June in Review

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Books Acquired:
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
The Lady In The Van by Alan Bennett
Saga, Volume 7 by Brian K. Vaughan
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

Books Read:
The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope
Authority by Jeff VanderMeer
Saga, Volume 7 by Brian K. Vaughan
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

This was a nice, relaxing month. I probably shouldn’t have bought any books, considering the used book sale last month, but I have no regrets!

The Essex Serpent is a novel that I have been hearing quite a bit about from UK bloggers and booktubers, so when I saw it was released here I figured I’d pick it up. I haven’t read it yet, and honestly don’t know all that much about it other than people seem to love it, but it’s sure a nice package. Great cover and nice thick pages.

We watched the The Lady in the Van film adaptation last month and really enjoyed it, so when I saw it on sale, I grabbed it. I’d like to read a bit more Alan Bennett, although I do still have Smut waiting to be read.

Spectacular sunset last night.

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The Last Unicorn is a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages. I loved the animated movie when I was a kid and only discovered a few years ago that it was based on a beloved novel from the late sixties. I’ve started it already, and it’s been a real nostalgia trip so far.

Loving this hot weather.

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Lastly, The Year of Reading Dangerously has been on my to-read list for quite a long time now too. I love books on books, and this sounds like a great one, but I was holding off due to the potential spoilers. I haven’t read a lot of the novels he lists, so that was a worry, but I figured I’d just grab it and see how it goes. I listen to his podcast, Backlisted, so I’m already a bit of a fan.

We’ve spent the weekend out in the sun, celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday, so July is already off to a good (albeit slightly burnt) start. Hope you all had a good June.

Movies watched:
Alien: Covenant (2017) – As with every Ridley Scott movie lately, this looked beautiful and had a silly story littered with plot holes and characters doing stupid things. Enjoyable, but a bit frustrating when you think about what it could have been.

TV watched:
Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Season 4 (2016) – This show has been consistently amusing from the start. On one hand, I hesitate to recommend it, because it feels like an average gag-of-the-week sitcom, but I’m always surprised by how much I enjoy it.

The Layover: Season 1 (2011) – We always have to have some food television on the go, and Anthony Bourdain is currently filling the spot. He spends a couple of days in a city (he calls them layovers, but there would have to be some sort of apocalypse to justify a 48 hour layover), and spends the time eating and drinking as much as humanly possible. As someone with Crohn’s, I would never eat and drink like that before getting on a plane, so it’s a nice little fantasy.

Games played:
Little Nightmares (2017) (PC) – I loved the art and atmosphere in this short game. Creepy and charming all at once. The puzzles are simple, but it still manages to be satisfying to play through.

The Sexy Brutale (2017) (PC) – This is a really clever little mystery/puzzle game. Essentially you’re in a mansion party where guests are getting murdered left and right, and in order to figure out how to prevent these murders, you need to spy on conversations and trail the guests and staff. You’re then able to keep restarting the day in an attempt to intervene. It has a very cool art style and fantastic music.

What have you been reading/watching/playing this month?

The Prisoner of Zenda

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The Prisoner of ZendaThe Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope
Published: 1894
Narrated by: James Wilby
Series: The Ruritania Trilogy #2
Length: 05:31 (208 pages)

Rudolph Rassendyll is a distant cousin of the royal family of Ruritania, a fictional German-speaking country in the centre of Europe. His sister-in-law, who considers him a complete waste of space, can’t stand his resemblance to those royals because it reminds her of a century-old scandal. An illegitimate child was born in England while a prince of Ruritania was visiting, and now every second generation or so a Rassendyll child is born with their trademark red hair and a long straight nose.

This doesn’t bother Rudolph the way it does his sister-in-law, but the conversation makes him curious to get a glimpse of the royal family. A new king is due to be crowned in Ruritania in a few weeks, and Rudolph decides to attend the coronation. On his arrival, he finds he’s the exact copy of the new king and as a result gets wrapped up in a conspiracy by the king’s half-brother, Black Michael (aptly named to avoid any confusion), to take over the throne.

This one really left me cold. I love me some classic adventure novels, but I just could not bring myself to care at all during this story. It has fencing, sneaking about, (somewhat dodgy) romance, and political intrigue, but it just seemed so dull. The main character is a complete bore, all of the characters are undeveloped, and it just feels like empty Victorian middle-class wish fulfilment. A rich man with no responsibilities travels to a foreign land, speaks their language so perfectly that the king’s new wife can’t even tell them apart, and manages to not only survive but excel in this political hotbed, using only his well-bred wits.

I feel like this would normally be a novel I could really enjoy, but for whatever reason it just got on my nerves. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood. I actually did really like his writing style; it’s just the shallow characters and lazy plot that I couldn’t get past. And there were moments that I liked – Rudolph constantly hesitating to just dive into action, for example, which was a stark contrast to the tone of The Three Musketeers.

This did manage to inspire an entire genre of adventure novels, Ruritanian romances, which involve swashbuckling adventures set in fictional countries, for those novelists who want to base their story in the real world but do not want to get involved in any sort of research.

I didn’t hate everything about this, despite what’s written here, but I would give it a resounding ‘meh’.

The Haunting of Hill House

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The Haunting of Hill HouseThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Published: 1959
Narrated by: Bernadette Dunne
Length: 07:31 (246 pages)

I am physically unable to say the title of this novel without the words twisting themselves into House on Haunted Hill. It just won’t work.

Dr. John Montague is a paranormal researcher, like a ghost hunter without his own scripted television show, and he has heard many tales of Hill House. In order to find and document the existence of supernatural phenomenon, Montague decides to invite a group of people to spend the summer in the house with him. He is joined by a relative of the owner and the only two of the group to respond to his invite – free-spirited Theodora and timid Eleanor, our protagonist. The group stay in the house and try to document what they experience.

Eleanor is a somewhat broken single woman in her thirties who has dedicated the last decade of her life to caring for her recently-deceased mother. She now lives with her sister’s family and has to run away against their will to come to Hill House. She doesn’t really care what she’ll find while staying there; she just wants to escape and live her own life. I really enjoyed that aspect of the story, the idea of Eleanor being able to drop her old constraints to try to reinvent herself. There’s one scene when they all first arrive in the house, where they sit together and all invent fictional backstories. It was a brilliant scene that had the group bond in a funny and lighthearted way, but it was also interesting to consider what each fictional backstory actually told the reader about their personalities.

I loved this so much more than I thought I would. The characters were all fantastic, I loved Eleanor’s attempt to break out of her old self and deal with her inner doubt. Theodora was so much fun and a great counterpoint to Eleanor’s personality. Dr. Montague worked perfectly as a guide and father figure to the group, and I thoroughly enjoyed the comic relief his wife brought when she arrived. This was dark and atmospheric, but it was also funny at times. The group’s dynamic and banter was great, and having those well-developed characters really raised the stakes during the creepy bits.

What I loved most was how the story developed in surprising ways. I think I was actually expecting a more straight-forward haunted house tale, but this went in a very different direction. Eleanor’s internal struggle, how the house was affecting her, was so interesting to read, and the fact that it was happening to our viewpoint character and wasn’t overly explained or gimmicky was quite a feat of storytelling. There’s a lot left open to interpretation, and I found myself mulling over the plot, the ending, and the characters for days after finishing this.

I don’t really know much about Shirley Jackson, outside of how much people rave about her short story The Lottery, which I thought I read in high school, but having glanced at a summary, I’m now not sure. For the last twenty years I thought The Lottery was about a boy who comes up with winning horse names by getting off on a rocking horse, but it turns out I’ve had it confused with The Rocking-Horse Winner by D.H. Lawrence. Also, that may not be what that story is about. It’s been a while.

I will definitely be reading more from Shirley Jackson. Her writing in this was a real pleasure to read.

I Was the Cat

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I Was the CatI Was the Cat by Paul Tobin
Format: Original Graphic Novel
Illustrated by: Benjamin Dewey
Publisher: Oni Press
Published: 2014
Length: 144 pages

This is one of the books we bought from the Oni Press booth at Pax West last year. It’s the story of a cat writing the memoirs of his previous eight lives, most of which involved him trying to take over the world. It’s a great looking little hardcover and was on sale, so how could we resist?

A rich stranger invites an American journalist (or, blogger, I guess?) to London under much secrecy in order to write his memoirs. The stranger, it turns out, is a talking cat, and he tells the blogger tales of his previous lives – running messages for troops through the trenches at The Battle of the Somme, convincing ancient Egyptians to worship cats, advising Napoleon during his wartime campaigns, that sort of thing.

It’s a fun concept, but it fell a bit flat for me. I enjoyed the flashbacks, but the idea was too ambitious for the size of this book, so most of those stories were pretty thin. It felt like they took away from the potentially interesting modern-day narrative as well, which was also left feeling a bit anemic. The stories from the past didn’t really compliment the main plot at all, and as a result the book felt disjointed.

This is just a minor annoyance, but I knew without checking the bio that the writer wasn’t English. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to play up stereotypes for comedic effect (he had villains in bowler hats, after all) or if he really thought a bunch of ‘bloody hell’s and Manchester United references was what the reader needed to truly imagine London. It wasn’t enough to ruin the experience, and actually this fictional Disney view of London was fun, but I did find it quite jarring throughout the book. I imagine it would be even worse if you were actually English.

This had some problems, but it was also a fun read with some great artwork. It’s hard to go truly wrong with talking cats taking over the world.

The White Tiger

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The White TigerThe White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Published: 2008
Length: 276 pages

I picked this up on a whim at the used book sale last month. I hadn’t really heard anything about it, but it did win the 2008 Man Booker Prize, so I thought I’d take a chance on it. I’m glad I did, because this was a great little book.

Like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra, the voters discuss the elections in Laxmangarh.

Adiga’s debut novel follows a young Indian boy named Balram Halwai, born the son of a rickshaw puller in Laxmangarh, as he sheds his caste and life of servitude to eventually become a Bangalore entrepreneur. He spends most of the novel as a driver for a rich landlord in New Delhi, where he experiences firsthand the corrupt government and the immense gap between rich and poor, something that is very evident as the two classes live closely together.

It’s heavily focused on that social divide, which is not a cheerful subject, but this novel can be very darkly funny at times. It’s written as a letter to a visiting Chinese Premier, as Balram tells his story as a way to explain Indian entrepreneurship. He narrates his own story, and it’s his voice that really made this novel for me. It so full of energy that it really made his tale feel personal, almost uncomfortably so, like you shouldn’t be reading it. I really loved how this was written.

As the fire ate away the silk, a pale foot jerked out, like a living thing; the toes, which were melting in the heat, began to curl up, offering resistance to what was being done to them. Kusum shoved the foot into the fire, but it would not burn. My heart began to race. My mother wasn’t going to let them destroy her.

I haven’t read much fiction taking place in India, particularly by Indian authors, so that was a refreshing change. His decision to focus on the darker segment of Indian society, literally what he describes as The Darkness, impoverished rural India, was also a change from the often romanticized view exposed to the west. He shows a country where relatively few rich men have tamed the rest of society, where people are born into servitude and often live that life without question, despite being every bit as intelligent and capable as their masters. This is a novel about a man who does question that system and wants to leave behind The Darkness.

The dreams of the rich, and the dreams of the poor—they never overlap, do they?

See, the poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich. And what do the rich dream of?

Losing weight and looking like the poor.

It’s hard to tell how true to life Adiga’s picture of Indian is, as someone with very little knowledge of the country, but it was a compelling read. The caste system, which apparently began as a classification based on occupation and eventually morphed into restrictive categorisation at birth, is something I’d like to read more about and understand a bit better. It played a large role in the background of this novel and formed the basis of the plot and motivation, but it didn’t really go into detail.

I really enjoyed this and look forward to reading more from Aravind Adiga.

The Three Musketeers

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The Three MusketeersThe Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Published: 1844
Narrated by: Simon Vance
Translated By: Pevear and Volokhonsky (from French in 2006)
Series: D’Artagnan #1
Length: 22:45 (736 pages)

Swordplay, bravado, romance, political intrigue, drunken brawls, mistaken identity – there is a lot happening in this well-known novel, which is actually the first of a trilogy of books following D’Artagnan and his three companions. I’ve seen a few film adaptations of this over the years, none of which I can really recall, but I do always remember loving the pure adventure of it all, and I’m happy to say that the same is true for the source material.

This is high adventure and historical fiction, taking place in France during the 17th century. Dumas states in the introduction that the 16th century novel Memoires de d’Artagnan by Gatien de Cortilz de Sandras inspired this story. The real life characters are not just Louis XIII, Anne of Austria and the other known figures of history, but also d’Artagnan, his three Musketeer friends, and other various characters as well, although he shifted many of them slightly in time.

The story begins with D’Artagnan leaving his home to travel to Paris in the hope of joining the King’s Musketeers, and then follows him and his three Musketeer companions on their various adventures. I won’t try to summarize the plot, because it is quite complicated, but this novel felt like adventure in its purest form, to the point of being a bit surreal – the over the top swagger, the duels at the drop of a hat, the immediate declarations of love, the carefree attitude towards death. If you didn’t catch the tone of the novel, everyone in this would come across as lunatics, but it ends up really working well.

So many of the characters are memorable and full of life, and there are some fantastically constructed scenes. How D’Artagnan met the three Musketeers, through a series of misunderstandings, was a brilliant way to introduce the characters, and I loved the bond they formed for the rest of the novel. As this was first published as a magazine serial, I did feel like it was losing me a bit in the middle as serials tend to do, but overall the story surprised me by just how fun and hilarious it was.

This is the first Pevear and Volokhonsky (although this was just Pevear) translation that I’ve read, and it was very good. The main complaint against them, that I’ve heard, is that they sometimes choose phrasing that seems too modern. A phrase that popped up in this novel surprisingly often was ‘blow your brains out’, which seemed wildly out of place to me, but out of curiosity I searched a bit online and it seems like that phrasing is in older translations as well, so I really don’t know. Maybe that phrase, or at least its French cousin, was in regular use back then, but the idea seems utterly bizarre to me for some reason. I thoroughly enjoyed both the translation and the narration (Simon Vance is always amazing), so I’d definitely recommend this edition.

There are two sequels to this, both longer than the already quite long original. I’m not sure I’ll pick those up anytime in the near future, but I think the next Dumas I’ll eventually tackle will be The Count of Monte Cristo. That novel seems to be loved by everyone, so I’m looking forward to it.

May in Review

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Books Acquired:
Poems by Robert Frost: A Boy’s Will; North of Boston by Robert Frost
The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark
Conversations by César Aira
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
A Good Year by Peter Mayle
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Shopgirl by Steve Martin
Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome
The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
Baudolino by Umberto Eco
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Books Read:
Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
I Was the Cat by Paul Tobin
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

This month started, of course, with the annual used book sale, which is always a highlight. That’s also why my Books Acquired list is so ridiculous. I’ve only read one of the new pile of books so far, The White Tiger, and I thought it was great.

Lee-Ann’s birthday was this month, which was a very busy weekend full of nonstop eating and visiting with friends.

Yesterday's birthday bacon!

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Her birthday coincided with the local Highland Games here, which is always fun. It’s a good chance to eat some haggis, buy random Scottish knickknacks, and watch huge guys throw heavy objects around.

Fun day at #VHG2017. Haggis and tatties for lunch!

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Luke, Ah am yer faither. #VHG2017

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I’m mainly just happy the sun is finally out. Our winters here are grey and dark and wet, and I always forget just how much that affects me until I get a bit of sun on my skin and find myself spinning on hilltops like Maria von Trapp.

Movies watched:
The Lady in the Van (2015) – Both Maggie Smith and Alan Bennett are fantastic, so I really enjoyed this. It reminded me that I need to read more Alan Bennett soon.

Deadpool (2016) – Just raunchy fun. Interested to see if Deadpool pops up in any other Marvel movies.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) – Not as good as the first, but still entertaining. They tried way too hard in too many scenes to be heartwarming, and it fell a bit flat for me.

Now You See Me (2013) – This was a bit silly. If you really turn your mind off, it’s an enjoyable heist movie, but don’t let your mind wander back to reality for even a second.

TV watched:
Master of None: Season 2 (2017) – Some of the best television I’ve watched in ages. Season 1 was already fantastic, and this was a huge improvement on that. Very clever filming, great writing and casting. Aziz Ansari should be winning every award for this series.

Games played:
Rocket League (2015) (PC) – I haven’t really been playing anything recently, but I still always come back to this.

What have you been reading/watching/playing this month?

Garlic and Sapphires

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Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in DisguiseGarlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl
Published: 2005
Length: 334 pages

This is Ruth Reichl’s memoir of the time she spent as the restaurant critic for The New York Times, from 1993 to 1999. It begins with her flying to the city after accepting the job and being recognized on the plane. These reviews could make or break a restaurant, and many chefs around the city made sure their staff knew who she was. If they could recognize her when she arrived at the restaurant, they could try to spoil her and help their review.

Because of this, she began dressing in disguise when visiting restaurants. She couldn’t very well give fair reviews if the staff were giving her special treatment, so she would don a wig, buy some clothing from a thrift store, and reinvent herself – a sort of foodie spy trying to integrate with the enemy.

In her first review for the paper, she wanted to split the article into two distinct reviews. The difference in experience between how she was treated out of disguise on her first visit and how she was treated as an unknown, less stylish woman was so dramatic that she felt they warranted separate pieces with different star ratings. In the end, she was forced to combine the reviews and average the star rating, but I loved that she was so adamant to expose this disparity. As she says in the book, for many people the occasional visit to an upscale restaurant is as much about the theatre of it all as it is about the food, and to be ignored in favour of more obviously affluent people isn’t right.

At one point she wrote a one star review for a popular restaurant, one that had previously garnered four stars, and the next day she checked her voicemail to find it full of angry responses from readers. That felt like something you don’t see much these days – voice feedback. Could you imagine checking your voicemail in the morning to find the equivalent of a string of angry YouTube comments? I picture every angry social media comment as coming from an unsupervised preteen with developmental issues, and I don’t know if I could cope with being forced to admit that actual adults are behind those opinions. It’s just too real.

She didn’t just wear a disguise, she assumed the personality traits that came along with each costume as well. How much her outer appearance affected her personality was really interesting. It allowed her to explore sides of herself that she would normally ignore, although the way she seemed to, almost against her will, take on complete personalities the instant a new wig hit her skull, as if being possessed, was a bit far-fetched. It felt like an excuse to be rude and manipulative at times, particularly near the end of her run, but I was impressed with how willing Reichl was to show a less pleasant sides of herself in this.

Her descriptions of the food were, obviously, a pleasure to read, as you’d expect from a renown restaurant critic. I do wish there was a little more focus on the food than the disguises, but I suppose it did give the book a lot more depth, more so than I anticipated going in. She also included a number of recipes throughout the book – chocolate cake, asparagus risotto, spaghetti carbonara, that sort of thing. There’s a recipe for Gougères (cheesy puffs essentially) that I’m really interesting in trying.

While the disguise routine started to get a bit old for me halfway through the book, her writing kept me going. I really enjoyed it. I see she released a memoir before this, so I will have to track that down.

The Human Factor

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The Human FactorThe Human Factor by Graham Greene
Published: 1978
Length: 347 pages

I’ve read two other Greene novels besides this one, The End of the Affair and The Captain and the Enemy, and I’m still not entirely sure what I’m going to get when I pick up one of his books, but I know I love his writing. This is one of his later novels in an incredible career that began in the 20s and lasted until the late 80s. I always think of him as a classic author, but it seems odd to include anything written in my lifetime, so I tend to fall back on the arbitrary ‘fifty year’ rule with him.

Anyway, this is a spy novel of a much more realistic fashion than what we typically see. The protagonist, Maurice Castle, is no James Bond. He’s a middle-aged man who works at a desk and looks forward to retirement. He did have, what seems like, a more exciting position in South Africa during apartheid, where he had to flee the country with a black woman who later became his wife. They now live a quiet life with their child in London.

A piece of confidential information, under his small department’s jurisdiction, made its way into Communist hands. There are three main suspects, of which Castle is one, and his calm life starts to become much more tense. It’s a slow build throughout the novel, and while it certainly isn’t action-packed, it was an exciting read. In his autobiography, Greene wrote that he wanted “to write a novel of espionage free from the conventional violence, which has not, in spite of James Bond, been a feature of the British Secret Service”, and I would say he pulled it off exceptionally well.

Hate is an automatic response to fear, for fear humiliates.

The relationships in this felt very real to me, and I just loved the dialogue. He got across a lot in a few words, and he was surprisingly funny at times, which I appreciate. There are small moments of humour in even the most tragic of times, and I think a lot of authors can forget that.

I can definitely say I’m a fan, at this point. The only other unread Greene novel on my shelf is The Tenth Man, which I’ll likely get to later this year.

Waking Gods

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Waking Gods (Themis Files #2)Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel
Published: 2017
Narrated by: Full Cast
Series: Themis Files #2
Length: 09:02 (325 pages)

This is the sequel to Sleeping Giants and the second novel in the Themis Files trilogy, a series about a team of scientists finding and testing a giant robot found buried on Earth. The first two novels in this trilogy probably should have just been one. The first ends in a very anti-climatic and dull way, particularly for a novel about a giant robot, and this one just continues the story. Waking Gods does jump ahead in time several years, but it really feels like the second half of that first novel. There seems to be some rule that you can’t have just two novels in a science fiction or fantasy series. It will be three or more, even if you have to rip one in half to do it.

It’s hard to include too much about the plot, as this is a sequel and I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s basically the most exciting bits of the last novel all the way through. Since we’re familiar with the characters now, the focus has shifted somewhat to the world events, and things do get quite crazy. It’s a novel that’s really about holding the tension rather than straight up action, which I think bothers a lot of people. Don’t expect Gundam or Power Rangers. This is largely about trying to plan for and deal with major disasters, and Sylvain Neuvel really doesn’t pull any punches. Horrible things happen in this, and that really helps build the tension later in the book.

— Spoiler —
I really love Rose Franklin’s story line, and how she’s able to look at the project in retrospect and see it differently. To see what she did before, with the same mind, but with an objectivity that most people don’t get a chance to experience. The ‘am I a real person’ dilemma she had was great, but it’s that idea of being able to examine years of your own life from the viewpoint of your younger self that I found really interesting.
— /Spoiler —

I’ve been listening to this series in audiobook format, and it’s just perfect for that. It has a full cast, mostly very strong narrators, and it just works so well. There are a few production issues, such as having the characters occasionally scream as loud as they can without the volume being adjusted, causing you to bleed from the ears and stumble into traffic, but it’s mostly excellent.

If you enjoy the first novel, definitely pick this up. If you were lukewarm on that novel, you will probably feel the same way about this. It’s really more of the same, amplified slightly, but for me that was enjoyable. There is a huge plot twist at the end of this, however, and I’m excited to see what the novel will bring.