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!

A Circus-Themed Post

A Circus-Themed Post

I’ve recently read two novels with circus themes that I think lovers of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus would enjoy.

Gracekeepers

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan was our book club selection this month, and it was incredibly polarizing. On one side, you have those like me, who absolutely loved it, and you have those who really didn’t think much of it at all. I thought it was an incredibly lovely book. The language was lush and poetic, the setting well-structured and highly visible in the reader’s mind’s eye. It is the story of two women in a drowned, post-apocalyptic landscape. One girl travels with a floating circus, her act involving a trained, dancing bear who is also her dearest friend. The other conducts funeral rites on her lonely island wreathed in mist and surrounded by floating bird cages.

There are many story-lines happening in this novel. Perhaps the author was a little over-ambitious in such a short novel, for there are questions that were not answered to their fullest and loose ends that could have used tighter tying. Despite its minor failings, I thought the novel was so enjoyable that I couldn’t put it down. I loved North, the bear girl, especially. She is courageous and strong. Her circus, the ship Excalibur and its flotilla of coracles, sounds like a rough but adventurous life. I found myself drawn to this watery world, where trees are so rare it’s a crime (or even blasphemous) to harm them in any way. It is only vaguely fantastic, so it will appeal to readers who ordinarily stay away from fantasy stories.

BookSpeculation

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler was another incredible circus book (how I ended up reading two almost in a row, I don’t know). In this novel, narrator Simon Watson is a librarian who lives by himself in his ancestral home on the harsh coast of the Northeastern United States. The house, due to erosion, is so near the cliff’s edge that it threatens daily to go over, but that is the least of his problems. His parents are dead, and his sister is the fortune-teller in a traveling circus. Simon one day receives a book in the mail from someone he has never met–a book that shows a frightening trend in his family’s women’s tendency to drown on a particular day of the year. The women in his family are side-show “mermaids” who can hold their breath for impossibly long periods of time; Simon and his sister both possess this ability as well. The drownings lead Simon to believe that perhaps there is a curse on his family, and his sister seems to have arrived at home just in time for her own drowning, unless Simon can do something about it.

I apologize if I made this sound like a thriller. It is thrilling, but it is so much more than that. It is, in part, a beautiful homage to the written word. Simon and several other characters adore rare and antiquarian books, and it is a feeling with which many of the novel’s readers will feel kinship. It is also, in part, historical fiction, as the narration flips back and forth between first-person in the present day with Simon, and third-person following a mute circus “Wild Boy”-turned-seer in the late 18th Century. Swyler’s prose is eloquent, and her plot is so exciting that I didn’t want to put this book down. One thing I enjoyed in particular was being witness to the origin story of several of the antique relics that Simon comes across in his search for truth–an old theatrical curtain, mysterious portraits of unknown persons, and a crumbling deck of tarot cards that his sister obsesses over.

Though the supernatural is only hinted at and never quite makes a verifiable appearance, it adds enough of an air of mystery and intrigue to hook its readers. Are Simon and his family descended from an Eastern-European water spirit? Is there truly a curse, or are the family merely victims of truly bad luck? Is it wishful thinking, or does Simon truly hear his mother’s ghost in the water? What’s up with the horseshoe crabs?

These books are must-reads for lovers of somber, beautiful prose; sorrowful, nostalgic stories; ethereal setting; and the draw of a carnival atmosphere providing a light in the darkness.

13.23–Fuse

13.23–Fuse

Fuse is the sequel to Pure, and is perhaps even more thrilling than the first book. In it, Partridge, Pressia, Bradwell, El Capitan, and Lyda are rocketed on separate quests to save their incredibly flawed world.  More secrets about the evils of the Dome are revealed, and the reader’s hunger for justice grows as it grows within the characters.

There was so much about this book that I loved.  One of the things that stuck out the most to me was the development of the relationships between the characters.  Pressia and Bradwell learn how to navigate their complicated feelings for one another–their love mixed with the fierce desire to protect one another by denying their mutual feelings.  Lyda and Partridge explore the feelings they never got to admit to each other when they were inside the Dome.  Even El Capitan and his brother Helmud start to build a relationship–one that consists of more than mutual hatred for their nearly unbearable situation.  Helmud begins to show a personality of his own, and as twisted as it is, their relationship is a little bit heartwarming.

The plot was strong in this one.  I was constantly kept in the grip of suspense.  Because she did such a good job of establishing relationships between the characters, and of establishing the reader’s affections for those relationships, the strain and danger she puts them through is really emotionally taxing on the reader.  Partridge and Lyda, especially, separated by forces much more powerful than they are, keep the reader guessing about what will happen to their budding love.

Julianna Baggott has created a very strong second novel for her trilogy.  It did not feel like a filler, as second novels often do.  I was very impressed with her ability to make it feel like it’s own story.  That said, I really cannot wait for the third one to come out, though I know it won’t be for a long time.  Her world-building and storytelling are skillful enough that I’m dying to know what happens in the end! Too bad there isn’t even a publication date yet.  The good news is that gives you (the people who haven’t picked up and read both of them yet) the time to get caught up and breathlessly await the conclusion to the series!


12.28–Wicked

12.28–Wicked

I revisited this one because it’s been quite a long time since I read it.  I remember sincerely loving the book, and marveling at the darkness with which Maguire writes. By the way, how gorgeous is this cover? Mine doesn’t look that good. Mine looks like this:

Not as pretty

Anyway, I don’t know how many people have read this novel, since it’s been out for years.  For those who haven’t, it tells the story of Elphaba, who is more familiar to fans of The Wizard of Oz under her identity of the Wicked Witch of the West (which I will now refer to as WWW).  In this first novel of Maguire’s, he gives the reader the backstory of the WWW, from her humble beginnings in the country of Munchkinland to her college years at Shiz to her rebellious youth in the Emerald City.  From the novel, the reader learns that Elphaba, or WWW, is not the evil villain we love to hate.  She has been misunderstood her whole life, ostracized because of her green skin, and villainized because she disagrees vocally with the Wizard’s politics.  By the time she meets Dorothy (in part four of the novel), she is middle-aged and beaten down, having suffered a lifetime of loss after loss.

I remembered virtually nothing about this novel.  In my mind it got confused with the musical, which I’ve seen twice.

It’s pretty fabulous

Because I’d forgotten the novel, I was amazed by how different the two stories are.  For one thing, the musical is optimistic. It is the touching tale of two friends that somehow manage to overcome obstacles to their friendship and also make changes for the good of Oz.  The novel, conversely, is not.  For one thing, Elphaba and Glinda do not stay friends the way they do in the musical.  There is a massive cast of characters that pass through Elphaba’s life, but their presence is always fleeting.  Maguire’s novel is also a lot more political.  There is the Wizard, who blew into Oz in a hot air balloon and deposed the reigning child queen, and who oppresses the people of Oz indiscriminately. Munchkins, Quadlings, Animals–all fall under the Wizard’s iron hand.  There is a religious group that closely resembles Christians, known as the unionists, who worship the Unnamed God and attempt with futility to convert people away from the “pleasure faith.”  In fact, Elphaba at one point joins a group that, if not extreme enough to merit the distinction of terrorists, come pretty darn close.  No, it certainly isn’t the Wizard of Oz that we know at love from novel and film.

Part of me really didn’t like reading it this time.  I still give it five stars, because it is masterfully written, is a great and engaging story, and is engrossingly creative.  But there is a hopelessness that dominates the tone of the novel, and sometimes I wasn’t in the mood to pick up such a downer.  The novel seems to hint that resistance to the status quo, to tyranny and oppression, and to evil itself, is a useless pursuit that should be abandoned so that one might have a happy life.  Maybe this is mostly true, as it seems like one person has little power to make change, but I didn’t want to read about it in every word of the novel!

Still, as I said, it is a masterful work.  Maguire has a very dry and sometimes offensive sense of humor, playing with things that one would not normally find amusing (for instance, senility in the elderly). His words are beautiful.  It is a novel that is effortlessly thoughtful, which forces the reader to contemplate their own complacency.  Maguire also creates wonderful characters.  Elphaba is, despite being prickly and somber, a character that the reader can love, though it may stem from pity.  She tries so hard to do the right thing, and it often goes wrong for her.  She is going against the whole of Oz, and one cannot help but admire her courage.  The other characters that come and go (Boq, Galinda, Fiyero, Sarima, Liir, Nessarose, and others) are, if not always fully rounded out, entertaining.  They complement each other well, and yet, simply by existing, create conflict between each other.  Their differing beliefs and ideals clash enough that very little outside strife would be necessary, though it often makes an appearance anyway.

I definitely think the novel has more value than the musical.  Don’t get me wrong. The musical is great–beautiful costumes and sets, catchy and sometimes moving songs, and an entertaining plot line.  But where the musical is fun, the novel is important.  It is a witty, dry, and entertaining commentary on the world in which we live today.  If you’re one of the last people in the world to read this novel, I recommend you get around to it soon!

Or she’ll get you


12.20–Tumbleweeds

12.20–Tumbleweeds

Tumbleweeds is the second novel by Leila Meacham, whose novel Roses was a NYT Bestseller a few years ago. Roses I did not read, but Tumbleweeds is the novel of choice for a book club being hosted by my mother and me, so I figured I should probably read it.

It is entertaining, certainly.  The story line is tense and, at times, unutterably sad.  It follows the story of Catherine Ann Benson, who is orphaned at age 11 when her parents die in a car accident. She is uprooted from her posh life in California and becomes the ward of her grandmother in the Texas Panhandle.  At school, she is “adopted” by two other orphans, Trey Don Hall and John Caldwell, a popular and handsome pair of best friends.  The trio become inseparable all through high school, until one tragedy and a series of misunderstandings threaten to rip their friendship to pieces and scatter them to the winds.

The premise is your classic love triangle.  Obviously, with two boys and one girl, someone is going to be hurt and left out.  It was predictable in that way.  There were a lot of moments that I wanted to throttle Trey, for his ridiculous assumptions and his stubborn hard-heartedness.  Poor Cathy is the most sympathetic character, and seems to be the only innocent bystander in the whole mess of the novel.  It is entertaining, certainly.  Meacham creates enough mystery and tension to make the reader want to reach the very last page just to find out what secrets everyone is keeping.

The secrets are what got to me the most.  No one tells the truth until the very end of the novel.  Lives have been ruined, and the poor people of the town of Kersey all have to move on and get over one thing or another.  In the beginning it seems that Kersey is an idyllic heaven and nothing can go wrong. But the secrets kept by its citizens, most especially its two golden boys, are what tear it apart.  With the exception of Cathy and some of the older people, there is no one who is really likable or trustworthy.  It is melodramatic and reminds me of a Lifetime movie.  In fact, I would not be surprised to see

Tumbleweeds

Based on the novel by Leila Meacham

A Lifetime Original Movie

sometime.  Except I don’t watch Lifetime, so maybe not.

The prose leaves something to be desired as well.  It’s very juvenile–not at all as if it was written by a veteran novelist.  While the narration is always done in omnitient third-person, it follows different characters after they all split up and go their separate ways. In the chapters that follow the men, especially Trey, Meacham seems as if she is trying entirely too hard to simulate a male’s tone of voice and manner of speaking.  It is not at all natural, and this was a real problem for me when reading the novel.  I understand it is a special and somewhat unique skill to smoothly portray the voice of the opposite sex, but sadly Meacham failed more than most at this.  In a novel that predominantly about men, this is a problem.  Also, some of her sentences forced me to read them two, three, or four times, just to discern the meaning.  Dialect and accent are great things to write within dialog, but including colloquial phrases in the narration just adds to the feeling that neither you nor your editor know grammar very well.

I read the novel quickly, so there must have been something I enjoyed about it.  I didn’t hate all the characters.  Cathy manages to turn her situation around and make a decent life out of the misfortune that befalls her in her youth, and for that I admire her. John Caldwell is a great character, and I greatly admire almost everything about him–the exception being his extreme piety, which caused the story to veer wildly from where I wanted it to go. Meacham also created a web of intrigue so thick that it kept me interested despite the fact that the characters were mostly completely unbelievable.

I wish I had more good things to say about this book, especially because my mother read it before me and was raving about how good it was. For plot it was pretty good, but everything else came up lacking, and there are vital things like character and tone that cannot be overlooked. But maybe I’m in the super-picky minority.  Has anyone else read it? What did you think?

12.18–The Lady of the Rivers

12.18–The Lady of the Rivers

I am such a huge fan of Philippa Gregory. I just think she is the bee’s knees.  The Lady of the Rivers is the third book in The Cousins’ War series, which follows the War of the Roses. This novel is the prequel to The White Queen–the first of the series.

Jacquetta is a descendant of Melusina, a river goddess, and therefore possesses special gifts–namely the second sight.  An early experience with Joan of Arc and her untimely demise gives Jacquetta a life-long fear of using these gifts, though she is occasionally ordered by her sovereign to do so.  Her marriage to the Duke of Bedford and her early widowhood yield her great privilege throughout her life, but also put her in great danger as England’s political cauldron boils over into chaos.  Standing by her side through all of these troubles is her second husband Richard Woodville, who she married for love, and her innumerable children.

Philippa Gregory does extensive research on all of her novels and this one is no exception.  Jacquetta was a real woman whose life occurred right at the beginning of the War of the Roses. Gregory became fascinated by this relatively overlooked woman and expounded on her story.  As ever, I am astounded by Gregory and her capacity for creating beautiful stories out of minor characters from history.  Jacquetta is an easy heroine to love.  She does all she can to protect her husband and children during this dangerous period in English history.  She is a close friend and confidant of Margaret of Anjou, the wife of King Henry VI.  Henry comes to the throne as a boy and never quite becomes a man. He is always naive, and Margaret is no help in that vein.  Jacquetta and Richard attempt to herd them in the right direction, but the monarchs’ petty quarrels with the Duke of York evolve into all out war within their lifetime.  Jacquetta, thrust very close to the throne by circumstance and some family meddling is caught in a vise from which she cannot escape.  Her instinct for self-preservation and diplomacy make her one of the most admirable women in the court of Gregory’s creation.  She is gentle and loving to her husband and children, and sweet to a fault with the queen.  The fact that she’s descended from a goddess and possesses supernatural powers is just a bonus.

The love between Richard and Jacquetta had me burning with envy throughout the entire novel.  As with Gregory’s other books, The Lady of the Rivers spans a very long period of time–from Jacquetta’s childhood to her twilight years.  Richard loves Jacquetta from the moment he sees her as his lord the Duke’s new bride until his death decades later. Though they spend much of their life apart, their passion never fades and neither of them strays from the other.  Each time they are separated, Jacquetta is frantic for his safety, and they fall into each others’ arms like young lovers on his return, even after she has borne him 14 children (ouch!).  In a genre in which it seems like everyone sleeps with everyone (at least according to our favorite juicy historical fiction) it is really refreshing to read about a couple that is still happily devoted to one another.

Gregory’s novels can sometimes be a bit repetitive, especially in this time period.  She does a lot of jumping forward in time, and skims over events that she deems less important to her stories.  During this war, the power switches sides a lot, and everyone accuses everyone else of treason.  Though a lot of people cry foul on each other and it can seem rather trivial and petty, Gregory does a fine job of reminding the reader that this situation is constantly life-and-death for Jacquetta and her family.  It adds tension to the story and keeps the reader engaged despite the repetition.

This is by far one of my favorite Philippa Gregory novels.  Though I try not to read books in a series right next to each other, I may have to go pick up The Kingmaker’s Daughter, just because this novel left me craving more of her writing style.  Definitely read it!

12.17–A Clash of Kings

12.17–A Clash of Kings

This novel, in case you don’t know, is the second in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.  By no means as interesting as the first, much of it feels rather like filler.  It takes a very long while for the events to get moving. For a novel that’s 969 pages long, reading through 400 pages in which mostly nothing happens is pretty difficult.  Still, the events of the latter half of the novel make pushing through the first part worth it, and I very much look forward to starting the next novel.

As ever, the story of the Seven Kingdoms is told from multiple third-person points of view, following a large number of different characters.  One of the most frustrating things about this series is the sheer number of characters (I believe I read somewhere that throughout the series of five books so far there are over 1,000 named characters).  Their names are unusual and some of them are very similar, making it extremely difficult to keep track of everyone.  At times I only followed the story based on some vague concept of a person’s character–this man is bad, this woman is benevolent, this man can’t be trusted, this one can be bought for gold–instead of attempting to memorize all the names. It helps to read the appendix at the back, and keep referring to it as the novel progresses.

I will say this for Martin: with his main players he takes a great deal of care, crafting them into multi-faceted, many-sided characters.  My favorite in this novel is Tyrion Lannister, a witty man whose lack of brawn has turned him into a clever schemer–the man who really controls the country, though from the shadows so that no one knows it. Arya, my favorite in the last book, lost most of her spunk for this one, though she gained it back at the end to reclaim her place in my heart. Sansa, whom I hated in the first novel, certainly earns the reader’s sympathy in this one, as her mad betrothed, Joffrey, abuses her horribly, both emotionally and physically.  Cersei Lannister and her son Joffrey are both evil to the core–Joffrey a spoiled, mad child who has been given a crown, and Cersei the mother who will do anything to protect her son and see him hold on to the Iron Throne.  Each of these characters, and the others, evoke specific emotions within the reader, and once the chapter ends and we don’t know how soon we’ll see them again, there is a little bit of disappointment.  I’ve considered skipping ahead to the next chapter belonging to a character I’m particularly interested in, but I know that by the time the novel gets around to that next chapter, so many things have changed that nothing will make sense.

The plot moves swiftly and the fortunes of characters change in a flash.  In this novel, as in its predecessor and presumably its sequels, nothing is certain–life or death, good or evil, victory or defeat.  Even when it looks as if a battle can have only one outcome, Martin surprises us with some new trickery.  With five kings vying for one throne, and two more self-styled monarchs eyeing the throne from a distance, there is no well-defined line in the sand, no clear hero for which to cheer.  In this, Martin creates realism far beyond what most authors will do.  These people could be walking around in an alternate universe, where fate does not always favor the noble or the good.  Though the world he created is very thorough, complete with topography, geography, history, religion, language, culture, and the previously spoken-of characters, it is this ability of his to not give us the happy ending we want that truly brings the story to life and makes it believable.

Though I did not enjoy this novel nearly as much as the first, I still had difficulty putting it down, especially the nearer I drew to the end.  The simmering pot of the Seven Kingdoms explodes into a boil, and it gets to be a very exciting read.