Six of Crows

Six of crowsIf I told you that a book was like a YA Game of Thrones crossed with Ocean’s Eleven, would I even need to say anything else?

I haven’t been reading a lot lately–due to a combination of work and personal events, I’ve been so busy and distracted and stressed that I haven’t been able to concentrate enough to read much beyond Twitter. Which is unusual for me, but it does mean than when a book manages to break through the fog, it’s something to note. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo is actually the first in a set of two books (and it’s basically just one big story, so you might as well go ahead and get Crooked Kingdom at the same time, because you’re going to need to start it right away) that I just thought were terrific. Tense and dark and sweet and magical and twisty–the kind of story that drags you completely out of your world and into a new one.

Like Ocean’s Eleven, this story has an ensemble cast with a crafty leader who is always one step ahead of everyone else. In this case, the ringleader of the group is Kaz Brekker, an up-and-coming gang boss in a city that reads like an alternate universe Amsterdam where magic is real. When he gets offered a can’t-say-no job breaking into an impenetrable ice palace, he has to assemble a group of other disreputable underworld teenagers with the skills–including sharpshooting, demolitions, and magic–needed to pull off the heist. But this is not a simple theft, and the gang gets swept into disputes both international and interpersonal. Reading Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom was like a roller coaster–I would get more and more tense as things went wrong and situations got dire, and then there would be this rush of glee as all the double-crosses and plans were revealed.

Now, this isn’t a comedy. As appears to be the thing in YA books now, there is violence and death and things do get very dark. I should also note that this story is set in the same universe as another trilogy of books, starting with Shadow and Bone. I haven’t read those yet (they’re all waiting on my Kindle) but they happen some time before Six of Crows. So if you’re very intent on reading things chronologically and not getting any hint of other story lines, you might want to start there.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Gritty, magical caper

You might also like: We’ve already raved here about Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series, but I really think that if you liked one of these, you’d like the other. Kaz and Gen have an awful lot in common. And this is great opportunity to tell you that Turner just came out with a new book in her series (technically, a stand-alone story in the same universe) called Thick as Thieves. Quick like a fox, go check it out!

online comics / graphic novels

I never quite know what term to use for comic strips or comic books or graphic novels now that the medium has expanded so wildly beyond what those terms originally referred to. But I’ve got two online comic strips that I highly recommend because they’re charming and delightful and I just love the characters and the stories and the artwork.

First up:

WildelifeWilde Life
by Pascalle Lepas
2014 – ongoing

The plot is: “A graphic novel about a writer who rents a haunted house from Craigslist and makes not-friends with a werewolf.”

It’s essentially a series of short stories set in a rural town around the main guy who’s rented a house for a while to just get away from his previous life that’s mostly not mentioned. The illustrations are excellent (and just keep getting better) but the characters are where this really shines. Every character is so very much themselves and so very delightful. (And don’t forget to check for roll-over text comments from the author on later pages because they’re pretty darn funny too.)

The author has just finished the sixth chapter / plot arc, and it’s so incredibly delightful and I really hope she does another kickstarter so I can order hardcopy versions. In the meantime, you, gentle reader, should immediately go check this out: http://www.wildelifecomic.com/comic/1

Second up:

powerballadPower Ballad
by Molly Brooks
2017 – ongoing

This only has eight issues out so far but it’s scheduled to be updated weekly and those eight issues are an utter delight!

Meera is the personal assistant to international pop star / masked vigilante Carina. So while Carina does music videos and fights crime batman-style, Meera tries to make sure appointments are made and kept. And they both have adorable pining crushes on each other but neither have said anything (yet!) and it’s just too cute for words.

Also, the illustrations are amazing and doing some really interesting things, because first they’re working with the online medium by displaying each issue as a single page down which the reader scrolls rather than trying to mimic a hardcopy comic book (at some point I think it would be really interesting to see if hardcopy comics can be made on scrolls to mimic websites), and second, they’re illustrated with just a couple of colors in a handful of shades, which gives it a sort of quick-sketch first impression while still being amazingly effective and detailed.

So check it out here: http://www.webtoons.com/en/drama/power-ballad/list?title_no=987

 

The Tearling Trilogy

I read the first book in this trilogy, The Queen of the Tearling, almost a year ago, but I was too scared to recommend it until the final book was released because I’ve been burned before. I wrote a blog entry about The Fifth Wave before I had finished the series and you guys–that one was not good. It got so convoluted and nonsensical at the end that I read all three books but am still not 100% sure if the aliens or humans won. But this trilogy did not descend into madness!  It really held up and kept me hooked the whole time.

Trying to describe the plot of these books makes it sound like every other YA/fantasy-ish series out there. In a land that sounds a lot like medieval Europe, a teenage girl is about to become queen of a country under attack, and will have to learn confidence in herself and how to wield her power in order to protect her people. I know, I know, this could describe half the things I read. But there are a few things about this story that I think make it different than some other versions:

  • It’s dark. I know that YA these days leans dark, but this is pretty darn dark. Kelsea, the main character, doesn’t just have to save her people from looming threat, but from some truly terrible things happening in her kingdom.
  • This is not a romance. Some people like each other, and some people have sex, but this is not a story where you spend the whole time waiting for two key characters to realize how much they love each other. These characters have so much to deal with that love is pretty secondary to them, and the books treat it that way.
  • There is an interesting treatment of time. I don’t want to give too much away, but especially when you get to the second and third books, the concept of time becomes somewhat malleable in a way that I was not expecting.
  • This may connect to the first bullet (the darkness), but there is not a lot of redemption in this story. Bad things happen to people–tough. People do some bad things–they don’t always get to make up for it. Even people who do great things don’t necessarily get rewarded for their efforts.
  • There are a few subtle magical elements in this world that are pretty much never explained. I am still torn on whether I am annoyed about a few things that we all apparently just have to accept as a given, or pleased that the author didn’t try to make up “reasons” for magical occurrences.
This all made these books sound horribly depressing, doesn’t it? Well, they’re not light and fun. But I was completely hooked on them and I was surprised with where the story ended up–the author took what could have been a familiar, maybe even overdone YA trope, and took it in a newer, darker, more subtle and complex direction.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Dark, moral coming-of-age

You might also like: A number of adult sci-fi fantasy books, such as Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, The City and the City by China Mieville, or David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. In the YA area, this was similar in a lot of ways to The Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy.

Sandman Slim

By Richard Kadrey

Sandman_SlimOh, man, this book is like if author Richard Kadrey took everything I love in fiction and put it all in one book – dark and moody hero detective in a noir-ish mystery, with violent action and Judeo-Christian mythology thrown in. (Have I mentioned before my love for schlocky Judeo-Christian horror movies, like “The Omen” and “The Prophesy”? I have!)

I was having trouble figuring out what else to say about it, really, so I went to see what people wrote on amazon, and more than a few mentioned how immature and dislikable the protagonist was, which embarrassed me a bit, since I rather liked him. James Stark, aka, Sandman Slim, was literally sent to Hell during a magic-ritual-gone-wrong in his late teens, and the novels opens with him finding his way back to Earth eleven years later, set on revenge toward those who sent him down.

He returns a bit psychotic, with some serious impulse-control issues, but I give him a lot of leeway, what with his early adulthood in Hell. As the backstory began unfolding, I realized that it reminded me a bit of The Magicians. Kinsey has previously favorably reviewed The Magicians, but when I read it later, I didn’t like it much at all – I thought all of the characters were spoiled brats who made everything and everyone around them worse. Sandman Slim felt like a natural conclusion to The Magicians – all of their arrogant blundering has finally bit them in the ass, and the one bitten the worst has grown up (a little) and is going to make the rest of them pay. It was just very satisfying, and has seriously been the best thing in the last couple really crappy weeks.

J.J. McAvoy

BlackRainbowMcAvoyBlack Rainbow
by J.J. McAvoy
2015

ThatThingMcAvoyThat Thing Between Eli and Gwen
by J.J. McAvoy
2016

SugarBabyMcAvoySugar Baby Beautiful
by J.J. McAvoy
2015

 

So I wavered on writing these books up because they’re in a genre I don’t generally admit to reading: the short, extremely self-indulgent, quite graphic, romance novel. It’s a genre that pretty much defines the guilty pleasure book for a lot of women (it’s a money-maker genre in the publishing industry.) They’re not, generally speaking, good books, but they can be intensely satisfying and relaxing brain candy.

J.J. McAvoy might have managed to break the mold for this genre, though, because I think her books might be genuinely good. They are certainly significantly better than any other books in this genre that I’ve ever read. The issues the characters deal with are relatively believable and sympathetic, but more importantly her characters are all smart and witty and just a bit mean without ever being cruel.

Reading these books really highlighted for me how my favorite characters are all at least a tiny bit mean. I don’t like cruelty, but neither do I like a milksop. These characters, they talk and they bicker and they’re in their partner’s weight-class as far as those fights go, and they genuinely apologize on the rare occasions they go too far or hit an exposed nerve. The books transcend the self-indulgent fantasy by being about characters who are enjoyable in their own right.

And then McAvoy modified the standard plot arc in a way that I’m really impressed with. I’m going to put that beneath a spoiler cut, although there won’t be any specific spoilers.

I won’t recommend the books to everyone, because you do have to enjoy the genre first, but if you do, then you should absolutely try these.

Plot arch spoilers:

Continue reading

Even More from BookBub

Murder at Merisham Lodge

By Celina Grace

Merisham_LodgeFinally back to actual good-quality books from Bookbub! I tried to claim that perhaps my special discrimination for these free books only worked on mysteries, but Rebecca isn’t buying it. Anyway, this is another historical mystery, set in 1930, but what really makes it stand out is that the detective duo is a couple of maids at the titular Merisham Lodge. When the lady of the house dies in mysterious circumstances, they find that their very invisibility to the ‘upstairs’ members of the household make them ideal investigators. They work with a charming and patient investigator with a refreshing lack of romance. In addition to an intriguing plot that I couldn’t guess at all, the details of the below-stairs work and lives is fascinating.

Death at the Manor

By Celina Grace

Death_at_the_ManorWhile Murder at Merisham Lodge is considered Book 1 of the series, there is a previous novella, alluded to but not spoiled in the novel, in which the two maids come across their very first suspicious death. I immediately paid a whopping $0.99 for Death at the Manor, which was quite short and not as well fleshed out as the novel, but still very entertaining and well worth a dollar.

Hushabye

By Celina Grace

HushabyeThe novella then included an excerpt for Hushabye, the first in a series of modern-day murder mysteries by Grace, featuring newly transferred Detective Sergeant Kate Redman, who must familiarize herself with her new team while investigating the kidnapping of an infant and murder of a nanny. I discovered that it was free for Kindle, as well, so I downloaded it in full and read it in about a day. The novel lacks some of the originality of the historical series, but is still very, very good, also with a plot that kept me guessing and a wide variety of interesting characters.

No Game for a Dame

By M. Ruth Myers

No_Game_for_a_DameOn the other hand, this looked really promising – a female hard-boiled detective in the 40s – but fell real short of my expectations. The 1940s setting just felt like a gimmick, with obvious and clunky references to period-appropriate elements. Also, for some extremely peculiar reason the author also kept the ugly racial terms, which I don’t like in books actually written in the 40s and which I’m not going to tolerate in books written more recently. Less problematic, but still a peeve of mine, is when so-called tough ladies are written in ways where they just come across as bitchy. True tough ladies – and I’ve known a lot – are straight talkers that don’t take bullshit, but they are not needlessly rude or aggressive, and it is a lazy cop-out to write them that way.

March by John Lewis

marchtrilogy960x510

March, books 1, 2, and 3
written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
illustrated by Nate Powell
2013, 2015, 2016

John Lewis is a g**d*** hero and every school child should learn his story and every adult should know it. That’s my take away from these books. I am embarrassed at how much of these events I didn’t previously know.

These books were both heart-wrenching and inspirational, made all the more so by the starkness of the story telling. Lewis is not specifically trying to be heart-wrenching or inspirational, he’s just telling the story. And the story is intrinsically heart-wrenching and inspirational.

John Lewis felt, feels, so strongly about achieving what is right that he knowingly walked into situations where he could be killed, refusing to physically fight back, and instead demanding that the world be better than it was through acts of faith and friendship in the face of hatred and anger. That takes levels of courage that I can’t really comprehend and yet want so much. He wanted to live and yet was willing to risk his life to accomplish something because, live or die, succeed or fail, just the attempt would be worth it.

That is a freaking hero.

These books are autobiographical and nonfiction. They give the reader a look at a specific part of history that often gets glossed over in the textbooks. But it’s important history, in part because it’s still ongoing. These events were only some fifty years ago and John Lewis is still alive and working today. And the issues he dealt with are still being dealt with today as well. These books make you think. They don’t necessarily tell you what to think, but they show you events that require thought.

So read them.

Read them now.

Something that gets to me about modern politics is how scared people are. Trump’s supporters want to cower behind a wall, protected from anyone and everything different from them. Trump’s detractors are terrified that he’s going to either kill them outright for being different or force them into a poor homogenous society cowering behind a wall. (I’m over simplifying, but I stand by the summary.)

John Lewis’s life is a testament against that level of fear. He could face fear and not let his warp who he was or change him into someone he didn’t want to be. Everyone should learn that lesson.

Another thing that struck me in these books was how evil some of the white people were. It’s generally not covered in text books, but it’s still historical fact—and not even all that historical. But there were just ordinary citizens who were also monsters and they raised their kids to be monsters. They went out of their way to kill, spread misery and spew anger.

It has occurred to me before that there is a level of cognitive dissonance in this type of violent racism, that clearly shows that the racists know themselves to be in the wrong and lying to themselves. True-believer racists go the white-man’s-burden route. But by violently trying to create a society that they consider to be natural, they demonstrate just how unnatural it really is.

These books also got me thinking about how methods change and evolve in every war as both sides learn how best to attack and defend. In the 1960s, the civil rights leaders made being jailed work for them by overfilling the jails and refusing to pay bail, forcing the cities to take the expense.

Unfortunately, racists have evolved since then and have turned the jail system into a for-profit venture and they benefit off the number of black bodies they imprison.

I’m reminded of the story of Jesus turning the other cheek. It’s often seen as purely an act of humility, but that’s because not many people know the cultural implications of Jesus story. Left and right hands were seen very differently, as were open handed slaps and backhanded slaps. Jesus wasn’t merely submitting to being slapped again, he was changing the situation so that the person slapping him faced a very different set of options.

I’m not sure what the modern version should be, but I do know that it needs to change with the times.

And a final thought:

One of the things that I find difficult with any civil rights movement is that I can never do enough, and so I become paralyzed and wind up doing nothing. But Lewis makes the point with this story, the story of his life and the lives the people he worked with, that no one person can do everything and that’s okay. Because you do what you can, don’t do what you can’t, and rely on others to do what they can. Civil rights, all politics for that matter, isn’t a single sprint: it’s a marathon and a relay. You work together and you go for the long run, and you pass the baton back and forth. You have some wins and you have some devastating losses, but hopefully over the course of years and decades you wind up with more achievements than setbacks. And that is a message that is always important, but especially important in today’s political scene.