The Cellist of Sarajevo

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Steven Galloway
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. date: Mar. 2009 (read Dec. 2019)

It took me ages to read the Cellist of Sarajevo, but it had nothing to do with the book itself. I made the mistake of starting it right before the Goodreads Choice Awards were announced and promptly got distracted by all the awesome books that were nominated. But I made it a priority to finish before my trip to New Zealand and I ended up really liking it.

I knew the premise of the story, but I didn’t realize that the plot was split between 4 (really 3) main characters. I immediately liked the writing, but I was a little unsure of what to expect from the plot. The Cellist of Sarajevo is about the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. The people who were able to get out of the city are long gone and we are left with the civilians who never had the means to get out and haven’t been called to the front to fight. The city is under siege by the men in the hills, who regularly shell the city and set snipers at many of the major intersections. With so many of the city’s services destroyed, it makes daily life very difficult for the people trapped in the city. The safest place to be is indoors, but everyone is forced to venture into the city in search of food and water.

The Cellist, who is based on a real individual, is at the centre of the story, without the story actually being about him. After 22 people were killed lining up for bread, he decides to play his cello in the street for 22 days to honour each of the lives lost.

This book is the kind of subtle literary fiction that I love. There’s nothing really propelling the story – it is just average people trying to survive their every day life in a city beset by war – yet I can’t deny the impact of the storytelling. It’s not the plot that drives the story, but the resilience and tenacity of the individuals. At times it’s hard to discern the timeline of the story, but it never really matters because this book is really only a character study about the kind of choices we make during challenging times. I admire the author for his writing and exploration of the human psyche as someone who was neither in Bosnia during the siege or who has lived through a war. The plot is so simple, yet the characters inner monologues have such depth.

It’s hard to articulate the impact of the writing, but I particularly admired how Galloway wrote both Dragon and Kenan’s characters. Neither are heroes and they struggle with seemingly mundane things, but it rings so true of the long term impact of violence and how it can both make you hopeful and make you question your integrity. Dragon dreams of an escape from the city, while simultaneously acknowledging the gravitas of being where he is right now. Kenan struggles with the exhaustion of taking care of so many people and is tempted to abandon his obligations just to look after himself. War brings people down to their base instincts and needs and I really liked this study of what really matters when it comes down to it. Wonderful writing.

Dear Girls

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ali Wong
Genres: Memoir, Humour
Pub. date: Oct. 2019 (read Nov. 2019 on Audible)

I don’t think I even knew who Ali Wong was a year ago, but suddenly she is everywhere and she is hilarious. I think I first heard of her when I read this buzzfeed article about how awesome her glasses are and how she finds the frames by converting sunglasses into glasses. I was like, this woman sounds cool, so I watched both her comedy specials on Netflix when I was home sick one day and thought they were hilarious. I made my husband watch Always Be My Maybe with me, and while I had some issues with the movie, I still enjoyed Ali’s acting and comedy.

If you’ve seen her comedy specials, then you’ll probably like this book. She recycles some of the same themes, but it just serves in making you feel like she’s actually a friend of yours. It’s like, “oh yeah, I remember her mentioning that before”, but she’ll take it off on a new tangent and you just feel like you’re getting to know her a little better. Dear Girls is funny, but it’s also meaningful. It’s crafted as a series of letters to her two daughters. It still has Ali’s signature brand of crassness, but overall, its less crass then some of her comedy and she talks about a lot of relevant things.

Some of the book is advice for her daughters on funny things that have happened to her, while other advice is really thoughtful points on comedy and what it means to be a visible female minority. I liked that she talked about how frustrating it is to have your success pinned on your race and gender, but also about how annoying it is to also constantly be asked about it. She will never be “just another comic” and will always be defined and asked about what it’s like to be female and Asian and a comic.

I was dying to request a copy of this from Netgalley, but I decided to hold off so that I could listen to the audiobook instead. The fact that it’s narrated by Ali makes it so much better. She does cycle around a lot of the same ideas though, so I was glad she didn’t overdo it by making the book too long. Personally, I thought she hit a great balance and would definitely recommend both her audiobook and Netflix comedy specials!

The Toll

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genres: Science-fiction
Pub. date: Nov. 2019 (read Dec. 2019)
Series: Arc of a Scythe #3

Oh boy, this book. Holly Black’s Cruel Prince trilogy and Neal Shusterman’s Arc of a Sycthe trilogy both concluded around the same time and I read them one after the other. I had mixed feelings about all the previous books in both series. I liked them, but didn’t love them. While Holly Black’s conclusion totally shocked me in the best possible way, Neal Shusterman’s conclusion had the opposite effect.

I would actually give the edge to Shusterman’s first book over Black’s because while I also find his writing style kind of boring, his plot had a lot of depth and the first book made me think a lot about humanity, death, technology, and AI. While I’m fuzzy on the details of Thunderhead now (except for that crazy cliffhanger ending), it also raised a lot of interesting social commentary about different ways of thinking and how prejudice and power can corrupt and turn people against one another.

I thought Shusterman lost all of this in The Toll. This book was super long and inspired no critical thought from me. I don’t really understand why the Thunderhead decided to mark everyone as unsavoury and keep it that way and I felt like Shusterman totally abandoned his themes about AI and how involved they are in our life. The Thunderhead starts to become a sentient being, but I feel like it’s not really discussed in the book the impact that would have if our robots suddenly started feeling and how unlikely it is that society could recover from all-knowing robots suddenly having the ability to feel.

I felt like the plot totally went off the rails, with Shusterman trying to make this more of a blockbuster action story rather than the thoughtful, scary dystopian world he created in the first book. I also recently finished reading the Golden Compass series and I had similar thoughts about Philip Pullman’s final book in that both authors completely lost the subtlety of the first two books, which made for a much less interesting or impactful read. I felt like this book was self indulgent. The plot didn’t feel at all clever because nothing ever seemed to link together. While all our main characters do eventually end up in the same place, I felt like I was reading separate and unrelated storylines the entire book. Plus like, what was actually the point of it all?

SPOILERS AHEAD
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Honestly, the ending was just a huge disappointment for me. I feel like Shusterman avoided actually dealing with the monster he created in Goddard and I felt like it was cheap to just get rid of him with a random “fail safe” that basically just killed off all the scythes. Shusterman just used space travel to avoid the whole trauma of how you deal with death in a society that can no longer die. It was disappointing. I wanted a different kind of showdown between the new order scythes and the old order that better represented how the general population would feel about the whole thing. The general population would still hugely outnumber scythes and I would have like to see more of a revolution from them. The Thunderhead marked everyone unsavoury – I feel like they would be pissed off and revolt. Plus the whole idea of new vs. the old and different trains of thought leading to extremism is so relevant to our society today, I would really have liked to see these themes developed in a way that was more relatable than space travel.

Anyways, this was never my favourite series, but I’m impressed that I actually saw it through when I’ve since given up on better fantasy series. Overall, a very disappointing ending and I’m relieved to just be done with it.

The Queen of Nothing

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Holly Black
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: Nov. 2019 (read Dec. 2019)

If you’ve read my previous reviews, you might know that I liked but didn’t love Holly Black’s two previous books, The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King. They’ve been incredibly hyped up and a lot of people really like that, but for some reason they just didn’t work as well for me.

Mostly I think it comes down to me not really meshing with Holly Black’s writing style. I find her writing a bit juvenile. I feel like I’m reading middle grade even though the storyline is anything but middle grade. It’s a very simple style of writing. She doesn’t waste words and I think that works for a lot of people; I just fail to be overly impressed by it.

Something about the plot of the first book just didn’t really work for me either, I found it a bit disjointed. But I can’t deny that I was a lot more engaged in the second book, though I still didn’t love it. For someone who didn’t love either of the first two books though, I was crazy excited for the final book in the trilogy. The Wicked King does have a killer cliffhanger and despite feeling so-so about a lot of the book, I was definitely hyped up by the ending.

Enter The Queen of Nothing. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this one! Hachette was kind enough to send me a finished copy, so I was eagerly awaiting for it to arrive. I ended up being off sick with a cold when it did finally arrive and I’m not embarrassed to say I read the whole thing the day it arrived. I still don’t love the writing style, but something about the final book just really worked for me! I wasn’t really super into the whole Jude/Cardan thing in previous books, but I was trash for it in this one. I couldn’t wait for them to finally be in the same room again so I could read all their witty banter. Plus I liked Cardan a lot more in this one. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve forgotten a lot of the particulars and just how cruel he was in the first two books, but I thought he had a lot of character growth and I liked how he finally dispensed with being an asshole to Jude.

The book builds up a lot in the middle, which really propelled me through it. So much was happening around the halfway mark that I felt like I had to be at the climax of the book, but no, there was still so much more action yet to come. Holly totally caught me off guard with that huge twist near the end, and while I did think the resolution after that was a bit obvious, she still gets major points for shock value. Although, that’s something that’s been present through all 3 books.

Anyways, despite my mixed feelings of the first two books, I’m kind of tempted to read the whole thing again. It’s definitely a juicy series and I wonder if I’d enjoy it more on  a second read through now that I’m able to look beyond the writing style. A great ending to a pretty good trilogy!

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: J.K. Rowling (illustrated by Jim Kay)
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade, Classics
Pub. date: 1998 (read Nov. 2019)

My re-read of Harry Potter continues! For some reason Chamber of Secrets seems to be one of reader’s least favourite of the series, but I’ve always enjoyed it for the mystery element, and later for it’s heavy foreshadowing of Voldemort’s horcruxes.

Chamber of Secrets builds on the magical world Rowling created in the first book. I do always find it a bit annoying to have to be re-introduced to ‘Harry’s world’ at the beginning of each of the earlier books, as if someone would read it without having read the books that came before. But I guess it did serve as a good refresher of the previous book back before the whole world became infinitely familiar of all things Harry Potter.

I do love how Rowling’s writing style and narrative evolve over the course of the series. Chamber of Secrets (and book 1) do very much read like middle grade, but as Harry is only 12 in this book, it’s not really that surprising. We get the introduction to some more great characters in this book – Dobby, Ginny, Colin Creevey, Lockhart – and we get to learn more about the characters we already know – Hagrid, Dumbeldore, Malfoy, and Voldemort. I said it in my last review, but I have to re-iterate again, I love how Rowling is so good at developing her side characters and keeping them consistent throughout the entire series.

Rowling is also genius at integrating just enough humour and lightness into her stories. While each book has it’s own central plot, I’m still Immensely interested in the day to day of life at Hogwarts. I was genuinely disappointed when quidditch was cancelled and I realized I wouldn’t get to watch Harry square up against his opponents on the field. Rowling’s world is magical and interesting enough to be engaging on its own, yet she never wastes a scene. We attend all kinds of classes with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and everything they learn or experience always fits into the plot or is later applied.

The other thing Rowling does wonderfully is make you feel just the perfect amount of indignation at what happens to her characters. She finds the perfect blend of injustice that makes you angry at how characters are treated, while still being believable (I’m thinking of plotlines like Hagrid being shipped off to Azkaban and Harry being misunderstood to be Slytherin’s heir). Rowling gives us just enough information that we could conceivably have guessed who was opening the chamber of secrets and what the monster was, but still keeps us in the dark until the critical moment, which of course thrills us when all is finally revealed.

Mostly, I just love how this book is so full of foreshadowing and the greater meaning that it will have to the series later on. Rowling’s forethought is what keeps her series so interesting and why I keep coming back again and again for more.