Review: The Ship of the Dead

So on October 3rd I was walking through the bookstore, minding my own business, checking out the new arrivals, when I see Magnus Chase number 3, The Ship of the Dead, staring at me. My whole body went into low-level shock. My hand started shaking. I walked numbly to the cashier with a copy cradled in my arms. I knew it came out in October, but I most certainly did NOT know it came out that very day, October 3rd.

It’s the last book in the Magnus Chase trilogy, which is interesting because it did not feel like a conclusion. For one thing, it’s much shorter than the first two bricks. For another, it lack the energy of the rest of the series. The first two books literally had me glued to my seat, non-stop excitement, and The Ship of the Dead just didn’t have that.

It’s a much more character-driven book than the others as well, but, oddly, it’s not Magnus‘ character. The stars of this book are the side characters: Mallory Keen, Thomas Jefferson Junior, Halfborn Gundeson, Samirah al-Abbas, and Alex Fierro. Magnus is more the vehicle through which we appreciate their development. Plot threads that I thought would play a critical role in the finale, such as Hearthstone’s final return to his brother’s grave or Samirah’s struggle to overcome her father’s influence, felt more like episodic moments.

That said, Alex and Magnus’ relationship had me almost in tears. Perfection. Riordan’s nearly-effortless inclusion of queer characters and relationships while still providing thoughtful and poignant analysis via Magnus is inspiring. For that matter, his handling of all the diversity in Magnus Chase provides a standard we should all aspire to. And he doesn’t beat around the bush about it. Where he could have shied away from highlighting the diversity in this series, he instead embraced it. He didn’t take the easy way out and include romantic moments only when Alex identifies as a girl. There is constant positive discussion of Islam and Samirah’s practice, casual inclusion of nonbinary characters, frequent description of specific ASL signs, lipreading, and interpretation, and pertinent discussion of discrimination throughout the book.

While the conclusion to Magnus Case may not have been as non-stop and downright exceptional as the first two, it was still a hell of a book, if nothing else than for the wonderfully characterized, effortlessly diverse cast, and Riordan’s unflinching engagement with those characters’ identities.

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Review: Vassa in the Night

“What did I borrow from myself, and how will I ever get it back?”–Sarah Porter, Vassa in the Night

I found this book at McKay’s Used Books, read it in two days, and foisted it onto my roommate the moment I got to school. She read it in one day–something I really should have done, because it does take fairly constant immersion/attention to hold on to all the strands of this story at once.

Vassa in the Night, by Sarah Porter, is an bizarre, whimsical, and [some other word that won’t do it justice] retelling of the Russian folktale Vassilissa the Beautiful. Only it takes place in Brooklyn, and Baba Yaga owns a murderous 24-hour chain store, and it’s one of the weirdest and most beautiful books I’ve ever read.

Any retelling of myths/folktales/fairy tales that haven’t been done a million times in the last few years immediately catch my eye, as does the striking cover. But more attention-grabbing that is the the surreal magical realism that Porter wields as if painting a watercolor.

Contained within this book is an eccentric cast of characters, even more eccentric events that will make you pause to ask if that really just happened, and a protagonist who must discover her ferocity, her history, and her missing piece, or be lost.

Review: The Head of the Saint

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I have officially read 3 of the 5 books I swore to read in 2017.  I just finished The Head of the Saint by Socorro Acioli. I have been attempting to obtain this book for a year now, and I finally caved and bought it online. I discovered that during that year, while I ruminated on how much I wanted to read it, I unknowingly wrote the book in my head. I only realized I had this when I was confronted, within the first two chapters, that the book is nothing like I expected it to be–in an excellent way.

Our protagonist Samuel is on a mission to fulfill the last request of his dead mother–to go back to her hometown and find his father. He arrives there with less than the clothes on his back, and takes refuge in the head of a giant statue of Saint Anthony, where he discovers he can hear the prayers of women looking for love.

Acioli tells this tale in a roundabout, matter-of-fact sort of way that I haven’t run into before. The understated way the story is written masks the bizarre nature of the occurrences in this small town, so that the reader almost does not realize anything is out of the ordinary.

I enjoyed this book a lot, finishing it in an afternoon. I did feel that Samuel’s characterization was inconsistent, and all other characters were exceedingly flat. It felt at points like I was reading about a boy navigating a town of stock characters, static and predictable.

But that was not enough to put me off the novel, and I was effectively immersed in the Brazilian town of Candeia. One notable detail are the names of the characters: every one of them was charming and offbeat, especially Madeinusa, whose father mashed together the beautiful phrase ‘Made in USA’.

I’m also glad that I read the ‘about’ section, because it turns out that Acioli developed this book at a workshop led by Gabriel García Márquez, who handpicked her based on her story synopsis. WHAT.

Review: When the Moon Was Ours

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When the Moon was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore, number one on my 2017 must-reads list, has been read! As I have been waiting to read this book since before it was released, I consider this a victory.

The crux of the story is the changing relationship between two strange inhabitants of a small town: Miel, a girl who was found in a water tower, and Sam, the boy who paints moons and hangs them everywhere. It’s a story of identity, love, fear, and family.

The book is incredibly beautiful. The prose is poetic, and the plot moves along gently. I was surprised and pleased at the fairy-tale like quality the story has the moment I opened the book. McLemore did a stellar job with the two transgender characters in the book, which I learned after I finished was due to her experience with her husband, who himself is trans. I’m glad she included this note at the end, because the tone of the book upon reflection took on the aura of a long, carefully crafted love letter.

Beauty and delicate nature aside, I did struggle at times with the passivity of Miel, the main character. Quiescent protagonists have never quite been my cup of tea: the ease with which Miel lets the people around her manipulate her life drove me quite frantic. In addition, at times the drowsiness of the plot left me unmotivated to continue until about half-way through, when the conflict truly started to pick up.

On the whole, however, the book is beautiful and poignant, with excellently represented characters. There was one scene involving a rose and a wrist that to this day, a month later, makes me cringe and hold my own wrist, and if that isn’t a mark of good writing, I don’t know what is. If you’re looking for diverse characters in every respect and beautiful, etherial writing, this book is for you.

Mini Review: Half Bad

So I finished the book Half Bad by Sally Green today. It was refreshing, because I haven’t had a book that’s nearly made me miss class in a while. I’d almost forgotten the panic/rage that accompanies skidding down the hallway a minute late to class while also filled with sheer blinding rage that my conscience won’t allow me to just skip and finish the damn book.

So it’s great. I read it in a day and a half, and only that slowly because of the aforementioned school. I picked up the last two books today. (Maybe not the best idea, considering it’s only Tuesday.) A seriously compelling writing style, despite the anguish that starts from pretty much page one, and intriguing characters (I dearly hope we meet Bob again along the way).

I’m off to read Half Wild now.

Review: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

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I’ve finished one of the books I promised to read this year! Cue confetti flying, fireworks whizzing. The No. 1. Ladies’ Detective Agency is a book that, for some reason, you always picture your grandmother reading.

Alexander McCall Smith is an interesting dude, born in Zimbabwe, co-founder and teacher at the University of Botswana. So he’s definitely got the cred to be writing about the place, my first consideration when I picked up the book.

In the honored tradition of the critique sandwich, I will go good-bad-good. I absolutely loved the character of Precious Ramotswe. Savvy, funny, serious, and determined, her self-confidence was one of my elements of the book. From childhood she is conditioned to be clever and observant, and to take no shit from men.

Which makes it all the more out of place when she falls prey to an abusive relationship. I don’t want to make light of this issue: sexual assault and marital abuse are something many, many women face, and we shouldn’t not talk about it. But I do question the aptness of using it as a plot device in this particular instance, after a buildup of Precious’ character as someone unlikely to fall victim to this brand of violence. To me it felt abrupt and out of character, and I was taken aback by the suddenness of its appearance.

Precious’ concession to marriage at the end of the book to Mr. J.L. B. Matekone (another great character) felt out of place to me as well. While we see him as lovestruck and longing for Precious’ companionship, her thoughts on marriage remain clear until the very last page: that she is content to be unmarried, in fact, she is strongly opposed to remarrying. We see no evidence of this changing before she concedes to his second marriage proposal on the last page of the book. A bit unbelievable.

Criticism aside, I loved so many things about this book. Precious’ use of Agatha Christie to lend validity to her detective agency, the connection she felt to her homeland: Precious loves Africa, loves Botswana, with a such a forceful wonder. Precious loved herself fiercely also, as a fat woman, as a damn good detective. And she was staunch throughout, never doubting that she could handle any case, from missing dogs to malicious witchdoctors.

I would definitely recommend this book. It is an engaging, quick read, with an incredibly lovable narrator. I probably won’t read the rest of the series right now, but I’ll be trying out the TV series.