Fantasy, Fiction, Horror

The Vorrh by Brian Catling

Today my husband and I are celebrating the 7th anniversary of our first date so I figured I would review one of his favorite books, that I also read for our book club, The Modern Readers. 

3 - February 2016 - Vorrh

Synopsis

Outside the colonial town of Essenwald lies the Vorrh, a vast – perhaps endless – forest. Sentient and magical, a place of demons and angels, of warriors and priests, the Vorrh bends time and wipes memory. Legend holds that the Garden of Eden still exists at its heart. Now a renegade foreign soldier intends to be the first human to traverse its expanse. Armed with only a bow, he begins his journey. But some fear the consequences of his mission, so a native marksman is chosen to stop him. Around these adversaries swirls a remarkable cast of characters, including a tragically curious young girl and a Cyclops raised by robots, as well as such historical figures as protosurrealist Raymond Roussel and pioneering photographer Edward Muybridge. Fact and fiction blend, the hunter will become the hunted, and everyone’s fate will hang in the balance – in the Vorrh.

Review

Uhhhh, I’m still trying to figure this one out. Since finishing it and discussing it, I’ve sold more copies of this book by saying I hated it than I have sold books I loved to people by telling them how much I loved it. But I didn’t hate it… I think?

There are many stories working in tandem in this book and they are all confusing and befuddling and written in different styles based on the character’s perspective that we are currently viewing the world through. Told in at least four alternating perspectives, The Vorrh is the story first and foremost of the forest from which it gets its name and the people in the town right next to it. It bears similarities in equal parts to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Shelley’s Frankenstein. But it goes beyond that to discuss mental illness and paint pictures in the reader’s minds of things that are just downright unpleasant and, for some, upsetting. You have to have a strong stomach to undertake a serious reading of The Vorrh.

If anyone else has this book figured out, not just enjoyed it, but actually figured out the symbolism and intent, please do enlighten me.

Rating: 6 out 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.95 • 9781101873786 • 512 pages published April 2015 by Vintage • average Goodreads rating 3.51 out of 5 • read in February 2016

Brian Catling’s Website

The Vorrh on Goodreads

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Vorrh

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Over the past few years I have read my fair share of novels set during World War II including my absolute favorite Montmaray Journals, the splendid Salt to the Sea, and the “pull-on-your-heartstrings” Letters to the Lost. So when Sarah told me that if I read Code Name Verity it would break my heart like no other book I was not going to read it. But I reconsidered, and armed with the knowledge of what would happen to each of the two main characters, I dove into the story and fell in love with all of it.

Synopsis

Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

Review

Let me just say I’m a little shocked that this book is stocked in the YA section of bookstores. I’m not sure I would have been able to handle reading this when I was in high school. The book is split into two distinct parts – the first is from “Verity’s” perspective, the second, from her best friend Maddie. “Verity” has been captured by the Gestapo after parachuting into Nazi-occupied France and looking the wrong way before crossing the street. She has been given the opportunity to write down her story and extend her life for as long as it takes to satisfy her Nazi jailers with the information she supplies. However, “Verity” chooses to tell them the story of Maddie, her best friend, and the pilot of the plane from which she parachuted.

“Verity” explains how the young women met, trained together, and became best friends. But as she tells that story, she also details the events and torture that transpire while she is held prisoner. It is a powerful tale, and while fictional, is likely to be the truth for somebody. The second part is Maddie’s story and what she has lived through during the time that “Verity” has been held prisoner. After crash-landing her plane, Maddie spends the next few months trying to escape from France and get back to England. However, when she learns of “Verity’s” fate, she decides her foremost goal is to help her friend. Both women face deadly obstacles, and the heart-breaking, nail-biting conclusion will leave you in a puddle of tears.

Code Name Verity is one of the best books I have ever read. I loved the characters and I experienced just about every emotion possible while reading this book. Personally, I preferred “Verity’s” part of the story more than Maddie’s, but it was all worth reading.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9781423152880 • 368 pages • first published May 2012, this edition published May 2013 by Disney-Hyperion • average Goodreads rating 4.08 out of 5 • read in June 2016

Elizabeth Wein’s Website

Code Name Verity on Goodreads

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Fantasy, Fiction, Novella

Beauty by Sarah Pinborough

I completely fell for the cover of this book and I’m a sucker for dark fantasy adaptations. This book (and series) fit the bill quite well.

Synopsis

Once upon a time… in a kingdom far, far away, a handsome prince sets out to find a lost castle, only to discover a city slumbering under a terrible curse, and a beautiful princess who can only be woken by true love’s kiss.

Review

Beauty is a reimagining of a couple of different classic tales, notably Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Rumpelstiltskin. It reminds me a great deal of the ABC series, Once Upon a Time in the way that it marries many different tales together into one story. Most of the time, I enjoy such a premise, but as Beauty is more of a novella than a full novel, I found myself thinking there were more characters and stories than Sarah Pinborough really had time to effectively explore.

And that is really the crux of why I didn’t love Beauty as much as I really wanted to, and why it took me far longer than I would have liked to read. Like every good fairy tale, a prince is set off on a quest, in this case to investigate a kingdom that appears to have been swallowed up into a forest. A huntsman is enlisted to help him and along the way they meet Petra (Little Red Riding Hood) and she joins them on the adventure as she senses her destiny lies somewhere on the other side of the densely forested wall. The three make their way into the kingdom and awaken Beauty, a la Sleeping Beauty.

And that’s when things turn decidedly more Grimm. This is not Disney. Beauty is written in the same vein as the original dark and terrible German tales by the brothers Grimm. I liked that things were flipped on their head, but it was far too sudden. I wish there had been fewer characters, fewer fairy tales and more about those that really intrigued me, or that the story had been fleshed out into a full novel and not written as a novella. I finished the book wanted so much more out of it.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $14.95 • 9781783291144 • 208 pages • published May 2015 by Titan Books • average Goodreads rating 3.6 out of 5 • read in August 2015

Sarah Pinborough’s Website

Beauty on Goodreads

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Beauty

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Back in my early D&D playing days (which admittedly was only 2 1/2 years ago), one of my friends named her character Lyra. In the most recent campaign, one of my other friends is playing an armored bear. Needless to say, I had to read the book that inspired both of these fearsome characters, The Golden Compass!

Synopsis

Lyra is rushing to the cold, far North, where witch clans and armored bears rule. North, where the Gobblers take the children they steal – including her friend Roger. North, where her fearsome uncle Asriel is trying to build a bridge to a parallel world.

Can one small girl make a difference in such great and terrible endeavors? This is Lyra: a savage, a schemer, a liar, and as fierce and true a champion as Roger or Asriel could want.

But what Lyra doesn’t know is that to help one of them will be to betray the other…

Review

This is, once again, an audiobook review. For some reason, I have not been able to finish reading a physical book since January! January! I work in a bookstore and I cannot finish a book, ’tis shameful I say. That being said, the audiobook is awesome! I love when the readers are different for each character, as is the case with The Golden Compass, and the author, Philip Pullman, is the narrator, making it all the more special.

Storywise, I think I let myself build up The Golden Compass in my mind to the point that it was never going to live up to my unrealistic expectations. This is a book that I have been told I absolutely must read for the majority of my life – my earliest memory of someone telling me about it was my fifth grade teacher in 1999, three years after it was first published in the US. So I’ve had 18 years to build this book up in my mind. (I also find it incredibly hard to believe that I was in 5th grade 18 years ago… I feel so old!)

Once I was able to get past the fact that it is not perfect, nor is it my new favorite book, I was able to simply enjoy it. Pullman is a masterful storyteller and Lyra is the perfect roguish character. She might be a liar, but she is fiercely loyal to those she loves and cares about and it makes perfect sense why so many of my teachers and friends figured I would really enjoy her story.

The antagonist of the story is not always clear which makes for a compelling story and the pages (or discs) turn and change as fast as an armored bear charging down an enemy. Pullman has a mind for critical thinking and philosophical approaches to fairly adult topics. When viewed through Lyra’s child’s eyes, it makes it much harder to understand why adults can’t seem to figure out how to set the world right. Her innocence makes her the perfect lens through which an adult reader views the problems facing the world today. But, it is not necessary to think so deeply into the philosophy of the story to enjoy it. The Golden Compass is a wonderful adventure, and with Pullman releasing the first book in a new trilogy (a prequel of sorts) in the fall, it is a timely must read!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $12.99 • 9780375823459 • 432 pages • originally published in 1995, this edition published September 2002 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 3.93 out of 5 • read in January 2017

Philip Pullman’s Website

The Golden Compass on Goodreads

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Golden Compass

Fiction, Historical

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

I broke my own self-imposed rule – I watched The Last Kingdom on Netflix before I read The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell. I had picked up the first book in the series after my sister gave my husband the most recent in the Saxon Chronicles for Christmas one year, not only because I was intrigued, but because the actor who plays Uhtred was on the cover and he looks almost exactly like my husband, to the extent that his own mother, my mother-in-law, agrees!

Synopsis

In the middle years of the ninth century, the fierce Danes stormed onto British soil, hungry for spoils and conquest. Kingdom after kingdom fell to the ruthless invaders until but one realm remained. And suddenly the fate of all England – and the course of history – depended on one man, one king.

The Last Kingdom is a rousing epic adventure of courage, treachery, duty, devotion, majesty, love, and battle as seen through the eyes of a young warrior who straddled two worlds.

Review

As I write this review today, I am happily watching season 2 of The Last Kingdom on Netflix, a season that I have anxiously been awaiting for nearly a year now. Between a new season of Vikings, a new season of The Last Kingdom, and a story of my own about the viking princess turned pirate Alvilda, I feel like I am practically in Valhalla. But onto the review!

When it came to the reading of The Last Kingdom, I half listened to the audiobook and half read from the physical book. The audiobook is wonderful – having already watched the first season of the television show, it was admittedly hard to hear a different voice reading the thoughts and feelings of Uhtred when I had grown so used to Alexander Dreymon, but Jonathan Keeble does a great job as reader. The audiobook also makes it easier to keep track of the characters and places, since, as with most books set in the time, almost every characters name is difficult to read and pronounce without assistance.

Uhtred is, as a main character, very similar to Quentin of The Magicians trilogy, and I have to admit, I characterize my relationship with them both as if they were real. Readers’ imaginations do tend to be quite vivid! I have a love-hate relationship with each, but it is perhaps stronger on the love side with the cocky and arrogant Uhtred. (A full review of The Magicians and my love/hate relationship with Quentin and the show to come in the near future!) The Uhtred who narrates The Last Kingdom, is a much older man, recounting the stories of his youthful adventures. As the first of 10 volumes in the Saxon Tales, it begins first with Uhtred’s childhood and how he came to be a man who straddles the worlds of Christian Wessex and Thor’s Danes.

The story is character driven, understandably with Uhtred as the narrator, and the pacing is quick as the story quickly progresses to cover numerous battles and life stages of our illustrious main character. It moves quickly and excitingly and is the perfect read/listen for anyone who enjoys the show, which remains loyal to the first book (I cannot speak of the rest of the books as I have not yet read them), or anyone who enjoys a thrilling historical fiction adventure!

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Details: Paperback • $15.99 • 9780062438621 • 368 pages • originally published in 2004, this edition published September 2015 by Harper Paperbacks • average Goodreads rating 4.23 out of 5 • read in February 2017

Bernard Cornwell’s Website

The Last Kingdom on Goodreads

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Last Kingdom (3)