The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

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“The sun hitched up her trousers and soldiered on up into the sky. September squinted at it and wondered if the sun here was different than the sun in Nebraska. It seemed gentler, more golden, deeper. The shadows it cast seemed more profound. But September could not be sure. When one is traveling, everything looks brighter and lovelier. That does not mean that it is brighter and lovelier; it just means that sweet, kindly home suffers in comparison to tarted-up foreign places with all their jewels on.”

A word of warning before I begin—this is going to be a glowing review. A very glowing review, as this book has even overtaken the phenomenal The Night Circus as the best book I have read all year. Are you buckled up and ready? Then let’s begin.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship of Her Own Making is the story of September, a little girl from Omaha. She is terribly bored by her life, and subsequently the Green Wind whisks her away across the Perverse and Perilous Sea, in order to have adventures in Fairyland. She discovers a land of muted magic and enjoyment, thanks to the ruler of Fairyland, known as the Marquess. And as the Green Wind says of the Marquess:

“All little girls are terrible, but the Marquess, at least, has a very fine hat.”

After being blackmailed by the Marquess, September embarks on a quest to retrieve a sword, with the help of a Wyverary (when a Wyvern and a Library love each other very much… well, you understand.) and a wish-granting Marid. I won’t go any further for fear of spoiling anything, but let me just say that I found the ending to this book to be among the best I have ever read, and an absolute pleasure to read.

First of all, Valente has complete mastery of the English language. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d slept in a circle of toadstools, wrestled a bear, and pulled a sword from a stone in order to win this skill from an evil witch. The way she effortlessly evokes emotion and images with the simplest of phrases is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis. I was constantly left in awe of her prose, which is deliberately similar to that of a stereotypical fairy tales, only with ten times the genius.

Her characters are similarly wonderful. September, the main character, is a three-dimensional model of the classic fairy tale girl. Like Alice or Dorothy, just more interesting, and more likable. Though she often expresses her desire to be “irascible and ill-tempered”, she often shows a kind and gentle side, as well as a fierce devotion to her friends. Though she is fun to read about, sympathetic, entertaining, and an all-around just a smashing character, she still pales in comparison to Valente’s supporting cast, which is simply stellar. I’ve already mentioned the Marid, Saturday, and the Wyverary, A—L (or Ell for short). These two are the most important of all secondary characters, being September’s quest-mates, and they certainly do not disappoint. Saturday is unique, a genie of the ocean, so to speak. I found his diet particularly fascinating, though I won’t spoil the surprise for you. And as for A—L, well, Ell is now one of my favorite characters of all time. Humorous, witty, lovable, flawed… just about everything you could hope for in a character is there. Not to mention his hilarious story about his birth and heritage. The Green Wind, despite his relatively small part to play, is such a magical, charming Harsh Air that even when I had finished the book, it was him I wanted to read more about, not Saturday or Ell (or even the key!). And the smoking jacket that he gives September is just priceless, providing humor and sympathy even in the bleakest portions of the book. The Marquess is a brilliant villain, who gives you something to root against in the beginning, but also is revealed to be far more sympathetic than she initially seems. Her story is terribly tragic, and I felt genuinely sorry for her by the end of the book.

All of September’s stops on her journey are filled with all the same whimsy as a normal fairy tale, but with a darker tone. The autumn provinces. The winter provinces. Meeting Mr. Map. The hundred-year old furniture. The great velocipede (it means bicycle) migration. All of it is completely entrancing. The plot of the story is beautiful, it, despite all its outward appearances, is not your average fairy tale. There is real danger to the characters, and growth throughout the book. And the plot twist at the end got me. I honestly didn’t see it coming, and was genuinely shocked. It has been a long time since that has happened to me, and so it was a wonderfully pleasant surprise in this case.

Are there any problems with this book? Well, I tried to think of one, and I came up short. There’s a very brief section in the third quarter of the book that drags a little. There are still some unanswered questions (but it’s a series, so I can’t really complain). Maybe the ending was a little saccharine? I honestly can’t really think of much.

In conclusion, this is a wonderful, whimsical book; a traipse through tried clichés and tired metaphors that somehow manages to breathe new life into everything it touches. There aren’t really any notable problems, and has one of the best casts of characters I’ve seen in a long time. And the best part is, anyone can read it. Its appeal is entirely cross-generational. My library has it filed under YA, it could just as easily have been in the children’s section. Anyone could read this book and enjoy, no matter their age. And everyone should, too.

Final Rating: 9.99/10

Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks

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“I’m a huge wild bird floating on the currents sliding within the drifting wind, hanging lazily loosed on my outstretched wings cantilevered across the singing air. My wingtip feathers are each the size of hands; they flutter like a lamb’s heart flutters when my shadow falls over it. My feet are steel-tipped grapples hung on the end of my hawser legs. My talons are unsheathed razors; only my eyes are sharper. My beak is harder than bone, keener than just-broke glass. My keel bone is a great knife cozened in my flesh and cleaving the soft air; my ribs are glistening springs, my muscles sleek bunched fists of oily power, my heart a chamber filled with slow thunder, quiet and unstressed; a towering dam trickling power, ticking over, headwaters of charged blood pent and latent.”

First off, I’d like to begin by saying how deeply saddened I am by the passing of Iain Banks. He was a master of his work, a true legend in the genre of Science Fiction. His work will be remembered as some of the best produced, and he will be remembered as one of the best authors of his generation.

With that being said, Feersum Endjinn is actually my first Banks book. Therefore it would be impossible for me to compare it to any of his other novels, and I have no idea how it stacks up to his much-vaunted Culture series. What I can tell you is that this is certainly a fascinating novel.

Now, fascinating can have a variety of different meanings, and is often negative when used in a review. But I really mean that it is fascinating. Banks’ imagination shines very brightly in this book, so brightly that it seems he got a bit carried away. Parts of the book are needlessly overcomplicated, or need greater explanation.

Feersum Endjinn takes place far in the future, a time when only the eighth death is final for people, and even then, thanks to a product of Banks’ prodigious imagination, it is not quite final. But not all is well; the earth is at risk from an impending disaster known as “The Encroachment”. It is suspected that the King is not taking the threat seriously enough, and may in fact be trying to use it for his own personal gain. This matters more to some characters than others.

There are four main characters in this book (the King also gets an occasional POV chapter, but few enough that I am not including him in this number). The first character we meet is that of a mysterious girl. We know nothing about her, because she doesn’t either. As a result, we are forced to discover who she really is, and what she’s really like, right along with her. Though she seems to be initially unimportant, she is, in fact, by far the most important character in the book, more important even than the king. The second introduced is Chief Scientist Gadfium. Of the four, I found her to be by far the most boring and bland. It seems her job is to run around and talk to people, and though her chapters get slightly more entertaining near the end of the book, she appears to have no purpose, and her actions have no real import on the climax of the story. Third is Count Alandre Sessine. Though a typical hero, with little separating him from any other generic character, I still found him refreshing and entertaining. I wish the book had started off with his POV, because not only is he far more sympathetic and interesting, his first chapter also ends with an excellent cliffhanger. His chapter is the first place the book intrigued me, and urged me to read on.

By far the most interesting of the four characters, and the one we are introduced to last, is Bascule. The first thing to note about Bascule’s chapters is that they are quite difficult to read, as they are spelled phonetically, like so:

“Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergates thi ant who sed itz juss been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u 1⁄2 a holiday?”

This is actually the first line of Bascule’s narration we see, and it doesn’t get any better. Eventually you do acclimate, and find it slightly easier to read, but it never becomes truly simple. Now, if you can work through the difficult style, you discover that Bascule is really a loving, innocent young man, whom we can’t help but root for (even if he is amazingly naïve, and often quite silly). I was however, extremely disappointed by the role he was given to play in the finale. It was such a small one, and I felt like he deserved so much more.

This is not a stellar cast of characters. And because so much of the book is told through their eyes, the story suffers as well. Not enough of the world is explained fully enough, which is a shame, because the world that Banks has crafted is intricate and deep. The Crypt in particular is a fascinating piece of worldbuilding, and yet the reader is left grasping at small hints of what it really is, forced to (inadequately) piece together their own picture of it. Many of the characters turn out to be almost completely irrelevant to the plot, which becomes especially disappointing when you have invested a great deal of time and emotion in them, only to discover that they were really only a minor character in the end.

I’m sorry. So far this has been an exceedingly negative review, and frankly, the book isn’t that bad. Count Sessine is a very good character, and I found his predicament and actions sympathetic and intriguing. Like I said before, Banks’ world is superbly crafted, it just needs to be fleshed out a little more. Asura and Bascule are both very fun to read along with, although each have their own specific problems (Asura’s POV is complex and confusing in the beginning, Bascule’s problem is the difficulty in reading words phonetically).

Ultimately, this book had a lot of potential, but needed more time to build and flesh out the world. The characters were well-crafted, and the plot intricate and well-worked. Ultimately, the greatest criticism I can level at this book is that it never gripped me. I never really felt like picking it up again once I’d put it down, even though I enjoyed it when I did.

Final Rating: 6/10

Modern Manners by P.J O’Rourke

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“Manners are what your mother always wanted you to have. Whether your mother is a noble altruist or scheming bitch is something that must be decided by you.”

Modern Manners by P.J. O’Rourke is not your typical literary fare, in fact, perhaps the best way to describe it would be to call it “politically incorrect”. It is not crude, but also far from being inoffensive. Advertised as ‘An etiquette book for rude people’, this ‘self-help’ book starts off mildly amusing and ends hilarious. Covering general topics such as ‘Rules To Live By in a World With No Rules’, ‘Men, Women, and Other People’, ‘Formal Etiquette’, ‘The Entertaining Part of Life,’ and others, popular humorist O’Rourke provides an irreverent send-up of the world of politeness. Especially poignant for those of us who may have had to struggle to learn these rules, this book also manages to be strangely correct (as far as the average person knows) about a number of topics, with his commentary on Men’s Fashion providing the clearest example of this.

“The rich are the only people in the world who actually wear sport coats to play sports in. So don’t wear a tweed jacket to work unless you expect to flush a covey of quail from behind the Xerox machine. The only exception is the blue blazer, which is the rich man’s way of saying, “I’m going straight from the office to my boat and won’t have time to change.”

It appears that O’Rourke can not let three sentences go by without making some wisecrack or another, and while this sets quite a pace during the best portions of the book, some fall flat, inevitable considering the high volume of jokes. The book generally moves through cycles, with one chapter or another being particularly funny, and the next being rather less. The first one and a half sections are especially dull, but push on past those two and the book only gets better.

The best section of the book would be (for me) the section on “Real Parties”. To explain what O’Rourke means by ‘Real Parties’, well, I’ll let him describe it.

  • Real Parties never start until after midnight.
  • No friendships or romantic relationships should survive a real party fully intact.
  • Neither should much furniture.
  • Someone should have underpants on his head by 2 AM.
  • By 3 AM someone should have called the police.
  • Someone else should have called George Bush long distance to invite him over.

These kinds of parties can never be real parties:

  • Office Christmas parties.
  • Wine-tasting parties.
  • Book-publishing parties.
  • Parties with themes, such as “Las Vegas Nite”, or “Waikiki Whoopee”.
  • Parties at which anyone is wearing a blue velvet tuxedo jacket.
  • The Republican Party

This is one of the longest stretches of the book in which O’Rourke does not reference cocaine or some other kind of drug at least once. There are many, many jokes about drugs in this book, randomly interspersed throughout, though there are a greater number, as one would expect, in the rest of the section about parties.

This book does not read like a normal book, with any sort of coherent plot, and barely even an overarching theme, instead this book reads like a grouping of magazine clippings stuck together in book format. As a result, it is easy to read this book in small bites, and in fact the best way to do so. One can easily read a chapter a day, even at the same time as another book (I read it concurrently with Dante’s Inferno so rest assured, it can really go with anything.) As this book lacks any characters, it is impossible to judge it based on their merits. The prose is well, comedic, and while the writing itself is not especially beautiful, it certainly serves its purpose and makes you laugh. This is a very funny book, and while not the funniest I’ve ever read, it’s well worth a look if your spirits need lifting, or are just in the mood for a good laugh.

Final Rating: 7/10

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

With the start of my blog, I figured I would review one of, if my not my single favorite book of all time, The Name of the Wind, Book One of The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss.

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“I have stolen sleeping princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and returned with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from he University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. You may have heard of me.”

So begins The Name of the Wind, and with it, the story of Kvothe. Patrick Rothfuss’s debut novel, it instantly catapulted him to the forefront of the genre, along with such heavy hitters as Martin, Sanderson, and Abercrombie. And it’s easy to see why. With that paragraph, Rothfuss instantly tells us everything we need to know about the story. So why bother reading?

A large portion of it is because of the way it is told. Years after the events of The Name of the Wind, and having faked his own death and gone into hiding (even taking on a new name: Kote) for reasons the reader does not know, Kvothe dictates his own story to a man known as “Chronicler”. The story is interspersed with what is referred to in the book as “interludes”, in which the story briefly returns back to real time, with Kvothe, Chronicler, and Kvothe’s young student, Bast, who is far more than he appears to be.

Rothfuss’s prose is among the best I have ever had the pleasure to read. One gets the feeling that each sentence in the entire book (and it is not a short one!) is meticulously crafted for maximum effect and beauty, and the result is stunning. I have heard it said that each and every sentence of this book could be quoted, and people would moon over its beauty. While this is clearly an exaggeration, it gives you an idea of the sheer genius of the writing. This book is full of truisms and idioms, many of which Rothfuss created himself, such as this one:

“My granda always told me that fall’s the time to root up something you don’t want coming back to trouble you.’ Kote mimicked the quaver of an old man’s voice. ‘Things are too full of life in the spring months. In the summer, they’re too strong and won’t let go. Autumn…’ He looked around at the changing leaves on the trees. ‘Autumn’s the time. In autumn everything is tired and ready to die.”

The craftsmanship of this book is palpable, and each sentence urges you to read on.

Kvothe is an excellent main character, and we feel his early loss keenly as we sympathize with him. As he begins to grow, we begin to see more of a three-dimensional character, with his wit and talent at everything balanced with his arrogance and moral grayness. His motives are almost always understandable (although considering he is the narrator, why wouldn’t they be?), and we always root for him. One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the possibility that, with Kvothe himself narrating his story, how much of it is biased? How easy would it be for him to try and boost his sullied reputation by leaving out a few facts, or adding a few choice lies in? I do believe this will be discovered upon the release of Book Three.

Each character in this book (with one exception, and I’ll get to her later) is as masterfully crafted as the language. Kvothe is fantastically three-dimensional, full of flaws and moral grayness that complement his wit and fantastic talent at everything. The supporting cast of Wil, Sim, Ben, and others are all equally brilliant, just as flawed (though Kvothe’s friends are often more morally white than other characters, we also see them fail quite often) as Kvothe is. Ambrose Jakis and Master Hemme, the mundane antagonists of this series, are realistic villains with believable motivation. And then there is Master Elodin. The mysterious, elusive “Master Namer”, Elodin flits through this book like a hummingbird, never settling in one place for long, and never quite showing a good view of himself. Though he tries to give the impression that he is completely insane, one feels there is more to him than just insanity (though he is a bit touched in the head). To this day, Elodin remains one of my favorite supporting characters in any book.

The problems with this book, though few, are unfortunately pervasive. Kvothe is somehow amazing at everything he does, often outstripping masters who have been practicing X, Y, or Z for years longer than him. This can become annoyingly unrealistic, especially when one begins to wonder how Kvothe gained all this knowledge anyway. Not to spoil anything, but for the most part, his childhood was not spent in an environment conducive to learning. The second, even more prevalent problem is that of Denna. Quite simply one of the most boring, inane characters I’ve ever read, it bemuses me how such a wordsmith as Rothfuss contrived to write such a poorly-written character. And Kvothe’s doe-eyed obsession with her doesn’t help, for the reader recognizes that each time Denna enters the story, at least four chapters will follow of Kvothe describing the perfection of her gait, the smooth curve of her spine, the way her hair dances in the wind when a slight, warm breeze blows from the northeast, and she is standing in the town square, facing south-southeast… you get the idea. She slows the pace of the book down quite a lot. However, for me, neither of these two problems were sufficient to deprive me of enjoying the book, rather they simply prevented my complete enjoyment of a masterpiece of a novel.

The Name of the Wind is a beautifully written book, full of intricately detailed settings and characters. Patrick Rothfuss fully deserve his reputation as one of Fantasy’s leading lights, and he will certainly have a long and prosperous career ahead of him, if this book is any indication. Read this book. That’s all I can say.

Final Rating: 9.5/10

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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          The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a scintillating debut, a novel every bit as magical and enticing as its title entity. Told in a unique narrative fashion, the book melds and flows in unexpected ways from page one. Morgenstern’s prose is among the best I have ever head the pleasure to read. Her descriptions of everything (and there is certainly a lot to describe!) are magical and delightful, as is the detail that goes into building her circa-1900 world. This coupled with the present tense tone of the book, and her ethereal writing style, makes for an experience rivaled by few other books.  The reader often feels part of the circus, as if it is really he or she wandering the various black and white tents at night, and not Herr Thiessen or Bailey Clarke.

The story itself is also quite exemplary (though not quite as magnificent as the prose), and is able to quite unapologetically drag you along in such a way that you find yourself awake at 2 AM and wonder “When the hell did it get so late?” The story, though told mainly through the lives of its main characters, is really the tale of the circus. The book tells of the magical contest between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, whose unforgiving masters force them to use the circus as a playing field for showing off their talents. It also tells the story of Bailey Clarke, a young boy whose journey, while at first odd and seemingly unrelated to the circus, is every bit as magical as that of Celia and Marco (Though without the actual magic).

Both of these two “main” plotlines (there are a couple chapters which delve into different matters—Herr Thiessen and the reveurs, for example) are engaging and keep you interested. Neither is without their faults, however, as both suffer dry, slower spells. However, each slower section of one plotline coincides with a particularly entertaining portion of the other, thus preventing any slow moments at all in this book. Overall, however, both plotlines are equally amazing and magical, and in the end, neither even comes close to disappointing.

A large, though occasionally two-dimensional supporting cast aids these three characters in their various journeys. They range from as fascinating and well-developed as main characters(Prospero, Mr. A. H., and Herr Thiessen) to the Morgenstern equivalent of Hufflepuff (Tante Padva and the Burgess twins).

Now, despite all my ravings about this book, you may have picked up on a few smaller criticisms. And yes, it is true, this book is not without flaws. Character growth is practically nonexistent in this book, the only ones who really develop are the younger ones (Bailey and his friends). The book takes some steps to explain some of this issue, but the explanation does not quite account for the dearth of emotional growth. Interestingly enough, the biggest problem with the book is its two main main characters, Marco and Celia. Though initially well-rounded and likable, their completely predictable falling in love seems to have a negative effect on both of these character aspects, flattening them out somewhat, and losing a little bit of that likability. The third problem I had with the book was its ending. Though technically correct and fine, it broke my suspension of disbelief. This is due to the final conflict being solved in a way that, to me, felt slightly superficial, and amazingly easy. It also made use of magic that we had not seen used before in the book, and while it did not technically violate any rules set; it still felt vaguely like a Deus Ex Machina (despite the lack of Gods).

Conclusion? An amazingly fun book that’s problems are more than made up for by an entertaining plot and some beautiful, magical prose. Every aspect of this book is mind-meltingly well described, and Morgenstern’s attention to detail is stunning. (And boy do some of those foods sound good!) This book is one of the best I’ve read all year, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys to read, especially a great book.

Final Rating: 9/10