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.

A Monster Calls

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.

The Best of 2016

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Prudence and the Dragon

By Zen Cho

You guys, is there any better feeling than when you discover a great new author? A link to Zen Cho’s story “Prudence and the Dragon” showed up sort of randomly on my Tumblr, with a comment saying that it was the best short story they read in a long time. I figured even if it wasn’t the best for me, I’m game for a decent short story about dragons.

Guys, it was the best short story that I’ve read in a very long time! It reminded me very much of Patricia C. Wrede’s dragon series (which were my favorites all through childhood) especially in how Cho provides this wealth of absurdist detail that gives such richness and humor to the story.

So read “Prudence and the Dragon” as soon as you get a chance, and then read the sequel short story about Prudence’s best friend in “The Perseverance of Angela’s Past Life” (both of which are appropriate for readers of all ages – there is light romance, but nothing graphic).

I don’t want to make a big deal out of it since the stories themselves don’t, but they are also just perfect examples of how to weave multiculturalism and different identities into a story without making it the focus of the entire storyline.

I have since also bought a novel, a novella, and a collection of short stories by Cho, since I think she might be my new favorite author, and I’ll review them, too, as I finish them.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

I’ve said before that I sometimes find teenage boys to be an entirely different species, and in books they so often come off sounding like the teenage dirtbags that the late, lamented Toast described so well. So I love it when I find a book that makes me feel like I completely understand its teenage narrator–a book that makes a teenage boy into a real person and not some Holden Caulfield stereotype. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, is SUCH as good example of this kind of book, and is a YA book that just made me happy to read.

It’s a basic story in a lot of ways–during a hot summer in the late 1980s Ari, who is sort of a loner, becomes friends with Dante. Ari’s a smart kid with a family that is loving, but has its troubles. Dante has a nice family as well, and is dealing with his own stuff. So, you know, they’re kids trying to live their lives and do the best they can. Various plot things happen over a couple of years, some of them pretty dramatic, but they book never feels like an Afterschool Special, mostly because Ari’s narration is so calm as he tries to just go along with life and figure things out. While you could say that this is a book that deals with identity issues, and trauma, and PTSD, and showing diverse communities in books, you could also say that it’s a sweet story about friendship and family and love. I don’t want to give away too much more, but I just thought it was lovely.

Also, I read the paper book rather than listening to the audio book, but apparently the audio version is narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which just seems perfect. I actually pictured him saying some of Ari’s lines as I was reading and it really worked. So if you’re an audiobook person, this books gets a little extra recommendation.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Sweet coming-of-age tale

You might also like:
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, The Beginning of Everything, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, and Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys cycle are other teen boy-narrated books that I have enjoyed quite a bit.

WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

wakeWWW: Wake
by Robert J. Sawyer
2009

This was a really interesting book that gave me lots of thoughts. I was impressed with how well thought out the scenario was as the author presents the hows and whys of this artificial intelligence coming into being and develops from there. That was really cool.

There was also a diverse and interesting cast of characters in this interesting scenario.

All the positive features of this book just made it all the more disappointing that the writing felt really flat. I should have liked this book a lot more than I did.

I was half-way to blaming it on being a YA novel and me aging out of the genre… but it’s not that kind of problem. There are plenty of YA books that manage to be extremely lively and engaging and, frankly, there are also plenty of adult books that suffer from the same flat sort of presentation as this one.  There was just something about the writing that kept me from getting into it. This is particularly disappointing because this is the first book in a series of three: WWW: Wake, WWW: Watch, and WWW: Wonder.

The scenario is interesting enough that I wish I liked the book and I might still get myself to read WWW: Watch and WWW: Wonder just to see what else the author thinks would or could happen with an AI in existence. I am startled to find myself in the extremely rare situation of wishing that those thoughts were written as a nonfiction essay rather embedded in a story.

I don’t think the writing is necessarily bad, it just really doesn’t reach me. Hopefully there are other readers out there who appreciate this book and series more.

Every Heart a Doorway

I first started following Seanan McGuire on Twitter when someone linked to her hilarious series of tweets about an owl in her yard. It wasn’t until I had already seen about 100 pictures of her cats that I realized that she was an author that we’ve actually reviewed here on the site. Back in 2012 Anna thought that Rosemary and Rue was hit or miss, but I quite liked her latest, Every Heart a Doorway.

I think I was won over just by the concept: it’s a murder mystery set at a boarding school for teenagers who found doors into magical fairy realms as kids, but are now stuck back in the real world. I mean, that’s great, right?

I actually agree with what Anna said in her earlier review of McGuire’s writing:  occasionally things felt a bit forced, almost like I could see the author saying, “And now I will do this.” But this is really a small complaint. The premise is great, there were fabulous details about the various fairy realms one might wander into, and the whole story had a sense of creepiness that was delightful. The reader sees the action through the eyes of the main character, who had spent her time away in a world of the dead, and her desire for quiet and stillness infuses the book in a wonderful way.

This is just a quick little story, really like a novella, so there’s not a whole lot more to say. Except that this is well worth your time. Also, isn’t Every Heart a Doorway just the best book title? It’s like a line of poetry I want to recite over and over.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Fairy tale aftermath.

You might also like:
 The Scream movies, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or possibly Wicked? That seems like an odd selection of media, but my favorite thing about Every Heart a Doorway was how it used the tropes of fairy tales and made them part of the story, which all of those other things do (in their genres) as well. Although in tone and length, this felt an awful lot like The Ocean at the End of the Lane.