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The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home (Fairyland #5) by Catherynne M. Valente

One of results of this extended slump/funk I have been in is that I have not reviewed many of the books I have read (even at Goodreads I have left many books with only star ratings and no comments).

So it is that we come to the end of one of my favorite young adult fantasy series (Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series) without my having reviewed the two previous books. Awkward.

Anywhoo … So, The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home is the last book in this series.  And I not only bought a hardcover but also grabbed it on Audible so I could listen to it on the daily commute.

My take?

An absolute gem! I adore this series. And I honestly think I like listening to it better than reading it. Valente’s imagination combined with her voice and personality in the audio version can’t be beat. This final book in the series was as enjoyable as the first and brings the series to a satisfactory conclusion.

I particularly like the role that characters from the last book (the alas un-reviewed The Boy Who Lost Fairyland). It made having read that book, which was different in that September did not play a central role, seem worthwhile and rewarding.

But again in this volume, September shines and Valente shines through her as an author and a narrator. What a great character and Valente brings her to life. I think Blunderbuss was my second favorite character. Just a great personality and Valente also does a wonderful job giving her a voice that matches the personality.

I am going to stop gushing and just reiterate that this is a great conclusion to a great series. If you haven’t read or listened to it I highly recommend it.

The books narrated by Valente herself are a must listen for sure.

Jesus’ Son: Stories by Denis Johnson, Will Patton (Narrator)

Listened to Jesus’ Son: Stories by Denis Johnson on the commute and enjoyed it for most part despite the dark and disturbing nature of the stories.

Though I am not sure “enjoyed” is the right word. It kept me entertained? Hmm, let’s say it was an interesting way to spend time in the car. To be honest, I think I really just enjoyed the way Will Patton voiced the character.

I haven’t read anything by Johnson so don’t really have anything to compare it to or to put it in context. But at times, Patton’s voice and Johnson’s prose gave the feeling that you were listening to a real person describing their life. In this way it drew you into both the language and the process of imagining the life that would lay behind it.

But this happened only is spots rather than throughout. I am not sure I would have had the patience without the audio format.

Publishers Weekly captures some of the problems:

Some disturbing moments do recall Johnson at his inventive best … But for the most part the stories are neurasthenic, as though Johnson hopes the shock value of characters fatally overdosing in the presence of lovers and friends will substitute for creativity and hard work from him. Even the dialogue for the most part lacks Johnson’s usual energy.

The Amazon.com review also captures the nature of the book:

In “Work,” while “salvaging” copper wire from a flooded house to fund their habits, the narrator and an acquaintance stop to watch the nearly unfathomable sight of a beautiful, naked woman paragliding up the river. Later the narrator learns that the house once belonged to his down-and-out accomplice and that the woman is his estranged wife. “As nearly as I could tell, I’d wandered into some sort of dream that Wayne was having about his wife, and his house,” he reasons. Such is the experience for the reader.

 

The Song of the Quarkbeast (Chronicles of Kazam #2) by Jasper Fforde

OK, I going to attempt to play catch-up and post some reviews of book I have read. This slump has me way behind.

As you might recall, I have been listening to audio books during my daily commute.  And I stumbled on Jasper Fforde‘s Chronicles of Kazam series at the local library. I started with The Last Dragonslayer and next came The Song of the Quarkbeast.

I really enjoyed listening to this second book in the car. It seemed to move much quicker than the first, not surprising given the work in that book to set things up.

Jennifer Strange continues to be a strong central character with a creative voice: mature for her age, loyal and courageous, but also still young and vulnerable at times. As the story develops we learn more about key characters but also about magic and its history. The quarkbeast thread adds a fun element and ends up playing a key role in the plot twist at the end.

A creative, witty, and fun series. Can’t wait to listen to or read the third book.

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, Lauren Fortgang (Narrator)

I can’t recall exactly how I stumbled upon Shadow and Bone (The Grisha Trilogy) by Leigh Bardugo.  Likely either social media or Shelf Awareness I would guess. It seemed like an interesting start to a potentially interesting series so I put it on my wish list or to read lists or something. Then I had the bright idea that this would make a good book for the car. I recently changed jobs and have a slightly longer commute so audio books are good.

So I requested the audio book from the library and recently finished listening to it. What is it, you ask?

shadow-and-bone_hi-res-677x1024Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.

Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.

Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha…and the secrets of her heart.

It was an enjoyable listen with some creative world building and interesting characters. The story had a tad too much romance and was a smidgen too melodramatic for my tastes but I have a hunch that listening to it was easier than reading it for some reason. I like the concept (Russian tinged alternative country, Grisha, etc.) and much of the execution but didn’t need all the kissy-kissy stuff (yes, I am a guy) and it felt a little over the top in places. But it is fantasy for young adults so some of that is to be expected.

Once again the voice actress did a great job with the narration and it certainly kept me entertained on my daily commute. Which is why the simplicity or straightforwardness of the book didn’t bother me as much.  In the car and the twenty minute or so commute I wasn’t looking for a deep and complex book to get lost in.  I have a feeling that reading the story on the other hand, particularly if you like deep and complex, might be disappointing.

Much of the plot is basic stuff using familiar fantasy tropes and characters.  Orphan destined to save or destroy the world, petty jealousies and court intrigue, heroine who must discover her true power on her own, etc.  The Darkling was a nice exception and the interplay between him and Alina really is the strength of the book to my mind; the way she is pulled toward power and the world of the Darkling even as a part of her is repelled and disturbed.

I would think, however, that if you like big fantasy books with female protagonists and a strong romance side this is a must read.

Laini Taylor in the New York Times offers a largely gushing review (with some caveats):

Writers turn to the plot conventions of high fantasy for a reason. They satisfy fundamental human desires — not merely to belong but to surpass, to be special, to have power, to be loved — and they do so at a louder volume than does ordinary life. They give us what we crave. The test lies in whether, as we are reading, we feel the dull, inward sinking of “This again?” or the exhilarating, grasped-by-the-hair lift and thrill of vicarious experience. “Shadow and Bone” imparts some of both, but in the richness of its Russian flavor, there is much to relish.

And Kirkus gets at both the weaknesses and strengths:

While Alina’s training borrows familiar tropes (outlander combat teacher, wizened-crone magic instructor, friends and enemies among her peers), readers will nevertheless cheer her progress. But the worldbuilding is continually undercut by clunky colloquialisms; such phrases as “Well, that’s completely creepy” and “It’s okay” yank readers out of this carefully constructed, mostly preindustrial world. Readers may also be troubled by the sexualization of power found in its pages. The plotting is powerful enough to carry most readers past flaws and into the next book in the series.

For my part, I plan on listening to the next book in the series just to see where the story goes. Beats listening to talk radio after all …

Troy by Adèle Geras (Miriam Margolyes, narrator)

Troy by Adèle Geras is another audio-book I listened to in the car and one I enjoyed quite a bit.

Troy by Adele GerasA stunning portrait of the Trojan War as told by the women of the besieged city of Troy

The siege of Troy has lasted almost ten years. Inside the walled city, food is scarce and death is common. From the heights of Mount Olympus, the Gods keep watch. But Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, is bored with the endless, dreary war. Aided by Eros’s bow, the goddess sends two sisters down a bloody path to an awful truth: In the fury of war, love strikes the deadliest blows.
Heralded by fans and critics alike, Adèle Geras breathes personality, heartbreak, and humor into this classic story.

Told from the point of view of the women of Troy, portrays the last weeks of the Trojan War, when women are sick of tending the wounded, men are tired of fighting, and bored gods and goddesses find ways to stir things up.

It really is an epic tale and Miriam Margolyes does an incredible job of bringing all the characters to life. It is listed as Young Adult (or at least was originally published by HMH Books for Young Readers)  but includes profanity, violence and sexuality so it seemed quite adult to me. [Amazon says ages 12 and up while PW says 14 and up.  Parents will have to decide for themselves what is appropriate, etc.]

Geras brings a feminist perspective to this classic story but the appeal is much broader than that. Not only does she bring the gods and myths of ancient Greece to life but she offers a glimpse into the daily lives of the people impacted by the god’s whims and decisions. As was intended I am sure, it really flips your perspective.

Listening to this book was like a theatrical production such was Margolyes talent. It would be interesting to read it and see how one’s imagination handled the same characters and interactions to life. But anyone with an interest in classical mythology or ancient history will want to check this out if they haven’t already. For more mature YA readers this would be a great introduction to both the mythology and stories of this time but to the power of epic storytelling (with the caveat that maybe some familiarity with the stories would help you see how Geras adapts and interacts with the classics). And those looking for a female perspective will, of course, find Geras take satisfying.

But outside the mythology there is plenty of wrestling with human nature, war and peace, gender roles, love and lust, power and politics, and the like. Like all good literature, it transcends time and place and offers insight into what it means to be human. Sure, in a specific time and place and with some unique characteristics but still a sense of the innate issue humans deal with no matter when or where they live.

All in all, this audio-book was great entertainment. It would make a great listen on a longer trip (10 hours on Audible) but I listened to it on my commute and didn’t feel like it was too chopped up.

 

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