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A Gathering of Shadows: A Novel
A Gathering of Shadows: A Novel
by Victoria Schwab
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.46
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lush, confident, and wholly immersive, February 23, 2016
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A Gathering of Shadows is a different beast from its predecessor, A Darker Shade of Magic. While the first book in V.E. Schwab's excellent fantasy series devoted itself largely to establishing the rules of its multiple (and occasionally magical) Londons, introducing its characters, and then throwing them all into tumultuous conflict, the second takes its time luxuriating in the world so meticulously crafted in the first book. It is lighter on conflict, heavier on character development, and chock full of fun. Which may seem an odd thing to say about the sequel to a story that started with so much darkness, but just trust me. Or better yet, trust V.E. Schwab, whose gift for beautiful prose and attention to detail is evident on every page.

Whereas Darker Shade divided its time rather evenly between three of the four Londons, Gathering takes place primarily in Red London, where we spend most of the story swept up in the Essen Tasch (Element Games), a magical tournament pitting the best magicians of each kingdom against one another. Unlike Darker Shade, which follows Kell for the first few chapters, Gathering opens with Lila Bard, whom we last saw dropping anchor in a world that is not her own. We quickly learn that Lila has spent the past several months acquainting herself with the magic and customs of Red London, and has made a place for herself aboard a grand ship, the Night Spire, and endeared herself to its captain, Alucard Emery.

Through Alucard (a delightful and charismatic addition to the cast of characters), Lila learns of the Essen Tasch, and in true Delilah Bard fashion, decides she must enter. Only a few obstacles stand in her way:

1. The competitors have already been chosen, and she is not among them
2. Her opponents have been training in magic their entire lives
3. Lila has never been trained in magic at all

Of course, for a cross-dressing piracy-aspiring thief like Delilah Bard, these are not actually obstacles at all, but merely challenges to overcome. And if we've learned anything about Lila in Darker Shade, it's that she loves a good challenge.

Fortunately for her, Alucard Emery is no stranger to either magic or the courtly customs of Red London. Less fortunately for her, he is also competing in the Essen Tasch. And he intends to win.

And then, of course, there is Kell, whose dreams have been haunted by images of Lila ever since they said farewell. Kell's relationship with his foster brother, Prince Rhy, changed dramatically at the end of Darker Shade, and as a result, in Gathering we find him still adjusting to both his responsibility to his brother and his role in court.

Without the need to set up the rules of the world anymore, there is more room to explore the people within it. As the Essen Tasch gets underway, we see Kell and Lila, and magic itself, in a way we haven't ever seen them before. With the delightful and thrilling setting of the competition acting as a backdrop, Gathering delves deeper into its two lead characters, and takes its time in bringing them back together, making the reader yearn for their eventual and inevitable reintroduction. Rhy plays a larger role this time around, as he struggles to come to terms to what happened to him in the previous book while striving to be the prince, son, and brother his family expects, and Alucard brings a refreshing wit and edge to the story, throwing a wrench into the inner workings of all three main characters.

And then beneath, in notes so sparse it's easy to forget they're there, lies the menace of Black London. While readers relax into the spectacle of the Essen Tasch, and the interactions of Gathering's colorful cast of characters, both old and new, Black London simmers underneath, reminding us that this is, indeed, a V.E. Schwab book, where nothing can ever stay light and happy for long.

As Gathering reaches its boiling point, readers may start to panic, wondering how the story can possibly wrap up in the number of pages left. And, well...it doesn't. As most early readers have noted, Gathering ends on a whopper of a cliffhanger, and even if you're prepared for not everything to resolve in this book (this is, after all, a trilogy), it's a shock to hit that last page and abruptly realize there is no more. But just because it doesn't have a neat and tidy ending doesn't mean there isn't plenty to love in this book. From the deeper exploration of the characters to the thrill of the Essen Tasch to the quiet ramping up of Black London, A Gathering of Shadows adds layers and richness to all the things I loved about A Darker Shade of Magic, then throws in a few more for good measure. If you enjoy exquisitely imagined and beautifully written dark historical fantasy, I highly recommend this lush, confident, and wholly immersive series.


Salt to the Sea
Salt to the Sea
by Ruta Sepetys
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.41
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hopeful, moving, inspiring, and immensely satisfying., February 8, 2016
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This review is from: Salt to the Sea (Hardcover)
Ruta Sepetys has a unique gift. She finds the tragic stories that history forgot and brings them to life through her books, educating her readers on these lost pieces of the past while simultaneously taking them on a heartfelt and emotional journey alongside her characters. Salt to the Sea is a work of historical fiction, but it is based on a very real event — the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 — and the true historical backdrop is every bit as compelling as the stories of the fictional characters.

Salt to the Sea is told from the point-of-view of four different teenagers, each with a secret. There is Florian, a disillusioned Prussian art restorer; Joana, a clever and determined Lithuanian nurse; Emelia, a young Polish girl struggling for hope in a world that continues to betray her; and Alfred, a young Nazi sailor desperately seeking recognition.

I am going to pause here, because you may be nervous about the same thing I was during Alfred’s first chapter — namely, is this book going to attempt to make me sympathize with a Nazi? The short answer is no. I’m not going to say Alfred’s chapters are easy to read — on the contrary; Alfred is an infuriating character, what you would get if you took Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, aged him down a bit, and handed him a copy of Mein Kampf. And while Salt to the Sea never tries to make the reader sympathize with Alfred or make excuses for him, some readers may not be able to stomach reading his toxic and hateful inner monologue. Only you can decide whether you can handle reading from the POV of a Nazi (and a sniveling, lazy Nazi at that), and I won’t try to change your mind if you don’t think this is something you can do. All I will say is that Alfred’s chapters do contribute to the narrative as a whole, and neither the stakes nor the tension would be the same without his perspective.

However, as much as Alfred is The Worst, the other characters balance the scale. Joana was probably my favorite, a wonderful combination of resourceful, smart, kind, and brave. (Joana also ties into Between Shades of Gray, for those of you who have read both books.) But they all had their moments. Emelia is kind and sweet, but with an underlying determination and selflessness that, on several occasions, took my breath away. And then there is Florian, reserved and secretive, yet motivated by a quiet nobility that kept me rooting for him throughout. I was so very invested in the fates of these three characters that I find myself still daydreaming about them days after finishing.

As for the story itself, I was surprised to find that the characters don’t even board the Wilhelm Gustloff until the second half of the book. (Perhaps I would have been more prepared for this had I realized that the Gustloff was only scheduled for a 48-hour trip, not a weeks-long voyage like the Titanic. So it makes sense that most of our time getting to know the characters happens before they reach the ship.)

The first half of the book chronicles the long trek of the refugees through the snowy countryside on their way to the port (or, in Alfred’s case, his preparations to sail). The journey to the ship is harrowing, as the characters are constantly trying to avoid both German and Russian soldiers, while also staving off frostbite, dehydration, and malnutrition. On the way, there are several horrifying incidents that show the terrible price of war, and even once they reach the port, the descriptions of the refugees are gutting. Sepetys thankfully never lingers on any single gruesome image for long, but through her careful descriptions and meticulously crafted sentences, you get a thorough mental image of the squalor, desperation, and terror of the characters and their surroundings.

Then there is their time on the Gustloff, cut tragically short by the sinking. Since I don’t want to get into spoilers, all I will say is that even though I knew the ship was going to sink, it was still devastating to read about. I was invested so deeply in the characters that watching them go through such an awful experience — no matter their personal outcome — was heartbreaking, and I spent the last chunk of the book reading through tears. It’s one thing to know about a tragic historic event; it’s another thing to experience it. Salt puts the reader right on the deck of the sinking ship, making us feel the panic and terror of the passengers, the biting cold of the water, the hopelessness of the death all around them, and, in spite of that, the steely resolve to keep struggling for survival.

As in her previous books, Ruta Sepetys’ prose shines, instantly transporting the reader to the world of her characters. Some authors struggle to convincingly juggle multiple points-of-view, but that is not the case in Salt to the Sea. Each of her four main characters has a distinctive voice and way of thinking which makes them easily distinguishable from one another. Also, the chapters are very short, with most lasting only two or three pages, so you never have to wait long to hear more from your favorite character. The brief chapters make that mental nudge to read “just one more chapter” easy to indulge, making this an incredibly swift read.

Salt to the Sea is a beautiful tale of a forgotten tragedy, set during one of the darkest periods of our history. It is respectfully and meticulously researched, but never feels like it’s working too hard to educate; instead, it sweeps the reader up in its vivid characters, gorgeous prose, and compelling storytelling, and if we are more historically knowledgeable by the end, that just feels like a bonus. One may expect a tale like this to leave the reader with a sense of despair, but although the story is full of moments of horror and death and unspeakable devastation, it balances them with moments of friendship, love, sacrifice, heroism, generosity, and kindness. In spite of the bleak time in which it is set, and the disastrous event that serves as its centerpiece, the Salt to the Sea ultimately manages to be hopeful, moving, inspiring, and immensely satisfying.


Walk on Earth a Stranger (Gold Seer Trilogy)
Walk on Earth a Stranger (Gold Seer Trilogy)
by Rae Carson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.38
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful, vivid, and compulsively readable portrayal of life in Gold Rush-era America, September 22, 2015
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Before I dig into my thoughts on the first book in Rae Carson’s new Gold Seer Trilogy, let’s discuss genre for a minute. While WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER is being marketed as a fantasy, and while the opening chapter firmly establishes Leah Westfall’s ability to magically sense the presence of gold, once you move past the events that set Leah off on her cross-country journey, I was surprised to find that the majority of the book reads like a straight historical. Who knows, maybe future installments in the series will play up the magic more, but going off of just this first book, it feels a bit more accurate to call WOEAS historical fiction with some magical realism elements, rather than a fantasy

That said, even though I’d been prepared for a fantasy, I was not disappointed in the slightest to find magic missing from the majority of WOEAS. Leah — who starts going by “Lee” early in the book, when she disguises herself as a boy — is an utterly compelling narrator, and Carson’s prose is simultaneously lush and gritty, masterfully evoking the visuals and sounds and smells of a late-1800s America. The staggering amount of research that must have gone into this novel is evident on every page, immersing the reader in the endlessly beautiful — yet unforgivingly harsh — American frontier.

Though the ensemble cast seems kind of sprawling at first, Carson skillfully manages to develop her characters into fully three-dimensional people after surprisingly little page time. It didn’t take long before I was rooting not just for Leah, but for the families and individuals traveling alongside her. I won’t name names, because some characters have pretty impressive arcs (and some, um, die), but suffice it to say, Leah isn’t the only one who ends the book loving these people like family.

For those of us who grew up playing the video game Oregon Trail, Leah’s journey will come with a distinct sense of nostalgia. While (spoiler alert) Leah never hunkers down for days on end to shoot squirrels, she, along with her fellow travelers, must ford rivers, maneuver covered wagons, manage sick oxen, and battle disease (although not quite as much dysentery as I remember from my Oregon Trail days). Though the wagon train’s trek to California moves agonizingly slowly, the plot never does. Carson is a master of infusing her story with moment-to-moment tension, and even when the characters were sitting still, I found myself flying through the pages.

As with Carson’s first series, [what I suspect will be] the main romantic subplot doesn’t get much exploration in this first book. While there are hints, this is a story of survival and endurance, not romance. However, as a fan of the slow burn, I thoroughly enjoyed the foundations that were so thoughtfully laid in this book, and I think that even readers who prefer a lot of swoon in their fiction will find that, while sparse, there are enough tidbits in this book to carry them through to the next one.

Overall, I found WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER to be a beautiful, vivid, and compulsively readable portrayal of life in Gold Rush-era America, with just a dash of magic. I unequivocally loved it. Whether you are a lover of fantasy or historicals or simply a good story well told, I think you’ll love it, too.


Fool's Quest: Book II of the Fitz and the Fool trilogy
Fool's Quest: Book II of the Fitz and the Fool trilogy
by Robin Hobb
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.04
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fitz and The Fool remain two of the greatest characters I've ever read, September 9, 2015
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I can’t tell you how excited I was when I found out Robin Hobb was writing a new series about Fitz and the Fool. While we left both characters in a pretty satisfying place at the end of FOOL’S FATE, I’d come to love these characters like family. I missed not being able to journey alongside them on their adventures. So although I had no idea what to expect as far as a conflict for a new series — the main conflict in both the Assassin and Tawny Man series is pretty handily wrapped up at the end of FOOL’S FATE — I was eager to return to the world of the Six Duchies.

Like the first books in most of Hobb’s preceding series, the initial installment in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy, FOOL’S ASSASSIN, takes its time ramping up. I very much enjoyed it — by this point in the series, my overwhelming fondness for FitzChivalry Farseer means that I’m totally cool following him through a series of quiet and mundane tasks, whether it’s managing his estate or dealing with his children (mostly because Fitz has gone through so many dark times that I’m beyond pleased that he has an estate, or children) — and this sort of slow grounding process is necessary to re-establish the reader in Fitz’s world and remind us of the events that led here — but as far as action goes, it’s not until the final act of FOOL’S ASSASSIN that we really see things take off.

Not so with FOOL’S QUEST. Again, this is pretty well expected for each of Hobb’s series: Book 1 spends its time meticulously setting up an intricate pattern of dominoes, then Book 2 blazes in and knocks them all down, leaving the reader in a mess of perfectly executed chaos. FOOL’S QUEST was no exception to this. It hits the ground running, picking up right where FOOL’S ASSASSIN leaves off, and pushes the plot forward at a determined pace, never feeling rushed, but never letting up, either. High fantasy tends to run long in pages, but while reading FOOL’S QUEST, I found myself lamenting that there were *only* 500, 400, 300 pages left to go.

You know that feeling when watching the extended edition of The Two Towers, and it ends and you simultaneously realize, “wow, that movie was three and a half hours long,” but also wish it didn’t have to end? That’s the feeling I had reading this book. Though I was aware of its heft, when I turned the last page, I wasn’t anywhere near ready for it to be over.

Unlike FOOL’S ASSASSIN, which focuses almost entirely on Fitz and his life far away from Buckkeep Castle, FOOL’S QUEST returns him to his old stomping grounds, where we finally get to catch up with beloved (and Beloved) characters of the past. The Fool is there, of course (I was surprised at how little The Fool was in the first book, given its name), just as mysterious and tragic as ever, along with Chade, Kettricken, Dutiful, Elliania, Nettle, and a host of minor characters whose inclusion made it feel like a true homecoming not just for Fitz, but for the reader. There are even some cameos from characters from the Liveships and Rain Wilds books, whom I hope we see more of as the story progresses.

Although this series of series has always tied together beautifully, to me it’s always felt kind of like a quilt, with clearly distinct pieces coming together at the edges and making up a whole. The Fitz books overlapped with Liveships, which overlapped with Rain Wilds, but they were all still their own separate entities. But in FOOL’S QUEST, for the first time, it began to feel more like a tapestry, with the threads beginning to weave over and under and through one another. It’s possible this won’t come to fruition, and that this Fitz series, like the other (brilliant) books before it, will end up more or less self-contained. But I kind of doubt it, and look forward to seeing how Hobb continues to tie this massive world and cast together.

As with every one of Hobb’s preceding books, in FOOL’S QUEST you can expect a host of fully realized, complicated characters, lush worldbuilding, achingly gorgeous prose, vivid emotion, catastrophic stakes, and thrilling action. But for me, the relationships between the characters are what shine the brightest. Fitz’s friendship with The Fool is, of course, the Catalyst on which the whole story pivots, and always has been. Watching these two characters who have been through so much together interact and trust and plead and betray and forgive is a truly beautiful, frustrating, heartbreaking, uplifting experience.

Contrasting that is Fitz’s relationships with his daughters, where he is not a Catalyst, but simply a father, with all the expectation and disappointment and responsibility that brings. Watching Fitz try to navigate fatherhood, after watching him grow up and struggle and fail and triumph, is both rewarding and agonizing. I want nothing but the best for Fitz, but both fate and his own shortcomings are constantly getting in his way. I want to take him by the shoulders and shake him and hug him, maybe at the same time, which for my money is one of the hallmarks of a truly excellent protagonist.

I could go on for ages, but suffice it to say, all of Fitz’s other relationships are similarly complex and well-drawn. Each feels like fully realized person, and the way Fitz interacts with each person he encounters is wholly authentic and honest, whether he’s fighting to the death or gently caring for a traumatized stable hand. Though the sweeping plot of FOOL’S QUEST is every bit as intriguing and suspenseful as Fitz’s quest to aid King Verity against the Red Ships Raiders, or traveling to Aslevjal island to slay a dragon, it’s these relationships and interactions that are the true meat of this series.

Ultimately, this isn’t a recommendation for this one book — if you’ve already read the preceding 7-14 books, you probably already have a pretty good idea if you want to read this one — but for this series, and every series about FitzChivalry Farseer. If you’re not sure if fantasy is your thing, or you’re hesitant about picking up the first book in a series that is so sprawling, let this be your assurance that this is a series that only gets better as it continues. It’s worth the time, it’s worth the investment. Fitz and The Fool are two of the greatest characters I’ve ever read, and as long as Robin Hobb sees fit to keep writing books about them, I’ll be the first in line to read them.


The Martian
The Martian
by Andy Weir
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.16
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5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best books I've ever read., July 15, 2015
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This review is from: The Martian (Paperback)
THE MARTIAN is, hands-down, one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t mean “best” in a technical sense — although I don’t think it has many faults in that arena either — but in a couldn’t-put-it-down, laughed-out-loud, recommended-it-to-everyone-I-knew, still-thinking-about-it-weeks-later sense. I loved it so much it’s hard to write a review without devolving into incoherent squealing noises, but I shall try.

The appeal of THE MARTIAN hinges almost entirely on its main character, Mark Watney. The vast majority of the book is his first-person journal entries, where he describes his efforts to survive alone on a hostile planet, for years, using accommodations and supplies meant to last a month. This is a dangerous device, because if the reader doesn’t like the main character, there’s literally nothing else to focus on. Mark is it, at least for the first significant chunk of the book. Take him or leave him.

Fortunately, Mark Watney is the kind of character I could read forever. Though most of his narration is spent breaking down the science of survival (soil cultivation! structural engineering! making water out of rocket fuel!), which sounds like it should be the most tedious of subjects, I was riveted from the first page to the last. He had a way of describing even the most complex processes in ways that were not only easy to follow, but exciting and, against all odds, funny. Never in my life would I have thought I could be so invested in potato farming, or laugh so hard at the woes of a man caught in such dire circumstances.

There are no bad guys in THE MARTIAN, and it doesn’t need any. There is only Mark (and, eventually, NASA) versus Mars. Since Mars is always present, and always deadly, the tension stays ratcheted up throughout. Life on Mars may be monotonous for Mark, but for the reader, there are no dull points. Everything Mark does is a matter of life and death, all told through a lens of determination, scrappiness, and wry (occasionally profane) humor.

Science is practically a main character in THE MARTIAN, but author Andy Weir — through Mark — breaks it down into language that was completely accessible to me, a total layman. Even though practically every page contains Mark working through calculations, conducting chemistry experiments, or engineering unorthodox solutions to his problems, the narrative never felt bogged down by it, nor was I ever confused. Everything from the technology to Mark’s methods to NASA’s reactions were all presented in such a compelling and believable way that I occasionally had to remind myself that this was science fiction, not a true story.

THE MARTIAN is everything I want in science fiction. High stakes, excellent pacing, unexpected humor, an amazing premise, smart yet accessible science, and fully realized characters that I miss once the last page is turned. It easily launched itself to the top of my list of favorite books, and is a story I look forward to re-reading many, many times. 100 out of 5 stars.


Everything I Never Told You: A Novel (Alex Awards (Awards))
Everything I Never Told You: A Novel (Alex Awards (Awards))
by Celeste Ng
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.32
177 used & new from $2.76

5.0 out of 5 stars A beautifully crafted tale full of honest emotion and raw truth, June 7, 2015
From its very first page, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU utterly captivated me with its poetic, sparse prose and keen emotional insight. Each word feels carefully chosen to immerse the reader in the Lee family's household, which seems ordinary at first -- in spite of the dead girl no one has yet discovered -- but as the layers peel back, we learn things are far more complicated.

I was surprised, at first, at the narration of the story. Told in the third-person, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU strolls casually through the thoughts of its five main characters -- parents James and Marilyn, and their children, Nath, Lydia, and Hannah -- sometimes sticking with one character for nearly an entire chapter, other times jumping from one to another to another all within the confines of a single scene. In addition to that, the narrative also darts back and forth through time, from James' and Marilyn's childhoods, college years, and courtship, up through their children's lives, all the way to and beyond Lydia's untimely death. One might think this head-hopping and time-leaping would be disorienting or confusing, but it isn't. Ng juggles it all masterfully, so that instead of the story rolling out in a neat line, it unfolds like a flower, all at once and in every direction.

The characters themselves were an interesting puzzle. On the one hand, they almost felt less like people and more like concepts or symbols. Though I wouldn't say this is necessarily a book about racism, or feminism, or parental pressure, or adultery, or sibling rivalry --all those themes are present, and important, but as an undercurrent to the story, not the story itself -- there are times when it seemed as though a character was the embodiment of an issue, rather than the embodiment of a person. Normally, this would turn me off. I love a good plot, but I read for character. If the characters don't feel like real people to me, that doesn't usually bode well for the book.

However -- and this is a huge however -- in this particular case, I was all right that the characters felt a little more ambiguous, because the emotion was spot-on. While I'm not sure that James is a person one could ever know, the way he felt growing up as the only Chinese kid in an all-white school rang entirely true. I could feel my hands shake as Marilyn stepped into a physics classroom full of men, feel my stomach clench as Lydia's grades slipped and tumbled, feel my heart sink as Nath learned how mean children can be. I had to stop reading at one point because I needed to remind myself that the family's grief was not my own; at another, I put the book down so I could go into my sleeping daughters' room and hug them and tell them that they were loved, because the pain the parents in the book felt at not being able to tell Lydia those things left me no other choice.

For me, if a book can make me feel emotions that raw and sharp, it trumps absolutely everything else.

I also want to talk a bit about ethnicity, and how the fact that James is Chinese and his children are mixed-race works its way into the story. As the child of a Chinese father and a white mother, I was curious to see how that aspect of the book would be handled. And while the experiences of the Lees (particularly Nath and Lydia) were not and are not my experience -- partially because of the 1970s setting of the book, and partially because I was not the only not-white kid growing up -- they felt authentic to me, and I could relate to much of how they thought and acted and reacted. It's hard to put into words the sense of knowing you are different but not feeling different, of forgetting that sometimes people will look at you and see an ethnicity instead of a person. I am fortunate to have only felt this way sporadically throughout my life -- for some, as it is for James in the book, I know it is constant -- but EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU does an excellent job of conveying how those times felt, sometimes subtly, sometimes explicitly, as it is in life. Being Chinese -- or half-Chinese, or married to a Chinese man -- does not define the whole of who the Lees are, but is instead a thread woven through their being, informing every aspect of their lives, whether or not they are conscious of it.

As for the plot -- the mysterious circumstances surrounding Lydia's death, what led to them, and how the family reacts -- I found it simple, but never straightforward or boring. As in real life, there are multiple forces at play here, and though the plot itself isn't complex -- a girl dies, and her family tries to make sense of her death -- the real story here is in the nuance. It's impossible, after putting down the book, to cite any one reason or cause for Lydia's death. It's a culmination of her whole life, of her parent's lives, of her siblings' lives, and all the choices and hurts and slights and misunderstandings and pressures running through each. When we finally reached the night of Lydia's death in the narrative and everything was explained, it wasn't the "a-ha!" moment one typically expects in a mystery, but more a quiet, "of course." For really, this isn't a mystery about the death of a teenage girl, but a story about a family's complex relationships with each other. Not a line or an arc, but a web.

Ultimately, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU is a beautifully crafted tale full of honest emotion and raw truth. Though it is quiet, the gorgeous prose and heart-wrenching story kept me riveted from the first page to the last, and will keep my thoughts spinning for some time to come.


Mosquitoland
Mosquitoland
by David Arnold
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.38
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Full of sharp wit, abundant strangeness, and endless quotability, March 18, 2015
This review is from: Mosquitoland (Hardcover)
The first thing a reader notices when they pick up MOSQUITOLAND is the voice. Self-proclaimed strange protagonist Mary Iris Malone (“Mim”) leaps off the page, a precocious, declarative and impulsive girl with a view of life and people that is, even at its most stable, a little askew. She is quick to judge and quicker to act, and though her wit is razor-sharp, her common sense is quite a bit blurrier.

Which is why, as one might expect, her spur-of-the-moment road trip to find her absentee mom doesn’t go exactly as planned.

It’s an odd thing, sometimes, being an adult reading books about teenagers. Actions I would have cheered in my adolescence cause me to cringe, situations that appear romantic and exciting to a 16-year-old seem rife with danger, and the logic that feels incontrovertible to the teenage protagonist is riddled with holes.

Often, these are the sorts of things that can pull me out of a story, because checking one’s adult sensibilities at the door is not a natural impulse. Honestly, Mim makes a few choices that would probably even give some — or most — of her peers pause. But her voice is so open and authentic that even when she’s jumping into a scrap-heap truck with an older boy she just met or taking a dip in a probably-disease-riddled swimming hole or any of the myriad other weird and ill-considered things she does, I was with Mim, totally and completely, instead of wishing I could pull her back before she charged headlong into disaster.

And she does, on more than one occasion, charge into disaster. Sometimes physical and cataclysmic, sometimes internal and echoing, and probably not nearly as frequent as might be likely if a real-life Mim were to embark on this same journey. But the consequences Mim faces for her impulsive and often uninformed decisions are enough that while a reader may sympathize with Mim’s intentions, they can still recognize her fallibility and naivete.

As for tone, this book skillfully straddles the line between “issues” and “light” contemporary. It tackles hard topics in a way that gives them weight without bogging down the narrative, and balances tough real-world issues — mental illness, suicide, divorce, and sexual predators, among others (it’s worth mentioning that this book is marketed for readers 12 and up, but I think it skews a bit older) — with an effervescent lightness, as if the story has been painted with a vibrant, Wes Anderson-esque brush. Every part of MOSQUITOLAND is a little brighter and larger than life, from the cast to the plot to Mim herself and her perception of reality.

For my money, that’s a good thing: Mim views her story as grandiose and that is how she tells it, and being submerged in her off-the-beaten-path brain gives her tale a degree of authenticity that may not have been present with a more straightforward narrative.

Mim’s odyssey is a strange one, full of strange characters and strange happenings. But it’s also beautiful and fun and heartfelt and raw, and while Mim’s musings are not always brimming with objective wisdom, they are honest and endlessly quotable.

If you’re a fan of surprisingly eventful road trips, of quirky and bizarre casts of characters, of flawed protagonists, of vivid settings and skewed realities, of the type of voice that will dig its way into your brain and refuse to let go, and of strangeness, I can’t recommend MOSQUITOLAND highly enough.


A Darker Shade of Magic: A Novel
A Darker Shade of Magic: A Novel
by Victoria Schwab
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.46
75 used & new from $10.95

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magic, murder, intrigue, and fabulous coats, February 24, 2015
As with most high fantasy, A Darker Shade of Magic starts slow and quiet, building a world that is like ours, and not like ours, brick by brick. We meet Kell, a mysterious wanderer in a fabulous coat, who travels between worlds as easily as stepping from one room to another. There is Grey London, which plays like a straight historical fiction of our world, Red London, Kell’s home, which is rich and teeming with magic, and White London, which has been all but burned up by magic and treachery. And then there is Black London, which no one travels to anymore, not even Kell.

The world of each London is established subtly but confidently, and through Kell’s eyes, the rules of each overlapping London gradually become clear and distinct. Once we’ve gained our footing in the magic of Kell’s world and have a sense of the difficulties he faces in each London, we meet Lila, a cunning thief from Grey London with a quick hand and a taste for adventure. It takes a while for all the building blocks of the story to fall into place, but there are plenty of rewards for the patient reader, from the lush details of the worlds to the charming characters to Schwab’s signature poetic prose.

Then, once Lila and Kell inevitably cross paths, the story takes off, plunging both protagonists into a London-jumping whirlpool of courtly intrigue and deception while playing up the conflict between Lila’s lack of magic and Kell’s abundance of it to maximum, satisfying effect.

What V.E. Schwab did so well in Vicious, and what she does again here, is establish each of her characters, from heroes to villains, as fully realized, fleshed-out individuals. While Lila and Kell are both brave and charismatic, they are also criminals, and while the main antagonists – the terrifying sibling rulers of White London – are undeniably sinister, the people they use to carry out their dark deeds are in many ways conflicted and sympathetic. Blurring that line between hero and villain is a tricky game, but Schwab accomplishes it masterfully.

As I said before, the first half of the book may be a slow burn, but it’s a delicious one. Readers shouldn’t expect to plunge straight into adventure and murder and intrigue, but there is plenty to enjoy along the road to chaos. And once the book hits its stride, there are payoffs aplenty as the story builds in intensity all the way through to its twisting, bloody conclusion.

A Darker Shade of Magic will have a sequel, but this first installment ends on a perfectly satisfying note. I can’t wait to join Kell and Lila on their next London-hopping adventure, but I was utterly sated with the ending of this book. There are no cliffhangers here, only the graceful bow of one adventure while another waits in the wings, peeking around the corner.

If you’re in the mood for a refreshingly unique spin on alternate universes, magic, and devastatingly gorgeous coats – or if you just want a beautifully crafted story told in a mesmerizing, lovely, and occasionally creepy voice, then you should move A Darker Shade of Magic to the top of your list.


My Heart and Other Black Holes
My Heart and Other Black Holes
by Jasmine Warga
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.21
73 used & new from $5.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A thoughtful, honest story of loneliness, heartache, and hope, February 10, 2015
Suicide isn't a topic most people like to discuss. It's upsetting and sad, and I doubt the majority of folks want to believe that it's a subject they'll ever have to deal with personally. Of course, they think, if they ever need to talk about it, they will. They will get a suicidal person the help they need, and they will be supportive, and they will show their loved one that they are not alone.

The problem with that sort of thinking, unfortunately, is depression and suicidal thoughts are not visible to the naked eye. They isolate and tear down, whispering to the depressed person that they are alone in their struggle, and sometimes the people who love them don't see the signs until it is too late.

MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES tackles this difficult conundrum. Aysel (pronounced Uh-zel) is a 16-year-old girl living each day in tremendous doubt and fear after a horrific incident that turned her life upside down and inside out. Roman is a 17-year-old boy wracked with suffocating guilt over a terrible tragedy that he feels was his fault. Both of them consider the cold end of death far more appealing than the certain pain of continuing their lives. Both of them know they can't take the plunge into that dark unknown without a little nudge.

Both of them feel completely, devastatingly, alone.

But in that loneliness, they find common ground. And on that ground, using the pieces of their shattered lives, they start to build.

MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES takes a thoughtful, honest approach to depression and suicidal thoughts. Aysel's pain is very real and raw, and there are no easy answers for her. She sees the world through a jagged, fragmented lens that twists everything into ugly and hateful shapes. But even as she longs to escape her life, she has fears and uncertainties about what taking her own life means. And when she looks at Roman -- a boy who is good looking, popular, athletic, and loved by his parents -- she sees so many reasons to live that she can't see for herself.

I'll admit, parts of this story were hard for me to read. Any time Aysel had to interact with Roman's parents and felt guilt over what his death would do to them, I was gutted. And when the tragedies in each of their lives are revealed, it was achingly clear that should Roman and Aysel decide to live, their journeys will not be without pain and heartache and the kind of healing that can hurt worse than bleeding. This is not a story with easy answers or simple anything, and it felt all the more real for it. As the Author's Note at the end of the book states, recovery is not a switch flipping, but a daily battle that some people fight their whole lives.

But despite the pain and loneliness and bitter heartbreak in Aysel and Roman's lives, MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES is not a bleak book about death, but a story about hope. It takes two broken, hurting people and shows us that even at our darkest, we can be someone's light. Even at our weakest, we can find strength. And even the loneliest of us can provide support to someone who may desperately need it.


I Was Here
I Was Here
by Gayle Forman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.02
140 used & new from $0.01

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Raw, tragic, and ultimately hopeful, February 4, 2015
This review is from: I Was Here (Hardcover)
After reading Forman’s debut novel, If I Stay, and its sequel, Where She Went, I knew Forman was not afraid of tackling difficult subjects and handling them with care, which is why I was interested to see her approach to one of the most upsetting and relevant topics in our society today, teen suicide. Though the subject matter is far from pleasant, it only takes a glance at the headlines to confirm that this is a very real problem facing teens. It is my hope that I Was Here and books like it will help kids experiencing thoughts of suicide realize they are not alone, and raise awareness in the people who love them.

I Was Here follows Meg’s best friend, Cody, as she learns to navigate life without her other half following Meg’s suicide. We never meet Meg except through Cody’s memories, and while there is an element of mystery and suspense as Cody tries to make sense of why Meg would kill herself, I Was Here is ultimately a book about grief, and how to move on after unspeakable loss.

It feels strange to say I enjoyed a book centered on such a grim topic, but I did. I Was Here constantly walked the line between hopeful and tragic, light and dark, guilt and healing. Cody could be a difficult narrator at times, partially because she was in such a painful emotional state and partially because Cody was naturally standoffish, but the other characters provided balance and occasional humor, which I appreciated.

As in all of Forman’s books, there is a romantic element to I Was Here, but it took a backseat to Cody and Meg’s story. I enjoyed watching Cody and her reluctant love interest come together, and fans of subtle, slow-burn romance will appreciate how their story is woven into the main narrative of trying to put together the pieces Meg left behind.

The mystery – why Meg killed herself when, to Cody’s eyes, she had shown no indication that she was suicidal – takes both Cody and the reader down a disturbing rabbit hole that is both illuminating and horrifying. I was concerned at first that the book may attempt to distance itself from its subject matter, taking the easy way out, but I shouldn’t have worried. I Was Here faces its demons head-on, even when Cody would prefer to stay steeped in denial.

Even though the book winds up where most people probably assume it must, the journey Cody takes to get there is in turns heartbreaking and hopeful, and at the end, I came away satisfied. I’d recommend this book to fans of Forman’s previous books, as well as anyone interested in a raw, thoughtful story of depression, loss, grief, and healing.


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