Friday, January 19, 2018

PRINCESSES BEHAVING BADLY


Review of PRINCESSES BEHAVING BADLY: REAL STORIES FROM HISTORY - WITHOUT THE FAIRY-TALE ENDINGS by LINDA RODRIGUEZ MCROBBIE
(based on a review copy)

I love my remarkable women fiction, but how about some nonfiction? This book features not a few but dozens and dozens of incredible accounts from different points in history and around the globe of unforgettable princesses.

The stories start becoming a little repetitive but I don’t even mean that as the criticism it sounds. The similarities between the stories add to a resounding theme of brave/bold/smart/manipulative/strategic/vicious/carefree/permiscuous women. The book sorts these dynamic figures as best as possible into the following categories: warriors, usurpers, schemers, survivors, partners, floozies, and madwomen. Each chapter focuses on a specific woman, but the author nevertheless sneaks in even more stories by making brief mention of similar tales at the end of some chapters. 

I hold nonfiction authors in high regard for the amount of research required for their work, especially those who document their sources and biases well. Rodriguez McRobbie makes mention whenever accounts vary or are unclear, as well as acknowledges what comments fall under speculation.

To be honest, this book is so overflowing with badly behaved princesses, I don’t know where to start picking examples. I genuinely think every single story is worth reading. I will say I laughed aloud at several points in the section on women who pretended to be princesses, mostly unsuccessfully with some surprise success stories in the mix.

In general, this is a book full of tales of women who made their own story. Some are most definitely not stories I would want for myself, but nevertheless I enjoyed all the accounts of women defying expectations and social limits. Some use their power for good...and some don’t, but each of the many tales in here deserves its place on the page.

Friday, January 12, 2018

BRIGHT SMOKE, COLD FIRE


Review of BRIGHT SMOKE, COLD FIRE by ROSAMUND HODGE
(first in the BRIGHT SMOKE, COLD FIRE series)

In this Romeo and Juliet twist, Juliet is more of a rank or role than any one person. Through dark arts she is given the power to detect if anyone has killed a member of her family and then she will be compelled to execute that person immediately. She is raised for this specific purpose, trained and groomed for it. Her mind will also be linked with another’s and this person, known as her Guardian, granted the power to command her against her will. Through this shared mental connection, the Guardian can both protect and control the Juliet.

On paper, this book shouldn’t work for me but it did. It has too many aspects that, thematically speaking, I generally dislike. Though an ardent Shakespeare fan, I consider Romeo and Juliet one of my least favorites, much overhyped and greatly misunderstood, and I usually dislike any twists on this play, especially when they underplay the family feud element. Along those lines I grow frustrated with stories too fixated on romance alone, especially if I don’t care much for the specific romance in the first place and it’s the centerpiece. Last, the dark arts I mentioned in this book involve a lot of necromancy and 9 times out of 10 if it has anything undead in it I don’t enjoy the story.

So why did this story work for me? Probably because it breaks the overdone tropes of these themes. The Juliet and Romeo do fall in love, but that takes place off stage and more as a precursor to our main story. In fact, this Romeo and Juliet twist is shockingly slim on the romance emphasis, much to my personal satisfaction. Instead Romeo and the Juliet find themselves each stuck cooperating with a once rival. The enemy of my enemy is my friend and all that, which does, of course, play up the feud and the ripple effect it has in this community. Last, for me at least, the undead in this book simply felt like tools for telling a good story rather than a focal point in which I can’t personally invest much.

My one complaint is that that a character is revealed to be trans and then the writing switches from using that chacter's preferred pronouns of the gender everyone assumed they are to the pronouns of the gender in which the character was born. Courtesy is to use a person's preferred pronouns rather than projecting how you see them onto them and I like seeing that reflected in modern fiction, too. 

I did not know this is the first in a series and fortunately happened to run into the author at a conference who warned me of as much when I mentioned I was almost done with her book. However, this is one of those cases where I find myself pleased the story isn’t wrapping up yet, because there’s so much left to explore within the world, the characters, the plot. Sign me up for the next journey!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Favorite Books Read in 2017


For those who have been following my blog throughout the year, the books on this list won’t come as a surprise. I write long reviews, though, so below you can find much shorter descriptions of my favorite books from 2017. All the books I reviewed are linked to the original post.

Note that these are books I read in 2017, not necessarily books published in 2017.

1.     FUSE by JULIANNA BAGGOTT

The second book in the PURE trilogy picks up with Partridge finally outside the Dome that has sheltered him and the other elite from the post-apocalyptic world they abandoned. The cast of intriguing characters in this series make it stand out in a market brimming with post-apocalyptic novels.

2.     THE DARKEST PART OF THE FOREST by HOLLY BLACK

Hazel and her brother Ben grew up in a creepy, mysterious town that sits right at the edge of fey territory. They spent their childhood hunting down some of these vicious creatures and daydreaming about the fey prince trapped in an eternal slumber in the middle of the woods. When the prince wakes and the fey turn more violent and unpredictable, Hazel and Ben go on another dangerous adventure.

3.     ABARAT by CLIVE BARKER

This over-the-top-weird fantasy book is an acquired taste for sure, but if it appeals to your palate it’s sure to be a lifelong favorite. Candy detests her small town life until the day a sea sweeps into a field and carries her off to a magical world where each bizarre island represents a different hour of the day. Did I mention this book is weird?

4.     TEXAS GOTHIC by ROSEMARY CLEMENT-MOORE

“The goat was in the tree again.” Thus opens a hilarious and heart-warming ghost story more in the vein of Brigit Jones than the darker, grimmer tales from the horror genre. Strong willed farm-girl Amy investigates a possible haunting while verbally sparring with the skeptical (though admittedly sexy) guy-next-door.

5.     COURT OF FIVES by KATE ELLIOTT

In a world ruled by class and privilege all Jessamy wants is to compete in her society’s popular obstacle course known as the Fives, but doing so could undermine everything for which her father has worked so hard.

6.     NOBODY’S PRIZE by ESTHER FRIESNER

Helen returns for more adventure in this sequel. She disguises herself as a boy and sets sail on the Argo. I love Friesner’s more resourceful portrayal of this iconic figure, as a determined woman who sees herself differently than the way the world sees her.

7.     INKHEART by CORNELIA FUNKE

Though both Meggie and father adore books, her father refuses to read aloud to her. Then one night a mysterious stranger delivers a warning to her father that sets in motion an adventure beyond anything Meggie ever imagined for herself.

8.     THE CONSTANT PRINCESS by PHILIPPA GREGORY

Katherine of Aragon is often a background player in either Henry VIII’s or Anne Boleyn’s story, the first wife ousted from her position. In this gorgeously told historical novel, Gregory gives Katherine the voice she deserves, a voice of admirable determination and patience.

9.     CATSKIN by ARTEMIS GREY

When Ansel finds a strange, mute, injured girl in his parent’s barn, he takes her into his home...not realizing he’ll soon be taking her into his family and his heart as well. This heart warmer of a story is about discovering your place with your found family. 

10.  THE PRINCESS CURSE by MERRIE HASKELL

This twist on The Twelve Dancing Princesses starts along a familiar path and then swerves in exciting, unexpected directions as the author interweaves another of my favorite fairy tales. Reveka is a heroine worthy of her role, determined to find agency even in situations that seem hopeless.

11.  BOY MEETS BOY by DAVID LEVITHAN

If I trimmed down my yearly favorites to all time favorites, this one would still be on that list. The title tells you exactly what to expect and this twist on the traditional romance formula comes wrapped in an eclectic high school many readers will wish had been their high school.

12.  THE ORIGINAL GINNY MOON by BENJAMIN LUDWIG

Ginny is a foster teenager, whose rough experiences and lack of emotional support have left her with some...quirks. Her new foster parents want to do everything they can for her, but she’s so difficult to understand and possibly a danger to their own unborn baby. Ginny’s first person narration in her powerful and determined, if misguided, voice makes this a breathtaking novel.

13.  TRULY MADLY GUILTY by LIANE MORIARTY

This novel switches quickly back and forth between the present and an ill-fated barbeque that changed everything for three couples. Moriarty crafts unique, layered characters and convincing dynamics between them all. This fascinating character-centric story is a particularly great book group choice as there’s ample worthy of in-depth discussion. 

14.  THE NANNY by MELISSA NATHAN

In this cute chick lit novel, small town girl Jo takes a nanny job in London and it becomes immediately clear why previous nannies never lasted long. She’s up to the challenge, though...at least until the kids’ adult (and handsome and annoying) brother moves home into the room right next to Jo’s.

15.  SABRIEL by GARTH NIX

When Sabriel receives word that her powerful father has died, she must take his place as Abhorsen, responsible for keeping dead things dead. Her first task is to discover whatever killed her father, for anything that could do that must be a terrible threat indeed.

16.  UPROOTED by NAOMI NOVIK

This novel feels like a modern fairy tale, not exactly a retelling but pulling from familiar elements and tropes with a more feminist spin. In Agnieszka’s village a powerful magician known as the Dragon takes one young woman every ten years into his service and in return keeps the sinister Wood from spreading any farther.


In this historical novel, we meet Palombo’s fictionalized interpretation of Simonetta Cattaneo, reputed to be Boticelli’s muse for his famous The Birth of Venus painting. These bewitching characters come alive on the page with timeless and heart-wrenching problems of seeking their true happiness.

18.  LUCY AND LINH by ALICE PUNG

Hard-working Lucy won herself a scholarship to a prestigious prep school, but finds herself fixating on memories of Linh from her old, less privileged life. Linh told things straight (if brutal) while these prep school girls craft complex, devious psychological manipulations. Delivered as though Lucy is recounting a long story to Linh, this book packs an emotional twist near the end.

19.  PAW AND ORDER by SPENCER QUINN

In the seventh Chet and Bernie mystery, private investigator Bernie takes his dog and partner in crime (solving) Chet to visit Bernie’s girlfriend. The visit turns awkward when they bump into another man leaving her place. Then that same man turns up dead and the cops suspect Bernie.

20.  BEWARE THAT GIRL by TERESA TOTEN

This novel jumps between the stories of two teenage girls: Kate, a hardened manipulator conning her way into a prestigious prep school, and Olivia, the school’s rich and glamorous queen bee who dropped away for an entire school year without any explanation. This dark psychological thriller kept me glued to the page.

21.  THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS by GAIL TSUKIYAMA

Young orphans Hiroshi and Kenji are raised by their grandparents and in each brother burns a different passion. Hiroshi wants to become a sumotori while Kenji idolizes the artistic skill of local mask maker. Their life stories intertwine with those of two girls, who also suffered the loss of a parent.

Friday, December 29, 2017

THE PRINCESS CURSE


THE PRINCESS CURSE by MERRIE HASKELL
(based on a review copy)

At first I feared this book may not live up to the glowing quotes I read from other authors. Marketed as a twist on The Twelve Dancing Princesses, the story feels very familiar for the first few chapters. The sole twist appears to be our protagonist (and, as most readers will expect, the princesses’ eventual savior), a young girl named Reveka - as well as her unexpected interest in herbs.

However, the novel really hits its stride about a third of the way through, when it becomes apparent that this is a much twistier version than I anticipated. The plot actually melds two favorite fairy tales and the second (one of my personal favorites) becomes glaringly apparent about halfway into the book, about the same time when the story veers off into delightfully unexpected and compelling directions.

I struggled a little reconciling Reveka’s young fourteen years of age with her maturity and the decisions she makes, but I don’t fault the story for that. If anything, her youth adds to classic fairy tale tropes and it’s nevertheless pleasing to encounter a young girl with so much agency against such overwhelming odds.

You can add me to this novel’s list of admirers.

Friday, December 22, 2017

THE DARKEST PART OF THE FOREST


Review of THE DARKEST PART OF THE FOREST by HOLLY BLACK
(based on a review copy)

I love Holly Black’s work. I find her premises unique and imaginative, her protagonists complex and engaging, and her tone delightfully sinister. Holly Black, it seems, loves fairies. THE DARKEST PART OF THE FOREST harkens back to a much earlier series I read by her called TITHE. In many ways, this latest novel feels like TITHE’s older sibling (yes, even though it was “born” second). I particularly enjoy Black’s classic mysterious and creepy take on the fey.

Hazel and her older brother Ben live in an unusual town. The manmade structures live close to fey inhabited forests. The humans and the fey live together, well, semi-peacefully. The fey mostly leave the town residents alone; however, tourists and those who can’t mind their own business are fair game. Hazel and Ben’s unique childhood included hunting down cruel fey and fantasizing about the fairy prince trapped in an endless sleep in a glass coffin in the woods. When they find the coffin empty and the fey start behaving more unpredictably violent, Hazel and Ben take it upon themselves to look into everything.

Black’s lead characters usually win me over with flawed, original personalities. However, I found Hazel a combination of two tropes: Mary Sue and Crazy Manic Pixie Girl. Everyone wants her, wants to be her, or wants to kill her and she’s kind of a hot mess, emphasis on the hot. While I liked her brother Ben, Hazel didn’t have enough depth or distinguishing characteristics for me beyond the standard trope elements I mentioned.

As implied by the title, this tale will take you back to old interpretations of fairies laid against a more modern backdrop. A fun read for any fey fan.

Friday, December 15, 2017

THE CONSTANT PRINCESS


Review of THE CONSTANT PRINCESS by PHILIPPA GREGORY

This installment in Gregory’s loose series (set during the same historical time period with overlapping historical characters but can be read in any order) follows Katherine of Aragon, Henry the VIII’s first wife and the woman known primarily for being set aside for Anne Boleyn.

Gregory is the author who first drew me to historical fiction and her work remains the bar against which I measure whatever else I read in the genre. She clearly does significant research and every book feels bursting with historic detail and atmosphere. However, what I relish most about a Gregory novel is how she makes these historical figures her own. Her characters come to life on the page. Whether or not her interpretation of the inner thoughts of someone long dead remains open for dispute, but regardless she pens a huge cast of compelling, believable characters with plausible motivations for the real-life figure. This book was a re-read for me, but I found myself glued to the page and reading longer than I should just the same.

Katherine of Aragon usually plays a secondary character in our account of Anne Boleyn’s or Henry VIII’s story. What I adore so much about this book is that it is Katherine’s story. The book ends well before Anne disposes Katherine from the throne, instead focusing on Katherine’s early years, ambition, and much overlooked accomplishments.

Whether Gregory got Katherine’s real psyche entirely wrong or not, her Katherine’s strength of character blows my mind. We often define strength by the physical or by flashy displays of exerting power over another, even if the power is more intellectual. However, I have a soft spot for characters with incredible emotional strength, like Katherine, characters whose circumstances overwhelm my empathy even on a hypothetical level. Katherine accepts her life with a matter-of-fact resolve, but I find myself marveling at the kind of restraint and determination life demands of her every single day. Court intrigue novels always unnerve me, probably because I shudder at a life where every word, every move must be carefully calculated, and one slight misstep could destroy your social standing and, therefore, way of life. Katherine finds herself in such a viper’s nest, but she handles everything with an admirable grace and poise.

In contrast, Gregory’s interpretation of Henry VIII is anything but flattering, though entirely believable as well. In fact, he’s a frighteningly familiar figure across history: a narcissist more concerned with his own ego and immediate gratification than anything of real substance, including other people’s well being not to mention the well being of the country he rules. One could almost mock him for his immaturity, but the ripple effect his actions take on the lives of others zaps all the humor out of his childish selfishness.

Gregory’s work will always hold a special spot in my heart as what introduced me to historical fiction and re-reading this book proves to me that special fondness is well deserved.

Friday, December 8, 2017

SABRIEL


Review of SABRIEL by GARTH NIX
(first in the ABHORSEN series)

I first read this book back in junior high and it stuck in my mind ever since as an all-time favorite. Re-reading such books fills me with excitement to re-live the wonder the story aroused in me the first time as well as trepidation that it won’t live up to my memory. Over a decade later and SABRIEL impressed me as much as on my first read as a teenager.

This story follows Sabriel, daughter of the Abhorsen responsible for keeping dead things dead. A literal wall divides the magical from the non-magical. On one side, you have creatures rising from the dead in abundance while skilled necromancers keep them from ever reaching or passing the wall. On the other, you have a world more recognizable to us. Many guards on the wall believe the fantastical rumors, but the farther away from the wall you go the more haughty skepticism you’ll encounter about undead threats. Ironically, Sabriel grows up among these doubters while her father handles said threats. One day, through a mystical, telepathic-type connection, Sabriel realizes her father has died, making her the next Abhorsen, not to mention a daughter determined to find out what happened to a father she loved but barely knew.

There’s a quote on the back of my copy from Philip Pullman describing this book as “fantasy that reads like realism.” I entirely agree. As someone who spends a better part of her life pushing book recommendations on others, SABRIEL stands out as one with an unlikely, eclectic mix of fans. Generalizing, I don’t like undead stories, but Nix’s take on zombies doesn’t even feel like the same genre that I dislike. I also don’t like action scenes; I skim the chase or fight parts and skip to the resolution. Yet when Nix writes a battle or an escape I find myself glued to the page, savoring every word of the scene playing out in my mind. I have also recommended this book to people who don’t like fantasy and nevertheless they enjoy it.

I believe the core of making any book feel so real is the characters. While Sabriel herself doesn’t go down in my mind as a fascinatingly unique character, instead I see her almost as a kind of every person. True, her exceptional bravery in unlikely circumstances should be acknowledged, but there’s also a relatable sense of child groomed to follow in a parent’s footsteps. Maybe we see this situation in our modern world more with doctors and business owners than necromancers, but I view Sabriel as a down-to-earth, every day heroine fated with an absurdly heavy burden of responsibility.

It’s been so long since I last read this book that I managed to forget several important details and twists and found myself delighted whenever the story took me by surprise. I entirely forgot about Mogget, a literal demon cat. There’s something so darkly whimsical about Mogget, and reminiscent of Salem from Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Once upon a time he was a horrifying creature from our worst nightmares, until someone imprisoned him in the form of a cat with a catlike personality to boot. However, for a morbidly humorous twist, Mogget has a way of escaping his cat form at the worst possible moments. Whenever Sabriel finds herself attacked by some terrible beast, you should bet on Mogget slipping his leash, too, so to speak, and adding himself to her list of problems.

I also love the concept of the wall marking literal division, both geographical and social. On one side you have horrors as well as those who protect us from said horrors and on the other a quiet, content lifestyle so safe one doesn’t even believe in said horrors. It’s a powerful metaphor and a thought-provoking dynamic.

SABRIEL more than lived up my memory on re-reading and I look forward to delving into the rest of the series.