons hidden and that some great tragedies take place.

This book is not perfection though—aside from Nicolette, all the characters are pretty generic and indistinguishable at first. To be honest, the only person that I can clearly distinguish aside from Nicolette is her finance Everett, and that is because he is meant to be different. He is clearly supposed to be the outsider, the sophisticated efficient WASP-boyfriend that cannot possibly comprehend all the intricacies of living in a place such as Cooley Ridge. Which is a pity since it seems like all the other character play such important roles in the story. While I eventually manage to differentiate Daniel and Tyler, they are still similar enough that I will have to squint to get a better understanding of them as people.

The fascination with Corinne—the girl who cause the first major mayhem as well as a group of friends to disintegrate—is never made clear in the book. My impression of her is that she is a highly unstable mean-girl that always wants to be at the centre of attention, but I fail to see why everyone else—particularly Nicolette—bend backwards to cater to her whims. I do think that part of the problem is due to Nicolette’s voice and part is because Corinne is just not a charismatic person. While Nicolette does a great job examining herself and her demons and her struggles, she is not good at conveying information about other people and since the entire book is from her POV, the way that she paints Corinne is pretty biased as well as perplexing.

So both the pretty cover as well as its startling premise prompts me to pick up this book – a mystery unfolding backwards. I have never read this premise before, and I am absolutely excited to find out if it can be executed properly. I am particularly interested since I have played around with an idea of writing a story that will unfold backwards. I finish this book in a couple of sittings, and it is a highly entertaining mystery that examines all the skeletons in a town.

Review – The Rivals of Versailles

Christie’s debut ‘The Sisters of Versailles’ was a surprising hit for me last year, so I picked up the second installment with some giddiness. After all, the first book was about a family of sisters who all caught the king’s eye (what a coincidence); this one was about Madame de Pompadour, one of the most famous and influential royal mistresses of all time. This was scandalous and familiar ground—there should be plenty of intrigue and glamour involved in the book!

And to some degree, Christie did manage this. I really enjoyed her descriptions of clothing and decor for this book, particularly anything to do with Pompadour’s wardrobe and her many rooms/houses. It was lavishly described so that I could picture the wealth that the 0.01% was wallowing in during the 18th century, but not so lavishly described that it detracted from the rest of the book. Overall there was an addictive quality to Christie’s writing, where she managed to be both engaging and fun in imparting historical facts and examining the middle years of Louis XV’s reign. (Well, by reign I really meant his relationship with women, particularly his various mistresses.)

Another thing that I was pleasantly surprised was Christie’s choice to include multiple POVs; I initially believed that it would only feature Madame de Pompadour as the POV character.  It allowed characters to be painted in a different light, and I think Christie did a fabulous job using multiple POVs to show the supporting cast (aka the scheming courtiers of Versailles) was also three-dimensional individuals.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said about Christie’s choice of narrators. Aside from Madame de Pompadour, I found all the other narrators (who were all Pompadour’s ‘rivals’) rather unworthy. When reading the authors notes about her choice of the other mistresses that Madame de Pompadour had to ‘compete’ with, it made sense as they offered a new perspective in the very complex relationship of Madame de Pompadour and Louis XV or it was at a pivotal moment in Madame de Pompadour’s life. But instead of using the multiple narrators to her advantage to create worthy (or not so worthy but still human) rivals for Madame de Pompadour, one of the narrators was a undiagnosed sex addict (who actually claimed in the book that she undid the king’s breeches by accident due to habits), a fool who could not stop prattling most charmingly, and an actual child. While it might be historically accurate that none of these other mistresses could hold a flame to Madame de Pompadour (she did reign over Louis XV and France for nineteen years) it made unsatisfying reading as I slogged through three sections that offered some insight to the increasing depravity of Louis XV but always unsurprised at each of the mistresses’ downfall. I was actually quite surprised about Madame de Pompadour’s paranoia that she displayed from time to time in the book because none of them seem like they could ever match her, let alone surpass her in terms of characterization and complexity.

Out of the three secondary mistresses, my favourite by far was Morphise as it explains a lot about the system of the procurement of young girls for Louis XV. She was also the only narrator that I could understand why the character was absolutely ignorant about everything. Morphise was rather fascinating and I wished that her section would extend beyond her tenure as one of Louis’s flings. In the first book while I did not love all the sisters I always could understand them and appreciate them as complex individuals; in this book I could only see Madame de Pompadour and Morphise as realistic amongst the four narrators. If not for the less than stellar narrators in the middle, I probably could have finished this book in 1 or 2 sittings.

Accompanying Louis XV’s depravity there was also an increase in graphic description and declaration of love compared to the first book. Again, this might be due to Louis XV himself and his perverse tastes, but it was again a pity as Christie could have explored something more than just the royal bedchamber secrets throughout her book. She did try to balance out the sordid moments with more court intrigue and political wrangling—which she actually does quite successfully and far more enjoyable—but there was never a great sense of how Madame de Pompadour influenced events beyond a few throwaway moments. In fact, for someone so powerful I barely saw it. Instead the “best” that Christie conveyed Pompadour’s power was constantly having every character claim that the Marquise was the most powerful personage at court. I thought the little bits where Madame de Pompadour referenced the Austrian Succession War and Seven Years War were most fascinating and I wish there was more showing as opposed to telling through letters.

Another side note is that I really appreciated the fictional letters that Christie wrote to highlight how people in Versailles communicate, particularly with rivals. I loved how everyone is very proper and formal in their letters while insulting each other. I could not help but chuckle when I read the letters that Richulieu and Madame de Pompadour exchanged.  The letters bring out a new level of nastiness and contempt that different faction of courtiers had for each other and I thought it was a great way to help bring the characters and story alive.

Overall, I think Christie had a very strong grasp of the material and tried her best to curate all her research to present a cohesive and engaging story. I found her characterization of Louis XV and his court to be very interesting (I could not say spot on since I do not know enough about this particular period of history) and it was very easy to understand why France collapsed in a revolution mere decades later. I just wished that there was a tighter plotline and better characterization for some of the other narrators. It would have made a much more gripping read, even if it was just (not so) petty rivalries in the rooms of Versailles.

 

Review – Tales of Ancient Rome

Here’s the second part to an experiment that I am attempting – to give both a series review and reviews on the individual books. In my last post I discussed the many wonderful (and a sprinkling of not-exactly-wonderful) qualities of Tales of Ancient Rome Trilogy. Today, I bring everyone my thoughts for the individual books.

The Wedding Shroud

 

This is definitely the weakest book in the entire trilogy even though strictly speaking  it is not a bad book par say. Like the entire trilogy, the usual hallmarks are there: plenty of solid research, good world building and interesting gateway to understanding more about the Veii.

However, this is the book where there is excessive of world building. This is due to the plot—when Caceilla marries Mastarna and becomes familiar with the Etruscan society instead of just blindly believing all the hasty judgments from her patrician relatives—and set the stage for the entire trilogy. I can understand why Storrs decides to do this since it will mean that she does not have to weave in the concepts more clumsily in subsequent books. Since Caceilla is a stubborn person who refuses to embrace the life that she is given at Veii as an Etruscan noblewoman, the world building and introduction the religious/society/custom differences takes up a great chunk of the book. As Caceilla is the only POV character in this book, the book has a very narrow worldview for the majority of the book.

Something that will make it really hard for the people to get through the first book (although I highly recommend that you should since the subsequent books are stronger and much easier/more entertaining to read) is due to Caceilla. As I have mentioned, she is a stubborn female to the very tip of her fingers. And this means total rejection of her Etruscan relatives, her husband, her surroundings and anything that may potentially make her life easier. She spends all her time sulking and comparing her current surroundings to Rome and finding Veii lacking. Either this or she is embracing various religious rites that she hopes will one day take her back to Rome. This unfortunately does not make the most exciting reading, and after several scenes where she repeats her beliefs over and over again I want to grab her by the shoulders and shake her. She is by the far the weakest link in this installment.

However, all the other supporting characters are interesting and are a good glimpse into the Veii society. I particularly enjoyed reading about Erene, a very exclusive courtesan that is trying to extend a helping hand and friendship to Caceilla with little success, and Tarchon, her not-really-but-legally-stepson who has his own demons to fight since he is not the typical Veii nobleman. They are also the characters that have more constant interactions with Caceilla, so it helps make the book bearable during some of the more frustrating moments.

I actually adored the last 30% of the book, when the plot actually starts moving at lightning speed and several political events take place in the span of several chapters (they are short chapters) that have huge ramifications for Caceilla and company. The demise of a certain character livens up the plot and I wish more foreshadowing is throughout the book, but it might also just be due to Caceilla’s lack of ability to pay attention to her surroundings due to her own suffering.

The ending is a great ending, and due to the last 30% of the book I am extremely excited to continue the series and I highly recommend anyone to persevere, since the rest of the trilogy has some great things in store.

The Golden Dice

This is the book where things really start happening, with the war between Rome and Veii going strong and the commitment to win to be even higher on the Roman side. There is also a (mostly) welcome addition of new narrators Pinna and Semni who provide a more comprehensive picture of what it must be like living in either ancient city.

I think the inclusion of Pinna is an excellent choice, since it is through her narrative that the reader gets the Roman perspective. She is a resourceful individual who starts off as a night moth (the lowest of the low) that eventually climbs her way to the Roman camp that is about to besiege Veii. Out of all three narrators, she is my favourite because she is unapologetic about her actions all in the name of survival. I do not always need to read about a righteous individual, but I do always enjoy reading about someone who is willing to owe up to their actions. She is also the most interesting character because she is someone that collects secrets, albeit not willingly. It is due to her talent and misfortune that she is able to squirrel so many bits of information that become both useful and dangerous.

Semni is also an interesting addition, but I do not find her as compelling as the other two narrators because I am unsure why we need a perspective from a lower-class woman in Veii, other than to illustrate that while the Etruscan society is more enlightened it is still not roses and champagne for every woman. There is a major plot point where it hinges on her perspective, but it does reduce her to an observer or a plot device as oppose to a character.

The plot itself is much more interesting as it is no longer about Caceilla’s love life (or her life exclusively); it is very much focus on the greater conflict between the two cities. The Roman hostility towards the Etruscan society is very real, particularly when Rome itself is famished and needs more land, wealth, and grain to feed its citizens. I think it is a very apt description to call Rome a very hungry wolf, waiting to pounce on something or someone. It is also due to this desperation that the Romans are willing to do whatever it takes, leading to some underhanded political actions and strategies that will hopefully help them win the war.

As for everyone in Veii, things are not great either. There is a revival of the ‘monarchy’ (let’s call it that because the ruler is called a king) and due to the king’s rule, there is discord and fights amongst the different clans in Veii. Again, this is widening up the scope of the book compared to ‘The Wedding Shroud’ and this time around there is actually a lot of family feuds and revenge, showing that when there are too many powerful individuals who are not in agreement, it can weaken a city that’s trying to  defend itself.

This is an action-packed book where things are moving along very quickly, and I cannot wait the last book. It will be a thrilling if heartbreaking conclusion.

Call to Juno

This title has a very significant meaning which will only become apparent by the end of the book, but I also wanted to point out that this is the most intriguing and powerful title for me. While I am not someone who chooses to buy books based on covers, I am definitely drawn to titles.

By the last book events are becoming very intense. It is pretty much universally known (or at least unconsciously known) that only one can emerge victorious. There is just too much conflict on both sides and the greediness of Rome knows no bounds. And this makes a very epic conclusion and one of my favourite last books in a trilogy.

By now, Rome actually dominates the book quite a bit. The book is evenly split between the two cities as both cities are preparing themselves for one last battle. And our Roman antagonist is revealing himself as both a megalomaniac and a visionary genius that is fit to lead the charge. Our antagonist also promises that Rome will conquer Veii so that all the Roman plebian can take a share of the wealth that has been long denied. This book is also the book where it explores Roman society more thoroughly, where the lines between patrician and plebian are still firmly in place in principles and in law, but not necessarily in wealth or luxuries.

The plot itself is heartbreaking: betrayals, outbreak of disease, starvation, and a final battle as well as final plea to the deities that can save them. This is a very emotional ride and I am entirely attached to all the characters—from the Roman side as well as everyone from Veii. It is also in the hardships that I truly appreciate the bond that Mastarna and Caceilla have, as they always see each other as equals and will share the burden no matter what circumstances they find themselves and their family in. I am happy that the characters have such strong ties to help them get through all the hard times.

Another thing that I really enjoyed is how far Tarchon has come as a supporting character. His decisions and actions in this book demonstrate how much he matures as a person and how Storrs paints such great and emotional changes so succinctly. My only wish is that more of his willingness to shoulder on responsibility is shown as opposed to just told as I am rather attached to his character.

Despite the historical ending, I am very glad that Storrs manages to end the story with semblance of hope. Nothing is perfect and only after reading this trilogy do I realize with the loss of the Etruscan society that the world has lost something very beautiful and sacred. But I am glad to have had such wonderful glimpses at this lost society thanks to Storrs many talents.

TRILOGY REVIEW – Tales of Ancient Rome

I’m going to try something new with this review – I’ll be reviewing the series as a whole while also providing mini-reviews/thoughts on each book in the trilogy. I think it’ll be a fun way to review series to see the progression of the series and how all the books are attempting to tell one overarching story. (Or failing and making me wonder why I ought to devote so much of my time in the series). First up, the Tales of Ancient Rome trilogy by Elisabeth Storrs.

WHAT THE SERIES IS ALL ABOUT—to summarize it succinctly as possible, it is showcasing Ancient Rome like I have never seen, experienced or known before.

I have a very basic understanding of Ancient Rome (thanks to a very brief but fascinating grade school curriculum from eons ago, but another subject for another day)—the whole founding of the city by twin brothers Romulus and Remus who are raised by a wolf, how Ancient Rome once upon a time has a monarchy but somehow gives way to a Republic, which somehow leads to Caesar and Brutus and Cleopatra and all that goodness as they struggle for ultimate power, and finally rounding off with Augustus who becomes the first emperor and the establishment of the Roman Empire which eventually collapses after centuries by the Goths. (See, don’t you want to thank the people who taught me about Rome?) Anything else between the very important events I have learned through masters of their craft such as Kate Quinn and Libbie Hawker, as they write interesting books that directly/indirectly examine the Roman Empire.

But Elisabeth Storrs chooses an entirely different period to examine—the early Roman Republic days. She focuses at how Rome eventually becomes the dominate power in Italy both culturally and politically as well as how the Etruscan society fades away.  This is a period of history that I have zero knowledge about, and I am eternally grateful for the extensive research that Storrs has integrated in this beautiful series. While many of the characters are fictional, she does not try to create any character that will seem familiar to the 21st century reader; rather she attempts to remain faithful to the attitudes and conventions of the time which both excites and frustrates for my rather modern sensibilities.

First sign that the research seems very solid? The robust worldbuilding leads to the believable portrayal of two very different ancient societies that are twelve miles apart. Through Storrs writing, it is very close to time-travelling to examine how different the two cities are, both in attitude and in living standards. The most common difference is a theme that is revisited multiple times throughout the series—the treatment and attitude towards women. In Rome everyone expects respectable women to wear plain pallas (shawls) and stay at home and not voice their opinions or share tables with the menfolk. (That’s a lot of expectations.)  In Veii, women are openly celebrated and can wear colourful clothing and their opinions are listened to if not accepted or considered valid. There are many other details that Storrs provides throughout the book to demonstrate how Veii as a city and a society is much more advanced than Rome and why Rome is so intent on capturing this bountiful city.

Storrs is also a master with her words, particularly her descriptions. I adored all the feasts that the Veii celebrate as she takes great care to paint the scenarios so that I can almost hear, see and smell what it is like to be part of the feasts. It is particularly interesting for her to weave in many religious implications that are associated with the feasts, which helps also the reader understand what the Etruscan society is like.

Almost all the characters in this series—even the supporting cast—are three-dimensional and there are some amazing character developments for two of the three female leads throughout this series. Caceilla is the first female lead as it is her marriage that launches the entire story; she starts off as a reluctant bride who believes that she is being given to barbarians and heathens. Her journey is long and can be frustrating at times for me since she is a very stubborn individual, but she also develops the most and eventually is willing to understand what reality she lives in and how to embrace changes. Pinna, one of the other female leads introduced in the second book also has a fulfilling character arc as she demonstrates how sometimes Roman women have no choice and makes the best of whatever she can. The other female lead is Semni, an Etruscan servant who has an equally compelling backstory as she is thrown out by her husband and is struggling between multiple loyalties, but I find her to the weakest out of all three leads. Overall though, I really enjoy the rest of the cast. Storrs chooses to devote almost equal amount of chapters between the Etruscan and the Romans, so while the Romans are technically the antagonists in the series they have plenty of screen time that explain explain why they are so desperate and how they are willing to do whatever it takes to conquer Veii. I personally find the reading all the Roman storylines to be even more interesting than the Veii storyline, because I have a greater understanding of Ancient Rome (however scant it may be) and it is interesting to see how the emerging power comes to life. I also think that it is because Storrs does an excellent job of humanizing most of the antagonists, so it is interesting to read about their conflicts both internally and within Rome.

This is a trilogy that definitely becomes stronger with each successive book.  As the series moves along there is more action and battle scenes, more political intrigue and more morally ambiguous characters that muddle up the plot for the better. Again, more of the political intrigue comes from the Romans. It is another testament to Storrs writing that I am completely torn when reading the last book, as I have to force myself because I do not want to read the inevitable conclusion but at the same time I cannot help but turn the pages faster.

I will say the biggest weakness of this trilogy is how Storrs handles the romance aspects. It is not that she has poor romantic choices where she forces two characters together for no reason or that there is insta-love or that there is star-crossed lovers due to some cliché. In fact, the romances are fairly well-developed and each half of the romance is developed as a person as opposed to just a love interest (some more than others). But I find that sometimes romance can take center stage during very thrilling moments in the book—such as right before a siege or an important political moment—and I cannot help but think that there are so many other elements at stake and I wish to read about those instead. I also find it slightly annoying that all three female leads are motivated to take the actions that they did because of an emerging romance.

This is a brilliant historical fiction/romance trilogy that focuses on a very interesting slice of the Roman Republic history, and there is plenty of battle, intrigue, heartbreak and friendship for anyone to enjoy.

Review – Faithful Place

Summary : Back in 1985, Frank Mackey was a nineteen-year-old kid with a dream of escaping his family’s cramped flat on Faithful Place and running away to London with his girl, Rosie Daly. But on the night they were supposed to leave, Rosie didn’t show. Frank took it for granted that she’d dumped him-probably because of his alcoholic father, nutcase mother, and generally dysfunctional family. He never went home again. Neither did Rosie. Then, twenty-two years later, Rosie’s suitcase shows up behind a fireplace in a derelict house on Faithful Place, and Frank, now a detective in the Sublin Undercover squad, is going home whether he likes it or not.

Getting sucked in is a lot easier than getting out again. Frank finds himself straight back in the dark tangle of relationships he left behind. The cops working the case want him out of the way, in case loyalty to his family and community makes him a liability. Faithful Place wants him out because he’s a detective now, and the Place has never liked cops. Frank just wants to find out what happened to Rosie Daly-and he’s willing to do whatever it takes, to himself or anyone else, to get the job done.

DISCLAIMER – while this review does not contain any spoilers for the previous books in the Dublin Murder Squad series, there are multiple references to The Likeness. Just because. But mostly it has something to do with my undying love and flailing emotions. So feel free to play a game and pinch yourself or something every time The Likeness pops up.

After The Likeness, I wasn’t sure how I ought to approach Tana French’s next book. With much excitement, with some trepidation, or just take the plunge because French was unique writer with some of the best gifts from god for crafting characters? My expectations and love for French had grown immensely ever since reading The Likeness and I could not imagine how any of her subsequent books could compare, particularly when it came to leaving me in a puddle of emotional mess. Hence I chose approached this book with cautious optimism. Turns out I wasn’t wrong with my assessment.

First of all, Faithful Place was not a terrible book by any stretch of the imagination. It was a very solid book from French and I derived much enjoyment from it. But it just wasn’t that electrifying combination of messed-up and uniqueness that was The Likeness, and that did colour my opinion of the book.

One thing that French experimented with was using of duo timelines to explore this particular story. I thought it was a very effective way of demonstrating why Rosie Daly was such an important person for Frank Mackey, both in his past and present. The two timelines also helped explain the acrimonious family relationship of the Mackey family, since everyone pretty much had a beef with someone at least for once.  Most importantly, it was an excellent look at how Frank Mackey became the Frank Mackey that the readers were acquainted with starting from The Likeness. What I also appreciated was that French managed to make both the past and the present interesting and vital to the plot. Duo timelines are a tricky thing, often authors will use one of them as info dump and will purposely mislead the reader through the manipulation of the times.  But I thought French did a fabulous job and this method of storytelling was actually the strongest part of the book for me.

Another great thing that French kept hinting was the whole concept of nature vs nurture. This theme slowly emerged for me throughout the read, and I found it very interesting as French seemed to provide valid points for both sides of the argument. Holly Mackey—Frank’s adorable daughter who was rather precocious—grew up in a relatively middle-class if not posh environment with parents who instilled certain values and morals in her, but there were streaks of deviousness that would creep up. Many other characters also have their own moments in regards to the past as well as the environment that they grew up in, and I found it to be an interesting subject to explore in a genre novel.

Finally, this book really ought to win a trophy for showcasing one of the most dysfunctional lower class families in fiction. I have read about families in poverty that still loved each other and stuck by each other, and I have read stories where families would act all kooky and would be slightly dysfunctional when it came to the authorities or the establishment. French introduced a whole new breed: the family that loved each other yet would devour each other in all nasty imaginable actions to drive each other insane. And by loved I meant it was a combination of family solidarity and duty as well as actual familial love, although both created very strong family bonds (for better or for worse). At least that how it looked from Frank’s POV, because I was never quite sure if I should still love the family. On one hand, they were family and they tried their best given the circumstances, but there were so many moments that I felt Frank was completely justified in running away from the crazy people that shared DNA with him when he was nineteen despite the fact that most of them treated him like one of their own when he reappeared. The conflicting emotions were so strong and so like an actual family. There were almost no warm fuzzy moments in the book, and the ones that seemed warm and fuzzy eventually adopted a rather sinister tone as the book progressed.  Again, it was a contrast to what Frank wanted for his own daughter Holly, and that caused a lot of shenanigans and yelling matches and possibly nasty words along the way. French was always a master of creating atmospheric books, and this was no exception. The use of language and speech patterns for characters that came from Faithful Place were vastly different than the detectives and some of Frank’s more refined acquaintances, and I could see and feel the desperation that was coming from Faithful Place. Not the desperation that necessarily meant that everyone who came from it was doomed, but there was definitely a sense of being trapped in a vicious cycle and that it would require a lot of luck, hard work and cunning to actively escape from a life that was similar to one’s parents at Faithful Place, which I suspect how poverty would feel.

During my review for The Likeness I confirmed that French was the queen of building characters. While I would not disagree with this statement, I would like to assess it more carefully. Using the various concepts and techniques above, she managed to build another solid character that was Frank Mackey. However, I found myself less invested in Frank’s story than Rob’s or Cassie’s. It took me the longest time to pinpoint what was less enjoyable since Frank had his own host of problems that were probably even more messed up (as if that was possible for those that have read French’s first two books), but for me it was because Frank was super comfortable in his messed-up self. That was actually a great thing from a character perspective, since the character would be self-aware and comfortable in their own skin and totally owning it. Unfortunately it made it a less interesting read since anything that life or whatever/whoever threw at Frank, he would just toss it right back with a snarky comment and keep marching to his own diabolical tune. This also extended to the wide cast of characters featured in this book. The only character that I felt intrigued by most of the time was Rosie, Holly, and Kevin. Not to say that everyone else was dull as dishwater since they most empathetically weren’t, but it felt like French was trying to outdo her previous books/attempts by having a very large cast with all sorts of problems for nearly every single person. All the wackiness just became desensitizing and I could only stare at the cast as they continued to unravel what was left of the sanity of Faithful Place.

The other biggest weakness was the mystery itself. There were almost no red-herrings and I had correctly guessed who it the murderer was pretty quickly, even though I was joking to myself at the time. Still, this book felt less like a mystery and more like a book examining what a family and to a lesser extent a community would do when some hidden skeletons (including a literal one) surface after a number of years. There was certainly a lot more on the emphasis of the dysfunctional dynamics than the murder case.

It was still a solid read from French and I will continue the series with pleasure. It seems like another book will feature Frank Mackey and Holly again, and I look forward to seeing them as characters when perhaps they are not the POV characters.

Thanks for reading! Also, anyone still alive after all the references to the book that I Shall Not Mention Anymore But I Clearly Love?

Review – The Assistants

Summary – Tina Fontana is the hapless but brazen thirty-year-old executive assistant to Robert Barlow, the all-powerful and commanding CEO of Titan Corp., a multinational media conglomerate. She’s excellent at her job and beloved by her famous boss—but after six years of making his reservations for restaurants she’d never get into on her own and pouring his drinks from bottles that cost more than her rent, she’s bored, broke, and just a bit over it all.

When a technical error with Robert’s travel-and-expenses report presents Tina with the opportunity to pay off the entire balance of her student loan debt with what would essentially be pocket change for her boss, she struggles with the decision: She’s always played by the rules. But it’s such a relatively small amount of money for the Titan Corporation—and for her it would be a life-changer . . .

I must admit, I dived into the book knowing only two things: it was about assistants, and the assistants were some very small cogs in a massive corporation. While I did glance at the synopsis to gauge my interest on the subject matter, I completely forgot about the actual premise when I began reading this book.

Initially, I could not help but chortle in public as I read through Tina’s life about expense forms and all her other random tasks as an assistant—the assistant to the man of the Titan Corporation—because it rang so true on a superficial level. I knew exactly what she was talking about when filling out all the mundane forms, quickly skimming through all the expenses and mentally calculating what she (or any other sane human who is not rich) could do with that money instead. Or even just figuring out what people do with their money. It was a completely tongue-in-cheek way of looking at how assistants operate, and I wholeheartedly embrace the concept at first. I also couldn’t help but be impressed with how the idea of student debt—a very relevant and real struggle here—was vital to the plot.

My delight escalated as I realized that two assistants—Tina, the protagonist, and Emily Johnson—were actually going to attempt to fleece their employers (the people that require their assistants?) by duplicating expense reports to pay off their student loans. Ridiculous idea along with the little problem that it was completely illegal, but the farfetched and daring premise captivated me. I wanted to see how this two-woman crew planned to embezzle their company for several (tens) of thousands for their own benefit due to their paltry salaries for a better life and how they would outwit everyone else in their company. This was the classic David vs Goliath trope, and I wanted Emily and Tina to succeed even as I completely acknowledge that what they were doing was very wrong.

As it turns out, their nefarious scheme of duplicating expense reports quickly roped in a lot more people. More specifically, many other assistants who were also working at Titan Corporation. While I won’t go into the details of how the duo kept getting discovered by somebody else for their pet project, it did become ridiculous quickly for two reasons. First of all, this was a pretty farfetched scenario and if one starts injecting reality in this skewed story/world, the jig would be up almost immediately. Secondly, out of all the assistants that eventually figured out this secret none of them believed that they should turn in the ring of assistants in. Everyone was alright with this scheme because apparently the corporation just treats all the assistants that badly. By the umpteenth time that a bunch of other assistants figured out the secret and wanted in, instead of feeling sorry for them I just kept rolling my eyes at the whole fiasco because it was more than ridiculous, it was impossible. Everyone should have been fired and charged with criminal offenses long ago, since the more people in on the secret, the easier it was for the secret to leak. By the end of the book it seemed every assistant at Titan Corporation (and according to the book there are plenty of assistants, almost upward to three figures) was aware of this cause and contribute to it somehow.

The other biggest problem was that I realized halfway through the book was that Perri picked the wrong protagonist; instead of chronicling from Tina’s POV, she should have told the story from Emily’s POV. Emily was the far more interesting character of the duo, and it was a pity that she was shoved aside for Tina’s very minimal character development and dull romantic subplot. The romantic subplot actually took up a lot of the middle of the book, and again I found myself rolling my eyes (to the point where I had to stop since otherwise my eyes would fall out) at the couple because it did not add anything to the main plot. Tina was a much weaker character who was supposed to be the rational one of the duo, but she always was persuaded by someone else that she should continue with this scheme.  Tina also did not bother to analyze any outcomes and if she (along with the gaggle of assistants) should take any precautions to ensure that their secret will remain safe.  She essentially was the person who would cringe at the ridiculousness of everything and acted as if it was “above” her, but then she was the one that started it all! (Albeit with some encouragement aka blackmail by Emily) At least Emily embraced the ridiculousness of the premise for all it is; plus I really enjoy the various aspects of her character. As a minor con artist, the bitch with a heart of gold, and a daredevil risk taker Emily launched the initial embezzlement to new heights.

Aside from the duo, there was really no characterization or differentiation between any of the many assistants in Titan corporation. They all basically had the same backstory – girls (apparently no male could ever be an assistant) who took the first (and perhaps only) job that gave an offer due to the awful economy and was completely delighted to help punish their bosses in any way possible as revenge. Also, most of the assistants had chosen to study in fields that was not completely related to media or business at all (Titan Corporation amongst other things dabbled with media—to be honest I don’t recall and it didn’t really matter) and had thousands and thousands of dollars of student debt. Well, that’s one way of looking at the assistants.

Still, Perri did tackle plenty of very real issues in such a lighthearted book—of course, in a very lighthearted manner. Higher education tuition skyrocketing faster than the speed of light (well, it feels this way) leading to five or six figure student debt, the lack of jobs once these students graduate with a degree from their post-secondary institute leading to taking random jobs, and people stuck in jobs while aimlessly drifting about without a real plan for their career are all very real issues today. And it does not require a rocket science to figure out how people stuck in these camps are coping and how the novel tries to respond about these issues. I always think that it is important for these issues to be present because these are struggles that so many people in their twenties are thirties are facing, and it is wonderful to see that literature is also trying to acknowledge and address this issue.

I just hope that eventually there will also be meatier selections in the market, since this is more of a fluffy beach read than anything else.

Review – You & Hidden Bodies

Well, here is a double-special today. (I guess it also works as an apology for not posting last week?) Normally I try to review books individually, but since most of my comments for Caroline Kepnes’ duology (series? trilogy? anyone know if she’ll write another one with Joe and company?) are the same it would be redundant typing it up multiple times.  Don’t worry, as usual no spoilers will be found here. I just consider the books to be one installment after another showcasing Joe Goldberg’s life that makes up one story, so it makes sense reviewing them together.

Let’s start off with the wonderful yet optional presentation of the books: audiobook. My first and only recommendation if you are even remotely interested in this story is to LISTEN TO BOTH STORIES VIA THE AUDIOBOOKS. Santino Fontana is appropriately creepy as the narrator. I forget if Kepnes ever describes what Joe looks like, but with Santino Fontana voicing Joe I just imagine animated Hans (Fontana is the voice actor for Hans from Frozen) It actually works out really well—spoilers for Frozen for anyone who has not watched it. Both characters are both creepers, more or less. Except that Joe is much more intense, and possibly even creepier if not necessarily more evil.

Actually though, aside from the whole voice actor thing, it actually makes sense to listen to the audiobooks as opposed to reading them. You is written from a 2nd person POV where there is plenty of stream of conscious monologues from Joe and the story just becomes intensified when the reader listening to Joe conveying his story. While Hidden Bodies is written in 3rd person POV much of Joe’s stream of conscious remains (it is a characteristic quirk of Joe) so it will make much more sense when the reader is enjoying the story as told by Joe.

Aside from that bonus, Joe has an interesting voice that makes me shudder at how creepy and obnoxious he is sometimes, and other times say weird comments that make me want to chuckle if not laugh out loud. While I personally never find Joe’s brand of craziness endearing—I actually find it rather nauseating by the end, there is really no dull times with Joe. He is simply too abstract and wacky at that. (Oh, and the creepiness. Except I think that everyone should know by now)

In You, Joe works in a bookshop when he spots someone that he likes—one Guinevere to be exact. And then being Joe, he of course goes not only the extra mile but the extra continent to figure out who Guinevere (Beck for short) is. Along the way he also discovers plenty about Beck before he even properly meets her and uses this advantage to make himself likeable. I won’t spoil his methods for everyone, but let’s just say that while some of them are quite conventional, others are just rather extreme versions of what most people will do.

I think Kepnes’s comments about social media and technology through Joe’s quest for true love are rather prominent in the first book. After reading the book, it really makes me wonder how easily accessible information is nowadays and that while technology can be awfully convenient, there is a dangerous side that can lead to very unfortunate consequences. At the end of the day, it is about common sense and awareness when using the Internet and privacy and all that good stuff, but I think Kepnes does an excellent job illustrating the potential disasters when a super keen detective stumbles across someone who is rather careless about their privacy on social media. Of course, it is also highly exaggerated in order to keep the plot moving so some suspense of disbelief is needed (Beck is really stupid with technology, that’s all I am saying).

Between Joe’s own brand of dedication and the danger of technology, this is not a typical thriller. Kepnes can probably leave it at that since Joe’s personality can more than compensate for the thrilling factor, but she also throws in multiple major characters that have skeletons in their closets. And the skeletons are not tiny either, leading to some devastating consequences for Joe, Beck, and a host of other characters.

Image result for hidden bodies book cover

Part II of the goodness (or creepiness) that is Joe. Photo Credit : http://www.simonandschuster.ca/books/Hidden-Bodies/Caroline-Kepnes/9781476785622

Of course, this beautiful dream has to end eventually which leads to book 2: Hidden Bodies. This time, Joe races across the country to seek a particular lady in LA. Best part, Joe doesn’t stay in LA either—he ends up in places in Malibu, Mexico, Hollywood amongst other places. There are plenty of locations where Joe is hopping around, and I find that Kepnes does a very interesting interpretation of all the locations.

As for Joe, he is very serious about his quest for love and does whatever he can, including to resorting to new professions and calling people “friends” that he would have never paid attention to in the previous installment. He even starts becoming a hotshot at Hollywood (somewhat). Some might call it his brand of resilience and continuation of his detective work to blend it whenever possible; I call it out-of-character.

The best part in my opinion? He meets his match in a girl called Amy Adams (clearly nothing to do with the talented Amy Adams that we all know of) from the beginning of Hidden Bodies; this keeps me on my toes for the duration of it. It is super refreshing to finally have someone not only sees what Joe is doing, but also accidentally/not-so-accidentally one-up him so he is the one that becomes frustrated with their antics.

Another great thing is that Kepnes does not forget about Joe’s adventures in the first book, and there are many details throughout the first book that haunt Joe in various ways and actually impact his life for at least a few chapters. I like the continuity and it is also interesting to see how Joe will deal with his previous mistakes so that he can win his happily ever after.

Unfortunately, I also had multiple issues with both books, and luckily (or unluckily) both books share some issues.

First of all, the body count. (This is not a spoiler, the summary did say Joe will resort to murder) It is not the crazy amount of people that Joe knocked off that I am annoyed with, but rather how routine and easy it becomes for Joe throughout the both books. Like I said, while there are things that haunt Joe in the second book and he has to worry about the consequences for a little while, overall both books normalizes the act of murdering and stashing away bodies. Murder becomes one of the skills or talents that Joe has, and again it is not something that necessary endears me to this character. There are multiple gratuitous sex scenes which don’t add a lot to the character or the plot, so it was sometimes tiring having to read all of them.

Joe is the anti-hero that everyone loves (or loves to hate), but I never see it. I just see Joe for what he is: a messed-up stalker/murderer who happens to say interesting things occasionally. However, I don’t find him either fascinating or particularly witty or a genius. But I can’t help but feel that it is creepy to idolize such a character since essentially all the things that he has done are awful and for pretty selfish reasons. While he is an entertaining character that makes a good read, I can’t connect to Joe and I find it hard to reconcile all the hype with Joe’s character and what my impression of his character is.

Other than that, I find both books to be entertaining reads (or listens, since I listened to both audio performances) and I do recommend everyone at least experiencing You, and continuing with Hidden Bodies if they are interested in more of Joe’s life. I am uncertain if Kepnes will come out with a third book regarding Joe Goldberg, although I personally hope not since where Joe ends up in Hidden Bodies is already pretty weird and I cannot imagine where she would take him for a third book that will make it a compelling read again (Plus if there are any more murders I would scream in frustration since enough is enough—the guy really needs to get caught soon).