Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

186074Blurb:

Told in Kvothe’s own voice, this is the tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen. The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivaled in recent literature. A high-action story written with a poet’s hand, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that will transport readers into the body and mind of a wizard.

Review:

In the strangest corners lurk the most surprising discoveries. Who knew I’d find a veritable nominee for most insufferable literary character of all time in a 2007 fantasy novel? Take these three examples, words spoken by Kvothe, a magician wunderkind:

Here, talking to a professor, he compares himself to his classmates:

Master Kilvin, I am better. I learn faster. I work harder. My hands are more nimble. My mind is more curious. However, I also expect you know this for yourself without my telling you.

Here, talking to his love-interest, he tries to woo by dripping condescension:

”If someone found a loden-stone made of brass would it be like other brass?”

“Maybe it would be like copper and zinc,” I said. “That’s what brass is made of.”

Word of advice, love interest, run to the freaking hills.

And again, what a loveable scamp Kvothe is, condescending once more to the girl he wants desperately to impress:

“But if one of us jumped off a roof, we’d get hurt because we’re heavier. It makes sense that bigger things fall even harder.”

She was right, of course. She was talking about the square-cube ratio, though she didn’t know what to call it.

A wonderful neologism has emerged in the past few years: “mansplaining,” i.e., when a man condescends, often unconsciously, to a woman because a concept is just too difficult or too important for her to wrap her pretty mind around. Kvothe is a mansplainer supreme, to be sure, but his condescension is not gender-choosy: he will be insufferable to anyone, though for him it’s not being insufferable, he’s just being Kvothe; sorry he happens to know everything!

I liked this book in spite of its protagonist. For fantasy fare, it serves up all the staples with gusto: minstrel songs, magical school, dragons, mysterious villains, warring nobles, journeys by foot or by horse, drinking ale in inns…you know, the regular. This is the first book in a planned three-part series, and in classic fantasy style, it discusses the protagonist’s quest.

Nothing excites me more than the word quest. Those five letters promise so much epicness, so many trials and so many tribulations, so much work in pursuit of an ideal ending. In short, a quest promises a story. The story presented here deserves the term quest. It spans centuries and inspires legends. However: is it really a quest if everything comes easy to the quester? If nothing is worked for—or maybe the quester must work a little bit, but his work is guaranteed to work out for him? Kvothe has no weaknesses. Sure the book discusses his poverty and his youth as barriers to success but poverty and youth aren’t true weaknesses! These are circumstances, not qualities. A weakness is arrogance. A weakness is stubbornness. A weakness is rudeness and condescension. Kvothe embodies all these weaknesses, and yet, the book acknowledges them as pluses, not character flaws.

Two books remain, so we shall see if Kvothe’s weaknesses are exposed for what they really are. But I doubt it, mostly because of Patrick Rothfuss’ interesting narrative choice: aside from a few brief intermissions, Kvothe is telling the story. He is in charge of what is presented and how he is depicted. I’ll be back for book two eventually to see if he learns (and it should be easy for him with that big enormous brain of his!) that refusing to accept any personal flaws makes someone perhaps the most flawed individual he can possibly be.

 

3.5ish stars out of 5?

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Review: If I Stay (#1) and Where She Went (#2) by Gayle Forman

6990472Blurb:

On a day that started like any other…

Mia had everything: a loving family, a gorgeous, admiring boyfriend, and a bright future full of music and full of choices. Then, in an instant, almost all of that is taken from her. Caught between life and death, between a happy past and an unknowable future, Mia spends one critical day contemplating he only decision she has left—the most important decision she’ll ever make.

Simultaneously tragic and hopeful, this is a romantic, riveting, and ultimately uplifting story about memory, music, living, dying, loving.

Review:

This is one of those wackadoodle books where a young woman on the cusp of life meets a tragic fate and then floats around in a dead/near-dead state observing her friends and family. This type of plot intrigues me because the character always learns a lot about Life when she is reduced to an outsider incapable of action. It also bothers me, though, because I think: if a character is dead or comatose, shouldn’t she be, you know, dead or comatose? As a reader, my imagination has very few limits; I’ll accept ghosts, vampires, dragons, superviruses that only infect hermaphrodites born on Tuesday afternoons during a blizzard, but invisible floating (semi-)dead girls? That’s crazy!

Qualms about the premise aside, If I Stay is a short book overflowing with emotion. It unrolls over a single day and we alternate between the comatose protagonist Mia watching her friends and family cry in the hospital waiting room and the comatose protagonist Mia remembering happy stories with her friends and family from the past. The crux of the novel concerns Mia’s choice. After suffering a catastrophic car accident with her entire family, Mia asks, in the famous words of The Clash, “Should I stay or should I go?” That is, should I keep living despite the fact that my life as I knew it ended today? Or should I simply give up and die, having nothing left to live for? The plot largely succeeds because the flashbacks are well chosen; we get to see what is at stake for Mia, what she’d lose (or depending on religious perspective, what she’d regain) if she dies.

Pondering what you would decide in Mia’s situation is fascinating. It depends on your faith and on your relationships, but for anyone, it’s a question with no good answer. Seeing what Mia chooses and why she chooses it makes If I Stay a worthwhile read.

3 out of 5 stars

8492825Blurb:

It’s been three years since the devastating accident . . . three years since Mia walked out of Adam’s life forever.

Now living on opposite coasts, Mia is Juilliard’s rising star and Adam is LA tabloid fodder, thanks to his new rock star status and celebrity girlfriend. When Adam gets stuck in New York by himself, chance brings the couple together again, for one last night. As they explore the city that has become Mia’s home, Adam and Mia revisit the past and open their hearts to the future-and each other.

Told from Adam’s point of view in the spare, lyrical prose that defined If I Stay, Where She Went explores the devastation of grief, the promise of new hope, and the flame of rekindled romance.

Review:

Well, this is a bit awkward. The only reason I read If I Stay, the prequel to this book, was to eventually read Where She Went, which has ecstatic goodreads reviews and is considered better than the prequel. And now, here I am, having read both books and having been decidedly underwhelmed by both.

Truly, I don’t have much to say about Where She Went. It run-of-the-mill YA in my opinion, only with MORE angst, something I never really thought was possible since YA already owns 99% of the world’s angst. Yes, there were some heartfelt moments. Yes, it was a fairly thoughtful exploration of loss—both in the sense of death and break-ups. Yes, it was decently well-written. But was there anything special about it?

No.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: Case Histories (Jackson Brodie #1) by Kate Atkinson

16243Blurb:

Case one: A little girl goes missing in the night.

Case two: A beautiful young office worker falls victim to a maniac’s apparently random attack.

Case three: A new mother finds herself trapped in a hell of her own making – with a very needy baby and a very demanding husband – until a fit of rage creates a grisly, bloody escape.

Thirty years after the first incident, as private investigator Jackson Brodie begins investigating all three cases, startling connections and discoveries emerge . . .

Review:

Disjointed. Everything about Case Histories, the first book in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mystery series, is disjointed. The mysteries are separate from the characters, the three mysteries are separate from each other, the characters are separate from each other. I’m intrigued by the sequels because Atkinson writes well and Jackson Brodie is a likeable detective hero, but Case Histories was too disjointed for me to appreciate, both plotwise and thematically.

The three mysteries, or the titular “case histories,” are not connected. They share common threads—picture perfect girls lost too soon, dysfunctional families who loved them too much—but they aren’t connected as actual crimes. And yet, the characters from each case interact frequently. Near car collisions on country roads, shared backyard gardens, stepping over the same homeless girl on the sidewalk—the characters randomly encounter each other, even though they have no shared connection aside from a tragic past and the same private investigator. But since their stories were completely distinct, it felt ridiculous to have them thrown together so often.

I decided to read this after hearing it was more character driven than the average mystery, but the amount of character focus was too much. I never thought I’d complain about this with a detective novel, but in Case Histories the mysteries didn’t drive the plot enough. They weren’t used as a means to examine the characters and the characters’ stories felt almost entirely removed from the resolution of the mysteries. Even worse, there wasn’t much solving of the cases by Brodie nor by me, the reader. I like to accompany the investigator, consider what happened, and try to solve the cases myself. But here the mysteries were background fodder, so I couldn’t do that. At the end of the novel, in a bizarre kind of deus ex machina, the cases are abruptly solved. The author goes, “Yo, here are the answers to these decade long crimes you’ve been waiting for the past 300 pages.” My reaction, “Anticlimax much?”

The questions raised by the novel—including how do you recover after a loss? can family life ever be fully happy?—are more profound than those found in the typical detective thriller. But the cases themselves are lacking. I will try reading the next novels, however, hoping that Atkinson finds a better balance between mystery and character. I would like her to become a part of my Big Three, joining Tana French and Gillian Flynn as some of my favorite crime novelists writing today.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking #1) by Patrick Ness

2118745Blurb:

Prentisstown isn’t like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts in an overwhelming, never-ending stream of Noise. Just a month away from the birthday that will make him a man, Todd and his dog, Manchee — whose thoughts Todd can hear too, whether he wants to or not — stumble upon an area of complete silence. They find that in a town where privacy is impossible, something terrible has been hidden — a secret so awful that Todd and Manchee must run for their lives.

But how do you escape when your pursuers can hear your every thought?

Review:

The main thing I gained from reading The Knife of Never Letting Go? Knowledge of how it feels to read a single, more than 400 page chase scene.

Sure, there are additional elements to this story. There is a coming of age tale since the protagonist Todd will become a man in a month’s time at the novel’s beginning. It’s a dystopia, complete with a deranged religious man, a tyrannical mayor, a gendered society, and a way of monitoring individuals’ thoughts through Noise, a virus that publicizes the thoughts of every male in the New World. We’ve got some light sci-fi going on: humanoid aliens inhabit the planet and Viola, the secondary protagonist, has crashed her spaceship onto New World. There’s even a minor mystery as Todd seeks to discover the true circumstances behind the disappearance of all women in Prentisstown and the reason why he is being hunted so feverishly after fleeing his town.

But despite all these components, The Knife of Never Letting Go boils down to one thing: a sprawling, epic chase scene. Which gets repetitive quickly. Very quickly.

Ness writes in first person from Todd’s perspective, but he cheats with his narrative technique. When Todd finds out crucial answers to the mystery of Prentisstown, they are not shared with the reader. Nearly halfway through this novel, I still had zero answers to the questions that had been introduced in chapter one. To me, this is plainly bad storytelling. I like when authors keep certain secrets and twists guarded, but they have to give me something. Don’t trick me into reading 90% of the book before revealing everything at once and then creating tons of new questions that, most likely, won’t be answered until 90% through the sequel.

My next biggest complaint concerned the prose, which is full of improper grammar and spelling to emphasize Todd’s lack of education. This technique can be employed splendidly (Lenny’s voice in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men comes to mind), but with Todd, who is an annoying fourteen year old, it bothered me. It just sounded so juvenile. For example, Todd uses the term “effing” a lot and frequently follows it up by saying, “But I didn’t say effing, I said the actual word…” and you can almost see the freaking winky face behind it. Ha…Ha… At times, the writing reminded me more of verse than prose, since it was written with many short, fragmented sentences indented as individual lines. This style further weakened the writing by rendering it even more simplistic and immature.

A stronger point is the development of themes and motifs, especially through the eponymous “knife” and its role in killing. During this grandiose chase scene, Ness asks: does killing change you? does a person ever have the right to take another person’s life? These questions are compelling and relevant. 33 US states still offer death penalty as a sentence in cases of homicide. US soldiers go to war and daily kill individuals identified as threats. Is this okay? I love pondering over this philosophical question, but my god, in The Knife of Never Letting Go, I didn’t care that Todd was suffering from existential qualms about killing two of the main villains chasing after him. It was vexatious and repetitive. It’s one thing to read a nearly 500 page chase scene; it’s another to have the same two chasers turn up again and again to serve as some featherweight obstacle that Todd and Viola will undoubtedly overcome by maiming them nearly mortally only to have the chasers somehow appear (of course!) yet again. Instead of wondering about the rightness and nature of killing, all I could think after like the fifth reappearance of these chasers was “KILL THEM TODD, KILL THEM.” Put me out of my misery! There are also interesting parallels between the beliefs of some Prentisstown men and super hardcore evangelist Christian beliefs toward women, but this theme was mostly unexplored and lost in the muddle.

Basically, I didn’t really enjoy The Knife of Never Letting Go because the parts I found most interesting—the question of killing, the mysteries of the Noise, New World, and Prentisstown, the curious state of women in this society—were ignored in favor of action. If a fast-paced book focused on a wild pursuit of two kids by crazy men sounds like something you might enjoy, then certainly read this book. But if you like your books that feature dystopic secrets and a lot of walking to a destination to pack some emotional resonance (à la Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), you may find this novel disappointing.

2 out of 5 stars