Review: “The Historian,” Elizabeth Kostova

Publisher’s Synopsis:  Breathtakingly suspenseful and beautifully written, The Historian is the story of a young woman plunged into a labyrinth where the secrets of her family’s past connect to an inconceivable evil:  the dark fifteenth-century reign of Vlad the Impaler and a time-defying pact that may have kept his awful work alive through the ages.  The search for the truth becomes an adventure of monumental proportions, taking us from monasteries and dusty libraries to the capitals of Eastern Europe – in a feat of storytelling so rich, so hypnotic, no exciting that it has enthralled readers around the world.

Rating: 4.5/5

I decided to re-read The Historian at the end of the Bout of Books 10.0 Read-a-thon, when I was dealing with quite a bit of anxiety and felt that it would be nice to read an old favorite.  I first read it around 2007, and I’ve reread it (I think) twice since then.

The Historian was Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel; her second novel was The Swan Thieves, which I reviewed here.  If I recall correctly, The Historian sat on my bookshelf for a long time before I picked it up, because I hadn’t realized when I bought it that it was a vampire story, and I wasn’t interested in it because of that.

In actuality, this is a vampire story, but it’s not quite one like you’ve read before.  It intertwines the story of Dracula with the history of Vlad Tepes and the folklore of Eastern Europe, so that it’s much more a story about a research quest through history than it is about vampires.  It is told from several perspectives, but the primary narrator is an unnamed young woman who discovers papers in her father’s study relating to his own search for Dracula, approximately 20 years before.  Her father’s story is told from his own perspective (initially through letters, then as separate chapters in his first-person perspective), and another historian’s quest is told through letters to the narrator’s father.  It gets a little messy, but I never found it particularly difficult to follow.

One thing that annoyed me quite a lot on this reading which hadn’t bothered me before was the narrator’s naivete.  She acknowledges it at the beginning of the story, but she is approximately 16-18 years old during the majority of the narration, and her voice belongs to someone 13-15 at the oldest.  It almost seems to me as though Kostova originally wrote her younger, then decided that didn’t work with the plot as it was unfolding, so went back and made her older without changing the voice, just by adding that note at the beginning.  Luckily, after the first third or so of the book, the narrator isn’t the primary voice.

Another complaint I have (which isn’t new to this reading) is that The Historian ignores the allure that Dracula has in every other retelling of the myth – and that vampires have in general in all vampire stories.  The characters have no moral ambiguity – Dracula and his minions are bad, those hunting him are good, and that is the end of that.  It would be far more interesting if at least one person was seduced by ‘the dark side.’

Complaints aside, I really do love this book.  The characters’ journeys through Europe are beautifully described and the plot is suspenseful without being stressful.  In fact, in thinking about it, I’ll add a caveat to my previous paragraph:  the ending is open-ended, and I think that it allows for an interpretation of moral ambiguity, which appeals to me quite a bit.  On the subject of the ending, I thought that this one was very appropriate – it wasn’t absurdly optimistic, but it wasn’t Hamlet, either.  It was a good balance between good and bad (I just wish it was a better balance between good and evil!).

Ultimately, what sells The Historian for me – and what keeps me coming back – is the adventure of the quest though Europe and the way that it is described.  Kostova would be a brilliant narrative travel writer – she evokes a sense of the places that is intoxicating, even if it isn’t accurate (I can’t speak to its accuracy).


Review: “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” Robin Sloan

Publisher’s Synopsis:  “The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon away from life as a San Francisco web-design drone and into the aisles of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.  But after a few days on the job, Clay discovers that the store is more curious than either its name or its gnomic owner might suggest.  The customers are few, and they never seem to buy anything – instead, they “check out” large, obscure volumes from strange corners of the store.  Suspicious, Clay engineers an analysis of the clientele’s  behavior, seeking help from his variously talented friends.  But when they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra’s they discover the bookstore’s secrets extend far beyond its walls.  Rendered with irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like:  an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave.”

Rating:  5/5

I didn’t notice until I was nearly halfway through Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore that it has an endorsement from George Saunders on the front cover.  If I had seen that before I got started, I may have been a little more excited about it.  This reads as a love letter to books mixed with a treatise on the interplay of books and technology – the mingling of old knowledge and new.

I quite honestly loved everything about this book.  The characters were delightfully quirky, but still real and quite likable (if sometimes a bit superfluous).  The setting was wonderful; how could a book with “24-Hour Bookstore” right in the title not have a fabulous setting?  The plot moved at exactly the right pace:  events unfolded, but they never seemed rushed and as much as I enjoyed the book, I never wanted it to slow down to give me more time.  This was not a difficult book to read, but nor was it overly simple.  Sloan struck a perfect balance on almost every element of storytelling, leading to a whole that was cohesive and not at all over the top.

It is strange to me to read books set during the recession; it feels too current to have been immortalized in fiction just yet.  However, the way that Sloan juxtaposes the recession and the generation that has been living through it on top of the interplay between a mysterious used book archive and Silicon Valley is masterful.  A book about ancient books has never felt more modern.

Review: “The Winter People,” Jennifer McMahon

Publisher’s Synopsis:  “West Hall, Vermont, has always been a place of strange disappearances and old legends.  The most mysterious is that of Sara Harrison Shea, who, in 1908, was found dead in the field behind her house, just months after the tragic death of her daughter, Gertie.  Townspeople say that Sara’s ghost walks the streets after midnight, and some still leave offerings on their doorsteps to prevent her from coming inside.
Ruthie Washburne has never put much stock in West Hall’s rumors.  Having grown up in an isolated farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her younger sister, Fawn, she dreams of leaving her sleepy town and escaping her mother’s odd insistence that they live off the grid without Internet or even a listed phone number.  But when Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished without a trace, she beings to wonder if her mother’s eccentricities have a deeper reason – especially when she finds a copy of Sara Harrison Shea’s diary hidden beneath the floorboards of Alice’s room.
The diary tells the story of a mother on the edge, a mother who is willing to do the unthinkable in order to hold her daughter in her arms once again, no matter the consequences.  And as Ruthie gets sucked deeper into the mystery of Sara’s fate, she will discover that she’s no the only one looking for someone lost – nor is she the only person desperate to unlock the secrets that the diary contains.  But she may be the only one who can stop history from repeating itself.
Rating:  4.5/5
I heard about Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People through the Books on the Nightstand podcast, and I had initially planned to read it right after Her Fearful Symmetry, but I waited because I was worried that they would be too similar.  I’m glad that I held off, but they weren’t as similar as I feared.
I don’t like scary movies.  I used to enjoy ghost stories, but it’s been years since I’ve read a scary book.  The Winter People wasn’t truly scary, but it was definitely a little creepy – I’m glad that I finished it while the sun was still out!    It was a very quick read, mostly because I got hooked so early on.  A wonderful combination of plot, suspense, and characters kept me turning the pages, and the three interacted seamlessly to form a coherent whole.
The narration of The Winter People shifts from first person diary entries from the early 20th century, to third person omniscient narration of that time, to third person omniscient narration in the present day.  All of the third person omniscient narration is told through the ‘lens’ of one of four characters.  This seems to be a big trend in novels right now – I feel like most of the novels I’ve read this year use it to some extent.  McMahon does is extremely well; every time the narration shifted, I was disappointed to leave the story I was on behind, and then I got immediately hooked into the next.  I think that those shifts in narration are a large part of what propelled me to read so quickly.
The characters and the setting of The Winter People were also masterfully achieved.  I constantly felt that I could see the people and places, although I never felt bogged down in length descriptions.  It almost felt as if I’d been dropped into a world that I was already familiar with.
Glancing at some other reviews, I saw mixed thoughts on the ending.  Some readers thought it felt unfinished and didn’t give a sense of closure, and some were hopeful that it was set up for a sequel.  I, for one, don’t want a sequel.  I appreciate the ending for what it was.  The fact of literature is that it is intended to turn a looking glass on life. Novels start when something changes, but it isn’t realistic for endings to wrap themselves up in a package with a neat little bow.  Life doesn’t end like that, so it feels more true to me when novels don’t either.

Review: “Gone Girl,” Gillian Flynn

Publisher’s Synopsis:  On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary.  Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears.  As the police begin to investigate, the town golden boy parades a series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior.  Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter – but is he really a killer?

Rating:  4.5/5

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl tells the story of the disappearance of Amy Dunne and the investigation, which focuses on her husband.  The narration shifts back and forth from Nick Dunne in the first person to Amy Dunne, also in the first person, but through diary entries going back several years.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up this book.  I had a vague idea of the plot (from the book jacket only), and while I heard a lot of buzz, I didn’t know any specifics, and I hadn’t heard any spoilers. My first thought was that I couldn’t think of another book I had read – at least recently – with a male narrator written by a female author (on further thought, both of Elizabeth Kostova’s novels feature this).  I think that Flynn did this exceptionally well – in my opinion, it’s one of the most difficult things for an author to do, and she did it in a way that had me both sympathizing with and suspecting Nick.  I love an unreliable narrator, and throughout the entire book, there is never a reliable narrator.  What was surprising was that even though you know from the beginning that you have two unreliable narrators, by the middle of the book you, as a reader, start to wonder if there is anything that you can trust in the slightest.  The narration turned me into a paranoid reader, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

Gone Girl was a book that I struggled to put down, then couldn’t wait to pick up again.  I read it when I shouldn’t have, and lost a lot of sleep in the process.  Almost every chapter ended with a twist or revelation, and I just couldn’t wait to find out what the next one would be.  It was a fun read, even as the material was dark and twisted.

While Gone Girl has gotten a plethora of glowing reviews (it’s one of the most buzzed-about books out there for the past few years), there has been a lot of criticism about the ending.  I actually loved the ending; I thought that it was a great exploration of the dark, manipulative side of human nature.  The film adaptation is coming on in October 2014, directed by David Fincher, and while Gillian Flynn wrote the screenplay, she changed the ending.  I’m very curious to see what changed and how it effects the overall tone of the story.  I’ll leave you with the trailer for the film:

Review: “Her Fearful Symmetry,” Audrey Niffenegger

Rating:  4/5

This is going to be a short review, almost by necessity; there is very little that I can say without delving into spoilers.  Her Fearful Symmetry is the second novel by Audrey Niffenegger; her first was The Time-Traveler’s Wife.  It centers around twins, Julia and Valentina, who inherit their aunt’s flat in London under the conditions that they live there for a year before selling it, and that their parents never enter it.

It’s hard for me to imagine an author writing two more different books than The Time-Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry.  I enjoyed both of them, almost equally, although of course for different reasons.  Her Fearful Symmetry was unique to me in that it has a distinctly Victorian Gothic feel, but it is set entirely in the present.  The setting has a lot to do with that – the flat that the twins inherit borders London’s Highgate Cemetery.  It took nearly 150 pages before I was invested in the plot, although I was intrigued from the beginning.  The plot is very character-driven, and the characters are complex enough for that to work well.  The narration is third-person omniscient, with enough of each character’s thoughts included to drive their motivations.  It is extremely well-crafted and enjoyable; I highly recommend it (although I will say that I strongly dislike the title).  For comparison, the feel of it reminded me quite a bit of The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Satterfield, although there are minimal plot and character similarities.

As an aside, for my fellow “Doctor Who” fans:  The Time-Traveler’s Wife was one of Steven Moffat’s inspiration for the second-series (since the reboot) episode “The Girl in the Fireplace.”  There is an acknowledgement of that within the story of Her Fearful Symmetry.


Hitting a Wall, Re-reading, and “Comfort Books”

As I mentioned yesterday in my Bout of Books Wrap-Up, I turned back to an old favorite book (The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova) on the final day of the read-a-thon. I wasn’t making progress with Middlesex, so it seemed like a good time for a re-read.

When I say that I wasn’t making progress with Middlesex, I don’t mean to imply that I wasn’t enjoying it – I was. With my level of anxiety skyrocketing, I was doing better when I was busy, and as much as I love to read, it just wasn’t doing it to keep me calm. That was why I made the decision to pick up a book that I know I love.

I think that it’s basically the same thing as craving comfort food when you’re stressed – you want something that you know will work. Some books are the literary equivalent of a warm hug and plate of your mother’s cooking, and that was exactly what I needed.

When I started out on this year’s 50 Book Challenge, I decided to give myself the license to make up to 12 of those books re-reads. I didn’t have anything particular in mind to read again, but I wanted that flexibility for situations exactly like this. For me, the best way out of a slump or book hangover is a book that I know will keep me excited. Additionally, I find a whole new experience of a book every time I re-read it. Already (on page 30), I’ve noticed things about The Historian that I’ve never picked up on before. My copies of the Harry Potter series are battered and falling apart from at least half a dozen (complete series) re-reads – that’s not even counting the re-reads before Deathly Hallows came out, and believe you me, there were many – and every time I pick them up, I find something new.

I’ve never reviewed The Historian here, so I think I will when I’ve finished it again – it will be a little different than a regular review by virtue of being a re-read, but it’s certainly a book I love to talk about.

Review: “The Martian,” Andy Weir (Plus a Podcast?)

Rating:  5/5

Go read this book.  As soon as possible.  Please.

It’s a quick read, it hooks you from page one, and it never lets go.

I heard about Andy Weir’s The Martian from the Books on the Nightstand podcast*, where it was given a rave review.  It tells the story of an astronaut, presumed dead and left behind on the surface of Mars after a sandstorm cuts his mission short.  It is quintessentially a survival story – “Cast Away” meets “Gravity.” The narration shifts from the astronaut left behind, to the crew returning to Earth, to NASA.

I started reading it on a Thursday night, and I finished it on Sunday night.  I deliberately tried to slow myself down because I was enjoying it so much, but once I picked it up, I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

The research that went into The Martian is impeccable.  The science is airtight (no pun intended) and at no point does it seem even remotely implausible.  The characters are intensely human – there is no archetype of a flawless, brave hero.  Everyone, at one point or another, gives up hope.

There are moments that I’d like to write about, and more details that I would love to give, but I won’t.  I really want you to read this book.  I’ve become something of an evangelist for it; I’ve recommended it to at least five people and given it as a gift.  Please read it.


*If you love books (and if you’re here, I assume you do) this is absolutely worth checking out.  It’s a weekly podcast with episodes that seem to average about 30 minutes, all about reading, the publishing industry, book recommendations, and occasionally chats with authors.  It’s run by two publishing industry veterans, and their enthusiasm is palpable.  It’s rare that I listen to an episode and don’t get at least one book to add to my “to read” list.