On “Shadow and Bone” by Leigh Bardugo

shadow and bone
Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

I didn’t expect to enjoy Shadow and Bone as much as I did. Now that I’ve had a day to process it, I can comfortably say it’s one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read. Leigh Bardugo marries lush, descriptive prose with dynamic character development, which meshes perfectly with her flawlessly-paced plot; there are just the right amount of twists and turns to keep readers on their toes without making it seem like they’ve gone through some kind of maze from hell.

In the kingdom of Ravka, Alina Sarkov—an orphaned military cartographer—must learn how to reckon with discovering that she is the one and only Sun Summoner; she is the country’s only hope to dispel the Unsea—a perpetually dark strip of land that divides the eastern part of the country from the more prosperous western side. But can she learn to call the power from within herself without aid? (Talk about the world’s worst savior!) As new information about the Unsea’s origin comes to light, Alina must determine where her allegiances lie.

Since I’m a relative newbie to fantasy, I half expected the story to take place in some medievalesque atmosphere, complete with dragons and wizards and your run-of-the-mill Game of Thrones situation. But Bardugo took an innovative approach to the landscape in Shadow and Bone. Ravka is inspired by Tsarist Russia, a landscape Bardugo describes as equally beautiful and brutal in its culture and history.

During Alina’s time, Ravka has been cut in half for centuries and constantly at battle with surrounding countries. The country’s elite hoard extravagant riches, while the country’s peasants live in destitution. Contrasting the country’s limited, concentrated wealth with the underlying danger and bleakness that the rest of the country must face sets the stage for this brilliantly crafted fantasy epic.

I would concede that Shadow and Bone follows a fairly standard young adult fantasy model, in which a protagonist (typically female) must sort out the troubles of a nation that has been struggling through years of turmoil. One of the facets of the YA fantasy formula is the love triangle, which, I feel, never really works out. Something like that exists in the novel, but it takes on an entirely different dimension because of the manipulative Darkling. Bardugo does such an amazing job of rendering the warring and confused emotions of Alina, the Darkling, and Mal that she sets a new standard for the depiction of romance in the genre. Such love triangles can never be reduced to simplistic terms. Authors often try to add depth and nuance where they do not exist, making Bardugo’s work challenging and refreshing.

Even if you aren’t a fantasy fan, Shadow and Bone is well worth the time. 416 pages fly by fast when you dive into Alina’s struggle. I cannot wait to immerse myself into Siege and Storm!

On “The Bermudez Triangle” by Maureen Johnson

Image courtesy of photobucket.com

So I finally got around to making a dent in the YA books I told you about. Several Maureen Johnson books are tucked in there, and I’ve really been looking forward to reading them. I got turned onto her books by a colleague at my college newspaper who interviewed her for an article; fun fact: she’s an alumna of the University of Delaware. (Go Hens!)

I wanted to start near the beginning of her canon, which is quite a lot bigger than I thought it was; I pulled as many as I could from my local library, and decided to begin with The Bermudez Triangle, which has since been renamed On the Count of Three.

The story follows three friends who have been inseparable since they were children. During the summer before their senior year, Nina attends a leadership camp at Stanford where she falls in love with an eco-warrior named Steve who seems perfect in every way. Meanwhile, her best friends, Avery, the witty, musically talented firebrand of the group, and Mel, the shy one, fall in love. When Nina returns and discovers the newly formed romance, it seems that the Bermudez triangle might not last through senior year.

For the most part, I enjoyed this book. Johnson is the type of writer who makes the story seem effortless, I think, in part, because of her humor. She makes her characters’ personalities and situations genuinely relatable, and I found myself rooting for and disapproving of each character in cycles as the novel progressed.

According to Johnson’s website (see link above), this book has been challenged in Oklahoma and Florida for its positive portrayal of a homosexual relationship. All the more reason to read it, no? It was published in 2004, a few years before gay marriage was legalized and reemerged as a popular topic of discussion in popular culture.

Since Johnson’s book predates this massive discussion and diffusion into mainstream culture, I was impressed with the way she developed Mel and Avery’s relationship. It’s an interesting, if cursory, study of how deep friendship between two people of the same sex can turn into romance. I loved that the sexuality of both characters was not cut and dry; Mel is a lesbian, and Avery simply falls in love with her friend.

I also appreciated the other romantic dynamics that developed over the course of the novel. The thing with Nina and Steve was spot on, but I HATED that she was even considering the idea of getting back with him at the end. If you readers haven’t seen/read He’s Just Not That Into You

, do it ASAP. She needed to kick him to the curb because at the age of 17/18, sorry isn’t good enough. Find someone better. Or don’t. Just don’t go back to the hippie-boy who couldn’t make time to call or write and ended up cheating on you.

You could say I have some personal experience on that front. Don’t we all?

ANYWAY, I’ll get off my soap box now.

I would recommend this for people interested in reading more LGBTQ fiction because, as I said, I think it does a great job of exploring fluid sexuality and coming out to one’s family. In all other aspects of the YA arena, The Bermudez Triangle didn’t break the mold. But it’s enjoyable. I knocked it out in a couple days.

Happy reading!

On Nina LaCour’s “We Are Okay”

Photo courtesy of Goodreads.com

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

I’ve written a few reviews in the past in which I’ve sung the blues about books not quite living up to the hype people built around them. It’s the same old story: snippets from reviews on the cover claim it’s the next best thing since sliced bread or John Green, and we foolishly believe them. What claims to be transcendent and unmissable often turns out to be fairly uninspiring.

However, Nina LaCour‘s We Are Okay—a book we’ve mentioned earlier this year—is an exception. Rarely do novels—especially young adult novels—find the coveted, delicate balance that only the best writers can strike when they tap into themes of grief and betrayal. Books intended for readers in their formative years must have the perfect ingredients for a sustainable and universally relevant piece of fiction because, really, those are the only books from our youth that we remember and take with us into adulthood.

I’ve said this before in the past as well, but it’s worth repeating: reading a YA book—outside the realm of science fiction and the paranormal—as an adult can be tricky. All the formulas and tricks of the trade that appeal to the YA demographic can fail to move a wizened curmudgeon such as myself. There have been countless times where I’ve revisited books that meant the world to me in high school that has yet to settle under my skin the way they did then.

Of course, that isn’t always a testament to unsustainable writing/stories, but I have found that the best books don’t follow any type of mold or formula. And though a book might be labeled YA, it makes no conscious effort to speak to any particular group or person—it simply says what it has to say in its most perfect voice.

By any standards, We Are Okay is a rare work that redefines what young adult fiction can be, and it raises the bar for any novels in the future that deal with the pain of death and isolation the way LaCour’s book does.

The novel’s protagonist, Marin, has just finished her first semester of college in New York. She is the only person at the school who won’t be returning home for winter break because her grandfather (“Gramps”) has died under circumstances that are slowly revealed to the reader over the course of the novel.

Her best friend from San Francisco, Mabel, decides to visit her for three days, but neither of them knows how to act around the other, seeing as Marin has been ignoring Mabel for the past four months, effectively crushing the burgeoning romance that built between them during the summer before they started college. And herein lies the pressing matter: Can Mabel help Marin through her pain? Will Marin let her?

As the story slowly unravels, LaCour pulls no punches in rendering the dark seediness of grief and the uncertainty that comes along with not knowing the person you lost as well as you thought you did.

What struck me most, perhaps, was that LaCour’s characters come to the reader fully formed. Marin, Mabel, Gramps, Ana, Javier, and even Hannah are all people whom I can imagine getting to know in my day to day life. Each character morphs in some way over the course of the novel, but he or she has a core that seems chiseled out of marble.

LaCour has a knack for sparse, beautiful language that cuts to the root of the pain that plagues her characters. It comes to good use in her descriptions of the disparate landscapes of the novel—sun-kissed, colorful San Francisco with its undercurrent of danger and despair, and the clean, white-washed imagery of upstate New York where Marin and Mabel fall in and out of cold and warmth, moving back and forth between remembering their intimate summer together and the reality of never being able to feel the same way about each other again.

The image of Marin running away to this freezing place from her old life in California was the perfect way for LaCour to encapsulate the self-imposed isolation and the pools of dread and uncertainty that seep into her mind whenever she thinks about all the things she missed in her interactions with Gramps. When Marin questions whether or not the fabric of their relationship was real, the reader can’t help but remember the same instances of unrelenting haziness when a bond that once seemed effortless and forged in steel is actually as fragile and tenuous as a spider’s web.

Like anything else that lasts, this book is true, and often painful.

But beautiful to watch unfold.