Recent Reads #1

Her Every Fear by Peter Swanson

I received this ARC from the publisher via work; it will be published in January 2017 by William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.

I don’t normally read thrillers, and I’ve never read any of Swanson’s previous work, so I had no idea what to expect from this novel. The chapters show a variety of perspectives, but the most prominent voice is Kate Priddy, a British woman with some serious anxiety issues, who is attempting to regain control over her life after being kidnapped by a possessive ex-boyfriend. To this end, she agrees to a six month apartment swap with an American cousin she’s never met, and the book begins with her attempting to stave off a panic attack after getting caught in a traffic jam in a tunnel on her way to her cousin’s Boston apartment. When she wakes on her first morning in the States, Kate learns that the young woman who lives in the apartment next to her cousin’s has been murdered.

I think having an anxious main character was an interesting choice for a thriller- I feel like it made it a bit harder to tell whether things were actually happening, or if her anxiety was causing her to overthink things, to imagine things. Kate’s vivid imagination helped with that too. I did feel like a chunk of the plot was pretty implausible, and I’d guessed who the murderer was pretty early on. I think my biggest critiques would be that Kate seems to subsist entirely on bread and cheese for days on end without any impact on her energy, and that the introduction of some characters’ perspectives come in so late just to impart specific information that it feels like a bit of a cop-out. Overall a pretty good read, but one I probably won’t keep in my permanent library.

As Old As Time: A Twisted Tale by Liz Braswell

I borrowed this hardcover from work; it was published in 2016 by Disney Press, and is the third in the Twisted Tales series by Liz Braswell which also includes A Whole New World and Once Upon a Dream.

Though Beauty and the Beast is not my all-time favorite Disney animated movie (that would be The Little Mermaid) it has been a favorite of mine for a very long time. When I stumbled upon this while reshelving books in the Teen section at work, it seemed to jump off the shelf at me. The premise: what if Belle’s unseen, unmentioned mother was none other than the Enchantress who cursed the Beast? I had to read it. Unfortunately, I was almost immediately disappointed. The novel traces two timelines: Belle’s present as an adult, beginning with a trip to the bookstore and Gaston’s ambush wedding attempt, and Maurice as a younger man, an excitable inventor who falls in love with the brash enchantress Rosalind. We see glimpses of a small kingdom where magic users and magical creatures live side by side with regular people, but not harmoniously; by the “present” day of the novel, magic has vanished from the peoples’ memory.

The book suffers from a variety of problems. The heavy quotation of the movie’s dialogue is the only time the characters sound at all like themselves; otherwise, the speech and prose read like bad middle school fanfiction. The villain of the story can be spotted a mile away- I knew who it was at the beginning of the book. The magic is not well presented, and the magical kingdom is poorly fleshed out. I am sorry to say this is easily one of the worst books I’ve read in a long time, and I’m glad I only borrowed it.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

I received this ARC from the publisher via work; it will be published in January 2017 by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House.

A book with magic and wicked stepmothers set in medieval Russia with a main character named Vasilisa? Yes, yes please. The fact that sole blurb on the back of the ARC was from Naomi Novik, author of Uprooted, was just icing on the cake. The story revolves around young Vasya, though it begins somewhat before her birth, and the major characters are her immediate family members and the other residents of the house: her father, a high ranking lord, the beloved family nurse, her elder sister and three elder brothers, her nervous and unhappy stepmother, and the equally unhappy priest who comes to minister to the village. Vasilisa possesses a magical gift, the ability to see spirits like the domovoi and vazila, and as the village priest turns the villagers away from their long traditional offerings to a fearful observance of Christianity focused on the terror of damnation, the village quickly suffers- and Morozko, the winter king, has trouble keeping his wicked brother Medved the Bear asleep and subdued.

I am not intimately familiar with Russian folklore nor history, so it’s impossible for me to speak on the novel’s accuracy on those points. (Aside from a discrepancy acknowledged by the author in a note at the back of the book, which was intentional for storytelling purposes.) The use of diminutives tripped me up on more than one occasion- I kept confusing her brothers Kolya and Alyosha, and it took me a bit to remember that Sasha is a nickname for Aleksandr. But these were minor speedbumps; I devoured this book in a single sitting, and a few lines throughout the book make me intensely hopeful for a sequel. The world building was rich and real; the characters were whole and human (except when they weren’t). I whole-heartedly recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fantasy, Russian folklore, or anyone just looking for a good read.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

I received this hardcover through my Muse Monthly subscription, along with a signed bookplate and tea hand selected by the author, which was pretty cool! It’s a retelling of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. It was published in 2016 by Hogarth and is the fourth in the Hogarth Shakespeare series; it follows The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson (The Winter’s Tale), Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson (The Merchant of Venice), and Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (The Taming of the Shrew) and will also include Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, and Hamlet.

I confess: I’ve never read anything by Atwood before Hag-Seed. I’d always meant to- I’ve had The Handmaid’s Tale and The Penelopiad on my TBR for ages. But I just never got around to it. And then my Muse Monthly box came, and I love Shakespeare, so I dove in. It follows the exiled stage director Felix, as he begins teaching Shakespeare to a group of inmates and putting on adapted productions with his students. He is haunted by memories- or hallucinations- of his dead daughter Miranda, and by the desire for revenge.

I really wanted to love this book. Unfortunately, it just never grabbed me. Felix was not a compelling main character for me, and I was never able to sympathize with him. The Tempest has always had a certain amount of metatextuality, a dual layer of representation and theatrics, but reading an adaptation of The Tempest while the students analyzed and performed The Tempest was just… a touch too self-aware and referential for my liking, I suppose. The inmates are an indistinguishable blur, and the climax, the final performance, was just too unrealistic for me to enjoy. I think it could be a great companion to a high-school reading of The Tempest, but as an adult reading entirely for my own enjoyment, it just didn’t do it for me.

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