On “Royals” by Rachel Hawkins

Image result for royals rachel hawkinsRachel Hawkins’ latest novel is another young adult addition to the spate of royal wedding literature that burst onto the scene in 2011 after Kate and William’s nuptials. Royals, it seems, came just in time for another such highly publicized event. I think we all know what I’m referring to there…No? Congrats on finding a hole deep enough on this earth where even those wedding bells couldn’t reach you. Despite my general disinterest in the royals and their weddings, the fiction that publishing companies fling in front of us can be delightfully readable. Such is the case with Hawkins’ latest.

In this sweet little page turner, the eccentric 17-year-old, Daisy Winters, is grudgingly thrust into the spotlight when her older sister, Ellie, gets engaged to the crown prince of Scotland. (Yes–the fictional, kilt-wearing, haggis-eating counterparts of those posers in the south). After spending her entire life under the radar, Daisy finds herself the subject of tabloid gossip columns, many speculating that she’ll end up with the crown prince’s supremely eligible younger brother, Sebastian.

Meanwhile, Daisy just wants to fit in and act the right way without making a scene. Ellie already disapproves of nearly everything she does. But dodging tabloid rumors and the hell-on-wheels shit show that is Sebastian while pleasing the entire royal family (most notably the ice queen who sits on Scotland’s throne) isn’t an easy task. Ellie and her fiance Alex appoint Seb’s school friend, Miles, to be Daisy’s de facto tutor in all things royal. Of course they immediately dislike each other. Miles thinks Daisy is after money and fame; Daisy thinks Miles is a jerk. (Rightfully, I might add).

Hawkins crafts every scene with the ease that only the best writers can. Humor and calamity dovetail into a perfectly paced comedy of manners. Reading Royals has me on the hunt for more wedding mayhem, but I doubt I’ll find anything as well crafted. But Hawkins has her readers covered. Royals is only book one…

Stephanie Perkins Unleashes Children of the Corn Horror in ‘There’s Someone Inside Your House’

51FsqF3IkgL__SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

This book was unexpected. Most readers know Stephanie Perkins from her funny young adult romances like Anna and the French Kiss. To say that There’s Someone Inside Your House is something of a departure would be the understatement of the century.

Perkins’ latest novel falls squarely in the domain of “slasher” horror–not so much a Stephen King novel for young adults as a salute to the great horror movies of our time. It’s Halloween meets Friday the 13th with a hint of the Children of the Corn vibe that marks most all Midwestern misadventures. The body count is high, and the pages marked by buckets of gore. Horror in young adult literature has yet to be explored in any real depth, so it looks like Perkins is determined to pave the way.

Not to say that your traditional YA tropes don’t fall into place in this novel; they’re just slightly rearranged to fit into the tense plot as it builds to its most destructive levels. The story is told from the perspective of Makani Young–the new girl in town. Something happened to her in her home state of Hawaii that becomes one of the novel’s “big secrets,” and she is sent to live with her grandmother in Nebraska. Makani drops hints of what happened–likely a crime she committed–so that the reader sees the extent of her guilt and how it affects her outlook on the crimes coming to light in Osborne.

Like any YA novel worth its salt, there is a romance. Makani finds herself attracted to Ollie Larsson, the school outcast, complete with a skeletal appearance, a lip ring, and bright pink hair. They hookup during the summer leading up to the novel’s events, but fall out of touch because of that classic teen power struggle we all know and love, the sizing up that occurs when two people who hang out in private come face-to-face in public for the first time, tacitly seeking the answer to the question of whether or not the other person wants to be seen with you in public. On the first day back to school, Makani feels that Ollie doesn’t want to pursue anything with her and that what they had was just a summer fling.

When Halloween rolls around (because, of course, the murders take place around Halloween), the town is turned upside down. Makani’s classmates—the best and brightest—are killed in gruesome fashion. One after the other, they get taken down by someone with a sadistic penchant for messing with the victims before they are brutalized in unspeakable ways. No one feels safe, and no one really knows who’s next.

Ollie and Makani are inevitably drawn back together as they attempt to find a pattern to the killings, much to the distrust of Makani’s friends Alex and Darby who feel that Ollie just might be involved. Or is Makani somehow involved? As the details of her past come to light, the reader finds out that the nature of her offense in Hawaii was violent in some way. She feels guilt, yes…but also something akin to understanding as the nature of Osborne’s murders become public.

Throughout the course of the novel, it’s clear that Perkins is a proper horror fan. All the plot devices are there: a protagonist with a secret, love interest that borders on danger, a pattern of crime that slowly reveals itself over time. Horror narratives that are told from the perspective of a potentially unreliable narrator are the best ones, and Perkins deftly weaves the elements of Makani’s guilt, paranoia, and rage into the unfolding of these murders.

The central narrative told from Makani’s point-of-view is interspersed with chapters told from the perspective of the murder victims. We know they’re going to die, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Those chapters take on a cinematic quality that makes the reader’s heart pound (mine did anyway) knowing that the inevitable is going to take its course.

While I was left a little unsatisfied with the ultimate discovery of who was behind the crimes–and why that person did what they did–the book was such an engrossing page-turner that I would recommend it to anyone who has a mild interest in the macabre. Just make sure all the lights in your house are on…

On “The Young Elites” by Marie Lu

Image result for the young elitesA friend recommended The Young Elites to me at least a year ago, and I just got around to reading it the other day. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. It’s one of the strongest YA series I’ve read in a long time–up there with the work of Sarah J. Maas and Maureen Johnson, partially because of her fantastic world-building, but mostly because of the strength of her writing.

The snappy clip of Lu’s plotting, much like Maas’ and Johnson’s, keeps the reader hooked from the beginning. There isn’t a moment when I thought a section was boring, or misplaced in the greater scheme of the narrative, which attests to the author’s crucial choices about how to present this unusual story.

The Young Elites–the first novel in Lu’s Young Elites trilogy–introduces the readers to a world that resembles Italy in the 1400s at a time when a generation of “malfetto” children is reaching maturity. Some years prior to the events of the novel, a blood fever tore through the world, leaving many dead; the few who survived were left with permanent markings.

Some of these “malfettos”–as they are derisively called–have developed special powers, and a special legion controlled by the throne, known as the Inquisition Axis, is determined to root them out of society through the passage of harsh laws and, increasingly, through state-sanctioned murder.

The story focuses on sixteen-year-old Adelina Amouteru who flees home after accidentally murdering her father with her powers. She is spared from capital punishment at the hands of the Inquisition Axis by a group of vigilante malfettos known as the Young Elites.

As she slowly joins their ranks, she learns that their ultimate goal is to overthrow the king and queen in order to finally undo the unjust system oppressing people like them. Adelina believes in their mission, but it becomes clear that there is something dark wedged deep into her soul.

Through deft characterization, Lu develops a compelling anti-hero–a protagonist who is, essentially, a villain–but who blurs the lines between good and evil in the most fascinating ways. She is joined by a series of similarly scarred Young Elites who are driven towards the same goals, but some of whom distrust Adelina.

When I reached the end of the first book, I found myself so immersed in the Young Elite world and Adelina’s fall from grace–that I know Lu had created a truly compelling piece of fiction.

On Chiara Barzini’s “Things That Happened Before the Earthquake”

51ujUY47TCL__SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I finished this book several months ago, but never got around to doing a write-up about it. It took a few weeks for me to get through it; I found that I was conflicted about a few components of the novel, and wasn’t able to construct a clear argument regarding those elements.

The novel concerns the experiences of an Italian teenager named Eugenia who is forced to leave Rome for Los Angeles by her hippy-ish, champagne-socialist parents. The Rodney King riots have just rocked the city, and sections of the city are still smoking from the damage when Eugenia’s family arrives.

She gradually learns how to navigate an American high school…well…the LA version of an American high school, where gang affiliations are rampant, and the ability to sample sex and drugs is open to most. A stranger to these things at first, Eugenia lets herself sink into the experimentation and immediacy of her surroundings. She befriends a young Persian gang member who is endearing and kind in their private moments, but won’t be seen with her in public.

Her sexual experimentation enrages her parents who, despite their seemingly liberal ways, deem her a whore. When she meets Deva–a beautiful, illusive girl–Eugenia ventures into Topanga Canyon where California morphs into another one of its ever-changing personalities. What becomes a one-sided romance (on Eugenia’s end), becomes complicated by the strange, likely incestuous relationship between Deva and her overbearing father.

Eugenia’s story hinges on the sharp-edged wilderness of Los Angeles in the early 90s–from Hollywood kitsch and gang violence, to the harshness of the surrounding landscape and the disasters that surround it–leading to the novel’s eponymous climax.

Though the book adheres to some of the main YA tropes, there are several aspects of the book that jumped out at me.

Honestly, I’m still not sure I can elucidate these things clearly now since it’s been so long, but I’ll just make a few points about it:

  1. Chiara Barzini needs to write more fiction for young adults. More fiction period. Her style is lyrical by nature, capturing the essence of Eugenia’s experiences in long waves rather than the short bursts of observation that I’ve come to associate with young adult fiction.
  2. There is a section in the middle of the book that follows Chiara and her brother back to a remote island off the Italian coast where the narrative shifts rapidly into a primitive environment that lacks most modern amenities. Without getting into too much detail–that section was a surprising and incendiary exploration of violence and jealousy.
  3. As characters, Eugenia’s parents are extremely well written considering the fact they don’t get much page time, but their personal politics seriously irked me. Besides reacting poorly to Eugenia’s sexuality, other aspects of their behavior reveal them to be slightly narcissistic and almost entirely hypocritical about their alleged belief system. And I cannot stand the way they call everyone fascists…but I think that’s a particularly Italian reproach…

These are the things that stood out to me, and I know I’m neglecting a lot. The book has a lot to unpack. All in all, it’s a gripping coming-of-age story that I would recommend for older teenagers.

5/5

On Maureen Johnson’s “Truly Devious”

29589074This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Maureen Johnsonthe official “Queen of Teen,” is back and better than ever with her latest novel, Truly Devious. In what might be her finest book to date, this mystery combines the best components of YA fiction — an elite boarding school, murder, a beautifully relatable protagonist, and young love — to create a compulsively readable page-turner. Sometimes I exaggerate about good books, but believe me when I say you will not be able to put this one down until you’ve reached the end.

Johnson first showed off her mystery/crime-fighting chops in the Shades of London series, which begins with a return of Jack the Ripper in present-day London and follows a group of young people who are able to see ghosts. Each installment is brilliantly plotted and exhibits Johnson’s keen eye for detail as well as her ability to construct three dimensional characters. Her ability to shed light on the nuances of adolescence was always present in her work, but so many things about Truly Devious combine these elements and take Johnson’s storytelling to a whole new level.

In the beginning of the novel, Stephanie “Stevie” Bell has gained admittance to Ellingham Academy — a school built by a 1930s industrialist named Albert Ellingham who wanted to share his philosophy of education as a game with the rest of the world. Fifty students of all backgrounds are admitted each year tuition free to explore their niche interests with access to the school’s bottomless resources. There are inventors, artists, musicians, and gamers, but Stevie is different. Her obsession with the Ellingham affair and careful study of criminology is what got her into the school.

Stevie’s goal at Ellingham Academy is simple: solve the murder/kidnapping of Iris and Alice Ellingham, Albert’s wife and daughter, and student Dottie Epstein.

Like the Shades series weaves in and out of the streets of London, Truly Devious relies heavily on the landscape of Ellingham Academy. Situated on a mountain just outside of Burlington, Vermont, the school is isolated from society in an idyll that is perfect for the students’ pursuits. But a shroud of eeriness looms over the campus, which houses countless mysteries from the past, ones that Stevie is eager to examine.

Things take an unexpected turn, though, when Hayes — a handsome young actor who has recently found fame with his YouTube series — is found dead in an underground tunnel where key events of the Ellingham affair unfolded decades earlier in April 1936. The school community is rocked with shock and grief. Stevie sees Hayes’ body when it’s discovered by campus security, and she must finally reconcile the theories of studying crime with the reality of an untimely death.

What the police determine to be an accident soon appears like something slightly more sinister to Stevie. The circumstances surrounding Hayes’ death don’t quite add up, and she’s determined to figure out what, or who, was involved.

Investing herself in the Ellingham affair and Hayes’ death isolates Stevie from those around her. Johnson’s characterization of Stevie’s isolation and anxiety is masterful in its presentation. From the beginning, Stevie feels alien in her own family because her parents are devotees of a fictional senator who mirrors the racist and misogynistic idealogy of someone like Roy Moore. Instead of building the typical kind of familial tension into the storyline that we find in most YA novels, Johnson subtly creates a dynamic between Stevie and her parents that I found extremely moving.

Many teenagers and young adults disagree with their parents over politics and ideology. In Stevie’s case, she doesn’t understand her parents, and they don’t understand her, but they love each other deeply. The way her mom makes sure Stevie has her anxiety medication, and the way Stevie looks out for a cheap place to eat when her parents come to see her because she knows they don’t have much money shows a mutual simplicity of affection at the heart of a complicated relationship.

Stevie is also uncertain about whether she even belongs at Ellingham considering the nature of her interests, isolating her further.

To that end, Johnson builds a lot of heavy hitting material into the historical chapters of the novel. Albert Ellingham, the great benefactor, is clearly modeled after late 19th century, early 20th century titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. His magnificent wealth is legendary, funding his many enterprises, but it is also the source of his greatest loss.

When his wife and daughter are kidnapped, ransom is demanded on three occasions, all of increasing amounts, which prompts his secretary to comment that the kidnappers will always want more. Excess and decadence are hallmarks of the Ellingham lifestyle. Johnson brilliantly underscores the Gatsby-esque nature of the household and the family’s privilege with the inclusion of anarchists as dark clouds over the Ellingham dream world.

There are so many layers to this book, combining all the great elements of a YA novel and a good mystery. I gushed with anticipation as I pieced together the tiny details that Johnson sprinkled throughout the plot like breadcrumbs.

Unfortunately, I’m going to assume book two of the series won’t be released until 2019 or 2020, and I might go crazy if I think about all the possibilities that could unfold. It felt like a loss having to turn the last page of this intoxicating story, and I can promise you that whatever comes next will be even more wild.

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 follow instructions and tries to find her own information when she inadvertently brings a new member to the team–Freddie Sellers. Freddie’s intelligence and enthusiasm repel Boo and Callum at first, suspicious that she might be working for Jane. But they 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 find 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.