Shades of Milk and Honey

“One must not put trust in novelists, Beth; they create worlds to fit their own needs and drive their characters mad in doing it.” (Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

CoverFresh off a Jonathan Strange binge, I scoured the internet for a read-alike to satisfy my craving for more Clarke-style blending of magic and literature. Shades of Milk and Honey, billed as a combination of Austen and Clarke, caught my eye. Knowing, as I do, that Jonathan Strange already incorporates its own fair share of Austen’s literary style in its pages, I predicted that this work would lean more towards a Regency era lady’s novel than towards Clarke’s complex world building – and I was correct.

Though light fare, Shades of Milk and Honey may be worth reading for those so devoted to Austen that they eat up knock-offs like Longbourn, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, Death Comes to Pemberley, etc, and can stand a bit of a fantasy twist. However, I’d only recommend it if you have a lot of reading time on your hands to throw away on fluff. If, on the other hand, your guard your reading time jealously – only spending it on the the best examples of any genre – save your precious hours for a more tempting read.


Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow Sometime OR Avoid
Length: 320 pages
Ending: As expected: romantic
Incidental Learning: Regency Era Britain
Further Reading: Any of the Austen knock-offs mentioned above

The Magicians

“Are you kidding? That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog.” (The Magicians by Lev Grossman)

The Magicians CoverHaving loved Harry Potter since age 11 (I still listen to Jim Dale’s rendition every night before bed), I’m always on the look-out for any book boasting a resemblance to Rowling. Especially intriguing, but also far too commonplace, are the books that claim they are ‘harry potter for adults’. I always hope for something along the lines of Jonathan Strange with a boarding school setting – something literary, where not all the plotlines tie up so neatly. Instead, I usually receive a vaguely magical book with some sex and violence thrown in to ‘grow it up’. Fortunately, The Magicians is a much more satisfactory attempt at adulting HP.

Though The Magicians might not actually be more emotionally mature than its kid counterpart, it’s at least more worldly and delightfully filled with sarcasm, irony, and apathy. Grossman does install some sex and language, to ensure that no one mistakes this for a children’s novel, but it never feels gratuitous or out of sync with the book’s style. The Magicians also emphasizes magical theory, giving our adult-sized brains something bigger to chew on than Rowling’s mostly nonsensical, relegated-to-the-background magic. Presented as a tedious academic experience, Grossman’s magic feels more real and in-line with our grownup expectations.

Recommended Action: Buy BorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 432pages
Ending: Complete in itself until the last page, which leads right into the second book
Further Reading: If you’re looking for other mature fantasy books, try out The Ocean at the End of the Lane and, of course, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

“Woods were tinged with a colour so soft, so subtle that it could scarcely be said to be a colour at all. It was more the idea of colour – as if the trees were dreaming green dreams or thinking green thoughts”

“They looked at each other for a long moment, and in that moment all was as it used to be – it was as if they had never parted; but she did not offer to go into the Darkness with him and he did not ask her.” (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke)

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell coverI go on binges of recommending Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell every so often. These readers’ advisory frenzies are usually precipitated by rereading the book, watching the BBC series, or meeting someone with any of the characters’ names. Yet, when recommending, I often lean back on clichés like: ‘I’ve read it three times’, ‘you must read it if you like literature, historical fiction, and fantasy’, or ‘the magic is ridiculously creative’. In a way, I think I love the book too much to form a cogent argument for reading it. Every time I talk about it, I just hope I can make my face and words animated enough so that my audience will gloss over what I’m actually saying.

It is equally difficult to convey my earnest love for the book in print. I could use lots of exclamation points: brilliant writing!!! Unexpected magic!!! Lovely, yet somehow entirely un-romantic conclusion!!!!! Or, I could make a few comparisons: Clarke rivals literature greats like Trollope or Burnett in piercing character descriptions; her footnotes match Infinite Jest in depth and world building; Like Austen, her book is beautifully symmetrical, each character having another to play off of and reveal themselves through. Or, I could talk about her mode of delivery, like when she requires her readers wait 250 pages before introducing the title character and 9/10ths of the book before allowing us to glimpse the keystone magician in her redesigned history of Britain.

The reason why you choose to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell doesn’t matter – if these arguments don’t convince you, do a google search to find ones that do – what does matter is that you grab a copy (borrowed/purchased/ebook/print) as soon as you can.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 1,024 pages
Ending: Hopeful, but entirely un-romantic
Incidental Learning: History of Britain, Napoleonic Wars
Further Reading: After Clarke, you might be spoiled for other fantasy. I’d recommend going to other literature + fantasy authors, like Neil Gaiman or Station Eleven

Fates and Furies

“Great swaths of her life were white space to her husband. What she did not tell him balanced neatly with what she did. Still, there are untruths made of words and untruths made of silences, and Mathilde had only ever lied to Lotto in what she never said.” (Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff)

Fates and Furies CoverMy policy of ‘just say no to bestsellers’ kept me away from this book until I read this review from the NYT. A book told in two parts? I imagined unreliable narrators, characters recreated in the last few pages, a need to completely re-write the book in my head (like Sweet Tooth, or Confederacy of Dunces). While the first few chapters stunned me with the freshness of the writing, the book as a whole didn’t add up to anything meaningful. All of Groff’s literary contortions keep the reader in suspense, but rarely add depth or insight.

Though Fates and Furies wants to portray itself an honest account of a marriage, it ends up being more a story of two lives, the intersection of which is muddy at best. While Groff portrays the characters of the husband and wife deeply, she glosses over their interactions and shared lives. They both hide themselves from the other and are revealed only to the reader, only on the page. One gets the sense of not a ‘great love’, as it is often called, but instead of a great separation, where the romance plays out only in their minds.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 390
Ending: The wife’s reflections on the marriage at the end of her life
Incidental Learning: New York, Play writing
Further Reading: This book reminded me of The Marriage PlotBrilliant writing, brilliant beginning, but at the end, not amounting to much.

Booklion Birthday Awards: Year 6

When I first began this blog, I thought I was attempting to convince other people to read brilliant books. But, after years of purposefully not promoting the blog, of not mentioning it to friends, of not talking about it even with family – in short, of not using the blog to convince anyone of anything – I realize that sharing books can’t be the actual reason I write here.

After six years, I don’t feel like my reading is complete unless I write. A book someone else has written is not over for me until I write two paragraphs about it afterward. Like a small, personal, post script. A way to figure out, at least partially, what I thought. I now read with the practice of filing away vague thoughts and feelings to analyze later in front of the screen. If I didn’t make those fleeting thoughts concrete, I fear they might just fall away, forgotten. I can hardly distinguish books in my memory before I started this blog. Now, I have my opinions quantified and on-hand if ever I need them.

More even than a thinking tool, this blog is a diary told in the guise of reading experiences. It is a memory enhancement device that I reread periodically, perusing the emotions and lessons of this or that time through the tone I use in each piece. You probably wouldn’t be able to pick out specific life events by reading entries (since I systematically delete what has to do with my personal life), but they serve as a reminder to me. My posts are coded pieces that link each book to myself at that time, because you can never read (or write) without bringing yourself to the page.

I’m not going to lie anymore. This blog is clearly not for the reader; it’s for me. Part thinking tool, motivational technique, diary, writing practice. If you do choose to read a book after stopping by, you are more than welcome to it. But be aware that my recommendations are colored with personal experiences, and the reviews are far from unbiased.
So, here’s my reflection on the past year of reading, in the form of categories and awards:

Most Recommended: Neapolitan Quartet by Elaina Ferrante 

Most Enjoyable reading experience: Purity by Franzen 

Personal Favorite Post: Marry Me by Dan Rhodes

Most Humorous: The Martian by Weir

Most Earnest: the life changing magic of tidying up by Kondo

The Art and Craft of Tea

“Although this book is dedicated to capital “T” tea and takes a hard-line stance on what should and should not be considered tea, the one exception I make is Ethiopian tea, which is technically a tisane and not a tea (it does not use leaves from the Camellia sinesis plant).” (The Art and Craft of Tea by Joseph Wesley Uhl)

41k0ozehcbl-_sx258_bo1204203200_There are few acts more comforting than reading a book of gathered and sorted facts about one’s favorite subject. With each new tea book I read, I’m reminded of childhood’s obsession with accumulating the names of things: dinosaurs, star wars characters, rocks. Knowing these names is inherently meaningless in and of itself, but being able to recite them in your mind, recounting something stable at any time, relaxes. Similarly, at this point I don’t really need to read another book that tells me about the various categories of tea or the growing regions of China, but seeing them down on the page, accompanied by gorgeous pictures and a modern page layout, reminds me of all the other times I’ve found comfort and beauty in the subject.

This particular tea book’s virtues lie in the recipes found at the end. The author not only describes how various countries brew their traditional cup of tea (Persian Rose Tea sounds particularly intriguing), but also delves into modern mixes involving fruit, fresh herbs, and alcohol. I also appreciated the shortened, albeit obligatory, outlining of tea’s history, and the authors repeated insistence that one cannot call a tisane tea.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 160 coffee-table book sized pages. Probably not meant to be read cover to cover, but I recommend it anyway.
Ending: An index. Quite proper to the subject.
Incidental Learning: While you may expect to learn a lot about tea, you’ll also pick up some interesting details about the craft cocktail scene in Detroit.
Further Reading: More Tea books! I particularly love The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo, although that book is less about the facts of tea than its art. I’d also recommend

Morning Star

“This is always how the story would end,” he says to me. “Not with your screams. Not with your rage. But with your silence.” (Morning Star by Pierce Brown)

Morning Star CoverBrown delivers the third book of the Red Rising trilogy most fans were hoping for. It’s epic, shocking, and full of emotion and humor. It wraps up all plot lines without being too tidy and reveals a hopeful future for the characters we’ve grown to love. Though an excellent read, something kept nagging me throughout. A phrase repeated itself in my head, even though I couldn’t quite pinpoint the source of it at first: I’m being treated like the enemy instead of the hero.

Brown repeatedly uses the technique of jumping over large swaths of time so that the reader is just as surprised as the enemy when the Darrow’s ingenious scheme to win this or that war is revealed. While this method might serve to increase our suspense and delight, it comes at a major price. Ultimately, we get to be on less intimate terms with our beloved hero than we’re used to in a first person fantasy. We don’t get to hear Darrow’s thoughts when he’s planning; we don’t get to see the back and forth arguments, the worries and the fears. We, in short, are forced to pass over much of that lovely character development we readers yearn for so much. And, in the end, it feels less like we won a war and more like we just experienced a wonderful trick.

Recommended Action: Buy – Borrow Now Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 515
Ending: Hopeful and tricky
Further Reading: Between the second and third book of this trilogy, I read the very intimate Tawny Man trilogy by Hobb. If you leave this trilogy and you’re looking for something a little more character-oriented, Hobb wouldn’t be a bad place to go.