We Are All the Same in the Dark by Julia Heaberlin is well written, suspenseful, and surprising… but the pieces don’t come together as well as I’d have liked. While I very much enjoyed it while I as reading, now that I’ve finished my overwhelming impression is that it is less than the sum of its parts.
I really wanted to like this book. I got to meet the author when she came to sign books at Barnes and Noble, and she was absolutely lovely. She was very personable, very sweet, and she talked to every single customer for as long as they liked. She’s an award-winner and a bestseller, but if I hadn’t known that, I would’ve assumed that she was still in the earliest stages of her career, because she seemed overjoyed and humbled by every single person who bought her book. I only met her briefly, but I really liked her.
What’s it about?
Odette is a cop living in a small Texas town that, nearly a decade later, is still obsessed with the unsolved murder of a popular local girl… all the more so following a true crime documentary that has pushed the case back into the public eye. Odette is also obsessed with Trumanelle’s death, and she’s determined to solve it for personal reasons. When Wyatt—Odette’s ex, Trumanelle’s brother, and guilty in the court of public opinion—finds a mysterious one-eyed girl in a field, it reignites the fervor and starts a chain of events that will finally answer the town’s most pressing questions: who killed Trumanelle, and where is she buried?
What’d I think?
Rating: 3 out of 5.
We Are All the Same in the Dark is a great title. It has a great writer. It’s a good book. I like a lot about it. The narrative style, particularly in the dramatic way it switches narrators about two thirds of the way through, grabbed and kept my attention. I enjoyed the way in which the cold case—the murder of a beloved local girl—weaves in with the current one—the strange appearance of a strange girl—and how the ghosts of the past haunt everyone involved. I found Odette, the novel’s primary heroine, fascinating. I sympathized with her, but I was also very, very suspicious of her because she clearly had a lot to hide. I liked the many suspects and red herrings. I don’t read mysteries regularly because I’ve found that the badly written ones are irritatingly easy to guess (and as they’re not my favorite genre, I don’t read enough to be able to immediately pick the good ones from the bad). We Are All the Same in the Dark is not easily predicable. It does a good job of including all the necessary clues but burying them under the flashier false leads.
The book does so many things well. The pacing is great. The stakes keep getting higher. Then the end comes and is… well, a bit lackluster. I like how the cold case and the current mystery are wound together throughout the first two sections of the novel, but in the third they come apart, to the point where I felt I had pieces to two different puzzles that don’t necessarily go together. A few big mysteries—not the big mystery, but sizable question marks nonetheless—are revealed too easily, and with answers that seem far too simple, simple enough that I wondered why they’d ever loomed so large over the narrative. A few characters’ actions (lookin’ at you, Wyatt) make no sense, and seem calculated more to feed into the paranoia and mystery than to make any logical sense. Obviously I can’t say anything more specific without dropping immense spoilers, but if one character knows the identity of the murderer the whole time, they should have a darn good reason for not telling anyone. Then there’s the issue of the murderer’s motive coming out of what is arguably the least interesting storyline. There is a lot going on in this book, and it touches on a lot of interesting social issues, but by the end I felt that it really did just touch on them. It could have dived into a number of things and made for a fascinating, multi-level story but instead kept everything pretty surface level. Even the threads that do play into the end are kept simple, to the point that I wondered is this supposed to be a condemnation of xyz, or is it just incidental?
The House in the Cerulean Sea is so charming that it’s a hard act to follow. Happily, T.J. Klune’s new novel Under the Whispering Door manages it by matching the sweetness and wholesomeness of his earlier hit while maintaining a distinct feel.
I read The House in the Cerulean Seaearlier this year on my sister-in-law’s recommendation (thanks, Julie). I loved it, and so when I got the opportunity to read an ARC for Under the Whispering Door, I jumped on it. I get ARCs through work occasionally, but rarely do I get one I am this excited about. I had high hopes, which is always dangerous; I’ve been disappointed by very good books because I’d overinflated my expectations astronomically. This time, though, I enjoyed the book as much as I’d hoped. I think I still prefer The House in the Cerulean Sea, but I suspect that’s a which-came-first sort of thing. People who read Under the Whispering Door first will likely find that they like it slightly more.
What’s it about?
Wallace Price is a terrible person, so when he dies unexpectedly it’s not exactly a tragedy for the living. For Wallace, though, it is the beginning of a journey. Wallace is taken to a waystation—an in-between place where he can come to terms with his life and death before moving on to whatever comes next—where he meets a colorful group of people, some alive and some dead, who are there to help him transition.
When will it be available?
Under the Whispering Door will be available on September 21, 2021.
What’d I think?
Rating: 5 out of 5.
One of my favorite things about Klune is how brilliantly he combines genre. While the basic world of Under the Whispering Door clearly makes it a fantasy—there are too many ghosts to really categorize it any other way—the emotional core of the story is far less plot-driven than the rest of that genre. When I think of fantasy, I tend to think of epic adventures like something out of The Lord of the Rings. T.J. Klune’s novels aren’t epic; they feel a bit like The Lord of the Rings if we’d never left Hobbitton. They’re gentle. Nearly this whole novel takes place inside a tea shop or a few steps outside it, and since Wallace is a ghost he can’t really do anything except talk and drink the magic tea. Because of that, like The House in the Cerulean Sea before it, it’s fiercely focused on character development.
Wallace has significantly more room to improve than Linus ever did, though. While Linus was merely complacent, living Wallace went out of his way to steamroll others (all in the pursuit of success, of course). I was reminded a bit of A Christmas Carol, actually. There’s a moment early in the novel wherein Wallace watches his own funeral and sees firsthand how coldly and ungenerously he lived his life. Unlike Scrooge, though, Wallace isn’t dreaming; he doesn’t get to return to his life and turn things around. That doesn’t mean that it is too late for him to change, though. He can’t change his life, but he can change himself. And that’s what he spends the novel doing.
I’ve mentioned before that the best way to find new books is to pick a few favorite authors and then read what they blurb. If Leigh Bardugo, Becky Albertalli, or Adam Silvera recommends something, chances are that I’ll also like it a lot. I read I Hope You Get This Message by Farah Naz Rishi in large part because Adam Silvera blurbed it (Mark Oshiro did, too). Also, I liked the cover and thought the concept sounded interesting.
What’s it about?
What would you do if you knew the world was about to end? That’s the question everyone on earth has to answer when an alien transmission is intercepted and translated. Earth, it turns out, was an experiment by a more advanced species, and the experiment has come to end… and been deemed a failure. With the end of humanity looming, people have to decide what to do with their last few days. Cate decides to fulfill her mother’s request to find her absent father. Adeem hopes to track down his estranged sister. Jesse, certain it’s all a hoax, wants to take advantage of the panic to make enough money to get himself out of a financial hole. With the end looming, the three teens find their stories unexpectedly colliding in Roswell.
What’d I think?
Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
The twin driving forces behind I Hope You Get This Message, as is apparent from the title, are hope and communication. As the end nears, people find themselves reaching beyond themselves, striving to reforge connections they had previously ignored or put off. Desperation and looming deadlines cause them to ask for and receive help from unlikely corners as they race the clock to get their final messages to their loved ones.
Lazy, directionless Adeem reconnects with his estranged sister’s ex-boyfriend in a last-ditch to find her and reunite before the end. He wants to apologize for not standing up for her when she came out to their parents, but he also wants to demand an apology from her for the way she abandoned him and never reached out. Spurred on by a letter from her schizophrenic mother, Cate hopes to find the father she’s never met and who doesn’t even know that she exists. She also, if there’s time, hopes to cross a few things off her own bucket list. Jesse doesn’t have messages to send, but he has thousands to transmit. Broke, broken, and grasping at straws, Jesse is certain that the alien threat is a falsehood, and he sees a glimmer of light in the endtimes. He spreads the rumor that he is able to transmit messages to the aliens and the money comes rolling in from people who want to beg for salvation, forgiveness, or love.
It’s interesting that all three characters forge new relationships and chase after old ones. If the world were ending, I suspect I’d cling to my family. I wouldn’t go searching for people from my past or invest in a new connection. Jesse, of course, has an excuse; he can ignore his mother, because as far as he’s concerned, they’ll both be around after this mess. Adeem seems to want to assuage his guilt and make sure there’s no regret when he goes out because while he loves and misses his sister, he mostly seems to resent her. He’s angry, but he believes that it is important to reunite the family before the end. Cate, at least, actively tries to remain with her mother, but when her mother checks into a mental institution and leaves her with a heartfelt request, there’s not much Cate can do but to honor it. Still, I found it interesting that none of the central characters turned to the people already in their lives. Adeem leaves Derek and Cate splits with Ivy fairly quickly even though those are presented as extremely important friendships. Maybe it is because those relationships are stable. Because those friendships are not and were never in danger, Adeem and Cate can focus on the ones that need mended or forged at the last minute.
The idea of messages at the end of the world is, in of itself, a great basis for a novel. Is there anything that tells you more about someone than the messages they would send at the end of it all? In the end, what truths are important? What has to be said?
The way that the three deal with the endtimes is fascinating but—and I know this is a weird thing to wish—I almost wish this hadn’t been an apocalyptic book. I never liked the characters more than in their pre-apocalypse introductions. Cate is a teenager who wants to go to parties and have fun and kiss the boy she likes, but instead she spends her time worrying about and caring for her mentally ill mother. Adeem is absolutely brilliant, but he has more or less given up on doing anything with that brilliance. And Jesse has been left and ignored so often that he defines himself primarily as someone who gets tossed aside and left behind. I fell quickly and completely in love with each of these characters (and with their friends! Derek and Ivy are great and I feel robbed of more time with them). While in some ways the oncoming end-of-the-world forces them to confront their issues more quickly, in other ways… it lets them circumvent the real issues.
Cate grows because her Mom checked into a hospital of her own volition and left Cate alone. Adeem gets it together only because time is running out. And Jesse never really has to reassess his opinion of himself. He feels guilty about taking advantage of the mass panic, but never addresses his low self-esteem. One of the first things we learn about Jesse is that he self-harms (or, at least, that he has done), but he doesn’t ever get to learn that he is capable and deserving of love. The interesting thing about him isn’t that he’s opportunist and closed-off; it’s why he’s opportunistic and closed off and whether he can open back up. All three characters could easily have carried their own contemporary novel with aplomb, but they’re a bit lost in science fiction. Jesse particularly feels a bit adrift because, while the other two’s stories quickly and completely intertwine, he’s left out of the fold until the very end and even then overlaps only slightly. He feels like an insert form a very different story and much as I want to see more gay characters in genre fiction, I find myself wishing that Rishi had given I Hope You Get This Message to Adeem and Cate and saved Jesse for another book down the line, one that would give him more space to grow.
I can’t believe I’ve been doing this for so long! Today, August 18, is the 5-year anniversary of my first-ever blog post. I don’t think I ever envisioned blogging as regularly or obsessively as I do (even I think reviewing every book I read is a little excessive, but once you start it’s hard to stop). It’s been fun and weird. To celebrate the occasion, I picked five of my old posts to highlight.
It’s hard to believe that my first post was a movie review! When I started out, I must’ve thought I was going to review movies more often. That has definitely not been the case. I’ll still review the odd movie, but it is definitely not a priority.
It’s not surprising that my book club posts get the most engagement. They definitely take the most effort! I’d say it takes me somewhere between two to four hours to write my usual book reviews. My book club discussion questions, not counting the time it takes to take notes while I’m reading, take anywhere from eight to fifteen hours to put together. It’s a big commitment, which is why I haven’t been doing as many of them as I once did. That’s what happens when you move from part time to full time! I’m a little surprised that The Pull of the Stars is the most popular book, though; I’ve done a lot of book club discussions, and while I liked The Pull of the Stars, it’s not my favorite. It does make sense, though, as it is a pandemic book that was released during a pandemic.
It’s not surprising that more people read this post than others, because it is a very popular book. It’s also still relatively new, and I tend to be a little behind on new releases. What’s surprising is how many likes it got compared to other reviews I’ve written. If you ask me, it’s a pretty typical review. I liked the book a lot and said so, but that’s honestly about all I said. The more I think about it, the more I think that the likes have more to do with how I tagged the post than the post itself. Or maybe it’s because it’s a short review. I can get pretty wordy!
I don’t get a whole lot of engagement on my blog. I’m lucky to get a like or two, and I only very rarely get comments. This one, though, actually does get responses. Apparently I’m not the only one who really ships Erin and Andy from The Office and thinks that the show did them dirty. I think I may be one of the only people who has written a long rant about it, though, because it seems like the people who still think about Andy and Erin all find me. Ditto for the Outlander haters; my Outlanderrant is my second most commented-on post.
My Post That’s Most Like What This Blog Should Be!
I’m very proud of this essay, and if I had all the time and focus in the world, more of my posts would be like it. I adore books. I adore TV, and especially I adore adaptations. Few things give me more pleasure than reading a book and watching its adaptation back to back and then parsing out the changes; I went ham on this one. I chronicled every little change. I found specific images to accompany each entry. I analyzed, I made comparisons, and I even brought in my particular interest in feminism and queer theory. When I think about what I want this blog to be, it’s not just reviews (although that’s mostly what I do) or rankings of my favorite books (although that’s fun). It’s an in-depth look at stories, what they do, and how they’re told. I like to bridge the gap between casual reviews and literary analysis. I don’t do that often, but I manage it occasionally. I did a similar comparison post with Shadow and Bone, but it is nowhere near as insanely and nerdily detailed as this one.
Before I sign off, I want to give a shoutout to five other great bloggers who read and like my stuff. It makes me feel really good, guys, so thank you!
Maggie Stiefvater’s Mister Impossible—book two of the Dreamer Trilogy, which begins with Call Down the Hawk—is a whirlwind. Full of harrowing plot twists, painfully terrible decisions, and exciting magic, it is a dream while you’re reading it… and then a nightmare when you finish it and realize there’s no word yet on the release date for book three.
Waiting for the Dreamer Trilogy is a uniquely painful experience for me because I read The Raven Cycle so fast. I didn’t have to sit on the biggest cliffhangers or surprises for more than a few hours at most. When I finished Call Down the Hawk and had to wait nearly a year for Mister Impossible, it was horrible because I was certain that something terrible had happened to my beloved Adam. Now I have to wait that long again, and now I’m even more worried about my even more beloved Ronan. Maggie Stiefvater did something really magical when she dreamed Ronan up. He really is an incredible character. He was the best part of the Raven Cycle, which was already an incredible series. Giving him his own series was a great idea, but at this point in the journey I am deeply stressed out.
What’s it about?
At the end of Call Down the Hawk, Ronan and Hennessey escaped from the moderators with Bryde’s help. Now the three of them are traveling together, saving other Dreamers and clearing ley lines by any means necessary. Elsewhere, Jordan and Declan are trying to find a way to keep dreams awake, Adam thinks Ronan has joined a cult, and Matthew is having an identity crisis.
What’d I think?
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Back in The Dream Thieves, there’s a part where Gansey and Adam go out of town and, left alone, Ronan immediately steals and then totals the Camaro. Mister Impossible feels a lot like that, except a lot more drawn out and worse. Ronan has always been self-destructive and borderline suicidal, and he obviously does not know how to be on his own. He does all right when he has someone levelheaded around to point him in the right direction and pull him back from the edge when he’s at his worst. He does not have anyone levelheaded around in Mister Impossible.
I missed Adam and Gansey (and, to a lesser extend, Blue) so much in this book. As I said in my review of Call Down the Hawk, Adam’s absence specifically is narratively significant. The Dreamer Trilogy is about Ronan alone. He has people in his corner, but it is a distant corner. Adam loves him. Gansey and Blue love him. Declan and Matthew love him. But they can’t control him. They can’t tell him how to live. They can’t be around all the time, and they can’t make him love himself. For Ronan to develop and mature the way he needs to, he does need to choose it on his own, to do it on his own. But my goodness a lot of heartbreak and horrific choices could have been avoided if Adam had just texted Ronan back at the end of last book.
I also missed Adam because I thought he was dying. There was all that stuff in book one about the Lace seeing him while he was scrying and how it was super dangerous for him to scry alone, so I was convinced that it had gotten him and that’s why he wasn’t answering. I spent a lot of time freaking out about him when he was apparently totally fine. Also I missed the Adam/Ronan dynamic. My favorite part of any book is the character dynamics, and some pairings are golden. I don’t necessarily mean romantic pairings, although Adam and Ronan are. Even before they got together, they had a kind of chaotic, magicians-only understanding that is somehow both very sweet and a bit unhinged (never forget their first real team-up was that time Adam scripted a deranged crime for Ronan to dream into existence in order to frame Greenmantle). “A bit unhinged” would have been an improvement, because Adam’s unhinged is very meticulous and Ronan in Mister Impossible is basically one thoughtless fuckup after another. He could use some meticulousness. So I basically spent this whole book going where’s Adam? (Also, the last time we see Adam, he is scrying alone and the Lace is still out there, so I’m still concerned).
It’s not that Ronan is totally abandoned. He’s got Hennessey, and he’s got Bryde. Bryde is kind of the worst. Anytime he opened his mouth, I wanted Ronan and Hennessey to cover their ears and yell blah blah blah loudly until he shut up. I mean, he’s not totally wrong… but he’s dangerous, and the way Hennessey and especially Ronan follow him is a little creepy. Adam and Declan are right: he gives off serious cult vibes, and I’m not into that. And Declan is right about Ronan needing someone to follow and hero-worship. I don’t love that he lumped Gansey in with Niall and Bryde, but it is definitely true that Ronan alone is somewhat directionless. The farming was nice, though. I think Ronan should probably go back to being a farmer.
As for Hennessy… I like her, but she is not the sort of person Ronan needs right now. The difference between Hennessy in Call Down the Hawk and the Hennessy in Mister Impossible is night and day. I was actually startled when Hennessy started into her first of many long, rambling speeches; she’s a totally different person when she isn’t strung up with sleep deprivation and struggling alone to keep her clones going. I feel like I’m not supposed to like Hennessy more than Jordan, but I kinda do. There’s something very melancholy appealing about her. Like Ronan, she’s on a somewhat destructive path, and I worry about her going forward—she’s never lived for herself, she’s never really been truly loved, and she’s never had anyone looking out for her (or even anyone pretending to look out for her)—but she does seem to have stumbled into a better group, so maybe—hopefully—she’ll be okay.
I’m far less invested in Declan and Jordan than I am in the other characters. Of course, I like Jordan and am interested in her journey from dream to individual, but to be totally honest I find Matthew’s I’m-a-dream storyline more engaging. Maybe it is because Matthew is humorously petulant about it and I enjoy humorous petulance. Maybe it’s because so much of Jordan’s story is tied up with her romance. Maybe it’s Declan’s fault. It’s probably Declan’s fault.
Supposedly the boring is just a façade, but I’m still not sold on that. In the Dreamer Trilogy, he’s the typical handsome-romantic-white-boy-with-a-traumatic-past that populates so many romances. And I can’t forget the Declan Lynch from the original Raven Cycle. He wasn’t boring; he was an asshole. He regularly got in knock-down-drag-out-the-police-were-called fights with Ronan. He constantly toured dates around the bits of his life that would best stir them to sympathy and then brought them home for sex. He had at least one moment in The Raven Boys that made me sideeye him as probably homophobic (it’s that scene where Ronan puts his leg over Adam’s and Declan gives him a weird look). Declan in the Raven Cycle is a lot of thing, but unmemorably bland is not one of them. If I’d met Declan for the first time in Call Down the Hawk, I might’ve bought his whole act, but I didn’t. I met him in The Raven Boysand I can’t get past my strong, initial impression that Declan Lynch is a douchebag.
The novel is written with Stiefvater’s usual bold, distinctive language. There’s something rhythmically lulling about her sentence construction. It’s like a current that sweeps the reader up, carries them briskly along, and then deposits them at the end. I flew through Mister Impossible. I didn’t realize how quickly I was reading it until it was over. There’s always at least one pressing concern to keep you reading. I’ll keep going until I know Adam’s okay. I’ll stop once I know what Bryde’s up to. I just want to know if Matthew is going to forgive Ronan.
And then the ending. My gosh that ending. Talk about a surprise.
I really don’t know how many times I can possibly be blindsided by the revelation that Ronan dreamt xyz, but apparently it’s at least one more time. Ronan dreamt Chainsaw. What? Ronan dreamt Matthew. Whoa! Ronan dreamt Cabeswater. Oh, wow. Ronan dreamt Bryde. WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK? I had to sit with that a while, because I was really upset at first. Declan had that whole speech about how it’s all Bryde’s fault and how Ronan is a follower and would never do all this stuff if he weren’t following someone else. And Adam thinks that Bryde is dangerous and shady. So when I found out that Ronan made Bryde, I felt a little betrayed. Ronan, how could you? I love Ronan. It was bad enough that he was blowing stuff up and ignoring his rightfully concerned loved ones. But to learn that he apparently wanted this, and was not just being swayed by a more powerful dreamer? Ouch.
Once I’d thought about it, though, I’ve backed off that initial reaction. Ronan might have created Bryde originally, but Bryde is not Ronan. After all, Matthew isn’t Ronan. Aurora wasn’t Niall. Opal and Chainsaw aren’t Ronan, and we’re told over and over and over again that Jordan isn’t Hennessy… despite being a clone who shares her name and identity. The dream is distinct from the dreamer, and Ronan dreams lots of things that he neither likes nor agrees with. I don’t think anyone would claim that Ronan is responsible for everything that his night horrors do. Bryde might be a nightmare, too. Anyway, I’m not convinced that Ronan actually created Bryde. Bryde has that conversation with Hennessy wherein she asks him how old he is, and he responds that he’s older than Ronan thinks. But if Ronan dreamt Bryde recently, wouldn’t that make Bryde younger than Ronan thinks? My working theory is that Bryde is like Cabeswater or Lindenmere, something that Ronan manifested but did not originate.
Thematically, I’m not sure it matters. Either way, Bryde is not Ronan.
I have even fewer theories about the dramatic sleeping reveals at the end. Why did all the Moderators fall asleep? Presumably they’re all dreams, but who dreamt them? My money is on Bryde, because it is important to have an enemy if you’re going to enact large change. He would need someone to rally his troops against, because Ronan and Hennessy wouldn’t have joined up with him (or even with each other) without that external threat. But that’s not as interesting to me as the fact that Jordan doesn’t fall asleep. Is it possible that she isn’t a dream? I have a gut feeling that somehow she’s the original and Hennessy is the copy, though it’s more likely that she is just so vibrant and full of her own life that she is less dependent on her dreamer than the average dream (maybe she is somehow a sweetmetal).
I’m very concerned about the fact that Ronan conspicuously doesn’t wake at the end. In another book, I’d just be like he’s tired! He needs a nap! But when mixed with a montage of other sleeping reveals, his slumber feels a lot more ominous, like he is living too much in his dreams and not enough in reality and is somehow becoming too dreamlike himself. I’m very afraid for him, but I think that the trilogy is ultimately going to end okay. I’ve seen a few things from Maggie Stiefvater that lead me to believe/hope that she’s going to guide Ronan (and Adam and Hennessy and Matthew and Jordan and Declan) to a safe harbor. On Instagram she wrote that she doesn’t love the series format because you get stuck with an ending that isn’t the real ending, and that Mister Impossible is a Han-Solo-in-carbonite moment. That’s a dark moment before what is ultimately a happy ending with a lot of reunions and romantic happily-ever-afters. In an AMA, she talked about how Adam and Ronan are the main romantic storyline of the series, which is why Jordan and Declan get things sorted so much faster, and how this series is in large part about Ronan working things through with himself and not being able to hang his worth on a relationship with someone else. Reading those comments makes me confident that Ronan and the others are in as good hands as ever and that things will turn out well.
What’s the verdict?
I continue to love Ronan Lynch. He’s so great, and the other characters around him aren’t bad, either (I still miss Adam and Gansey so much it hurts, but—I suspect—not as much as Ronan does). Of course I loved Mister Impossible. Of course, it also caused me a lot of emotional turmoil and I feel lightly traumatized. I am anxious for book three, and I’m sure I’ll like Mister Impossible even more once I have the whole series and know for sure that everything is going to end up okay. It’s easier to love a book that ends badly when there’s a subsequent book that undoes the damage, and while I feel almost certain that we’ll get one of those, for now I’m stuck internally screaming. In other words, I recommend this series as highly as ever, but I’m jealous of anyone who reads it for the first time when all the books are available.
I always like to start these lists with the most painfully obvious recommendations. That’s a subzero chance that anyone is reading Mister Impossible without having gone through the Raven Cycle first, but in case you have somehow managed that, please go and read the Raven Cycle.
Cornelia Funke’s Reckless (now titled The Petrified Flesh, which makes me angry, but whatever) is a really great book about a pair of brothers who go through a mirror into a magical world. It’s an absolutely brilliant dark twist on fairy tales, but it has a similar appeal because of the strained sibling relationship, the dreamlike world, and the creative magic. The phrase this world is not for you is what reminds me of Reckless because Reckless is very much the story of a group of characters in the wrong world. If you do read it, though, stop after book one. It is basically perfect as a standalone (it was definitely originally intended as a standalone) but each subsequent book in the series is a little bit worse. I gave up after three. If you do go past book one, know that you did it against my advice.
While Rainbow Rowell’s Carry Ondoesn’t really remind me of the Dreamer Trilogy, the second book—Wayward Son—does. I figured, why not suggest book two of a trilogy as a comparison to a book two of a trilogy? Like Mister Impossible, Wayward Son is about a character struggling with depression after the trauma of a whole series of hardship. Simon, like Ronan, has friends in his corner and is in a committed romantic relationship that he thought was going to be his happily-ever-after, but finds that it is not enough to save him from his self-loathing.
Another weird comparison title because it isn’t even fantasy: Darius the Great is Not Okayby Adib Khorram. I recommend this book all the time because it is absolutely wonderful. It is also about a young man struggling with family issues and depression.
If you liked the mindfuckery of Mister Impossible, you might like E. Lockhart’s YA thrillers. Both Genuine Fraudand We Were Liarsare fascinatingly written books that have you constantly questioning what’s real and what isn’t all the way to their shockingly twisty endings. We Were Liars specifically features a character who—like Ronan—is mentally unwell and lies to herself.
Any Way the Wind Blows is a charming and emotionally satisfying conclusion to Rainbow Rowell’s boldly atypical fantasy trilogy.
Rainbow Rowell is wonderful. Fangirl—technically the first novel which features Simon and Baz, although it is not really a part of the trilogy’s continuity—was the first novel with a heroine I truly related to, and I’ve been a huge Rowell fan ever since. I’ve always been more interested in fictional worlds than my own life, and that wasn’t something I had ever seen depicted in fiction before. Then came the Simon Snow trilogy, which is relatable in a very different way. I’ve written at length about the creativity of the first book in the series, Carry On, which reads like a parody of (or maybe an homage to) blockbuster fantasy series like Harry Potter. It acts as the final book in a longstanding series, referring to past events as though the reader has already experienced them and just needs an occasional reminder. It relies on the reader’s knowledge of common fantasy tropes—the orphaned Chosen One, the wise and powerfulmentor, the beautiful but oft-kidnapped girlfriend, the privileged and potentially evil rival, the brainy sidekick, and so on—and uses them as building blocks. In Fangirl, the Simon Snow series is essentially an in-world version of Harry Potter, from its position as a worldwide phenomenon to the specifics of the characters and scenarios within its pages. It’s therefore easy to basically plot every character in Carry On onto a Harry Potter character from their the basic archetypes. Simon is Harry, Penny is Hermione, Baz is Draco Malfoy, the Mage is Dumbledore, Ebb is Hagrid, and so on (Agatha’s doesn’t necessarily have a direct comparison to that series, but her basic type is no less familiar: she starts off as any generic superhero’s girlfriend, like Spiderman’s Mary Jane or Superman’s Lois Lane). Carry On makes some surprising reversals and reveals, breaking the characters out of their base type, but it ends where you’d expect the last book of an epic series to end: the hero has vanquished his foe and saved the magical world, and he is now safely wrapped in the arms of his true love.
(Spoilers for Carry On and Wayward Son from here on out)
I loved Carry On, but I assumed that it was a one-off. Then came Wayward Son. The second book of the trilogy has a more traditional narrative structure, but it sets up the trajectory of the rest of the series. Carry On is an ending, and Wayward Son is about the aftermath of an ending. Simon Snow was groomed from childhood to save the world. He was defined by his powerful magic. Now he has saved the world from himself—after learning that his own magic was the great threat he was fighting—and he is no longer powerful. His mentor is dead, and Simon himself killed him, albeit unintentionally. Simon technically achieved what he was set to accomplish, but how do you go forward when everything you knew was a lie? His whole identity was being the Mage’s Heir and the Chosen One. Now he is neither of those things, and maybe he never was those things. Also, he’s barely twenty. He has a whole life to look forward to, but now he’s purposeless and depressed. Wayward Son asks us to consider the cost of being the Chosen One. It is about depression. It’s about having a lot of potential in youth but hitting a wall in adulthood (who else can relate?). It’s about how love doesn’t cure all. While the narrative itself is pretty standard, and the plot in some ways is also (Simon, Baz, and Penny have to save Agatha from vampires), the bigger implications aren’t standard for fantasy. It’s very internal. Simon has fallen into lethargy and self-hatred, and despite their best efforts Baz and Penny can’t do anything about it.
Even the vampires aren’t just a spooky supernatural threat; they’re a metaphor for Baz’s queerness and alienation. Baz being a vampire was initially a secret and then it’s kind of a running joke, and here it transforms into a major part of his identity. It’s both a source of pride and a source of shame. Baz’s gayness and his vampireness are constantly paralleled, and here both become something he owns and explores, and it’s worth noting that Baz’s self-assuredness comes far before Simon’s; even through Any Way the Wind Blows, Simon has not fully accepted either his sexuality or his wings.
And that brings us to Any Way the Wind Blows. (This has turned into a series review more than a single-book review, hasn’t it? Well, so be it. Final books are bigger than just a single book; they have to bring it all together). My first impression is that it is a gentler novel than either that came before it. While, yes, there are plot things going on—most specifically with Shepard, who is in my opinion the most fantasy-typical character in the series—the main story is not about undoing demon deals or unmasking a dangerous fraud. Any Way the Wind Blows is about Simon coming to terms with his lost power, learning who he really is, and finding a way to live for the present. Early on, Simon essentially abandons Penny and Baz because he finds it too painful to be around their magic, which reminds him too much of what he has lost. He begs them to stop casting spells on him, makes an appointment to have his wings and tail surgically removed, and makes unhappy plans to return to the Normal world where he feels he belongs.
I was not well acquainted with Chris Bohjalian when his novel Hour of the Witch was announced as the Barnes and Noble book club selection. I knew that he is a reasonably well respected author, but I’d only read one of his books previously (The Double Bind, which is not one you often hear about) and was lukewarm about it. Still, since I don’t usually love the book club picks (The Cold Millions, Good Neighbors, Florence Adler Swims Forever), I was excited for a book that sounded more up my alley. Almost everyone in the book club said to me independently, Audra, this is going to be one you’ll like. They were right, but I think they were thinking more about the book being about witches (I read lots of fantasy, and Ninth Househas been by far my favorite book club selection) and less about its focus on systematic sexism and power structures, which—for me—is the real appeal of this one.
What’s it about?
When Mary, a wealthy Puritan woman, petitions to divorce her abusive husband, she becomes an object of curiosity in her patriarchal and strictly religious society. During the divorce trial, Mary is scrutinized and criticized, and as it goes on Mary realizes that her emancipation from her husband may not be the only thing at stake; her independent spirit and quick mind may brand her as a witch in the minds of her neighbors.
What’d I think?
It takes a bit to get into this book. At first, I was a bit thrown by the dialogue, which is intentionally very dated (lots of thous and prithees and the like). I don’t know why I wan’t expecting it, considering when the book is set, but I wasn’t. The first half is quite slow and a bit repetitive. It is written very well, it is clearly meticulously researched, and it does an excellent job of orienting the reader in Bohjalian’s world of saints and sinners, but it does drag a little. There’s enough there to keep you reading, but it doesn’t light that I must tell everyone I know about this book fire. I think the novel would have been better slightly rebalanced, with a bit shaved off the first half and given to the latter half, which moves very quickly, but overall I enjoyed it. I was engaged with this world, and even in the moments when I was at my most frustrated at the slow-moving plot, I was still invested and interested enough to keep reading. I never set the book aside in frustration or complained to friends or family, as I’m wont to do with books that actively irritate me. So I think the pacing is fine, but it might have been better.
This has been a rough blogging month. My stats have consistently dropped by more than fifty percent despite my best efforts, which is probably the universe telling me to work on editing my book instead of continuing to write book reviews that only I ever read. Whatever. This is fun, that’s stressful, and this makes it easier to remember what I thought about everything I’ve read and therefore makes it easier to do my job (bookseller). Still, I think I’ll probably make an effort to reshuffle my priorities next month.
That said, I had a really fun time reading. I took a week-long vacation that was very much needed and got the chance to actually sit down and devote some time to the books I’ve been looking forward to. I’ve been rereading some of my favorite series because my favorite authors are all gifting me this year with new content. I also made an uncharacteristic but enjoyable foray into the world of graphic novels.
I read 18 books this month (not counting the Dream Trilogy’s prequel story Opal, which seems too short to count): 3 adult books, 5 graphic novels, 1 children’s classic, and 9 YA. Of that, the vast majority was fantasy: 11 were straight fantasy, with another 3 with sci-fi/fantasy elements (Fence was the only entirely realistic story I read this month). I also did a lot more rereading than usual: 8 rereads vs 10 new-to-me books.
new release, fiction, literary fiction, science fiction, horror
Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
The Other Black Girl is outside my wheelhouse in a number of ways. Firstly, it’s an adult new release, and to be totally honest, I don’t usually read those. YA is my favorite, and for everything else I usually wait until I’ve seen enough reviews to know if the universe collectively has decided whether or not it is worth reading. Furthermore, The Other Black Girl is horror, or at least horror-adjacent (it’s usually compared to Get Out). I was a little nervous going in because I was afraid I’d be left with nightmares. Thankfully, it isn’t that kind of horrific. It does leave the reader with a sense of dread because the evil depicted inside it, while exaggerated into science fiction, is absolutely true to the real world. This is a story about institutionalized racism in the corporate world, which obviously lends itself well to horror. Psychological dread is depicted wonderfully and terribly here, so much so that the literal brainwashing almost feels secondary. It is brilliant, but I’m honestly a little surprised that it got published, because it is not flattering to the publishing industry. It doesn’t attack the industry, but it doesn’t try to hide the racism and self congratulatory fake-wokeness present there. The Other Girl is entertaining, but it is also powerful and eye-opening. I discussed this book with my (unfortunately entirely white) book club, and it is amazing what an education it was for some of us.
YA, graphic novel, series (vol. 1-4 of ?), sports stories, LGBTQ+*
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Last year, I read two graphic novels. This month alone, I read five. Weirdly, I both broke out of my usual reading patterns and very much upheld them this month. I read Fence initially because I adored Sarah Rees Brennan’s YA take on the characters. Maybe it’s pretentious of me, but I didn’t expect to love the graphic novels as much as I did. My goodness are they fun. The illustrations are aesthetically pleasing, and the characters are deeply compelling. The marriage of the writing and the pictures is wonderful, and it creates a universe I would happily spend hours in. I do wish that the individual volumes had more story to them; I felt that I was done almost as soon as I’d started, and find myself daunted at the thought of just how many years it will be before the story is complete. That said, I’m certain that I’ll read the rest of the series as it is released, because I truly loved it. If more graphic novels were like this, I would read more of them.
I read Black Sun partially for work and partially for me. It was already on my TBR, but then it got picked as Barnes and Noble’s July book of the month (one of them, anyway), so I figured I’d read it so that I could better sell it. It’s really good. I don’t always love the corporate picks, but sometimes they nail it and this time (and when they picked The House in the Cerulean Sea) they nailed it. Black Sun takes lots of familiar fantasy elements—a factioned society, a ruling religious elite, a badass female magicking her way through a man’s world, an alternating POV, etc.—and combines them to create something that is exciting if not entirely new. The multiple points of view and time jumps keep the story moving briskly forward and the result is an adventure that feels breakneck and keeps the reader flying through the story. It’s a big book (450-some pages), but it doesn’t feel big because it moves so fast and has so many surprises. It starts off quite brutally, but it is absolutely worth powering through the upfront gore to get to the more interesting parts.