The other night my friend Leigh (displaced Texan and a total sweetheart) texted to see what I was up to. She had just flown back to DC from visiting h...moreThe other night my friend Leigh (displaced Texan and a total sweetheart) texted to see what I was up to. She had just flown back to DC from visiting her sister and nephews in Alabama, and she wanted to hang out. I told her I wasn’t doing anything but reading a cookbook. When she arrived at my house, she wanted to know all about this cookbook. She’d never ‘read’ one as a book herself. I handed over Alexe van Beuren and Dixie Grimes' The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from a Southern Revival, and Leigh just about crowed with delight. She gasped over the Tex-Mex Pimento Cheese, and she laughed over the recipe introductions, just as I had. I promised to lend it to her as soon as I was finished with it myself. I’m glad we’re friends, and now I’m glad we’ve bonded over Southern cooking, too.
Alexe van Beuren is one of a group of women who are making over the town of Water Valley, Mississippi. Alexe started a gourmet grocery store there in 2010, and in 2011 celebrated chef Dixie Grimes joined the B.T.C. family, whipping up breakfast, lunch and deli fare for the local crowd. Though the first years were tough, and Alexe admits that it’s much harder work than she ever imagined, the grocery has brought her community new life. The story is chronicled in this cookbook, and it’s obvious it’s not just wishful thinking – the grocery and the people running it have become part of the heart of the town.
This cookbook is full of Southern basics (from spreads to the broccoli salad I recognize from potlucks), and that’s kind of great since I did NOT grow up with them. Now I know how to make Southern staples I’ve heard of (and even some I haven’t). Soups seem to be the B.T.C.’s ‘specialty,’ though recipes cover all types of food served in a deli (breakfast, spreads, sides, salads, casseroles and mains get top billing). Overall, it’s simple, unfussy fare presented with a story and a history.
Aside from the food itself, the introductions prior to each recipe add personality and a sense of what the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery (and the town of Water Valley) is really like. I found this cookbook to be an entertaining, useful, and well-written story of food, family, and community rejuvenation. And what food! Dixie Grimes’ recipes have appeared in famous magazines and newspapers. It’s evident why: they all sound amazing. Personally, I can’t wait to try the Roasted Pear and Zucchini Soup (page 48), Green Apple Casserole (page 137), and Peach Ice Box Pie (page 210).
Of course, no cookbook has been properly ‘reviewed’ until you try a recipe or two for yourself. I picked this recipe from the Salads section on page 103…because strawberries and asparagus are both on sale at the moment (aka in season):
Asparagus and Strawberry Salad
2 pounds fresh asparagus, cut on the bias (4 cups) 4 cups fresh strawberries, sliced 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar 1/4 cup honey 1 teaspoon kosher salt 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
In an 8-quart stockpot, bring 1 cup of water to boil. Set a steaming basket on top and add the asparagus. Steam the asparagus until it is bright green and al dente, 4 to 6 minutes. Immediately transfer it to a bowl of ice water and let cool. Remove the asparagus from the bowl and pat dry with paper towels.
Put the asparagus in a bowl and add the strawberries. In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, honey, salt and pepper. Pour the dressing over the asparagus strawberry mixture. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill 1 hour before serving. Yields 4-6 servings.
Note: This salad is at its best (and brightest) if you eat it the day you make it. Also, I’m not going to lie, I watched a YouTube video on how to cut asparagus on the bias. Yep, that basic. p.s. The salad? Turned out beautiful & DELICIOUS. Spot on flavor and easy-as-pie. Making it again soon.
All in all, this cookbook is mouth-watering, funny, sweet, quirky as only small-town life can be, and a treat for both the belly and the soul. If you don’t believe me yet, by all means check out a selection of pages here (including the recipes for Pimento Cheese and Chicken, Asparagus, and Mushroom Casserole, along with that scrumptious-looking Peach Ice Box Pie).
Recommended for: anyone interested in small-town revivals, Southern cooking and incorporating fresh local produce into scrumptious recipes (healthiness not guaranteed).(less)
There are moments of serendipity in any given reading life, when you take on a book by faith and/or chance, and you end up with something better and m...moreThere are moments of serendipity in any given reading life, when you take on a book by faith and/or chance, and you end up with something better and more beautiful than you ever expected. The cover and title of Lydia Millet's Pills and Starships intrigued me enough that I read the back cover copy – twice. I’ve been drowning a bit under the weight of books I promised to read, so it seemed foolhardy to take on another. I am glad I didn’t listen to my practical side, because Millet’s YA debut is a gem: unnerving and luminous in equal measures.
Natalie (Nat for short) and Sam’s parents have elected to do what many of their generation have done: sign a contract to manage their death experience. The world has irretrievably altered in their parents’ lifetime: oceans have risen, much of the world’s wildlife has gone extinct, and massive storms and bugs now take out huge numbers of the surviving human populations. This change has gone hand in hand with the rise of corporations, who offer to take over the entire death experience once life gets too harsh or depressing. When Nat and Sam discover some of the ugly truths beneath the veneer of their parents’ death resort experience, they must make a decision to cooperate, or (possibly) work for something bigger and better – Earth’s future.
I’ll admit it first thing: I did not know how Millet would pull off this concept. Widespread mood-enhancing pharmaceutical use, climate disaster, all-seeing corps that hark back to Big Brother – it seemed like an unlikely combination. All credit to the author, because she made that mish-mash come together, in a believable, fascinating fashion. There’s the dystopian element, of course, but if I had to put this in a sci-fi subcategory, I’d probably label it as an apocalyptic novel, of the environment-crashing variety. After two chapters, I had no doubts that what I was reading was not only well-executed and smart, but lovely as well.
The story is told from Nat’s point of view – she’s writing in a journal that the corp provides to all ‘survivors,’ to help them cope during their relatives’ last week. It’s first-person narration, with Nat recounting events as they occur each day, along with flashback scenes and memories. The writing itself is vivid, immediate, and poignant. As the days go by, much of Earth’s recent history is laid out, along with Nat’s personal feelings and processing of what death means. At the same time, she’s in a pharmaceutical-induced fog, and anxious about her (and Sam’s) future. It could be cluttered and sappy, but it’s not. Millet writes this far-future teen’s feelings and experience in a way that made my (rather jaded) heart light up.
Of course, Nat’s preoccupations inform the novel, so this is a book that deals with themes of beauty, perception of and interaction with the natural world, a reluctant questioning of the status quo, death, and environmental apocalypse. These issues were treated with care, even in the short space of the novel (and within the constraints of Nat’s narrow point of view) – something that counts as an impressive mark in the book’s favor. The dystopia/sci-fi elements, while decidedly soft, were well-executed.
Millet evokes feeling by writing directly about emotion, yes, but this is no sloppy, adjective-filled wonderland. It’s pitch-perfect, dark and lonely at times, but filled with loveliness for all that, and at its core it takes a deep and abiding interest in the natural world. An added bonus, in case you aren’t already running to the bookstore? Pills and Starships features a diverse heroine, and indeed, entire supporting cast. This is a smart, soulful book that deals with heavy issues. On top of that, it’s entertaining, can't-put-it-down reading. I call that a straight #win. And I kind of want to hand it to everyone I know who has ever expressed interest in young adult fiction.
Recommended for: those who appreciate inspired writing, fans of young adult sci-fi and dystopian fiction, and especially anyone who enjoyed Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series or Ann Brashares’ The Here and Now.(less)
I’ve been on a bit of an unconscious break from middle grade sci-fi and fantasy. I continue to want to pick these titles up, and I’ll borrow from the...moreI’ve been on a bit of an unconscious break from middle grade sci-fi and fantasy. I continue to want to pick these titles up, and I’ll borrow from the library or buy, but they’ve (for the most part) lain in unread piles around the apartment. Why this malaise toward a genre I love and spent several months reading exclusively as a judge for the 2013 CYBILS awards? Just that, I think—too much exposure in too short a time. But as I said, this has (until very recently) been unconscious on my part. I didn’t realize I was avoiding them until I read a really lovely set of middle grade sci-fi graphic novels. When I was done, I looked around for other MG books to compare them to – and found that I’d gone into a black hole in 2014. Well, you’ll be happy to hear that Ben Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl books have cured me, and I can’t wait to dive back into to wonderful middle grade sci-fi and fantasy.
While romping outdoors one day, Zita and her friend Joseph discover a device embedded in the remains of an asteroid. When Zita presses a button and a flash of light swallows Joseph, she is frightened, but determined to follow and rescue him from his uncertain fate. So begin Zita’s adventures in space – for using the device has catapulted her through a portal and onto another planet, into the midst of a whole host of unknown creatures. Zita will have to exercise all of her wit, courage and kindness to survive (and find a way home).
The absolute star of the piece (as the title suggests) is Zita. She’s adventurous, brave, loyal to friends new and old, and stuck in the ultimate uncomfortable situation. When she can’t immediately rescue Joseph she uses her strengths to find the path to a solution. Zita is tenacious, and she’s just the active, non-violent heroine for a rescue operation.
As for setting, Zita has landed on Scriptorious, a planet that everyone is desperate to flee due to an approaching asteroid. The scenes in the market, when everyone is trying to get off-world, reminded me of the same predicament in the first Men in Black film. There are enough strange and amazing creatures filling the pages to stretch any imagination. Zita’s especial friends are Piper (a shifty, tinkering humanoid), Mouse (a giant mouse whose collar spits out paper communiqués), One (a flying, armed battle ball) and Randy (a mish-mash robot with wheels for legs). Together they are a motley, unstoppable force held together by the glue of Zita’s friendship and purpose.
Ben Hatke has created a colorful world for Zita to venture through, and while the comic panels vary in size, the art is uniformly lovely. The landscapes vary – some are Earth-as-we-know-it, and others bring to mind Tatooine from Star Wars or Wall-E’s waste-ridden future Earth. Zita herself could belong to one of many nationalities or ethnic groups, and I believe that is a huge point in the book’s favor. She’s drawn in such a way that the reader may make his/her own conclusions.
Overall, this is an engaging read with a heroine who relies on the power of friendship, trust and ingenuity to succeed. While Zita the Spacegirl is certainly sci-fi, there are enough whimsical touches (the Pied Piper who owns a tube of doorpaste, for instance!) that this graphic novel will please fans of fantasy as well.
Recommended for: fans of Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses, and anyone (ages 8+) who enjoys speculative fiction, true heroism, and stories about friendship.(less)
Last summer I was reading Beth Fish Reads’ blog (you’ll remember, she does the wonderful Weekend Cooking meme I participate in), and I saw her review...moreLast summer I was reading Beth Fish Reads’ blog (you’ll remember, she does the wonderful Weekend Cooking meme I participate in), and I saw her review of Emily Croy Barker’s debut, The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic. She was head over heels for the book, so I (naturally) went searching for it on my local library’s website. No go. I requested it be purchased for the collection, please and thank you. My archived email informs me that my wish was fulfilled on August 1, 2013 (thanks Arlington County Libraries!). Of course I then forgot all about the book in a flurry of reading Irish books, and didn’t get around to it until this week. Well! I have now rectified my misdoings and I agree with Beth Fish entirely: The Thinking Woman’s Guide for Real Magic is the sort of book you fall in love with.
Nora Fischer is an ordinary woman in our world. She’s a former cook and a now-struggling grad student with relationship drama, insecurities and a passion for poetry. After one too many misfortunes, she wishes that her life were different, in any way. And that is how Nora finds herself in another world entirely. At first, it’s everything she’s dreamed of – she’s the belle of the ball, life is grand, and the dashing Raclin wants her. A voice deep inside tells Nora to see past illusion, and when she does, the wizard Aruendiel offers her a home. In his household, she’ll need every scrap of determination and intelligence to survive and learn magic, for this new world is a hard one – much harder than it originally seemed.
Heroine Nora is intelligent, thoughtful, alert, stubborn (or I suppose you could say… persistent?), and loyal. But she is also convincingly insecure about her looks, her chosen profession, and her love life (thus disqualifying her from the running for 'perfect' woman). In all, Nora’s a typical educated, modern woman. However, when placed in the context of a sword and sorcery fantasy, those qualities mark her out as different, as other. In her new environment, Nora becomes something more: a fierce observer and survivor, an unraveler of secrets and histories, and the mistress of her own fate.
The Thinking Woman’s Guide is an impressive book, nevermind debut. Barker plays with the notions of portal fantasy (where a character accesses another world through a gate or portal), the meaning and structure of magic, and the politics and inequality inherent in a patriarchal system. Oh, and I left out one thing… it’s readable. More than readable—un-put-downable! I finished it (all 500+ pages!) in one day. Whew!
Nora’s adventure is an exploration of a new (magical) world, and it’s also generally romantic. My favorite bit? When Nora began to learn elementary magic, and juxtaposed that with her daily translation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice into Ors, the common language of her new world. She shares both of these experiences with Aruendiel, the mysterious magician who has offered her protection. The growth and accommodation between these two: it’s something! *sigh* I can’t wait for the sequel to see how Barker continues what could be a fantastic saga.
Now, about the magic and world-building: in some ways it is predictable (if you’ve read a fair amount of fantasy, you’ll see bits and pieces from many kinds of worlds and stories stitched into the fabric of the world), but it is no less satisfying for all that. It’ll be a delight for anyone who escapes into magical literature and expects a strong female protagonist. I think Barker was making an obvious parallel between Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice and Nora, but after finishing the book I jotted down a quick note about Eliza and Higgins from My Fair Lady.
In any case, it’s an exceedingly well-written book. And I promise you that’s not just my happy/romantical side talking.
Recommended for: fans of Sharon Shinn and Anne Bishop, and any adult who has pictured him- or herself making the (unlikely) trip to Narnia or Middle Earth.(less)
I never read Ann Brashares’ The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (and its sequels), but one of my very best college friends read them all in high sch...moreI never read Ann Brashares’ The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (and its sequels), but one of my very best college friends read them all in high school, and she used to talk about the characters and stories like they were real people who could be right in the room with us. I knew Brashares’ writing had to be good to pull my friend in, but I never felt an urge to try that series myself. Instead, it took a beautiful book cover and a science fiction premise to hook me. Once in, I finished The Here and Now in short order, and I think I understand a little of my friend’s obsession.
Despite appearances, Prenna James is not your average teen. In fact, she’s not even from this time. What, then, is she? A fugitive from a not-so-distant future wracked with plagues and catastrophe, where fear rules and death is as close as a mosquito bite. Now that she and a select few have made it to the past, they live by a strict code that protects the community. The problem is that Prenna can no longer pretend to like living under the rules, or understand their necessity. She has questions, important ones. What does the date May 17, 2014 mean? What is her classmate Ethan forever trying to tell her? What is the deal with that old homeless man in the park? Her search for answers has the potential to turn both of her worlds on their heads.
In Prenna, Brashares has created a stubborn, smart, and curious teen chafing under a set of rules that kill her a little more each day. Her bleak, isolated life is all she knows, but new high school experiences, memory and an almost unshakeable, albeit deeply buried, hope add up to something worth challenging the status quo for. Prenna’s society is sinister, isolationist, and Big Brother-esque, but the immense interest in Prenna’s everyday doings at times seemed over the top. If the reader can suspend disbelief and buy-in, it’s certainly a chilling future. I myself wavered a bit here and there, but overall I appreciated the execution and the air of suspicion and menace that tainted Prenna’s entire experience.
Of course, this isn’t just a tale of time travel and the eventual end of the world. It’s also a story of a magnetic attraction between Prenna and her classmate Ethan. But the rules that govern Prenna cover outsiders’ knowledge of the time travelers as well as intimacy with time natives, so everything is forbidden. Since the story is told from Prenna’s point of view, it includes her musings and insecurities on petty (and more serious) concerns, including her suspicions about the abuse of power within her own community and the real reasons for the rules they must all live by.
Plot: I knew what was coming. I guessed all of the twists, and I’m not exactly the most astute mystery-solving reader out there. It’s safe to assume that you’ll be able to puzzle it out too. That said, The Here and Now is never boring (even if you can guess the results), and there’s no fluff: it’s serious-as-death consequences and the writing sings in places. Check out this section from chapter fourteen:
Lying here like this, I can imagine happiness. Not a kicky, bright kind, but a full, almost aching kind, both dark and light. I can see the whole world in this way. I can imagine extending the feeling to other places and parts of the day. I can imagine holding it in my pocket like a lens, and bringing it out so that I can look through it and remember again and again the world that has this feeling in it.
Prenna is a heroine with real baggage and sorrow for memories. Hers is not a light story, but it makes for quick quality reading.
Recommended for: fans of Unwind, Rick Yancey’s The Fifth Wave, Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, and anyone interested in young adult sci-fi and dystopian lit.(less)
Fairy tale (and myth) retellings are a particular weakness of mine. The last time I met up with my DC FYA book club, someone joked that if they named...moreFairy tale (and myth) retellings are a particular weakness of mine. The last time I met up with my DC FYA book club, someone joked that if they named any story, I could come up with a young adult or middle grade retelling of it. I laughed with everyone else, but when they tested the hypothesis with two stories, I snapped right back with several titles of retellings. I guess I read predictably? *grin* Earlier this year I picked up Rosamund Hodge’s debut novel Cruel Beauty, which was a fascinating mash-up of several legends, myths and tales. Then recently I borrowed a library ebook of Hodge’s Gilded Ashes, a Cinderella retelling/companion novella set in the same world as Cruel Beauty. It was just as good as (or possibly better than!) Hodge’s first story, which is saying something.
What if Cinderella was complicit in her own abuse so as not to stir up even darker horrors? Maia lives a precarious half-life: she serves her stepmother and stepsisters not because she is unloved (though that is true in her stepmother and stepsister’s case), but because she is too much loved by her mother’s ghost. Maia’s mother made a devil’s bargain with The Gentle Lord before she died, and Maia has been navigating a truly horrible existence ever since. When the Duke’s son Lord Anax decides to take a wife at an upcoming ball, Maia believes it may be a chance to find a way out of her father’s house. The trouble is that Lord Anax is a wildcard, and Maia has been well-trained never to act on the longings of her own heart.
Well! This may be one of the most twisted Cinderella retellings I’ve ever encountered. The ghost of Maia’s mother is just one of the ‘villains’ of the piece. All of the antagonists (and there are several) are of the complex, gray-area variety, though that doesn’t make them any less dangerous. Meanwhile, protagonist Maia is a self-sacrificing liar. If that didn’t spark your interest, I give up. Really, though, this is a quite a story. And even though there are dark elements, I would say that Gilded Ashes is an examination of what love truly is: caring enough to sacrifice yourself, being able to tell someone not only the Truth, but your own truths, and making the kinds of decisions that ensure another’s happiness.
The tone is grim and desperate (rather like Maia’s life), but there’s also an unquenchable hope at the center of it all. That is the thing that keeps this tale in YA territory (and turns horror into something romantic). As you can guess from that last sentence, there is a budding relationship that grows in the thorny soil of Maia’s life. However, I would not call it the central focus. The main bulk of the story revolves around the effects of individuals’ choices in a world that is built upon the magic of demons. Final verdict? Hodge uses the novella form to tell a deliciously dark fairy tale of Faustian bargains, danger, and love.
Recommended for: fans of fairy tale retellings and young adult fantasy, and Cinderella stories in particular (examples: Lili St. Crow’s Wayfarer and Mercedes Lackey’s Phoenix and Ashes).(less)
Garth Nix is one of my all-time favorite authors. I have an entire shelf of his books in my living room (including one duplicate copy of Lirael, but w...moreGarth Nix is one of my all-time favorite authors. I have an entire shelf of his books in my living room (including one duplicate copy of Lirael, but who’s counting?). I await each of his books with a sort of glee, because I *know* I’ll love them. It was funny/shocking to realize that I’d somehow missed news of Nix’s Regency romance Newt’s Emerald. It contains: a girl posing as a boy, adventures magical and mundane, and FUN. It's also exactly what I asked for on my reading wishlist in January.
Truthful Newington is a young lady of eighteen, and she is about to make her debut in Society. You might think she lives in the Regency England so often co-opted as a setting by romance novelists like Georgette Heyer, but in fact her England is different: it contains magic. When a famous family jewel (the Newington Emerald, don’t you know!) is stolen in the midst of a storm, Truthful sets out to recover the heirloom. To do so, she’ll have to pose as her own (male) cousin. Shenanigans ensue, mistaken identities abound, and all the adventure leads to the requisite happy ending.
Whether you’ve read romances for years or are new to the genre, you likely know that a happy (and romantic) ending is the norm. Garth Nix doesn’t take any chances in that regard with this tale, but he does include rather more adventures than the traditional romance novelist. The best fun, of course, is in playing with a cross-dressing female. There’s more freedom of choice, movement, and even thought for the heroine when she can go about life as a man. And Truthful, while not exactly meek or docile, worries about making a good impression and finding her feet. Nix surrounds her with interesting people, and in (and out of!) her alternate identity as Hénri de Chevalier adventure soon breaks out.
While I enjoyed the book as a frothy, fun read, my favorite bits tended to be about side characters like Lady Badgery (Truthful’s great aunt, who has hidden depths), Lord Otterbrook (a chance encounter), and the three Newington-Lacy cousins (young scoundrels all, in different ways). I appreciated the book at novella length, but I wished for a bit more time with Truthful’s merry band of friends and family. Though he describes Truthful’s stubbornness and the struggle keeping her double life alive very well, Nix’s writing is strongest in the action scenes, which mostly cluster toward the end of the book.
On the whole, Newt’s Emerald is an amusing adventure wrapped in a mystery. Its strengths are the setting, active writing, and secondary characters, though the central romance has its own delightful moments, too. It’s the perfect introduction to Regency romance for aficionados of young adult fiction who may be unfamiliar with the genre.
Recommended for: fans of Georgette Heyer, Patricia C. Wrede, and Mary Robinette Kowal (and Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series!), and anyone who is looking for a few hours of pure reading fun.(less)
I don’t read graphic novels on a regular basis, but I really should. I was that kid who held onto picture book reading far past the time my peers gave...moreI don’t read graphic novels on a regular basis, but I really should. I was that kid who held onto picture book reading far past the time my peers gave it up. I’m not saying I didn’t like chunky novels – I was reading those too. But I leafed through the latest picture books in the children’s section and then went and grabbed a stack of Nancy Drew or Hardy Boy novels in the same library visit. Now, when I pick up a graphic novel, I’m always pleased – I read it quickly and then go back and pore over the illustrations and let it all sink in. Danica Novgorodoff’s The Undertaking of Lily Chen caught my attention with its delightfully dark cover art and unusual title. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
In parts of rural China, an old tradition of ghost marriages still persists. There are those who say that a man who dies unmarried cannot be happy in the afterlife unless his body is ‘married’ to a female corpse and buried with her. When Deshi’s brother dies in an accident, his parents demand that he locate a ghost bride before the day of his brother’s funeral. Deshi’s journey into the countryside to find a body is filled with a little too much adventure, and when he encounters Lily, a girl whose only aim is to flee her dead-end life, he wonders if he’s found a solution (for at least one of his problems).
Novgorodoff’s graphic novel is a morbidly funny book with a unique setting, a feisty heroine, and a backstory that delves into unfamiliar folk beliefs and stretches the imagination. Deshi’s task is by turns tragic and comic, and his general flailing (and failing) at life, though a well-trodden storyline in adult lit, is revived in the uncommon setting. Nevertheless, Lily and her family are the highlight of the book. The Chens’ simple life and unsubtle reactions paired with the delicacy of watercolors make for a striking combination.
Speaking of the art… the palette is neutral, movement mostly implied, and the best part (in my opinion) are the landscape panels. In all, The Undertaking of Lily Chen is an easy read with an understated art style that compliments the dark, wry humor.
Recommended for: fans of Neil Gaiman and those who like dark fiction and adult-level graphic novels.(less)
I’m on a bit of a reading streak when it comes to young adult fantasy that incorporates elements of Greek mythology (Promise of Shadows, Antigoddess,...moreI’m on a bit of a reading streak when it comes to young adult fantasy that incorporates elements of Greek mythology (Promise of Shadows, Antigoddess, Cruel Beauty). And that’s awesome, because mythology has always been a particular favorite of mine, along with fairy tale retellings. I feel the need to interject here: DON’T STOP READING IF MYTHOLOGY ISN’T YOUR JAM! Kimberly Pauley’s latest release Ask Me is much more than that. It’s a contemporary fantasy that is part thriller, part mystery, part first brush with romance, and wholly absorbing.
Aria Morse can’t help but answer every question she hears with the truth, even if it is sometimes obscured or deeply offensive. She doesn’t have control over what she says, and the deep truths physically drain her. Her ‘condition’ has marked her life ever since age twelve: Aria has lost friends and family, and her prophecies have driven her from Michigan to small-town Florida, where she lives in a small shack with her grandparents. When tragedy strikes her high school, Aria can’t avoid questions, or her truths. Someone is capable of murder, and Aria may be the only one who can tell who, where, and why.
Two word reaction to this book? So good! It’s compulsive reading about a strange girl in a tiny Florida community (that is described to a T, by the way). Aria has come up with coping mechanisms so that her everyday life isn’t constant torture, or at least she’s tried to. The arrival of real danger means Aria must decide who to trust: the town’s golden boy Will, an outsider-turned-popular-jock named Alex, or one of the girls who has always kept her on the outside, Delilah. One question might mean the difference between death and life, and that’s a heavy burden to bear, especially for a teen who can’t interact on any social level, forget normal.
So much of Aria’s life is consumed with avoiding people and their questions that she doesn’t really know how to live – she lets life tow her along and waits for the day when she won’t have the compulsion to spew prophecy any longer. This means that friends and boys are forbidden – until Aria begins to ask her own questions and question her responsibility for her community. This change comes through beautifully in her thoughts, her knee-jerk reactions, the way she responds to crises (both her own and others’). Pauley has written a believable, flawed heroine who can tell anyone else their future but not her own. It’s quite an accomplishment.
My favorite bits in the book were Aria’s interactions with her grandparents (sweet and tart at the same time), her complicated relationship with her ‘gift,’ and the descriptions of Florida life. Of course the prophecies were interesting too, along with the slow unraveling of what they meant, and the ratcheting up of danger and tension as a result. This is no cotton-candy story – there’s violence hidden in Lake Mariah. The only ‘con’ I can think of is that I figured out the mystery before Aria did, but it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book at all.
In other words, Ask Me is wonderful entertainment. It’s also skillfully constructed, and there’s feeling, tension and mystery in the writing. As I said, so good!
Recommended for: fans of contemporary fantasy and thrillers, those who appreciate a story well-told, and anyone who likes the work of Sarah Rees Brennan, Holly Black, or Rick Yancey.(less)
I think I just accidentally read my first New Adult book? I ended the previous sentence with a question mark because I’m still unsure how to categoriz...moreI think I just accidentally read my first New Adult book? I ended the previous sentence with a question mark because I’m still unsure how to categorize Cate Tiernan’s Darkest Fear, the start of her new Birthright series. It is a shapeshifter (paranormal) fantasy with a protagonist who is in that liminal time between high school and college. Usually I’d say that means it’s YA, but most of the other characters are older than the protagonist. So. I think I may have read a New Adult paranormal. And… it was addictive reading.
Vivi (short for Viviana) was perfectly happy being the normal, beloved daughter of a Brazilian immigrant couple on the Florida coast. But she’s not. Normal, that is. Vivi is a Haguari, a member of a group of shapeshifters who turn into jaguars. And she’s been dead set on denying that heritage from age thirteen onward. When a terrifying attack occurs on her 18th birthday, Vivi can’t hide from what she is any longer. Worse, she’s alone in facing the world. In the aftermath, Vivi discovers a family connection she didn’t know about, and she takes a chance on a new life and new friends. However, danger seems to be following her wherever she goes…
Darkest Fear was up on the Simon Pulse website as a free read this week (in case you were wondering how to hook me on a book I’ve never heard of before). I started reading the first chapter on the strength of the words ‘shifter fantasy romance,’ and the cover art, which is pretty sweet. From the beginning I felt like I was being towed into the story (and I went willingly!). Tiernan is deft at writing strong emotion, and her portrayal of a scared, lonely and lost Vivi making a new life and dealing with the unknown was more than a touch mesmerizing.
That said, I experienced reader’s remorse upon finishing the book. It’s packed with emotion throughout, yes. However, the pace and action pick up in the second half, and by then it was too late for some of the details and world-building I wanted or for wrapping up certain plotlines. *cough*WHAT WAS THAT ROMANCE*cough* Actually, I have a bone to pick with the word ‘romance’ in connection with this book. The actions/emotions having to do with the supposed romantic entanglement(s) never approached healthy, romantic, or even coherent. I get that it’s the first in a series and the author can’t tip her hand on everything right away, but as a reader I have issues being supportive of or even excited about reading the continuation of that (whatever it was) in the next installment.
Actually, all of my confusion has to do with the second half of the book, and in particular the final episode. Tiernan placed a completely different kind of action-movie-plot in the middle of what was a slow-moving but intense story of a girl finding herself and making peace with her heritage. I didn’t stop reading, but I did expect an answer or two as to why that happened, and where the story would go in the future. Unfortunately, nothing materialized. I have reading whiplash in the worst way.
In all, Darkest Fear is an emotionally intense take on shifter mythology and tradition, but it suffers from uneven plotting and pacing and a weak/unfortunate romantic plotline. I may try skimming book two to see if answers crop up, or I may not!
Recommended for: fans of paranormal fantasy and New Adult set in the South, and those who can’t keep their hands to themselves around shifter romance books.(less)
I’ve been in a self-proclaimed contemporary reading slump for what feels like AGES. In fact, it has been 13 months (my last contemporary YA read was M...moreI’ve been in a self-proclaimed contemporary reading slump for what feels like AGES. In fact, it has been 13 months (my last contemporary YA read was Marni Bates’ Decked with Holly, which I actively disliked). BUT. Jennifer E. Smith gets the most gorgeous book covers, and I pay attention to the Amazon Kindle deals each day. Her famous-boy-meets-ordinary-girl romance This Is What Happy Looks Like was on sale earlier this month, so I bought a copy to read ‘someday.’ That day turned out to be last Thursday night.
When two strangers accidentally end up in an email conversation about a pet pig named Wilbur, it’s serendipity for both parties. Graham Larkin is an increasingly lonely film star on the edge of the big time. Ellie O’Neill is a small-town girl with family secrets and a bright, impossible future. When their relationship goes from virtual to in-person in a day, they’ll both need to reach outside of their comfort zones to discover if something this impractical can work in real life.
It’s been bitterly cold here in DC over the past couple of weeks, and I felt the need for a summery read. This Is What Happy Looks Like is just that – a beach read with a little bit of depth, a lot of cute, set on the coast during the summer months. Ellie is the daughter of a single mother, she's working in an ice cream shop, and she’s into poetry. Graham is a well-adjusted young film star (the most far-fetched part of the plot?!) who doesn’t know where he’s going yet, but he’s miles away from the person his parents want him to be. They’re both endearing characters, and they both need something. Smith just never convinced me that what they needed was each other, especially on such short acquaintance.
A portion of the trouble may be laid at the door of insufficient flirting. I wanted to like the characters together, and I expected to swoon at their chemistry. Unfortunately, the book is so brief that flirting (both in email message and in person) is given short shrift. Smith hasn’t written a dawning romance so much as a novel about a girl and her mother negotiating life. In summer. In Maine. With a cute boy on the side.
What I’m trying to say is that although it tried, This Is What Happy Looks Like didn’t have the emotional depth of Unbreak My Heart, or the swoon of a great romance. Instead, it had more than a bit of wish fulfillment, a silly setup, and a pet pig that only makes appearances in conversation, not in person. I whiled away a couple of hours with the book, but I was not as charmed as I hoped I’d be. Maybe next time.
Recommended for fans of Rachel Hawthorne's Snowed In, Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin's Jenna & Jonah’s Fauxmance and Claire LaZebnik’s Epic Fail, and those who like light contemporary romances.(less)
At the end of last year and during the holiday season I kept my head down, busily reading for the CYBILS first round of judging. Perhaps that’s how I...moreAt the end of last year and during the holiday season I kept my head down, busily reading for the CYBILS first round of judging. Perhaps that’s how I missed early buzz for Rosamund Hodge’s fairy tale retelling Cruel Beauty. When I looked around in January, there were positive (glowing, really) reviews for the book on blogs as far as the eye could see. Overnight I went from interested to must buy it the day it comes out. And that’s the story of how I found myself reading (and liking!) a compelling fantasy about a girl who hates everything, but most especially her fate.
Nyx Triskelion is the daughter of the leader of the Resurgandi, a group pledged to overthrow Arcadia’s demon ruler, the Gentle Lord. Before her birth Nyx’s father made a bargain to marry one of his daughters to the Gentle Lord on her seventeenth birthday. Nyx has been training to kill that demon since age nine, all the while guarding hate in her heart, lest it mark her twin sister, too. The trouble is that Nyx’s plan is a suicide mission. She knows it. Her father knows it. Her husband knows it. The only option left is to carry out the plan, if she can.
The official book summary makes much of the Beauty and the Beast overtones in this story. As many other reviewers have noted, however, Cruel Beauty does more homage to the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, and there are strands of many other fairy tales woven into the whole as well. BUT. This is more than a retelling. It’s a book about memory, knowledge, sacrifice, and clues left at the edges, about self-hatred and redemption, and about the stories that can be built between the lines of any life.
Nyx is an interesting character. For the first fifty pages of the book, I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep reading about her. She had so much poisonous hatred in her heart, and it (inevitably) spilled out into her life and the lives of the ones she was meant to love. I’ve realized that I am not one to challenge myself by reading about difficult characters, so Nyx was a stretch. What kept me going, then? Her absolute determination, her intelligence, and her willingness to take unbelievable risks. For those first few chapters I thought to myself, ‘Textbook depressive personality,’ and then for the rest of the book I was swept into the story, into the incremental changes in Nyx’s actions and purpose, and into a hope for a better ending.
Any first-person narrative rotates around its main character, but of course Ignifex (the Gentle Lord), his shadow and his house also loomed large. I didn’t find the book quite as swoon-worthy as expected – the central romance didn’t appeal to me that way. However, the banter between Nyx and her husband and the mysteries of the house did appeal, immensely, as did the theme of trust growing on rocky ground.
I was also enchanted by the Greek mythology and theology sprinkled throughout. There were notes of other myth traditions, too – it was really a smorgasbord of tales and allusions, and I adored that aspect. I do think that could be a negative for some – if they don’t know their mythology well, the allusions would then seem like dead ends, rather than offshoots of world-building. In that respect, I believe Cruel Beauty is one of those books that will mean or speak wildly different things to different readers – much of its meaning and beauty is hidden in allusion and metaphor.
In all, I thought Cruel Beauty was a rather wonderful read, with lovely bits of mythology and fantasy woven in to complement a story about a mysterious house and its owner, and the girl determined to destroy them both.
Recommended for: fans of Charles de Lint’s darkness, Robin McKinley’s Beauty and the Beast retellings, and Merrie Haskell’s The Princess Curse, those who like fairy tales, mythology and perilous bargains, and anyone who can appreciate beautiful writing that hints at the true self hidden deep in our hearts.(less)
I had never read Brandon Sanderson before I picked up The Rithmatist for CYBILS award consideration. I had heard of him as the author appointed to com...moreI had never read Brandon Sanderson before I picked up The Rithmatist for CYBILS award consideration. I had heard of him as the author appointed to complete Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time saga (by the by, i got to the sixth book in that series in college, looked up, and realized two weeks had flown by/my grades had slipped. put it down and never picked it up again…), and as such an almost constant presence on Tor.com (go there if you haven’t yet!). I do love a beautifully crafted magical system and superior world-building, so it makes all sorts of sense that I’d fall in love with The Rithmatist and its chalklings. Which I did. Smart, unique fantasies don’t grow on trees!
The world of The Rithmatist is one where flat, 2-dimensional chalk drawings come to life and act on people and things. Only a specific set of people have the power to draw these magical chalk lines, though – Rithmatists. Joel is the son of a chalkmaker, and he always wanted to be a Rithmatist. He even has the mind and skills for it. But he wasn’t chosen. He lives at Armedius, the best school in the American Isles, but he’s so obsessed with Rithmatics that he’s failing classes and headed nowhere fast. Then Rithmatics students start disappearing, with suspected Wild Chalkling involvement. Joel will have to use every ounce of his cleverness and ingenuity to help solve the mystery (and save the day, of course).
As mentioned above, the strongest part of this book, by far, is the Rithmatic magic/science system. It’s a combination of geometry, chalk art, and religious experience, and no one is sure exactly how or why it works – or if they do, they’re not telling. Joel is thirsty for knowledge, and it is through his inquisitiveness and academic bent (and location at a school for Rithmatists) that the reader learns about the world. Lest you think that it’s all dry theory, there are exciting duels. Duels with serious consequences for the combatants, as is only fitting for Rithmatists, who each have to complete a 10-year tour of duty in Nebrask (where Wild Chalklings threaten all of North American civilization). It’s part logic, part keeping-cool-in-combat, part talent, and all of it is exhilarating reading.
Sanderson’s world-building is also fascinating. He’s constructed an alternate world where the Americas are a collection of islands, only recently populated, and before that mysteriously (sinisterly?) empty. The culture seems to be a mash-up of Asian, European and Egyptian influences, though the characters themselves aren’t particularly diverse.
Aside from Rithmatics-mad Joel, the main characters are Melody, a very mediocre student Rithmatist, and the professors and president of Armedius. Sanderson’s writing is strong on world-building, plot and magic, but the characters get shorter shrift. It’s a murder mystery at a boarding school, with magic. For most of the book, that was enough. There were expected twists, and a few unexpected ones, and Joel learned a lesson or two. However, the majority of characters remained static, and their dialogue felt stilted at times. Not weak, but not emotion-packed (which the target audience may have come to expect? or not), either. It was not something that made a difference in MY reading experience, but I noticed it, and other readers (less impressed by the shiny new magic!) may as well.
In all, The Rithmatist introduced an exceptional magical system, a smart hero, a nation rife with political tension, and a long-running war. I can’t wait to see what happens next!
Recommended for: fans of school-set fantasies and marvelous world-building, those who enjoy(ed) geometry, and anyone interested in a great story with unique dangers and clever, courageous protagonists.(less)
Eight years old was one of the best years of my life. I was the oldest of my siblings (authority!) and I had just begun homeschooling. That meant I co...moreEight years old was one of the best years of my life. I was the oldest of my siblings (authority!) and I had just begun homeschooling. That meant I could read anything I wanted (within the checkout limits at our local library) while my mother taught my little brother the basics. All the same, I loved it when she read aloud to all of us in the mornings, and I couldn't get enough of animal stories. I adored Jim Kjelgaard's Big Red, Wilson Rawls' Where the Red Fern Grows and anything Marguerite Henry. I'd beg and beg for just one more chapter, and it wasn't uncommon for my mother to accede and read until her voice grew hoarse. I know my eight-year-old self would have loved Kathi Appelt's The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp.
Raccoon brothers J’miah and Bingo are official Sugar Man Swamp Scouts, and they know their duty: to be alert for trouble and to wake the legendary Sugar Man in case of emergencies. Never mind that no one has seen him for nearly 60 years! Nearby, 12 year-old (human) Chap Brayburn is mourning the death of his beloved grandfather Audie, and trying to figure out how to be the man of the house. When trouble comes to the swamp, J’miah, Bingo and Chap must each use all of their ingenuity and courage to save it, and themselves.
J'miah and Bingo are raccoons, and raccoons are known for mischief. However, these brothers have just been inducted as Official Scouts of the Sugar Man Swamp, and with that appointment comes responsibility. They've got to listen to the Voice of Information, watch out for trouble, and most of all, be true to each other. Their antics are by turns hilarious and heartwarming, and in the end the number of crawdads, dewberries and sugar pies they have eaten amount to an adventure all its own.
Appelt writes human emotion with just as much laughter and verve as the animal action, but with an extra dose of poignancy. Chap's attempts to step into his grandfather's shoes are a little bit funny, a little bit doomed, and all the way sincere. Chap's story could stumble into maudlin or contrived territory, but it doesn't - the author keeps just the right balance. The fantastical element is included in a natural, organic way, so that the book rides somewhere between tall tale and a 'book about talking animals,' and makes you want to (for just a little while) visit the magical place that is the Sugar Man Swamp.
My favorite passages were those that talked about the flavors of the swamp and Paradise Pies, the tiny bakery that Chap's mother runs. This excerpt from pages 68 and 69 of the hardcover version gives you a little taste of the book:
"The huge coffee urn was full of dark, rich Community Coffee, roasted in Baton Rouge. And even though there wasn’t a drop of coffee in the pies, Grandpa Audie always said, “The chicory in the coffee makes the pies taste better.” He followed that with, “Besides, it puts hair on your chest.”
Right then Chap pulled the neck of his T-shirt out and looked down at his chest. Not a single hair. Didn’t he need a few chest hairs to be a man? With that, he filled Audie’s mug, right up to the brim.
“You might want to put some cream and sugar in that,” his mom said.
Grandpa Audie had never used cream and sugar, had he? “Blacker ’n dirt.” That’s the way he had always drunk it. That was the way Chap would drink it too. He raised his grandpa’s mug to his lips and took a tiny sip. It was hot hot hot. It was bitter bitter bitter. All at once, he understood how coffee would make the pies taste better.
The sweet of the pies would offset the hot and bitter."
The True Blue Scouts is a funny, beautifully written and environmentally friendly tale of familial love and the ways in which a specific spot in nature can become ‘home’ to the heart. J’miah, Bingo and Chap explore the swamp and discover some of its dangerous and wondrous secrets, and each tries to protect it in his own way. I would imagine that it's especially charming when read aloud, so that the animal and human voices really come alive.
Recommended for: fans of Kate DiCamillo, those who enjoy animal stories on the order of Charlotte's Web or The Adventures of a South Pole Pig, and readers ages 8 and up who enjoy their stories with a light fantasy element.(less)