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.

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 “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 “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 “Marlena” by Julie Buntin

51n+GHTDlNL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Julie Buntin‘s debut novel, Marlena, examines the nuance and power of young female friendship, the lasting effects of guilt, and the rampant drug abuse present in rural areas of the United States. It’s quite a lot to tackle in less than 300 pages, but Buntin isn’t any other author; every line is crafted to a sharp point that digs deep into the aspects of adolescence that haunt us long into adulthood. I’m not sure that many authors would have been up to the task, but Buntin’s unsentimental prose and pitch-perfect characterization comprise an affecting novel that—as many great books do—encourages rereading.

It’s hard to overstate how influential adolescent friendships can be on an individual’s development, especially a young woman. Countless authors, from Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, to Elena Ferrante and Margaret Atwood, have explored that nearly unbreakable bond between women who are drawn to each other for reasons that aren’t entirely understood. But it is that particular strength of adolescent attachment that Buntin navigates with astounding acuity.

The narrative shifts back and forth between Cat as a 15-year-old who is becoming increasingly enmeshed in the tantalizing web Marlena weaves, and Cat as an adult, pondering how her brief time with Marlena has changed her life irrevocably. Young Cat has the observer’s intelligence of an avid reader. She looks at the world with a level of maturity beyond her age, and Marlena’s presence makes her even more aware of the dark lining that wraps around beautiful things—like Michigan, like Marlena.

But Cat’s perspicacity isn’t enough to right Marlena’s increasing dependence on prescription pills, and her eventual (inevitable) heroin use. Marlena’s ill-fated tale of addiction, whether intentionally or unintentionally, functions as a microcosm in its depiction of a larger phenomenon. It seems now that nearly everyone knows someone who has made the leap from prescription drugs to heroin. It’s cheaper and makes for a faster high. Pharmaceutical companies—the world’s most powerful kingpins—make a killing (literally) peddling pills to people in the country’s poorest communities.

And yet, Marlena believes she is doing the right thing in avoiding meth—the substance that has sunk its claws into everyone around her. Her father and boyfriend cook it, and it caused her mother to leave. To Marlena, pills are what doctors prescribe to people anyway. No harm in that, right?

As an adult, Cat seizes the moments in hindsight when she could have done something to save Marlena, but she was too enraptured with her, too dependent on the feeling of being part of a whole. Their friendship is the propulsive force that moves her, sharpening her senses to take in a world that can only exist in their rural section of Michigan—a dead end town that somehow contains multitudes.

When Marlena’s little brother Sal calls Cat to tell her he’s in New York and wants to talk about everything that happened in the past, she is forced to take stock of just how much Marlena’s brief presence in her life has changed who she’s become—someone who often drinks to excess, who has a strained relationship with her father and brother, who feels an innate empathy for outsiders and addicts.

In some ways, the “Peter Pan” effect has taken hold of fragments of Cat’s memories of Marlena, which is generally the natural way of things; Cat grows older, Marlena will always be a teenager. Building that dynamic into a narrative successfully without making Marlena seem like a tragic hero is a difficult task, one that Buntin handles brilliantly.

Yes, Marlena possesses a disarming, feral beauty; consciously understated intelligence; and a beautiful singing voice. But Cat also remembers Marlena’s mercurial nature, her occasional condescension, her secretiveness, and her unwashed hair.

Buntin begins the novel with a scene that becomes even more poignant once the reader finishes the book. It’s Marlena speeding dangerously towards the lake in their town, not showing any signs of stopping. Cat is screaming, afraid. But Marlena keeps driving, foot pressed down on the pedal, deep in one of her drug-induced manias. And Cat hates her in that moment.

Even though those negative feelings never last, they become a dark lining on all their happiest moments—the moments Adult Cat looks on with regret for not having done something more for Marlena.

In the end, Buntin has strung together a novel that is equal parts a love story, a tragedy, and an ode to the harsh beauty and danger of Michigan. But Marlena is primarily about guilt; how to deal with it; where to lay blame; how to make peace with the past. I’m not sure the answers are clear-cut, but the questions themselves are enough to jolt the reader into awareness.

On “The Royal We” by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

22875451This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Like me, I’m sure every asocial hermit with more than a touch of Anglophilia loves nothing more than to sit around on a lazy Saturday morning drinking tea and reading Kate Middleton fan fiction…No? That’s just me? Well, if you do share my proclivities, or just enjoy a breezy beach read, look no further than The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. This dynamic duo has produced the dishiest, compulsively readable romantic novel in recent memory.

The Royal We has all the right ingredients to make a great love story that blissfully excludes the heavy handedness of most romcom-esque novels; there’s usually quite a lot of formula and very little depth, but Cocks and Morgan have conjured that most coveted mix of romance, comedy, and blunder to produce summer reading gold.

The story unfolds on the morning of Rebecca “Bex” Porter’s wedding day as looks back on her relationship with Prince Nicholas of Wales. Sectioned off into the significant years of their relationship, Bex starts at the beginning—her year abroad at Oxford where Nick is the first person to greet her, at which time she makes a comment about the royal family having syphilis. (An amazing moment. I laughed like an idiot.)

Of course, she has no idea who he is at that moment, but they soon begin spending more and more and more time together. They bond over trash TV and American junk food and drink their way through all the pubs in Oxford. But he’s a prince. Bex knows it can’t be more than a flirtation. Plus, she’s already hooked up with their mutual friend, and one of Nick’s closest allies, Clive.

Things are tricky, and Nick is already under immense pressure from his domineering father, Prince Richard. He must be present at elite gatherings, emitting just the right amount of charm and wit without seeming too glib. Bex can see Nick has mastered his public façade. But what’s beneath it?

After a whirlwind series of heated moments, the pair decides to become a couple, but only their closest friends know. Keeping their relationship a secret from the public turns out to be difficult, but not as difficult as it becomes when Nick reveals their romance to the royal family, and the pair becomes an “unofficial” item to the press. Bex must be her best at all times, and worse, her twin sister Lacey still continues to make a spectacle out of herself in public for the sake of attention.

As life becomes more difficult for the two at the hands of the press and Nick’s growing list of duties, they must make a decision about the future. Will they really get married, or it back to Iowa for Bex?

Cocks and Morgan build the narrative beautifully. It’s seductive, charming, hilarious at times, and impeccably well written. Even if people think the novel is a cheap rip off of the Will and Kate courtship, it’s still extremely well done. More than that, readers are forced to think about just how much they consume the type of tabloid press that exposes the lives of these individuals for the whole world to see.

On one hand, we often say these high-profile people get what’s coming to them, but Nick was born into his life, and Bex…well…Bex has to decide if she can go along for the ride for the rest of her life—the future Queen of England. Every lighthearted moment the couple shares comes at the cost of intense of public scrutiny when they leave the confines of their sanctuaries. It also doesn’t help that Lacey is running wild and some members of the couple’s friend group seem to be turning against them.

It’s all a matter of empathizing with the people whose lives we consume as entertainment, and the authors explore these fabricated (but very familiar) lives with care, dignity, and the humor that comes along with everyday life.

There were moments in the story where I could see the obvious parallels between the novel and the real British royal family, but it’s always done with a hint of good-natured ribbing. And, more than that, those hints never mask the obvious talent Cocks and Morgan have when it comes to developing plot structure and imbuing each character with carefully crafted personalities that never cease to grow along with the main characters.

I cannot recommend The Royal We highly enough to readers looking for a fun, fast read for the summer. Of course, you have to read it to get ready for the upcoming film adaptation—just pop on some sunglasses and park yourself in a beach chair. And don’t forget the sunscreen! Once you’ve started Cocks and Morgan’s brilliant novel, you won’t want to stop until you’ve turned the last page.