On “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas

ACOMAF-cover1This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

To say that I stopped breathing for the entire length of A Court of Mist and Fury would not be an understatement. I knew its predecessor, A Court of Thorns and Roses, set the series up for some cataclysmic changes, but I never expected to be so emotionally drained by the end. That, I say, is the mark of a well-crafted series. Sarah J. Maas‘s world building is compelling, rich with detail, and surrounds the reader completely. Her character building remains unparalleled in the YA fantasy genre.

I had my doubts about how good the second installment in the series would be—a classic anxiety for any budding fan. But ACOMAF was even better. So much better, in fact, that I stopped to ask myself why. *SPOILER ALERT* The answer: Rhysand. Rhysand and Feyre. Feyre and Rhysand. The world is righted. Tamlin, that a-hole, is out. Rhysand, Prythian’s resident BAMF, is in. I knew in my gut at the end of ACOTAR that Rhys was Feyre’s mate, but I didn’t know how Maas was going to unspool the threads of their narrative.

In the beginning of ACOMAF, Feyre is severely psychologically damaged by what happened Under the Mountain in Book One. Tamlin is also damaged, but he offers Feyre no comfort. His need to protect becomes overblown and completely stifling. Feyre can barely leave the house because of his new overprotective nature…or is it new? Later on in the novel, Feyre contemplates how her relationship with Tamlin morphed into what it did. When she first came into Tamlin’s court, after years of drudgery and destitution, she needed Tamlin’s protectiveness and the safe environment he provided for her to paint and relax after so many years. Feyre realizes that who she was before Amarantha died when she went Under the Mountain. There is no going back.

Right before she steps onto the altar to marry Tamlin, Feyre knows she’s about to make a huge mistake and she screams internally for someone, anyone, to help her. Enter Rhys. He interrupts Feyre and Tamlin’s nuptials to make good on the bargain he and Feyre made Under the Mountain. He takes her to the Night Court where she slowly, grudgingly realizes how much better life is when she’s learning and doing and being around people who don’t treat her like a porcelain doll.

Tamlin continues to keep her cloistered, and, in the moment that changes the course of everything in ACOMAF, locks her in the Spring Court manor. The animalistic rage that stems from being caged in takes over her body. Rhys and his cousin, Mor, rescue her and take her to the Night Court for as long as she wishes to stay. Feyre feels numb. She feels guilty about leaving Tamlin but knows she couldn’t have stayed without becoming a shell of a person. Rhys has asked for her help. The King of Hybern is about to wage a war that will destroy both Prythian and the mortal world on the other side of the wall.

With Rhys’s help—and the help of his small group of friends/allies—Feyre learns that she is more powerful than most Fae. When the High Lords of Prythian gave some of their power so that she could live, their powers became hers. Ice, wind, fire, water–it’s all at her disposal. Will Feyre work through the trauma of death Under the Mountain? Will they defeat the King of Hybern’s arsenal of magic and deadly forces? Only time will tell.

A Court of Mist and Fury is an absolute thrill ride. Feyre learns how to become a true warrior by using the tools she possesses. She and Rhys seal the bond that was between them for years without their knowledge. (Good riddance, Tamlin.) A new cast of characters brings the realm to life. Cassian and Azriel—Rhy’s Illyrian brothers-in-arms, the ever powerful and charming Morrigan, and the deadly, sarcastic, knife sharp Amren.

Maas developed their narratives with such deft plotting that no reader can start this book without finishing it as fast as possible. It is engrossing, romantic, action-packed, and a sharp study of kingdoms at war. I have no doubt this series will go down as a classic in the fantasy genre, and I cannot wait to get my hands on the third installment, A Court of Wings and Ruin.

On “Rum & Razors” by Donald Bain and Jessica Fletcher

51dtdeGWtwL__SX295_BO1,204,203,200_Another book in and no signs of stopping. The Donald Bain Murder, She Wrote series is the epitome of that coveted little genre that’s been pegged, in recent years, as the “cozy mystery” –that sweet combination of international travel, well furnished rooms, and warm, decadent meals. All of them present in this series.

The novels are light, quick reads that feature one of television’s most beloved characters, mystery writer Jessica Fletcher. From London to St. Thomas, we find her at the threshold of tragedy wherever she goes (a long running joke about Cabot Cove being the murder capital of the country would not be amiss), and treats everything with true dignity and respect. She’s also whip-smart and ready for adventure at the drop of a hat.

In Rum & Razors we see Jessica encounter a more complex moral conundrum than what Bain plotted in the first two novels of the series. In this book, Jessica has just finished another novel and is in need of a vacation. Her good friends from Cabot Cove, Walter and Laurie Marschalk, a travel writer and gourmet chef respectively, have opened a luxury inn on the island of St. Thomas.

What promises to be ten days of paradise immediately turns sour when Jessica realizes how much financial difficulty the Marschalks are in. When Walter ends up dead, there are more than a few individuals who could be responsible. At a travel writer’s conference in the hotel neighboring Lover’s Lagoon, Jessica learns just how unpopular Walter was with his colleagues; he was greedy, arrogant, and a notorious philanderer. One of his mistresses is even present during the entire debacle.

So who murdered Walter Marschalk? Was is the island senator with whom he struck a deal to purchase the environmentally protected land on which the inn sits? Was it the disgruntled employee he just fired? Was it the manager of the lagoon’s neighboring rival hotel? Or was it Walter’s lover and her boyfriend?

Most surprisingly, Jessica has to confront the idea that it might have been her dear friend Laurie who committed the murder. The day after the heinous deed is done, Jessica intercepts divorce papers meant for Walter that had been initiated by Laurie just a few days before. Could she have murdered her husband? Jess can only remember how happy they seemed back in Cabot Cove…But when she thinks about it, Jessica realizes she didn’t really know the Marschalks that well at all.

When Jess’s good friend, Seth, arrives on the island, they make a last ditch effort to find Walter’s killer and exonerate the name of an innocent man caught in the cross hairs of greed.

I cannot recommend these books highly enough. They’re deftly plotted and fun to read–perfect for when you feel like taking a break from other books you might be reading. Better yet, if you’ve never seen the television show these books are based on, watch them ASAP. Angela Lansbury is absolutely timeless as Jessica Fletcher, and I can guarantee you will be binge watching for days.

On “The Boy in the Smoke” by Maureen Johnson

Image result for the boy in the smokeMy friends, if you haven’t already started reading Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, now is the time. I know I’m late to the game myself, but the long reigning “Queen of Teen” has delivered a well-written, suspenseful, page-turning series; It’s best to start reading now before some production company decides to make a film adaptation.

I was only aware of the three major installments of the series before I started reading. (I have yet to read the third novel.) But I found out that Johnson published a prequel novella for National Book Day in 2014. Naturally, I had to get my hands on it. I don’t know about you, but if a writer produces supplemental material for a series I love, I have to read it.

When I realized it was about Stephen Dene’s childhood and relationship with his family, I was thrilled. The Madness Underneath left me feeling some kind of way, so the novella partially placated my sense of loss. Since I have a ton of other books to get through before I can read The Shadow Cabinet, it also served as an excellent hold over until I can get to that last book.

In just over eighty pages, Johnson paints a deft, astonishingly complete portrait of Stephen’s life as a teenager (which makes me think she’d be an amazing short story writer.) His relationship with his sister is the only thing that matters to him. But after his parents cut off contact with her, sending money in exchange for silence, they see less and less of each other.

After her death, he continues to go through the motions of his life at Eton with everyone avoiding any mention of tragedy. Indeed, as far as his parents are concerned, his sister never existed at all. No use airing dirty laundry, as they say.

Plagued by a deep sense of loss and time wasted, Stephen is driven to despair, attempting suicide by hanging. Yet, he doesn’t succeed. He’s saved by a ghost–a student who threw himself in the river over unrequited love from another boy and has been stuck in the boat house ever since.

Thus begins the start of everything. Before Callum, Boo, and Rory, there was just Stephen, tasked with assembling a team of fellow ghost seers. Having Stephen’s backstory makes his romance with Rory all the more poignant in retrospect. Only time will tell how the rest of their story will play out.

On “Tash Hearts Tolstoy” by Kathryn Ormsbee

29414576This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Kathryn Ormsbee‘s new novel Tash Hearts Tolstoy is a creative, heartwarming story about 17-year-old Natasha “Tash” Zelenka who skyrockets to online fame after her web series, Unhappy Families, gets an unexpected nod of approval from a well-known vlogger. The series in question: a modern interpretation of Leo Tolstoy‘s seminal novel, Anna Karenina. Leo is Tash’s main man, a source of inspiration behind her creative pursuits. But Tash is all too aware of the fact that Unhappy Families isn’t quite the heavy-hitting success as its source material. Not even close.

Tash and her best friend, Jaclyn “Jack” Harlow, write and produce the web series, and they stick to a strict production schedule, wrangling temperamental actors, in order to get it out there for the world to see. Because even if the show only has 400 followers, it’s a project they believe in. Everything changes when Taylor Mears—famed web series producer—gives her a nod of approval to several up-and-coming web series. After that, the followers just come rolling in. Fame, however, is not something Tash and Jack are prepared for.

Tash plans and arranges even more than she usually does and becomes emotionally invested in the comments people post about Unhappy Families—good and bad. Jack keeps her cool, but, in doing so, remains blasé about the whole thing. Much to Tash’s vexation, Jack is a purist through and through; she refuses to create art for commercial success or to keep up with the demands of new fans. It’s great for keeping Tash down-to-earth, but terrible for Tash’s hunger to make a name for herself.

Once the final filming sessions are squared away, and their new found fame is under control, a new series of problems come to light. Tash’s sister, Klaudie, plays a small, but integral, role in the show. She and Tash don’t particularly get along, and Tash can see Klaudie has quite a bit of disdain for Tash’s investment in the project. But when she quits early on in the last phase of shooting, Tash is livid. Most of their interactions thereafter are accusatory silences, icy glares, and slammed doors. It’s a nasty fight, fought mostly in silence—a fight that unbalances the zen of the Zelenka household. Though, Mr. and Mrs. Zelenka pour fuel on the fire when they announce that they are going to have a baby.

In the meantime, Tash’s best friends, Jack and Paul, are fearing the worst when their dad, in remission after having had pancreatic cancer, begins having headaches. More strain is piled on when Tash suspects Paul is jealous of her flirtatious correspondence with another online blogger named Thom Causer. He and Tash plan to meet at the Golden Tuba award ceremony/web convention where Unhappy Families has been nominated for “Best New Web Series.”

This leads to an exploration of Tash’s biggest dilemma—something Ormsbee seems dedicated to discussing: asexuality. Throughout the novel, she grapples with fact that she has no desire for sexual contact even though she has romantic feelings, constantly wondering if she’s fully human or not considering that such a sexual drive is what keeps humanity going. Even Jack and Paul don’t really know how to talk about it with her, and Tash doesn’t really know what to say about it. When it becomes obvious that Paul has feelings for her, she lashes out by telling him about all the things he can never have with her.

When she meets Thom at the convention, her explanation as to why their relationship won’t lead to anything physical does not go over very well. He takes on the role of teenage “mansplainer” when he tells Tash she doesn’t know what she’s talking about and is just confused. Disaster ensues.

Tash ends up leaving the convention early when she finds out Mr. Harlow’s cancer has come back with a vengeance and apologizes for everything she said to Paul and for the tension that has arisen between the three friends.

It’s an offbeat story, one that blends the relatively new phenomenon of vlogging and web series with the heaviness of Russian literature. Though I have to say, there is far less Tolstoy in this novel than I accepted. Just a lot of Tash staring at a poster of young Tolstoy on her wall, conversing about what to do with her life.

Ormsbee is a competent, clean writer who’s written a lovely piece of fiction. Her characters are well developed and nuanced to the point where the reader feels true annoyance and happiness for them at certain points in the story. But it would not have been particularly groundbreaking without the discussion of asexuality, which lifted its position to a must read in the LGBTQ+ canon.

Her approach to Tash’s relationship with sexuality is extremely well done because she captures the essence of confusion that comes along with having romantic feelings without wanting the physical aspects that most people expect. Ormsbee places questions of how to navigate a relationship between a sexual person and an asexual person into the narrative and tackles Tash’s own understanding of her proclivities.

If there are other pieces of YA fiction that deal with asexuality, I don’t know of them. Ormsbee has gone where few authors have before, but her work is certainly part of a boom in LGBTQ+ literature that is refreshing in its representation of nuanced sexuality. Tash Hearts Tolstoy is a touching, smart, funny novel worth reading.

On “The Madness Underneath” by Maureen Johnson

51lZGWjeA6LAfter my Maureen Johnson craze faded a few months ago, I thought it might be a while before I got around to reading the next book in her Shades of London series. I’ve read a number of YA books since I burned through Johnson’s canon, but something about The Name of the Star really piqued my interest; I was eager to get back to the series sooner rather than later. From the beginning, Johnson hit all the right points–a boarding school in London, Jack the Ripper, ghost police–it’s all there. And I was so ready for my ship of Rory and Stephen’s romance to come to fruition.

The series’ second installment, The Madness Underneath, seamlessly continues the action of the first novel. It was not, however, as finely tuned as I thought it would be. Because Rory is in limbo in terms of whether she will be returning to Wexford, and then, whether or not she can actually pass school, or how she is going to contribute to the Shades now that she is a terminus, the narrative is noticeably harried. It’s difficult to keep up with Rory in The Madness Underneath. Johnson moves the plot along at a breakneck speed. And though her character development is as excellent as ever in this novel, there are some murky aspects of the text that crop up.

Johnson’s introduction of the story’s new nemesis is odd. Rory’s difficulty with school was an excellent way for Johnson to throw a monkey wrench into the plot. I assumed she would continue on at Wexford while working with the Shades on the aftermath of the Ripper case. But, no. That would be too easy. *Spoiler alert* Johnson takes us on a roller coaster ride that involves an ex-rock n’ roller turned therapist who convinces Rory to run away from school when she finds out how poorly she’s doing academically. I had a lot of difficulty accepting that what was happening was happening as it unfolded. Who is convinced that easily that she should run away? It’s so sudden and so complete that I was confused and skeptical all at once.

Johnson offsets this a bit when Rory realizes that Jane, the therapist, has been drugging her with hash via baked goods. How 70s. This is a meager, though generally acceptable, explanation of Rory’s suggestibility during the entire affair, but it still rubs the wrong way. It doesn’t help that there was so much information and action packed into the last few chapters that it was difficult to jump from Rory’s rambling limbo phase, with hints of lurking danger, to full on danger.

Those last few chapters are heavy hitters. Jane and her lackeys are members of a cult who is trying to “defeat death”–whatever that means–and attempting to use Rory as a tool because of her terminus abilities. When Stephen, Callum, and Boo save her, she and Stephen FINALLY hook up, which was a deeply satisfying moment for a repressed fangirl such as myself, but Johnson steps it up to a whole new level when she kills Stephen off.

He sustains a serious head injury that isn’t immediately obvious to the others, and once they get him to the hospital, it’s too late. Rory insists on keeping her hands on him during his death because she believes its a way to bring him back as a ghost. The novel ends with Rory and Boo searching for him, and Rory’s vow to get payback.

For the most part, The Madness Underneath was a great next step in the series. I seriously didn’t see any of the second half coming. The beginning gets off to a shaky start as Rory finds her footing, but the traipsing through London she does makes up for it. There’s nothing better than some good old-fashioned London history to keep me going, and Johnson threads it into the novel with ease.

I’ve already gotten my hands on the next two installments, and I cannot wait to see how the Shades of London pans out.

On “White Fur” by Jardine Libaire

51Mh8qgdc4L__SX329_BO1,204,203,200_This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Imagine if Shakespeare had lived a few centuries later. There would be no fair Verona, no feuding families, and no epic sword fights (unfortunately). Two warring families might not crush the hopes of young lovers the way they did for Romeo and Juliet, but in 1980s Manhattan, class, race, and poverty serve the same narrative purpose. Jardine Libaire’s tale of star-crossed lovers who fall for each other despite hailing from opposing groups is the same narrative we’ve seen time and time again since the Bard’s famous rendering. He certainly wasn’t the first to tell such a story, and Libaire’s White Fur is just one of many in that tradition.

However, this particular reimagining digs its nails deep into the conventions of typical love story narratives, tearing away at any hint of superficiality. Elise and Jamie’s individual narratives do not bind together seamlessly like those of other lovers; it’s stitched together precariously like the neck of Frankenstein’s monster, and the reader is often left to wonder how long their passion can sustain that bond.

Libaire explores and maintains the initial friction and passion of Elise and Jamie’s relationship, and, through some magical sleight of hand, effortlessly shapes the edges of their clashing lives into a double helix strand connected by a bond that only Elise has the foresight to recognize…

In the beginning, Elise Perez and Jamie Hyde would not have spoken two words to each other had Elise’s curiosity and rage against Jamie’s roommate, Matt, gotten the best of her. They are neighbors in a worn down section of New Haven, Connecticut, where Jamie is a junior at Yale, and Elise has just recently drifted away from the Manhattan projects in which she grew up. Jamie is the heir to an obscene amount of family money and is expected to work at the family’s firm upon graduation. He is rich, white, polite, “liberal,” and all-in-all, everything someone like him is supposed to be. Except, that is, for his penchant for disassociation and for poking at the nagging piece of glass in his brain that reminds him he’s simply floating through his life. He is not tangible, or legible, or capable of meaningful human contact.

Elise, on the other hand, is from a different world entirely:

“She didn’t leave home last summer with a plan. Twenty years old, she never finished high school, she was half-white and half-Puerto Rican, childless, employed at the time, not lost and not found, not incarcerated, not beautiful and not ugly and not ordinary. She doesn’t check any box; her face has Boricua contours and her skin is alabaster.”

—excerpt from Jardine Libaire’s White Fur

Libaire has a distinct talent for stringing together the disjointed odds and ends of her characters to forge a pointed image into the reader’s mind that cannot be dislodged and that stays with the reader long after he or she has walked away from the book. Her words build images that come from a deep, instinctive knowledge of time, place, class, and love wrangled. Very few writers can do both of their characters equal justice. And though Elise was the character with whom I instantly connected, both she and Jamie are as chiseled and nuanced as a Michelangelo.

Like most star-crossed lovers, Elise and Jamie have an instant, largely physical attraction. Jamie is blind to any hint of anything deeper than that, and he is often embarrassed by Elise’s unabashed street speech and mannerisms. Elise is besotted with him in a way that is cringe inducing. It’s obsessive and all-consuming. But she sees something there that no one else can. And love, that elusive, fleeting thing that Jamie cannot fathom, blooms, becoming a slow revelation.

The inherent precariousness of their love story—weighed down by their class distinctions—makes the reader wonder if, or when, these lovers will end in tragedy. Romeo and Juliet had their poison and a dagger. Elise and Jamie have a rifle in a Wyoming motel room. The events leading up to that ultimate decision comes after a period of tension, followed by one of intense joy. After Elise’s calculated pursuit of Jamie, and his hesitant reciprocation, the two end up in a high end flat in Manhattan for the summer. Jamie works at Sotheby’s during the day, and Elise wanders. The night is for love and food and the occasional club. Their world expands to include the wayward vagabonds and everyday people of New York City; it constricts at any hint of contact with the world that Jamie comes from.

Elise—with her box braids and razor sharp tongue—is not the Hydes’ idea of a suitable match for their son. What they think is a phase or Jamie’s idea of a charity case, quickly turns into the makings of a publicity nightmare for this upstanding, old-New York family. Jamie’s father has the typical condescending rich man attitudes toward the poor, and his son is deeply disgusted by his ignorance.

Jamie renounces his fortune, and the pair live in a blissful bubble where the nights always come back to love. Their wandering is an opportunity for Libaire to explore the chasms and sharp edges of 1980s Manhattan—a world in which working people still exist, where the projects are still in the clutches of the War on Drugs, and a where a meager life could still be a happy one. The eight months of their courtship and increasingly insular life lead to one night in which Jamie’s recursive, exploratory mind nearly kills him. Elise alone has to figure out what to do, and the fallout of this accident almost ends everything.

Libaire’s novel is one that fits into the stagnant heat of summer and the frigid depths of winter equally. The prose is sharp, poetic, and strung together from the fragments of two disparate lives; with just a few brushstrokes, Libaire creates a master work of Elise and Jamie’s love story in White Fur. It is a story you will not forget.

On “The Arrangement” by Sarah Dunn

51+4sQrv9jL__SX319_BO1,204,203,200_It was the cover that got me: the cool blue comforter, the rumpled white sheets, pillows with suggestive indentations on them. For several months, I had been meaning to check The Arrangement off my to-be-read list, and it seemed like an appropriate beach read. And it is that–a good beach read. There’s no better place to scoff and roll my eyes at imaginary characters than at the beach. I didn’t much care what happened to the characters in the end, but there were enough nuggets of comedy to keep me reading.

That comedic relief prevented the novel from taking itself too seriously, which was a pleasant surprise when I realized The Arrangement was going to lack that dishy Gossip Girl/Sex and the City quality. The church chicken massacre towards the end of the novel is what I’ve come to refer to as the climax, and, as gruesome as it was, the humor was evident.

Of course, the humor is needed in Beekman–an upscale suburb just outside the city–where aggressive stay-at-home-moms abound and aloof husbands pretend their lives are good. Some people have their shit together a little more than others, but everyone has a certain modicum of dysfunction. Owen and Lucy McIntire have an autistic son who requires special care, but their marriage appears to be fine. Even they think so. But when two friends suggest they’re going to try having an open marriage, Owen and Lucy decide they should try it as well.

Owen finds a partner immediately–the gregarious, overly-familiar Izzy–who the reader can tell is bat-shit crazy from the get go. Dunn frustratingly tries to make Owen seem like a good guy in the end by having Izzy see a doctor before he continues to sleep with her for fear of fathering a child with this clingy woman who “chores” him after every sexual encounter they have. He won’t do tasks around his own house, but not pissing off Izzy is more important to his sex life than pissing his wife off. In a weird twist of fate, Izzy has advanced stage uterine cancer, which she would not have known if Owen hadn’t pushed her to see the doctor. Just for everyone in the cheap seats: THIS IS A TERRIBLE THING TO SUGGEST. This is not closure. This does not negate the moral conundrum of the entire novel. Izzy’s letter is a shitty cop-out ending that does not address any of the serious concerns of Lucy and Owen’s marriage. In the end, I still didn’t know what was wrong with them, other than the fact that Owen is a smug asshole and Lucy should have left him.

Lucy should have left Owen before the whole “arrangement” even started. But I guess that’s my personal judgment coming into effect. I couldn’t help but picture the marriages of people in my immediate family, and I have to say–all the women I know would have chewed that motherfucker out in a hot second. In fact, they would have chewed out a lot of the characters in this book. It was incredibly difficult for me to suspend my judgment for the sake of empathy, and a good book, no matter the class or tribe affiliation of the characters involved will allow you to empathize. I can only surmise, then, that The Arrangement is not a good book. One of the only redeeming facts of this book is that, while The Arrangement is a novel for and about white people of a certain class, Dunn makes it clear that she doesn’t want it to be anything else, and, in several instances, makes fun of it for that very reason. This circles back to the “not taking itself too seriously” thing.

In addition to how insufferable the characters are, Dunn seemed to have had a difficult time integrating subplots into the overarching narrative. The story of Gordon Allen–Beekman’s resident bigot billionaire–and his wife is the only story that’s worth telling for its ultimate tale of redemption (and its humor), but the other threads fail so convincingly to integrate into the main narrative that they aren’t worth mentioning. Dunn attempted to introduce new character perspectives more than halfway through the book, and only followed one subplot for a couple pages. These stories failed to advance the larger narrative and weren’t particularly well-crafted.

The Arrangement is ultimately a mindless beach read that won’t anger the reader too much if he or she refrains from investing in Dunn’s characters. Yes, they’re weak-willed and confused, but at least their wealthy. Watching wealthy people do weird, amoral things in fiction is a keen pastime of mine. It helps me not to take things too seriously…alas, that seems to be the driving theme behind this book: it will not be taken seriously.