Category Archives: Adult

10) A Conjuring of Light

By: V. E. Schwab

Date Finished: 03.09.17

13. A Conjuring of Light

A myth without a voice is like a dandelion without a breath of wind. No way to spread the seeds.

NOTE: Since I’m going to discuss the whole series, I will use the following abbreviations for the titles
A Darker Shade of Magic = ADSOM
A Gathering of Shadows = AGOS
A Conjuring of Light = ACOL

ACOL is the final book of the Shades of London series by V. E. Schwab (not to be confused with the Shades of London series by Maureen Johnson which is also amazing). And what a satisfying ending it was. Schwab has so much respect for her readers, and while she is unapologetic about doing what’s best for the story, she doesn’t break your heart without a reason. Granted, I might have said something very different a year ago when I finished AGOS. To say that book ended abruptly is to say Antarctica is a bit on the cold side.

ACOL picks up immediately after the mania that concludes AGOS and it’s frantic until the first episode ends and at least one thing has been resolved. It’s gentler from there – in comparison – as it becomes the story of a group of messy, complicated people trying to solve an impossible and potentially world-ending problem. As you do. There are some rough seas within the book but it was not as gutting as I expected.

This series is fantasy at its best. The rules of magic are clear and the costs are high. The worldbuilding is thorough and well-articulated. By the end of ACOL you know the people, the customs, the mythology, and even bits of the language for each of the Londons (there are four total — Gray London is ours and Black London is inhabitable). It’s enough that you could navigate Red London reasonably well as a tourist. You could navigate White London, too, if you’ve had extensive self-defense training.

Just like the Londons, the characters and their relationships are rich and dynamic and deeply flawed. Every one of the main characters is heroic. Every one of the main characters is heroic in a different, very unconventional way. Every one of the main characters is plagued by demons that they don’t always defeat. ADSOM and AGOS are largely about forming friendships and strengthening loyalties. ACOL forces the cast to form alliances with the people they’d much rather murder. It also forces the reader to weep for the last person they expected to care about (or that could just be me).

I’m prone to mix up the titles of the first two books (A Darker Shade of Magic indicates that there was something less dark before) but the sequence is meaningful. Even though it throws me off, “darker” tells you exactly what to expect from the magic of this world — there’s nothing cute or charming about it. A Gathering of Shadows is a set up for the last book, yes, but it also pushes all the characters to the edge of their strength and their faith. It’s hard to see any hope at the end which is why it’s so significant that the last book is A Conjuring of Light. You know where it’s headed. You know how they’ll battle the darkness. But there is no indication that it will be easy. Schwab is the perfect guide — adept at plunging you into the deepest darkness and then leading you through to the light.

In a case of fortuitous timing, my sister posted her reactions to the series on Instagram tonight — @lizaleegrace, or, more bookishly, @lizareadsbooks. And so, with her permission, today I leave you with my sister’s thoughts.

13. Conjuring Rachel

At the end of the day: Totally for me

01) Hamilton: The Revolution

By: Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

Date Finished: 01.04.17

by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

This is a book for the fans. If you haven’t listened to the soundtrack yet, please don’t cheat yourself. Read less. Listen more.*

I wasn’t sure if the content was more about the show or the man — frankly, I would have devoured either way — but I was pleased to find that it’s almost exclusively a history of the musical and its creators. There plenty of biographies that cover the life of Alexander (one by Ron Chernow comes to mind…) and this book is for the fans.

There are two authors. Jeremey McCarter wrote the prose sections, the three or four pages that discuss the process from inception to Broadway, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, of course, wrote the lyrics (which are published in full). Fortunately for us, Miranda also provided commentary in the margins of every song. As for McCarter, his pace is perfect; the emotional journey of the show’s creation matches the emotional journey of the show almost beat for beat. Each chapter also focuses on a specific person (director, choreographer, actor, etc.) involved in creating the show. These vignettes are masterfully curated with each subject resting in their featured chapter like Goldilocks lying in Baby Bear’s bed. The resulting mix is flawless — an objective narrative from someone who was peripherally involved and a delightful stream of consciousness from the maestro himself.

I wonder (and I’d be interested to hear) what the book is like for someone who’s not a theatre professional. It’s easy for me to envision the room where it happened** because I spend most of my time in such rooms. (At one point, the commentary mentioned a complex calling sequence for the stage manager and I instinctively starting saying, “GO” at the end of every line.) As a theatre artist, this book was both encouraging and inspiring.

For those of you who haven’t gone off the Hamilton deep end yet, let me assure you that the show lives up to the hype. I beg you to listen; however, I encourage to do so in your time. Set aside an evening so that you can hear it in one sitting; it’s much more emotionally damaging, er, moving that way. The book will be here for you when you’re ready.

At the end of the day: For me

*I couldn’t resist poorly adjusting this quote for my own purposes. It is, of course, very unfair of me to use a show quote when addressing the people who don’t know the show but it’s staying.

**Another show quote. This one’s far more legitimate.

29) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

By: Mark Haddon

Re-read Finished: 12.18.14

by Mark Haddon

Someone has killed the neighbor’s dog, and Christopher Boone has decided to solve the mystery. He writes down what he learns as a book, but the search for Wellington’s killer leads Christopher to uncover dark secrets within his own family.

The word is never used in the book, but it is clear that Christopher is autistic. As the narrator of the story, Christopher’s worldview is not the least bit extraordinary to him. He understands that others see the world differently than him, but he is his own normal. And that is why the book works so well: it is told with the utmost sincerity.

I first read this for an English class my senior year in college. Many of the other students were thrown off by the unconventional storytelling such as the chapters being numbered with prime numbers and numerous vignettes that seemed like digressions instead of linear plot. I was delighted by these idiosyncrasies (and still am). Ultimately, all the pieces fit together and not a single sentence was out of place. Christopher explains why the chapters follow the sequence of prime numbers rather than numerals, and it’s brilliant. It makes every detail of the book, even the commonplace elements, an extension of Christopher’s character. Once you embrace the quirks of the story, it will take no effort at all to slip into Christopher’s mind, and only after you step back to consider the book as a whole will you see Haddon’s hand.

27) Dark Places

By: Gillian Flynn

Date Finished: 11.17.14

by Gillian Flynn

Libby Day and her brother, Ben, are the sole survivors of the massacre that killed their family.  Almost instantly, Ben was charged with the murders, convicted, and sent to prison for life.  Libby has been hiding from that night ever since, incapable of making any real connections or commitments, and living off the pity of strangers.  As her money runs out, Libby agrees to track down other suspects for a group that is trying to prove Ben’s innocence — so long as they’re willing to pay.  Along the way, she discovers that there was much more to that night’s horrors than she allowed herself to believe.

Well, the title does not lie.  This book goes to some very dark places indeed.  It is written from three perspectives: Libby, Ben, and their mother, Patty.  Libby’s story is the primary story, taking place in the present and occupying the odd numbered chapters.  Ben and Patty both speak from the day of the murders, their stories alternating on the even numbered chapters.  It is grotesquely fascinating to watch misunderstanding after misunderstanding pile up, ultimately leading to the brutal massacre.  All the while, the reader watches in horror as compounding bad decisions are made, knowing that it’s only going to get worse.

Parts of it are downright gruesome, but I have to admire Flynn’s craft.  Every part of the story falls into place like a Rube Goldberg machine.  A day in the life of Ben and Patty mirrored the trajectory that Libby took to uncover the truth twenty odd years later.  Both arcs were natural and complete, and their interactions complex and seamless.

I wish I could say this is the book form of a Cold Case episode (one of my favorite shows; the concept and structure are similar in many ways) but it’s a little too grotesque.  This was a book club read, so I can’t tell you if I would have finished it or not on my own.  I suspect I might have skipped to the end to see who committed the murders, or maybe read just Libby’s chapters (because she is delightful even in her bitterness).   The craft is excellent, but some things you can’t unread.

At the end of the day: Not for me

7) Unnatural Creatures

Stories Selected By: Neil Gaiman

Date Finished: 02.22.14

Edited By Neil Gaiman

For Bigfoot, for the time travelers, for the pirates, for the robots, for any boring people (who obviously aren’t actually secret agents in boring disguise), for people in space rockets, and for our mothers  –N.G.

First of all, buy this book.  And while I adore places like Half Price Books and encourage giving books a second life, buy this book at full retail.  I make this uncharacteristic and audacious command for one very simple reason: 826DC.  This is the Washington DC branch of a series of non-profits which help underprivileged children learn to write and open their imaginations.  Not only do the children receive individual tutoring on school projects and academic writing, but they are further encouraged and supported in creative writing and journalistic endeavors as well.  Sales of this book benefit the organization…plus, it’s a good read.

Gaiman has collected sixteen short stories as part of what he calls the Museum of Unnatural History.  Some stories feature standard mythical creatures – werewolf, phoenix, griffin– and some beasts are less conventional.  Many of the stories were previously published, covering a span of years from 1885 (“The Griffin and the Minor Canon” by Frank R. Stockton) to three that were published with this anthology in 2013.  The stories are set in all kinds of time periods and universes, yet they all feel like part of the same world.  With so many different authors, I expected it to feel like flipping through a handful of Kindle samples.  Instead, the stories feel perfectly comfortable around each other, a similar flavor running through them all that’s just, well, Gaiman-y.

I particularly enjoyed E. Lily Yu’s “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” (despite developing a potentially painful fascination with wasps nests), Samuel R. Delany’s “Prismatica” (despite a questionable unnatural creature), and Gaiman’s own “Sunbird” (despite developing a desire to run off to Africa in search of a mythical bird).  There were several others that I had a lot of fun with and will return to again and again.  A few will be skipped over on the re-read, but overall, it’s an excellent collection with a smart and often sideways way of looking at these fantastical creatures.

At the end of the day: Really, really for me

6) The Death of Bees

By: Lisa O’Donnell

Date Finished: 02.20.14

By Lisa O'Donnell

Their parents are dead, which doesn’t really change the quality of life for Marnie and Nelly.  It might even be a relief but for the secret they have to keep.  In a year, Marnie can take legal custody of her sister so long as they can hide the truth about their missing parents.  During their struggle, the girls find a refuge with their aging neighbor, Lennie.  Together, the three become a strange little family, more real and far more functional than the family their parents embodied.

This is the third of my Book Club reads and I have to say, it was a rough start.  At first, I thought I was going to hate it.  I thought I did hate it.  Without the impetus of Book Club, I probably would have abandoned ship around page twenty-four.  But I persevered, and after a while discovered I did care about the characters (the ones you were supposed to care about at least) and was even rooting for them.  And I owe it all to the magnificent writing.

This book has three first person narrators.  Marnie is a tough fifteen year old, street smart (book smart, too, but without making the effort), vulgar, and fiercely protective of her younger sister.  Nelly is socially impaired, probably autistic to a degree, a musical prodigy, and desperate for stability.  Lennie is a lonely old man haunted by his past and longing to care for someone.  Together, they tell the story in short, largely stream of consciousness chapters.

Since the three storytellers have such diverse perspectives, the reader will often get vastly different accounts of the same event.  It is fascinating from a literary perspective and remarkable writing on O’Donnell’s part.  The voices are distinct, passionate, and genuine.  I honestly don’t know how I would have pulled myself through the book if there was a single narrator.  Marnie is too crude, it would become exhausting.  Lennie is too regretful, it would become arduous.  After a while, it would be difficult to sympathize with either one of them.  Nelly could’ve maintained interest and sympathy with her special needs, but her limited perspective would omit vital portions of the story.  This book works because you come at it from three completely different angles.

If you’d like to give this book a try, please be aware that it has R-rated content.  Most of what I endorse falls in the PG, occasionally PG-13 category (because I happen to like YA books), so I don’t want you to be surprised by the grittiness.  If you do take the risk though, I think you’ll find it’s masterfully composed.

At the end of the day: Probably a one-time read.

16) Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish

By: David Rakoff

Date Finished: 10.11.13

by David Rakoff

This is the second book that was chosen for Book Club — and I know for certain that I got the correct book this time.

There’s not much I feel comfortable saying about this one.

It’s a novel written in rhyming couplets, which is quite the feat and a stylistic marvel.

Content-wise?  I found it extremely desolate.  Only one character (the one who was dealt the harshest hand of cards) had a redeeming arc.  The others just moved from one form of emptiness to another.  Yes, in many ways this book gives a very realistic picture of American life, but that only makes it more bleak.

At the end of the day: Not for me

3) The Eyes of the Dragon

By: Stephen King

Date Finished: 04.01.13

by Stephen King

“That is the story, and sometimes stories tell more than histories, and more quickly, too.”

My very first Stephen King novel!  And, boy, was this a great place to start.

The story revolves around the royal family of a country called Delain and the king’s advisor Flagg, who is in fact an evil magician.  Flagg’s only desire is for power without the potential for personal harm, which is best achieved by whispering in the ear of a weak king.  Unfortunately for Flagg, the crown prince, Peter is a strong, kind, and clever boy — the very opposite of what he needs.  Before knowing the danger, Peter falls into the trap set for him and must find a way out of it for the sake of his kingdom, which Flagg has brought to the brink of ruin.

King’s storytelling is exquisite with a self-referential narrator that is in no way involved in the plot.  This narrator speaks with a casual voice making him feel like he’s in the room with you.  It’s not exactly a campfire story, but it has that level of intimacy.  There are also many times throughout the book when the narrator says, “That’s something you must decide for yourself.”  This mantra is certainly audacious, but it works.  Hats off to you, Mr. King, for knowing exactly how far you can push the boundaries.

Speaking of boundaries, this book redefined short chapters.  It’s absolutely absurd to reach Chapter 70 when you’re only halfway through a book, but I love the brevity of scenes.  And at the end, as all the storylines converge, the chapters shrink rapidly until they’re only half a page.  This simple device brilliantly propels the story forward.  Throughout, the pacing couldn’t be more perfect as one antidote flows seamlessly into the next, providing a lengthy and intricate backstory.  It’s not an idle history either, as every detail becomes crucial to the bigger story — at least from the narrator’s view, since we are invited to decide for ourselves.

It’s a delicious tale, but I most love how the characters are introduced and how complete they are, from the crown prince to the nameless palace guard.  You can tell that each person who makes it onto the page has their own history and motivation, whether or not it’s explicitly mentioned.  Happily, the narration allows us to intimately know several different characters.  Even the sled dog gets a chapter of her own.  The specificity of the characters makes every interaction significant and rich.

In a nutshell?  Seamless.  Riveting.  Marvelous.

At the end of the day: Really, really, really for me

1) The Age of Miracles

By: Karen Thompson Walker

Date Finished: 02.02.13

by Karen Thompson Walker

“I should have known by then that it’s never the disasters you see coming that finally come to pass; it’s the ones you don’t expect at all.”

Julia is an only child living in the suburbs in Southern California.  She’s a shy sixth grader, but mostly happy with her place in life.  Under normal circumstances, this would be a time of rapid changes for her age group, but the whole world is thrown into disarray when the news breaks that the rotation of the earth has slowed.  Extra minutes are pouring into each day and no one knows why it’s happening or if it will stop.  The slowing brings massive environmental and emotional changes as the world’s population tries to adjust to a planet where all certainties have disintegrated.  But this apocalypse is a slow one and so life carries on with school and soccer practice and the pursuit of normalcy.

The storytelling is impeccable as an adult Julia looks back on her childhood in a memoir-like style.  In a subtle way, she seeks to unravel which parts of her childhood were impacted by the slowing and what might have been a normal part of growing up.  By the grace of hindsight, the audience gets to enjoy little gems sprinkled throughout such as, “that was the last grape I ever tasted” among other should-be commonplace moments in Julia’s life.  Retrospection also afforded Walker the chance to write the BEST foreshadowing.  If you need proof, take these lines buried in the midst of a seemingly simple scene:

My father was at work — or so he said — but he planned to meet my mother at the party.  We were driving a silver station wagon, although the police report would later describe it as blue.

“What’s your New Year’s resolution?” my mother asked me as we passed the racetrack.

It’s still a page or so incident requiring a police report occurs.  Amazing.

Though I’m still not a fan of first-person, Walker makes excellent use of that point of view, utilizing the word “our” as much as possible to drive home the global impact of the disaster.  There is a remarkable precision to the language that makes every word feel important.  She tends to underplay a situation at first so that the crux of the scene hits with a deeper impact.  In short, The Age of Miracles is a fascinating concept in the hands of a master storyteller.

(Reading tip: Read this when you have free time — not when you’re waiting for something to happen.  Your sense of time will slow down with this one.)

At the end of the day: Really, really, really for me

19) A Study in Scarlet

By: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Date Finished: 12.27.12

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Many years ago, I read a few Sherlock Holmes stories and enjoyed them, but I had no notion of the larger narrative or the intricacies of the Holmes/Watson relationship.  Off and on, I’ve considered reading further, but nothing ever came of it.  However, given my more recent and passionate love of the Sherlock Holmes movies and the BBC show Sherlock combined with my disdain for CBS’s Elementary, I felt I could no longer put off reading the source material.  Naturally, I had to start at the beginning with A Study in Scarlet.

Oh. My. Goodness.  I can hardly think of a more enjoyable reading experience – it is truly riveting.  Part One is basic enough, explaining how Watson came to share a flat with a perfect stranger and his attempts to reconcile Holmes’ idiosyncrasies resulting in his somewhat accidental tagging along with Holmes on a case.  I spent much of the first part congratulating Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (the creators of BBC’s Sherlock) on a brilliantly rendered adaptation.  Some of the early dialogue was used verbatim in the show and sounded completely normal for present day.  I marveled and appreciated the modernity of Doyle’s prose – both for his time and for ours.  This part was pleasant and interesting, and then ended so abruptly.

At first I was irritated because Part Two introduced a completely different setting, pace, and tone.  I had to set it aside for a while before trusting that Doyle wouldn’t lead me astray.  Boy, was that late-coming faith warranted.  This part gives an incredibly detailed account of how the case began, long before the players were even introduced to one another.  It’s a fascinating tale and extra heart wrenching because I’d had a glimpse of the outcome.  It could have been such a beautiful triumph, but I knew it was going to take a turn for the worse, I just didn’t know how.  I read with my stomach clenched and my heart pounding, yet I couldn’t tear my eyes away.  The whole feeling was marvelous.  I thought I’d been invested in characters before, but never like this.

Part Three returns the reader to London where Holmes and Watson wrap up the case to a satisfying conclusion.  Throughout the book, the suspense builds to just the right moment and there are wonderfully funny moments sprinkled in.  The prose is easy to read, but not watered down in the least.  This story alone is an exquisite masterpiece and worthy of all the attention it has received over the years… even the less successful adaptations.

At the end of the day: Really, really, really for me