Recent Reads is a monthly reading wrap-up, with mini-reviews of the books I read. I’ll also share what I’m currently reading and any other books that are in the pipeline. Feel free to share your bookish happenings in the Comments section!
With this month’s Recent Reads, I’m making a slight organizational change in the “Other Books I Read In…” section. Instead of listing books in the order I read them, I’ll show them in order of rating, starting with the second-highest after the Read of the Month. No one has commented on this before, but I thought it might make it easier to determine which books I liked more than others.
As for the books themselves, I managed to finish 5 more (all of which are reviewed below) and am now reading my 41st book of the year. How in the world have I managed this?! The only thing I can think of is that I’ve really grown to appreciate my reading time, and a day doesn’t feel complete without it. I might not be a fast reader, but gosh do I love it. 🙂
Anyways, onto August’s Read of the Month! And it is…
Read of the Month: The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
The sequel to the Hugo Award winning The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate returns to the Stillness as the aftermath of its latest natural disaster takes hold. Essun, the earth-manipulating orogene from TFS, has chosen to stay in the settlement of Castrima to help them with (for lack of a better word) “doomsday preparations” and to train with her former mentor Alabaster Tenring. What is Alabaster’s mission for her? A staggering feat that, if successful, could seal the fate of their world. Meanwhile, Essun’s 10-year-old daughter Nassun, who was kidnapped in TFS, journeys with her volatile father to a community rumored to “cleanse” orogenes of their powers. Yet Nassun’s gifts rapidly mature, and she learns to use them in unimaginable ways – with consequences that could weigh just as heavy as those from her mother’s task.
I’m sure that summary will confuse people who haven’t read this series yet. But it’s difficult to say more without revealing too much of The Obelisk Gate‘s incredible world-building and the story itself. We learn much more about the Stillness, especially the obelisks and the stone eaters. Questions that were posed during TFS are answered, and more mysteries arise. There were also moments when I ached for Essun, Nassun, Alabaster, and Essun’s stone-eater friend Hoa. (That Hoa scene in particular nearly made me cry.) All the emotional investment and immersion made The Obelisk Gate impossible to put down – and when I was forced to put it down, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Normally I’d use this space for criticisms… But I have none. Sure, The Obelisk Gate is intricate in its plotting and unorthodox in structure (e.g., Jemisin still uses second-person narration for Essun’s chapters). But after reading TFS and other novels by Jemisin over the past year, I’ve learned she has reasons for her unconventional choices – and those reasons always reveal themselves in time. So I sat back, absorbed each chapter’s events and the characters’ choices, and let my speculations percolate. And based on The Obelisk Gate‘s climax… Oh my word. The Broken Earth is shaping up to be an outstanding trilogy, and I’m so nervous-yet-scared-to-death for its finale next year. Fantasy readers who haven’t started this series need to get on it – but make sure you start with The Fifth Season, because The Obelisk Gate won’t make sense otherwise.
Other Books I Read in August
Inspired by Hindu mythology, Roshani Chokshi’s debut novel The Star-Touched Queen explores reincarnation, love, and one girl’s journey of self-discovery. Maya has been cursed with a horoscope of death and destruction. Her raja father, in an effort to quell the whispers of war with nearby realms, decides to marry her off. Soon Maya chooses Amar, the young ruler of a kingdom that transcends her wildest imagination. It is there that she’s given a voice and equal power by her new husband, and where she suspects secrets are around every corner and locked door. But who can Maya trust in a world so different from the one where she was born? And when she makes a fateful choice that could destroy the balance between humankind and the Otherworldly, how can she set things right and save everyone she loves?
I quickly fell under the trance of The Star-Touched Queen and relished every moment of it. Chokshi’s lush, vibrant writing reminded me of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Renee Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn (actually, TSTQ is sort of a hybrid of both books) and highlighted the rich colors, dreamlike imagery, and cerebral dialogue. The world-building blew me away as well, with its armful of legends and mythical creatures. I especially won’t forget Kamala the flesh-eating demon horse anytime soon, thanks to her quirky humor and unlikely loyalty to Maya. And, the titular heroine is remarkable in her own right. Her earnest intelligence, bravery, and persistence make her a thoughtful alternative to the kick-ass female protagonist (though Maya does kick ass in her own way).
As much as I loved the writing in The Star-Touched Queen, it does get too flowery at times and slows the story’s pace. And while I’m not always keen on fantasy-romances, I quickly realized there was much more to TSTQ. It’s about family, finding one’s purpose, and becoming the master of one’s destiny. It’s also patient, deeper, and more inventive than most YA fantasies I’ve read this year. (Plus, it tugged on my heartstrings, so bonus points for that!) So, in short, The Star-Touched Queen took my breath away and left me spellbound. Fans of the Hades & Persephone myth, Middle Eastern or Hindu / Indian influenced stories, or descriptive writing styles shouldn’t let this slip under their radar.
Talk about a trip down memory lane. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child takes readers (and lucky theater patrons) back to J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World for one more adventure with beloved characters and new friends and enemies. The script splits its time between the adults and their children, mainly Harry and his younger son Albus, whose relationship is strained under the weight of their family’s legacy. Things don’t get much easier for Albus when he’s sorted in Slytherin and befriends Scorpius Malfoy, the son of Harry’s still-nemesis Draco Malfoy. But after eavesdropping on a conversation between Harry and an elderly man still grieving over his son, Albus resolves to steal a Time Turner and fix one of his father’s biggest mistakes – a decision with potentially dire consequences.
As excited as I was about Cursed Child, I had my reservations since Rowling didn’t create the story alone. But I quickly found myself settling in for the ride and enjoying myself, even laughing out loud at the comedic bits. Most of the returning characters were portrayed accurately (or, matching my impressions of older yet recognizable versions of themselves), and I remembered why I loved (or hated) them all over again. The new characters were also wonderful, especially Scorpius. Yes, a Malfoy was my favorite character this time! But he’s kind, nerdy, a voice of reason for Albus, and a hopeless romantic for Ron and Hermoine’s daughter Rose. Reading a script was an interesting experience, too. The bare-bones stage directions allowed me to imagine or recall each setting and spell however I chose, and I appreciated that.
I have a BIG problem, though, with Delphi Diggory. It’s not her character per se, but her true “parentage”… It defies logic, from who her parents are (really?!) to the timeline of her birth (and the implications her mother’s pregnancy would have had on past HP events). Some fans have also criticized the “queer-baiting” in Albus and Scorpius’s friendship. I can see where they’re coming from… but it reminds me of a similar debate over Frodo and Sam after the Lord of the Rings film trilogy was released, and I didn’t agree with that opinion. All I’ll say here is that it made sense to me for Albus and Scorpius, two young and awkward boys who are shunned by their peers, to become as close as they did.
Anyways – yes, I’m happy with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It’s not my favorite HP story by far, but I’m glad I gave it a chance. Now I’ll be jealous of anyone who’s fortunate enough to see the play.
Intrigue, music, romance, and alchemy, all converging in one of 18th century Hungary’s grandest opera houses – that’s the premise for Masks and Shadows, the debut adult historical fantasy by Stephanie Burgis. Set in Eszterháza Palace, the home of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, this standalone follows the recently widowed Charlotte von Steinbeck and the renowned castrato singer Carlo Morelli. Both are visiting Eszterháza under different circumstances, and meet as composer Joseph Haydn is about to premiere a new opera. As more guests arrive and Charlotte and Carlo spend time at the palace, they realize that secrets are lurking within its walls – secrets of dark magic, blackmail, and murder. And if they can’t find out who may be behind it all, the Habsburg Empire’s royal family might not be the only lives at stake.
I love it when music plays a major role in stories. Masks and Shadows is no exception, and there’s plenty to enjoy beyond music. Burgis’s lush descriptions of Eszterháza’s opera house, gardens, and other areas paint a vivid picture of a truly extravagant setting. An undercurrent of romance flows throughout, especially between Charlotte and Carlo. Their differences in social class and Carlo being a castrato puts their relationship squarely in “forbidden” territory, and I found it compelling yet was pleased it didn’t upstage the rest of the plot. My favorite POV character, though, was Anna, Charlotte’s former maid and an untrained yet talented singer. She’s sympathetic and admirable, thanks to her frustration as she hurries to prepare for her first opera (and as the palace conspiracy grows more evident) and her bravery during the explosive, based-on-history climax.
That said, it took me a while to get into Masks and Shadows. Some of this was due to the old-fashioned language and dialogue. Most of it, however, was because of certain characters. I couldn’t stand Charlotte’s selfish, hypocritical younger sister Sophie and struggled with the mostly aristocratic cast. I like reading about kings, queens, and so on, but I get bored when there aren’t enough everyday people to balance it out. But the final third of the story made up for some of those issues – and that stunning finale. WOW. Masks and Shadows is an opera in itself: dramatic, sweeping, and full of passion in all its forms. Fans of music, European history, and magic should consider adding this to their wishlist.
At its heart, Paulo Coelho’s Brida is the story of a young Irish woman’s coming of age. Brida is fascinated by magic and witchcraft for some time, and learns more about them to better understand herself and her world. She finds two teachers: a man living alone in a forest who encourages her to face her fears and be one with the universe; and a city-dwelling woman who inspires her to dance to nature’s music, pray to the moon, and heed her intuition. But while Brida’s path is teeming with wonder and discovery, it’s not without frustration and questions. Will her pursuit of witchcraft compromise her relationships with her family and her boyfriend? More importantly, will her heart’s desire give her answers to the questions she’s seeking, and help her become who she’s meant to be?
I hadn’t read a Paulo Coelho book in a few years, so I wasn’t sure how I’d react to Brida. Now that I’ve finished it, I know I appreciated seeing this window of Brida’s growth from a spiritual wanderer to a brave young woman eager to embrace her destiny. Yet it didn’t impact me the way that other Coelho books like The Alchemist, Veronika Decides to Die, or The Devil and Miss Prym have. Maybe it’s because my reading tastes have changed over time. Or, maybe Brida’s story didn’t touch me as deeply as Santiago’s or Veronika’s did. I haven’t quite put my finger on the “why” yet.
At the same time, reading Brida was like slipping on a well-worn pair of shoes. I know what to expect from Coelho’s stories, and this book satisfied those expectations. Sure, his prose is plain and relies on informing (telling instead of showing) and moral observations. But that’s how Coelho writes, and why his stories aren’t typical quick reads. He inspires the reader think about life and its mysteries, often from viewpoints outside our comfort zone. For this reason, readers who are opposed to Wicca or alternative belief systems might find some of Brida‘s content off-putting. (I’m not a Wiccan, but I didn’t find anything grotesque or offensive.) But for anyone who has an open mind about a character’s soul-searching, this thoughtful tale of love, courage, and self-discovery is worth considering.
What I’m Reading Next
I’m in the middle of Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer right now, and have Patrick Rothfuss’s The Slow Regard of Silent Things and A.J. Hartley’s Steeplejack lined up next. Plus, two more of my most anticipated reads of 2016 are coming out this month: Leigh Bardugo’s Crooked Kingdom and Rae Carson’s Like a River Glorious! How on Earth am I going to choose which one I should read first?
What books did you recently read? Have you read any of the titles reviewed above?