Saturday, August 8, 2020

Book Review: Howl's Moving Castle


Book Review: Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Goodreads Description: Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl's castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there's far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.

My Review: I wanted to write a review that focused solely on the book, but I have watched and loved the Studio Ghibli movie for years, so it feels impossible not to compare them. Especially since the stories are so close yet decisively different in very important ways. There will be SPOILERS in this review, so if spoilers spoil for you, then, y'know, look away now. 

Sophie Hatter is doomed. It's something she's known and accepted about herself since she was young. As the eldest of three, she is destined to never find her fortune, while her younger sisters are sure to find success in their endevours. Feeling curbstomped by fate, Sophie resigns herself to work at her family's hat shop for the rest of eternity with nothing but the hats to talk to. This ages and cripples Sophie long before she ever meets the Witch of the Waste. She identifies as the boring old spinster in grey so completely that by the time the Witch curses her with the body of an old woman, it's more of her outside transforming to match her inside, rather than Sophie turning into something she's not. She adapts to her new body shockingly well because of this, and the true conflict of the book becomes convincing Sophie to change back. 

Ghibli's movie version may have been a love story, but Jones' book is a self-love story. Sophie has little to no self-esteem /self-worth and resigns herself to the inevitable. Unique to the book, Sophie is also a witch with the ability to speak life into things, and this, ultimately, seals her fate. Howl (as well as others) would have been able to remove Sophie's curse right off the bat, were she not a powerful witch who reinforced the Witch of the Waste's curse with all her negative self-talk. Through Sophie, we get to see the very real power of negative self-talk, how it limits us and distorts our perception, and ultimately how we can overcome it, even if it never entirely goes away. 

As for the other characters, they're all so much more alive than their movie counterparts. While Studio Ghibili took these characters and filed down all their sharp corners, the book delivers us characters with juicy flaws that both aggravate and soften the reader. Howl is the flamboyantly dramatic king of train wrecks in every scene as opposed to one (*coughhairdyescenescough*), Michael is a teenager with his own goals outside of Howl, and both of Sophie's sisters are fierce, independent women who fight for their futures. Seeing these characters with their own flaws and motivations makes you realize how much of them was stripped away for the romanticized movie version of them. 

The movie also simplified the plot extensively, in ways that didn't always make sense, but hey, it looked pretty, right? The Witch of the Waste is a more serious villain, Howl is actually a college student from Wales, Sophie's sisters swap places with magic and start courting Michael and Howl, and a schoolteacher back in Wales tries to capture Howl's heart in a dangerous way. All of this leads to a much more satisfying story than the aesthetically pleasing but nutritiously hollow snack of a movie by Ghibli. 

Sophie is an unreliable narrator which makes this book so good to re-read. I suppose calling her an unreliable narrator is unfair, since she's not, really, but Jones is so good at making sure we see the world through her perspective that we can miss what's happening. She doesn't catch on to Calcifer's clues right away, and so those clues are buried, without any narrative cues to the reader to let them know this is IMPO INFO YO. Sophie's self-esteem issues and her judgement of others keep her from being able to see Howl's feelings towards her, which leads her to wildly misinterpreting situations and creating a wonderful duality where the reader can see why Sophie thinks this way, while also seeing that it's not actually true. Jones accomplishes this with a deft touch that doesn't make Sophie look delusional, nor is it overtly obvious that her perception has clouded her vision. 

The only complaint I'd have, is I didn't feel there was enough romantic payoff after an entire book full of longing and will-they-won't-they. Though, I suppose that's what the sequels are for. 

TL;DR: 4/5 stars. If you think you know this story from the movie, think again.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Book Review: The Song of Achilles

Book Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller 

Goodreads Description: Achilles, "the best of the Greeks," son of the cruel sea goddess Thetis and the legendary king Peleus, is strong, swift, and beautiful--irresistible to all who meet him. Patroclus is an awkward young prince, exiled from his homeland after an act of shocking violence. Brought together by chance, they forge an inseparable bond, despite risking the gods' wrath. They are trained by the centaur Chiron in the arts of war and medicine, but when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, all the heroes of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the cruel Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice. 

My Review: 
“Will you come with me?” he asked. 
The never-ending ache of love and sorrow. Perhaps in some other life I could have refused, could have torn my hair and screamed, and made him face his choice alone. But not in this one. He would sail to Troy and I would follow, even into death. 
“Yes,” I whispered. “Yes.” 

Frankly, I wasn’t going to do a review because school has eaten my brain, but when I read a beautiful book, sometimes I just need to shout its praises from the rooftops. It shuffles free all the demons and leftover feels that stick like baked molasses to the cookie sheet of my soul. So I’ve dug out my soapbox today to tell you why you need Achilles and Patroclus’ brand of Too Gay To Function in your life. You may not realize you do, but that’s okay. I didn’t realize how necessary it was either. 

As much as it tries to dress itself up in Greek myth, lyrical writing, and a historical setting, The Song of Achilles is, at its core, just a romance. The first half of the book seeks to establish Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship, which is then used to highlight the tragedy of the Trojan war for the second half. Yet the book doesn’t hammer on the romance to make the loss more poignant later. In fact, I found the book took a ‘light touch’ to the romantic or sexy scenes. We get just enough of those romantic moments for the reader to savour, but not enough to satisfy, which propels the reader through the rest of the book. Achilles and Patroclus never say the words ‘I love you’ in the book, but it’s because they don’t need to. It’s shown, very clearly, to the point where it would be superfluous to put it to words. Part of the appeal of the loss isn’t that we spend the book learning how much they love each other, but rather why. We fall in love with each of these men alone and together, making the ending so much more devastating. 

The writing is pure gold. It captures that antiquity feel without alienating a modern reader. The prose is melodic, which makes the book very enjoyable to read. These characters could be planting daisies or recording a shopping list and it would still be a joy to read due to the delivery. It’s definitely a book you read partly for the story, and partly for the poetry of its construction. 

The end is devastating, as is to be expected if you know anything about the Iliad. However, like the love scenes, the tragedy isn’t meant to wring you like a dishcloth to pull the emotions out of you. I didn’t find myself crying, but rather overwhelmed with its inevitability. This was purposeful to illustrate to the reader how the characters themselves felt, holding onto the prophecy of death through 10 years of war. The amount of foreshadowing is quite profound as well. There are the obvious pieces of foreshadowing, which Miller does nothing to hide, but also much subtler pieces sprinkled all throughout the book which adds to the feelings of inevitability.

So, seriously, what more do you need from a book? Blending of myth and history? Yes! Melodic prose? Yes! Romance? Tragedy? The gay agenda? Triple yes. Will it leave you borderline suicidal when you realize you will never have a relationship as profound as the one between Achilles and Patroclus? If it does, consult your local mental health professional. I’ve got several on speed dial. 

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay! 

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Book Review: Fahrenheit 451

Book Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury 

Goodreads Description: Guy Montag is a fireman. In his world, where television rules and literature is on the brink of extinction, firemen start fires rather than put them out. His job is to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the printed book, along with the houses in which they are hidden.

Montag never questions the destruction and ruin his actions produce, returning each day to his bland life and wife, Mildred, who spends all day with her television 'family'. But then he meets an eccentric young neighbor, Clarisse, who introduces him to a past where people did not live in fear and to a present where one sees the world through the ideas in books instead of the mindless chatter of television.

When Mildred attempts suicide and Clarisse suddenly disappears, Montag begins to question everything he has ever known. 

My Review: "We have everything we need to be happy but we aren't happy. Something is missing...
It is not books you need, it's some of the things that are in books. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us." 

Guy Montag seems like a happy, fulfilled man as he leaves his work as a fireman one night. He loves his job, his wife, and any nagging feelings of wrongness are washed away in the cacophony of mass media. Until the night he meets Clarisse, a curious 17-year-old who questions the barrage of ads and enjoys unusual pastimes like walking and chatting with people. Clarisse lives in a way that is completely contrary to what Montag is used to: she stops to observe the morning dew, she looks out for the man in the moon, she plays with dandelions to see if Montag is in love-- all of this childish innocence is enough to shake Montag of his certainty in life. Why don't people talk to each other? What did fireman do before they burned books? 

Is he happy? 

The transformation for Montag comes swiftly after that-- nothing in his life is luxurious anymore, nothing is worth whistling over. In fact, everything is dark, save for the flickering glow from the television wall screens that dominate his wife's time-- dominate everyone's time-- and Montag walks like a ghost through his life. He sees his wife with new eyes-- a woman who constantly keeps her Seashells, thimble radios, pressed to her ears so she never has to think, stuck in the room with screens covering three walls showing mindless television where she can't even discern a plot. Within their home, the pair were as far apart as two people could be. Technology brought Montag and his wife, Mildred, closer to the world and yet opened an ocean of space between them that Montag couldn't hope to cross alone. Upon arriving home, Montag finds the answer to Clarisse's question in the form of his near-lifeless wife, having swallowed an entire bottle of pills in a suicide attempt. 

They're not happy, he realizes. Maybe no one is. Yet Montag and Mildred had done everything right, hadn't they? They had everything they needed (save for maybe a screen on the fourth wall to complete their TV room), so why was everything so wrong? They didn't talk about sadness and emotion, or anything beyond the surface level, so why were so many people lining up to take their own lives?

Maybe the answer was in the books. 

I feel like I could write books about this book. Maybe that's what truly makes a classic a classic-- whether the conversation continues past the last page. Despite being written approximately 60 years ago, Fahrenheit 451 feels so incredibly relevant in our modern society dominated by mass media entertainment and an anti-intellectual "fake news" rejection of facts. The thing that makes F451 truly terrifying, and incredibly real, is the idea that the government did not crack down on books and ban them, rather it was the people themselves who checked out from reading in favour of mass media that didn't challenge or inspire emotion. The majority chose to stop thinking and began to feel challenged, inferior to, even threatened by well-read individuals who questioned the status quo. The laws banning books came because the majority wanted them. 

In Bradbury's dystopia, the reader doesn't feel the presence of the big bad as much as in other dystopian novels, such as 1984. The government oppression is felt through the work of the firemen, but as Montag is one of them, it's less a feeling of boogeymen hunting you down in the night and more like having an illusion shattered. It made the novel feel more personal; this is the story of a man's awakening, an intellectual "coming of age," framed within a dystopic setting. What makes Montag different from many other main characters of this type of sci-fi is that he generally didn't question the society he was born into until being triggered by Clarisse. Once he realizes that he's not happy, that something in his world is very wrong, he learns how to question things. But boy, is he awful at it-- he asks dangerous questions at work, lets phrases slip like 'once upon a time,' and just generally can't keep his secret books secret for the life of him. Montag stumbles into learning to think with all the grace of a toddler learning to walk, which grants him an innocence that reflects his level of intellectual development. 

Aside from reminding me of the terrors of majority tyranny, F451 poignantly touches on the feeling of disconnect that is born out of a mass media society. When we perceive that our social needs are being met by technology, we stop reaching out to others, and then often don't understand why we're struck with feelings of emptiness, depression, and anger. We can see this displayed through Mildred in how she checks out from the rest of the world. Even sleeping, she feels she needs to have the Seashells blasting in her ears, possibly to escape something in herself or, as is implied by the narrative, that she's searching for connection and finds it through watching the television show "the family." She obviously doesn't get her needs met this way, as the reader first meets her during a suicide attempt. 

Montag begins to realize how much distance lays between them by asking Mildred if she remembers how they met. The fact that neither can remember their first encounter could show how identity can be washed away when you allow yourself to stop engaging -- with the world as well as people around you. This is further supported when Montag eventually does remember how they met, and by then he's fully realized as his own thinking, feeling person. We can see after Mildred's suicide attempt that she doesn't have a great grasp on her emotions or inner world (or she's blatantly lying) when she denies attempting suicide, insisting "I wouldn't do that. Why would I do that?" I feel like that last question is especially important, as this is almost a legitimate question. Mildred has no idea why she would attempt suicide (they're happy, aren't they?) and yet she did. Her inability to put words to her emotions keeps her from truly knowing herself, as well as knowing anyone else. Montag also suffers from this inability to talk about his feelings or serious subjects, as we can see when he tries to talk to Mildred about the suicide attempt. At first he rolls over and agrees that the reason Mildred feels unwell is due to a party, and later even when he is able to say she attempted suicide, he gives her an easy out to avoid conflict ("Maybe you took two pills and then forgot and took two more..."). 

Mildred and Montag don't know how to talk to one another, because people simply don't talk anymore. And how can one get their social needs met by another living person if they don't know how to instigate it? But it's not just Montag and Mildred who can't communicate-- this distance can be felt everywhere. It's highlighted when the "men with machines" come to treat Mildred for her suicide attempt-- these men see "nine or ten cases [of suicide] a night," and Montag notes how cold and impersonal these men are in their work. "Nobody knows anyone," Montag thinks. That's certainly true in Bradbury's world. Bradbury's book would have us believe that mass media in itself is inherently harmful, but anyone living today would hardly deny the positives that mass media can achieve. However, relying on technology to replace human interaction and using it to consume rather than create could definitely lead someone to ending up like Mildred.

As for dystopians go, the ending is a rather positive note. I'm doing my best to avoid spoilers here, but comparing it against something like 1984, F451 doesn't leave you completely soul crushed and dots you with a bit of hope. It very much reads as a warning for what could come, but also shows ways that resistance can be achieved by individuals. 

Books, therein lies the power. But books on shelves do nothing but collect dust. They're meaningless bindings of paper. You need to read them, internalize them, then burn them and actualize its message. Don't become so attached to the tome that it sits like a totem to an ideal you never try to make a reality. 

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. Fucking read it, okay? Could you not tell from this gushing review that I love this? In fact if you don't read it, I'll punch you. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Book Review: Mort

Book Review: Mort by Terry Pratchett 

Goodreads Description: In this Discworld installment, Death comes to Mort with an offer he can't refuse -- especially since being, well, dead isn't compulsory. As Death's apprentice, he'll have free board and lodging, use of the company horse, and he won't need time off for family funerals. The position is everything Mort thought he'd ever wanted, until he discovers that this perfect job can be a killer on his love life.

My Review: I find it quite difficult to review books considered 'classics,' whether that be cult classics or the traditional kind, because often I find I have little more to say than, "Everything you've heard about this book is right. It's awesome, go read it." To be honest, I actually hate giving five star reviews, because as a reviewer, I believe my job is to play critic and point out things that may disrupt a reader's experience. Therefore, when I end up having to write a five star review I struggle, because it's hard to keep the review critical when all I want to do is gush like a fangirl frothing at the mouth. (I love reading five star books, just hate reviewing them.)

Mort is one of those five star books for me. Right from the first page I fell in love. Before I even finished the first few chapters, I was already reading lines aloud to my friends, family, and generally anyone unfortunate enough to be caught up in my general vicinity. The book is funny, endearing, heartfelt, and gets straight to the point. There are so many throw-away, blink-and-you'll-miss-it funny lines and moments throughout the book. Pratchett's humour is so interwoven into the voice that it doesn't always need to draw attention to itself. While at the forefront of a scene a serious, plotty discussion may be taking place, there's almost always some hilarity going on in the background or between the lines.

Part of what makes Pratchett so successful is he understands that readers want to work. They want to pick up on clues and form theories on the story's outcome. Mort is such an enjoyable read because Pratchett doesn't spell things out for the reader, he simply lines up all the facts and allows the reader to draw their own conclusion. Pratchett doesn't make it ambiguous, either. It's often clear what is happening, or about to happen, in a scene, but he trusts the reader to put it together. It engages the reader by asking them to do just enough work to feel smart without breaking a sweat, making for a more enjoyable reading experience. 

The cast of characters in Mort are all delightfully flawed and charming in their own ways. This is one of the few books where I really like every main character. Each character has noticeable growth throughout the story and I could feel each transformation as it took place. What surprised me about the plot of the book was how simple yet solid it was. Each character had pretty simple motivations and desires, yet as the book progressed, those desires clashed in ways that made for strong conflicts. It all amounts to a climax which still has end of the world stakes without trying to throttle you with tension. Really, I'm using a bunch of words to say: Mort had the perfect touch. Not too much of anything, and not too little. 

Mort makes for such a delightful read as it pits the very best parts of human nature (love, loyalty, conviction, etc.) up against the vast and uncaring nature of the universe ("there is no justice, just me," the powerlessness of humans against time righting itself, the frightening power of Death, etc.). It shows how the lack of impartiality allows us to have incredible friendships and motivates us to literally stand against the will of the universe to save those we love. While that means we may never be suited to the stoic jobs the universe needs done, that passion is ultimately what makes us human and can't compare to anything else in the universe. 

TL;DR: All in all, 5/5 stars. What happens when you give the powers of death to a teenage boy? He'll disrupt the natural order of the universe trying to impress a pretty girl. 

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Book Review: Good Omens

Book Review: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett 

Goodreads Description: According to The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (the world's only completely accurate book of prophecies, written in 1655, before she exploded), the world will end on a Saturday. Next Saturday, in fact. Just before dinner.

So the armies of Good and Evil are amassing, Atlantis is rising, frogs are falling, tempers are flaring. Everything appears to be going according to Divine Plan. Except a somewhat fussy angel and a fast-living demon—both of whom have lived amongst Earth's mortals since The Beginning and have grown rather fond of the lifestyle—are not actually looking forward to the coming Rapture.

And someone seems to have misplaced the Antichrist . . .

My Review: It’s the end of days, and the only ones concerned are a rogue demon and angel who appear to have more in common with each other than their respective sides. Hell has unleashed the Antichrist on Earth, but due to a mix-up between bumbling Satanic nuns, he's been lost, and the demon Crowley and angel Aziraphale only have a week to find him before Armageddon begins. With the forces of Heaven and Hell gearing up to turn Earth into a blasted battleground, Crowley and Aziraphale must find a way to stop the Apocalypse and the horrors of Revelations, or end up losing the only enjoyable thing about living—Earth. 

“Hell wasn't a major reservoir of evil, any more then Heaven, in Crowley's opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.”

Good Omens is a cult classic for good reason. This hilarious tale of the Apocalypse stars an angel and demon duo that set out to stop their respective bosses from destroying Earth and all its pleasures. Because it’s written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, the book is filled with hilarious insights into good, evil, and humanity. The writing leaps off the page from the very beginning and captures the reader through its wonderfully authentic voice. It’s written in third person omniscient point of view, so the narrator (God?) can pop into each character's thoughts while never lingering long enough to give the impression that it's only one person's perspective. The book is a lot more narrative than action, so we don’t ‘see’ the events playing out as they would on screen, but rather get the tale told to us through the omniscient narrator. Pratchett and Gaiman weave an engaging story that moves at a quick pace, but doesn’t hesitate to take time to smell the roses— or sulfur. 

The cast of characters really comes together to make the story what it is. Fans who have watched the show based off the book will note how diverse the casting is— women actors playing characters who were male in the book, as well as some actors of colour— however, the book sadly lacks this level of diversity. The characters are primarily described as white and most of the “ethereal” characters are described as male (God uses he pronouns, Pollution is a white man, Pepper is white, etc.). This was a bit of a disappointment, but is probably due to the era the book was written in. Sergeant Shadwell, the nutty witch finder obsessed with counting nipples, comes across much rougher in the book and spouts some racist comments that caught me by surprise. While this fits his character and is countered in book, it was still a little jarring to come across. The book also focuses more on the cast of characters as opposed to Crowley and Aziraphale, even if they do lead a lot of the plot. 

Pratchett and Gaiman pulled together a hilarious tale of Armageddon that blends their strengths as writers. From Gaiman’s tendency to personify gods and myths, to Pratchett’s sharp wit and observations on life, this book brings out the best of both. Aside from the lack of diversity and some questionable racist and sexist comments from Shadwell, Good Omens is a side-splitting ride down the highway to hell. Or, at least, the M25 to the apocalypse. 

TL;DR: 4/5 stars. Angels, demons, and witches, oh my! 

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Book Review: Strange the Dreamer

Book Review: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor 

Goodreads Description: The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

My Review: Lazlo Strange is an orphan who has always dreamt of bigger things. Sarai is a godspawn with the ability to pass like a phantom through the dreams of others. Their paths eventually cross in the fabled city of Weep, which was once ruled by a handful of cruel gods who used the city’s people as their slaves. After a brutal uprising that left the city crippled, Weep’s greatest hero, the Godslayer, has traveled the world in search of the most brilliant minds to help save the city of Weep from what the Gods have left behind.  Lazlo joins up with the caravan, unsure of how to help but unwilling to miss the adventure of a lifetime, and they arrive at the city to find a monstrous problem, traumatized townsfolk searching for hope, and a secret tucked away within the city. Lazlo quickly discovers that though the gods may be gone, their offspring aren’t, when he meets Sarai one night in a dream. He wants to believe that there’s a way for them all to exist together—human and godspawn alike— but after so much blood shed on both sides, is the city big enough for humans and godspawn alike? And if not, will Sarai and the other godspawn be able to escape it alive? 

Where to start on a book like this. The only word that springs to mind when I think of this book is fantasy, as in this book embodies everything that I think of as fantasy: magic, creatures, immersive worldbuilding, creative mythologies, long histories that affect the current world, fresh cultures, wild dress and food, and with writing that anchors you in through the senses. Laini Taylor has the vocabulary and literary prowess to make this book play out very visually, and though she introduces many new creatures and cultures, her writing style makes it not only easy to visualize, but understand and relate to. This book reminded me of the movie Avatar in the way it creates an incredible world with an internal consistency that makes it hard to believe it’s not real. Even after the last page I find myself wanting to go back to this amazingly rich world. It can’t even be pinned down on one aspect of the world, but rather the tone of the world/book that whispers, “anything can happen here.”

It’s hard to find a lot of fault with Laini Taylor’s work as she’s a bit of a juggernaut when it comes to fantasy. The mystery in this book is really what seals in the tension, mainly the mystery of Weep, and I did feel a dramatic drop once this mystery is revealed at the mid-way point. At this time I did end up putting the book down for a couple weeks, but I was pulled back by that incredible world and beautiful writing. Unfortunately, I also wasn’t as enamoured with the love story in this book, which takes more of a precedent during the second half of the book. Lazlo and Sarai end up in a situation akin to “love at first sight,” and while the reasons for this happening make a lot of sense (Lazlo being the first person who can see Sarai in dreams and Sarai is attracted to being seen/validated, while Lazlo is falling in love with the magic of this world, which Sarai literally embodies), it still feels a bit forced/destined to be in a way that takes all the fun and mystery out of the romance. Perhaps I’m just getting old and jaded, as I’m sure this approach works well with teen audiences. Personally, I didn’t connect as strongly with the romance, and felt more sexual tension between Lazlo and Thyon Nero, Lazlo’s supposed rival. While I would have loved a romance between those two, we would have undoubtably gotten a very different book if it had gone in that direction.

One main concern I had with this book had to do with the climax. I’m not going to reveal any spoilers (I’m trying to get better about that!) but I will say that during the climax a major character is killed off and brought back to life as a ghost, under the control of one of the godspawn whose magic involves controlling ghosts against their will. This character is set up as having the same properties as when they were alive— can affect the physical world, seems to have a physical form that can be touched, etc. This raises questions for me as I feel like it strips the power away from death when main characters come back from the dead. As this took place right at the end of the book, we will have to wait for the sequel to see how this new ghost character affects the story. While the conflict in this scenario is great, I have some personal hang ups when it comes to ghost characters that make it hard to fully appreciate the ending. Due to these little things, I decided on four stars out of five. Though objectively I can’t point out any real problems, these personal preferences kept me from fully connecting with the book.

All in all, an incredibly rich fantasy with gorgeous prose and a mystery that sinks its teeth in you. Magic drips off these pages. It’s a book of fairy tales thick enough to break a librarian’s nose, and worth every page of it.

TL;DR: 4/5 stars. A richly delicious fantasy that drips magic and sinks its mystery deep into readers.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Book Review: My Own Devices

Book Review: My Own Devices by Dessa 

Goodreads Description: Dessa defies category--she is an academic with an international rap career; a lyrical writer fascinated by behavioral science; and a funny, charismatic performer dogged by blue moods and a perseverant case of heartache. In "The Fool That Bets Against Me," Dessa wonders if the romantic anguish that's helped her write so many sad songs might be an insurable professional asset. To find out, she applies to Geico for coverage. "A Ringing in the Ears" tells the story of her father building an airplane in their backyard garage--a task that took him almost seven years. The essay titled "Congratulations" reflects on recording a song for The Hamilton Mixtape in a Minneapolis basement, straining for a high note and hoping for a break. The last piece in the collection, "Call off Your Ghost," relays the fascinating project Dessa undertook with a team of neuroscientists that employed fMRI technology and neurofeedback to try to clinically excise her romantic feelings for an old flame. 

Her onstage and backstage stories are offset by her varied fascinations--she studies sign language, algebra, neuroanatomy--and this collection is a prism of her intellectual life. Her writing is infused with fascinating bits of science and sociology, philosophical insights, and an abiding tenderness for the people she tours with and the people she leaves behind to do it.

My Review: "But I didn't want to conceptualize myself as a quicksand pit of changing variables. I wanted something permanent, stolid-- a cinder block of self. Would I be the same me if I couldn't sing? Yes, I think so. But what if I forgot how to read, forgot my name, forgot that I like whiskey, forgot that red is my favorite color? What am I subtracting from? Is there some part that can't be ruined by violence, or time, or fatigue? Is there an apple core at the center that stays fixed?"

Rapper Dessa's first book, My Own Devices, is a series of nonfiction essays about life, love, music, science, and family. Through 17 different essays, Dessa gives us a glimpse of her life, from how she ended up as a rapper touring with a crew of guys, to recording a song for the creator of Hamilton, to writing to Geico to try and insure her broken heart. All the essays stand alone as well as build towards a greater story where Dessa takes on a project with neuroscientists to attempt to make herself fall out of love with her longstanding ex, referred to as X. 

At it's core, My Own Devices is a love story, beginning with how Dessa falls in love with X as well as rap, detailing their on-agains and off-agains, and ultimately leading her to attempt to 'reprogram' her brain to fall out of love. Throughout the book are stories of life on the road, family-- both blood and bandmates-- as well as science, philosophy, and a bit of dry humour to keep the pages crackling. Dessa has a wisdom to share that she presents quite eloquently. Any attempt I make to try and explain how beautifully written this book is fails in comparison next to the real thing. Dessa infuses just enough scientific tidbits and philosophical wonderings into her real life observations to make the book feel both deeply personal while it asks some big questions. 

The truly fascinating part of the book (IMHO) is the project Dessa takes on with a team of scientists to reprogram her brain to fall out of love with X, the man sprinkled throughout her life and essays. If you want to know the results, I highly suggest you read the book (spoilers!), but I will say the results may surprise you. Dessa isn't afraid to dig her talons into science and math to find real answers, but also writes science in a way that's enjoyable, engaging, and even funny at times. Her perspective on the intersection of science and art is also fascinating, and all of it is delivered in lyrical, easy to read prose. 

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. Eloquently written essays on life, science, family, music, and love infused with dry wit and sharp observations.