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 overstatement. 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 as well 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 “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 “Alex, Approximately” by Jenn Bennett

514G-2avVpL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Jenn Bennett‘s latest novel Alex, Approximately is everything a summer read should be. There’s romance, California sunshine, foggy mornings, surfers, and classic films. What more could you ask for?

Bennett weaves her tale of love, personal growth, and overcoming the lasting effects of trauma with the sights and sounds of coastal California. The imagery of massive redwood trees and boardwalk activity imbues Bennett’s story with a sharp vividness that blooms in the reader’s mind. Through those details, the complex relationship between Bailey Rydell and Porter Roth takes shape.

The novel begins with Bailey’s decision to move across the country because her mother’s marriage to “Nate LLC” is more of a sparring match than a sacrament. After a trauma in her youth involving one of her mother’s unhinged clients, Bailey becomes an evader, branding herself “The Artful Dodger.” She hates confrontation and being put under the spotlight, so when things get heavy, she’s out of there faster than you can bat an eye. Bailey has her evasion tactics down to a science, and she’s prepared to put them to good use when she gets to Coronado Cove.

For several months, Bailey has been corresponding with a fellow classic film lover on an online forum who goes by “Alex.” It isn’t just their love of old movies that make them compatible, though. They get each other in ways others don’t. (What would a YA novel be without a “you-get-me-like-no one-else gets-me trope?”) When Alex invites Bailey—known only as “Mink” online—to a film festival in his hometown of Coronado Cove, Bailey decides not to tell him that she’ll be moving there. To her, it seems like the best way to avoid a sticky situation is to find Alex first and determine whether or not revealing herself would be a good idea.

All she has to go on are a handful of details that Alex has dropped into their conversations: he works in his family’s store on the boardwalk, the store is near a churro cart, and there’s a stray cat hanging out in front. Not much to go on, but Bailey is determined.

Unfortunately, her sleuthing has to take a back burner to her new summer job in “the Hotbox,” a ticket booth in Coronado Cove’s most popular attraction, where Porter Roth becomes her archnemesis.

Porter is incredibly good-looking and charming, but is also, in Bailey’s terms, “a goddamn dickbag.” When provoked, young Bailey does not mince words.

But that’s not really like her. Bailey never gets provoked; she never lets anyone get under her skin that way. Something about Porter makes her blood boil…and elicits some other unholy feelings. She’s still determined to find Alex, but, somehow, Porter keeps getting in the way.

Soon enough, Alex and Mink are talking to each other less and less. Bailey assumes he’s found a girlfriend, which leaves her in a confusing entanglement with Porter. Being with him forces her to break out of the defense mechanisms she’s developed. “The Artful Dodger” goes on an indefinite hiatus as Bailey finds herself opening up to new friends.

Bennett does an exceptional job of parsing out the nuance of Bailey’s relationship with Porter. As things progress, she has to come to terms with change and learn how to trust Porter with the most difficult parts of her past.

I was also interested to find that Bennett promoted a clear, sex-positive message throughout the book, which was uncommon in what I read as a teenager, but is, perhaps, important for young people to read. People often feel quite a lot of shame when it comes to the physical aspect of relationships, but Bennett presents sex as a natural, healthy thing.

Some of the character development for supporting characters fell short of expectation. For instance, Bailey’s mom (What the heck is up with that situation? What parent, no matter what they’ve gone through, allows their kid move across the country and then doesn’t speak to them once? Not a plausible part of the narrative, in my opinion) and Davey (I felt genuinely horrible for this kid. Also, Porter was a legit asshole for fucking with his bum leg. Like his life isn’t already ruined. Just saying.)

But Bailey and Porter grow a lot over the course of the novel, and it’s refreshing to see the roughest parts of that process. The love-hate relationship that unfolds in the beginning of their relationship becomes “compatible arguing” when the two realize they respect each other.

It’s a well-fashioned story, with enough quirk to make it exceedingly charming. There were, however, a few irksome moments…

*This portion of the review contains spoilers*

It’s pretty obvious from the beginning that Porter and Bailey are Alex and Mink. (There are a lot of Tell Me Three Things/You’ve Got Mail vibes going on.) Somehow, though, the initial reveal is not a happy moment. Porter finds out when Bailey’s dad calls her Mink in front of him and he freaks out (irrationally, in my opinion) because he believes Bailey still has feelings for “Alex” and has been keeping this secret from him.

To an extent, it’s easy to understand why Porter would have trust issues; his best friend is a drug addict who steals from his current girlfriend and slept with his ex-girlfriend. Believing that Bailey has kept something from him after they’ve built a relationship on the mutual disclosure of painful memories is enough to seriously freak him out.

BUT…I didn’t get why Porter wouldn’t just tell Bailey about the whole thing once he realized there was nothing to be concerned about. Instead, he tries to make her figure it out, which causes Bailey to lose her shit. (Also, why wouldn’t her dad tell her??? So much confusion for nothing.)

As a plot device, the whole situation is definitely one way to move the narrative forward to its happy conclusion, but goddamn…Everyone just needs to calm the hell down. Hormones are raging and all the California heat has gone to their brains, which is extremely unhelpful for rational discussion. The way the ending played out was ultimately frustrating, but I guess there’s nothing like a healthy dose of dramatic irony to get the juices flowing.

In the end, Alex, Approximately is a quirky, fun read that mixes the light-hearted with the heavy in a way that produces a well-crafted take on the YA formula.

On “Holding Up the Universe” by Jennifer Niven

Image result for holding up the universeI can’t imagine anything more difficult for a YA author than penning a second novel when his or her first has been massively successful. In Jennifer Niven’s case, Holding Up the Universe is another heart-breaking, important book, much like her first novel All the Bright Places. She continues to explore themes of pain and isolation in her teenage characters, but in Holding Up the Universe she imbues her central characters–Libby Strout and Jack Masselin–with rare characteristics to further that exploration.

Libby was labeled “The World’s Fattest Teen” after she had to be cut out of her house when a panic attack stopped her breathing. She weighed over 600 pounds and could not stand on her own. After her mother’s sudden death, she attempted to fill the emptiness inside her with something tangible–food. In her worst moment, she realizes she has to change and develops healthier ways of dealing with her loss, losing some weight in the process.

When Libby returns to school for her junior year, she becomes the target of cruel joke, one that binds her narrative to Jack Masselin’s.

Jack has been living with prosopagnosia–“face blindness”–since a fall off the roof of his house at age six. No one knows. He’s developed coping mechanisms and a heady amount of swagger to avoid any sticky situations. But lately, his efforts have been failing.

Once his stupid prank with Libby lands him in a special after school counseling group, he finds that she is the only person he can consistently recognize. Yes, she’s physically larger than everyone around her, but it’s something else, too. She’s magnetic. And their adventures together lead to a domino effect that changes everything for both of them.

The idea of having these two off beat characters come together to challenge preconceived notions of what’s acceptable in society is a commendable idea, and I think Niven does an amazing job of it. I love that she forces readers to really consider why they might revile someone who is overweight.

And Libby is unabashedly herself. A dancer. She honestly doesn’t care what people think of her weight, but the weight of people telling her she doesn’t matter, that she’s nothing, forces her into the painful position of having to wonder about the depth of people’s cruelty.

Libby and Jack’s story is sweet and funny. I can imagine it could become an influential book for any young people who feel out of place.

My only reservations are personal ones. This story did not crack my chest cavity open the way All the Bright Places did. But in all honesty, it was nice of Niven to leave off with a happy ending this time.

On “Mosquitoland” by David Arnold

18718848This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

David Arnold‘s 2015 novel, Mosquitoland, is everything any person who feels out of place would want to read. 16-year-old Mary Iris Malone (or “Mim” for short) is a variation of every young person who feels like the very chemistry of his or her being is wrong, that it does not bode well with the universe at large.

Alas, Mim claims herself and everything she loves with unabashed kookiness and fervor. Nothing and no one will stop her. In this case, her sights are set on getting out of Mosquitoland—the Mississippi town that her father and her stepmother moved her to after Mim’s parents divorced. Just like that, she was forced to leave behind everything she knew in Ohio for a life forced upon her by her overbearing, condescending father and her well-meaning, but aloof stepmother.

Mim is not okay. For weeks, she hasn’t heard from her mother, and she has a sneaking suspicion that her stepmother is hiding her letters. She decides to leave Mississippi on the next Greyhound bound for Ohio. Her mother is the only person that understands Mim. And she knows—unlike Mim’s dad, that she doesn’t need to pop an anti-psychotic pill every day to be okay, to function.

Along the way, Mim meets a cast of characters that help her on her journey from sweet Arlene–an elderly woman who loves Mim’s funky sneakers, to Walt–a kindhearted homeless teenager who loves Mountain Dew and the Chicago Cubs. They travel with her on her journey to the truth, guiding her with their kindness and humor. Nothing can stop her.

Or can it? Arnold writes Mim as a fearless young person who won’t hesitate to assert her individuality and strength at any cost, but there is a sinister undertone to her exuberance. Something happened in her past that affects the way Mim looks at the world and caused her father to clamp down on her life. The reason behind the medication.

In a series of letters to someone named “Isabel,” Mim lists her ticks, neuroses, and defects–her displaced epiglottis that causes her to vomit randomly, the blindness in one eye that she got from staring at the sun during an eclipse, the way she spaces out sometimes and loses herself in memories. Arnold builds this correspondence towards an ultimate confession–towards the heart of the thing that made Mim who she is.

Throughout the novel, Arnold explores all manner of difficult subjects—mental illness, suicide, sexual assault, homosexuality, and the way society treats its lowliest members. Mosquitoland spends a lot of time probing the idea of how we, as humans, pass judgment on each other, and how we sometimes shy away from difficult things in life.

Arnold’s Mim negates fear and self-consciousness with her fierceness, and she works through the heartbreak in her life with a strength that most people do not possess. As a lame, fairly shy teenager, I read this book with wonder and a hint of resentment. Why couldn’t I have been more her as a teenager?

I believe it’s because Mim possesses that level of hyper-intelligence that seems only to exist in YA novels. No one I knew was as smart as that at sixteen, nor as ambitious. But, then again, maybe I led a sheltered life. Arnold’s narrative was enough to make me wish that more people were like her. Strong. Weird. Lover of the downtrodden and disenfranchised. Feisty as hell.

Arnold’s innovative, lovable protagonist will likely go down as one of YA’s most iconic characters. Mim’s unconventional story will speak volumes to every outcast looking to make sense of cruel things around them and how to be okay.

On Deb Caletti’s “Honey, Baby, Sweetheart”

Image result for honey baby sweetheartDeb Caletti’s 2004 novel, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart was selected as a National Book Award finalist, which was, I must admit, my primary motivation for reading it. I’m compelled to read any book that has a certain amount of gravitas or esteem surrounding it; I’m always fascinated by what others consider “good” or even “great” literature. And if I don’t see the good in it, does it mean I have better taste than most people, or does it mean I’m a bad reader.

I was forced to ask myself that question in the middle of Caletti’s novel, which expected to finish in a day or two, but which took me nearly a week. It started of promising enough, but I found that the buildup to Ruby’s relationship with Travis Becker was so abrupt, it nearly gave me whiplash. That being said, Caletti does an admirable job at delving into the reasons why women remain committed to relationships that are bad for them. Because it can’t always be as simple as walking away.

Personally, I had a difficult time with that concept, though I think Caletti’s exploration is what made the novel such a critical success. Growing up, I was always encouraged to rage fiercely against any type of entrapment or persuasion by a significant other. When I was old enough to date, I found myself in a situation where I felt like I was being pushed into situations and interactions that went against who I was as I person, and eventually I raged against that person. I’ve lost all the people I’ve dated to that particular rage, and I’m not the least bit sorry. And because of that, it was strange to see Ruby and her mother give themselves away to it when they knew, and felt, that it went against who they were.

Caletti has moments of brilliant writing where the insights she showcases are genuinely intriguing, but for the most part, her writing was a little heavy-handed. I can imagine that many readers are attracted to that style of writing, but I’m drawn to sparse prose in which writers say a lot through a little. In fairness, I probably would have loved this book when I was a teenager, but my tastes have changed.

I did appreciate the humor of the “Casserole Ladies” who let loose some seriously funny jokes and pranks, but their antics weren’t enough to raise the above the standing I gave it.

For young people out there, or parents who are looking for a book for their child, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart is a worthy choice. It’s an important book for you women to read even though the execution might be a little off-kilter. It’s wholly enjoyable and full of well-developed characters. In terms of summer reading, it’s perfect.

On “The Luxe” by Anna Godbersen

The_Luxe_bookcover2
courtesy of Wikipedia.org

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

I am so late to the party when it comes to Anna Godbersen‘s The Luxe. Where was it when I was going through severe Gossip Girl withdrawals? All that time when I was pining for more Blair Waldorf/Chuck Bass drama, I could have found even juicier stuff in the world of the Holland sisters, Penelope Hayes, and Henry Schoonmaker. Those nouveau riche have nothing on those old New York families; the prestige of family money cannot be bought. Or so those old New Yorkers would have you think.

While Godbersen’s story is essentially a turn-of-the-century Gossip Girl tale of scandal, betrayal, and the filthy rich, it is also an exploration of that crucial time in history where the poorest of poor could make a fortune for themselves and, in an instant, change the very core of society. Men and women are defecting to the wild west where the skies are as wide as people’s dreams. This drive for a better life in which people do not have to serve the wealthy becomes the silent undercurrent of Godbersen’s book.

But make no mistake, the novel is by and large about how the debutantes and eligible bachelors of New York City’s disgustingly wealthy elite juggle their romantic prospects. Juicy scandals and catty attitudes abound in Godbersen’s depiction of New York in 1899. The world is changing, but a few things remain the same for people in Elizabeth and Diana Holland’s set. Diana, the free spirit, could care less about the severity hidden beneath the glittering wealth of her family and friends. She wants to live an adventurous life like one of her novel’s heroines, but unfortunately, she has a rich person’s understanding of poverty. It’s not exactly the romantic walk in the park she seems to think it is.

Alas, she’s not like her level-headed, practical sister, Elizabeth, who is perfect. She has learned every rule and is always kind. When their mother reveals that the death of their father has left the family in dire straits financially, Elizabeth will undoubtedly do everything to please her mother, including marrying for wealth over love. No one knows, though, that saving her family means ruining her own life. Since she was a child, she’s been in love with the family’s coachman, Will Keller, and he insists that she flee west with him. But a good person like Elizabeth can’t just abandon her family. Little does she know, she has to contend with her maid, and former childhood friend, Lina Broud, who is also deeply in love with Will.

Enter Henry Schoonmaker—the most eligible bachelor and the unapologetic bad boy of elite New York. Women fall all over themselves for him, and he basks in the adoration. That is, until, his permanently angry father decides to run for office and forces Henry to become propose to Elizabeth Holland—society’s darling. He’s forced to end his affair with Penelope Hayes, Elizabeth’s best frenemy, who is dead set on having Henry for herself. Chaos ensues.

To be honest, Elizabeth is the only character I rooted for in this book. You might think, “Of course, she’s the nice girl. That’s boring,” but I legitimately felt bad for her. The situation she’s in is unfathomable. Then again, all the other characters are terrible people, so she doesn’t have a whole lot of competition. Though there are moments where the reader can sympathize with them, one cannot forget their true natures: conniving, self-serving, and, in Penelope’s case, cruel.

Then I thought, that’s exactly what makes them so appealing. Like Gossip Girl, which I hate-watched.

We dislike these characters for their snobbery and their condescension and the overall wastefulness of their lifestyles. But we also love it for those very reasons. Watching the rich flounder and fall from grace is frighteningly satisfying…

But on a less “eat the rich” note, it’s also humanizing. Usually, we see people in positions of extreme privilege and forget that they are often forced to live a certain way, trading happiness for a life of comfort. Maybe not so much anymore, but definitely so at the turn of the century.

Godbersen ultimately does a fantastic job of developing the ambiance of late 1800’s New York. She integrates lush historical details seamlessly into the landscape of her characters’ lives, and it was nearly impossible not to imagine it becoming a film or television show similar to the 2012 Great Gatsby remake where everything on set is larger than life and constantly moving. Someone pass the message along.

All that being said, it’s a great poolside read for the upcoming summer months. You could finish it in one sitting if you’re ambitious enough, but the chapters really fly by.

Rest assured, I will continue to hate-read the rest of this series.