Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Little, Brown and Company; 2013. 771 pages. Hardcover/Hardback. 

Is it possible to both like and dislike a book at the same time? To answer my own question: yes, it is, because that is how I feel about The Goldfinch. And that is exactly what I think makes it so great.

I have no idea how to succinctly summarize this book in a few sentences, but I'll take a stab at it: A young Theo Decker survives a terrorist bombing at a museum, where his mother does not, and he now feels ultimately responsible for her death. Before leaving the museum after the bombing, Theo steals a painting (though not entirely with the thought of stealing on his mind) that his mother adored, and spends the rest of the novel in deep, deep agony and anxiety over the thought of getting caught with it. However, the rest of the novel also follows Theo's extremely complicated life as he grows into a man, and also how he becomes involved in the dirty, gritty art-thief underworld.

I'm not sure when the last was that I was this conflicted about a book. There are pages and pages of details that could easily be removed in an annotated version (not that I'm suggesting there actually should be an annotated version - I don't). However, the book would lack much of its character without the details - they are part of what makes this novel work so well.  Dashes, as well as all other forms of punctuation, are used a lot, and there is a  major sense of stream of consciousness that permeates Tartt's writing and drags the reader along for a whirlwind of a ride. I love her style of listingHer writing is so strong and almost obnoxious at times that I wouldn't disbelieve someone having a physical reaction to it. I could feel myself panicking along with Theo; I could feel my heart racing as Tartt's sentences became short, hurried, and jumbled. It's not a very lighthearted book, but it's also not in-your-face dark. It sort of drags on in this somewhat negative, somewhat ho-hum manner.

The characters are also hard to love, but also hard to hate. At times, I understood Theo, but at others, I couldn't stand him or figure out what was going on in his head. Deep down, Theo is simply the result of fragmented and broken childhood, struggling to make terms with himself and figure out his own life. However, he doesn't really actively try to figure out his life; instead, he just goes along with the flow, letting life take him where it does. There are few instances where Theo decides that he is going to take the reins and do something his way, such as when he decides to leave Las Vegas. Even then, though, this was a direct result of other circumstances (which I will not mention so as not to add spoilers). Theo is quiet and reserved, yet also impulsive and risk-taking. All these qualities in Theo makes it hard to decide whether he is one that should be pitied for having such a difficult life, or disdained for his irresponsible and sometimes uncaring behaviour. 

We also have Boris. Where do you start with Boris? How does one even describe him? Boris is the son of a Ukrainian man that Theo meets in Las Vegas, who soon becomes one of his closest and only friends. Boris is free-spirited. He does what he wants, when he wants; he's extremely street smart, and seems to know everything, including how to get out of any sticky situation. Tartt does a really wonderful job of conveying Boris' accent; I swear I could actually hear that odd, English-learned-in-Australia-yet-Russian accent, and it was perfect.

There are so many other characters that I would love to delve into more, such as Andy, Hobie, Mrs. Barbour, Pippa, Kitsey, Xandra, and Theo's father, but I will refrain myself. Theo has many, many interactions with various people, and it is through these interactions that we begin to more fully understand who Theo really is as a person. Each relationship seems to reveal a little bit more about his personality, history, or opinions, and it provides a vast amount of information about Theo's character.

One other quick point I wanted to touch on regarding character relationships was Theo's relationship with his mother was also somewhat puzzling to me. There wasn't anything inappropriate, so I'm not implying that. But it didn't seem like the normal mother and son relationship; of course, everyone's relationship is different, but the way in which he reminisced and thought about their time together was displayed in an odd way. It was more like a long lost lover than a motherly relationship; he dreamed of their moments together, but not in a truly grief-stricken way. At the end, he mentions that 

The Goldfinch is really rather haunting. Even when I put the book down, I could feel it lingering around me; I could still feel that bleak, drug-riddled mania that Theo so often had. I felt like I was constantly reading this book, and it felt as though it was taking me ages to make it through. It's a depressing book. I never walked away from it feeling happy or satisfied; I felt, instead, as if I were missing something - it was an uneasy sort of feeling. That being said, it's still addicting. I went through many phases where I truly enjoyed the story, and others when I just wanted it to be over. By the last 200 or so pages, I just wanted it to be over. Unnecessary plot lines and events became too much and I needed to finish this book so that I could move on with my life. At times it was difficult to remember what the plot or point of this novel was, and I could never truly decide if this novel was more about Theo and the painting, or Theo's personal life and development. Despite this, Tartt's prose truly does have moments of utter beauty; there are many passages and quotes that I would love to share, but I will share just one that I feel exemplifies Tartt's meaningful, deep, and breathtaking style:

                     “That life - whatever else it is - is short. That fate is cruel but 
                       maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always 
                      wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. 
                     That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s 
                     our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight
                     through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes
                     and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise  
                     from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, 
                     it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.” 

I've seen quite a few people compare this book's style to Dickens, and I can actually understand the reference. The wordiness, the long, long sentences, the over-exaggerated need to add extra details and information - it's all there. She also takes time to explore and comment on the various social classes that inhabit the many different places Theo visits. She also takes great care in delving into the lives and details of a wide cast of characters, even those that the reader may not particularly care about. There are also a lot of orphans running around in this vast book, which is, of course, reminiscent of Dickens.

Honestly though, I don't know who to specifically recommend this book for because it covers such a wide variety of subjects. There are drugs, art history, young boy/teen adventures, bad parents, good parents, thievery, antiques, international travel, and so much more. If you have time, patience, and a thirst for something different, then I would implore you to give The Goldfinch a chance. It is long, arduous journey, but I think you'll be just as intrigued by Theo's life and struggles as I was, and therefore unable to put that book down. Even when you do, it will still remain stamped in your memory, and for that reason, I feel it deserves four stars.The overarching theme that "life is short" is a beautiful ending to this book, and I believe that it is something that everyone can learn, and no one can ever hear too much. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. Razorbill; 2015. 464 pages. Ebook.

An Ember in the Ashes was an extremely delightful surprise to read. While I had only been hearing great things about it, I was still a bit unsure for some reason - the summary just didn't quite grab me. Fortunately, it turned out be a major hit.

This book is told in alternating perspectives: The first character we meet is Laia, a young Scholar girl living in fear of the Empire and whose brother has been kidnapped and arrested for treason. Her only goal throughout the book is to do anything and everything that she can to free him, even if it means getting killed. The second perspective is told by Elias, one of the top soldiers at the Empire's military school, and who is destined for greater things. With this, we have the basic setup of the plot, and the rest I will leave out for fear of giving away too much or giving away spoilers.

Laia is not your typical female character. She's strong, yes, and that is made apparent throughout the book, but what sets her apart is that she's also not strong. When her brother is being kidnapped for treason before her eyes she becomes frozen in fear, knowing that she should help, but also realizing that she feels too cowardly to do so. Now, I'm not saying she's weak, but it's interesting that an author has created a character that actually doesn't act out and do something stupid in an attempt at false bravery that ends up getting them and the character they are trying to save into even more trouble. Instead, she simple lets the character run away for her own safety. Laia is not a born and trained fighter; she is simply a girl trying to survive. Thus, when she becomes a spy for the Resistance, she has absolutely no idea what to do how to spy. This is where her character development kicks in: she starts out as somewhat innocent, meek, not overly bold of confident, but slowly transforms into a much more risk-taking and bold person. It is extremely fascinating to watch Laia as she begins to realize who she can and can't trust, how to maneuver in her new surroundings, and how she handles each unique situation that she is confronted with.

Next, we have Elias. Elias, unlike Laia, is a born fighter. He has been trained to show no emotion or remorse, but to be strong and stoic. The Martials are a brutal lot, (with somewhat psychopathic tendencies, I'd like to add) and Elias is one of the few (if not only) that realizes he doesn't want to become a part of the Mask lifestyle or live a life torturing and hurting innocent people. He does not want to live under the command of anyone - not even his mother, The Commandant. He's sympathetic, and we see many streaks of kindness in him as the story progresses. While he is brave, strong, and confident at the start of the book, these features continuously grow as he learns more and more about his fate and responsibilities.

Laia and Elias were both equally fascinating to read from their perspective. Their lives couldn't have been more different, yet they are also strangely similar. While they start out completely unaware of the other's existence, their stories slowly unfold in a way that causes them to end up in the same place as the other. A connection forms - slowly - between the two as their fates unravel into one another.

I feel it is also important to mention Helena, Elias' friend since childhood; the two have grown up learning to fight and become strong members of the Empire together. Their bond is introduced as purely platonic, but of course we know that there is always more to the story. Helena is much more headstrong than Elias, and also extremely devoted to the Empire; she is willing to do anything for the Empire. It is where her loyalty lies. This, of course, creates conflict and complications between her and Elias, and she becomes a huge test of Elias' strength, skill, and loyalty.

All of the antagonistic character in this book were wonderfully written - and by wonderfully written, I mean completely and utterly repulsive. The Commandant truly is the perfect villain. She is seriously evil and I am not exaggerating in the slightest. What I truly loved about Tahir's portrayal of The Commandant was that she did give her a bit of backstory that helps us understand a little bit more about her. But it still doesn't make us like her. If anything, it makes us realize how evil and conniving she truly is as a mother and person. There is also Markus, a fellow student of Elias' who is similarly evil in nature and out to make Elias' life hell. There's always one of those, right?

There are also a few minor characters who are, in my opinion, more representative of what most of the other Martial students are like: loyal to the death, but only because they have to be. These people aren't inherently evil or violent, but they have been raised in that environment, so it is all they know. They have been brainwashed to ridicule those who are weak or attempt to escape. They have deep loyalty to the Empire and to their friends, and are willing to do anything they must to maintain that, as well as continue on with their brutal ways, which would include raping and acting out in violent manners toward innocent Scholars.

Let's not sugarcoat it: this is a pretty intense books. There's extreme violence, torture, threat of rape multiple times throughout the book, and extremely psychopathic villain. This book constantly kept me on my toes! The book moved at a rather fast pace, but it worked perfectly with the novel itself. When a book has such a brutal landscape as this one, it's almost necessary and crucial to keep the story moving, otherwise it simple becomes too bleak and depressing to read. There  is a legitimate fear conveyed to the reader when Laia is sneaking around under The Commandant's watch that really blew me away; it's been a while since I've experienced such a dangerously terrifying villain in a book, where you are one hundred percent positive that they will have no problem mutilating or killing the protagonist.

Overall, this book will be getting five stars from me. I had a really difficult time deciding between four and five, but then I realized that I actually really enjoyed reading this book, and it got bumped to five. This is a major page-turner, and I highly, highly recommend it!

You might also like:

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

 A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas. Bloomsbury Children's; 2015. 416 pages. Ebook. 

I don't know how Sarah J. Maas does it, but I haven fallen in love with every single thing that I have read by that woman. After reading all of the currently published Throne of Glass books, (minus Assassin's Blade, but including Crown of Midnight and Heir of Fire), I'll be honest and say that I was a little worried that it would be too similar and the characters would have too many overlapping traits. Thankfully, however, it turned out to be a perfectly unique, innovative story that contains just as many magical elements, but in entirely new ways. 

A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR) is, at its core, a fairy tale retelling; it contains elements of the well-loved Beauty and Beast story, but in a very loose, dark, and twisted sort of way. ACOTAR tells the story of a woman named Feyre who accidentally kills a member of the fae one day while hunting, and is then forced to repay her debt by living in a Prythian court, where she is watched over by two fae known as Tamlin and Lucien. While living in her new world, she learns the struggles and secrets of the fae, and slowly begins to warm to her captors, all the while becoming caught up the political turmoil of Prythian.

The two biggest factors that I think are what made this book so successful were the wonderful combination of characters and setting. While this book does contain some pretty intense action, the bigger emphasis was placed on the relationships between characters, as well as individual character development. Feyre, for instance is a strong woman who is fiercely loyal to her family, despite her often negative feelings towards them. Throughout the entire novel, she is the one taking care of her family, while in return her family acts as if they could not care less about her. Her sisters are useless; Feyre must hunt and provide for her family while they sit at home and carelessly throw away any extra money that she makes on frivolous items. Thankfully, by the end of the novel Maas allows us to see more sides of the sisters' personalities, which helps us to both understand their actions and see how they can change. Although Feyre is not a weak character in the slightest, she enters the house of Tamlin as an rather innocent, naive person. She has only ever heard myths and tales about the fae, which leads her to believe that that is how all fae act; she is, as we soon found, quite wrong. As she adapts to her new living situation, she begins to learn more her 'hosts,' as well as the lives and struggles of the fae as well. 

Moving on to Tamlin... Where to start? Tamlin is such a unique and interesting character; I was immediately intrigued by his actions and words. His demeanor is reminiscent of your typical 'charming captor' trope, but it was also very different. When he first meets Feyre, he is in his fae form and acts rather frightening and harsh, but we are soon able to learn that he isn't really a truly cruel person at all. It was curious to watch as he struggled to be nice and charming at times, but then naturally charming at others, such as when he takes Feyre to a lovely little lake to enjoy the Spring Court's weather. His relationship with Feyre is slow to start, but soon takes off with fiery speed. What begins as a rather mutual dislike (or hatred, one could argue) soon turns into a passion that cannot be stopped. The chemistry between the two is spot on, and completely obvious. 

Lucien and Rhysand are the last two main characters that I would like to discuss. Lucien comes across as talkative and honest man who isn't really afraid to say what he thinks. He's like the charming, teasing older brother that may be distant and brutal at times, but is ultimately someone you care deeply for. He has faced great tragedy and upset in his life, and he uses that to fuel his everyday existence and strive for revenge against Amarantha. Where Lucien is a somewhat lighter, honest-but-friendly character, Rhysand is a much darker, deadly sort of person. He is suave and immensely persuasive. He is incredibly tricky, and his power is deadly, which quickly instills fear in Feyre. While he is seen as an enemy, he is also a form of an ally, aiding Feyre when she needs it the most. Rhysand was another character that was extremely intriguing to me. How far would he go to help Feyre fight against Amarantha? How does he really feel about the current situations occurring in his world, and how does he truly feel about Feyre and Tamlin? These are all questions that I hope will be answered in forthcoming books. 

Maas has deposited all of these wonderful character in a land called Prythian, made up of various courts of fae, which are currently be ruled by a terribly and delightfully wicked fae known as Amarantha, a perfectly evil villain with an intriguing backstory. I loved this setting. Maas' fantasy world contains many of the same elements of other fantasy worlds, such as the poor peasants struggling to survive, frightened by the mythical tales they've been told their entire lives, and lands separated by magic and non-magic, it is still entirely unique and magical in its overall imagining. I enjoyed the various glimpses at faery traditions, other members of the fae, and the variety of beasts that inhabit the land, such as the Naga, Attor, Bogge, and Suriel. Every element brought even more fantasy and excitement into the story.

Overall, I highly recommend ACOTAR. For me, the sign of a good book is when I constantly have a desire to read it. If I'm not reading it and I'm dying to pick it up and lose myself in the pages, I know it's a winner. A Court of Thorns and Roses left me constantly longing to pick it up at every moment. The characters, setting, and storyline were perfect, and for all of those reasons, combined with the sheer enjoyment it brought me, I am giving ACOTAR  a lovely five stars. It earned every single one.

If you like A Court of Thorns and Roses, you might also like:

Thrones of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Helen of Troy by Margaret George

Helen of Troy by Margaret George. Penguin Books; 2007. 638 pages. Paperback/Softcover.

This massive tome by Margaret George tells the story of Helen of Troy, the woman whose "face launched a thousand ship." Married to Menelaus, she becomes queen of Sparta and endures a marriage lacking passion or desire. The gods, however (specifically Aphrodite), have other plans for Helen, and she becomes enamored with Paris of Troy, eventually running away with him and igniting the the infamous Trojan War.

I really, really wanted to love this book. I so badly did. I'm a classics major, so this is basically what I live and breathe and am obsessed with. It was a wonderfully written, extremely interesting book to read, but, unfortunately, I had a big problem with the characters - specifically Helen and Paris. I completely understand where this story is coming from and why the characters act in the manner that they do, but I became so annoyed with them at various times throughout the novel. At points, I really just wanted to grab and shake them while telling them to stop complaining - you brought this on yourself, so now live with your consequences. They knew this would happen (damn Greeks always trying to ignore and hide from prophecy when we all know it comes true every. single. time) I was also disappointed with the fact that Helen and Paris' affair never really moved me. I didn't feel caught up in their deep, passionate love; in fact, I almost didn't care. I almot wished Helen had just stayed at home in Sparta. I could obviously see how passionate they were, but I didn't really become a part of it like I had hoped I would. I never really enjoyed or liked Paris' character; he was rather bland and one dimensional. This also moves into the fact that while the story itself was supposed to be extremely emotional and heart-wrenching, it was actually rather emotionless. While the dialogue relating to war and politics sounded very accurate and real, the dialogue concerning emotions, such as between Paris and Helen, was lacking any real meaning, and again, made it hard to care or become invested in their story.

That little rant aside, it was a actually lovely book otherwise. I know, I probably sound contradictory. But honestly, it was beautifully written. The other characters were depicted wonderfully and I truly enjoyed them. The writing was seamless and poetic; it almost begs you to read it slowly in order to fully appreciate the beauty that can be found.

This is definitely a dense book, and it took me a bit longer to get through than other books of this side. There is a lot of information about the characters, politics, war, etc., and it can be a bit heavy and dull at times. I really appreciate the obvious amount of research and effort George went to in order to create an as-accurate-as-possible account of Helen and her involvement with the Trojan War, as it was by far one of the better retellings of Greek mythology that I have read. If she had taken that research and developed a slightly more emotional story, it would have made a much more intriguing novel.

Overall, I'm giving Helen of Troy three-and-a-half stars. I had a really hard time deciding between three and four, so I decided half works well. The story was written beautifully, but the characters lacked depth, and that was a pretty big problem for me, personally.

Books similar to Helen of Troy:

The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen
Both novels share a vibrant and elaborate storyline set in a richly described setting. The Creation of Eve centers on a female Renaissance Painter, Sofonisba Anguissola, as she becomes a painting teacher to Queen Elisabeth, wife of King Felipe II of Spain.

Much like Helen of Troy, Abundance focuses on a first person female narrative that is full of lyrical, poetic descriptions. Abundance follows the life of Marie Antoinette from her marriage to the Dauphin Louis XVI of France to her death in 1793.

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