2014 in Books

December 31, 2014 at 6:57 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , , , , )

You know, I’ll be honest, 2014 is the year I’d like to kill with fire, if that were at all possible. There were a staggering number of reasons for this year to suck, and it fully inhabited ALL OF THEM.

One of the consequences of that is that I didn’t read nearly as much as I usually do, and read barely anything new. That’s one of the signs that my stress level is too high. I love rereading books, but when I actually CAN’T read new books? The inability to focus on or absorb new information is one of my biggest signals that my stress is soaring, so I end up mostly re-reading or plowing through fanfic.

That being said, I still read this year, because I’m still breathing, and because I love to blab about books, here are some that I really noticed.

Prince of Shadows by Rachel Caine
I haven’t read any of Rachel’s other books (I strongly suspect a serious case of vampire fatigue still lingering from six years ago), but then I heard that there was something completely different coming out, and it was Shakespeare (cue the fainting couch and smelling salts because SHAKESPEARE). Then I heard it was off of Romeo and Juliet and I was pearl-clutching for a different reason, because while R&J has some undeniably beautiful language, I really hate the play. I do. Reading or watching R&J makes me want to kill All The People. Then Tessa Gratton was raving in a good way about it, so I settled down with it, and HOLY HELL.
I don’t know how she managed it, I really don’t, but she managed to make me invested and passionate about freaking Romeo and Juliet! Except, not them, really, because they’re just the twits causing problems for the people she REALLY made us care about. Benvolio and Rosaline step away from their more famous cousins here, dropping prop-status and becoming dynamic, interesting people with a whole lot more going on that their cousins ever realized. Family! Politics! Curses! Clever Thieves! Smart Ladies! (I am a total sucker for Clever Thieves and Smart Ladies) I was absolutely blown away by this book, and am already itching to re-read it.

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Not a YA book (I know, weird, right?) but probably the single most personal book of my year. This book is essentially a biography of cancer, with the more humanistic elements interspersed through history. Technically it was research for a project that may or may not ever see the light of day, but it became an anchor of sorts. For anyone slammed with cancer, either in their bodies or in those they love, there’s this overwhelming and ultimately futile rage: why don’t we know more about this? Doctor Mukherjee balances the science (some of it, admittedly, a little dense, and took more than one reading) with the human, and delivers a rounded, sympathetic, and ultimately uplifting progress report. We’ve come a lot further than we realize, and if some cancers are much further along towards successful and humane treatments, well, some cancers are more common than others. Even for those without an intensely personal interest in the subject, it is well worth a read.

The Strange Maid by Tessa Gratton
Months after reading it for the first time, I am still unable to talk intelligently about this book. THIS BOOK BROKE MY ABILITY TO BRAIN. It is just so freaking good! I was already in love with The United States of Asgard because of The Lost Sun (Soren! Astrid! Baldur! VIDER!), and I knew Strange Maid was going to be a middle book, and I frequently find middle books problematic but OH MY GODS! Signy is compelling and repelling and complicated and simple, all the contradictions and madness and focus that makes up who she is and who and what she wants to be. I love that she is so unapologetically unstable, and that her obsession with death is not against life, but rather part of it. She is one of the most fascinating, complex, and RELATABLE characters I’ve ever come up against, and her blood-soaked, passion-driven, fierce, defiant story is an amazing journey.
This year we also got to see a collection of three USAsgard novellas (VIDER!!!!), and words cannot express how excited I am for April’s The Apple Throne.

Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian
I’m not usually one for contemporary, but Carrie definitely proves an exception. Her debut novel, Sex & Violence, was exceptional and well-lauded, and PGWB is a strong successor. One of the things I love about this book is that while there is conflict, and there are goals, and there’s definitely a journey, there’s not precisely a plot, as such. It’s a slice of life, wonderful and messy and bewildering and painful, full of drugs, booze, bodily fluids, and a sort of relentless optimism wrapped in cynicism. It’s very, very real, pointy sucky bits included. Rather than pushing indiscriminately towards a conclusion, it takes the time to look around, see everything that’s there, not just what’s directly connected to THE PLOT. It’s messy characters and difficult things and it’s amazing.
Also, you should definitely follow Carrie on twitter, because in between thrifting and The Reedus and the renovation that may never be complete, she drops a lot of big truths and smart things.

The Story of Owen by Emily Kate Johnston
Another Lab Rat, but I’m not biased, I swear, they’re just REALLY GOOD BOOKS. Owen is symphonies and trumpets and dragons and driver’s ed and soccer, and it’s a storyteller and a storyteller’s bias and a bouncy Chesterfield couch. It’s a lot of really amazing elements that come together into this astonishing, touching, painfully funny story, and it’s forthcoming sequel, Prairie Fire is absofreakinglutely fanstastic. Siobhan, our intrepid bard, isn’t telling us THE story- she’s telling us A story, and storytellers, of course, lie. Or at least tell carefully edited versions of the truth. Whether we can believe it or not, whether we trust it or not, Siobhan tells an astonishing, captivating story.
Really just anything Emily Kate writes. I got to read the first third or so of her project for Disney Hyperion and now I am CONSTANTLY DISTRACTED BECAUSE IT’S SO FREAKING GOOD AND I DON’T HAVE THE REST OF IT TO READ! Also a very good one to follow on twitter or tumblr, because if you are even peripherally interested in any of the numerous fandoms to which she’s devoted, she finds some amazing stuff.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
Actually, this whole trilogy, continuing into The Crown of Embers and The Bitter Kingdom. This set was a re-read, and it’s the first time I’ve read them all together, going straight from one book into the next, and they were just as fantastic as I remembered them being. Elisa is one of my absolute favorite heroines of all time. Her journey through politics and magic and adventure is huge and wonderful and riveting, but what really makes this so unique and awesome is her more personal journey. Elisa starts this series as someone convinced of her own complete and utter lack of worth, and she GROWS. She learns and decides and it’s not ever that she becomes someone else, but that she becomes more and more herself, sloughing off all those things she and others have put on her over the years.
Probably my favorite moment is (and I’m paraphrasing here, because I don’t have access to the books at the moment) is when she’s getting ready for something, and she says “I look beautiful to the one who matters most”, and the person helping her is all “Yes! He’ll be blown away by the sight of you!” and she says “I meant me.”
THAT journey, even as just a part of many larger ones weaving together, is perfect.

What were some of your favorite reads (or re-reads) through this year?

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Book Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson

October 5, 2011 at 10:38 am (Book Reviews) (, , , )

Once every century, a child is chosen to bear the Godstone, a sign that they are chosen for a great and holy service. For Elisa, second-born princess of Orovalle, it also represents a bewildering burden. A cloistered comfort-eater who’s never been part of the ruling routine, she can’t even imagine what that service will be. Then comes Joya d’Arena and all the court intrigue she’s always been sheltered from, with war looming on the horizon of a desperate people. Joya d’Arena needs a Godstone.
Elisa’s just not sure she can be worthy of it.

From the very beginning, we know Elisa’s view is rather different from what we’re used to with our heroines. “I have been praying- no, begging- that King Alejandro de Vega, my future husband, will be ugly and old and fat.” For another thing, she’s fat. Not curvy, not plump, actually breaking buttons on the clothes and eating herself to stomach pain for comfort fat. Not typical for main characters in books, especially not teen books. She’s naive and anxious, scared, with a deep and abiding belief in her own basic uselessness. It isn’t that she hates herself- she’s not a prime candidate for cutting, or whatever it might be called in her world- but that she has such a dismal opinion of herself because it’s been reinforced by a more general belief of her.

And this is our chosen one.

What makes Elisa so compelling as a character and narrator is that she’s aware of many of her flaws. Not all of them, and she doesn’t overcome all of them, but despite her low opinion she’s remarkably self-aware. What she learns to do, slowly, painfully, and at great cost, is to also acknowledge her strengths. Step by step (sometimes literally) she comes to the awareness that she does have gifts, she does have talents, and she does have strengths. Most of the circumstances in which these discoveries take place are hardly ideal, but what else could force us to rely on strength we didn’t even know we had?

In the manner of those who are always standing on the edge of whatever group they’re in, Elisa notices people, observes them, notes the patterns in their behavior. Physically, she isn’t a soldier. Mentally, she’s probably the best strategist Joya d’Arena could ever hope to gain, a talent she has, again, never before had to use because she wasn’t part of her father and sister’s court. She knows to look for allies in unlikely places, but also knows how to name her enemies. How she comes by her maid is both priceless and brilliant.

One of the two biggest things I love about this book is how beautifully real the characters are. They’re complicated and layered, a profound mixture of virtue and vice, and because they resonate so strongly into real life, we feel as if we’re part of their story. There are no caricatures here. Even fleeting characters get a roundness that’s frankly astonishing. Sometimes attempts to flesh out characters in such a way ends up feeling inconsistent, like the author just doesn’t know the characters at all and so they teeter back and forth between different personalities, but here, all the disaparate pieces of personality come together- the ability to adapt under changing circumstances, the different faces we show to accomplish our tasks or aims, the vulnerability of being startled or hurt- into vibrant, real, captivating people.

The other biggest piece? Worldbuilding. Oh my God, the wordlbuilding. It echoes of Moorish Spain but comes alive into something all its own, a world where scent and taste envelops you every bit as much as geography and architecture and language. The food alone…*drools* This book will make you as hungry as Elisa when she’s upset. Just as the characters step off the page, so does the world. Heat sears your skin across the dry city, chills you over the desert at night. The fabric rubs against you and your nose fills with the scents- sometimes appealing, sometimes not- of life and activity. Even battles and wounds are given this vibrancy, so the weak of stomach? Be careful. When you open this book, it’s easy to forget that you’re reading; it’s like you’re there, watching it unfold right in front of you, a ghost that no one sees.

One thing kept worrying me as I read, though, and it dances a little around some spoilery stuff. As soon as I knew Elisa was fat- so, the top of page two- I knew that was going to change. I wasn’t sure when or how or under what circumstances, but I knew it was going to change. Pretty much had to, because at the end of things, a fat heroine isn’t who we generally want to be. As that expectation bobbled in the back of my head, always there, slightly intruding, I worried about what would happen once it did change. It’s easy, I think, to fall into the trap of “oh, now that I’m not fat anymore I’m quite pretty and everyone loves me and won’t life just be grand?!”. Rae Carson avoided that trap with skill and finesse, and I love her for it. Does Elisa lose the weight? Yes, and under completely believable circumstances, but because of those circumstances, she doesn’t really have the time to dwell on it for a while. There are things to do. By the time it could have broader impact, she’s already learned to value those who didn’t see anything wrong with her before. When it does have that broader impact? She learns that being thinner and admired- not skinny, and the skin is still slack where the flesh used to be, another brilliant detail- can actually be just as painful as being fat and overlooked. In the beginning of the book, her weight is very much a part of who she is, but over the course of the pages, she’s learned to step back from that kind of physical definition and look at all the rest she has to offer. For all my worry, there was nothing to worry about. What readers take away isn’t “oh, lose the weight and everything will be dandy”; it’s “learn who you are and believe in that”.

Read this book and you will fall into the world of Orovalle and Joya d’Arena and Basajaun. You will fall in love not just with Elisa but with Ximena, Hector, Rosario, and even those you don’t really expect to love but do anyway, despite, or perhaps because of, their flaws. You’ll travel through rich detail and driving action, to a conflict where everything is at stake and all the best efforts might not be good enough.

In short? Read. This. Book.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson, out in hardcover and e-book now.

Until next time~

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