You know that thing where you really do intend to do something regularly, Best Intentions and all that, and you just kind of…don’t?
Welcome to What I’ve Been Reading.
So we’ll hit the highlights, rather than be wholly inclusive.
I just last night (very nearly this morning, I stayed up WAY too late reading this one) finished The Dream Thieves, by Maggie Stiefvater, and YOU GUYS! I am utterly incapable of talking intelligently about this book. Every Stiefvater experience just keeps getting better. This book is smart, and funny, and devastating, and so brilliantly put together that as soon as I finished it, I wanted to go back through to see if I could figure out how the frack she does it. I love that the shifting perspectives let us see such varying elements of each character, and yet every perspective shares some common threads- for example, Blue, Gansey, Adam, and Ronan all see some different specifics of Gansey, and yet they’re all simply shading in subtleties of the same person. Even as they each see something (not quite someone) different, each perspective is still distinctly recognizable. Even down to a structural level, the use of parallel sentences is brilliant, leading the reader into a solid impact that’s no less strong for falling into a rhythm. And the beauty isn’t just in the language, or in the characters, though both elements have more than their share of beauty- seriously, the characters are astonishing, gorgeous and rich and so very, very broken, each in their own ways, and we see not only the way they make each other whole but they way they all poke at those sharp, prickly, dangerous edges- but also in the subject matter, the Great Quest, and the history that’s woven through. This was one of the handful of books I was REALLY hoping to get at BEA, and thanks to the folk at the Scholastic booth kindly telling me when to come back, I was able to come home with one. It comes out in September, and seriously, if you’ve haven’t read The Raven Boys, DO IT NOW so you can read this one as soon as it comes out.
Dark Triumph, by Robin LaFevers, is also a sequel, in this case to last year’s Grave Mercy. I totally gushed about that one when I read it, but as a refresher: assassin nuns in the 15th century Breton court. It was dark and elegant and riveting, and so seamlessly, flawlessly woven through real history that I gave it a second reading purely so I could compare it to a few non-fiction sources. Totally mind-blowing. Its sequel does not disappoint. We follow Sybella this time, Ismae’s sister-friend from the convent, who’s only ever clinging to sanity in some ways. Even in the midst of her private war with the abbess of St. Mortain’s, the convent was a refuge, and on the orders of the abbess, Sybella has gone back into the not-so-private hell that is her family’s house. This book is terrifying in some respects, largely because of the serious abuses Sybella endures and the desperation with which she clings to fragile threads that might be more ephemeral even than hope, but by the same measure, it’s perhaps more redemptive than Grave Mercy as well. Ismae’s journey was hard, a self-discovery and a true independence, but Sybella’s journey is hellish and raw and beautiful, and the trust and hope that shimmer together into a single being is amazing to watch. It’s a well-balanced story, with action and grace and the full range of goodness (and not) of which Man is capable. If you enjoyed the first book, this one is absolutely not to be missed.
I mentioned this one a while back as one I was still in the middle of, and WOW. The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson, was kind of a weird book for me. It’s one I thought about putting down a hundred times, and yet couldn’t quite do it. That changed a little over halfway through, and suddenly the only reasons I wanted to put it down were lines and images to savor. It’s a sneaky, sneaky book, its darkness hidden for a long time beneath bright lights and festivals, and yet the decay is always there, much like the lowest layer of the city. The characters are strong and bold and almost frantically drawn, almost too alive in this fragile moment, where life and prosperity and order is brought about by a season of chaos and a ritual of death. It’s sexy and sharp-edged and so very, very sad, and I love that it deals with an amalgamated Brazilian culture, love that we get this glimpse into something that, even as it strains to move beyond its roots, clings to them in culture and tradition. The music comes off the page, the drop-dead sexy dances, even the tangy stench of the algae vats and the copper tang of blood. Be patient with this one- it takes a while for the language (the slang) to feel natural, and it cuts in and out of things for a bit, but it is totally worth the effort. This book blew me away.
Another sequel, but a Middle Grade this time, and TOTALLY AWESOME. The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle, by Christopher Healy, picks up not long after The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom. Most of our Princes Charming (rather than Prince Charmings) have separated back to their home kingdoms, but soon Princess Briar’s delightfully shrewish ways have them yanked back together for a chance of saving everything as they know it- if they can stop arguing. Accompanied with incredible illustrations, this volume has the same tongue-in-cheek love of the absurd that made the first one such a stand out, including (but not limited to): correct grammar, un-lawful de-kidneying, hysterical nicknames, and so much more. It’s a great spin on classic characters, each one standing out, each richly drawn (often literally, in the corners of the pages), and each with a strong mix of virtues and flaws- some more obvious than others. It’s an unusual Middle Grade in that most of the characters are adults, some of them in fact married, but they’re hugely fun and we still get to see them grow. This book is a magnificent adventure from beginning to end, and the idea of waiting another year for the next one is kind of painful.
The School for Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani, proved to be my mixed-bag-book for this round. It’s a fantastic concept- two kids kidnapped from a village in the woods and taken to the schools for good and evil, one to each, where they learn to be the type of fairy-tale characters they’ve grown up reading- only pretty, pink Sophie, spoiled and passionately-convinced of her own princessness, is taken to the school for evil, whereas bug-eyed, drab, greasy haired Agatha is taken to the school for good. Convinced that there’s been a mistake, the girls are desperate to make things right- only they have a very different idea of what their goal should be. In a lot of ways, this book was amazing. The schools are beautifully creepy, and there’s a world of fun in the details, and Sophie and Agatha are incredibly well-drawn, giving the reader a much clearer view of both girls than either have or themselves or each other. There’s a prophecy, an enigmatic and potentially dangerous figure, a series of challenges…this book really does have a lot of amazing elements to it. Really, there were only two things that bothered me. One: the ending. Without spoilers, it seemed very…I dunno. Not quite abrupt, more like it forgot it had to wind things up and so the curtain came down before the actors were really ready. Like the story was so much fun that the characters (or the author) didn’t want it to have to end. The second prickle was the bigger one, though- this books comes off as strangely homophobic, at least in hints. The friendship between Sophie and Agatha is both complex and complicated, and there exists a very real, very strong, and very one-sided love that doesn’t have to be given a name. The book alternates between avidly avoiding calling it love and throwing itself at an attempted definition that comes off as both awkward and off-putting. Love is a complicated thing, romance being only one rather small facet of it, and truth be told, their friendship didn’t need a name. The realizations they both make in the course of the book, the understanding each in her own way gains (especially Agatha- she’s unabashedly my favorite, even though there is a character named Dot who’s always eating chocolate), they didn’t need to be nailed down into something awkward. It left me closing the book and going “huh” rather than cheering as I had spent so much of the book wanting to do. I enjoyed most of it, but the unsettling bits linger. If any of you read this, I’m very curious to know what you think.
Last one for this round, Maid of Secrets, by Jennifer McGowan. Set in the early court of Elizabeth I, newly ascended to her throne, this book follows Meg Fellowes, an acting-troupe raised thief and con-artist kidnapped into the queen’s Court to serve as a spy for the queen and two of her shadow advisors. I never completely fell in love with this book, and I think that’s more due to stress while I was reading it than anything else, but I did really, REALLY enjoy it. I come from an acting background, and part of that was in Renaissance faires, so opening the pages kind of felt like coming home. I liked that the language gave away its origins and yet always remained accessible to a modern audience, and the attention to detail in clothing and small customs was brilliant. Meg is smart, resourceful, unabashedly ignorant of the larger social graces, and totally over her head in Court. I loved that the Spanish Court, largely a source of enigmatic animosity through the book (and history), is never drawn as a caricature. Those characters are just as distinct as the English players, and those we get to know are well-rounded. Meg’s fellow Maids are unique, each bringing different strengths to the group, and we actually get to watch them finally become a team, rather than just a group. It weaves through the very real intrigue that marked so much of the Elizabethan nobility, especially the troubles that came of having a young, resolutely unmarried, unswayably Protestant queen in a largely male, Catholic world of power. It sounds like this might be the first of a series? I HOPE, and I very much look forward to more of Meg’s adventures.
Currently, I’m reading another BEA prize, Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein. How ’bout you? What are you reading right now?
Until next time~
So I’m actually away from my computer this entire weekend because one of my big brothers is graduating with a Very Important Degree and we’re going up to see him be all important and stuff. (Don’t let the sleepy grammar fool you- I’m ridiculously proud of him)
To make up for my absence, I’m giving away an AMAZING book!
I got an ARC for Christopher Healy’s fabulous The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom and just about hurt myself laughing. Despite having the ARC, I had to go ahead and buy the finished book anyway, for two reasons: one, I love to support the authors of books I love; and two: because I had to have the interior illustrations. They’re wonderful! They’re funny and pitch-perfect and only add to the atmosphere of this fantastic story.
So now I’m passing on that ARC! You too can laugh yourself into pained incoherence with the adventures and misadventures of Princes Gustav, Frederick, Liam, and Duncan! Trust me, you WANT this book.
And all you have to do is answer a question: who do you think got the shortest end of the stick in fairy tales?
For my part, I always felt bad for the Little Mermaid (the real one, not the Disney one). She tries so hard and gives up so much, every step hurts like knives underfoot, but in the end she still can’t get the guy she’s risked everything to be with. In her case, you really can die from a broken heart, and it’s not that there’s anything wrong with her, it’s not the prince hated her, it just…didn’t work. Her story brings tears to my eyes every time.
So who do you think got the short end of the stick? Tell me below and you’ll be entered to win- that’s all you have to do. You don’t have to follow me here or on twitter, you don’t have to like my facebook page, just comment. (Of course, if you WANTED to do those things, I’d love you and give you virtual cookies, but it’s optional). Open to US residents only, and you can comment through Saturday, 2 June 2012.
Can’t wait to hear what you come up with!
Until next time~
Ever wondered what comes after the happily-ever-after? For the four Princes Charming (or is it Prince Charmings?), it’s the realization that no one knows your name because they’re much more interested in the lady. But when one of those ladies goes off in search of adventure, what begins as a missing bard quickly grows into a heroic (and not-so-heroic) quest involving bandits, bounty hunters, giants, dragons, and a grumpy witch with serious issues. Buckle up, lovelies! It’s one crazy ride.
This book should come with a warning printed on it: do not attempt to eat or drink while reading. My keyboard will never be the same.
This book has such a fantastic sense of fun, a humor that infuses every sentence. Its pitch-perfect tongue-in-cheek narration (think Lemony Snicket without the bite) has a levity that keeps the story floating along effortlessly. You will hurt yourself laughing with this one, whether it’s sniggers over Sir Bertram the Dainty, giggles over well-meaning but rather inept Frederic, or full-on belly shakers over the Bandit King. This could be a dangerous book to read in public- depends on how you feel about people staring at you, or if you feel uncomfortable losing all composure in front of people. It’s a fantastic story to read aloud with kids. Honestly, I think my friends and I would get a kick of out reading it out loud together if we were in the same area code.
The four princes are all distinct, fitting certain stereotypes but embodying them so fully that they step beyond them. They have varying degrees of frustration with the Prince Charming label (and the lack of publicity for their exploits that comes with it), and all four of them grow and learn along the way. But initially? These four princes couldn’t be more different. There’s prissy Frederic, who’s never been on an adventure in his life and considers his greatest talent to be his ability to coordinate his stylish clothing. He’s never ridden a horse (too dangerous!), slept outdoors (too messy!), or even lifted a sword (too risky!). There’s Prince Gustav, unlucky in most of what he attempts. He’s very brave but he’s uh…well, let’s call him impulsive. He’s huge and prickly and never stops to think before he runs into danger- or gets run over by danger. Then there’s Prince Liam, a real hero with a number of great deeds to his credit- who possibly woke up the wrong princess and needs to get away. Their fourth compatriot is Prince Duncan, who names all the animals and trusts to his luck to see him through. Together, these four function about as well as if you’d hog-tied all of them.
But they each bring something valuable to the table, even if it takes them a while to realize it. Much of the story is caught up in them bumbling around, getting in each other’s (and their own) way, but every step is also building towards that moment when they finally understand what it is to be an actual team.
Of course, there’s also the four ladies. Only half of them are princesses as of yet. There’s Ella, of Cinderella fame, now freed from her life of servitude to her step-family by virtue of being Frederic’s fiancee. It took a lot of guts to go the ball against orders, to seize opportunity when it arose, and that kind of girl doesn’t do well taking picnics day after day after day. So what’s a brave, curious, resourceful girl to do? Well, if you’re Ella, the answer is to run off in search of a missing bard. There’s also Rapunzel, whose rescue was somewhat compromised by her needing to rescue her rescuer. It’s in her nature to help people, which doesn’t much help prickly Gustav. There’s Snow White, sweet and a little odd, well-equipped for her wacky husband but just needing a few hours of peace and quiet. And then there’s Briar Rose, who probably should have been left asleep for another prince to deal with. She’s mean and spoiled and arrogant, hateful and cruel, and determined to get her own way no matter how much misery she causes. Actually, the more misery she causes the happier she is. While the focus is on the four princes, the four ladies are hardly by-standers. Each of them has a place in the story as well, some as rescue and some as…well, distraction is probably for the best for some.
But these are by no means the only characters. We meet the evil witch (who didn’t start out that way, you know), the giant in her service (who could really use a good pair of shoes), a dragon, a Bandit King with a temper (who’s a bit of a psychopath), three grumpy dwarves (are dwarves ever anything else?), a very clever little sister (because little sisters just rock), a morose bounty hunter, sixteen older brothers, five missing bards, a tavern of dangerous men, and a motley assortment of parents as idiosyncratic as their children.
It’s a fast-paced story, taking us back and forth across the lands while never letting us feel bored or battered by repetition. The foreshadowing is done in beautiful sarcasm (the prologue gives you a long description of where you’ll find the princes in Chapter 20), and sometimes the things we’re told in asides are at least as interesting as what we’re told that’s to the point.
This is a book you set aside time for, after you’ve eaten, when you’ve no thirst, with your kids or friends around you to share in it with you. Just make sure you avoid anyone you don’t want to see you laughing hysterically.
The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, by Christopher Healy, out in stores now. Don’t miss this!
Until next time~