Clan of the Cave Bear; Pigs In Heaven; Pax

Clan of the Cave Bear; Pigs In Heaven; Pax

There really isn’t a time when I’m not playing catch-up on this blog because I spend a lot more time reading than I do writing about the books I read, but I really am trying to get up-to-date on the books I’m reading. I hope someone is still reading this and finding useful suggestions for all of their reading needs.

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The Clan of the Cave Bear

The first book I’m reviewing today is Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear. I tried to read this book when I was in middle school but it was just too much for me to get through at that age. This second attempt at reading it was successful, but it really took forever for me to get through.

“This novel of awesome beauty and power is a moving saga about people, relationships, and the boundaries of love. Through Jean M. Auel’s magnificent storytelling we are taken back to the dawn of modern humans, and with a girl named Ayla we are swept up in the harsh and beautiful Ice Age world they shared with the ones who called themselves The Clan of the Cave Bear.
A natural disaster leaves the young girl wandering alone in an unfamiliar and dangerous land until she is found by a woman of the Clan, people very different from her own kind. To them, blond, blue-eyed Ayla looks peculiar and ugly–she is one of the Others, those who have moved into their ancient homeland; but Iza cannot leave the girl to die and takes her with them. Iza and Creb, the old Mog-ur, grow to love her, and as Ayla learns the ways of the Clan and Iza’s way of healing, most come to accept her. But the brutal and proud youth who is destined to become their next leader sees her differences as a threat to his authority. He develops a deep and abiding hatred for the strange girl of the Others who lives in their midst, and is determined to get his revenge.”–Indiebound

I really wanted to like this novel more than I did. I would not say it is a novel of “awesome beauty and power.” It is much less interesting than all that. I admire Auel for her ability to work with a period in history about which little is known. It is an imaginative book, to say the least. But there was very little that stirred my emotion. Though she tried to make me care about the characters, I really did not. I think that perhaps this is a flaw of the time period in which she was writing. The style was so antiquated and old that I really did not connect much with the story or the characters. The character I felt the most emotion for was actually the villain. He was easy to hate, but no one else was really easy to love.

When the plot moved, my interest spiked, but it felt stagnant most of the way through. It could have been much more engaging. Less description, more story. And the violence against women, regardless of whether or not that’s the way cavemen lived, was really off-putting. That also took away from the story for me. I definitely won’t read the rest of the series, but I’m glad I finally alleviated my curiosity and finished the book.

Pigs in Heaven
Pigs in Heaven

The next book, Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven, I managed to enjoy despite realizing most of the way through that it was actually a sequel to a book I haven’t read yet. It is the story of Taylor and her adopted Cherokee daughter Turtle. When Turtle witnesses something no one else sees and ends up on TV after saving a man’s life, the Cherokee nation comes after the mother and daughter, claiming the adoption isn’t valid.

I don’t think I’ve read anything by Kingsolver that I don’t like. She establishes excellent rapport between characters, even if they’re supposed to dislike each other. She makes me laugh constantly, even when the situation calls for gravity. I did not feel like I was missing any part of this story despite it being a sequel.  The story stood very sturdily on its own two feet.  I really enjoyed every element of this novel, and I look forward to reading the first one, even if I did read them in the wrong order.

Pax
Pax

I was immediately drawn to this last novel because it is just so cute. And beautiful. The bookseller at Blue Willow Bookshop told me I would really love it, but sadly I was not completely taken with it. Perhaps, without her rave review, I would have loved it more. But it was very highly hyped to me and my own reading of it didn’t live up to her enthusiasm.

“Pax and Peter have been inseparable ever since Peter rescued him as a kit. But one day, the unimaginable happens: Peter’s dad enlists in the military and makes him return the fox to the wild.

At his grandfather’s house, three hundred miles away from home, Peter knows he isn’t where he should be with Pax. He strikes out on his own despite the encroaching war, spurred by love, loyalty, and grief, to be reunited with his fox.

Meanwhile Pax, steadfastly waiting for his boy, embarks on adventures and discoveries of his own. . . .”Indiebound

I did really enjoy this book. I thought the relationship and the bond between Pax and Peter was really sweet and quite moving. But there was something off-putting about the vague setting and time period, and I did not connect with the human characters much. The only character for whom I felt any warmth was Pax. He’s such a sweet fox and I was really attached to him. I also was somewhat disappointed in the Jon Klassen illustrations. For such a talented illustrator, I felt the chosen scenes did not contain enough color or creativity. They were bland illustrations that didn’t really add to the value of the book at all.

I wish there had been more to this story, but for me it wasn’t the grand, beautiful children’s book that I was led to believe. Yes, it was a sweet story and a good book for children to read, but it wasn’t one of those that swept me off my feet as an adult.

Queen of Shadows — THRONE OF GLASS SPOILERS

Queen of Shadows — THRONE OF GLASS SPOILERS

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Queen of Shadows was yet another brilliant installment in the Throne of Glass series. I can tell that Sarah J. Maas is building to a truly explosive finale in the final volume. I only hope it means that we don’t have to say goodbye to any major players we love. Knowing books, I fear this may be a vain hope, but I’ll keep hoping until I close the last page on the last book.

At this point, there really isn’t any way to write about this book and not spoil the previous books in the series, so if you haven’t read up until this book, STOP READING NOW.

“Everyone Celaena Sardothien loves has been taken from her. But she’s at last returned to the empire-for vengeance, to rescue her once-glorious kingdom, and to confront the shadows of her past…She has embraced her identity as Aelin Galathynius, Queen of Terrasen. But before she can reclaim her throne, she must fight. She will fight for her cousin, a warrior prepared to die just to see her again. She will fight for her friend, a young man trapped in an unspeakable prison. And she will fight for her people, enslaved to a brutal king and awaiting their lost queen’s triumphant return.

Celaena’s epic journey has captured the hearts and imaginations of millions across the globe. This fourth volume will hold readers rapt as Celaena’s story builds to a passionate, agonizing crescendo that might just shatter her world.”Indiebound

In Queen of Shadows, Celaena returns to Adarlan as her true self, and she is out for blood. It seems there is only so much abuse one young woman trained as a ruthless, deadly assassin can take before she snaps. This novel is just as emotionally charged as the rest of them, with perhaps a little more satisfying revenge than we have seen before. The story moves at a brutal pace, and I think my favorite part of this novel was the interesting alliances she forms to achieve her ends (and to replenish her depleted ranks of friends–it’s dangerous to get close to this girl.) The novel also takes some really interesting, surprising twists and turns, as we have come to expect from Maas. I was absolutely thrilled by the ending, and I cannot wait for the fifth book.

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However, there are some things I have my doubts about, too. Celaena’s thirst for violence seems unnecessarily high in this book. In this world so filled with brutality, violence, and killing already, it’s nice to read about an assassin who doesn’t necessarily enjoy her work. She shows compassion and spares those who do not deserve to die. The reader sees very little of that compassion here. In much the same way action movie “heroes” leave a trail of bodies in their wake, Celaena kills ruthlessly and indiscriminately. I realize that her victims are working for a tyrant and standing between her and what she wants, but this gives the impression that there are important humans, and unimportant “stock” humans who can be killed without remorse or second thoughts. Sadly, this is not true in reality, and it disturbed me how our noble heroine becomes so hell-bent on destruction and revenge that she forgets she values life and once despised killing.

Along the same lines, while I truly enjoyed reading Queen of Shadows, and I couldn’t put it down, I feel like I read an entirely different series. Celaena has become a completely different character from herself in Throne of Glass. The people she surrounds herself with are different. Even the lines between friends and enemies are blurred, and people we thought were firmly in the evil camp turn out to surprise Celaena and her biases. While I enjoyed the truly epic nature of the narrative, I almost miss the comparatively quaint simplicity of the first novel.

I know it seems as if I have more negative things to say than positive, but it’s not true! I don’t really want to give away the good stuff, though. For those who haven’t read it, but have read the rest of the series, I say: what’s wrong with you?! Get moving! This novel was mostly stuffed to the brim with really good things, and I really recommend finishing the series.

The World of Leigh Bardugo

The World of Leigh Bardugo

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I read Shadow & Bone several weeks ago because I had a special $1.99 e-book deal on it come to my email. I had heard good things about it and wanted to read it anyway, but hadn’t given it a very high priority.

Holy. Shit.

Shadow & Bone is one of those books that reminded me why I continue to read YA books well into my adulthood. Leigh Bardugo is brilliant. In a genre heavily inundated with fantasy stories based on Celtic mythology and vampires, this author has constructed a world that is entirely new. With its strong themes of eastern-European nomenclature and mythology, yet possessing its own unique twists, I’ve never read a story like Shadow & Bone.

“Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.

Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life–a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.

Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha . . . and the secrets of her heart.” –Indiebound

This book has everything you love about a YA novel. Danger, romance, a powerful female trying to find her own way separate from the men who would influence her. Darkness. Creepy creatures. Tragedy. Heartbreak. Betrayal. Nothing about this novel is predictable or boring. It kept me engaged from start to finish. When I finished this one, I had to read the rest of the series, too.

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The rest of the series was very strong, too. At the risk of giving away what happened in novel one, I won’t give synopses for two and three. Be satisfied knowing that I simply devoured this series and was completely obsessed. In fact, I wasn’t happy when it ended, and bought all of the short stories and novellas associated with the world in these novels.

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I love this series. I love everything about it. The plot. The characters. The setting. The darkness. The suspense. The intensity. The fearlessness of Bardugo’s writing. I highly recommend all of these novels. It never slows down. From start to finish, it is beautiful and intense, and I believe you will love it as much as I did.

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.