The Trial by Franz Kafka

The Trial by Franz Kafka cover for review

Information

Goodreads: The Trial
Series: None
Source: DailyLit
Published: 1925

Official Summary

Vintage Edition Summary

Written in 1914 but not published until 1925, a year after Kafka’s death, The Trial is the terrifying tale of Josef K., a respectable bank officer who is suddenly and inexplicably arrested and must defend himself against a charge about which he can get no information. Whether read as an existential tale, a parable, or a prophecy of the excesses of modern bureaucracy wedded to the madness of totalitarianism, The Trial has resonated with chilling truth for generations of readers.

Star Divider

Review

The Trial is a discomfiting, surreal story about a man, Josef K., who finds himself accused of an unspecified crime by a court he has never heard of; where the authority of the court comes from and who is in charge is never explained, but their power seems absolute.  It’s a chilling commentary on the opaqueness of the law and a character’s inability to understand it (even an intelligent, privileged character who finds himself with access to a lawyer and other comments), while being completely subjected to it.

The brilliance of the story is that there is always just enough information provided to keep the reader reading (and the protagonist to keep trying to figure out the basics of his case).  The very premise of the book is that the court is unknowable—it’s in the summary and that’s no spoiler—but enough tidbits are dropped throughout the telling of the story that the reader can’t help but hope eventually they’re going to figure it out.  Or even if they don’t understand the big picture, perhaps they’ll figure something out.  The book should be maddening, and in some ways it is, but it’s also incredibly compelling and keeps the reader dangling by a thread.

I also enjoyed that Josef K. is, in many ways, unlikable, and there’s no particular reason I or any reader should really be interested in his case…and yet we are.  He’s an average man, completely unremarkable until he’s informed he’s been accused of a crime and will need to eventually stand trial—a bachelor with a middling position at a bank (though with a possibly bright future) who lives alone at a boarding house and seems to generically go about his life.  Reading further, we see he’s willing to use women, he’s often condescending towards people he thinks beneath him, and he’s not really willing to stick his neck out to help others—even if he would like them to stick their necks out for him.  I would not be friends or even acquaintances with such a man in real life, but I feel sympathy for him in the story over his complete uncertainty about his crime and the case.  After all, if he’s innocent, he deserves justice, even if he’s a bit of a jerk.

The whole book is something like a dreamlike puzzle.  One can never fully understand what’s happening or whether any of it makes sense, but there’s just enough forward momentum and confused “explanations” of processes of the court by people who claim to be (only a little, only about parts) “in the know” that reads want to find something to grasp onto and declare, “Yes, at least that makes sense! I can do something with that!”  Overall, a brilliant reading experience and not quite like anything else I’ve read.

Briana
4 stars

The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov

The Lady with the Dog

Information

Goodreads: The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories
Series: None
Source: DailyLIt
Published: 1899

Star Divider

Review

This short story collection was my first foray into the works of Chekhov, and my gut reaction is to say that it might be my last.  While some of the stories were interesting (often the longer ones), many of them did not seem to have a point—and when they did have a point, it was frequently not compelling.

That is to say, many of them called to mind slice of life writing or vignettes.  Chekhov sketches an ordinary scenes or character and that’s that.  For instance, one story shows a drunk husband/father yelling irrationally at his wife and son, calling them names, etc.  The next morning, he’s sober and trying to be nice to his son, who accepts his words and embraces stiffly.  Obviously the reader is supposed to note that the son despises and fears his father because his drunkenness makes him volatile.  The end.  This is true to life, but I don’t have much more to say about it.  The observation that being a mean drunk is bad for your family life is not exactly clever.

The stories were largely in this vein.  Some had more overt or larger-reaching points—like the argument that factory owners should be ashamed from profiting off the work of other while they do nothing—but while this might have been more revolutionary an argument of the time of writing, it probably won’t sound too exciting or original to modern audiences.

I’m glad I read this to get a taste of Chekhov’s work, but this collection was not for me.  A friend suggests Chekhov’s plays or better, but it’s hard for me to say I’d like to give them a chance after being so disappointed by my introduction to his writing.

3 Stars Briana

The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye

The Crown's GameInformation

Goodreads: The Crown’s Game
Series: The Crown’s Game #1
Source: Library
Published: May 17, 2016

Official Summary

Vika Andreyeva can summon the snow and turn ash into gold. Nikolai Karimov can see through walls and conjure bridges out of thin air. They are enchanters—the only two in Russia—and with the Ottoman Empire and the Kazakhs threatening, the Tsar needs a powerful enchanter by his side.

And so he initiates the Crown’s Game, an ancient duel of magical skill—the greatest test an enchanter will ever know. The victor becomes the Imperial Enchanter and the Tsar’s most respected adviser. The defeated is sentenced to death.

Raised on tiny Ovchinin Island her whole life, Vika is eager for the chance to show off her talent in the grand capital of Saint Petersburg. But can she kill another enchanter—even when his magic calls to her like nothing else ever has?

For Nikolai, an orphan, the Crown’s Game is the chance of a lifetime. But his deadly opponent is a force to be reckoned with—beautiful, whip smart, imaginative—and he can’t stop thinking about her.

And when Pasha, Nikolai’s best friend and heir to the throne, also starts to fall for the mysterious enchantress, Nikolai must defeat the girl they both love… or be killed himself.
As long-buried secrets emerge, threatening the future of the empire, it becomes dangerously clear… the Crown’s Game is not one to lose.

Review

The Crown’s Game has a fascinating premise: two enchanters must duel to the death to determine who will be the next royal enchanter and adviser to the tsar.  Yet a complicated duel becomes even messier when each of the participants decide they don’t want the other one to die.  With undertones of The Night Circus and other beautifully magical books, The Crown’s Game seemed destined to become one of my new favorite books.  Unfortunately, I didn’t connect with the characters, and much of the plot doesn’t make sense, so The Crown’s Game actually was one of my biggest letdowns of 2016.

Possibly one of the most difficult things for an author to achieve is making readers care about their characters, and it’s certainly something Skye struggles with.  Of course I feel bad that Vika or Nikolai is destined to die, but it’s the type of “feeling bad” I’d have for any person in a sad situation.  I did not care about them, or any of the characters,  as individuals.  I’m not entirely sure what Skye could have done to fix this, though I think showing readers more of what was at stake for the characters might have helped.  Of course nobody wants to die, but beyond that, what matters to these characters? What do they lose if they die?  If Skye had shown me more of what makes the characters tick or what they wanted to achieve in life, or shown me who would have been absolutely devastated if they lost and died, I might have cared more.  I needed to feel there would be some emptiness or unfulfilled potential if one of these characters died.

The plot was somewhat more exciting than the characters, but some of it doesn’t quite make sense, and the pacing is off.  There are really two strains of plot going on, and Skye didn’t quite reconcile them.  The book wants to be dire and epic and deep, but it gets sidetracked by frivolous magic and flights of fancy.  And, honestly, if the book had simply embraced frivolity, I think I could have really enjoyed it.

[Slight spoilers this paragraph.] Ostensibly Vika and Nikolai are dueling to the death. Their goal: impress the tsar with their magic and show him they have what it takes to be a royal advisor and also lead a upcoming war.  What do they with their magic instead? Decorate St. Petersburg.  Now, the book goes out of its way to assure readers that Vika and Nikolai are performing stunning, complex, difficult magic, that it takes enormous strength and power and concentration to do something like paint all the houses on a square or make a water fountain in a river.  So, sure, I’ll buy that.  However, this takes place in a world where 1) few people believe in or know anything about magic and 2) the tsar started the Crown’s Game because he fears a looming war.  So 1) probably no one knows whether painting some houses is complex magic or not and 2) it definitely doesn’t have an immediate use in war.  Of course, the book also has to come up with lots of convoluted explanations to help the plot make sense (i.e. no one believes in magic, so the competitors can’t do anything too dangerous or scary). However, this is still stupid because they could have just gone somewhere more isolated, and I think there’s still a way to demonstrate you have warlike abilities that would be more effective than making magical puff pastries.  The enchanters’ training exercises that nobody saw were more to the point than the things they choose to do during the actual competition.

In terms of pacing, the book starts out slowly then goes on a mad dash at the end, complete with the classic “overdone drama between two characters motivated by a seemingly insignificant ‘event.'” I was not really a fan. The book then ends suddenly and kind of assumes readers will be on board for the next one, but I don’t think I will be.

Usually I give 2 stars to books I actively dislike, but I’m giving 2 here instead of 3 mostly because I was just so bored the entire time I was reading it.  I also considered DNF-ing several times, which is also a criterion I use to give lower ratings.  There’s a lot of potential in The Crown’s Game, but it has a bit of an identity crisis over whether it wants to be a book about beautiful magic or a book about war and danger and deceit.  I would have loved a more frivolous take on this, I think, a book that just gloried in aesthetic magic and making St. Petersburg beautiful.  I didn’t really buy all the dire additions to the plot, however.  This was one of my most anticipated reads of 2016, so I’m quite sad I felt so let down.

2 stars Briana

Deathless by Catherynne Valente

DeathlessInformation

Goodreads: Deathless
Series:Deathless #1
Source: Library
Published: 2011

Summary

Over the years Marya Morevna has watched three birds turn into three husbands, one for each of her sisters.  Now she waits for her own bird to rescue her from the cramped living quarters and the constant hunger that have become her existence.  But Marya has not prepared herself to receive the attentions of Kocshei the Deathless.  Can she rewrite the story Koschei has played out so many times or will she become just another plaything for the Tsar of Life to throw away?

Review

In this expansive novel Catherynne Valente utterly transforms the Russian tale “The Death of Koschei the Deathless” from a standard story of a captive girl rescued by her lover to a sweeping saga of love, death, and war, all centered, not on a helpless maiden but on a hardened warrior woman.  A world of magic blends seamlessly with the Russia of the early 1900s, making readers believe in the fantastic, but also revealing the stark truth that magic cannot save a person from reality.

Valente’s story, much like her protagonist, begins innocently.  Marya Morevna witnesses a bird transform into a husband, one for each of her sisters, three times.  (Three, as readers of fairy tales know, is a magical number.)  These handsome suitors bring with them the promise of happily-ever-after–wealth, food, security.  At first Marya does not appreciate such promises.  She revels only in the magic, the delightful knowledge of having seen the curtain between two worlds torn away.  Her longing for what magic can provide for her, rather than her simple delight in the magic itself, is the beginning of her transformation.

For Marya Morevna in this story proves no weak maiden waiting for rescue from her beloved husband Ivan.  Instead she is a girl possessed of a fiery spirit longing for change and adventure, a girl who will find herself changed into a woman by war.  For the unbearable truth of this novel is that magic changes nothing.  Jealousy, hunger, pain, war, and death all coexist with magic.  Even the party slogans that characterize life in the Soviet Union have found their way into the mythical land of Buyan, and that the creatures there form committees to file complains, practice their interrogation skills, and threaten to inform on each other.  Life in Buyan with the Tsar of Life will prove nearly as painful to Marya as life in Leningrad.

Of course, in Koschei Marya believes that she has found something that makes the pain worthwhile.  Her love for him keeps her fighting his war even while she believes she can go back to a more innocent life if she left.  Yet her reasoning never resonated with me.  Koschei, after all, has spirited away countless girls.  His sister crudely informs Marya that being “deathless” does not mean Koschei has no physical desires.  And he continues to pursue other partners to fulfill those desires once he marries Marya.  Their open marriage read to me as being one of lust, not of love.  They never meet each other without tearing at one another and speaking of their passion.  They never have a conversation about what the other means to them, never indicate that they appreciate each other for qualities other than the physical.  Marya thinks she loves Koschei, but the two never acted in a way that convinced me that either loved the other at all.  And that made the story fall flat.

For how can I feel for Marya being torn between two worlds if all that keeps her in Buyan is a sleeping partner? On the other hand, how was I supposed to wish Marya to go off with Ivan to lead a more innocent life (as if innocence still existed then with the war!) if she is already married?  How can I feel her pain about either Ivan or Koschei when she does not seem to love either of them, but only what they represent, what they can provide?  This book is in many ways a romance, but, for me, the most powerful parts dealt with suffering and the loss of innocence, and not with love at all.  In this book, marriage is, as the characters repeatedly say, nothing more than a fight for domination.  The kind of love that seeks the good of the other person seems not to be present at all.  And if love is not present, how can romance be?

In the end, I could not love Deathless as I wanted to.  It proves too uneven a book, uncertain about its center.  It wants to be about love, but says more about death and war.  It takes an interesting look at magic by postulating that magic really changes nothing, but at times abandons that thought to focus on a romance that made no sense to me.  I still cannot decide.  Is the book trying to say that love can make even suffering bearable, that love is still worthwhile?  Or is it just a depressing look at the unending misery that is life, no matter how one tries to escape?

Krysta 64

City of Thieves by David Benioff

Summary: When seventeen-year-old Lev is caught looting the body of a German soldier during the Nazi siege of Leningrad, he expects to be immediately executed. Instead, he and a solider accused of deserting the Red Army are sent on a strange mission: find a dozen eggs for an officer’s daughter’s wedding by Thursday or die.

Review: City of Thieves is not a book for the faint of heart.  The siege of Leningrad left the citizens desperate, and many were willing to resort to anything to survive their cold and hunger.  A black market flourished where country farmers might come and sell their food to supplement the city ration cards, but those too poor to trade or buy could see themselves with no options short of murder or even cannibalism.  Benioff portrays this dark world with clarity and understanding; he offsets it grimness mainly with the character of Kolya, a nineteen-year-old soldier who charms his way through the city and straight into the readers’ hearts.
The boy is obsessed with sex; he likes to tease Lev about his virginity and talk about his own conquests.  His speech is not overly graphic, however, and his stories of how he has slept with famous ballerinas and become an expert lover provide a lighthearted counterpoint to the rest of the action.  In a time where there is little joy and little hope, even a prudish reader can understand that Koyla is only trying to find happiness where he can and will like the young solider either in spite of or because of his boasting.

Unfortunately, Kolya’s carefree attitude and personal bravery cannot change the course of the war.  As the book nears its close, readers may find themselves expecting that things might turn out okay after all; they would be mistaken.  Benioff has crafted a brilliant but nihilistic work that must mirror how many inhabitants of Leningrad felt about the world. Benioff’s writing and his insight make City of Thieves a beautiful book, but his philosophy makes it ugly.  Definitely a recommended read.

Published: 2008