Random Review: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

That’s right friends and readers, I’ve got my teaching credential on lock which means I’M BACK. Reading books for fun and reviewing them for your pleasure.

One of the sweetest, most naturally developing love stories I have seen in YA Fiction.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han51GdayQh-uL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Lara Jean Song is the dreamy, sartorially adventurous middle sister in a tight-knit trio. The Song girls lost their mother unexpectedly years before, and have worked together to make life easier on their dad ever since. When uber-organized older sister Margot sets off for college in Scotland, it’s Lara Jean’s turn to take the lead running the household. At the same time, five of Lara Jean’s love letters are accidentally mailed to each of the five boys she once loved…including the popular boyfriend of an ex-friend and her older sister’s long-term love.

This is a book I normally would have avoided, the jacket is all mauve and it seemed terribly predictable. I bought it because I picked up a copy of Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds and Amazon told me the same readers enjoyed both. That definitely piqued my curiosity.

There are a lot of YA Romance standards in this book: the boy-next-door, the popular guy, the mean girl, a bargain to save face and incite jealousy; but none of the plot points are handled in a campy or obvious way. The story unfolds very naturally from the inciting event, and the heroine takes just as many steps back as she does steps forward (like we all do when we are learning and growing). It is a very realistic love story. One of its strongest points is the relationship between the three Song sisters and their father, and those relationships are given just as much screen-time as the romantic stuff. Each of the girls has a strong, distinct personality and an investment in their family as a unit.

This book really handles all of its characters fairly, the “mean girl” can be pretty darn mean, but she does have her reasons. Lara Jean is not by any means flawless or a Mary Sue, nor did she become catnip to boys overnight. Every part of this story, every lesson learned, feels real and earned. There are romantic gestures, but they are on a scale that feels possible with high school boys and organic to the characters as written.

If you enjoy novels with a strong family dynamic, sweet romance, characters coming of age, and a steady dose of humor…this one could be for you.

Chair Rating:

Sweet, upbeat, a family affair.

Sweet, upbeat, a family affair.

Random Review: Blue Lily, Lily Blue

Things are getting out of hand.
bluelily

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater

When we last saw our intrepid heroes the ley line was stronger than ever thanks to Adam’s efforts, Gansey and Blue had acknowledged both their mutual interest and the impossibility of acting on it, Ronan had begun to accept his power and nature, and Noah was still dead. Maura went missing, the Gray Man sacked up, and Persephone was helping Adam manage communications with Cabeswater. If the first novel in The Raven Cycle revved the engine and The Dream Thieves hit the gas, Blue Lily, Lily Blue drifts into some mud and gets its wheels spinning. The quintet at the center of The Raven Cycle is closing in on Glendower, but every step forward comes with another warning of grave danger. These warnings come from Persephone and Calla, Cabeswater, a giant hillbilly, a frequent employer of hit-men. The danger is real, and near, and as reality warps ever further the Raven Boys and Blue are stretched to their limits.

The focus shifts from Ronan back to Blue in this novel, though it checks in with everyone, and suffers for it a bit. Blue is just not terribly interesting as a character. Of all the characters in The Raven Cycle I find myself least interested in what happens to her and Colin Greenmantle. Both somehow remain more ideas of people than actual characters. During Blue’s angstier moments I found myself counting adverbs rather than experiencing the story. She had a few intriguing scenes, but none of them seemed to amount to anything. No payoff, yet.

In general, Blue Lily, Lily Blue has some really strong scenes. Spooky, eerie scenes. Scenes with intense sexual tension. Scenes of wonderment and terror. The novel is at its best when the quest for Glendower is moving forward. In these moments it is at its scariest and most profound.  Pretty much everything that takes place in a cave or involves Persephone is good reading.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue is not the strongest entry in The Raven Cycle thus far, but it has a strong finish and I’ll be back for what is sure to be a thrilling conclusion.

**Because I am the luckiest duck, I received an ARC of Blue Lily, Lily Blue directly from Maggie Stiefvater a full month before it came out. This in no way affected my review, other than allowing me to post it before the novel’s official release. I will be re-reading the copy I pre-ordered from Fountain Bookstore when it arrives for comparison. 

Chair Rating: 

I am sure it's here for a reason, but not totally I want to sit in it.

I am sure it’s here for a reason, but not at all sure I want to sit in it.

Random Review: The Dream Thieves

Maggie Stiefvater, an author you can trust.8472014340_f18884df4d_o

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

The second book in The Raven Cycle finds us back in Henrietta, Virginia with three Aglionby boys and one contrary girl. One of the boys has begun to flicker in and out of existence, another is sharing his existence with a supernatural forest. One of the boys is spending a lot of time pretending he doesn’t want the girl, while she pretends the same thing right back. The last boy sees all of this and then some. This motley crew continues the search for a dead Welsh king with the assistance of three psychics, a lot of money, brainpower, fast cars, charisma, the ability to manifest dreams, and the hindrance of a professional hitman on their tail.

This is Ronan’s story, and all the better for it. He is a fascinating character who seems to be composed of contradictions. He is religious and profane, violent and tender-hearted, distant but passionate. The Dream Thieves is the rare book that lives up to breathless blurbs touting a story that is “action-packed!” and “thrilling!” It really is those things. When I reviewed the first book in this quartet, I noted that it showed a lot of potential. The Raven Boys revved the engine of an exhilerating epic, roaring the promise of excitement and danger, and The Dream Thieves hit the gas. This book is explosive, emotionally complex, tactile, and sensitive. It is Maggie Stiefvater doing what she does best, unlike anyone else, on par with The Scorpio Races. All of the characters remain in play, weaving through each others’ stories as the plot winds tighter and tighter in anticipation of an explosive conclusion.

Just read it, you won’t be sorry.

Chair Rating: 

Strap in for the ride of your life.

Strap in for the ride of your life.

Random Review: The Wild Girl

Though Bitter Greens had three heroines suffering, The Wild Girl is three times more brutal to read.

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth download

Most people (of European descent) know of the folktale collection compiled by the Brothers Grimm, but few know about the women who told them the tales. One of these storytellers was Dortchen Wild. Second youngest of the Wild family, neighbors to the Grimms, Dortchen was an empathetic girl will a skill for herbalism and a long-running crush on Wilhelm Grimm. Against the backdrop of the Napoléonic Wars their collaboration and eventual romance unfolds, the darkness all around matched only by the darkness in Dortchen’s own home.

One of the things I loved about Bitter Greens, apart from the fairy-tale and deeply-researched historical fiction aspects, was how complex the writing was. Three stories intertwined like the strands that form a braid, echoing each other and moving the narrative forward. The writing in The Wild Girl is no less rich but, because the scope of the novel is so much smaller, at times it feels as though there is not enough story to justify the novel’s nearly five-hundred pages. The A-plot is ostensibly the romance between Wilhelm and Dortchen, but it is often swamped by the brutal realities of Dortchen’s day-to-day life. Where the arcs of Bitter Greens‘ three heroines called back to each other, in The Wild Girl it is the stories told by Dortchen that call back to her own life. Many fairy-tale themes crop up in the two-decade-long tale of her romance with Wilhelm: sisters going to a ball while one stays home to do chores, magic rhymes, and the transformative power of a really awesome dress.

Some of the themes of The Wild Girl struck so close to home that I have to admit they tempered my enjoyment of the story.  Dortchen’s experience as a civilian during a war that seems like it will never end, with her country first being invaded and then used to supply soldiers for the conquerors to invade other countries, hit a little too close to home for this American. While many would argue that America is the Napoléonic France of our situation, from a civilian standpoint my country was violently attacked when I was in high school and we’ve been at war with multiple countries ever since. I am married to a Marine who began his service right after 9/11, I have taught preschool and cared for infants on military bases, half of my friends enlisted straight after high school, and I have been groped in airports in the name of “safety” more times than I can bear to think about. My youngest brother currently has plans to enlist. In 2008 we were promised an end to this war and it hasn’t materialized yet, so I related to the climate of worry though my struggle has not yet grown so dire as Dortchen’s.

The other major plot of the novel is Dortchen’s relationship with her extremely strict father. As the war worsens and he becomes more stressed and worried, he devolves into outright abuse of his daughters. I will only say that the descriptions of this abuse are realistic to the point of triggering, if you have a past in any way similar. In her author’s note Forsyth mentions the plotting of these passages giving her nightmares. I do appreciate her commitment to leaning in when writing about the uglier aspects of life. I have always loved fairy tales because they are just as dark as life can be. Sometimes darker.

There is much to love about The Wild Girl, even if my personal experience prevented me from embracing it as fully as I did Bitter Greens. Germany (specifically Hesse-Kassel, here) is a beautiful, sweet country done justice by Forsyth’s realistic tale of romance between a dreamy writer and an apothecary’s daughter.  It may be a bit long-winded, but it’s an easy trap to fall into for lovers of history and literature alike (and an author sticking to a historical timeline.) People who enjoy Austen or Little Women will like the early passages with Dortchen and her siblings, fairy-tale lovers will be rewarded throughout.

Chair Rating:

overgrown_chair

A little overgrown and hard to settle into, but no less beautiful.

Random Review: The Swan Gondola

Moulin Rouge, if the Duke had proved a more compelling option. swan gondola

The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert

Orphaned ventriloquist Ferret Skerritt is set to make a few bucks and have a fine summer plying his trade at the 1898 World’s Fair. As entertainers pour into the midway on opening day, Ferret spots a woman whose underthings he once helped secure backstage at his regular theater gig and his plans for romance are set.  Ferret’s pursuit of Cecily unfolds amid the illusory grandeur and outlandish spectacle of The World’s Fair, as he relates the memory of that bygone summer to a pair of elderly twin sisters upon whose home he has crash landed. Big personalities, elaborate descriptions, mystery, magic, and illusion fill every page of The Swan Gondola.

I was beyond excited to read this novel, not only did I receive it as a free ARC from the publisher (my first), it is packed with things I adore. Going to a World’s Fair is on my bucket list, and I am a sucker for fairs and carnivals in general. Historical fiction, the American West, and unreliable narrators are a few of my favorite literary things. The Swan Gondola really delivers on all of these fronts. However, it falls short at perhaps the most crucial point for a story like this: the romance.

The story is driven by the Christian-and-Satine-esque courtship of Ferret and Cecily. He is young, naive, and romantic (though he thinks himself quite the worldly playboy, a fact both amusing and heartbreaking as he uncovers his own nature.) She is one of those scandalous theater women who throws social mores like underwear conventions to the wind and does what she wants whenever she wants. By underwear conventions I mean that most women of the time wore corsets and other garments as a matter of course, not that large groups of people were gathering to discuss underpinnings. His pursuit of her is dogged, and she allows him to lavish her with attention. A wealthy man, Billy Wakefield, who can provide her with opportunities on the stage strategically insinuates himself into their lives and the reader is witness to the slow destruction of the guileless Ferret.

Writing about this, I still think it all sounds pretty great. A lot of it was, but the problem was really Cecily. She’s almost unlikable, and Ferret’s interest in her never seems to progress beyond pure lust. Magic and illusion are major themes of the novel, and love often dances around the line between the two, so perhaps this was intentional. Ferret’s mistaking the illusion that is lust for the magic of love. However, he is so terribly lovable as an almost artless paramour that it’s hard to invest in any love story where you wish the object of his affections would fall off a cliff. Even if she did, you’d still feel awful because he would.

It might seem like I’m giving away the whole novel but really this takes us to about halfway through the high page count, and the back half is just brutal. Still a good read, but it’s going to beat up your feelings.

Where The Swan Gondola really sings are the secondary characters, like the Native American medicine man of fluid gender August Sweetbriar or Cecily’s elderly half-blind witch of a bodyguard, and descriptions of the setting. The Fair, Billy Wakefield’s home and amusements, and the underworld Ferret occupies are each spectacular in their own way and make for some very fun reading. The scaffolding of the novel is beautifully crafted, all of the subplots and scenery. It’s a shame that the main plot lets the rest of it down. Ferret and Cecily’s romance seems over before it began, the titular gondola barely plays a role, and the reader is put through a house of horrors playing on their feelings about a barely-developed romance that spanned less than half the page-count. Ferret’s heartsickness carries it, but just barely.

What does it all mean? Should you read this book? If any of this sounded at all interesting to you, then I’d say yes. It’s really a very good story, and will give you a lot to mull over. It’s a book club book if there ever was one, because it can be interpreted so many ways. Just don’t go in expecting a romance for the ages unless you want your heart pulped and/or to feel ragey.

Chair Rating:

Carousel-horse

Random Series Review: Wicked Lovely

I finally finished it!

The Wicked Lovely Series by Melissa Marr

Teenaged Aislinn can see faeries, but she’s been well-trained since birth not to let them know that. Unfortunately for her, there’s a faerie who’s been looking for girls like her for centuries. King of the Summer Court, Keenan is handsome, charming, powerful, and he wants nothing more than to woo Aislinn. Over the five books of the Wicked Lovely series this initial plot point is revealed as a political maneuver by a weakened monarch who is contending with a handful of other, stronger courts and one embodiment of Chaos hungry for some mass destruction. Aislinn and Keenan both have other loves that conflict with their commitments and responsibilities. The whole series grows into a tangle of cross-court relationships, rivalries, and betrayals. Seemingly impossible choices are posed. Worlds are unmade. There is war, and death, and devotion.

I’m going to break the series out into books, so if you haven’t read them all be warned that spoilers lie ahead.

Wicked Lovelycover_wicked_lovely

As previously mentioned, Sighted Aislinn find herself the target of Summer King Keenan’s affections. She doesn’t trust faeries, after a lifetime of warning about their capricious and cruel nature, but the pure power of pleasure that Keenan commands is hard to resist. On the one hand, Aislinn has a heavily-pierced playboy Trent Reznor lookalike (Seth) living in a boxcar that she hopes to make her boyfriend. On the other she has a golden god who’s been looking for her for centuries and wants to make her his queen. If she chooses mortality, she’s vulnerable to not just death but an early death at fae hands now that Keenan’s put her on their radar. This would also keep the Summer King weak and his power bound, due to a nasty trick played by his Winter Queen mother, Beira, and the Dark King Irial. The Summer Court is so weak at this point her refusal would basically be a death sentence for the king and all of his subjects. If she chooses Keenan, she stands to lose Seth…and spend centuries as Winter Girl if it turns out she’s not the one destined for Summer Queendom. Life’s tough, y’all, and everybody loves Aislinn.

I enjoyed this book well enough, though Aislinn’s character is so determined to be a tough girl and prove it to Seth that I rolled my eyes a few times. Keenan is charming, Seth is brooding, but this is really just the first advance of pawns in a promising chess game. The descriptions of the summer fae were my favorite parts.

Ink ExchangeLaura-Flemming-Cover-Model-Ink-Exchange-melissa-marr-6054451-602-900

Aislinn’s friend Leslie leads a life of pain and fear, but she’s sure she can banish both when she gets an elaborate tattoo that she’s been obsessed with ever since she saw it. What she doesn’t know is that the tattoo will link her inextricably to the Dark Court, drawing as much power from her as she ever hoped to draw from it. The balance of power among the Faery Courts has shifted, and the Dark King Irial is looking for ways to strengthen his fae. As he siphons her negative feelings to nourish his court, he finds himself developing feelings of his own.

Where I liked Wicked Lovely, I adored Ink Exchange. I’m not a willfully tough, hanging out in biker bars and buying skull-patterned accessories kind of gal. I don’t do tattoos and my piercings were plentiful, but in tame locations. I say this for context: I am not predisposed to like guns’n’violence posturing. Marr’s depiction of the Dark Court is intoxicating, Irial’s dark charm and Leslie’s descent into his world were so sensually depicted I couldn’t stop reading until I reached the end. The relationships that develop between Irial, Niall, and Leslie are so unexpected and unique in this type of book, but they feel inevitable. Fundamentally right.  While it moves the chess pieces in the larger plot, the book explores the darkness that can exist in love.

Fragile Eternitydownload

Seth is dissatisfied with Aislinn’s attempt to have her cake and eat it too, which requires her to revel in pleasures with her Court (and Keenan) to keep them strong even as she tries to remain faithful to her mortal boyfriend. Keenan has his own love, new Winter Queen Donia, who he pines for but is prepared to abandon for the health of the Summer Court. Did I mention that Aislinn’s touch literally gives Seth sunburns? Keenan and Donia can’t touch for similar, mutually damaging, reasons. The attraction between Keenan and Aislinn is fated and sun-hot, but she nevertheless tries to resist in the interest of self-determination. Seth, being more practical, knows that the current situation will tear him and Aislinn apart…so he goes looking for his own solution.

This is my favorite book of the series for one reason: it introduces Sorcha, queen of the High Court. She is the creator of faerie and the embodiment of order and logic, and has her own artists’ colony in Faerie. She stands as counterpoint to her sister Bananach, the embodiment of Chaos agitating for war.

Radiant Shadows6368610

Half-mortal daughter of the Gabriel (the leader of the Dark King’s guard known as The Hunt) Ani has some appetites that cannot be satisfied short of murder. In a no-woman’s land between a mortal world she’s too fae for, and a faerie that could kill her, she mostly has to sit and hide. Your basic petulant riot grrrl, she spends a lot of the book sulking and running until she catches the eye of a very dangerous faerie indeed. Then she scowls and they run together. Meanwhile, Faerie is being unmade as Sorcha pines for Seth and Bananach is edging ever closer to destroying their entire world and everyone in it.

Though I enjoyed the character of Devlin (the High Queen’s assassin and brother-son creation with her sister Bananach), and his dreamwalker ghost-friend Rae introduced in this book, I found the book as a whole rather pointless. Like so much filler. There was one major plot point both introduced and resolved within it, so I feel the series could easily stand without this novel. I actually had stopped reading after Fragile Eternity because I knew this book was about Ani and I just wasn’t interested in her at all as a character. It took me five years to get back to the series. The whole thing reminded me of the advice to “kill your darlings”. Interviews with Marr reveal that she loves the Ani character beyond reason, and it does seem that she felt the audience would connect with the character intuitively (while I found her irritating and incomprehensible). This is probably because I lean more Sorcha than Bananach, and Ani just does things all the time for no reason other than to be doing them and then gets mad when they end in disaster. It pisses me off. The end result of this novel felt redundant within the framework of faerie. This is one darling that should’ve been killed.

Darkest Mercydownload (1)

The grand finale! Keenan is still roaming the world, attempting to gather allies while giving Aislinn space. Seth still won’t get busy with Aislinn because she hasn’t decided-decided that she’ll never get busy with Keenan. Donia hate-likes Aislinn because they both want the best for their courts, but the Winter Queen is jealous of the Keenan situation. Bananach is just waiting for an open declaration of war, trying to provoke one, and any help from on high is beyond reach due to the sealing of Faerie. The Summer Court is still weak due to its unhappy queen and missing king, Winter Court is doing well but Donia allowing early spring to strengthen Summer means a weakening of Winter, and the Dark Court is in shambles. Oh, and the Death Fae are in town, which means that at least one important faerie will die and they’ve come to collect.

This was an almost-satisfying conclusion. The introduction of Far Dorcha, spokesman for the death fae, was perfectly chilling. Every complicated thread of plot is woven into an airtight resolution that leaves everyone happy as can be. Which is kind of the problem. I like happy endings, but everything turns out so unexpectedly peachy-keen for everyone that it robs the series of some of its impact. Faerie is harsh, cruel, beautiful, and capricious. This ending is not. It’s vanilla-sweet. The series had such darkness throughout, that even this perfectly logical, well-supported resolution that comes at some cost just feels too easy. Everyone gets what they want, perhaps not how they thought they’d get it, The End. A disappointment after the masterful handling of the series arc as a whole, and the themes therein (Radiant Shadows excepted). Darkest Mercy started with suspense and kept it building all the way to an ending that left my mouth hanging open with shocked disappointment. I was prepared for it to hurt, then it didn’t.

As a series, I’d say Wicked Lovely is an enjoyable read. I would recommend buying it as e-books, because for me at least it will not be a re-read. The plot is complex and meaty on the political side, shining brightest with the darkest characters. The romance is a little lightweight, a lot of teenagers committing to eternity. The characters are many and varied, most so fully realized that one could easily imagine what they’d do an a new situation. Where it all really shines, without fail, is in the worldbuilding. The types of fae, the history and interaction between the courts, the particularities of what each court needs in order to thrive…it’s all beautifully realized. There are also a lot of very natural non-traditional romantic relationships, and an undertone of feminism. The weakest points for me were often characters at the center of things (Aislinn, Seth, Ani), which is a sizable weakness, and a tendency to get a bit hipper-than-thou, which is less so. The series could just as easily have been a trilogy. Still, entertaining enough if it’s up your alley.

Chair Rating:

ankara-chair-with-cushion

Complex, beautiful, and well-crafted; but surprisingly dull in places.

Random Review: Perfect Chemistry

The sixteen-year-old me would have loved this book. Secretly.

Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkelesperfect-chemistry

Brittany is a babe-alicious golden girl, queen of the school and captain of the pom squad, quarterback boyfriend included. Of course she’s white, of course she’s rich, and of course she’s blonde. Alex is the sexy Mexican gangster with a motorcycle and a heart of gold, who makes a She’s All That -style wager that he can score with his new Chemistry partner before homecoming. But wait! It turns out that Alex is smart and sensitive, Brittany is also smart and has actual problems, and they are both so devastatingly hot!

I mean, come on. You know how this book is going to end just by looking at the cover. That’s okay! The author makes enough interesting choices and efforts to add depth and dimension to the story that you won’t feel compelled to roll your eyes every page or hate yourself for reading it. This is a romance for teenagers, and it is essential to read it in that spirit. The author manages to make the stakes higher for both protagonists than a simple “will they, won’t they?”. They each have plot lines beyond the romance. The narrative works best in the moments of sexual tension between Brittany and Alex. I’m not gonna lie, it gets pretty hot. There is an effort to weave issues of class, culture, and social justice into the novel…and those are somewhat less successful. As a Northern Californian, it was pretty evident to me that Elkeles is not Hispanic just by her use of Spanglish in dialogue. It did not sound authentic, but I don’t think that will bother the audience for this book. Here’s what you need to know:

It’s a quick read. It’s fun. It’s sexy. It’s not a totally braindead plot, but the epilogue is seriously misguided.

Pick it up as an e-book, like I did, and conveniently avoid awkward questions on the bus:  “What am I reading? Oh, a high school sex book with class-based complications”.

Chair Rating:

mcginnis_closet_after_2_2

Fun for secret reading.