A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray This book had a few rough patches and a few bursts of brilliance that evened each other out. I liked this book overall, especially for the surprising feminist undertones, but it had a rough start. It starts out in India, on the day of Gemma’s 16th birthday, …
This book feels like a skilled author who has contempt for fantasy set out to write a fantasy novel but chickened out at the last minute. Three stars isn’t an accurate rating for the book. The first part is four stars, and the last part is one or two.
The theme of the book is rooks. The main character, William Bellman, kills a rook with a stone when he’s a boy. This event, we are told, will have serious repercussions later. Rooks never forget. Pontificating mini-chapters in a different font bookmark the novel, telling us about the mythology behind rooks. Well, ravens, and crows too, actually, but the author kind of lumps them all together. Kind of like that Aesop tale about the coyote and the sour grapes, or that bible story about the eel that tempted Eve in the garden of Eden. I mean, close enough, right? There’s a black bird on the cover, the death of the rook is a pivotal event (we are told, as rooks do not forget). Rooks fly over the window of William’s daughter, who paints pictures of them. His cousin paints a picture of a rook for her. And the mysterious Mr. Black, it’s implied, is also a rook somehow.
It starts out promising enough. The author does a great job with the characters and their inter-relationships. William, Charles, Fred and Luke all grow up in the same village and while they are the same age with similar skills and interests, we know their lots in life are largely determined by who their fathers are and that their paths will soon diverge. William is the nephew of the owner of the mill in town, but the mill’s owner, Bellman Sr. has never forgiven William’s father for marrying a poor girl without the parents’ permission and therefore William is a bit of a pariah. But he’s allowed to see the mill anyway, and he develops a passion and a skill for business.
William is a born workaholic with ambitions of expanding the business and winning at capitalism. He just loves working so much, and is fascinated by all the details of business. He still has a life, though, and finds time to cavort with barmaids, drink beer with friends, and then to fall in love and marry and start a family. Sometimes a person dies and at the funeral, he always sees a mysterious figure, the elusive Mr. Black. But nevermind, he’s got a business to run. William becomes the apple of his uncle’s eye, so passionate about the family business, unlike his cousin Charles who escapes abroad to paint and love out from under the disapproving eye of their grandfather.
William has four children and a wife he loves, but he loves working even more. Work work work. He just loves to work, and he’s good at it. Setterfield seems to relish this subject, and her passion made me relish it as well. I never thought I’d be so fascinated by a textile mill. Then tragedy strikes and William loses people he cares about. He’s just about to lose everything and he goes to a bar and drinks himself silly. On the way home, crossing a graveyard, he sees Mr. Black, who this time sticks around long enough to talk to him. This is the point at which the book should have ended. This is the point at which the rook revealed himself and said “I’m avenging my fallen cousin, whom I loved as much as you loved the people you just buried, by bringing a plague on your house.” That should have been it. Shave and a haircut, end of story. Ghoulish, creepy, done. But instead, Black says something elusive about an opportunity, and William decides that means they’re going to open a funerary emporium.
The next part of the book was about opening the business of the funerary emporium. We got a lot of detail about this business, how amazing their goods were, how exquisitely tasteful, how grand the building. And then there’s more of William working, ignoring the few friends and family he has left. The last half of the book lost all the well-done characterization that I’d so enjoyed at the beginning. The person who had a personality (William) kind of lost it and became one-note (William=works). Setterfield devotes page after loving page describing Bellman & Black, but I didn’t care about the business. I’d already read half a book about a textile mill, and that was fine, but businesses aren’t as interesting as people, especially if half the people in them are faceless, nameless, or even if they do have names (Girl No. 9) they don’t really have personalities to go along with them.
William works and works, hoping to balance out his agreement with Mr. Black. He’s terrified of Mr. Black, thinks that if he doesn’t offer Mr. Black enough money, Mr. Black will … what? It’s never said, and it was hard to imagine anything William was afraid of losing. He doesn’t really care for anyone or anything at that point, except his business. He doesn’t even bother to visit the person he ostensibly went into agreement for. So there’s no characterization, and the only plot is “will the business continue to do well” and “when will Mr. Black show up?” But I wasn’t invested in the former (there were hints that it might fail soon, but it didn’t do so, and a major opportunity for character emotion and action was lost) and the latter, when it finally happened, was a huge let down.
I’ll just admit that I didn’t get it. Or I got it, but didn’t think I got it because it didn’t feel like a satisfactory ending. I wanted more. I wanted an epiphany. I wanted a resolution. I wanted some plot point to justify wading through the plotless and characterless Part 2 of the book. What I got was some maybe-sorta-magic from the never-explained Mr. Black (who, near as I can tell, had zero correlation or connection with the dead rook, except in color). The huge finale: Mr. Black shows us that instead of grieving by remembering the dead and thinking about his own mortality, William lost himself in work. I was so disappointed. I was like, seriously? I figured that out 150 pages ago! Why did you make me wade through an Ayn Rand novel for 150 pages! If the moral is just “a man can be smart at business and dumb at what’s really important” you didn’t need Mr. Black to tell that story. You didn’t need the rooks. I felt like I was promised a gothic urban fantasy and what I got was a Victorian morality play with some black bird stickers pasted on. I was told by the cover that the rook was absolutely central to the story, that Bellman and Black formed a partnership to create a macabre business, and that was not true. They didn’t make some Faustian bargain. Black just sort of showed up, and then they threw in some haphazard Norse mythology and called it a day. The pieces didn’t connect, and part 2 just kind of meandered looking for an ending.
I bought this book for my daughter, who read it and implored me to read it, adding “it will make you cry, but it’s good” which I usually equate with “drink this, it will make you vomit, but it’s good.” I don’t like crying, I don’t want to cry when I read books. I can make myself depressed without outside assistance, thank you very much. And yet, I read it, I cried, and yet I can say it’s good.
Marin is a freshman at college, coping (very poorly) with grief. She’s grieving her grandfather who, as it turns out, isn’t so great at grief himself. Marin’s strategy is to run away, literally and figuratively, from her pain. Only her best friend and ex-girlfriend Mabel is coming to visit for three days, so Marin will have to cope or at least start to face her pain.
What worked for me was the focus on details that really made me feel emotionally attuned with the protagonist. When Marin describes eating at a kitchen table so small that she and her Gramps accidentally brushed knees all the time, I could picture their relationship. When strangers (surfer friends of her dead mother) give her seashells, it tells me a lot about her place in the beach-goers society. When she puts her hand on Mabel’s shoulder and Mabel covers it with her own, it tells me worlds about how the two of them are feeling. Brushing teeth without talking to each other. Tomatoes so poor quality they are white in the center. Masking tape labeling everything in the fridge as hers. I felt what Marin was feeling vividly, because all the details made me feel like I was living her life.
Since it’s about grief, about people dealing poorly with grief and about the pain that inadvertently causes in the ones they love, it’s a sad book that just gets sadder and sadder as Marin’s poor choices drive people away. But just when it hit peak depressing, out of nowhere it smacked me right in the feels and then I really needed the tissue box. It had a hopeful, redemptive ending, and not a typical “heartwarming” which is code for “as depressing as orphans being tortured,” but “things are going to be okay because they all really love each other” kind of heartwarming.
I wrote this book a few years ago and finally published it this year. What held me back from publishing it is that I wanted it to be illustrated but didn’t have the time or money to find and hire an artist. But I’ve been really stepping up my drawing and painting game in the past year or so and I finally felt like my art skills were enough to do the book justice. In addition to the cover, I have small watercolors (rendered as black and white in this) at the start of each chapter.
The protagonist of this book is 11, but she reads a little younger because I based her off my own memories of childhood and I’m quite weird. It’s set in Tempe, Arizona, in the 1980s, so it’s “old timey” as a certain 12-year-old told me. The advantage of having it set back then is that the kids actually have freedom to leave the house on their own and explore the neighborhood without some nosy neighbor calling child protective services.
While it is an adventure, and Scar has real challenges to solve (saving her brother) the book has enough funny points to act as a counterbalance to the tension. A good reader might like to read this independently as early as 8, and adults will probably enjoy it too, especially if they get it on kindle so people on the subway don’t realize they’re reading a kids’ book. I’ve read it to a five-year-old, who enjoyed it quite a bit, though he guessed all the plot points because he’s too smart for his own good. At 36,000 words, it’s basically novella length, and you can finish it in less than a week of bedtime sessions, especially if the person you’re reading it to is winsome and adorable and you’re kind of a pushover for that sort of thing.
We got this book as an audiobook for a car trip, reasoning that YA was one of the few things we would both enjoy. My kid had started reading it, saying that it was one of those “kid from our world goes to fantasy world” tropes, but quite a bit darker. Since a bunch of kids are kidnapped and sold into slavery, I’d agree that yes, this is quite a bit darker.
Cole and his friends Dalton and Jenna are from Mesa, Arizona (which I don’t believe for a bit, because anyone from Arizona would be more amazed by the fact that a house had a basement than they would by a guy in a costume) and decide to go to a “haunted house” in the neighborhood. The book felt retro in that none of the 11-year-olds had phones and that they were allowed to wander by themselves in the neighborhood and even into someone’s house. Inside, scary strangers, including a witch, chide them for being soft people from an easy world who don’t know what real fear is.
Pretty soon the kids learn, as the kids are manacled and caged in wagons for sale. Cole is dead set on rescuing his friends from slavery, and completely undaunted by the danger of doing so, even when he gets smacked around quite a bit. He’s not completely successful, and I cynically expect it will take the whole series to achieve this goal. Cole’s adventure lies in a different direction, with the Sky Raiders.
This is the kind of fantasy novel where you can’t expect things to make sense. How do castles fly in the sky? Floatstones. How do float stones work? We don’t know, stop asking questions, kid. Eventually you have to just kind of nod and run with it. Giant cheesecake mesa? Nod, okay. Bow that never runs out of arrows? Sure, why not? Magic that stops working over the border? If that’s how you do things here. Dusk in all directions at once? Just stop thinking about it.
The real fun of this is in the adventuring. Pretty soon Cole meets other young friends and band together to help a princess. It takes them a while to figure out who the princess is, but the rest of us were swifter on the uptake. I mean really, there aren’t that many girls in the story. The characters are not particularly deep. Cole is brave, Jase is cocky, Twitch is nervous, Mira is female. It’s a boy’s romp, with lots of action and danger, but not a lot of thinking. Characters help or hinder, but don’t really have much of an arc. Even Cole, arguably the most complicated character, has only one conflict: help the princess or save his friends?
I especially loved all the magic items. A bag filled with fog? A painting that tells you the weather tomorrow? The kids are in a magic world, but they don’t have much in the way of skills, so they have to use their ingenuity and the items to flee danger.
Could it be better? Yes. There really aren’t a lot of female characters, and “save the princess” seems kind of trite. Like, wouldn’t she be worthy of saving if she weren’t royal? If they value human life so cheaply, wouldn’t they also have female scouts? Also, the cardboard characters don’t really entice you to get wrapped up in their story. But the worldbuilding is fun. One never knows what wonder the heroes will encounter next.
This novel is quirky and fun and about people who are slightly exaggerated (but still believable). The story is funny and lighthearted while still managing to be sad enough to make me cry. (Is it reductionist to say it reminds me of Swedish films in that way?)
The novel centers on the relationship between almost-8-year-old Elsa and her Granny, a loud-living former doctor with a wild past. Granny and Elsa share a secret language and a wealth of made-up fairy tales about the Land-of-Almost-Awake, which, she learns, are all based on the real stories of the people who live in their apartment building.
As Elsa delivers letters to the people in the apartment, in which her Granny apologizes for transgressions, she learns more and more about the backgrounds of the people there. She also learns more about a real-life danger that is threatening the residents in general and her in particular.
What I liked about this novel was that it was different enough to make me feel like I was learning about how other people viewed the world, and yet familiar enough that I felt connected with the characters. The novel has elements of magical realism, for example, is the wurse a dog or not? Do they really go to the Land-of-Almost-Awake or do they just tell stories? Does Granny have a real secret language, or is it just like pig latin? I also liked how most of the people, even the ones who seem insufferable, are presented with enough of a good side that you like or at least start to sympathize with them.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty Who would have thought that a story about gossip and kindergarten mothers could be so dark and suspenseful? What really cinches this book as a standout example of its genre are the solidly constructed characters and the successful interview-style framing. The sideline interviews with different characters not only heighten …
League of Dragons by Naomi Novik If I had to describe this book to someone familiar with the Temeraire series, I’d describe it as “A lot more of the stuff you like.” Usually these books are just fun fun fun from beginning to end, but this is the first one that started to feel like …
The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue by Michael J. Tougias I love stories of maritime disaster. I love tense, sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat action stories. And this audiobook was only four-and-a-half hours long! Surely this would be a great listen? And this book did provide some action so tense …