Review | The Diviners | Libba Bray


The Diviners

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Evie O’Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City—and she is pos-i-tute-ly ecstatic. It’s 1926, and New York is filled with speakeasies, Ziegfeld girls, and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is that she has to live with her uncle Will and his unhealthy obsession with the occult.

Evie worries he’ll discover her darkest secret: a supernatural power that has only brought her trouble so far. But when the police find a murdered girl branded with a cryptic symbol and Will is called to the scene, Evie realizes her gift could help catch a serial killer.

As Evie jumps headlong into a dance with a murderer, other stories unfold in the city that never sleeps. A young man named Memphis is caught between two worlds. A chorus girl named Theta is running from her past. A student named Jericho hides a shocking secret. And unknown to all, something dark and evil has awakened.

The first thing you need to know is that it took me two tries to get into this book and finish it, with two years in between attempts; the reason being that you really have to be in the mood to commit to this long-winded book. I also think you need to prep yourself for Evie—she’s a handful both as a character and for the reader, with her flapper-speak and over-the-top-ness. I think you also need to approach this book knowing that she’s an immature character, and that it was definitely an intentional choice for Libba Bray to write her that way. Once you’ve readied yourself for all those factors, you’re good to go.

I originally gave this book a 4 out of 5 because I enjoyed reading this book. If you’re willing to let go and just enjoy the ride, you’ll likely feel the same as me. However, in retrospect, I have some thoughts.

The first issue I have with this book is the glaring historical plot hole. What do you think the chances are of seven young characters, who are mostly thrown together by happenstance, all being excessively liberal-thinking for the time period and readily accepting the non-white or non-straight characters? Based on all of my university history classes of New York during the 1920s, the answer is that the chance is incredibly, incredibly slim. Sure, this is fiction. But I still need to be able to believe it. And when I’m sitting there, the entire time, remembering that this is fiction, yes, but historical fiction… It’s like if someone wrote a book that took place during the Salem Witch Trials, in Salem, with witches, but there was no mention of the trials or the dangers they faced—I’d be like, nah bro. That’s not happening—it’s a glaring oversight. And while I wish that, historically, everyone had been accepting and liberal-minded, that just wasn’t the case, and I think it’s actually a disservice to not make a point of the fact that it wasn’t, and the injustice of it all. The closest we get is the mild concern that Theta and Memphis have over how their relationship will be judged, but there lacks the weight behind it that should have been there. I think we all need to remember that characters like Memphis could have been lynched for openly having a relationship with a white girl. THAT’S the time period this book is taking place in, and yet those factors are completely ignored.

The second issue I have is that this book could easily have been half the size. So much page space is wasted to unimportant prose that has little to nothing to do with the main, or even secondary, plot elements that it’s baffling. Where was the editor during the creation of this book? This colossal, 500+ page book could have been 300-400 pages without sacrificing a single bit of the adventure or suspense. What would the book be without, then? Here’s a sampling: Evie’s goodbye to her old friends before leaving to New York (she never mentions them again nor stays in touch with them after her move); summaries of her initial outing with Mabel; Mabel chickening out of getting her hair bobbed; Evie listening in on Uncle Will’s lecture (a short summary would have sufficed); the outings with Theta and Mabel; Mabel deciding to get her hair bobbed; the whole scene (chapter?) where they are at an illegal club and it gets raided. Just a few examples.

My third issue, and I’m trying to avoid any spoilers here so it may be confusing to you if you haven’t read it, is that the “secret” about Jericho’s character is so incredibly out of place to the rest of the story. In a book about magic and fantasy, we randomly—and towards the end, and in a way that feels inauthentic—have sci-fi plunked into the plot-line like it’s no big deal. But like I said, it feels random and inauthentic. My actual reaction was: “What the heck? Why?” So there’s that.

Finally, and most important, is that I have no need or desire to read the next book. It’s not that I actively don’t want to, but The Diviners left off in such a way and place that I feel just sort of “meh” about continuing the series.

After giving myself time to think about this book, I’m changing my rating to 3. It’s just not good enough to get a 4 from me. I’m glad I thought about it, though, before posting a review because I think the points I made are important things to consider before you pick it up. It’s a huge time investment, and I’d rather you spend your time on a book you’ll really love. Let me know your thoughts!

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Review | The Storyteller | Jodi Picoult


The Storyteller

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From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Small Great Things, My Sister’s Keeper, and House Rules comes an astonishing and complex novel that proves some stories live forever.

Mourning the passing of her mother, Sage Singer decides to attend a grief support group. She doesn’t expect to start an unlikely friendship with an elderly man also attending. Josef Weber is a beloved, retired teacher and Little League coach. Together they attempt to heal.

But one day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses but then he confesses his darkest and long-buried secret, one that irrevocably changes Sage’s worldview. She suddenly finds herself facing questions she never expected, such as what do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who’s committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren’t the party who was wronged? And most of all, if Sage even considers his request, is it murder or justice? The Storyteller explores these issues and more in this “profound and moving novel about secrets, lies, and how the power of stories can change the course of history” (Shelf Awareness).

The back cover copy (which is what I’ve posted above) doesn’t do a summary of the story justice. Sure, it was enough to reel me in and make my buy my first Jodi Picoult novel since high school with the promise of something OTHER THAN a sick kid and a court case, but it doesn’t tell you this: The Storyteller is a novel about the Holocaust. 

The novel shows the reader four perspectives: Sage’s, Josef’s, Leo’s, and Minka’s. If you follow me on Goodreads, you’ll know that when we first switched perspectives, I complained. I take this back. First off, Jodi doesn’t do it as frequently as she has in the other books I’ve read by her. Secondly, I could have gotten lost in Minka’s perspective for all eternity, and we don’t hear from her until the very middle of the book. Minka’s story is that of the Jewish ghettos and concentration camps of the Holocaust.

If you’ve never read any prose on the Holocaust, fiction or otherwise, then this will likely be a hard book for you to stomach. It is very emotional and raw. By all means, don’t let that deter you, though. Jodi Picoult has written here another one of the great novels that needs to be studied by generations to come. I’ve studied, extensively, WWII and the Holocaust in high school and university, so while this book didn’t make me cry because I knew what to expect, it did teach me a lot about humanity and empathy. The question central to the story is this: Is evil unforgivable, even if the person who committed that evil repents their sins? I believe the novel ends with the answer being that no, evil–especially evil such as the Holocaust–is unforgivable, but please let me know if you disagree. I also think that the novel presents the circumstances in a way that force that conclusion, but I could envision scenarios in which such evil could at least come close to being forgivable in individual circumstances. If you’ve read the book, perhaps you know what I mean. Importantly, Minka does an excellent job of underlining that blaming an entire group of people for evil done by only some of that group is wrong, and thus she emphasizes that the Germans are not the ones to hate after the Holocaust because that would make her just as bad as the SS Nazis that imprisoned her.

As I write this review, I’m trying very hard not to give anything away, because there are twists and turns at literally every corner of the story. Believe me when I say that Jodi Picoult has changed my opinion about her as a writer to a much better one and that I’ve learned so much from this novel. I’m glad I waited to read this when I did, though, because the mass-market trade paperback, and the cover, were a really great format to read it in. I think this particular cover is the best one of any edition I’ve seen and relates best to the story arch that Jodi takes us on.

Why only 4 stars? I was disappointed by the ending, for two reasons: 1. I saw that final twist coming, and in fact predicted it in the first quarter of the book, and 2. It ended much too abruptly. I do find it interesting, though…and let me try to say why without spoilers. Hmm. I think that, with this ending, Jodi is asking us if we can forgive one of the main characters for what they’ve just done. Is this main character any better than some of the other characters in the book, or the same? Have they committed evil? Does it make them a monster? Does it overshadow any of their other qualities as a person? So while I felt the ending was abrupt and thus disappointing, I do think Jodi’s purpose was for us to ponder these questions. Had she gone much further with the story, she may have started answering them herself. 

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Review | The Winter Crown | Elizabeth Chadwick

winter crown

The Winter Crown

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It is the winter of 1154 and Eleanor, Queen of England, is biding her time. While her husband King Henry II battles for land across the channel, Eleanor fulfils her duty as acting ruler and bearer of royal children. But she wants to be more than this – if only Henry would let her.

Instead, Henry belittles and excludes her, falling for a young mistress and leaving Eleanor side-lined and angry. And as her sons become young men, frustrated at Henry’s hoarding of power, Eleanor is forced into a rebellion of devastating consequences. She knows how much Henry needs her, but does Henry know himself?

Overflowing with scandal, politics, sex, triumphs and tragedies, The Winter Crown is the much-awaited new novel in this trilogy and a rich, compelling story in its own right.

Every now and then I am lucky enough to come across a true gem in my reading pile that makes me feel as if, until that moment where I turn to the next page and realize I’m immersed in something really special, I have been plagued by mediocre stories and sub-par reading material. The Winter Crown is one of the books that did that for me.

How do you “review” a book that you loved and basically inhaled? You don’t. You talk about it instead. I’m sitting here racking my brain, trying to come up with anything negative to say, and there’s nothing. My brain becomes a blank. Everything about this book was enjoyable and well worth the $15 I spent on it.

For those of you who don’t know the history: Eleanor of Aquitaine was first married to Louis VII of France at a very young age; she bore him two daughters, but no sons. Eventually their marriage was annulled based on the fact that they were deemed to be too closely related (everyone married their cousins back then!) and Henry II of England asked for her hand in marriage, which would secure England Aquitaine through marriage only–one of Eleanor’s many conditions to her marriage to Henry was that she would maintain sole rule of Aquitaine. She also had to give up all communication of her two daughters and basically act like they never existed at all. And here this novel begins.

It’s important for you–my audience–to know that I didn’t read the prequel to this novel, nor did I need to. As the Goodreads description says, this novel is a perfectly good story in its own right, separate from its trilogy, but now that I’ve read it I do want to go back and read the first one, and then eventually get my hands on the third. In addition to reading everything else by Elizabeth Chadwick, of course! Oh, her writing is so good. This single novel covers twenty years of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s life but it never feels rushed. At first, when you’re not even halfway through the book and Eleanor has birthed five children, it might feel a bit fast, but upon reflection I feel that Chadwick gave each detail the appropriate amount of time to tell the story interestingly and successfully. Condensing the twenty or so years that Eleanor was married to Henry II into one novel in fact serves to strengthen the image of Eleanor as one of the strongest queens in English history, and a role model for myself. She accomplished so much during her time as queen! When I look at the size of the novel and think about all that it contains, I’m astounded that Chadwick was able to fit so much history, personality, and regality onto such few pages. Truly, truly remarkable–and here I refer to both Eleanor and the author.

One of the aspects of Chadwick’s writing that I found most interesting was that she actually never delves too far into any character’s headspace–meaning we don’t hear much of Eleanor’s day-to-day thoughts–but simultaneously manages to write vivid, complex, and surprising characters. I’d always thought that it was necessary to constantly be deep inside a character’s head to truly get to know them but Chadwick has taught me that isn’t the case. It’s very hard to describe the way in which Chadwick writes the characters and their descriptions…without quoting directly entire pages from the novel as an example. But let me say that it was something both odd, because I wasn’t used to that form of character building, but also insanely interesting. There was a reason I kept reading, everybody!

I can’t believe I’m finished reading it already. I really enjoyed my time with this book. Something I would also enjoy would be if the author went back and wrote more books that took particular moments in history from within this novel and wrote them in lengthier detail. Not necessarily from Eleanor’s perspective because that might feel redundant, but perhaps from Eleanor’s best friend Isabel’s perspective, or even Henry’s. Luckily Chadwick has dozens of novels for me to dive into when I need to quench my thirst for historical fiction!

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house between

3 out of 5

In Sarah Maine’s The House Between Tides, a deceased painter’s Scottish summer house is inherited by Hetty. Her attention is immediately brought to the bones discovered under the centuries-old manor, and the story of the manor’s previous owners is slowly woven together. Theo Blake and his young wife Beatrice had a happy start, but their relationship soon grew troubled as the house and its memories haunted the artist. What happened that led to the body under the floorboards?

Like Theo Blake, Maine is a painter in her own right, sucking the reader in through the picturesque Scottish landscape. Beatrice’s storyline throbs with intensity and keeps the story alive. In contrast, Hetty and company are far from fully formed characters; it is clear that Maine cared more for the characters of the past and neglected to bring the same interest and tension into the present storyline. Additionally, the plot does little to build suspense in the reader until the end. Not that the novel is boring, but rather Maine carries the reader along a horizontal path that suddenly spikes with fifty pages left to go. A slow read that would have worked better had Maine focused on the stronger storyline and done away with the other all together.

WE THAT ARE LEFT by Clare Clark

we that are

4 out of 5

This story about how the haunting nature of World War One permeated all generations after it and the everlasting scars that the war left behind follows Jessica Melville and Oscar Greenwood (née Grunewald) as they navigate the pseudo-purgatory that encased Europe immediately following 1918. Being the same age as the boys who fought, Jessica and Oscar are surrounded by the ghosts of war. Jessica finds solace in the London nightlife, but reminders of the dead eventually seep into even those dingy underground rooms. Oscar, always the intellect, feels it to be his duty to continue the work that the dead were robbed of before an intense love affair distracts him from his studies. Clark writes dialectic turns of phrase that are at times captivating, at others awkward, replicating actual speech well. In her surprising word choices that create a rich and melodious prose, Clark expresses a depth of understanding for the youth of this period who were left behind as the war raged on the continent that is rarely matched. Though the beginning did not metamorphose well into the ending—Oscar, in particular, seamlessly transformed from an incredibly frail, perhaps even obsessive, child into a largely faultless Prince Charming in his adulthood—the experience of reading We That Are Left was quite pleasant in its entirety. Fans of Downton Abbey should not hesitate to pick this up as a balm for their withdrawal, as Clark offers another look into the worlds of upper- and middling-class England during the war years that is perhaps more realistic and definitely juicier.

MRS. HOUDINI by Victoria Kelly

Mrs Houdini

3 out of 5

In her debut novel, Victoria Kelly revives Harry Houdini’s incredible mystery. The reader is transported in time between the rise of Houdini’s career alongside his wife Bess and the years after his death in which she attempted to communicate with him in the spirit world. Two parts love story and one part detective fiction, Mrs. Houdini is an interesting rendition of the couple’s life both together and apart.

Kelly’s strength lies in her writing of the intense love between Harry and Bess, and it is a great loss that she failed to explore that thread more; the portions of the plot detailing Bess’s search for the spirit of her husband felt haphazardly pieced together, lacked spark, and were logically ambiguous. I carried on reading for the love story, although I experienced discomfort in reading Kelly’s fictional portrayal of Harry’s “secret.” It felt akin to slandering the dead and I am left feeling unsure as to why Kelly chose this route. That being said, I encourage readers to pick this up for Kelly’s mostly loving depiction of the couple and am interested to read Kelly’s next work.

THE MINIATURIST by Jessie Burton

the miniaturist

3.5 out of 5

Eighteen-year-old Nella has just recently become the wife of renowned Amsterdam merchant Johannes Brandt. Arriving in Amsterdam on a brisk autumn day in 1686, Nella is eager to start their new lives together and impress her family back home with what she has gained. However, with a less than cold reception from her sister-in-law and an absentee husband, Nella begins to fear that she will have nothing to show for such an advantageous marriage.

Eager to win Johannes’ love and entice him into their marriage bed for the first time, Nella surprises him at his offices. What she finds there shocks her and shakes her to her core. In one moment Nella’s entire world comes crashing down, and the Brandts’ with it. What Nella had thought had been an advantageous marriage for her was an advantageous marriage for everybody else as well, from the servants of the Brandt household to Johannes himself. With the pieces of their lives coming apart at the seams, Nella must quickly learn the duties of a merchant’s wife and support her new family, even if they do not feel much like family at all.

I picked this book up from the library because it was getting a lot of hype online. With positive expectations set, the reading experience was slightly underwhelming but The Miniaturist still served as enjoyable for a light, quick read. The writing was very elegant and smooth, and it was not a difficult read by any standard, which is sometimes (and was, in this case) a good thing.

That being said, I enjoyed the characters but felt as if a lot of the relationship development between Nella and Johannes was happening behind closed doors. They spend hardly any time together at all but suddenly Nella becomes very fond of him. That seemed slightly unrealistic to me. I was also able to figure out the entire plot fairly quickly, which added to the underwhelming feeling and lack of surprise as events unfolded. I found it difficult to become invested in the fates of certain characters, such as Johannes or Toot, because they were not in the book all that much, and Marin, because she is cast in such a dislikable light for most of the novel. Finally, I was let down with how the book wrapped up, and the fact that the miniaturist is largely forgotten. Yes, we discover who they are through another character, but at one point it was suggested that there was someone hiding out in their house (there was a reference to someone hiding in the shadows) but this is never resolved. It felt like a missed opportunity for added depth to the novel.

As I said, this book was enjoyable for something to read before going to bed where I did not have to think all that much. If you are interested in reading it, I would suggest renting it from your local library, just in case you are disappointed.

-Ember Book Reviews

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