The Thief: A (Reread) Review

Gen can steal anything. As he is quick to tell  anyone who will listen. Or he could before he was arrested after successfully stealing Sounis’ royal seal (and unsuccessfully boasting about it).

Gen doesn’t know long he’s been in prison. Time is hard to measure based on circuits around his small cell. Certainly long enough to lose much of his strength and for sores from his shackles to begin to fester.

The achingly monotonous routine is broken when the king’s scholar, the magus, recruits Gen for a hunt of sorts. The magus knows the location of an ancient and valuable treasure that could change the balance of power between Sounis and Eddis in Sounis’ favor. The magus thinks Gen is the perfect tool to steal the object away. But like any good thief, Gen has secrets and plans of his own in The Thief (1996) by Megan Whalen Turner.

It’s hard to talk about this series without talking about myself. Eugenides and these books have been part of my life for more than a decade now; they’re in my blood and they are part of why I see the world the way I do and who I am in ways that are not always easy to explain.

In 2000 my mother did freelance data entry for HarperCollins where she could bring home free books (for me) including a lot of the books that I now think of as formative to who I have become. One of those books was The Queen of Attolia. I read it on its own and years later when I started working in my local library, I discovered The Thief and realized that I had read the second book in a series.

The Thief received a Newbery Honor in 1997 and, along with the rest of Turner’s Queen’s Thief novels, has garnered a faithful following and classic status among fantasy readers. Turner creates a world inspired by visits to Greece as well as the culture and pantheon of gods found in Ancient Greece. Using these bones Turner then develops the world further with a unique language and naming conventions, geography, and technology over a wide span of history (including clocks, pens, and maps) leading to parallels to the technologically advanced ancient Byzantines.

The Thief introduces readers to Eugenides, a thief, in this first-person narration where Gen is ostensibly relating exactly what happened after his arrest in Sounis. It is only as the story progresses that it becomes obvious that Gen is keeping secrets not just from the magus but from readers as well.

As Gen, the magus, and his retinue begin their journey Turner’s skills as a writer shine. Evocative descriptions bring the land of Sounis (and later pieces of Attolia and Eddis) to life. Gen’s razor sharp observations and cutting language paint his companions in stark detail while also chronicling his journey with a perfect mix of humor and annoyance.

Eugenides is an ingenious and clever  thief, of course, but also unbelievably sympathetic and unique. His fierce intelligence, skills of deception, and keen grasp of the powers of language and presentation are all key aspects of his personality. They are also, because he guards his secrets so closely, things readers only begin to understand about Eugenides as The Thief nears its conclusion and it becomes obvious that Gen is always at least five steps ahead of everyone and always holding all of the cards.

The Thief presents a memorable cast of brilliant characters who will later populate the rest of Turner’s novels including royalty, spies, soldiers, and even gods. This story also lays groundwork for one of the most carefully plotted and intricate series I have ever read. Even seventeen years after I first read The Thief, even after re-reading it twice more, this novel manages to surprise and impress me with new details to discover and old memories to cherish.

If you enjoy The Thief, you can read more about Eugenides (and Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia) in The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings and Thick as Thieves.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers,Soundless by Richelle Mead, Sabriel by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

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The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan: A (rapid fire) Review

The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan: A Novel of the Civil War by Jennifer Armstrong (1996)

The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan by Jennifer ArmstrongThis book has been in my house begging to be read since 2004. With seven years of build up maybe it’s not a surprise that this book did not leave me dazzled. Maybe that was the only possible outcome. The story is interesting but from the outset the book had a lot working against it including a plain cover (mine has a white background with black text and . . . nothing else) and some difficult pronunciation (“Mairhe” is pronounced “Moira” and is the Irish form of “Mary” all of which I thought was made clear in the novel but someone didn’t because there is a note at the start of the book explaining all of that–which makes the whole thing feel intimidating).

At 128 pages (hardcover) I hesitate to explain much of the plot but I will say this: Armstrong does a great job if you look at this as a slice-of-life novel. Although I liked Mairhe as a heroine the entire story hinged on a character being likable and I just didn’t like him very much. It happens. Her descriptions of the Civil War battles and Washington of the time are stunning and evocative in a way few writers ever manage. The writing here is lyrical and immediately brings to mind an Irish brogue which adds to the dream-like quality of the entire book.

If anyone can even find this book anymore (NYPL no longer has it) I’d recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction, who is interested in the Civil War, or wants a book about the immigrant experience as much of the plot hinges on what it means to be American (or Irish) in an era when America was still figuring out its identity as a country.

The View from Saturday: A Chick Lit Wednesday review

The View from Saturday by E. L. KonigsburgI have a great story about this book: When I was in grade school my class would venture to the public library to get books. On one of those trips, I found The View from Saturday (1996) by E. L. Konigsburg. I loved the cover, read the book, loved it as well. And promptly forgot about it for ten some odd years. Although I distinctly remembered the cover with a house and four cups of tea in the window, I could not for the life of me remember any other information about the book. I gave up all hope of ever finding it again.

Then, when I was shelving books in the children’s room, what should I stumble upon but a copy of the very book I had been sure I would never see again?

Upon our reunion, I realized even with the book in hand I did not know a lot about it. The fact that The View from Saturday won the Newbery Award in 1997 completely escaped me (I might have read it before it won, definitely before I knew anything about the Newbery’s). I also did not remember Mrs. Olinski being a paraplegic. And, perhaps most embarrassing, I did not realize that E. L. Konigsburg was a woman until I was reading about her online and discovered that in addition to winning the 1997 Newbery, Konigsburg also won the award in 1968 for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler–the same year that Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth was selected as an honor book. That never happens with the Newbery. Anyway, I still look back on this book with fond memories even though recent examinations suggest that I might have missed some nuances on my first reading.

Mrs. Olinski has several good answers about how she chose the four sixth graders for her Academic Bowl team, partly because she always has good answers. But, truth be told, Mrs. Olinski is not entirely sure how she chose her team.

The fact was that Mrs. Olinski did not know how she had chosen her team, and the further fact was that she didn’t know that she didn’t know until she did know.

Another mystery is how these unlikely sixth graders became first friends calling themselves “The Souls” and, later, an Academic Bowl team by the same name that beat the seventh grade team, the eighth grade team, and so on right to the Bowl Day championship where The Souls from Epiphany would face off against the older Maxwell bowl team.

This story takes place on the day of that championship. As the teams compete, short stories are interspersed–one for each of The Souls–to explain how they answer each question and, also, how they became friends.

I feel safe in saying, without equivocation, that The View from Saturday is a classic in the realm of children’s literature. The writing is delicate and complex much like a piece of lace held up to a light. At the same time, this story is a timeless one about friendship and journeys big and small. I read somewhere that the stories within this book were “jewel like” which I think is a good adjective to end this review with because, really, what more could I add?

Possible Pairings: Lucky Strikes by Louis Bayard, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, Signed, Skye Harper by Carol Lynch Williams

The Thief: A Chick Lit Wednesday review

The Thief coverThe Thief (1996) by Megan Whalen Turner

Megan Whalen Turner is one of my favorite authors. She has been since my mom procured an Advance Reader Copy of The Queen of Attolia in 2000. I devoured that book, loving every minute of it. Years later, when I began my library career, I discovered that the book was second in a series, something I had not known before. Of course, as soon as I knew about The Thief I had to read it.

Published in 1996, The Thief was selected as a Newberry Honor Book in 1997 (had the winning book been different for that year, I’d say Megan Whalen Turner had been robbed, but I hold a special place in my heart for E. L. Konigsburg’s The View From Saturday so I can’t say that). One website gives this explanation of the award: “A medal presented annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published in the United States in the preceding year. The recipients must be citizens or residents of the United States.” That hopefully illustrates how big a deal it is to any readers unfamiliar with such awards.

Whalen’s second novel, The Thief is set in a world that Turner likens to ancient Byzantium in later volumes (Byzantines > Greeks). In this one, however, she acknowledeges similarities to ancient Greece. The story follows a man named Eugenides who, at the beginning of the novel, finds himself locked in the king’s prison of a foreign land.

Quietly biding his time, Gen occupies himself by marking days and practicing cat-like movements around his cell. The achingly monotonous routine is broken when the king’s scholar, the magus, recruits Gen for a hunt of sorts. The magus knows the site of an ancient and valuable treasure that would be of great value to his king. But despite his vast learning, the magus cannot get the treasure alone. He needs a skillful thief. And before his arrest, Gen “had bragged without shame about [his] skills in every wine store in the city” before his arrest outside of still another wine shop.

Given his choices, Gen unsurprisingly agrees to accompany the magus on the quest. As their party traverses the countryside on their way to this elusive treasure, it becomes clear that more is at stake than riches. This novel (and its two subsequent sequels) center around three kingdoms–Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia–whose fates, readers soon realize, are bound together more intricately than anyone might have initially thought.

Some novels are adventures, some are character-driven. The Thief is, for the most part, a quest novel although it does feature several twists and more than a little intrigue. However, without Turner’s wonderfully evocative characters none of that would matter. Eugenides is, in many ways, a star. And he knows it. Nonetheless, affection for this character is contagious–he is unbelievably sympathetic and extremely original. And clever. By the end of the novel it becomes obvious that Gen is always at least five steps ahead of everyone else and always holding all of the cards.

Told in the first person, this novel is the first I ever saw where a character said something acidly. (“That,” I said acidly, “is the way my mother told it to me.”) It seems silly to talk about one sentence from a piece of dialogue, but that kind of writing is why I love Megan Whalen Turner’s books.

In fact, if I was being completely honest, I cherish these books. Working in a library, I sifted through discards for years to acquire the complete trilogy. The books are old and dingy with processing marks aplenty, but none of that really matters because they’re also all mine.

Although it was a Newberry Honor Book for children’s literature, I’ve seen this novel categorized as YA. It’s also the kind of book that could easily appeal to boys and girls–fans of historical fiction and fantasy. In other words, this is a book for everyone.

If you enjoy The Thief, you can read more about Eugenides (and Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia) in The Queen of Attolia (2001) and The King of Attolia (2006).

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers,Soundless by Richelle Mead, Sabriel by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

The Hundred Secret Senses: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

 

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy TanWhile Amy Tan is an amazingly talented writer with a lot of great books under her belt, she is arguably most well known as the author of The Joy Luck Club, which I have yet to read. I did, however, read The Hundred Secret Senses (1996) not once but twice. I almost never do that because the second reading just feels boring. However, that wasn’t the case with this book because it was so enjoyable and rich that rereading felt more like visiting old friends than rehashing something I already knew.

While on the subject of this novel’s freshness, it bears mention that some reviewers suggested The Hundred Secret Senses was little more than a rehash of previous, very similar, plots from her earlier books. Obviously, I can’t speak for The Joy Luck Club but I did read The Kitchen God’s Wife which had a similar theme but in my view an entirely different plot. I also happened to think this novel was the markedly better of the two.

Olivia’s mother is American, her father Chinese. She comes from a “traditional American family.” At least for the most part.  At the age of eighteen, Kwan entered the lives of Olivia (then four) and her family from her native China. Nothing about Kwan is American from her accent to her belief that she has yin eyes to see “those who have died and now dwell in the World of Yin, ghosts who leave the mists just to visit her kitchen on Balboa Street in San Francisco.”

These ghosts are not only a fundamental part of the story but one of the main reasons Olivia can never truly get along with her older sister.

For a while, it seems like Olivia will be able to ignore Kwan’s eccentricities and lead her own, American, life. But the more Olivia hears, the more Kwan’s old ghosts stories intrigue her. Their enticement grows when Olivia unexpectedly finds herself traveling to China with her husband, Simon, and Kwan for a magazine assignment. As the three navigate Kwan’s childhood stomping grounds, surprising connections are made between the threesome and, amazingly, with one of Kwan’s ghost stories.

The novel chronicles Olivia’s relationship with Kwan as well as her early courtship and eventual estrangement from Simon. At the same time, in alternating chapters, The Hundred Secret Senses tells the story of one of Kwan’s past lives in China during the 1800s–a dramatic love story closely tied to Kwan’s (and Olivia’s) present lives.

Tan’s prose here is conversational and enticing, feeling like a friend telling a particularly juicy story at dinner or over the phone. The connections between past, present and the very distant past is seamless creating a tight narrative that, by the end of the book, weaves all aspects of the story together in a neat package.

At the same time, The Hundred Secret Senses offers an interesting commentary on assimilation and multi-cultuarism with both Olivia and Simon being half-white and half-Chinese. Although Olivia might be too old to say she comes of age in this novel, it would be fair to say she learns to accept her own identity by the novel’s completion.

While all of that makes for a dynamo on its own, my favorite aspect of this book is the way in which it deals with family relations both romantically (with Olivia and Simon) and otherwise (with Olivia and Kwan). The story ends with an optimism that suggests, if you are willing to see them, loved ones are never very far away.

Possible Pairings: The Ghost of Stony Clove by Eileen Charbonneau, Drown by Junot Diaz, The Namesake by Jhumpa Larhiri, Snowfall by K. M. Peyton