Review: The Bronze Horseman (The Bronze Horseman, #1) by Paullina Simons

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Rating: ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date read: November 20 to 23 , 2013
Read count: 1, more than enough

This book came highly recommended by friends and reviewers, but I kept putting it off. Not because of the genre or anything about the book particularly. It just never looked that interesting.

The story is set in the USSR during the German invasion. Not a setting I’m familiar with, so I had to do some background research beforehand. I had read Doctor Zhivago awhile ago and loved it because it had that perfect union of engaging story and lyrical prose that I always look for in any book, regardless of genre. The Bronze Horseman seemed like it had similar themes or, at the very least, a contemporary echo of Doctor Zhivago, which in this case I wouldn’t have minded at all.

For some reason, there had always been something holding me back from this book, and I couldn’t figure out why. The star ratings were high, like unbelievably so across the board, and reviews by critics and average readers alike were glowing (they still are). Still, I never really felt like picking up this book and didn’t know why.

And then I started reading. And everything that held me back suddenly made sense. Simply put, this book is just not for me, and I must have known that on a subconscious level.

Let me interrupt this review by saying the writing by itself is not terrible. The execution of the story, characterization (especially the two main characters), and the “romance” angle, on the other hand, are almost unbearable. I say “almost” because I did finish reading, so it wasn’t completely unbearable.

I’ll start with compliments and then ease into shortcomings.

The author’s depictions of pre-siege and post-siege Leningrad (St. Petersburg) are well done and very close to actual accounts from people who lived through the siege. A great number of people died of starvation within the city during this time. Those who survived had to scour for food any way they could. The way in which the author represents this particular era, through the perspective of one individual family, is well written and shows that she had done plenty of research. Had the story focused on the siege and its aftermath, I would have found this book a lot more interesting. So in other words, if the setting and context remain the same but the story is told from a different POV, accompanied by a completely different set of characters, it would be a richer story.

I read historical fiction for a different (hindsight) perspective of historical accounts. Already knowing what happens and the how’s and why’s of it only makes the stories more interesting, to me. History strengthens fiction by adding multiple perspectives into the mix which adds more depth to an already familiar event. When this is done well, fictional accounts read somewhat like actual historical accounts but with more depth, and this is what I look for in well crafted historical fiction. I think the Paullina Simons not only captured the events of the Siege of Leningrad but also the tense atmosphere of the era, the plight of the people, and the hopelessness of a city starving to death. If only she had approached characterization and plot with the same care.

Next comes the hard part because I really wanted to like this book. It had a lot of things going for it. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me because the things that bothered me far outweighed the things that didn’t. So here goes.

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Review: Moon Over Soho (Peter Grant, #2) by Ben Aaronovitch

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date read: October 22 to November 16, 2013
Read count: 1

With “moon” in the title and a setting like London, I was expecting there to be a werewolf tale or at the very least a shapeshifter subplot, but this a story about Soho and jazz… and murder and magic and supernatural forces and things beyond our existential control, but mostly Soho and jazz. So of course, my favorite kind of urban fantasy. You won’t even miss the lack of werewolves at all.

Once in a very rare while, an author’s writing style syncs up with all the qualities which I look for in a genre. When these things overlap, reading becomes less of a task and more of an experience. Ben Aaronovitch’s writing is everything I look for in urban fantasy. I had an inkling shortly after finish Rivers of London that that was the case, but I wasn’t certain until this book.

When a good book takes you a step further into the realm of experience, the feeling I associate with reading is similar to returning home after a long trip away. And that was what it was like for me all through this book. After finish Rivers of London, I took a break to explore other genres and fictions and they were interesting, but the moment I picked up Moon Over Soho, it was like I was home again. Even though I’ve never been to London and only know of it through media representations, Aaronovitch’s London feels like a familiar place.

Anyway.

There are a lot of things I like about this book and a handful of things I have issues with, which are somewhat “resolved” in the end. I won’t get to them though because they are huge spoilers.

Peter Grant is still a fun protagonist to follow around. You get to follow him around all corners–and through alley ways and rivers and creaks and abandoned buildings–of London during the investigation. He has a peculiar, yet entertaining, way of describing present-day London while dropping chunks of past-London into the narration. I enjoyed these moments the most because my interest is often piqued and I end up looking all of these references up as I’m reading. They add more depth to the story and investigation and an different perspective that I’d not otherwise consider, and ultimately following Peter around London feels like getting an underbelly tour of Soho.

Peter’s magic takes on a more prevalent role in this book as he grows as an apprentice, an absurdly easily distracted apprentice, but still. Aside from beginner’s magic and Latin practices, Peter is also introduced to a new type of sinister magic and the possibility more like it exists. This is more sinister than what we’ve seen in Rivers of London. It’s interesting to note that, while Nightingale is the Master Wizard, he often takes a supporting role in Peter’s investigations due to his recent injuries and Peter ends up doing most of the legwork, which is why he’s often sidetracked (and distracted by shiny things). But he gets well on his own.

Peter’s family and his interactions with his mom and dad are sweet while being realistic. Although his parents have limited screen-time, every scene they appear in show a glimpse of the family’s true dynamic and Peter’s biracial background. It’s a testament to Aaronovitch that he can write this family with an honesty and sense of care that I rarely see in genre fiction and almost never in urban fantasy. Even when Peter is taking the reader around London tracking down a lead, in between snark and satire, he would often mention the influences his parents had and still have on him, which shows in both his personality and behavior. When the family is together, you can see that Peter takes after both of his parents. I find this endearing.

Wow. This is turning out to be a very Peter-centric post. That’s because I can’t really talk about anything else without going further into the investigation. I can’t even mention Simone, even though every book blurb already has. I can’t even talk about the specific type of sinister magic that Peter encounters without revealing the ending. I certainly can’t bring up Molly due to the nature–or mystery?–of her being. But I can say that this story takes the reader back to a prolific time in London’s past that still has an effect on the London of today. That’s not too vague, now is it…

Like in Rivers of London, the narration and dialogue are great fun and quick-witted. Peter’s funny when he’s narrating or on his own talking to himself, and he’s hilarious when Nightingale is around. The two of them have that old-world meets new-world dynamic that’s perfect for Peter’s comedic timing.

Life outside of London:

“There’s more to life than just London,” said Nightingale.
“People keep saying that,” I said. “But I’ve never actually seen any proof.”
“We can take the dog,” he said. “He’ll enjoy the fresh air.”
“We won’t,” I said. “Not if we take the dog.”

Peter and Nightingale discussing a victim’s “hobby”:

“Assuming he was a practitioner,” I said.
Nightingale tapped his better knife on the plastic-wrapped copy of the Principia Artes Magicis. “Nobody carries this book by accident,” he said. “Besides, I recognize the other library mark. It’s from my old school.”
“Hogwarts?” I asked.
“I really wish you wouldn’t call it that,” he said.

Peter and Nightingale discussing connotations:

“You can’t call them black magicians,” I said.
“You realize that we’re using black in its metaphorical sense here,” said Nightingale.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Words change what they mean, don’t they? Some people would call me a black magician.”
“You’re not a magician,” he said. “You’re barely even an apprentice.”

Peter meeting Postmartin for the first time:

I could see him trying to parse the phrase but he’s colored in a way that wouldn’t cause offense and failing. I put him out of his misery by shaking his hand; my rule of thumb is if they don’t physically flinch from touching you, then eventually they’ll make the adjustment.

 

All jokes aside, there is something that still bothers me and that’s the casual use of the word “Jap” to refer to anything Japanese. In this case, a sushi restaurant. Here in the US, it’s a racial slur that dates back to WWII and the Japanese concentration camps. In the UK though, I don’t know how this word is used or whether or not there is tension behind it. Aaronovitch has been respectful of diversity and racial discourse whenever he brings up Peter’s biracial identity and Peter’s mother’s Sierra Leonean background, so perhaps the word “Jap” doesn’t carry the same racial connotation in the UK as it does in the US…?

And another thing, I find it hard to believe that Peter, whose mom is Sierra Leonean, would refer to Africa and also the Middle East as “countries” when grouping both with other actual countries like China, Russia, and India. I will excuse this as an editing slight, but if something like it happens again, it will be very disappointing.

Review: The Sketch Book: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories

The Sketch Book: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date read: October 27 to 31, 2013
Read count: 3

Not as scary as I remember, but still a classic October read.

Over the years, I’ve read, watched, and listened to a number of headless horseman retellings of Irving’s tale, and while I enjoy seeing a dated text brought to contemporary settings and revised with contemporary language, the scare-factor of the original story is either watered down or gone altogether.

As much as I enjoy rereading this story collection, the experience isn’t as good as when I first read it all those years ago at a time when I knew very little about genre tropes and urban legends and enjoyed the simple experience of being scared of things that went bump in the night

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Sleepy Hollow, the new TV series on Fox, is pretty good. I watched the first 5 episodes in just one rainy weekend and they were exactly what I was looking for: a mix bag of modern crime mystery and thriller set against an end-times conspiracy story arc (that will span the season) and just the right amount of urban legend thrown in.

I was inspired to reread Irving’s Sleepy Hollow after watching the show. Even though the two have very little in common–Ichabod Crane and urban legends–it’s interesting to offset one against the other while comparing and contrasting tones and tropes.