Flowers in the Attic

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While I’d stop short of saying I loved this book, I will say that it did keep me in thrall. I was skeptical about how any author could make the goings-on of one room interesting for 400+ pages, but Andrews accomplished this feat.

In case you’re late to the party, this novel recounts the story of four beautiful children, nicknamed “Dresden dolls” by their neighbors for their porcelain skin and fair features. Theirs is a charmed childhood, and until the events of the novel unfold, the worst thing narrator Cathy can imagine is that her new twin siblings will usurp her place in her parents’ affections. Early in the novel there are allusions to incest, like when one of the suspicious neighbors remarks that the parents look more like brother and sister than husband and wife. After an accident rips away one member of their perfect family, the mother moves her children to her family’s estate in rural Virginia in the middle of the night. There, the children are kept in an upstairs room, where they must stay quiet, tidy, and wary of “impure” thoughts.

The children stay in the attic for years. Years. While their mother cavorts about with her money and her new clothes and her jewels and her suitors, her children moulder in the attic, awaiting the day when dear trusted Momma wins her sick father’s affections, gets written back into his will, and they can live like kings with his money. Little by little, the reader comes to realize, as do the children, that something is rotten in the state of Virginia, and Momma hasn’t been quite honest with them.

Yes, this book has incest in it. Oh dear, just get your freak-out over now. While I’m by no means “into” that sort of thing (yeah, it’s pretty gross), there are worse things in this novel about which you should express your disgust, like religious fanaticism, physical and emotional abuse, and attempted murder.

The writing gets off to a rocky start. The sentences are simple and somewhat dated. Cathy makes exclamations of variations of “great golly lolly!” throughout the book and that gets annoying, but I think the point is to drive home how very naïve and innocent these children are. Their (frankly, psychopathic) grandparents consider them the spawn of the devil and expect them manifest evil from the start, but it’s fairly obvious that the evils that eventually happen do so because they’ve been locked in an attic and told they’re evil. As the novel continues however, and Cathy grows up with her siblings, the writing becomes more introspective and mature, and I think we as readers witness author’s maturation, as well as the characters.

This book is fascinating in the same way train wrecks and car pile-ups are. In true Gothic fashion it is melodramatic and horrifying in an immensely pleasurable way. The wicked kind of pleasure that kids get from pulling the tails of cats and adults get from look at someone’s life and saying, “Thank goodness that’s not me.” I felt guilty for even wanting to read this, but actually I think it’s an important milestone in the YA canon, and so deserves to be read by people who care about literature.

Out of the Easy

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I’m struggling with this book, but not for the reasons you might think. I struggle with it because it’s just SO GOOD, and, as a bookseller, I want to recommend the books that are JUST SO GOOD to all the teens that come in and ask me what to read. But this is how I picture this scenario going down:

Overprotective mom/aunt/grandparent: “I’m looking for something for my daughter to read on her vacation this summer. She likes historical books. Can you recommend something for her?”

Me: “SURE! This is a fantastic historical YA novel set in 1950’s New Orleans! I loved it!”

OPM/A/G: “What’s it about?”

Me: “A girl whose mom is a prostitute, whose guardian is a brothel madame, who gets caught up in a bit of trouble when there’s a murder, and oops, then the mob comes after her.”

OPM/A/G: *glares, shoves the books in my direction, and storms off, never to return*

Okay, so maybe that isn’t everyone I meet, but it seems like a lot of the time I’m recommending books to parents instead of kids, and it’s a rare occasion when one says to me, “I don’t care if there’s cursing and sex in it.”

There isn’t cursing and sex in this one. Let me just put that out there. For a novel about hookers and gangsters in one of the most notorious cities in the US, it’s surprisingly clean. This novel has a lot of beautiful things to offer: it portrays deep, abiding friendships; it’s headed by a heroine who wants to better herself for her own sake, and who doesn’t compromise her desires for the sake of romance; it stresses the importance of a college education; and it shows that lies just breed more lies, and if you want to maintain good relationships (not to mention safety and sanity), you should probably tell the truth.

Josie is a girl who basically raised herself. Her mother is a beautiful but vain “woman of the night,” who is in love with exactly the wrong sort of man, and whose dreams are to achieve Hollywood wealth and fame, stay young and beautiful forever, and have every luxury imaginable close at hand. Good role model, right? Josie somehow manages to grow into her exact opposite: she hates attention, she never buys new things, and she dreams of going to college and escaping New Orleans. New Year’s Eve and early 1950 is a turning point for Josie, when she meets two people who become the hinges on which her story swings.

Ruta Sepetys is one of the most underrated authors I’ve ever had the privilege to read. Both of her novels occur in periods and places of history that people often overlook because of other simultaneous events (in Between Shades of Grey, she tells the story of a Lithuanian family displaced from their homes during Stalin’s cruel regime; most people focus on the atrocities of the Nazis during the same period). And her novels are beautifully written, deeply emotional, and very well-peopled. Her characters are easy to get along with. I found myself wishing Josie were a real person, whom I could visit in her bookshop and have tea with around the corner in the French Quarter.

If you like good characters, read this novel. If you like a suspenseful plot, read this novel. If you like stories that make you cry, and then laugh, and then laugh while crying, read this novel. I cannot recommend Ruta Sepetys highly enough. Please do yourself a favor and put this author on your list.

Sabriel

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I am not good at remembering things. Maybe I “live in the moment too much,” or am just oblivious. Maybe there’s a little something wrong with me. Whatever it is, I have very few memories, when I compare myself to those people who seem to remember everything from their past very vividly. One of the things I do remember, and love remembering, is the way I felt when I first read one of my favorite books.

I therefore remember with great fondness my first reading of Sabriel by Garth Nix. It’s one of the books that served to cement my love of reading. I first read it in eight grade.  My parents had just split up, and the library was a refuge that felt consistent and safe when everything in life was (I felt) crashing down around my ears. These were the formative years, when I began to really understand what growing up meant: life is hard. I was going to have to eventually make tough choices. I was going to have to decide on a direction. I was going to have to say yes or no to bigger things than pizza for dinner. The books I read and loved at this point in my life were very important, and each one was a stepping-stone on the path to the person I am today.

Enter Sabriel: spine crackling with the plastic protection of hardbound library books, smelling faintly of dust and age. Only maybe seven years old, but already showing the first faint red spots of foxing. It would be very difficult to describe the way I felt when I first read this book. Perhaps it was the shiver at the first mention of the darkness of Kerrigor, or the swelling feeling of my own adventure and heroism as I read of Sabriel’s courageous exploits. Perhaps it was the first feeling of being a grown-up, seeing the words “penis” and “sex” written blatantly on the page. From the first page to the last, I loved Sabriel, the girl and the book, and have always held her in the back of my mind.

On a recent excursion to Half Price, I found a relatively nice mass market copy of Sabriel hiding on a shelf in the very top corner (being tall has its benefits), with the original gold foil title and gorgeous painting of the original cover. Immediately, seeing her name on the spine and Kerrigor’s dark form lurking behind her blue-garbed figure, I felt the shiver of adventure-to-come, and knew I had to have it. Just a day later I learned that Nix was just about to release the 4th book in the series, and I knew it was time to re-read.

The reading was twice as good as an adult. I’d forgotten all the details and nuances that make it such a lovely book, in the decade plus since I’d read it last. Mogget, the sardonic white cat who is much more than he appears. The stoic yet handsome Touchstone, the faithful Paperwing, and the ever-present buzz of fear that lurks with the dead in the shadows. The magic of the Charter. The perversion of necromancy, and the benevolently protective power of the Abhorsen. If you’re looking for an adventure that will stand out both for the beauty of its prose and the creativity of its story, this novel is a great place to start. And if you do fall in love with the world of the Old Kingdom, there are three more books to enjoy when you finish Sabriel. Good news for lovers of magic and adventure.

The Gone-Away World

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I find it interesting that a review on the cover of this Nick Harkaway novel states that it “reads like a surrealist smashup of Pynchon and Pratchett, Vonnegut and Heller…” Considering that I hate 3/4 of those authors and have never even heard of the fourth, I was startled to find that I ABSOLUTELY LOVED THIS BOOK. It just goes to show that reviews mean nothing and I should probably stop writing.

There is nothing in this book to dislike. It’s got a brilliant plot and likeable characters, and it’s witty as hell.  The nameless narrator extrapolates endlessly, but somehow it doesn’t annoy. It’s always fascinating backstory and hilarious anecdotes. Yet despite all the hilarity, this book is dark. And sad. It leaves you feeling a little bit hollow because it makes you realize, better than most, how quickly the world can change and take everything that makes sense with it.

I read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, and as much as I like the concept, a lot of it has begun to read the same. This book completely broke the mold and gave me something entirely new to explore. An apocalypse that involves ninjas, literal dream-monsters, and the most terrifying bombs you’ve ever heard of.  This novel can make you laugh out loud and the next moment be afraid to go to sleep. I plan on reading a lot more of this author’s work. He’s an excellent writer that deserves a lot of attention.

Because this is one of the best books I’ve ever read, I’m not giving away anything about the plot. Just please trust me when I say that you absolutely must read it.

13.57 through 13.61

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13.57–Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

This is a great book for video game lovers, but also for the rest of us as well.  It’s a fantastic sci-fi that’s extremely unique.  The world as we know it has been wiped out by climate change and war.  People live in extreme filth and poverty, with the exception of a few lucky, wealthy citizens.  In order to escape their harsh reality, most people spend all of their time in a virtual reality world called The Oasis.  When the billionaire creator of The Oasis, the richest man in the world, dies, he launches a massive “egg” hunt within The Oasis.  Whomever can solve his three riddles and find the treasure will win his entire fortune and take over his company.  One boy manages to crack the first riddle after years of no progress, and becomes the target of every wicked and greedy treasure hunter.  Suddenly, this game becomes life or death.

This novel (by a Texan! Woo!) is so incredibly well written.  Wade Watts is the protagonist and the narrator, and his voice serves the plot well.  He’s funny and smart, but a hopeless (and kind of adorable) geek.  His crush on the girl of his dreams leads him to form an alliance with her, and she’s a valuable ally and support for him.  It’s a great story of friendship and loyalty, and will please gamers everywhere with its references to popular and obscure games alike.

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13.58–Doll Bones by Holly Black

This is a nice, creepy story for middle grade readers.  Poppy is being haunted by a china doll, and when she and her friends investigate the doll’s history, they discover that it is inhabited by the restless ghost of a murdered child. The friends launch a quest to give rest to the child’s soul.  Though it’s nothing near as haunting as a Mary Downing Hahn book, it’s still a nice addition to the children’s horror genre, which is sadly lacking in new material.  I liked it and would recommend it to kids who are looking for a good ghost story.

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13.59–Somebody Up There Hates You by Hollis Seamon

This book was terrible.  Don’t even bother.  It’s sad, because it’s about a kid with cancer, and it feels wrong to knock it, but…that’s life.  The narrator is poorly written and the plot was uninteresting.  It felt like it wanted to be The Fault in Our Stars, but it fell sadly short.

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13.60–Loki’s Wolves by K. L. Armstrong and M. A. Marr

This book draws attention to Norse mythology, which seems to have been overshadowed lately by Greek, Roman, and Egyptian.  The story is exciting and creative, and the character conflict adds an extra layer of intrigue.  The descendants of Thor and Loki, two boys who are rivals, must decide if they can work together to save the world, or if they are destined to destroy it as once their warring god-ancestors did.  Diction and syntax could have been better, but it was still a great story that I would recommend for kids (also middle-grade readers).

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13.61–A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff

I really want to see more by this author. This is a wonderful novel for children told in multiple voices.  It truly is a tangled plot, but it’s wonderful how it all comes together in the end.  In a world where everyone has a Talent, one child wonders if she will ever discover her own, and another girl, an orphan with a Talent for baking who wonders if anyone will ever adopt her.  Their worlds collide and both will find more than they ever thought possible.  It is such a feel-good book it just warms you from the inside out.  The best part?  Between every chapter is a recipe for a delightful dessert. I’ve tried several and they’re all so yummy! I love hand-selling this one.  It’s a sweet novel that kids will love.

13.56–The Ocean at the End of the Lane

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If Neil Gaiman hadn’t already been one of my favorite authors, this book would have landed him a firm spot that list.  At this point I would say that he is very near the top. I can’t possibly capture how beautiful this novel is, and I loved it from start to finish.

Perhaps the only disappointment is how very thin the volume is.  I want more from Gaiman.  More more more.  But it is what it is and it was beautiful nonetheless.   There is something about Gaiman’s novels that sets them apart from anyone else’s–a feeling one gets while reading them that what he’s writing is actually truth, and one should keep a wary eye out for the supernatural that exists all around us.  It is at once somber and fascinating, mysterious and illuminating. I find myself often wanting to shake Gaiman’s hand (or give him a big hug, because, let’s be honest, he’s awesome and I love him) for A) opening my eyes to the miraculous world, both seen and unseen around me and B) providing me with a delightful reading experience every time I crack the spine of one of his novels.

The little boy in this novel could easily be the little boy down the street, or your own little boy, or even you.  He’s an everyday, un-special character whose life is changed for a brief period of time when a man commits suicide in a car down the street.  The violent act awakens a great evil whose malice, until that point, had been contained.  Suddenly, his comfortable, sleepy world is shattered, and fear lurks everywhere.  When even his family ceases to be a refuge, he finds unusual allies in the women that live in a house down the street–strange women who claim that the pond in their field is, in fact, an ocean that they crossed long ago from the old country.   The magical women in this story are ancient and wise, their immense power springing from their being supernatural.  The evil in the story is older seemingly than time itself, and knows how to worm its way into every human mind and heart.  All this is set in a grey and dismal landscape that matches the brooding, fearful plot.

Perhaps I say this every time I write about him, but I love Gaiman’s effortless creativity.  If he strains to think of something unique or moving, there is no evidence of it in his final draft.  This book is no exception to that rule.  Though he uses mythology as a foundation, he makes it his own, giving it his signature twist. Let us all take a moment and worship at the altar of Gaiman.

Now that that’s over, I must recommend this book to everyone.  Perhaps you don’t love fantasy but you appreciate story. Or horror. Or cerebral novels. Or simple beauty.  Gaiman is a natural, incredibly gifted storyteller, and this novel especially, I feel, can appeal to a wide audience.  Five stars for this one.

If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to read it again.

13.55–The Paris Wife

Cookie Monster (seriously, who are you?) likes to leave comments on my blog, and he reminded me that it’s been too stinking long since I kept up with this.  I’m sorry to the friends who loyally follow this blog. I’m not used to reading at such high volume, and the reason I haven’t been writing is because I don’t know how to keep up with what I’ve read! I’m at 89 books for the year so far, so I’m majorly behind on the blogging!

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The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is one of those books that evokes the whole spectrum of emotions: romantic feelings, sighing tenderness, hope, adoration of the characters, and then a slow fade to disbelief, frustration, despair, anger, and finally hatred.  I actually listened to this in audiobook format because I really feel like long drives are a waste of reading time.  Does anyone else feel that way?  So I listened to it in the car on the long drives between my parents’ city and my own, and back and forth to work.  It was a good way to take the book in, getting the added depth to the characters by hearing their voices.

Of course, being a historical novel about people who actually lived (Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson), there is no way for the author to change the course of proven events.  Their beginning was a happy one, incredibly romantic. Hemingway was a rogue and a charmer, but he fell for her truly and deeply.  They moved to Paris in the early years of their marriage, and as his fame grew were introduced and became friends with some truly famous people (F. Scott Fitzgerald sound familiar?). I was almost as in love with him as Hadley way.  But he was an unhappy, restless man, and a pawn of the times and his fame. His love for her, while never seeming to diminish, changed so thoroughly that she couldn’t ultimately endure it.  It’s a sad ending to so enchanting a couple.  I feel fine saying all of this because, of course, he was married multiple times in real life.

By the end of the novel, I hated him almost as much as I hate his novels.  He was a lost man, and in being so he was absolutely detestable.  Hadley was a sweet girl, but incredibly naive, even into her womanhood.  In this way she was absolutely infuriating.  She endured his behavior for far too long, and it made me so sad.  Their beginning was so lovely and wonderful, which made their ending so much sadder.

The audiobook is very well produced, and Carrington MacDuffie reads the voices very well.  I don’t have a lot of experience with audiobooks (I prefer the tangible, page-turning variety), but I was very happy being able to “read” while I was driving.  I can’t judge if it was a good audiobook compared to others, because it’s only about the third audiobook I’ve ever experienced.  But I enjoyed it, so I’d recommend it.

It’s a good book.  It kept my attention throughout and made me feel a lot of different things.  The characters are well-developed, as is the plot, and despite my frustrations I liked the book.  I also liked that it served to reinforce my detestation of Ernest Hemingway.  Thanks for validating my feelings, Ms. McLain.