Cruel Winter

Cruel Winter

Cover image for Cruel Winter
Cover image for Cruel Winter

I hesitated to read this book (despite it being shoved into my hands by someone I like a whole heck of a lot) because I’m a wimp, and I’m not afraid to admit it. Yet, despite its horror designation, it reads more like a kid’s adventure movie from the 80s, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself not scared at all (okay, except for like, one part).

“Jack Harding and his friends feel sorry for the new kid in town. His name is Ronnie Winter, and he’s a bit of a weirdo. So when the local bullies try to beat him up, Jack and his friends step in to protect Ronnie — and that’s their first mistake. Because Ronnie Winter is not like any other kid they’ve ever known. He lives at the old Steadman place, in the big creepy mansion that used to be a mental hospital. And his young, beautiful mother has a strange way of making Jack promise to be Ronnie’s friend…forever.

The closer Jack and his friends get to Ronnie, the colder it gets. The town is plunged into a wave of brutal snowstorms — and plagued by a series of gruesome murders. And as the grisly death toll mounts, Jack realizes that Ronnie is surrounded by something far more powerful than a mother’s love — he’s guarded by a force of unspeakable evil that will torture and destroy everything in its path…” —Goodreads

This book is pulpy in a big way. It’s mostly cheese, with a little suspense and some decent character development thrown in. It’s pleasant in the way reading sometimes should be: it allows you to switch your brain off and just become engrossed in a silly story. I was told that the book’s intended audience is young adults, but nothing I’ve found online suggests that. I think it’s just a not-very-scary first attempt at horror. Mostly it reminds me of every episode of Scooby-Doo: about things that are scary in theory, but this particular execution is not.

Do you know that trick that authors have of giving a juvenile voice to a third person narrator? We see that in this novel, and I wonder if that’s what renders this less scary than it might be otherwise. The novel is about children, and for most of the novel, the narrator describes the thoughts and actions of children. They’re not very imaginative kids, and the novel is set in a time that seems quaint compared to what we’re living now. Some of the expletives the kids use made me laugh out loud, and it’s cute because they think they’re really tough. That bully though…he’s something else.

The plot did what it was intended to do: kept me engrossed and entertained. I’ve trained myself out of the bad habit of trying to guess what’s going to happen next so I couldn’t tell you if you’ll be able to guess what comes. In all honesty, there don’t seem to be many plot twists. Just a series of events that follow one another. That’s not a criticism, however. We’ve become used to plot twists in recent years, but there was a time when we could read books without them. Try it! It’s not so bad.

A more practiced author, I think, would have given us a little more in the way of character development. Jack is the most fleshed-out, followed by Cassie. Ronnie and the rest of the gang seem a little flat, though they fulfill their purpose well. I enjoyed Emma as a character, and I would have liked to see more of her, though her storyline and ultimately heroic dénouement, despite being almost entirely separate from the rest of the story, was nonetheless entertaining.

This book belongs more in the category of speculative, urban fantasy, rather than horror. Regardless of where you shelve it, definitely save this title for a pool day or a day at the beach, when you need one eye on the page but you can save most of your brain for other activities. It’s a funny, quick read if you want something that doesn’t demand much more from you than simply allowing yourself to be entertained.

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!

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.

13.12–The Child Thief

13.12–The Child Thief

This book is CRAZY.  Based (loosely) on the story of Peter Pan, this novel written and illustrated by Brom is insane, dark, and a little bit terrifying.

A word to the wise: do not read this if you have a weak stomach.  Brom is really fond of violence and gore.  I wished that he’d toned it down a bit, but it really wouldn’t have been the same story without it.  The Child Thief is the story of Peter and his quest to save his home.  In this tale, which takes place in the mythical land of Avalon, rather than in Neverland, Peter cannot fly.  He is lightning quick, having been suffused over his lifetime with the magic of Avalon.  But Avalon is threatened by a race of creatures called Flesh-eaters–beings that used to be human, but whose evil, cruel nature, combined with Avalon’s magical air, has warped them to reflect the demons they are inside.  Peter recruits children from the human world, taking in the runaways, homeless, and unwanted youth and turning them into his own private army to save Avalon.

I’ve been wanting to read this book for ages because the blurb on the jacket made me incredibly curious.  The book was awesome, but not in the way I was expecting.  The beginning dragged for me a bit, but a little way into it the story picks up and it’s nearly impossible to put down.  Brom’s prose is engaging but nothing special; at times it feels a little youthful and inexperienced.  Perhaps it was simply his subject, as most of his characters are under 12 years old.  And Peter…

Peter takes some getting used to.   He isn’t the boy we know and love from popular culture. Brom includes an afterword that gives some idea of what inspired him, including a bit about a more violent, much darker story that was the precursor to the Peter Pan story that is common today.  The first glaring difference is that Peter cannot fly.  He is grounded, and though he is extremely quick, both on his feet and with a blade, he is still subject to the same weakness as his band of Devils.  Though Disney has much altered the way most people think of Peter, in the book he is actually rather selfish. In this respect, Brom has Peter pinned.  This Peter is extremely egocentric and self-serving. His sole purpose for living and striving to save Avalon is to save the Lady, or the queen of Avalon.  He is smitten with her, seemingly both as a mother figure and as an object of lust (odd), and over the centuries has sent hundreds of his Devils to their deaths for the sake of one woman.  Granted, if she dies, all of Avalon dies as well, so it’s a valid goal.  But his single-mindedness is the cause of death and destruction for the children he tricks into Avalon.  The reader has a difficult time deciding to love or to hate him.  At times he seems a worthy leader, and at others reveals himself as the selfish child he truly is.  Despite this, he inspires incredible loyalty in his band of Devils, for having saved them from their tragic lives in the human realm  and for giving them a purpose.

The plot is drawn-out and complicated, but incredibly worth reading to the end.  Events escalate quickly, and the final battle for Avalon between the Devils–aided by the magical creatures of Avalon–and the Flesh-eaters takes a turn no one would expect.  All the while, Peter must also protect himself and his Devils from a man with a burning hatred for Peter–a man who, though of Avalon, would bring his own world down around his ears to destroy Peter.  Brom takes the conflict much farther than the reader would expect, diminishing almost all hope in the reader for a happy ending.  Rather than there being one plot twist, there are several, and the reader cannot help but devour the book, desperate to know what happens and with a wretched desire for things to somehow end well for Avalon, Peter, and the Devils.

Parts of the novel made me grimace in disgust, but for the most part it was a wickedly delightful novel.  Brim-full of magic and suspense, it’s nearly 500 pages of gripping intensity that sucks its reader in and leaves them reeling with wonder.  And Brom’s illustrations only add to the delight of reading it.  I highly recommend it to fans of both horror and fantasy, for it is an expert blending of both genres.