Book Review: City of Saints & Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson

You may remember that February was my month of reading mysteries. This was one of my February reads, and one of the top books I have read yet this year. I gave it Five Stars on GoodReads. And then I had to calm down a bit because yeah, man, it was THAT good. And as for the publisher’s description, no, not Gone Girl. There was nothing unreliable about this narrator. Nothing at all. This was Girl with a Dragon Tattoo meets Life After Life. So many choices. So many unanswered questions.

This story was riveting. I rocketed through it in two giant 200-page gulps, not regretting a moment. I felt like a ping-pong ball, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the story unfolding in front of me. The Kenyan setting was lush, the characters were whole. I especially loved Tina, AKA Tiny Girl, whose life is turned upside down when her mother is killed.

This is a rich story, full of consequences. She and her mother are refugees from a village that is too close to the militia fighting in Congo. Tina spends the book finding out just how close her mother is to the fight. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say that it is very complex, and dangerous. They land at a rich white guy’s house, the Greybill mansion. Greybill works for the mining industry in Kenya, has married a local (albeit rich) girl, and lives up on a hill far above the common rabble.

There are so many layers here, honestly. Anderson’s descriptions of the grimy port town of Sangui City (yes, that means blood) put you right in the middle of it, and Tiny Girl’s Rules let you know just how precarious each day is. Most chapters start with a Rule, and the first one is: You don’t exist. She becomes invisible so that she can survive. When her plan for revenge takes her back into her old life, she must walk a very high tightrope, and you, dear reader, will walk that tightrope with her. Tina spends her days dodging dangerous thugs and stealing from others. She belongs to a gang, but she’s not exactly part of the gang. That all comes together later, too.

I was with Tiny Girl the whole time, careening from one situation to another, from the dusty streets of Sangui City to the carpeted halls of the Greybill mansion, from the decrepit hospital to the dense, humid forest. This was gripping, compelling, full of details and characters that made it all seem like a newsreel, unspooling in front of you. All the human emotions and realities collide with the greed of business and the lust for power, capturing children in its grip and making them old – and wise – before their time.

It’s plain that the lives of the gang, street kids taken in to do dirty work by a local crime boss, are very real. You don’t invent that kind of detail from whole cloth. These kids are waifs, starving. Tina becomes one of them when she is “rescued” by one of their leaders, while trying to steal a mango. She is on the streets, because she doesn’t want to go to the convent where she hid her sister. You can’t exact revenge from behind a convent wall. So there are sinners, and the tattoos on Tiny Girl’s arms tell the stories of the saints.

Even after Tina is thrust back into her old home, where her mother was a maid, she still thinks like a street kid. She is always watching her back, always on the lookout for what she can get out of a situation. Rule 12: always be ready to bolt.

And yet, I really liked Tina. Tina is smart. Really smart. She knows how to read a room. She knows when to say what, and when to shut up. She has another Rule: thieves don’t have friends. So Boyboy isn’t her friend – he’s a useful thing to have around. He can help her hack into security systems, steal information, find schedules and floorplans. And even though he is the only one she lets up on her rooftop, he is definitely not her boyfriend. He’s got it just as rough as she does, even if he does have a family: a poor gay kid in a town that does not suffer softness.

Everything about this story works: the setting, the characters, the intrigue. It is a thriller in a slow-burn kind of way, though things really do get rocking fairly quickly. Piecing together the puzzle of what happened with Tina’s mom, and then finally, what is going on in the village in the Congo, and how it relates to the house on the hill, will keep you up way past your bedtime. Just when you think you are going to solve one mystery, another one pops up in its place.

I would love to see more of Tina. I loved her and her whole crew – yes, even Michael. And my heart feels for her and Kiki, and I want to know more than anything what happens to them.

So yeah, five stars. And I never give stars. I don’t see the point of differentiating between three stars and four stars. And one star is just too mean. So I only give five stars. But then rarely.

I don’t know if there is a sequel coming, but if one pops up, I’m all over it.

Tolkien Reading Day 2017

I hadn’t really anticipated becoming wholly consumed by Tolkien during the month of March. But that appears to be what has happened.

First, I heard about this from the bloggers over at Pages Unbound. They put out a call on Twitter for bloggers to take part in their two-week Tolkien blog fest, which would feature posts they wrote plus lots of guest posts. I was happy to write a post about how Tolkien has influenced my work, which can be seen here. And there are lots of other posts about all things Tolkien, so get on over and check them out.

Then I saw a challenge on Instagram. I do a lot of photo challenges (which, if you don’t know, are basically lists of prompts that you interpret and then share with a hashtag), and this was to be a month-long Tolkien theme under the #MiddleEarthMarch tag. I thought that sounded like loads of fun, so I was eager to participate in that. This also included a Lord of the Rings read-along, which was preceded by a read-along of The Hobbit, where we followed along on #febandbackagain.

I had a blast with the prompts, and had fun going through my books and gathering together all my Tolkien-related titles. Come to find out that I actually have a pretty good collection! I am especially happy with a special edition I picked up at a con a year or so ago for $20 – it is the green leather one in a slipcase, with runes on the cover and spine. It’s gorgeous, and a lovely addition to my library (but really, I’m a sucker for anything in a slipcase or a boxset).

On my #RockMyTBR challenge, I had already ear-marked a Tolkien title, The Silmarillion, for April. But I substituted the above titles, which was handy because I found that either I do not own The Silmarillion or I simply couldn’t find it. I just swapped my previous March title with April. And then GoodReads changed its rules so that you could count rereads as part of your challenge goal, so that helped speed me along.

Before I saw the Pages Unbound post, I honestly didn’t even realize there was going to be a Tolkien Reading Day in March. March 25 is the anniversary of the day of the defeat of Sauron, in case you are wondering. The celebration is sponsored by the Tolkien Society, and there are lots of celebrations worldwide. This worked out perfectly for me, since I read that scene in the book on the night of March 24! I was able to keep on track with my reading in the read-along, though I am sad to say that I hardly read anything else during March. But it was worth it.

I never read The Lord of the Rings until after college. So this was only maybe my third time reading the series. The last time was when the movies came out. When I was in high school, fantasy was a class for stoners and slackers. I loved English and reading, so instead, I took Shakespeare and English lit. Well, let that be a lesson to you. Don’t skip a class if it sounds interesting! Had I taken fantasy in high school, I might have been a decade ahead on my Tolkien obsession!

And now I am well and fully hooked. I have always loved the movies, and my son and I did a binge watch of the extended version DVDs over the holidays. So that set me up nicely for all the reading. Now I am looking forward to The Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion. I have been looking around, and it sounds like this is the order which is most recommended in reading Tolkien (that is, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, The Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion).

I am very much looking forward to the upcoming Beren and Luthien, which is being released in May, and was edited by Christopher Tolkien and illustrated by Alan Lee. Many Tolkien fans will know that this story of star-crossed lovers was very close to Tolkien’s heart. He even had the name Luthien engraved on his wife’s headstone when she died, and then instructed that Beren should be engraved under his name (they share a headstone).

I’ve long had a wish to go to Oxford, and see his haunts. I would also love to go to New Zealand, where you can see the set for the Shire, and have lunch at the Green Dragon. So go ahead, Tolkien merch, take all my money! I don’t even care.

 

Reading Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes Series (Books 1-5)
By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I love a good mystery. I had some stacking up here, so I decided to make February my mysteries month. Most of my TBR for the month was mystery and thriller. Books I had been meaning to read for ages, most of them. And I love to curl up with a good mystery on a cold night. The more bodies, the better!

I’ve got a beautiful box set of Sherlock Holmes books (it was part of my #RockMyTBR list). I think I got it at a thrift store, because I know that I didn’t pay much for it. And I didn’t take the books out of the box for years. When I finally did, they were pristine – the spines had never even been cracked.

The books are lovely little hardcovers, small enough to fit in your hand, with gilt lettering and gold fore edges (the part of the page you see when it’s closed). The finish is an interesting wood grain, but it’s black, so hard to photograph. I love pretty books. I just can’t tell you how nice it is to sit down with a book that is lovely to hold and lovely to look at, and of course, the story has to be good, too.

Now, I knew these were good stories. But I had never actually read them. So I added them to the stack. The stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were a bit different than what I expected, though. Not so many dead bodies as misunderstandings, jilted lovers, and just plain con men. But that was okay. The writing held up, and I wanted to get past the shows I had watched (both the BBC production and the CBS show Elementary) to the real deal.

Here are the five books I read.

A Study in Scarlet/ The Sign of the Four (#1 & #2)

The first book was two stories in one. I had heard the titles before, but not the stories. I am so glad I started at the beginning, though. Here we get the complete timeline of how Watson and Sherlock met, how Watson comes to understand him and his methods, and how they grow to be close friends. We also get Watson meeting Mary! The first story is not all that memorable itself, but worth reading just for these character-building reasons. The only thing I didn’t like about it was that it included a large bit of backstory set in the American West, which took away from the mood I typically go to Sherlock for. The second story is interesting, a bit more exotic, and complex enough to hold your attention. I didn’t agree whole-heartedly with the way it was presented, as it was less than of a whodunit than a how-dunit, but that’s okay. It had lots of color, shall we say? Convicts and con men and double-crosses – much of it set in colonial India, with all that entails.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (#3)

This is an eclectic collection of stories in which many of those featured don’t actually involve crimes. I dearly love the different voices of Watson and Holmes, as they are clearly delineated. And finally by this point I was able to get away from picturing Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in my head! This was a struggle in the first volume, let me tell you. These are all very quick and somewhat slight, but with good detail and lots of that murky London fog. There are 12 stories in all. Some of them were very curious, and I especially liked A Scandal in Bohemia (in which we meet Irene Adler!), The Red-Headed League, and the Blue Carbuncle. Just about every kind of crime you can imagine is included in here.

The Memories of Sherlock Holmes (#4)

I found these a bit better than the last volume, because they were more involved. So many of the stories had quotes that I had heard elsewhere – “the curious incident of the dog in the night time,” and the reference to the code word Norbury. I love seeing how these things were treated in the BBC production, and how they originally appeared. That is really why I wanted to read the books in the first place. Again, though, a lot of these stories were nebulous as to their actual endings. They were cons, or jilted love, or some such things. I liked The Musgrave Ritual (which harkens a bit towards The Hound of the Bakervilles) and The Naval Treaty best, I think. But they were all very good, and included such varied settings and issues, that it really kept me reading.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (#5)

This is a full-length story, and I really do like it when he hunkers down and make a novel out of it. I loved the setting of this – the atmospheric spookiness of the moors. It is done so well, it made me want to pick up Wuthering Heights just to keep being spooked! It’s almost like the setting is another character in this novel. It has much more to do with setting than the short stories all set in London. And the story was intriguing, full of foreboding. There are all kinds of threats, hair-raising adventures on the moor, Neolithic ruins (about which I greatly enjoyed Watson’s ruminations!), and all sorts of folks pretending to be something they are not. It keeps you hopping. I saw this as a stage play when I was really young, and while it was a professional children’s theater production, I don’t remember much of the story. I just knew there was this black baying hound off stage. It suffers some from being produced, I think. You just need to get your head on to the moors.

I’ll continue on with the series, though I don’t have any more of the volumes until The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, which is apparently the final book. I wouldn’t want to skip ahead, though. I think the character-building is one of the best things about this series. There has to be a reason why these characters have had the staying power they have – Conan Doyle takes great pains to make it just right, to make their relationships ring true, and to give each person a distinct voice.

If you like mysteries or like reading classics, you should definitely get your hands on these. There are a multitude of editions, as they are in the public domain. But it’s worth picking up a nice volume. You’ll want to keep them.

RockMyTBR Challenge

I love this challenge. I tried to do it last year, sort of. I made it maybe two months. But I didn’t have a plan, and I didn’t have a post. So here I am, holding myself accountable. Unfortunately, I am too late to link up with the intro post. This is hosted by Sarah at The YA Book Traveler and I am so glad she’s doing it again! It’s a great way to be sure your books are not languishing too long on the shelf! I tend to use my library a lot, so this helps me add to that.

Since last year didn’t go so well, I have laid out some rules for this year for myself.

My Rules for #RockMyTBR

You must make the TBR from books you already own, whether they are packed away, on your shelves or in piles on your floor does not matter.

You can put books anywhere on the TBR for the year, using whatever criteria you want to read whatever you want whenever you want.

You can switch out books for another on your TBR, but only WITHIN your TBR. If you trade a top book for a later book, you cannot trade that top book again. You must read it when you come to it.

You cannot add any newly purchased books to this TBR. This is only for books you owned at the beginning of the year.

I reserve the right to add any books from my shelves, but only in addition to the books already on the list.

These kind of fall in line with what Sarah has already outlined, but I am really going to be strict with myself. That’s why I’m letting myself trade within the TBR, but making sure to put limits on that. I figure if I have a book that I want to trade more than once, then I probably don’t want to read that book anyway, and I might as well get rid of it.

Without further ado, here is my plan for #RockMyTBR for 2017!

January – The Star-Touched Queen (also for #DAReadathon and #boutofbooks) Done!

February – Sherlock Holmes box set (four books)

 

March – Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor (have read the first one)

April – The Silmarillion by Tolkien and The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

May – Very Good Lives by JK Rowling

June – Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

July – Game of Thrones book 1 by George RR Martin

August – Mary E Pearson Remnant Chronicles series

September – The Late Homecomer by Kao Kalia Yang

October – Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde (have read the first three but need to start over)

November – A Breathtaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

December – Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow by Andy Sturdevant

Wish me luck!

 

Dumbledore’s Army Diverse #DAReadathon Wrap-Up

I finished the #DAReadathon!

I had a great time reading these books. Oh my gosh. They were SO good. I didn’t complete my whole TBR but I made a sizable dent and I am very happy with that. You can see my original post here.

I started with The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, which I had always heard was very beautifully written. Well, I’m here to tell you that it is not only beautifully written, but it is an utterly beautiful story. This book is gorgeous in every way. I gave it five stars on GoodReads (and I never give star ratings!). I had received this book back when it was released in May. I actually won it from a GoodReads giveaway – so thanks GoodReads and Griffin Teen!

I found this story to be breath-taking. I don’t want to say too much because Spoilers but just trust me. It envisioned a world bigger than imagination. This book takes place in a Persian-inspired world, and it is full of cultural references. I loved that, and I loved the world and the characters. There are themes of love, and life, and death and what it all means. The writing is LUSH. I am very glad that I finally read this one! This also Rocks My TBR because I’ve had it since May. This was for the Impedimenta prompt. Here’s a taste:

“Neither the secret whirring song of the stars nor the sonorous canticles of the earth knew the language that sprang up in the space between us. It was a dialect of heartbeats, strung together with the lilt of long suffering and the incandescent hope of an infinite future.”  p332

Then it was on to Labyrinth Lost, by Zoraida Cordova, which I had won in a chat on Twitter in early November. This fit perfectly into the Protego prompt – #ownvoices. I really had to be restrained waiting this long to read it. It takes place in Brooklyn, but the MC is a bruja, which is a sort of melded cultural group that has aspects of Santeria and pagan ideals coupled with the Mexican Day of the Dead rituals. I loved Alex, and I loved the way this story wove itself around a completely new world and claimed it as its own. It felt rich and satisfying.

I then picked up The Upside of Unrequited, which was fantastic. This is outside my typical oeuvre, because I rarely read YA contemporary, but I’m glad I read it. This was for the Reducto prompt. I had been talking with someone on Twitter – or some such thing – and Becky Albertalli chimed in and I liked her so much I moved this right up my TBR (I received my copy at the Heartland Fall Forum). It was funny and bittersweet, saved from being saccharin by amazing insights and deadpan humor. I found myself laughing out loud quite a bit! The young love aspect is enriched by the non-traditional family and Molly’s issues with her own body image and questions about life. I loved this book so much that I offered to trade it to another blogger so it could get more love, and in return I get a copy of History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera! I am so excited to read that, thanks to Kendice, who blogs with Emily at EmilyReadsEverything.

The books I didn’t get to were The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig (Expecto Patronum prompt) and The Forbidden Wish (which was my blogger rec under the Lumos prompt). And The Sun Is Also a Star, for the Stupefy prompt, which was buried in my Christmas booktree. I also didn’t get a book for the Expelliarmus prompt. I really should have thought more about this. I’d like to do it again!

I did a little bit of score-keeping, and here is what I came up with for House Points. Go Ravenclaw!

  • I read 913 pages so at 1 point per each 10 pages, that gives me 91.3 House Points. (I was on page 235 of Unrequited when the challenge ended.) 336 +342 +235
  • I completed two books so I get 5 points for each, which is 10 House Points.
  • I reviewed two books on GoodReads. I don’t know if that counts. But if it does, that gives me 10 House Points. If it only counts for blog reviews, then I did not get any of those posted yet, but look for my upcoming reviews!
  • I posted an image of my #DAReadathon ID on Twitter for 1 House Point.
  • I tweeted using the hashtag at least five times. That’s how I got the blogger rec (two different people recommended the same book!). I posted a picture of my TBR on Instagram for an additional point (with 70 Likes, tyvm). So that makes 6 House Points for social media (which is unbelievably low of the 20 points possible).

This gives me a Grand Total of 27 + 91.3 = 118.3

All in all, I’m pretty happy that I stuck to my TBR and got to read some really good, culturally rich books. I think this was a fantastic challenge from beginning to end. I loved the Harry Potter element and being a member of Dumbledore’s Army, as well as the spell prompts. I also loved that you had a specific prompt to get recommendations, and that it really made you think about what you were reading. Very fun, and I would do this again in a heartbeat!

This weekend I’m nibbling at the #24in28 Readathon, but I am really not doing a good job at that. I was all set to get in a good hunker-down reading day yesterday, but somehow it didn’t happen. Next up I’ve almost got my #RockMyTBR Challenge list. More reading today!

#DAReadathon + #RockMYTBR Challenge + #BoutofBooks Readathon + TBR

What better way to start the New Year than with a reading binge? I saw the announcement of the #DAReadathon Challenge on Twitter just before Christmas and while I had it in my head I simply couldn’t sit down to sort it all out. This is one of the more complicated challenges I have seen, but since it involves Harry Potter and reading more diverse books, I simply couldn’t pass it up without at least trying.

Many of you know that the diverse books movement has been a big thing throughout the past year. It would be nice if we could say that it wasn’t needed, or that it had been going on a lot longer than that. But judging from some major faux pas recently by major published books, it is still needed, and we need to realize that those from marginalized groups need to have their own voices, and need to have representation in the publishing industry.

Publishing is just telling stories, after all, and how can we say we are doing a good job of that when we aren’t telling all the stories – just select ones that are curated by one race, one gender or one worldview?

So in my own small little way, I’m going to be working on this. I’m doing this challenge, and I’m sad to say that for some of these prompts, I’m not sure what I will read. I wish I could readily answer each one. Clearly, I have some work to do.

The challenge began yesterday (oops!) and goes until January 15. Each of the books should fit in with one of the prompts, which are named after spells in the Harry Potter fandom. Since this is one of my favorite fandoms, I was very attracted to this idea. Also, for those of you who don’t know, the DA in the challenge name stands for Dumbledore’s Army. Well, we need this more than ever now, don’t we? I like everything about the way this is set up.

Here are some of my picks. I’ll need help with this one, so if you have suggestions, please let me know in the comments! Or find me on Twitter or Instagram. I want to hear recs, people!

Expecto Patronum – diverse book featuring issue of personal significance to you or a loved one – I’m going with The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig – because it deals with a girl’s relationship to her father. I imagine that Nix’s is more complicated than mine, since her father wants to return to where her mother died, and possibly could. And mine, well, can’t. But it sounds eerily familiar and I am sure this will bring up some long-buried feelings for me. Plus, all the cultures involved just sound fantastic. And I have an ARC of the sequel, so must read this first!

Expelliarmus – diverse book featuring a marginalised group you don’t often read about – So maybe this would be LBGTQIA? Because I’ve not read much in that area.

Protego – Read an #ownvoices book for this prompt – Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova – I won this in a Death Day chat back in early November. I really have been paying much more attention to the traditions of Day of the Dead lately and I am very excited to read a book by someone who grew up in that culture and has a story that centers around it. I had to resist picking this up earlier to save it for this challenge, so now it’s time!

Reducto – a book that empowers women from all different walks of life – Here we have The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli. I received an ARC of this at Heartland Fall Forum, and then I interacted with Becky on Twitter a bit, and well, bam, this shot up to the top of my TBR. This features an overweight teen who is a bit confused about her sexuality, and has a twin sister. I am going out of a limb a bit here to say that it empowers women, but if there is an Upside to Unrequited Love, it has to be empowering, right? This releases in April so I am excited to be reading it so early.

Impedimenta – a diverse book that has been on your TBR for far too long! – This has to be The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi. I have had this since it released and it is so beautiful, and I have heard so much about it, but I have only picked it up once. And now that the sequel is coming out, I really need to get on it. I love following her on Twitter and Instagram so I am really looking forward to finally reading this!

Stupefy – a diverse book that has stunned the internet with all its well-deserved hype – The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon – this is a contemporary, which I don’t often read, which is also good for me to do once in a while. This title has landed on many year-end best lists, and I have heard it compared to Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, so of course that piqued my curiosity. Then I won a copy, and well, here it is!

Lumos – a diverse book that was recommended by one of your fellow book bloggers – I would like this to be the forthcoming History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera, recommended recently by the always-reliable Brittany at Brittany’s Book Rambles, but alas, it does not come out until January 17 and I don’t have an ARC. In her last BBTC chat, she featured this book and Adam took part. It was a delight. But I must find me something else so I’ll be asking my blogger friends!

From the website of Aente, Read at Midnight, the host of this challenge, here is her brief definition of what a diverse book is: “Any book that features a diverse experience such as LGBTQIA, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender diversity, indigenous, neurodiversity, people with disabilities.”

I still have two slots to fill, so I’ll be actively looking for those books which can fulfill these areas. I would love to find something with Native Americans (I really love all I’ve read by Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie), or something that I perhaps hadn’t thought about reading at all. I don’t know, it could be anything. The bottom line here is that this challenge is already a win for me, because it has me searching my book piles (and my booktree, because there is The Sun Is Also a Star, about halfway down! Which is why it is not pictured above!) for those stories.

There is a points component to this challenge too, but I won’t be worrying about that. I honestly have enough to do in the next two weeks. But this is a great start to my year and I’m really looking forward to it! What are your favorite diverse reads?

Bonus: For this challenge, I finally went to Pottermore and found out what my Patronus is! And while it was quite a process, I discovered that it is the “unusual” Patronus of a Leopardess!

I’m also going to try this year again to do the #RockMyTBR challenge from Sarah at The YA Book Traveler. I fell off the wagon on this one last year. And this week I’m doing the #BoutofBooks readathon (which is only one week, from Jan 2 to Jan 8). Here is the info on the #Bout of Books Readathon, for which I will be using the same books as for the #DAReadathon, and then if I run out of books, I will just add more! The stack helps me to put blinders on and means that I really will complete the books that I have listed.

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda Shofner and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, January 2nd and runs through Sunday, January 8th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 18 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog– From the Bout of Books team

 

 

Best Books of 2016, Part II

Here is part two of my Best Books post, in which I wax rhapsodic about another YA fantasy, some mysteries, some middle grade and a few children’s picture books! I hope you have a chance to check some of these out! And if you missed it, check out part one of my post of Best Books of 2016!

Now, if you know me, you know how much I love YA. And if you know how much I love YA, you know how much I love Leigh Bardugo. I didn’t miss the sequel to Six of Crows, and I didn’t leave it off my list! Here we go, making the world right:

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Yes, this is one of my favorite reads. I am, however, still in a bit of huff because the series is over. This book is the second one in the Six of Crows series. I reviewed Six of Crows here. Have I told you lately how much I love these characters? I love them so much, it hurts to say goodbye. In fact, I had a really hard time getting into this book. I had to enact the buddy-read method to get me to keep moving forward – and so that I would have someone to cry with when it was over. Okay, I didn’t cry (much). But it was still very sad. Nevertheless, pain is a part of life, and I suggest you get your hands on all the Leigh Bardugo books you can carry, and just sit down and read them all straight through. You’ll have a helluva hangover, but it will be so worth it. This setting, the writing, the story, the characters – you will be in love. (Bonus: I did preorder this, and I did get the most coolest preorder swag ever! More on that later.)

Mystery

In the Moors, Unraveled Visions, Beneath the Tor (Shaman Mystery series)
by Nina Milton

I’ve recently discovered a series published by a Minnesota publisher, Flux, which has a mystery imprint called Midnight Ink. I was looking for books about shamans, and stumbled across the Shaman Mysteries series by Nina Milton, about a modern shamanic practitioner named Sabbie Dare. Not only is it fascinating to hear about how she plies her trade, but the mysteries are good too. They are set on the Somerset moors, which only adds to the overall appeal. There are three in the series and I read them out of order, which does not seem to matter too awful much. Each one of them pulled me in and kept me going late into the night. I love Sabbie and I am totally rooting for her, even if she does have a habit of sticking her nose in where it doesn’t belong. Bonus: this counts as research for my work in progress!

Middle Grade

Sticks and Stones by Abby Cooper

What a lovely, refreshing, too-true bit of magical realism! I met Abby while we were both working on a project last spring, and I was so happy to find that her debut novel is every bit as effervescent as she is. It is a story about bullying, but also about self-confidence, about being true to yourself, and about the rigors of junior high. The main character may have a made-up condition, but the challenges she faces are as real as anything you will ever read. I loved Elyse, and her chirpy voice is spot-on and feels like someone I know. I am looking forward to more from this author!

The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee by Erin Petti

This is delightful. That is the first word that comes to mind. This was one of my top Halloween Reads this year (check the link for the full review). It is a bit creepy, yes, and in the way of children’s literature, involves giving the children a great deal of license to do as they wish. But it is a lovely story, a bit of a mystery, a love story and a ghost story all rolled into one. The construct of the main character being very curious and loving scientific method means that this is very literally used in the story, which is one way of slipping in exposure to that. But Thelma is so delightful, and her need is so dire, that we cannot help but root for her. There is even an online component. I received this at the Heartland Fall Forum book show.

Children’s Picture Books

I just got my first issue of Horn Book, which had a very cool subscription deal that I couldn’t pass up. And it reminded me again how much I love a really beautiful children’s book. I will highlight a couple here that came to me over the past year.

One North Star: A Counting Book
by Phyllis Root
Illustrations by
Beckie Prange and Betsy Bowen

This is flat-out gorgeous. I love the combined woodcut and watercolor illustrations, the deep colors, and the depiction of the natural world. It is a counting book, too, which is absolutely fun. It takes the reader deep into caves, under water, and into a bear’s den. The pages are lush and rich with detail, while at the same time being very simple. I also like that there is information in the back on the different habitats depicted. If you have not yet discovered Phyllis Root, also check out her Plant a Pocket of Prairie book, also illustrated by Betsy Bowen, or any of her other many titles. This is my top children’s book of 2016! I received a copy of this book from the publisher, University of MN Press.

 

Tinyville Town Gets to Work! By Brian Biggs

This book reminds me of the old Richard Scarry books I had when I was a kid (which, yes, I still have), with its busy bright pages full of people doing all kinds of things. This is the first in the Tinyville Town series by Biggs. I got to meet the author at the Heartland Fall Forum in the Moveable Feast, where he told us about this book. It describes a very big process (building a bridge) in a very simple way, and celebrates the idea of how people working together can make great things happen. I look forward to more in this series!

Wake Up, Island by Mary Casanova
Woodcuts by Nick Wroblewski

This details a similar landscape as One North Star but contrasts with its very delicate, lovely illustrations that also include woodcuts but with a softer palette. This book shows the whole world waking up – not just a sleepy bear scratching his back, but pine trees that stretch, and lichen that warms a rock. This is full of fun sounds – mallard wings “wuff-wuffing,” a chickadee calls, a red squirrel chatters and munches. Children will get a feel for the whole world that is contained in this tiny spot of the north woods. I received this book from the Minnesota publishers reception at the Heartland Fall Forum.

There are so many good books out there. This is a much longer list than I typically give. I keep thinking of more books I want to add. But hopefully, one of these will appeal to you, and you will find the book that you need at the time that you need it. Because books really do change lives, and they really do matter. I hope you have many great books come your way in 2017!

Best Books of 2016, Part 1

I love my stats. I am still not sure if I’ll make my reading challenge goal for this year – I had hiked it up to 80 books, even though last year I had not made my goal of 75. Call it a fit of optimism. But the year before last I read 100. Now my challenge shows me that I have 1 day and 10 hours to make my goal. This year, they have a feature called My Year in Books, which is like catnip to me. My longest book was Crooked Kingdom at 536 pages (every moment of it worthwhile); my average page count per book was 296 pages. These 72 books I’ve read so far this year amount to 20,439 pages. I like that. It’s a nice round number. I only wish I had more reading stats.

What I do have is a list of the books I liked the most. The ones that stuck with me. Here I’ll highlight my favorite reads of the year, covering many genres. My top three (no surprise) are all YA fantasy.

I want to say that YA fantasy has really stepped it up in recent years, but maybe it is just that I have only begun paying closer attention since I started blogging. I have gotten to know many bloggers on Twitter and Instagram who focus on YA, so that might be leading me more towards that genre as a whole. I am not a huge fan of contemporary (though I love Rainbow Rowell and I am looking forward to Adam Silvera’s new one), but I can’t get enough of the fantasy.

Without further ado, here are my top reads of 2016!

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

This one has stuck itself deep into my heart, deep into my psyche and my imagination. It is one of the most highly imaginative, well-executed books that I think I have ever read. It feels cut out of whole cloth. It is magical, awe-inspiring – the superlatives do not do it justice. What Kristoff has done here is imagined a whole new world – one with three suns, then created a lexicon that uses that specific element – days are not days, they are “turns” and so these characters do not say ‘some day,’ but “some turn.” He has then populated that landscape with an incredible cityscape, and other continents that share their own incredible histories, and then peopled that world with characters that make you cringe and make you cry, that you will root for and fear all at once. The writing, the very magic of the words and sentences, is sublime. There is even – wait for it – a vast, cavernous library that has its own surprise, and is prowled by actual bookworms, which will eat you whole.

This is deep and dark and full of foreboding. People die. Many die in gruesome, startling ways. Our heroine, Mia, is befriended by shadows, and you will soon wish you had your own Mister Kindly. Her story is heartbreaking, but she rises above it in ways that will astonish you. You may not agree with everything she does, but you will want her to succeed at doing it. Let’s just say it earns the hashtag for this title, which is #stabstabstab.

I cannot say enough good things about this book, except holy hell, why was it not on every best list, and why is it not being sung from the mountaintops? And just that you should go get it. Read the synopsis on your chosen book site, and then know that is not nearly enough. It is so much more. For some reason I haven’t published my review yet. And my library doesn’t have a copy. I had to get mine from another system (thank the goddess for Interlibrary loans!). But it is worth hiking over hills and mountains to get this in your hands.

This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

It was hard to choose, if I had to, between this and Nevernight. The clincher, I think, was the overall feel of the book. This is a fantastic story, told by two teens, who are very different from each other. I don’t know if you will like Katie, but that’s okay. You may be repulsed by August, or utterly charmed by him. You will certainly feel for them as they are drawn into this world they inhabit, which they are trying very hard to resist. I loved the story here, I loved the characters, and I loved the utterly forlorn nature of the situation. This is not sugar-coated. It is dark and it is nasty. But there is music, though it does not bring beauty, and at the end, there is hope. This was the second book I had read by Schwab, and I found it even more wonderful than her Darker Shade of Magic series. No romance here, thank you very much. And I can’t wait for the second in this duology, Dark Duet. You can see my full review here.

Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

I’ve been championing this book ever since I first read it. I loved it. It is a fast-paced, rousing rebel-with-a-cause adventure, and I want to get back to the desert and see what could possibly happen next. I loved Amani and I loved the setting. I could taste both the dust in my mouth and her own desperation to get out of her sleepy little one-horse town. But along with the adventure, this was also a book about stories. There are legends, and myths, and everyone has their own secrets, and the stories might be true, or might not. There is magic, there is a lovely spot-on bit of blushing romance, and I can’t wait for the next book. I don’t own a copy of this one, but I am torn now, because they changed the beautiful cover for the next book. Why oh why did they do that? They just don’t understand – series must match! And that gorgeous cover is something I would have loved to see carried through. Ah well. I know well enough by now that publishers have reasons why they do things.

Nonfiction

Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy

I read this bit by bit, trying to savor it but still rushing to the next chapter. I loved the way it was laid out. Each chapter focused on a different element of writing. You might want to skip ahead to whatever is eating you at the moment, but I urge you to read it all the way through. It’s like a little masterclass between covers. See how many flags are in my copy? I am excited to put all this great advice to use. A Minnesota author by a Minnesota publisher! I got this copy at the Minnesota reception at Heartland Fall Forum, where I finally got to meet Ben in person.

The Song Poet by Kao Kalia Yang

If you have not read The Late Homecomer, you may not be familiar with Yang. She is a Minnesotan, but her writing will take you far away from here. In her latest book, she tells the story of her father. It’s interesting to hear a daughter focus on her father, but clearly they have a special relationship, and his gift made an impression on her. This is a riveting account of his life, from the mountaintop jungles to the refugee camp to life in America. It is clear that should Yang choose to, she would be an astounding poet. If you ever – I mean EVER – get a chance to hear her speak, run, don’t walk. She can make an entire room cry just answering a question. Her thoughtful, clear-headed story will leave its mark on you. Bonus: if you are not familiar with the Hmong people, you are in for a helluva story. I am so glad that she wrote this book. This one should be filed under “miraculous.” (I received a copy of this book from the publisher at the spring bookseller meeting of MiBA.

Grief Is the Things with Feathers by Max Porter

Never mind that Porter stole the title of the poem that was my mantra while my best friend was fighting cancer. I was irked by that at first, wishing I’d thought to title my poetry collection with this, but that would be too close to the source, wouldn’t it? At any rate, I did not have huge high hopes for this novel. I thought it was at best an affectation, at worst an over-hyped golden boy. But, ahem, I stand corrected, even if only to myself. This spare, lyrical novel will give you pause. It may seem crazy, but just read every word and take the journey. The journey is always different but the ending is magnificent. Keep going.

Fiction

The Dark Lady’s Mask by Mary Sharratt

Carry yourself away, 400 years in the past and across the ocean, to Italy, to England. Mary Sharratt brings it all to life. In what is fast becoming her trademark of authenticity, she has recreated the world in which, perhaps, William Shakespeare made the acquaintance of England’s first published lady poet, Aemelia Bassano. He may or may not have traveled to Italy with her, and then, returning to England, he wrote those sonnets – to her? It is all conjecture at this point, but oh, highly suspect! And somehow, it just feels right. We get glimpses of the court life, glimpses of the precarious nature of society then, the predicament of women, and the words, all the words. This is a lush, fully-imagined story, great for anyone who enjoys diving into historical fiction. Disclaimer: I worked with Mary on a social media campaign for the release of this book. Look for #OpheliaReads on Twitter and Facebook for some fun pics!

Wintering by Peter Geye

And now for something completely different. Peter Geye fully brings to life the landscape of northern Minnesota like no one else. In fact, you could say that the landscape is another character in his books. If you have not read his earlier work, The Lighthouse Road, you could pick that up first, and then binge both of these. They are each told covering two time periods, and contain multiple perspectives, sharing some characters. It is complex writing, and beautiful. Geye returns to his North Shore town of Gunflint, and tells the story of a trip a father and son took into the wild years before. It is an adventure story, tense yet full of the peace of nature. You do not need to have read Lighthouse Road in order to enjoy Wintering, however. Just find yourself some Peter Geye, and settle in for a great winter read.

 

And with that, I got carried away. Check back tomorrow for the second half of my Best of 2016 reads, with more YA, mystery, middle grade and children’s picture books!

Book Review: Three Dark Crowns

threedarkcrownsYou think this is going to be just another Queen story. Don’t you? Well, think again.

This is a highly original, interconnected, complicated, intricate story, with multi-generational dimensions. I loved the queens themselves. I loved the world-building, this mist-shrouded island that was seemingly cut off from the rest of the world. And I loved the idea of their powers, their “gifts.”

There were, of course, some aspects of this story that I found disturbing. The way Katharine was treated, for one. The fact that their mother basically abandons them at birth – and, well, that’s tradition. What a horrible sounding tradition. The idea that then these three sisters, who are to each other all they have left in the world, are then separated and made to feel as enemies! And finally, and I’m not giving away anything here, read the synopsis if you want, the fact that two of them will die during their sixteenth year, killed by the third one. Whoa. Yeah, that’s a little dark.

Somehow, though, it doesn’t feel dark when you’re reading it. Because you get the woods, the meadows, the harbor. The manor, the town, the girls’ bedroom. You are right there, and it all feels appropriately sunlit or rainy. It does not feel foreboding, even when the girls are talking about dying. They talk about dying a lot, mind you. But it somehow still feels like hey, there’s got to be some hope here. And there is.

I love the way the queens grow throughout this. How Mirabella is seen as a cold, calculating queen, until we see her with Bree and Elizabeth, and then she’s just another girl (albeit one who worries about killing and getting killed). I love poor Katherine. She is a very sympathetic character. But don’t count her out. Oh no. And I really do love sad Arsinoe. (I like her friend Jules a lot too!) I think she’s spunky and totally herself, even if she can’t call a familiar.

I love the gifts, the priestesses, the temple and the foster families. I think the three gift areas are incredibly intriguing, and I love the way they play out. The poisoners, with their intrigue and their nasty bits, are just fascinating. The idea of the Gave Noir (yuck!) is clever as heck. I love how the naturalists don’t seem to give a hoot about any of the intrigue, they just care about their familiars. And then there’s the poor elementals, who seem to care about the intrigue and should be the strongest, you would think, and yet. Hmmmm. They seem more in tune with the goddess and the temple (at least Mirabella does). I would love a prequel backstory on this with all of those earlier badass queens! Bernadine and her wolf, Queen Elo, the fire breather. Yep, gimme some badass women!

There’s a little bit of romance in here, what with Pietyr (what are his motivations, anyway?) and Joseph (somebody has a lot of explaining to do) and Billy, poor confused soul. I am not a huge romance fan but these were fun little twists that turn out to have quite a bit to do with the plot, and not in a romantic way.

And then oh. Can we talk about that ending? No? Okay. I’m not a spoiler. But just read ittttt! The whole story is pretty complex. Pay close attention to the chapter headings. Look at the map (oh, what a WONDERFUL map!). Make note of who belongs to which queen. There will be a reward at the end! There is plenty of palace intrigue here, and lots of political shufflings, but under it all, there are three girls who just want to figure out what to do with their lives.

I was initially a bit huffed to find that this is a series. I thought it was a stand-alone! But now I have to wait to find out what happens. The name of the series is Three Dark Crowns. I don’t know when the next one comes out, but it is listed as sometime in 2017. What? I have to wait how long? And such a twist at the end! I mean, two twists. Whatever. I’m sure there are more. Now I’m okay with it being a duology because that just means there’s more.

I was very excited to read this book, because the buzz had just begun to build when I spotted the ARC at a book swap at a convention in Bloomington, MN (CONvergence, a fantasy and scifi con). I mean, I hugged this book! I squealed. It was battered and bruised, and had obviously been around the block, but hey, that is a good thing, because the more an ARC is circulated, the more a book is talked about. I knew also that it was a hard ARC to get, and not one that the publisher would likely send me for my little ol’ blog.

And now I’m going to pass on the love, because I saw on Twitter that someone had listed this as a Most Wanted on their Wishlist, and I thought, well, I have it, and it needs to move on. I read it, and I loved it, and I hope someone else does too. So on it went to the lovely Meredith at Pandora’s Books! She sent me two books in trade, because they were older ARCs; I think it was very fair and very fun.

So thanks to whomever the anonymous person is who left this there (there was also a copy of The Crown’s Game, which I hope found a good home. I left it because I already had a copy). I can’t wait until I can get my Little Free Library and then I can pass on more books that need a home!

This book was published on September 20th. Get a copy at your local bookstore! And more fun, you can get this with three different covers, one for each of the gifts the girls possess. Oh, heart be still. Or request it at your local library. Check it out! Then snuggle in for a wild ride!

Halloween Reads 2013 Redux

The third installment in my repost of my previous years’ Halloween Reads! Hope you enjoy this tidbit from the vault…

At the beginning of October, I was stumped for Halloween reading. Then I realized I had both of Will Alexander’s books, and they were rather breath-taking. Then I picked up a copy of The Graveyard Book that I had bought a couple of months ago, and was pulled right in. And then another book I was waiting for came in at the library, and I found a copy of The Phantom of the Opera in the spare room.

All that to say, there’s plenty to be had for spooky reading, folks. I’ve previously done up lists that included children’s books and a classic. I came up with a classic, but no children’ s book this year – if only because I found too many recent YA and adult titles that I wanted to read.

phantomoftheoperaThe Classic
Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
I saw the stage show here years ago, and of course the music is haunting. But I’d never read the book. I’m glad I did. While yes, this is a dated novel, and yes, it is undeniably a romance underneath it all, it is still spell-binding and suspenseful. Even having seen the stage show, I couldn’t remember all the plot elements that give this story its power. It has all the trappings of a good story: a glamorous setting at the Paris Opera (plus, it’s Paris!), and the mysterious below-decks world under the Opera, plus opera singers, counts and exotic foreign characters. And a mysterious dark man.

It’s all delivered in that typical turn-of the century style, addressing the reader directly (as is done in Dracula and Frankenstein). Which can detract from the modern enjoyment of the story. But it’s a classic story, and the dramatic style of the narrator can be overlooked, or might even add to it for you.

In addition, there’s that peculiar gaslight element, which is described so well – a hundred black butterflies flying just out of the corner of your eye. I think that the gaslight era was what gave us some of these great horror stories. It was certainly a factor in Dracula. Because the world looked different by gaslight. There were more shadows, more unknown things. Even the state of the Phantom is part of that. What really is his condition? Why must he wear the mask? How did he get that way? He is in the shadows, he is only half revealed ever – as anyone with any deformity was in those times. That is another element of the story that would have scared people back then – without so much of an understanding or a tolerance for the Other as perhaps we have today.

But it is still a good ghost story. (Note: if you have not read this original, you may want to pick it up and give it a go before you dive into the retelling by A.G. Howard, Roseblood!)

Two by William Alexander

Goblin Secrets (Zombay #1) and Ghoulish Song (Zombay #2)
Goblin Secrets, Alexander’s first novel, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. That’s a tough act to follow. But in Ghoulish Song, he has done this delicious thing. He has used some of the same characters, and shown the scene from a different perspective, and then enlarged it so that we are seeing the whole day from someone else’s point of view. This serves to remind us that the world belongs to everyone, and our bit is only a small part of it.

In Goblin Secrets, there is Rownie, a sad orphaned boy who wants only to be reunited with his brother. This boy has the gift for wearing masks, which his brother had also. Sadly, that is illegal in Zombay. The gear-work guards will come cart you away if you so much as put on a fake nose. The boy is taken in by some goblins, and he hopes that they will not Change him. This boy, he has a lot to worry about.

ghoulishsongIn Ghoulish Song, we see the same days, most of them, from the point of view of a girl, who has somehow lost her shadow. And the different ways that a ghoul is dealt with are interesting – in some areas, they are burned. In others, they are dismembered and buried in separate pieces. And if you’ve lost your shadow, you’re a ghoul. This book has a lot to do with music, which tames real ghouls, and may just help her get her shadow back. In the meantime, she ends up stranded on a beach, trapped in a museum and facing a ghoul in a burned out house. This girl, she too has a lot to worry about.

I loved the duality of the same things meaning beginnings and endings: waving good bye and hello; the Name Day song and the funeral song; what holds it together can also tear it apart. True of so many things. Firmly grounded in worldwide folklore, both of these books are worlds built that you will somehow recognize but that are so original and surprising that you will just want more.

And the one thing these books are full of, other than imagination and a love of language, obviously, is truth.

graveyardbookTwo by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Sort of like a macabre version of Mary Poppins, which is to take nothing away from its originality. Except our young boy has run-ins with ghouls and witches and Hounds of God, among sundry other beings. But in the same way, he is shown an alternate, a parallel world, and this is where the original bits come in. Not only do we get that delicious British turn of phrase every so often, but the plight of the poor boy, whose family is murdered prior to the first pages, is bittersweet, and at once heart-breaking and heart-warming. His name is Nobody, Bod for short, and he is being raised in a cemetery by an assortment of ghosts and other-worldly creatures that give him quite a unique take on the world – and life. The illustrations are beautiful, spare and dare I say, haunting. This book just goes to show that not everything that looks scary is bad, not everything stupid is harmless, and not every monster is evil. This is one book that I wanted to revisit almost immediately, the kind that makes you sad that no, you can’t go back again and read it for the first time.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Okay, sue me, two Neil Gaimans. But I read this first, and it was scary! It is honestly no children’s story. There are beings in here that we cannot even fathom – and that can’t be explained. It is frightening, it is mind-blowing, and highly, highly magical, lovely and original. In this latest outing, Gaiman explores memory, childhood wonder and sacrifice, among other issues. I read this months ago, and the confrontation in the field still makes me shrink back. I loved our little hero, and I loved his darling friend, and we should all be so lucky as to have an ocean at the end of our lane.

Help for the Haunted by John Searles
I was probably more affected by what I expected from this book than from what actually happened in it. The ‘Don’t go down in the basement’ vibe will definitely feed you some chills, as will the inexplicable always-burning light bulb and for sure the creepy doll Penny. Searles is a bit too vague as to what actually goes on sometimes, though, in terms of the spooky stuff. It’s all a matter of being afraid of what you don’t know. The real story here is a murder mystery compounded by a young girl whose parents had a rather unusual occupation, and who left her dealing with the aftermath of it. The scariest part involves a very real psycho, but I will leave it to you to discover just who that is. It’s a sad story that is highly charged with all the right particles to make a believable masquerade as a ghost story.

Recommended but Not Read

This House is Haunted by John Boyne
I did not get a chance to read this one, but it goes on my list due to a wonderful review by a mystery writer that I respect very much, as well as other good buzz. It’s a good old-fashioned Gothic ghost story, complete with isolated manor, intrepid governess and things that go bump in the night (in Victorian England, of course). I do wish that I had read it for this year’s column, but it will have to wait for next year, along with House of Leaves, Mrs. Poe and some others.

To find out more about what I’m reading, look for me on GoodReads. Sometimes my reviews there are lengthy, and sometimes they are really my notes for writing reviews elsewhere. But my To-Be-Read shelf overfloweth. You can also find me on Tumblr as Imagining Things, where I post pictures of cemeteries, among other things.

 

This article first appeared on Examiner.com in October 2013. All copyright retained by author.

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