Tag: literary fiction


Tournament of Books 2017: Late to the Party

Posted 10 March, 2017 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in books and publishing, Reading

tournament of books 2017 bracket

First, preliminaries. I want to say that I love The Morning News  for providing interactive brackets this year. It makes writing these posts so much easier. Secondly, as the post header suggests, I’m late to this party. I did not predict (or honestly even think about that much) who would win the play-in match or the first two match-ups.

What I will say is that I’m not surprised that Underground Railroad took the first round. I’m also so happy that The Vegetarian lost in its bracket that I literally cheered when I saw the result. Aside: I cannot believe it won the Man Booker, I disliked it so much I couldn’t even bring myself to review it. Anyway. 

Currently, I’ve read about ten books in the Tournament. I hope to finish a few more before their match-ups. I also hope to bang out some more mini-reviews of the ones that I’ve read, hopefully to go live tomorrow or Sunday. Work is hectic so, we’ll see.

Based on what I’ve read, (and buzz that I’ve heard) I think that this year’s Tournament is likely to come down to four books. The Nix (read), Grief is the Thing With Feathers (review), The Mothers (review), and Underground Railroad (based on buzz). I advanced All the Birds in the Sky instead of Underground Railroad, simply because I’ve read the latter.

As the Tournament wears on, I hopefully will post to update my brackets and make new predictions.

I love this time of year, Reader. Don’t you? It’s so much more fun than March Madness, can we all agree on that? 

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Faulkner-esque Friday: Lincoln in the Bardo

Posted 17 February, 2017 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Faulkner-esque Friday: Lincoln in the BardoLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Published by Random House on February 14th 2017
Pages: 368
Goodreads
four-half-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

The captivating first novel by the best-selling, National Book Award nominee George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War
On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body. Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel - in its form and voice - completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.

Oh my goodness, you guys. Saunders has completely blown me away with Lincoln in the Bardo. I described it repeatedly to an illiterate co-worker (love you B!) as The Sound and the Fury with ghosts. Saunders creates a beautifully atmospheric novel without sacrificing character development – though – it doesn’t happen the way you’d expect.

This novel is incredibly, well, novel. Saunders creates a world where we are able to see the main players reflected through the eyes of the dead who are obsessed with petty (and not so petty) wrongs that happened to them in life. Thus, they are stuck in ‘the bardo’. When Willie Lincoln dies, we get to see the confusion of a dead child along with the reflections of his father’s grief. What’s so interesting about the form of Lincoln in the Bardo, is that it’s written more like a Greek chorus, with other ‘characters’ explaining the action – rather than us seeing the action.

There are intermittent background chapters that appear to be excerpts from memoirs or history books about what is happening in the world outside the graveyard. Explaining the pressure of the Civil War on President Lincoln, the party that happened prior to Willie’s death, and other general historical snippets to give the rest of the novel context.

The concept of the bardo is fascinating enough it ran me down a brief wormhole of Tibetan death rituals and the such. I may have some future reading about that.

Overall, this is an excellent novel by an author who I believe will be considered one of the great authors of our lifetimes. It has a fresh form, an interesting story, atmosphere, and just generally fantastic writing. This is a book that literary fiction lovers absolutely must check out.

Does this sound too weird for you, Reader? Too hard? It’s definitely not a beach read, but it’s hard reading that I think is totally worth it.

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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M-Mini Reviews: Tournament of Books 2017

Posted 16 February, 2017 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

by Brit Bennett, Francine Prose, Michael Chabon
Published by Harper, Riverhead Books

tournament of books

A weak correlation of books, I realize it, connecting the ‘M’ titles together in the Tournament of Books selections, but time is growing short. Today, I’m going to take a look at MoonglowThe Mothers, and Mister Monkey.

Moonglow by: Michael Chabon

Brief Synopsis: The author’s grandfather makes a deathbed confession about war, love, childrearing, and mental illness.

Brief Review: When a novel starts with the aside: “In preparing this memoir I have stuck to facts except when facts refuse to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I understand it.” I know that I’m probably going to have a good time. (This was of course before KellyAnne Conway’s ‘alternative facts’ nonsense, but I digress.) I did find Moonglow to be pretty fun. It jumps around in time quite a bit and has inspired me to want to learn more about Werner von Braun and the Nazi development of rocket.

Brief RatingProbably a solid three stars. Maybe more if you like Nazis and space.

The Mothers by: Brit Bennett

Brief Synopsis: An African-American girl growing up in California survives her mother committing suicide only to get pregnant too young. When she makes the choice to have an abortion, lives change.

Brief Review: Look. The writing in this book is gorgeous. The characters are well developed and believable. The story is interesting and compelling. My issue with this book is the fact that it feels a little preachy. Nadia’s pregnancy and subsequent abortion completely defines who she is through the entire novel. I’ve not had an abortion, but the literature of women who have cite that more often than not, this is not the case (see Katha Pollitt’s masterpiece Pro). Let me be fair by saying that I’m sure that it can be the case sometimes.

Brief Rating: Definitely at least four stars, if it hadn’t been so preachy on the abortion thing, it would have easily been five for me.

Mister Monkey by: Francine Prose

Brief Synopsis: A novel that details pieces of characters lives involved with an off-off-off Broadway production of a children’s musical: Mister Monkey.

Brief Review: While I didn’t find the comedy to be “effervescent” nor the prose to be “breathtaking”, but this novel is unique, if nothing else. I loved how Prose has a chapter told from the point of view of each character, randomly, spiraling farther and farther from the theatre troupe the reader would expect to be hearing from. This book is fun, a little wacky, and weirdly it has its deep and important moments.

Brief Rating: 3.5 stars or so, definitely worth a try, but probably won’t change your life.

The Tournament grows nigh, dear Reader! Are you planning on playing along? How many have you read thus far?

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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For the Birds Mini-Reviews: Tournament of Books 2017

Posted 13 February, 2017 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reading, Reviews

for the birds

The time has come, (the Walrus said), to talk of many things!

Or, y’know, for me to finally get around to writing a few reviews for the fast upcoming Tournament of Books. (The Rooster waketh!) Let’s get started. This is the bird inspired group of mini-reviews.

Grief is the Thing With Feathers by: Max Porter

Brief Synopsis: The sudden death of a wife and mother gives rise to a ‘sentimental bird’, The Crow, joining the family for a period of time.

Brief Review: Look. No synopsis anyone can ever write about this book is going to do it justice. This book is part poetry, part allegory, and all beautiful. This slim book took me completely by surprise. What Porter manages to do with language from the point of view of the husband, the boys, and the crow is nothing short of breathtaking. This is a quick – though not necessarily easy – read. I highly recommend it to everyone.

Brief Rating: Five stars. For sure.

All the Birds in the Sky by: Charlie Jane Anders

Brief Synopsis: Two childhood friends. One drawn to magic, the other to science. When the world goes to hell in a handbasket, will these two work together to save the world, or are magic and science mutually exclusive?

Brief Review: This book is another weird one. It defies all genres. At some points it reminded me of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy, at other times it was a science fiction, dystopian nightmare. Still, at other times it was a love story. Despite this book pulling me in about a thousand different ways, I still found it ultimately enjoyable. I’d like to recommend it to people who love Harry Potter, science fiction, and dystopian end-of-the-world novels. However, for some of these people it just might pull in too many different directions.

Brief Rating: Three and a half stars. Maybe four.

That’s all I have right now, Reader! What is with Tournament of Books and bird novels? One of my favorites from years past is All the Birds, SingingAnyway, tell me all your thoughts on these two. How do you think they will fare in the Tournament?

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Thoughtful Thursday: Commonwealth

Posted 5 January, 2017 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Thoughtful Thursday: CommonwealthCommonwealth by Ann Patchett
Published by Harper on September 13th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary
Pages: 322
Goodreads
four-half-stars

One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.
Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.
When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.
Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.

I’ve never been a huge Ann Patchett fan, so I didn’t gnash my teeth too much when I missed out on Commonwealth at BEA. However, when it showed up on the Tournament of Books longlist and after hearing all the praise that had since been heaped upon this novel, I decided to go ahead and pick it up.

Lord have mercy, I am so glad that I did. Commonwealth is a long-game character study in the tradition of John Irving. Patchett manages to render her characters beautifully, despite all their flaws and ugliness. She manages to make the reader care immensely for quite a large cast of characters in an impressively short page span. At a sparse 322 pages, I would have never guessed that Commonwealth could have made me care for Fix and Franny, Beverly, Caroline, Albie, even Bert and Leo(n). (et. al.) Despite the flaws that Patchett lays bare in each character, I found it impossible to really hate any of them. Instead I found even the worst of the characters (Bert, it had to be Bert) beautiful and struggling in his own way. Maybe it’s because I literally do the job that Bert Cousins did, I found his struggle to be at home with the kids and away from work and even his attraction to beautiful Beverly to be incredibly relatable.

This is a domestic novel, but it’s not just a domestic novel. There are many layers to be peeled away in Commonwealth, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. This would be a great selection for a book club.

What about you Reader? I’m late to the game with this one? Anyone have other thoughts or feelings about Commonwealth?

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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If This, Then That: History of Wolves

Posted 2 January, 2017 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

If This, Then That: History of WolvesHistory of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
Published by Grove Atlantic on January 3rd 2017
Pages: 288
Goodreads
three-half-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Linda has an idiosyncratic home life: her parents live in abandoned commune cabins in northern Minnesota and are hanging on to the last vestiges of a faded counter-culture world. The kids at school call her 'Freak', or 'Commie'. She is an outsider in all things. Her understanding of the world comes from her observations at school, where her teacher is accused of possessing child pornography, and from watching the seemingly ordinary life of a family she babysits for. Yet while the accusation against the teacher is perhaps more innocent than it seemed at first, the ordinary family turns out to be more complicated. As Linda insinuates her way into the family's orbit, she realises they are hiding something. If she tells the truth, she will lose the normal family life she is beginning to enjoy with them; but if she doesn't, their son may die.Superbly-paced and beautifully written, HISTORY OF WOLVES is an extraordinary debut novel about guilt, innocence, negligence, well-meaning belief and the death of a child.

I want to start with a brief review of Fridlund’s History of Wolves. While I usually love debut literary fiction novels, History of Wolves was a bit of a failure to launch for me. I felt like Fridlund was a little too ambitious with this story. It’s true that the writing is lyrical. She attempts to create an atmosphere that is charged with the feeling something isn’t quite right, but this ultimately fails. The burn is a bit too slow. The juxtaposition between the scandal of child pornography and the family that seems a little too good to be true doesn’t quite come off.

Ultimately, I felt like the narrative push and pull that Fridlund seemed to be aiming for in History of Wolves failed because she was trying to do too much. The atmosphere in the woods, Linda’s school life, home life, and time she spends with the Gardners never really becomes a cohesive narrative. The reader thinks that there’s something slightly off about the Gardner’s, but honestly up until the reveal (which because of heavy handed foreshadowing was completely expected) it’s truly hard to really care.

I think that Fridlund would have been better served to focus completely on the story of Linda and the Gardner’s, cutting out the whole bit about the teacher and her odd upbringing in the commune.

That being said, if you read this book and enjoy it, or even mostly enjoy it I have to point you towards The Children Act, it explores similar themes of the rights of people to their religion weighed against the rights that their children have. It’s a fascinating first amendment discussion for anyone who wants to have it.

So Reader, what do you think? Have you read History of Wolves yet? Does it sound like your kind of thing?

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Well Written Wednesday: All That Man Is

Posted 28 December, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Well Written Wednesday: All That Man IsAll That Man Is by David Szalay
Published by Graywolf Press on October 4th 2016
Pages: 358
Goodreads
three-half-stars

Nine men. Each of them at a different stage in life, each of them away from home, and each of them striving--in the suburbs of Prague, in an overdeveloped Alpine village, beside a Belgian motorway, in a dingy Cyprus hotel--to understand what it means to be alive, here and now. Tracing a dramatic arc from the spring of youth to the winter of old age, the ostensibly separate narratives of All That Man Is aggregate into a picture of a single shared existence, a picture that interrogates the state of modern manhood while bringing to life, unforgettably, the physical and emotional terrain of an increasingly globalized Europe. And so these nine lives form an ingenious and new kind of novel, in which David Szalay expertly plots a dark predicament for the twenty-first-century man.
Dark and disturbing, but also often wickedly and uproariously comic, All That Man Is is notable for the acute psychological penetration Szalay brings to bear on his characters, from the working-class ex-grunt to the pompous college student, the middle-aged loser to the Russian oligarch. Steadily and mercilessly, as this brilliantly conceived book progresses, the protagonist at the center of each chapter is older than the last one, it gets colder out, and All That Man Is gathers exquisite power.

First, funny story about All That Man Is, I remembered hearing about it at BEA. When I saw it on the shelf at Barnes and Noble, I remembered that and picked it up. Last night, I finished it and went to take the dead tree book into the study where the rest of the books are stored when what do I see in my BEA book pile? Yep. All That Man Is. I is very smart.

Anyway, this book was a slow read for me – then again everything has been slow reading for me lately, so the fact that I finished it at all is pretty high praise. Szalay does some beautiful things with his prose, it’s really quite transporting. I think what I enjoyed most about this book was how European it is. I was stationed in Europe for about three years and I went everywhere that I could. A lot of the locations in this book were familiar-ish to me and Szalay’s writing is so transporting it was a little like being back there. At times it’s less a book about aging and growing and more of a travelogue.

The form of All That Man Is is another thing that is worth talking about. I suppose the easiest way to categorize it is to describe it as thematically related short stories. Each story follows a man in a different point of his life, in this way All That Man Is can be compared to Forty Rooms (which is amazing, read it), in that it is an exploration of aging within a particular gender. Forty Rooms spoke to me more, this could be a function of being a woman, but All That Man Is is powerful as well. The one flaw of this book is probably the fact that all the stories focus around white, middle class to rich men so social justice readers may have a hard time with that aspect.

Regardless, this is an incredibly well written and thoughtful book. Check it out.

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Magnificent Monday: A Gentleman in Moscow

Posted 5 September, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Magnificent Monday: A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Published by Viking on September 6th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Historical Fiction
Pages: 448
Format: Paperback ARC
Goodreads
five-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

A transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel. A Gentleman in Moscow immerses us in an elegantly drawn era with the story of Count Alexander Rostov. When, in 1922, he is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery.
Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

A Gentleman in Moscow is a beautiful character driven novel that really hit me square in the heart-space. To be fair, I only stood in line for Towles’ second novel because Catherine, Shannon, and other trusted bloggers ensured me that I should. A Gentleman in Moscow is not something I would have picked up on my own as I normally don’t go for historical fiction. But jeeze-o-pete, am I ever glad I got peer pressured into that signing line.

Despite being an American who spent twenty years as an ‘investment professional’, Towles has a real talent for rendering well formed and interesting characters from the Bolshevik revolution and also the U.S.S.R.. When my biggest complaint about a book is that I wanted more at the end – I consider that a win.

A Gentleman in Moscow is a sprawling novel a little in the vein of John Irving that follows a series of characters over decades. Count Rostov’s relationships with others at the Metropol hotel from the Bishop to Nina to Andrey are nearly flawlessly executed and completely believable. This novel is about the little things that make life worth living, if you’re looking for a plot driven action novel – you’re going to be disappointed with A Gentleman in Moscow. However, if you’re looking for a thoughtful character study that gives hope on the decency of humans as a whole – Towles has you covered.

I felt some sort of emotional connection with every character in this novel. If Towles were to write spin-offs describing the background and life trajectory of most of these characters — I would read those books.

A Gentleman in Moscow is an excellent novel and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

What about you, Reader? Have you read Towles’ Rules of Civility? Does A Gentleman in Moscow sound like your bag? Who else has read this?

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Fabulous Friday: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

Posted 12 August, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Fabulous Friday: All the Ugly and Wonderful ThingsAll the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
Published by Thomas Dunne Books on August 9th 2016
Genres: Adolescence, Fiction, Literary
Pages: 352
Goodreads
five-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

As the daughter of a meth dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. Struggling to raise her little brother, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible "adult" around. She finds peace in the starry Midwestern night sky above the fields behind her house. One night everything changes when she witnesses one of her father's thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold, wreck his motorcycle. What follows is a powerful and shocking love story between two unlikely people that asks tough questions, reminding us of all the ugly and wonderful things that life has to offer.

I read All the Ugly and Wonderful Things in a single sitting while I was sick as a dog. Greenwood wields her prose like it’s a sword and manages to completely eviscerate the reader. This book is indeed filled with all the ugly and wonderful things, but Greenwood leaves it up to the reader to decide what is ugly and what is wonderful. Her prose, while gorgeous and nearly perfectly rendered, is almost… hmm… she’s like a reporter – showing the reader what’s going on but never telling the reader how to feel about it.

This book left me constantly questioning my own morality for feeling the way that I did. Wavy and Kellen’s relationship often felt icky and wrong – ugly – to me, but at the same time almost justified. This is a book that demands to be discussed among friends. There is so much here. Never for one second did I feel icky the way I felt when I was reading Lolita, Humbert is obviously a pervert and a manipulator using Lo for his own ends. In All the Ugly and Wonderful Things Kellen is honestly more of a protector and a caretaker for the majority of their story.

For me the most disturbing part was (oddly) not the relationship between the two main characters but Wavy’s relationship with her mother. Parents can do horrible things to their children and Greenwood manages to capture that in vivid and aching detail. The imagery of Wavy eating out of the trash is enough to make me weep. Additionally, what good people like Wavy’s aunt are unable to handle in the face of adversity is also a depressing theme that Greenwood fleshes out in the most awesomely heartbreaking way.

On a personal note, Wavy’s family reminds me very much of my shitbag aunt and her children. She’s a shitbag who marries shitbag men. My grandmother is a constant enabler to the shitbaggery. My cousins are not works of fiction and despite the blood, sweat, and tears of my grandmother at least one of them has already done stints in juvie and will probably end up in prison for drugs before it’s all over. I also watched my own mother try to save that same cousin from himself for nearly two years, until much like Brenda, she couldn’t handle it anymore. So perhaps this is why I found the (lack of) parental relationships much more disturbing than the relationship between Kellen and Wavy.

Anyway. The narrative in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is gorgeous. The characters are well fleshed out and largely believable. The story is heartbreaking. I highly recommend this one.

While she hasn’t written one yet, I know that Catherine at The Gilmore Guide to Books will eventually publish a more eloquent and insightful review soon.

What about you, Reader? Does this sound way outside of your comfort zone? I felt a little discomfited at first, but eventually got swept away.

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Friday (Re)Reads: The Twelve

Posted 22 July, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Friday (Re)Reads: The TwelveThe Twelve by Justin Cronin
Series: The Passage #2
Published by Hachette UK on October 25th 2012
Genres: Fiction, General, Horror, Science Fiction, Thrillers, Suspense, Fantasy
Pages: 688
Goodreads
three-stars

In the present day, as the man-made apocalypse unfolds, three strangers navigate the chaos. Lila, a doctor and an expectant mother, is so shattered by the spread of violence and infection that she continues to plan for her child’s arrival even as society dissolves around her. Kittridge, known to the world as “Last Stand in Denver,” has been forced to flee his stronghold and is now on the road, dodging the infected, armed but alone and well aware that a tank of gas will get him only so far. April is a teenager fighting to guide her little brother safely through a landscape of death and ruin. These three will learn that they have not been fully abandoned—and that in connection lies hope, even on the darkest of nights.

One hundred years in the future, Amy and the others fight on for humankind’s salvation...unaware that the rules have changed. The enemy has evolved, and a dark new order has arisen with a vision of the future infinitely more horrifying than man’s extinction. If the Twelve are to fall, one of those united to vanquish them will have to pay the ultimate price.

So I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in this trilogy, The PassageThe Twelve did not disappoint either. I re-read this book in preparation for the thrilling conclusion, The City of Mirrors.

As the second installment in the trilogy it was great to pick back up in Cronin’s expert world building and revisit the (many) characters introduced in the first novel. The Twelve expands on those characters and the situations that the characters find themselves in. Cronin does a great job continuing to develop both characters and his world. For the most part these two novels are incredibly impressive both in scope and depth. But there are points in The Twelve where I felt like it was (dare I say it) almost overdeveloped. Danny’s backstory, even April and Tim…  this book is so long and so detailed that these pieces felt a little extraneous. Admittedly, this is one of the things that may add to the excellent world building, but this book is a chunkster as it is and I’m not sure that these narratives added enough.

I wish that I had reviewed this prior to finishing The City of Mirrors, but (and we’ll get to this in another review) I didn’t, that reading kind of tainted me for the entire trilogy and I’m unable to differentiate the second and third books as well as I’d like to.

This trilogy is absolutely epic.

Reader, have you read The TwelveThe Passage? Are you looking for a new spin on vampires? 

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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