Five Books I Want to Pull Off My Shelves Right Now

I have a confession to make.

It’s been beautiful out here. I’m talking perfect spring, not too hot, sunshine and breeze days. And between that and the stress of helping Boyfriend research/proofread for finals, all I’ve really wanted to do sit out on the porch with a good book.

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Complete with blanket fort so I can stay out for hours without frying!

 

Writing time has suffered; I almost haven’t had any energy for it. On some level even reading time has been given over to the general lethargy.

Gormenghast, the current book, is good, don’t get me wrong. I count it and its prequel to be among the most interesting things I’ve ever read. It’s long and old and verbose, though; the series was started in the 1940’s and reads like Victorian Gothic, with a touch of D. H. Lawrence in the themes and Victor Hugo in the digressions.

I like it, but god is it slow going.

I find myself gazing wistfully at my bookshelf, wishing I was reading something lighter to suit the mood of chilling outside, doing nothing. And I have so many books I’m looking forward to on my shelves that I want to read all of them, right now.

So, since actual writing has not been a thing that’s been happening, here are the five I find myself staring at the most, wanting to pull them out and crack them open instead. As always, in no particular order, because I hate ranking things.

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1) Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal

I saw this scrolling through book blogs, and instantly fell in love with the cover. The world and premise of the story sound fascinating to me, and I’m interested to see how fleshed out they could be in such a short read. At just 96 pages it seems like the perfect book for a single afternoon.

2) Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

This sounds to me like the song of my people, told with humor and love. I’ve been in fandom long enough that I admit that’s most of my draw to it, the idea that I’ll recognize some of the inspiration for it and maybe get some of the injokes as well. With the fact that it seems to be written by another person who once lived in nerd culture, hopefully I’ll see a little of myself there too.

3) Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge

YA is always good for quick, fun reads, especially YA with beautiful prose. I’m completely new to this author, but after reading this short story on tumblr, I had to go see if she had any more work so I could grab it. I really want to know if the drive and poetry of that story carry over well into novel form. If so, I may have a fourth favorite YA author.

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4) The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

I’m not actually sure if you could call Susanna Clarke light reading. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell definitely wasn’t, and that’s the only other litmus I have to judge her by. I did love that book though, so I was excited to see she’d written something else in its world. And a short story collection shouldn’t be too heavy, anyway. It’ll be good to relive the magic and to get back to her writing.

5) Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

Hines’ works, on the other hand, are pretty much my ideal for light reading: fun, fast-paced, and never taking themselves too seriously. The premise is also a draw for this one. I think any bookish person or fantasy fan has to love the idea of a magician whose power can pull things and characters out of all the books we’ve read. All of Hines’ work so far has been great summer reading, and I’m sure this is no exception.

So, yes, I think soon I’m going to have to put down the heavy literature and pick up something fun. It’s just the season for it.

Anyone else have something on their shelves they can’t wait to read? Or book recommendations for good beach novels?

Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood

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Cahill Witch Chronicles #1, Putnam, 2012, 330 pgs.

When Cate Cahill’s mother died, she told her to watch over her sisters. To keep the three of them together, to make sure they were safe, and, most importantly, to keep the secret that all three are witches. Because everyone knows what the Brotherhood does to girls who are witches. It’s something they get told every Sunday at the parish, where the preachers rail against the moral frailty of women. In New England only the good girls, the girls who stick to dresses and parties, who get married or devote themselves to religion live without suspicion. So, in the intervening years since her mother’s death, Cate has devoted herself to keeping her sisters out of the spotlight in order to keep their secret, unwittingly marking them as outcasts in the process. But, as her seventeenth birthday approaches, that antisocial reputation becomes a problem. Soon she’ll have to make a choice between marriage and the Sisterhood. Cate has no suitors and no desire to join an organization that would imprison her if they found out what she is. If she wants a chance at a life she’s willing to live, she’ll have to learn to navigate the intricacies of town society, and her own feelings as well. It doesn’t help that her mother never told her about the prophecy.

Forewarning: Spoilers for Book 1

 

One of my biggest pet peeves in fiction is Protagonist Centered Morality. As, naturally, an outside observer to any sort of emotional situation in narrative it’s hard for me to fully put myself in one character’s shoes. I’m usually, at least, a semi-objective watcher of the events, and it takes a character that I deeply resonate with to get beyond that.

So, any sort of hint that an author is either not noticing or flatly ignoring their characters’ flaws is guaranteed to sour even the most compelling, well-built novel for me. It won’t necessarily ruin it, but even in things I like it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

This book wouldn’t have been my sort of thing anyway, and I probably would have been able to write it off as just that. If not for that fact that, towards the end of the book Cate, the main character, does something so hypocritical, so counter to the way her narrative has run through the rest of the novel, that it breaks the entire thing for me.

Let me explain.

You’ve probably gotten from the summary that the setup here is fairly puritanical: oppressive patriarchy leads to no rights for women, few, crappy options for the way their lives are going to go, and religious interference in everything. You can marry someone who proposes to you, have a husband chosen for you, or become a nun, and that’s it. If you happen to be a witch, which seems to be an inborn trait here, you’re probably going to end up dead or insane.

So Cate lives in this world where she has very few choices for what her life is going to be, both because of her country’s social rules and because of the secret she’s trying to keep. The Brotherhood will send her to prison if they find out what she is and will force her into a marriage she doesn’t want if they don’t.

The Sisterhood, this world’s nuns, who turn out to actually be witches working under the Brotherhood’s nose, seem at first like a possible avenue for escape. Unfortunately, when it’s revealed that Cate, Maura, and Tess are the subjects of a prophecy foretelling a trio of sisters who could give the witches back political power, the Sisterhood proves just as willing to forcibly control others as their male counterparts.

Cate has only one socially acceptable option that she actually wants, marrying the second of her suitors, Finn, but his financial situation and the Sisterhood’s interference make it unfeasible. So, not unjustifiably, our lead here spends a good chunk of the book complaining about having no say in her own life, so much so that it seems that the need for choice is one of the main themes of the novel.

But.

While Cate is bemoaning her own lack of control, she’s also happily cutting off options from her middle sister, Maura. Maura says she wants to join the Sisterhood, and Cate tells her no. Maura tells Cate she wants to see the world instead of being stuck in a small town, and Cate tells her they need to stick together. Maura states that she’s never going want a husband, and Cate tells her she’ll change her mind. Maura revealing that she’s a lesbian puts Cate off from that one only so much.

Now, I understand that some of this is meant to be protective. Cate rightly thinks the Sisterhood are attempting to bring her sisters under their sway in order to use them. Maura is being slightly foolish here, but she’s also very obviously reacting badly to Cate’s meddling. She accuses Cate of not listening to her several times, and that’s true.

Cate may be trying to do what she thinks is right and keep her sister from a mistake, but that’s not something anyone actually gets to choose for anyone else. Just look at the villains of this book. The Brotherhood is trying to force people to walk a pious path in order to save their souls, and they’ve become tyrannical for it. The Sisterhood is trying to keep our three leads from getting themselves imprisoned for the good of all witches, and by doing this they’re keeping Cate from a life she wants.

Freedom means the freedom to make your own mistakes, and that’s just as true for Maura as it is for Cate.

This situation ends with Cate ejecting the emissary from the Sisterhood, Maura’s friend, potential lover, and chance for a life she wants, out of their house, keeping her sister from deciding for herself. Maura, heartbroken, loses control of her magic and puts all three of them in danger. For the rest of the novel Cate blames Maura fully for this, refusing to even talk to her.

Now, in the book Cate has lost control of her magic several times before, also putting them in danger, but nobody has ever held it against her. And if Cate had handled the situation with Maura with any sort of grace, or even just talked to her sister instead of giving orders, this might not have happened. Instead, she decides she hates her sister, who is very much the manipulated victim in all of this, over something that she herself has done, because of a situation that she helped create, by doing the same thing to Maura the rest of the world has done to her.The only people to ever say anything to her about this are the villains, for entirely the wrong reasons.

Cate is exactly the same thing she’s trying to fight against, and unfortunately the narrative never seems to realize that. Looking up the summaries for the next two, it really seems like the series is never going to realize that.

This might have been mitigated if anything else about the book had been a little more compelling. The characters are mostly one-note, though, with the author actively squandering the few that I found interesting, and the plot is a pretty standard love triangle, complete with obvious answer as to which boy is going to be chosen. Any sort of feminist commentary it makes is so clunky and on the nose as to almost be cliché.

There are some interesting inversions in the worldbuilding; the sisters mention how much they envy Arab women’s freedom, for example, but that’s about it. On most levels this is perfectly generic.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing in genre fiction, and I’m probably being harder on this book than it deserves. If the cognitive dissonance isn’t going to bother you, the novel’s really more passable than anything. For me, though, I feel like that’s all it gave me.

Lost Time by Susan Maupin Schmid

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Violynne’s parents disappeared last year. Employed as archeologists, the two vanished while on the most important dig of their lives, the one that might finally have lead to understanding why planet Lindos’ Croon civilization collapsed so swiftly. Instead they went, as mysteriously as the Croon themselves. There’s something fishy about it though. For one, The Arbiter, Lindos’ absolute ruler has always seemed to have undue interest in Violynne’s family, even if he claims to have no idea what happened her father and mother. Her Aunt Madelyn’s underworld connections seem to have undue interest in Violynne herself. It’s obvious they’re all looking for something, something to do with the dig. When Violynne begins to have visions of the Croon, it becomes clear that what they’re looking for might decide the fate of all of Lindos. What in the world were her parents working on?

One some level, I sort of want to tear this one apart. There’s so much here that needs more development than it was given, and almost all of the main areas I look to when judging a novel feel like they’re missing huge chunks of logic. Instead of trying to fill those logic holes, the author rests on genre assumptions and inference in a way that doesn’t quite work.

The action gets going quickly, to the book’s credit, but beyond that the plotting sort of hangs together by a thread. Our main character shuffles back and forth across her planet, ostensibly to solve a mystery, but there’s not that much mystery to solve. And not that much solving being done, on Violynne’s part. Instead she just kind of falls into situations where information become apparent, with little active seeking or putting together thereof. The quick pacing even becomes a downfall, as instead of a slow build, it forces the author to gracelessly drop chunks of exposition into the action-less parts.

You’d think, at least, the parts where Violynne works as a spy against the totalitarian government of her planet would manage to be tense and exciting, but those still fall a little flat. This is partially because the characters themselves don’t fare any better, development-wise. Aunt Madelyn and Einhart are spy clichés who nonetheless do stupid things so the child protagonist has to stand on her own, Violynne’s parents are basically nonentities, and The Arbiter is a toothless caricature of totalitarianism.

The major alien characters, the Coil and the emissary from the Croon we see are a little more developed, but that’s mostly by virtue of their interactions with Violynne vacillating wildly from help to hindrance.

As for Violynne herself, Schmid obviously wants to write a strong, clever girl, and fails at it. Even the most basic intrigue flies over her head, and she spends a good part of the novel whining about the adults around her not following her orders. Where an actually clever character would have figured out a way to do what she needed to anyway, Violynne complains.

She is brave and willing to stand up to her enemies, and I will give her that. Even in that ability to take risks, though, she manages to do stupid things. At one point she actually hands the Arbiter incriminating evidence against herself, which somehow manages to make him back off. Plot armor, I guess?

The worldbuilding is a little better, at least on the parts that Schmid actually deigned to build. The variety of different species is very creative, and there are some parts of the novel that truly feel like they fell out of a different time and place. The initial sections with the Croon, specifically, have a nice alienness to them. Unfortunately this is at most a third of the book, with the rest substituting funny place names for any build and atmosphere.

All in all, there’s just too much context missing from everything. There’s obviously a history to this world and to the relationships between its different peoples, but we as readers only get the vaguest inklings of it. Each of these different alien groups has its own unique culture, but again, we’re never let in enough. The politics are apparently unimportant, though, because the novel just stops once Violynne finds her parents. Too much is left out everywhere, and it leaves the book feeling completely unresolved.

With the characters as undeveloped as they are there’s really no way to have a resolution, even. We have next to no idea who our two main villains are, or what motivations they’re acting under, aside from a completely bland “desire for power.” We don’t understand what Violynne’s fighting for, because we barely see her parents or her relationship with them. Even our spy characters’ necessarily interesting pasts are neglected in favor of Violynne complaining about being treated like the pre-teen she is. Which is the main problem with the novel: all of this feels like a child’s fantasy of fighting the grown-ups and winning.

That’s also the rub, though. There’s nothing to mark it on the cover or in the publisher’s pages, but something about this feels like a novel written for very young audiences. And that explains away a lot of my issues with it. Violynne’s constant whining about not being taken seriously. The intrigue that makes me feel like anyone with half a brain could get around it. The power fantasy aspect of her childish mind games. The ending, where finding our main character’s parents is apparently more important than freeing the world from a totalitarian government and the remaining power vacuum is barely given a second thought. Even the silly worldbuilding can be explained if the story is geared toward and audience that can’t have read much science fiction.

Which leaves me with a problem. On one hand, I very much didn’t enjoy this book. There’s a good chance I wouldn’t have, even as I child; I always preferred things that didn’t seem like they were talking down to me. But, on the other hand, I can’t in good conscience knock a book for aiming at its target audience.

There are far better children’s books out there. There’s far better children’s sci-fi, for that matter. This if firmly middling either way, but it’s only really bad if you’re coming at it with eyes that know how political thrillers and science fiction are supposed to work. If you’re planning on handing this book out as an introduction to those genres, then I guess I can’t really recommend against it.

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

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In a glass casket, in the middle of the forest, right outside a small town called Fairfold, sleeps a boy. He’s been there for generations, long enough that siblings Hazel and Ben grew up with him. Long enough that their parents did. He’s not so strange, at least for Fairfold; everyone knows that the Folk live there, carousing with the townies and tricking the tourists. He’s enough of a local fixture that most played around him as children and partied around him as teenagers. When they were young Hazel and her brother even used to spend summer afternoons making up stories about him, where he was alternately imprisoned hero and captured demon. What is strange is the day the town wakes up to find the casket smashed and the boy missing. And he’s not the only thing that’s woken up in the forest.

I did warn you guys on the “other favorite YA author” front. Don’t say I didn’t.

I think what I always love most about Holly Black is her talent for spinning gold from straw. She has this amazing ability to go into a story that could be completely brainless fluff and make it work. I’m not entirely sure what it is about her work that does it, but there’s a part of me that’s absolutely knows if anyone else had done a take on this narrative I’d be rolling my eyes at it.

Her stories so often seem to lack any sort of shame: they’re unrepentantly nerdy, fully loaded with teenage drama, and ceaselessly romantic. Beyond that, almost all of them are perfectly classic fairy tales, where the heroes are true and noble, and good defeats evil, and all the deserving get their happy endings.

On a lot of levels, that’s what makes them so charming. It’s that classic feel that allows Black to modernize things without seeming like she’s trying too hard. And I can’t tell you how good it is, in a sea of shy waifs unwittingly forced into bravery and jaded antiheroines refusing to help anyone but themselves, to see girls who actually want to be knights. Black writes the sort of character who runs toward screaming to see if she can help, who wants to save the world, and I appreciate that more than I can say.

I know it wouldn’t work if it weren’t her, though. It would be too simple, too picturesque, with not enough character.

Because there’s always something grounded about Black’s work. You can see it in The Darkest Part of the Forest in all the little details. The wonderful, magical place the characters live not only has a darker side, but is also a tourist trap, complete with graffiti and broken beer bottles. The characters themselves act like actual teenagers. They swear, they drink, they skip out of class when they’ve found something more interesting. They act like douchebags out of sheer insecurity. And they’re still heroic and goodhearted, because even though they naturally push at boundaries like most sixteen-year-olds they’re not farcical wild children.

Even the tragic backstories have a little more grounding than I think a lot of Black’s fellows might give them. These are fairy tales, so sure, you still get the terrifying cursed powers that mark our heroes as special, But that’s always balanced against the sort of banal tragedies that happen to thousands of people everyday, in a completely non-romantic way. There’s nothing tragically beautiful about a pair of children eating scraps off the floor because their parents didn’t have themselves together enough to make dinner, for example.

In all of this, there’s a sort of fundamental understanding of people that I find really rare among writers, and that makes Black’s books, including this one, shine where they could easily come off a trite pap. It’s icing on the cake that The Darkest Part of the Forest is technically good, too.

This is something of a return home for Black, and you can easily tell that for years beautiful, evocative descriptions of the wild fairy court and the strange creatures that live there were her bread and butter. This book has all the creative imagery that Tithe did, but more polished and with less tendency to slip into purple prose.

That descriptive ability from her older books combines with the sort of layering that she’s brought into her newer work, where present reactions combine with past memories and future possibilities to lay the full context of the characters and events bare before you. Together the combination is powerful, and so many sections of the book just hit home. This is a book where I had to stop reading to digest several times.

Add into this a nice, slow build that manages to combine the town’s problems, past and current, our characters’ personal issues, and the breaking point they’re all steadily coming to into a single tense narrative, and you have a gripping plot, to boot.

This slow build also manages to layer more depth into characters that already began as three dimensional personalities, leaving you with a nice feel for both where they came from and where they’re going. Hazel and Ben, as the leads, obviously get the most insight into how their pasts effected their current situation, but even the side-character football players get enough personality to make them people rather than stereotypes. I have to say my favorite is Ben’s friend Jack, though, who as a changeling manages to channel both awkward teenage boy and mysterious fey creature in a way that works together better than it ever should.

If the romances are a little more standard than Black’s love stories typically are, they’re still fun and cute for it. The two main narratives on that front are missing a little bit of the specialness that I usually associate with her couples, but they never annoyed me. And I say this as someone who is typically annoyed by anything that focuses on romance.

Eventually, all of these different aspects converge into a huge, complicated mess of the best kind. The problems of the town’s past mix with family issues, mix with teenage angst, mix with relationship drama, mix with magical politics, and I love every minute of it. Because Black manages to work so many layers into every aspect of the plot and characters there’s a sort of depth here that you don’t see in many YA works. Even if on a surface level they may look the same.

So, yes, go pick it up, whether your thing is good romance, fractured fairy tales, or classic fables. If you love Holly Black already, you probably know what you’re getting into. And if you don’t, you’re in for a treat.