The “Throne of Glass” Series

The “Throne of Glass” Series

Ladies and gents, readers of all ages, you have got to read the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas. If you’re a fan of fantasy, assassins, young adult books, or general female badassery, these books are for you.

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Throne of Glass begins the series and opens with Celaena Sardothien being pulled out of the mine where she’s been enslaved for a year as punishment for her crimes as her kingdom’s most notorious assassin. The King offers her a choice–compete for the title of King’s Champion against a score of nefarious opponents, or return to a life of slavery and die in the mines. Throughout the competition, oddly dark events occur around the castle that lead Celaena on a twisted trail of intrigue, danger, and potential rebellion.

This book is packed to the brim with action, wit, humor, emotion, and suspense. It’s one of the most magical, creative, and engaging novels I’ve read in a long time, and the series just gets better.

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Crown of Midnight is a punch in the gut. I remember a friend of mine reading it first, and she looked at me and said, “Courtney, just wait.” A few days later, I reached the part she was talking about and screamed out loud. Being a kind book reviewer, I’m not going to tell you what this novel is about, as that would spoil the end of the first. Be satisfied knowing that it has some new characters that are just as loveable (or hateable) as those in the first novel. Celaena is her usual self, which is to say: awesome.

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The end of Crown of Midnight left me breathless and I couldn’t wait to read Heir of Fire. Celaena’s journey takes a turn that I could not have possibly foreseen. I am so impressed with Maas’s ability to take her readers completely by surprise over and over and over again. Heir of Fire brings Celaena away from everyone and everything she knows, to a part of her world that the reader has never seen before. It’s beautiful and terrifying, and I think this may have been my favorite of the trilogy. I cannot wait to see what Celaena does next, in Queen of Shadows!

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The Assassin’s Blade is a prequel collection of novellas that tell the story of how Celaena became the fierce and gifted assassin she is, and how she was betrayed and enslaved in the mine where Throne of Glass began. This book absolutely broke my heart. For such a young girl, Celaena endures and feels so much. She is a master of her art, and yet at heart she is just a teenager who, in addition to the unique problems associated with her profession, experiences the growing pains of becoming an adult human being.

In all, this is an incredible, beautiful series that I absolutely love. I tore through these before I left for Peru, and I will be purchasing Queen of Shadows as soon as it is released on September 1.

A Court of Thorns and Roses

A Court of Thorns and Roses

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Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses is a pleasantly steamy novel loosely based on the Beauty & the Beast fairy tale we all known and love. I picked up this book without even reading the synopsis in the jacket because I love other books by this author so much I will read anything by her, sight unseen. What I love about Sarah J. is that her books are so reliable. Reliably difficult-to-put-down page-turners. I happened to have just started this book on a sick day, and, accompanied by tea and blankets, I read it for most of the day.

Soothing x10
Soothing x10

“When nineteen-year-old huntress Feyre kills a wolf in the woods, a beast-like creature arrives to demand retribution for it. Dragged to a treacherous magical land she only knows about from legends, Feyre discovers that her captor is not an animal, but Tamlin–one of the lethal, immortal faeries who once ruled their world.

As she dwells on his estate, her feelings for Tamlin transform from icy hostility into a fiery passion that burns through every lie and warning she’s been told about the beautiful, dangerous world of the Fae. But an ancient, wicked shadow over the faerie lands is growing, and Feyre must find a way to stop it . . . or doom Tamlin–and his world–forever.” –via Indiebound

Feyre and Tamlin are…fun. Let’s just get it out there right now: there is sex in this book. Not tweenie scenes with mostly implied contact followed by a nice change of subject. It’s detailed, leave-nothing-to-the-imagination, sexy sex. I enjoyed this. Most authors who write for teens know two things by now: teenagers have sex, and adults (who also have sex) read YA. This book was perfect for women (and men!) who don’t shy away from their enjoyment of sexuality in whatever way and however often they wish. If you are someone who prefers a somewhat tamer, less sexual way of life/library, I’d avoid this book. Or maybe try it, and see if it can change your mind! It’s up to you.

However, I’ve read some reviews that say this is little more than erotica. They are wrong. This is a novel with Story. Engaging, terrifying Story. It has some truly grotesque villains, and many moments that drive the reader to the edge of their seat. The reason the reader cares so much about the story has something to do with the heroine. Feyre is a girl the reader likes. Feyre is a girl who is relatable. I’m sure there is something of the reader’s self to find in her. Perhaps it’s her fierce dedication to her family. Perhaps it’s her feelings of isolation and of being taken for granted. Perhaps it’s her hopeless attraction to a faerie being that oozes sensuality. Whatever it is, there’s a little something of you, me, and everyone else in Feyre. Once her story really picks up and gets going (which is almost immediately; my girl Sarah J. doesn’t make you wait), the reader cares because, in some capacity, she is the reader.

The men in this book. THE MEN. The faerie men. The sleek, smooth-as-butter, perfect-features, fantasy men of this woman’s heretofore unknown fantasies. I loved them. It’s a buffet of supernatural men. I couldn’t decide if I liked Tamlin (the broody love-interest), Lucien (the comic yet tragic sidekick), or Rhysand (the absolutely delicious baddie) most. The best part is that you don’t have to, because each of them gets plenty of attention within the pages of the novel.

Perhaps the only thing that gave me pause is that there is a certain plot device that is just a little too specific, and therefore, a little too convenient to truly allow this reader to suspend her disbelief. It jolted me out of the world of this-is-actually-happening, and into the world of this-is-a-novel-with-an-author. It only lasts for a moment, and then the story re-engages, but for that moment it was a little sad.

Finally, Sarah J. builds a faerie world that at once respects folklore and gives it a new spin. There are few authors who successfully pull this off, and it makes me like and respect this author more for doing it. She includes lesser-known fae species. She includes an under-the-hill part of the faerie realm (very important!). She includes a vast variety of temperaments and personalities, from forces of good and compassion, to annoying and mischievous, to straight-up lethal and terrifying. Most importantly, she does it while remaining true to her own voice as an author, and without sounding or feeling contrived.

This is a very strong start to a new series, and a bit of a genre-bender. I think it’s safe to say that fans of her other novels will enjoy this one. For those who love fantasy, romance, or YA, this is a great pick for you, too!

Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland Series

Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland Series

I am reading like a maniac, trying to get through as many of my books as possible before I have to leave them all at my mother’s house while I traipse off to Peru for a while. I can’t take them with me, so I’m spending time with them, much as I’m spending time with my dog and my friends. All things I’m having to say goodbye to for a few months or years.

My most recent project is getting through all four of Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland books that are out. I don’t know if there will be more. I have not reached the end of the fourth book.

I raved about the first book, once upon a time. You can read about The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making here. It still holds up as one of my favorite books for middle-grade readers. It is a lovely work with so much spunk–a modern fairy tale founded in classic folklore. In this post, I am talking up books 2-4.

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Book 2: The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. Am I the only one who loves these excessively long titles? I love it when I recommend these books to people and they always get a bit of a shock at how long the titles are. That’s sort of how these books are from start to finish. The plot of this novel arises from something that happens in the first book. It is a somewhat small event, one that ultimately gets lost among all the adventures September has throughout Circumnavigated. Upon her return to Fairyland in the second book, however, she realizes that what she thought was nothing is actually a very big something.

The characters in this one are a little different from those in the first. September once again meets Saturday and A-through-L, but there’s something different about them…There is also a whole new set of adventures and cast of characters that September meets. Her foe, Halloween the Hollow Queen, leads the shadows of Fairyland-Below. From the sound of it, she is actually a good queen, and her subjects love her very much, but she is causing trouble for Fairyland-Above, and September simply can’t let that happen. September herself is thirteen years old in this book, with a brand new heart that has her feeling all sorts of complicated things she doesn’t understand. It makes for a very confusing adventure for September, but it is one which I’m sure readers will enjoy as much as the first. She handles the transition into the teen years with grace and courage.

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Book 3: The Girl Who Soared Above Fairyland and Cut the Moon In Two takes place entirely on the Moon! It is not the Moon we know, however. It is made of pearl and is home to all sorts of fabulous and diverse sea life. A yeti has the residents of the Moon living in fear, and September must do her best to stop his nefarious plot. On top of the yeti problem, September discovers that A-through-L has a bit of a curse on him, and must find away to save him before he disappears. There is also a beautiful little element of romance in this novel, between now 14-year-old September and one of her Fairyland cohorts. In this book more than any of the others, I think, Valente plays with the concepts of space, distance, and time, and with the way we perceive them. Several characters appear to September and her questing party from various other points in their timeline. It is mind-bending and fun.

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Book 4: The Boy Who Lost Fairyland. I haven’t finished this one yet, so I can’t tell you a lot about it. I can say that it follows a different character than the previous three (though I believe September will appear eventually)–Hawthorn, a young troll who is swept out of Fairyland and into Chicago as a Changeling by the Red Wind. Once there, settled with a nice, Normal family, he does not remember why he feels so different. And different he is. At six he can write beautiful calligraphy, and knows words quite beyond the vocabulary of a normal six-year-old. He destroys his toys because he feels that they should talk to them, and they do not. He also believes that he is actually a wombat and a warrior. Those of us familiar with folklore know that the lives of Changelings are often unpleasant, and this one seems to continue that theory, though in a much less cruel and miserable way.  Poor Hawthorn is just very confused, and he must learn how to become a Normal human, when in truth he is anything but. From page one the novel displays heart and a robust love of humor, lore, and story. Valente’s characterization is once more picture perfect. I really just love this author. I love that she’s doing something a little different with novel 4, and that she is completely, unabashedly true to her style and her world.

I highly recommend this whole series for readers of all ages. Fans of Lewis Carroll and Lemony Snicket, I think, will enjoy these sometimes-dark and always-whimsical novels.

 

Middle-Grade New Releases That Rock

Middle-Grade New Releases That Rock

I’ve been on a middle-grade chapter book kick, and I’ve really struck gold with the three that I’ve read so far. It’s a fantastic time to be a kid, or a lover of children’s literature. There are so many good books coming out every day, it’s almost impossible to keep up. I was fortunate enough to read three absolutely wonderful books in a row.

#1: Monstrous by MaryKate Connolly

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This is a novel about Kymera, a little monster girl created in a lab for a very special purpose. She has a stinging tale, patchwork skin, and eyes that can switch back and forth between human and cat (for seeing in the dark). She lives with her father deep in the forests outside of the town of Bryre, and only enters the city at night after everyone is asleep. Though she is not allowed to have any friends, she meets a boy named Ren and is unable to resist his companionship. But both Ren and Kymera have deep secrets, and it tests their friendship and their trust for one another. When the town of Bryre faces danger, it’s up to them to reconcile their mistrust and work together to save their home.

This is an absolutely darling story. It’s fairly dark because it combines taboo science with wicked magic, but ultimately it tells a story about love, acceptance, family, and heroism in unexpected places. I recommend this book highly, as I think it’s a fairly unique story that combines the misunderstood monster of Frankenstein with the magical elements of beloved fairy tales. It’s a page-turner, sure to keep readers young and old engaged.

#2: Julia and the Art of Practical Travel by Lesley M. M. Blume

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Julia barely remembers her mother, who disappeared when Julia was seven years old. Now twelve, she faces a rapidly shifting world, as her grandmother, who is also her guardian, passes away, and her family’s debts are called in. Her aunt sells their ancestral home and most of their possessions, and Julia and her Aunt Constance set off on a road trip across the United States, following the rumors of Julia’s mother. With all of their remaining worldly possessions packed into their car (silver candlesticks, Oriental carpets, and some steamer trunks, to name a few practical travel essentials), they visit Greenwich Village in New York City, consult a voodoo priestess in New Orleans, go hunting in the dusty Texas desert, and continue all the way to California. Julia documents some of her adventures with her Brownie camera, which she carries everywhere.

I can’t stress enough how adorable this story is. Julia faces her changing circumstances with a positive attitude and a sense of adventure that one can’t help but love her for. She drags her camera everywhere and takes pictures of everything she sees (some of which are on display in the chapters of the book!). Most importantly, she learns lessons about finding family wherever she can, and about accepting herself and her slightly quirky personality. This is a truly lovely book that reminds me a bit of Matilda, but with its own sassy personality. Plus it encourages kids to travel, and that is incredibly important.

#3: Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

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I picked up this book on a whim and I am so happy I did. That is sometimes the best way to find a book. As a bookseller, a lot of books get buzz, and I just don’t have time to read all of them. Nightbird is a book that deserves the time. I read it in a matter of hours because I couldn’t put it down.

Twig lives in Sidwell, Massachusetts, which is a town with many secrets. Her mother doesn’t socialize, and though she is the most beautiful woman in town, she is also the saddest. Her mother bakes pies, which draw tourists from miles around, and Twig and her mother live in the orchard from which they harvest the fruit for the pies. Rumors and local legends say that a monster inhabits Sidwell, and Twig knows more about that than she lets on to outsiders. Like Kymera in Monstrous, Twig is not allowed to have friends. Her mother worries that their family secrets will emerge if she does. But when two girls close to her age move into the cottage beside their orchard (a cottage rumored to have once belonged to a witch), Twig is unable to refrain from becoming best friends with the younger sister.

Anything I try to say about this book will likely sound hyperbolic. I really thought that it was delightfully beautiful. It is rich with the joys and the headaches that local traditions and folklore can bring to a small town, and there are elements of hidden magic existing beside the everyday things people see with their eyes. The secrets that come out eventually have the potential to be disastrous, but Twig learns that people can be surprisingly generous, accepting, and loving.

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I highly recommend all three of these beautiful novels. These characters are strong and wonderfully themselves, and they make fantastic protagonists and role models for young girls (or boys!). Read these to your children, buy them for your classroom, or read them for yourselves!

Out of the Easy

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

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.

13.19–Between Shades of Gray

13.19–Between Shades of Gray

I have so much to say about this book and its author and the event I attended at BookPeople. But before I say any of it, I need to make a disclaimer:

This book is in no way related to the erotic series. It is not at all erotic. If you’re looking for novels about sex, look somewhere else.

Thank you for paying attention. Not to knock the Fifty Shades series (ok, maybe a little), but this book is so wildly out of the league of those, both in subject matter and in degree of skill with which it is written, that I am almost personally affronted when people assume they are related texts. No. No no no no no. Also, this one came first.

Now, to the book I say yes. Yes yes yes yes yes.  It is amazing.  It is beautiful.  It is heartfelt and heartbreaking.  And most importantly, it tells the story of a group of people whose plight has been overshadowed and nearly lost to general knowledge.

Goodreads Summary:

“It’s 1941 and fifteen-year-old artist Lina Vilkas is on Stalin’s extermination list. Deported to a prison camp in Siberia, Lina fights for her life, fearless, risking everything to save her family. It’s a long and harrowing journey and it is only their incredible strength, love, and hope that pull Lina and her family through each day. But will love be enough to keep them alive?”

This novel was suggested to me in my first week of work at BookPeople.  I was immediately drawn to both its premise and its beautiful cover.  I finally got around to reading it when I found out that Ruta Sepetys herself would be visiting our store and I would get the chance to meet her.

I have to be honest, I was a little put off at first.  There are no polite introductions in this novel, no quaint descriptions of what life was like before Lina’s world was pulled apart.  No, it takes off immediately, with Lina’s family being arrested in the middle of the night for completely unknown reasons.  From there, the plot explodes out of the gate, and Lina and her family are jostled from one place to the next without warning or comfort.  They must immediately go from what seems to be an affluent, happy family to one that must learn to survive or die almost immediately.  The sentences are short and simple, almost choppy sometimes.  The chapters are incredibly short, especially in the beginning.  While this frustrated me a bit at first, I realized how well it fit in with the events of the plot.  Sepetys’ style gives short, confused glimpses of what Lina’s life suddenly becomes, and they work well for the content.

The story, despite its horror and sorrow, also fills the reader with a sense of hope.  Not necessarily hope of rescue, for Lina’s plight seems impossible to overcome, but hope that, even in the absolute worst circumstances, human spirit and goodness can find a way to shine.  And the novel’s treasured, slow-blooming element of romance was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak, frozen landscape.

I loved the book on its own, but when I met the author herself I just became a total fangirl.  It was an intimate little gathering, and so those of us who asked questions got amazing, lengthy answers.  When she told us that Lina’s story is loosely based on the experiences of her own Lithuanian family, I was enthralled.  Sepetys exhibits such a passion for history and a fiery need for the unheard, forgotten voices of the past to be given a podium.  She herself is cheerful, funny, and tells a great story (duh), but her intelligence and compassion are evident in everything she says.  I can’t wait to read her latest book, set in 1950s New Orleans, called Out of the Easy.

My coworkers and me (on the far left) with Ruta Sepetys at BookPeople

I highly recommend Between Shades of Gray to everyone.  In fact, I encourage people to read it and spread the word about both the book and its historical basis, so that these nearly-forgotten victims of Stalin’s evil will not be left in the shadows any longer.  I am grateful to Ruta Sepetys for writing such a beautiful novel and for caring so much about the faded voices of history.  5 stars and 2 thumbs up, and a cookie on top. Lovely, lovely book!