This isn’t a full review, but I wanted to pop in and say that readers who enjoyed Anna’s post in the spring about seeing Sleep No More, the immersive theater take on Macbeth, might like As I Descended by Robin Talley. It’s a YA version of the story, set in a Virginia boarding school, with two teenage girls positioned as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. I really enjoyed seeing how the grand story of kings and battles scaled down to the stakes of high school–theoretically smaller, but still life and death to the characters. And if every version of this story has to decide which of the more fantastical elements are happening in the characters’ heads versus which are real, this one leans heavily towards the spirits and ghosts side of things. Which makes it a great, creepy read for this time of year, as we edge into the dark of fall and winter.
By Lauren Nicolle Taylor
This is another BookBub offer, so available for free on kindle, but it is quite a bit different from the light entertainment I’ve gotten before. Amazon describes it as a reimagining of Peter Pan (Kettle = Pan), but I wouldn’t have gotten that on my own. There is no light-hearted whimsy, and the children live in anything but a dreamland. Set just after World War II, Kettle is a Japanese-American teenager trying to make do on the streets after having been separated from any family he had in the internment camps. Nora is the daughter of a wealthy but violently abusive councilman. The author includes a trigger warning at the beginning of the book for graphic depictions of domestic abuse, and she isn’t kidding around.
A minor spoiler, and additional trigger warning: a kitten is introduced briefly, bringing a spark of joy to the life of one of the peripheral characters – one of the Lost Boys, a gang of Japanese-American orphans hiding out in the subway tunnels. As soon as the kitten is introduced, I feared for its safety, and sure enough, it is killed in its next scene. That’s the kind of book this is.
The writing is very good, and I was so invested in the characters and storyline that I couldn’t put it down, but the book sort of dragged me down the whole time. As good as it is, this was not a welcome addition to a year that is already sucking ass.
Fear the Drowning Deep
By Sarah Glenn Marsh
The most difficult books to review are those that aren’t really good or really bad – just all those mediocre books.
It seemed so promising! Set on the Isle of Man at the very beginning of the 20th century, it could have explored a fairly unique place and time for YA novels. Unfortunately, Fear the Drowning Deep is just really silly.
Sixteen-year-old Bridey spends the entire book careening between crises, making very little distinction between being teased by her sisters, forced to get a job by her parents, and witnessing the disappearances of various friends and neighbors. Her most consistent character trait is that she hates and fears the ocean, which is more than a little inconvenient on a small island where fishing is the main economy.* Of course everything comes back to that, and she must face her fears to save the day.
It became such a hodgepodge of fantasy elements and mundane details that I couldn’t get a good sense of whether the fantasy was rooted in actual myths from the time and place, and the book did not inspire me to do any additional research. Adding to the disconnect was the mundane details were often given far more drama than the fantastical—a sea serpent must just be dealt with, , but a nosy and judgmental neighbor can warp your entire life, apparently.
*This lead to an extra level of unbelievability for me, which was not the author’s fault. I just love the ocean so much that I can’t even conceive anyone feeling otherwise. If I could live where I could see and smell the ocean all the time, I would be in heaven!
Twisted: The Girl Who Uncovered Rumpelstiltskin’s Name
By Bonnie M Hennessy
Twisted, on the other hand, is not silly or mediocre — it is confusingly both very good and very bad, so I was never sure if I was enjoying it or not (up until the big climax, when I was most certainly not). It is a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin story, which is a big part of the problem, since that story is awful. The central woman in the original story has almost no personal agency, and is tossed from man to man: her father to the king, to Rumpelstiltskin, and then back to the king, who becomes her husband.
By trying to flesh out the story and give more depth to each character, the author took on a really challenging task, but unfortunately it just highlights how awful all of the men are and how terribly they treat the heroine. Early on I told Rebecca that I couldn’t tell whether the book was chauvinist or misandrist, which is a very odd spot to be in. Set sort of indeterminately in an England-type place in an 18th-19th century-type time, the king is now a duke in this version, with neighboring lands to heroine Aiofe’s previously wealthy but now struggling family. Mild spoiler: early on in their relationship, he clumsily tries to engage with her, crowding her space and touching her without permission (very bad! men are the worst!), at which point Aiofe panics and prepares to attack with an ax she has on hand (oh…uh…I’m not sure that was a capital offense, actually).
The entire book continues this way in a very unsettling manner. Is Aiofe a competent woman who faces potential threats squarely, or an unbalanced child who brings trouble onto herself with her assumptions and over-reactions? Is the Duke an entitled nobleman trying to break from his upbringing in order to make honest human connections, or is he a sociopath who values other people only in how they can serve him? Is Rumpelstiltskin a damaged spirit looking for acceptance and understanding, or a sulky godling who demands complete devotion? These would all seem to be pretty stark opposites and yet they somehow seemed to exist simultaneously, which made for a very unsettling read, and not in a good way.
Honestly, I felt like this book was somehow gaslighting me, which fits in with the characters pretty well, actually. By the end, the extreme amount of emotional labor that the various female characters all had to do for the various male characters really soured me on the whole thing.
If 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
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.
Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Dark, moral coming-of-age
Around this time last year, I mentioned that I had enjoyed the Patrick Ness book A Monster Calls. I didn’t go into a lot of detail in that post, but the book uses Ness’s text and beautiful black and white illustrations by Jim Kay to tell the story of a thirteen-year-old boy whose mother is clearly dying (but won’t admit it) and who conjures a monster from a tree outside his window. The monster comes to him at night and tells him stories that ultimately help him process what is happening. I did like the book, although it was a little middle reader for my taste and I’m not a huge fan of heavily illustrated books. But Anna and I recently saw the movie version released right before Christmas, and it was AMAZING. In fact, I liked the movie much more than the book. Why? A few factors:
The illustrations in the book were lovely, but as someone who is way more into the text, I mostly glanced at them quickly and moved on. The movie does an amazing job of recreating the pictures so the movie has the same overall feeling and some of the same specific imagery. But it’s all alive and moving and in color and really striking.
In the book, the stories that the monster tells the boy were fine, whatever, I read them, they seemed just sort of like morally-ambiguous fairy tales. But in the movie, the stories within the stories are told through colorful watercolor illustrations that you watch appear on screen. They’re just lovely and made me pay attention to the stories in a way I hadn’t in the book.
The acting is truly wonderful. Liam Neeson is the voice of the monster, and his portrayal made the monster seem less like an arbitrary tree man and more like a force of nature that cared about what happened to the boy, even if it couldn’t change anything. (Liam Neeson also appears in the movie for two seconds as a character in a photograph, which I thought added a nice layer). And Felicity Jones made the mom seem sick and in denial, which was most of what came through in the book, but also fierce and funny and real. The boy was also great, and Signourney Weaver is in there too, and the specificity of the performances added to my experience.
A warning: I am not a big movie crier, and there was much crying here. As in, you could hear everyone in the theater around us crying and Anna and I both made use of the napkins I had gotten for my popcorn. But it didn’t feel like despondent crying, more like cathartic, hopeful crying. I also saw Manchester by the Sea recently, and when it was over I remember feeling dull and heavy, even though it was a beautifully-made move. This one felt more like waking from a dream. Which is not what I want every day, but was definitely worth it in this case.
2016 was rough, I think we’ve established that. But now as we move forward into 2017, I’ve been trying to make myself remember some of the good things that did happen last year–I refuse to let an entire year go down because of a few (key, admittedly very) bad things. I’ve spent the past few months re-reading romance novels, but before that period of re-reading began, I found some great new books. Most of them I’ve already talked about here on the blog–Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, How to Build a Girl, and Bone Gap–but there were a few others I wanted to mention.
- Pointe by Brandy Colbert is a YA book about a ballet dancer, but it also involves a kidnapping and a teenage victim who comes back after years away. It’s a dark, sad book, maybe not for younger teens, but I found it really compelling. I especially enjoyed watching, over the course of the book, as the female protagonist worked out just how much agency she had and how she was going to use it.
- I’ve already raved about the memoir Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe, one of my favorites books of recent years, but I was a little worried that I might not feel the same way about the author’s fiction. And while nothing could quite match my original love, Paradise Lodge was a really charming story about a British teenager in 1970s who takes a job in a nursing home. Stibbe has this very specific voice that comes across in both her fiction and non-fiction, in which even when she’s talking about some sort of crisis or disaster, everything seems like it will all work out fine. I found this very calming.
- If you know who I am talking about when I say “Dave Holmes, MTV VJ,” I suspect you will like his book. Party of One is a memoir, structured around music, and maybe it’s just that he and I are about the same age, but this book felt like it came directly from my subconscious.
- Way back in 2012 I wrote about how much I love Sharon Shinn, and I recommended a new book of hers called Troubled Waters and said I hoped was the start of a new series. And it was! There are now four books in the Elemental Blessings series, and I have enjoyed all of them. If you would like to read a fantasy romance novel with a kick-ass female main characters, these are a great option. I would recommend reading them in order, but I think my favorite was the third book, Jewelled Fire.
And with that, I am quite happy to close the book (so to speak) on 2016. I’m already starting 2017 out well, reading-wise, with my continued journey through the Lord Peter Wimsy books, and a lovely, poem-like book called The Lesser Bohemians. I have a lot of hopes and goals for 2017, and continuing to discover great new things to read and writing about them here is definitely something I plan to continue.