On Sarah J. Maas’ “A Court of Wings and Ruin”

9781619634480_p0_v3_s550x406The third installment of Sarah J. Maas A Court of Thorns and Roses series is an absolute thrill ride. Readers, strap in: Maas goes full throttle from start to finish.

This novel’s predecessor, A Court of Mist and Fury, triggered some unexpected plot twists. We find out that Rhysand and Feyre are mates and that the King of Hybern plans to use the Cauldron—the entity from which their universe was created—to destroy the wall separating the faerie world from the mortal world in an attempt to gain back what he feels is rightfully theirs. In the process, the lives of countless humans and lesser faeries will be compromised—left to the whims of the sadistic King and his cronies.

Driven by jealousy, Tamlin aids the King in A Court of Mist and Fury, which leads all the High Lords to question his loyalty in the war against Hybern. Feyre and Rhysand’s biggest challenge lies in rallying forces together that are strong enough to combat the power that the King yields. Feyre’s sister, Nesta, becomes the key to unlocking the mystery. The iron-willed, fiery-tempered young woman took something from the Cauldron when it changed her so that she can communicate with it in ways no one else can.

The Night Court crew has to convince the other High Lords to offer their armies in defense of Prythian and the human lives that are at stake. But the High Lord of Autumn—Lucien’s father—is rotten to the core, constantly wavering on the cusp of loyalty to Prythian and becoming a sycophant to Hybern. The battle of wills that ensues between the courts is only a minor bump in the road. Feyre and Rhysand must also harness some of Prythian’s darkest forces to defeat the King. These entities come from other realms and are as old as time itself.

In the midst of all this, each character has to deal with his or her own personal demons. Mor and Azriel are still doing their painful dance; Cassian and Nesta maintain a hate/barely tolerate each other relationship that contains obvious passion; Feyre has to deal with the fallout from Tamlin; Amren has to unlock the Cauldron so she can finally return to her original form; and Lucien has to keep a distance from his mate, Elain, who remains a shell after her encounter with the Cauldron and is devastated over her broken engagement with a rich, faerie-hating human.

Everything comes to a head in one of the most breathtaking battles I’ve ever encountered in young adult fantasy literature. Maas’ imagery is brutal and vivid, and the way she weaves each character’s personal dilemma into the final reckoning is beyond compare. Everyone pushes beyond brokenness to defeat the evils the King of Hybern plans to unleash on the people and faeries of Prythian.

All the organizing Feyre and Rhysand accomplish over the course of the novel almost crumbles when several unexpected twists and turns nearly destroy everything. But with the unbridled bad-assery of the three Archeron sisters, the Night Court, and its assembled forces, save the island from a terrifying end. What they’re left with, though, is the mass carnage of thousands and thousands of faeries. What will become a new age for Prythian will also be another period of great mourning for all involved.

a court of frost and starlight sarah j maas
Bloomsbury

I was ecstatic to find that this novel—what I thought was going to be the final installment in the trilogy—is not the end for our heroes. In May 2018, Maas will be releasing a novella titled A Court of Frost and Starlight. Narrated by Rhysand and Feyre, it will bridge the gap between the original trilogy and a new trilogy set in the Court of Thorns and Roses universe. Next spring cannot come quickly enough.

On Maureen Johnson’s “The Shadow Cabinet”

shadesWHY HASN’T THE FOURTH BOOK COME OUT YET?!?! Oh…have I given myself away already? You could say my investment in this series has gotten out of hand. Or you could say my enthusiasm/outrage is entirely proper because I NEED to know what happens between Stephen and Rory, and what those crazy Lannister-like twins are going to get themselves into.

As I’ve said before about Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, the novels are so fast-paced and intricately plotted that the reader cannot put them down easily. The Name of the Star will, perhaps, always be the strongest installment in the series, but The Shadow Cabinet is a close second. The devastation and anger that wracks the Shades after Stephen’s death provides the foundation for great fiction, and we see Johnson’s characters grow as they move through this trauma.

Rory is at a crossroads. Her guilt about the car accident that caused Stephen’s head injury overwhelms her at times, and she’s determined to use her power as a terminus to keep him around as a ghost at the end of The Madness Underneath. Callum, who is driven in his work by his hatred of ghosts, can’t stand the thought of his best friend taking that form–being trapped in the liminal space between life and what comes after.

Boo and Thorpe are left to rebuild after the fallout. Despite their loss, they must locate Charlotte who has been kidnapped by Jane Quaint and her weird cult. Of course, Rory fails to follows instructions and tries to find her own information when she inadvertently brings a new member to the team–Freddie Sellers. Her intelligence and enthusiasm repel Boo and Callum at first, suspicious that she might be working for Jane. But the grudgingly come to accept the skills she can offer.

Johnson packs quite a few punches into this book because, when we find out what Jane has planned, it seems impossible that Rory and the others will make it through unscathed.

*Spoiler alert* Jane is attempting to revive her friends and mentors–the power hungry twins, Sid and Sadie. We find out that, like Stephen, these two have been in a state between life and death since the night they murdered ten people and drank poison in 1973. Jane wants them back so that she, too, can “defeat death” and reach some new level of consciousness or whatever. Rory just wants Stephen back.

The most compelling pieces of this novel take place in that liminal space as Rory tries to pull them back to the living. We found out that Stephen is a member of the illusive Shadow Cabinet whose sole purpose is to guard the stones that keep the boundaries of life and death separate, and aid souls on their way to whatever comes after death. The termini the Shades had been using before the Ripper threw them into the Thames were cut from the Eye of Isis–one of the nine stones that protected London. When it was destroyed, the tear made London a hotbed for the supernatural.

Since Rory is a stone, Stephen is also tasked with protecting her. Loving her isn’t part of the plan. It can’t be. The push and pull of their relationship is heartbreaking, and the reader wants nothing more than for it to be okay for them to be together, living like normal teenagers. In peace.

But it is not to be. Once Rory and Stephen return to the world of the living (with Sid and Sadie in tow), they have to return another major stone that Jane stole to complete the ritual. Of course, they manage to do it, but nothing is the same. No one else in the Shades knows about the Shadow Cabinet. Rory doesn’t remember what happened when she went in after Stephen, so she doesn’t know why she and Stephen can’t be together. It’s just the hint of a feeling that something is off…and Sid and Sadie are on the loose, murderous as ever.

You can understand why Johnson needs to release the fourth novel pronto. The lives of these beautiful characters hang in the balance. *lets loose a sigh* Stephen and Rory have to get their happy ending…and Sid and Sadie need to pass from this life.

Reading Helene Hanff in 2017

hanff-1A few weeks ago, I finally got around to reading Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road. (It doesn’t escape me that I’m always “getting around” to reading things, but here we are). It’s a slim text, comprised solely of Hanff’s correspondence with Frank Doel, chief buyer at the antiquarian bookshop Marks & Co., and other members of its staff.

Hanff–whose reading tastes were heavily influenced by writer and literary critic, Arthur Quiller-Couch–had a fondness for the Classics and non-fiction accounts. (Don’t get her started on the journals of Samuel Pepys!) She quickly found that Marks & Co. could cater to her tastes. But what starts as a simple request for a specific text turns into a decades long correspondence.

Frank Doel, ever the professional, did not initially reciprocate Hanff’s teasing, lighthearted letters. At the time, Englanders suffered from post-war food shortages that required rationing essential everyday items. Hanff took the time to send various foodstuffs, such as meat and eggs, which the staff of Marks & Co. greatly appreciated. The softened Doel then became a confidant of sorts to the eccentric Hanff.

It’s difficult not to feel a great kinship with Helene Hanff. Good readers gravitate towards each other from across time and space, and the world Hanff created for herself through literature and the written word is everything I aspire to in my little life. Her greatest passions about this translation or that, or the quality of various editions are often humorous, something that clearly amused Frank Doel and his colleagues.

The most striking aspect of 84, Charing Cross Road, though, is the intimacy and sense of close friendship that comes through in these letters. Not only did Hanff build herself a world through literature, she built relationships across the ocean through a mutual love and respect for words.

At times when things seem overwhelming, books like this are deeply comforting. To relate to another person’s obsessive reading habits is one of my greatest pleasures when reading memoirs or non-fiction accounts. Helene Hanff’s particular brand of wise-cracking humor and unbridled enthusiasm just makes it all the better.

On Meg Rosoff’s “How I Live Now”

rosoffThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Meg Rosoff‘s 2004 novel, How I Live Now, is eerily prescient. At the time of its publication–only three years after 9/11–the dystopian world in which our protagonist, Daisy, and her cousins live could have seemed like the reality we were headed towards. While it has always been true that, at any given time, parts of the world are besieged by the atrocities of war, most inhabitants of the West cannot conceive that our societal structures will collapse. That kind of endless violence–the inevitable outcome of hundreds of years of colonialism and imperialistic greed–happens to others in “those parts of the world.”

How I Live Now tears down this facade of safety. 15-year-old Daisy, a spirited teenager with anorexia, is sent to stay with her Aunt Penn and cousins in England. Her father and his new wife have little space in their new lives for Daisy, and everyone agrees that a summer away from New York will do her good. When she reaches England, terrorist attacks have blossomed all over the world, and security is high. But her cousins’ life in the countryside is secluded from the dangers in London and other cities.

Homesick at first, Daisy finds herself isolated from their insular world. Aunt Penn keeps odd hours and travels often for her work. Osbert, the oldest cousin, takes on a superior role to his brothers and sister. He keeps track of the war we discern as World War III while the others go about their chores and games. Twins Edmond and Isaac, along with their young sister, Piper, possess preternatural abilities when it comes to understanding the earth and other people’s unspoken thoughts.

Soon enough, Daisy is completely wrapped up in their world–an idyll in the midst of a brewing storm. Aunt Penn has to attend a conference in Oslo shortly after Daisy’s arrival, so the children are alone in the house. Rosoff’s sparse narrative captures the lushness of summertime and the young love that blooms between Daisy and Edmond. The taboo of their incestuous relationship is mitigated by the circumstances the children find themselves in. Right after Penn leaves, a nuclear bomb goes off in London, and their isolation is complete. They live off of government rations and what grows on the farm.

Daisy and Edmond–two lost souls–are bound together by more than family ties. The chemistry of their blood and bones and the way they can know each others’ thoughts without saying a word becomes a refuge. They make promises to never leave each other.

Of course, their summer sanctuary goes as soon as it comes. Osbert, eager to contribute to the war effort, offers their home as a barracks for a local regiment. The children are separated from each other. Daisy and Piper are sent to live with an army officer and his wife. The boys are sent to another farm nearby. While Daisy’s days are consumed with physical labor, she and Edmond still communicate with each other through whatever invisible rope that holds them together. He is in her mind, telling her stories, bringing them peace.

But violence erupts again. Daisy and Piper are forced to flee. They make their way towards the others only to be confronted by mass slaughter. In this moment, the vertiginous out-of-body experience that accompanies the sight of heinous carnage takes over Daisy and Piper. Rosoff’s brutal sentences convey the horror of the atrocities they encounter without falling into hyperbole or melodrama. The facts are what they are. The horror of the images speaks volumes without prodding.

Eventually, Daisy’s father brings her back to America. She leaves home as soon as she can to work in the New York Public Library. Living to see the end of each day is a gamble,  but she is determined to make it back to England. When she finally goes back seven years later, the farm is still the sanctuary it once was. Daisy learns what happened to Osbert, Isaac, and Edmond all those years before. They made it out. But Edmond is a shell. He hates Daisy for breaking their promise. For leaving.

Daisy begins the process of salvaging what was lost, rebuilding the structure of their happiest days. Despite all that’s happened, the novel ends on a hopeful note. Daisy will stay in England with Edmond and the others and live out the rest of their years in peace.

How I Live Now is a gorgeous, heartbreaking reflection on war and sanctuary. In just a 192 pages, Rosoff explores the ways in which young people can build worlds for themselves outside of what society claims is right. Through a deep connection to the earth and the natural world, Daisy and her cousins shape a niche under the weight of world-ending terror. In a world that is starting to appear more and more like that in How I Live Now, this story of love and resilience resonates as strongly as it did over a decade ago.

On “Holding” by Graham Norton

31364727One of my favorite pastimes on days when I cannot concentrate on anything or sleep more than a few hours is to watch The Graham Norton Showa slightly ostentatious, mildly campy chat show that features major Hollywood stars and musicians who go on to talk about their work. Graham Norton, the eponymous show’s host, has a knack for navigating the personalities that settle on his red couch for the evening—expertly pivoting between guests in order to make a cohesive, often hilarious, show.

So when I found out the same Graham Norton was turning his hand to fiction, I was surprised. The solitary act of writing fiction seemed like the antithesis of something Norton would do. But as he explains on the BBC Radio 4 broadcast, “Books and Authors,” he has always wanted to write a novel and seized the opportunity when it came along.

After already having written two acclaimed memoirs, So Me (2004) and The Life and Loves of a He Devil (2014), Norton strays from using autobiographical content in his debut novel, Holding, though he does return to his native land to tell the story.

Set in a small Irish town called Duneen near the city of Cork, Holding explores the lives of those lifelong residents who, for one reason or another, find themselves stuck there. Sergeant PJ Collins—the town’s sole police officer—is overweight and has nothing else to do but dispense parking tickets. Brid Riordan, Duneen’s resident alcoholic, will not admit that she has a problem even though her family is slipping away from her. And Evelyn Ross—beautiful and composed—lives with her spinster sisters in their family estate, refusing to abandon each other after their parents’ untimely deaths.

When skeletal remains are discovered at a construction site on the old Burke farm, these three—and the entire town—are thrown into the past. Finally, PJ can put his skills to use; his time to shine. But the police lieutenant from Cork who supervises the case questions his competence, secretly referring to him as “Sergeant Sumo.”

They come to believe that the remains belong to Tommy Burke, a boy no one has seen or heard from in twenty-five years. For Brid and Evelyn, the reemergence of Tommy Burke dredges up painful memories. Right before Tommy disappeared, he had been engaged to Brid. He did not love her, which Brid knew, even then; he valued her family’s farmland. But she’s never been able to get past the idea of what her life could have been like with Tommy instead of her husband, Anthony, who looks at her with disgust more often than not.

Evelyn was in love with Tommy and believed he was in love with her as well. For twenty-five years she’s mourned a love that never got the chance to form. She’s lived a half-life instead. Just like Brid. Completely loveless.

Norton’s story hinges around the discovery of a body, but its primary function is to explore the psyches of Duneen’s residents. They wonder what life could have been if things had been different in their youths—if they had only had the chance to leave. If, perhaps, love had come easily for them.

One of Norton’s greatest strengths in Holding is the exploration of solitude as it relates to never attaining love. For his characters, love has been lost, stolen, killed, buried by circumstance, or, quite simply, never found in the first place.

It’s the exact opposite of what people would expect from the public persona Graham Norton puts forth, but this novel exhibits his keen ability to dissect the inner workings of human turmoil. Any reader who is fond of simple little mysteries will enjoy this book. Though Norton’s fans might be hard-pressed to find the entertainer’s personality displayed obviously, they will be able to find his humor in the slight details. It’s well worth a read.

On “What to Say Next” by Julie Buxbaum

30199656This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Julie Buxbaum‘s new novel, What to Say Next, is a heartwarming exploration of grief, social norms, and first love.Two teenagers from vastly different high school social strata find themselves talking to each other after years of occasional pleasantries. Over the course of the novel, they teach each other how to handle grief and experience love—even when it’s unexpected. They drive past all the noise and go directly to the things that matter.

Half of the narrative in What to Say Next comes from a teenage boy named David Drucker who falls on the Autism spectrum. He dislikes labels and comes up with what he believes is solid evidence refuting the idea that he has Asperger’s syndrome or High Functioning Autism. He’s just different, and everyone in school simply ignores him or forgets that he exists. But he’s had his fair share of torment, so to avoid potentially dangerous situations, David’s popular sister Laura—one-time ruler of Mapleview High—has him make Trust and Do Not Trust lists in his notebook. Each person in his class is profiled with details that he has observed, accompanied by any interactions he has had with that person in the past.

When it comes to Kit Lowell, David notes the way she always sits criss-cross applesauce, how her hair falls in commas across her face, how she smiles at him sometimes. Kit, who is half-Indian (Asian, not Native American, according to David’s notes), is the prettiest girl in school. She is someone with whom he never expects to have any meaningful social interaction.

Until the day she sits at his lunch table.

And the first thing David says? The most recent fact he’s learned about her: “So your dad is dead.”

Thus starts the beginning of their acquaintance as more than just classmates. Kit finds that it’s easy to talk to David. He’s straightforward, tending not to sugarcoat the fact of death. In turn, David experiences the nuance of flirtation, analyzing everything along the way. Much like Don Tillman’s 2014 novel The Rosie Project, David decides to take on the task of studying the mechanics of Mr. Lowell’s accident. Could he have braked in time? Or was death inevitable?

Kit and David come across some heavy truths over the course of the novel, and they come to depend on each other for feedback and support. Buxbaum does a fantastic job of crafting the narrative with both Kit’s and David’s perspectives. The precision and logic with which David approaches life suits the circumstances of Kit’s grief. Like every teenager that opines in a John Hughes movie, these two get each other.

What to Say Next is perfect for people who loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime or The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It is effortlessly readable and its characters loveable. Perfect for the last stretches of summer.

On “Summer Crossing” by Truman Capote

Summer_Crossing_SmallMy relationship with Truman Capote and his work has always been harried. There is no doubt that he is one of America’s finest writers; Other Voices, Other Rooms and the delightful Breakfast at Tiffany’s remain staples of our canon. Even the hotly contested In Cold Blood is considered a masterpiece of the “creative non-fiction” genre. But, as Melanie Benjamin explored in her novel The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Capote had a nasty tendency toward exploitation and excess. The infamous “La Cote Basque 1965” is enough to explain just how far he would go for fame and attention if he felt like he was falling into obscurity.

The 2005 Bennett Miller film, Capote, explores the personal tumult the author went through while writing In Cold Blood. It shows a man who tells his subjects what they want to hear in order to get information at the great cost of his self-respect and what would be a huge blow to his friendship with Nelle Harper Lee. The film pays especial attention to Capote’s relationship with Perry Smith, which was deeply empathetic. In one scene, he tells Nelle Lee, “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.”

Later on, he turns to Nelle again for reassurance after Smith and Hickock are hanged. He asks, “And there wasn’t anything I could have done to save them.” She responds, “Maybe not. But the fact is, you didn’t want to.”

This is who Truman Capote is in my mind–the man who does whatever he must for the sake of a story–for good or evil. He left behind masterpieces but died a lonely, creatively-stunted alcoholic. A bleak ending for the once shiny, gregarious Southern author.

Like a moth attracted to flame, I picked up Truman Capote’s unpublished first novel, Summer Crossing in the hopes of getting a glimpse into the author’s origins. Before he sold his soul for fame and notoriety. The manuscript–believed to have been thrown away–was rescued by one of Capote’s former landlords and eventually sold at auction. The slim text, which was published by Random House in 2005, is a fascinating display of the young Truman Capote’s keen instincts.

The story concerns Grady O’Neil–the bohemian daughter of a wealthy Manhattan family who decides to stay home while her parents go on a “summer crossing” to Europe. It seems that she has found love with a 23-year-old Jewish man from Brooklyn named Clyde Manzer–a condition of secrecy for both parties.

Capote builds their narrative from a series of psychologically adroit sketches: Grady making breakfast for Clyde, burning waffles in the process; the push and pull relationship she has with her childhood best friend, Peter Boyd, who has fallen in love with her; the oppressive, sizzling heat of Manhattan at night–the only time Capote’s characters will safely venture out.

So many of these interactions are marked by Capote’s trademark wit and the dissection of human experience that he wields in his later work. The observations are there even if his sentences show the uncertainty with which he lays out the story. Reading his passages can be exhausting, to the point where I had to imagine myself reading out loud to make sense of some of his more circuitous descriptions. I am happy to note that, in his later work, Capote dropped his incessant use of semi-colons.

The only peculiar element to this story is its abrupt ending. Unlike his other pieces of fiction, Summer Crossing pokes at the surface of dread until the novel’s very last paragraph at which time he plunges his characters right into it. It seems, in that moment, that something in Grady snaps. She is pregnant with Clyde’s child, and they have eloped. What should he a happy time is marred by apprehension and distrust. They go for what would be a normal night out until a moment of tension between Clyde and Peter unnerves her to the point where she speeds her Buick along the Queensboro Bridge with the intention of going off the edge and killing everyone.

Clyde’s friend Gump says something along the lines of, “Slow down! You’ll kill us all.” To which she replies, “I know.”

Summer Crossing could be a commentary on any number of things: the unbridgeable gap between classes; the gentle malaise of the bohemian elite; or, the Great Gatsby-like trope of summer addling the minds of those who have everything to lose.

Or–it could be none of those things.

In my estimation, Capote used this story as an exercise, flexing his muscles for future narratives. The paint strokes of Summer Crossing are apparent in his later work, showing the author as someone who is constantly hyper-aware of nuance in behavior and speech.

For Capote fans, this novel is well worth a read. At a scant 130 pages, readers can digest the story in a matter of hours, though I would recommend reading with care. Capote is a tricky one when it comes to building those pristine sentences of his. One misstep and you could fall down the rabbit hole.