October 31, 2012

Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
Published: 2012, Little, Brown
Genre: Adult Fiction
Source: Personal book
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None of them was Barry. He had been a living example of what they proposed in theory: the advancement, through education, from poverty to affluence, from powerlessness and dependency to valuable contributor to society. Did they not see what hopeless advocates they were, compared to the man who had died?

I can readily admit that if anyone other than J.K. Rowling had written The Casual Vacancy, this is a book I would have never crossed paths with. The Casual Vacancy is all about the mundane, everyday lives of people in an equally unremarkable English village. Usually I like my books to have a greater sense of purpose than Rowling's first piece of adult fiction has. After finishing the book, however, I found that I had greatly enjoyed the reading experience. After all, I do think that the banality of everyday life is a powerful force in uniting people. 

The Casual Vacancy takes place in the small town of Pagford. Although it seems idyllic from a distance, the town is rife with strife. A large portion of the strife is brought to the surface once Barry Fairbrother, a member of Pagford's Parish Council, dies unexpectedly. For at this critical time in Pagford's existence, the citizens of Pagford are debating about whether Pagford should continue to be responsible for the Fields, a low-cost low-housing area filled with mostly undesirable residents, and whether the Bellchapel addiction clinic, whose main clientele is people from the Fields, should remain open due to Pagford's tax dollars.  

Barry himself was a great story of success: he grew up in the Fields, went on to receive good schooling, and ultimately became a bank manager and well-respected leader in Pagford. Unfortunately most of the Fields' residents cannot boast the same claims to fame, and with the main proponent of the responsibility of Pagford to maintain the Fields and Bellchapel gone, there is a undisputed void. Although others try to carry on Barry's legacy, most notably the town's GP Parminder Jawanda and school principal Colin Wall, their fight is fraught with difficulties as those who wish to rid Pagford of the Fields and Bellchapel continue to gain power.

With a large cast of characters, a well-established conflict with clear issues and goals on each side, and a town steeped in history and politics, The Casual Vacancy seems like a daunting read. It did take me a while to become immersed in the characters and all of their individual and intermingled conflicts. But then I found that I did care quite a bit. Over the course of the novel I became invested in the town's fate, as well as the fate of over fifteen characters. This is why I love J.K. Rowling. Although The Casual Vacancy seems to be a story about local politics, the politics are used to instead frame a multifaceted story about the everyday lives of many different people, many whose only commonality is living in the same area.

Based on my experiences reading Harry Potter, I knew that J.K. Rowling's strength lies in characterization. Even in the magic-filled world of Harry Potter, it was J.K. Rowling's characters that captured my attention and my heart. The same holds true for The Casual Vacancy. I was actually a little surprised to find that my favorite character is Barry Fairbrother, especially since he's dead for the majority of the novel. But the way that he is able to positively influence people of so many backgrounds, to affect change in this small town, is amazing. He continues to exert a forceful presence throughout the majority of the novel. None of the other characters can ever measure up to the standards that Barry has set, and, indeed, everyone is an interesting mix in shades of grey. But it was not too difficult for me as a reader to peel back the layers surrounding the characters, to see both the bad and the good qualities of each person. Okay, maybe there were a few characters I really had a difficult time finding any redeeming qualities in, but they were definitely among the minority.

Make no mistake: The Casual Vacancy is very far-removed from the magical world of the Harry Potter series, even if both the series and this book both have phenomenal characterization. The Casual Vacancy is very much an adult book; it's full of many tough subjects and is definitely not appropriate for child readers. At first I admit that I was turned off by the (overly) mature tone of this book. This is J.K. Rowling writing this, I wondered to myself, scandalized, at many early instances in the novel. It does take some adjustment to accept how much Rowling was able to alter her tone for her new intended audience. But I did not feel that anything was gratuitous, or to simply show that Rowling could write for older audiences.

With that being said, however, I still found myself more drawn to the teens of Pagford rather than the adults. Fats' search for authenticity, Sukhvinder's struggle not to be completely subsumed by bullying and harsh parents, Gaia's frustration at being relocated to a small town, Andrew's overwhelming feelings for Gaia, Krystal's determination to make life better for her little brother: these teens were most identifiable and seemed to undergo the strongest characterization. I am much closer in age to the teens than to the adults in the story, however, so this could simply be my perception. I may have to reread the book again years down the road to see how much more relatable the adult characters become.

The tough topics that Rowling chooses to address ensure that there's no truly happy ending here; how can there be, if we as readers are exposed to characters of all different perspectives? Outwardly the beginning and ending seem to mirror each other. Internally, however, we as readers can close the book feeling satisfied that the characters really have evolved, that their lives have in fact changed over the course of the book. Not everything has an easily identifiable answer, or ends on a good note. But then, that's life.

I went into The Casual Vacancy fully expecting to be a little biased. After all, J.K. Rowling has ensured herself a permanent place among my favorite authors ever due to the Harry Potter series. I do think, however, that Rowling has proved her versatility with The Casual Vacancy. It's a slower, more adult read, but stick with it because it's well worth the effort.
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October 30, 2012

Top Ten Favorite Kick-Ass Heroines

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by the bloggers of The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is our lists of favorite kick-ass heroines. This list is me in my element right here. There's nothing that draws me into a book like a tough female protagonist who is willing to fight (with brawn and brains) for her beliefs. I believe that kick-ass is more of a state of mind than simply a display of physicality, so I wanted to feature heroines with both inner and outer strengths.
Alanna the Lioness (The Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce) — Alanna should be topping any list that features kick-ass fantasy heroines. I mean, she masqueraded as a boy because she felt that Tortall's laws that prohibited women from becoming knights were unfair. Alanna is also not a naturally gifted warrior; her books go into detail about how much effort she puts into training and that her status as the King's Champion is the result of hard years of self-sacrifice and work. I love that this bigger-than-life legend is actually a tiny redhead with a fiery temper.

Éowyn (The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien) — Again, I can't resist the girl masquerading as a boy! Éowyn cannot let all those she cares about fight against the armies of Mordor while she sits at home because a little thing like gender makes fighting not allowed. And of course I love how she's able to kill the Witch King. There are other strong female characters in this epic book, but I appreciate how Éowyn's strength is through defying the norm and proving that she's a valuable asset in the battle.  

Katsa (Graceling by Kristin Cashore) — Katsa doesn't want to live life on anyone's terms but her own. Her Grace has given her amazing skills, but for years she's suffered as the king's thug under her cruel uncle's reign. She's a wave of emotions and doesn't quite know what she wants out of her life, but Katsa does have a strong sense of morality and a determination to use her fighting and survival skills to help others instead of hurting them. Katsa is without a doubt one of the strongest and most independent heroines I've ever read.

Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins) — Katniss is an easy choice for this. She is resourceful, determined, and is incredibly talented at using the bow. It doesn't hurt that her strongest motivation in life is to take care of her younger sister and all of those harmed by her dystopian government. Although Katniss could have easily fallen in to the "do whatever it takes to harm the enemy, even if others have to be sacrificed in the process" train that Gale is on, she doesn't. Not only is she a fighter, but she's a fighter with strong morals.  

Hermione Granger (Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling) — Although Hermione is not  kick-ass in the traditional fighting sense (though I'm sure she'd be victorious in any duel), she still is a fierce heroine. She prefers to abide by order and rules but is not above breaking ones she finds to be unjust. And no one can match Hermione in terms of loyalty. Although she may tell Harry in book one that books and cleverness can't rival his bravery, I disagree. It's a different sort of strength, but a strength nonetheless.

Kahlan Amnell & Cara Mason (Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind) — I can't pick just one of these heroines from this series. Kahlan is the freaking Mother Confessor, an elite order of woman that has the power to determine the truth through a single touch. Cara Mason is a Mord'Sith, another solely-female order that is able to manipulate and negate the magic of others and also has the ability to mix pleasure and pain upon its victims. They both have radically different views of justice, yet are protective of those they love and are proven warriors.

The Queen of Attolia (The Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner) — My love for Irene Attolia is hard to explain since I don't want to give away any spoilers for the series. Suffice it to say that while she doesn't wield a weapon, she's easily one of the strongest heroines I've ever read about. She is fully adept at playing games of politics, able to manipulate those who would threaten her kingdom through her looks, her words, and her charms. She is resolute and relentless, always doing what is best for her country, regardless of her personal desires.

Sansa & Arya Stark (A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin) — Once again, I refuse to limit myself by picking only one character from a series. Arya is clearly the stereotypical "kick-ass" female who learns how to wield a sword and defies gender conventions, but Sansa should not be so easily dismissed. Sansa haters baffle me, because I think Sansa is one of the strongest characters. Sure, she's not physically strong and her defiances work within the system, but subtlety should never be underrated. 

Meliara Astiar (Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith) — Oh Mel! Mel is a heroine who has to learn how to become a heroine. She's more than willing to fight against a corrupt kingdom but quickly realizes she understands absolutely nothing about battles, fighting, or intrigue. But she's willing to learn whatever it takes to protect her family's lands. The two books show Mel's progression from a young girl with lots of ideals but without a clue in how to bring them about to someone able to hold her own at court and face down the most dangerous enemy.

Lyra Belacqua (His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman) — Lyra is without a doubt the fiercest literary child-turning-teenager I've ever had the pleasure to read. She's scrappy, crude, and coarse, yet she is one of the most loyal protagonists ever. Again and again she follows her heart and shows that she's willing to do whatever it takes to protect those that she loves. And her friends (a shape shifting-daemon, a boy with a knife that cuts windows into other worlds, sentient polar bears, witches) help make her that much more kick-ass.

These are some of my favorite kick-ass literary heroines, so now let me know some of yours!
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October 25, 2012

Review: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
Published: 2009, Viking
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Library book
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We held hands when we walked down the gingerbread path into the forest, blood dripping from our fingers. We danced with witches and kissed monsters. We turned us into wintergirls, and when she tried to leave, I pulled her back into the snow because I was afraid to be alone.

Wow. I'm at a loss to describe the intense emotional impact I underwent while reading and listening to Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls. The YA bookgroup that I am a part of decided to focus October's discussion on issue books, with the main focus on a reading of Wintergirls. In terms of issue books, Wintergirls was a fantastic choice. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the meeting once again (some day I will get there!), but I still enjoyed reading it and am glad that if I can't discuss it in person, then at least I can record my thoughts of it on here.

Lia and Cassie have been next-door neighbors for years. They had sleepovers every weekend, spent summers and warm afternoons in a tree house together, and at twelve years old they made a pact to be the skinniest girls. After Lia found herself committed to an institute for those dealing with eating disorder for the second time the summer before their senior year, however, she and Cassie lost touch. Cassie did not return any of Lia's phone calls, so when Cassie tried calling Lia thirty-three times one night a few days after Thanksgiving, Lia did not answer her phone. And then Lia found out that Cassie died that night.

Through her death Cassie found a release from the cycle of bulimia that had afflicted her for years. But Lia's struggles continue to get even worse. As each weight goal is reached, Lia sets a new one for herself. She exercises, eats the smallest amount possible to get by, and watches her weight get lower and lower. Lia doesn't know what exactly caused Cassie's death, but now she's haunted by visions of Cassie, in addition to her internal demons. Lia's struggle to return to normality begins before Cassie's death, but it is Cassie's death that forces all of Lia's internal and external struggles to come to a head.

First off I need to say that I've been fortunate in that I myself never had any eating disorder problems as a teen, nor did any of my friends. That being said, I wondered how difficult it would be to really emphasize with either Lia or Cassie's characters. Since Cassie's character is revealed completely through Lia's perspective both in flashbacks and hallucinations/visions, I struggled a bit more with her characterizations. Lia, however, is such a solidly-written and relatable character.

In Lia Anderson has created a protagonist unable to be ignored. I really enjoyed how fully-fleshed Lia's struggles were, and how her internal issues have external consequences and vice versa. On the one hand, Lia has been extremely conscious about her weight in one way or another for over five years. By the time the book starts, her extreme consciousness has devolved into an anorexia she cannot fight. Cassie acted as a support system in Lia's goals, so perhaps that's one reason that Cassie continues to haunt Lia. After all, by this point many external factors are attempting to help Lia break away from this path. Her parents, for one, and her psychiatrist. Lia also wants to be a good example for her little stepsister, but even that desire is not enough to supersede her desire to be the thinnest. Lia has already been hospitalized twice. I'm not sure if Anderson is truly trying to critique the practices we currently have in place for dealing with emotional and eating disorders, or rather if she's just trying to demonstrate how complex the issues really are. As the story continues, what has already been blatantly obvious to the reader starts to become apparent to Lia herself: her weight desires can never be anything but opposed to every other desire in her life.

Told through Lia's perspective, Wintergirls offers a glimpse of unreliable narration at its best. As a reader I honestly had some trouble determining what was real, what was in Lia's head, and what was a little bit of both. All the events and feelings get jumbled together in the mind of an emotionally disturbed girl. I'll admit that I have a longstanding adoration for unreliable narration which probably can be traced back to my first read of Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief. I love how unreliable narration forces the reader to become more involved in the story as he or she must work to piece events together. And Lia's use of flowery language just made sense within the context of the book. If I could have just listened to the descriptions without trying to figure out what they were referring to, that would have been perfect.

Raw and emotionally wrenching, Wintergirls was an incredibly difficult read for me. It's not something I can ever imagine re-reading. But, really, I don't think that I'd want a book with this subject matter to be written any other way. It is an important and thought-provoking read that I think should be required reading for teen girls and those past that age who may need help remembering how difficult the teenage years can be.

Additional note: I listened to the first half of the book via audio CDs and read the second. I hadn't listened to an audiobook yet and, with a long drive over the weekend, I felt that this would be a perfect time to give it a try. But then I got impatient and I ended up reading the second half of the book since I knew it would be faster. And I'm glad I did so, because Wintergirls is a book full of experimental formatting which I would have completely missed if I only listened to the audiobook. I'm not opposed to trying an audiobook again, although I need something that is more traditionally written. And also something that is fairly straightforward. I worry that as a reader I'll lose a lot by simply listening and being unable to see the text. I'd appreciate any suggestions of books that work really well in the audiobook format!
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October 23, 2012

Top Ten Books to Get in the Halloween Spirit

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by the bloggers of The Broke and the Bookish. This week's top is ten books to get in the Halloween spirit. Now, I love Halloween. I love the idea of a day where you get to dress up like (and become) someone else. I find the history behind the holiday fascinating. As for the horror element of the holiday...not such a fan. I don't do scary very well. So since I haven't read any horror novels, I instead picked lots of Gothic and romantic-era books that are still evocative of the dark and creepy mood we associate with Halloween.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie And Then There Were None is Christie's most enduring work and possibly the best murder mystery story ever. And, since Ten by Gretchen McNeil seems to be a YA take on Christie's novel, I think it's important to recognize this original murder-mystery literary masterpiece. This was my first Christie book but by no means my last. There's tons of suspense, murder, and an incredibly clever twist.
Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice Anne Rice is the one responsible for reintroducing the vampire to our modern culture. A lot of the aspects we take for granted in vampire lore were popularized (if not created) by Rice. Even if you're in love with the sparkly vampires prevalent in today's culture, I think it's important to look back and see a prime example of a time when vampires were terrifying monsters, immortal killers, and dangerously charismatic.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley The "Frankenstein" costume is a perennial Halloween costume (English major critique: Although it should actually be called "Frankenstein's monster." Frankenstein is the name of the scientist who creates this being, not the being itself.). But seriously, Shelley's work has got all the elements for a perfect Halloween read: the dark and cold weather, the crazy scientist, the monstrous creation. Plus it's an enduring classic of nineteenth-century British literature. 

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier I absolutely adore this book! Rebecca is the story of a young, unnamed protagonist who has recently married a wealthy, older man. As she tries to fit in to her new life, all around her she keeps hearing about her husband's previous wife, Rebecca. Rebecca's presence is pretty much a constant factor throughout the book. This is definitely a haunting book as the memories of Rebecca literally haunt our protagonist.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte Now before you dismiss this choice as irrelevant, let me explain. The infamous red room scene? The idea of the crazy woman in the attic? Mysterious fire? Bronte's most famous story about the relationship between a young governess and her mysteriously reclusive employer is not simply a love story. Much like her sister Emily's Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre is a very atmospheric tale with a creepy mood spread throughout.

The Hounds of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle Once again, here the author utilizes the idea of the moors and bleak countryside to create a tale full of perils. The hounds mentioned in the title are like ghosts, glowing a faint green and haunting the lands at night. And of course it wouldn't be a classic Sherlock Holmes story with a murder or two. 

Anything by Edgar Allan Poe I'm rather partial to some of his short stories like "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "The Cask of Amontillado." Poe's stories are classic horror fare, and his short stories are all quick reads. For many of his stories, I went in expecting darkness and despair and yet still found myself surprised by how dark they become.

The Italian by Ann Radcliffe At first glance, Radcliffe's famous work could easily be taken simply as a Gothic romance. But add in a murderous monk, the Holy Inquisition, and sinister and mysterious surroundings and you've got the makings of a dark tale.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman The monsters and beings that Coraline faces in her alternate-reality home should definitely be part of any Halloween celebration. Going into a home like yours but with subtle differences that gradually become more pronounced sounds so creepy. And the people have buttons for eyes! Ick! The version that I read even had illustrations to help readers get better visuals.

Unwind by Neal Shusterman I am not a fan of Unwind by any means, but I picked this novel mainly because it's been a very long time since I've read something that's creeped me out so much I was unable to sleep that night (the last book I remember creeping me out to this degree is actually Frankenstein). It is a book that really examines the boundaries of life and death and what it truly means to be alive, so since death is a common theme of Halloween I think this is fitting.

What books get you in the Halloween spirit?
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October 22, 2012

Recommend A... Book That Kept Me Up All Night

Recommend A...is a new weekly feature hosted by Chick Loves Lit, where bloggers recommend a book based on a specific prompt.
This week's prompt is to recommend a book that kept me up all night. Now, I'm actually very good at not staying up all night reading. Working and having real-world responsibilities will do that to you. However, the last book that I actually did read into the late hours of the night and then stayed awake thinking about the story and it's implications was:

Unwind by Neal Schusterman
Unwind trilogy, #1

My recommendation for this book is not quite a positive one. On a weekend night I was starting to get close to the end and SO MUCH was happening that I realized I couldn't possibly put it down. And then that one scene happened. Sleep after that was impossible. I still feel disturbed just thinking about that scene. Anyone who has read the book should understand exactly what I'm referring to.

I appreciated the fact that Unwind does ask some huge moral questions. The book's premise is that the conflicting views on abortion caused a war, and the war's resolution was that pregnant women can no longer abort unwanted children, however they can choose to retroactively "abort" their children as teenagers. This is declared legal because those teens who are "aborted" or unwound have all their body parts still alive and in use...just in other peoples' bodies. The story itself follows three teens who have been sentenced to unwinding but for various reasons are resistant to their fates. Sounds creepy, right? And disturbing and horrifying and I honestly have no idea why I thought it would be a good idea to read this book. It was a really thought-provoking book, of course, but I just don't think it was worth the emotional trauma that I endured from the experience of reading it.

Please tell me I'm not the only one who feels scarred from reading this book. It's not that I am firmly against reading late into the night (on weekend nights), but I'd prefer that it be for something that I really enjoy. And preferably full of butterflies and rainbows and glitter. That sort of thing. Link me up to the books that have kept you up at night (for good reasons)!
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October 20, 2012

Announcing Project: Fairy Tale

I just wanted to share a fun and exciting new blog event that I'll be participating in, Project: Fairy Tale. Alison of The Cheap Reader is the creator behind Project: Fairy Tale, a month of fairy-tale related revels which will occur in February or March of 2013.

Each participant selects a fairy tale (or folktale) as the focus for his/her own blog. At the bare minimum, participants will read and post information about the original tale as well as three reviews of retellings of the tale. Of course, this is the bare minimum and participants have the potential to do a lot more with their selected tale over the course of the Project: Fairy Tale month. I'll definitely be posting more than the minimum here. This sounds like a great opportunity to become more familiar with many different fairy tales, as well as some MG/YA retellings. Whether we're aware of them or not, fairy/folktales continue to resonate within our lives in so many ways.

I adore fairy tales and fairy tale retellings. My honors English thesis was an examination of the origins of the original "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale and how the story was retold over the years. Best research paper ever. Seriously. If anyone ever wants "Beauty and the Beast" retelling recommendations or just someone to talk to about the tale, let me know! Before I started Late Nights with Good Books I actually started a blog that focused exclusively on fairy tales and their retellings. That blog died out when I started this blog, so I'd love to have the opportunity to examine fairy tales here.

Because I've been interested in fairy tales for a while now, I wanted to use this event to give myself the opportunity to learn more about a tale with which I'm not as familiar. I decided on the Scottish ballad Tam Lin. I actually have read a few Tam Lin retellings over the years (Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Perilous Gard, and Delia Sherman's short story "Cotillion"), however those were all years ago and I realized I don't really know anything about the original ballad. And from the very basic research I've already performed, it looks like there are tons of retellings out there, some from authors like Diana Wynne Jones and Holly Black. If you have any retelling suggestions, let me know! I can't wait to get started reading all things Tam Lin!

The event sign-up list is still open, so if you're interested head over here. A lot of the most well-known fairy tales and folktales have already been taken, but there really is an infinite amount of possibilities. If you're interested but not too familiar with many tales, let me know because I have tons of suggestions.
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October 19, 2012

Review: Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Published: 2012, Dial Books
Series: Graceling Realm, #3
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Library book
Contains spoilers for Graceling and Fire
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Bitterblue also had a taste for difficult—impossible—slow—messy work. She would figure out how to be queen, slowly, messily. She could reshape what it meant to be queen, and reshaping what it meant to be queen would reshape the kingdom.

After reading and loving Graceling and Fire, I was excited to read Kristin Cashore's most recent Graceling Realm novel. And, surprisingly for me, I hadn't read many reviews and therefore I was able to read Bitterblue with few to none expectations.

It has been nearly ten years since Leck's thirty-five year reign of terror over Monsea has ended. After blanket pardons were issued to those involved in Leck's atrocities and King Ror has helped establish his young niece's ascendancy to the throne, things seem to be returning to a semblance of normalcy. Bitterblue spends most of her days surrounded by her advisers, completing paperwork and being involved in other mundane tasks. One night, however, Bitterblue feels compelled to leave her castle and spend a few hours in the city to get a better understanding of her kingdom. She finds special taverns where bards tell stories of people and events, including tales of Leck's rule. She learns that in her city close to eighty percent of the population is illiterate. She "befriends" two city thieves, who she finds are stealing the palace's gargoyles, among other things, as remuneration for the things that Leck stole from his people over the years. Bitterblue realizes just how naive and ill-prepared she is to be queen of Monsea. What starts as a few questions listed on a journal page quickly escalates into a complex web of (mis)information and questions surrounding Monsea's murky past. Bitterblue struggles to figure out the truth, knowing that she and Monsea will be unable to progress until the past is laid open and accepted.

In Graceling I really liked the characterization of Bitterblue as a perceptive young girl who has endured so much. In Bitterblue, our new protagonist has matured into a resolute young queen with a strong sense of morality. Bitterblue allows Cashore to examine even more aspects of life in the Seven Realms and surrounding lands. In Graceling, the focus is on Katsa, a Graceling, and her efforts to undermine corrupt power systems. In Fire, Fire struggles with her own mix of human and monster traits, and also with the limits of her abilities in relation to the needs of her country. In Bitterblue, Bitterblue's struggle is fundamentally more human. She's trying to learn how to be a good queen to a country that has undergone so much pain and terror. I just loved how Bitterblue's struggle is essentially one that is aided and hindered by her humanity in the midst of this world with fantastical powers and beings. There are similarities present in Bitterblue's struggle against her father's legacy as compared to Fire's, but the ultimate message is a very different one. Bitterblue never worries that she'll become her father and her struggles are more rooted in helping her people recover, her own sense of resolution very much tied to those she rules.

Although I hesitate to call this a sequel to Graceling (I consider this to be another companion novel), one aspect of Bitterblue that I really enjoyed is that the events and characters are not isolated from Cashore's previous works. Bitterblue herself is introduced as an important secondary character in Graceling, although here it is she whose journey and personal growth becomes privileged. I really liked being able to see different characters through Bitterblue's perspective. Leck is just as evil, and Ashen's character is brought to life a little bit through Bitterblue. I was so happy to have a new chance to read about so many great characters, from Katsa and Po to Raffin and Bann and Giddon and Skye. I ended up really liking Giddon's character and the relationship he develops with Bitterblue, which at first was a little surprising since I didn't like him quite as much in Graceling (this is an instance where the changing POV really helps me better contextualize the world and characters within it). Although I loved reading about Katsa and Po, I felt that their relationship was portrayed a little more differently than I would have expected — almost like their relationship became based on sexuality rather than an internal connection. Instead of Bitterblue always noticing them wrestling and having extended make-out sessions, it would have been nice for her to notice more subtle aspects of their relationship as well.

I mentioned this in my review of Fire and I'll mention it again here. Leck's character actually forms a running continuum between all three novels, which I thought was awesome. Instead of getting a really in-depth portrayal of the evil king Leck upfront, Cashore instead parcels out bits of information in each book, eventually giving us a much fuller characterization than would have been possible in one book. I really can't say that I felt sympathy to his character after any of the three books, but each new bit of characterization added to my fear and fascination of him.

Despite the many positive aspects of the book, there were a number of things that I wish had been addressed or better done. The plot deals with hidden conspiracies, yet at times the story dragged a bit. I think that Cashore added in so many smaller threads that at times it made reading the story a little unwieldy. And even the romance between Bitterblue and Saf suffered from too many storylines. (Not that I'm truly complaining about that. Of the major romances in Cashore's three books, this felt the most forced and least realistic to me). More than anything, I wished for some catalyst to explain why events happened when they did in the book. In my interpretation, Bitterblue randomly decided one day to go explore her city and then started asking questions. But she'd already been queen for almost ten years before the events of the book took place. Am I really to believe she allowed herself to be naively kept in her castle tower for ten years, knowing all that she did about Leck's capabilities, before acting on even the tiniest of her questions? And that characters like Katsa and Po and Ror would allow Bitterblue to act this way? I needed more of an explanation than that. The disjointed story threads and my overall sense that the events in Bitterblue just occurred, without any true catalyst, did make Bitterblue a more frustrating read for me.

While I hate making comparisons between books in a series, sometimes they are unavoidable. I agree with all the reviewers who think that Bitterblue is the weakest of the Graceling Realm books. It isn't as powerful, didn't affect me quite as much as the others. Is it then a terrible book? No. It still possesses strong writing, solid characterization, and brings up important questions. Ultimately I think that the story Bitterblue tells is one that needed to be told and I hope that at some point Cashore is willing to revisit this wonderful, magical fantasy world.
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October 17, 2012

Waiting on Venom by Fiona Paul

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Breaking the Spine that spotlights any upcoming releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.

Release date: October 30, 2012
Cassandra Caravello is one of Renaissance Venice’s lucky elite: with elegant gowns, sparkling jewels, her own lady’s maid, and a wealthy fiancé, she has everything a girl could desire. Yet ever since her parents’ death, Cassandra has felt trapped, alone in a city of water, where the dark and labyrinthine canals whisper of escape.

When Cass stumbles upon a murdered woman—practically in her own backyard—she’s drawn into a dangerous world of courtesans, killers, and secret societies. Soon, she finds herself falling for Falco, a mysterious artist with a mischievous grin... and a spectacular skill for trouble. Can Cassandra find the murderer, before he finds her? And will she stay true to her fiancé, or succumb to her uncontrollable feelings for Falco?

Beauty, love, romance, and mystery weave together in a stunning novel that’s as seductive and surprising as the city of Venice itself.

This sounds absolutely fantastic! I'm all for a story taking place in Renaissance Venice, and I love the fact that this seems to blend so many different genres together.  I am not too psyched to read that there's a love triangle, however, but I guess I'll just hope that it's well-done and doesn't make me want to kick something. Because everything else in the synopsis sounds so promising.

What are you waiting on?

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October 15, 2012

Recommend A(n)... Author Similar to An Author I Love

Recommend A...is a new weekly feature hosted by Chick Loves Lit, where bloggers recommend a book based on a specific prompt.
This week's prompt is to recommend an author similiar to an author you love. I love Tamora Pierce. Her books are some of my staple rereads whenever I want a YA fantasy with a strong fighting heroine and a swoon-worthy romance. An author I'd recommend to those who love the works of Tamora Pierce is...

Sherwood Smith
Goodreads · Website · Blog

Now, to be fair, I've only read a few of her works. When I recommend her as a similar author to Tamora Pierce, I am mainly referring to Smith's novel Crown Duel (or duology Crown Duel and Court Duel, depending on how they're packaged). I've heard that her other novels don't quite reach up to the high standards of this one, but I'm not sure whether I believe that. I just need to find some time to read some of her other books.

Young Countess Meliara swears to her dying father that she and her brother will defend their people from the growing greed of the king. That promise leads them into a war for which they are ill-prepared, which threatens the very people they are trying to protect. But war is simple compared to what follows, in peacetime. Meliara is summoned to live at the royal palace, where friends and enemies look alike, and intrigue fills the dance halls and the drawing rooms. If she is to survive, Meliara must learn a whole new way of fighting-with wits and words and secret alliances.

In war, at least, she knew in whom she could trust. Now she can trust no one.
Mel is the best kind of herione a heroine who has to learn how to become a heroine. She's prickly, has a quick temper, and has always been super relatable to me. She does have some similarities to Tamora Pierce's Alanna, but, unlike Alanna, Mel is a normal human and cannot rely on gods or magic to help her kingdom. She starts off as the most woefully unprepared savior ever. Mel's introduction to war/tactics, as well as her introduction to court life, can be considered a comedy of errors. But what makes Mel an admirable heroine is that she is willing to endure pain and humiliation in order to stick up for her beliefs. And the relationship she gradually forms is so wonderful. It's a Pride and Prejudice-esque relationship, and those are always my favorite kind of relationship to read about. I have never been able to look at white roses or think of love letters in the same way since reading Crown Duel. My boyfriend needs to read about this relationship so that he can take notes (Kidding! Sort of). Along with Pierce's Alanna, Daine, and Kel, Smith's Mel is totally a comfort heroine of mine one of those heroines whose stories I continue to return to constantly, just to experience her life with her.

Do you love Tamora Pierce and have you read Crown Duel? What other authors have works reminiscient of Pierce's? And be sure to let me know what your similar author picks are!
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October 12, 2012

Review: Fire by Kristin Cashore

Fire by Kristin Cashore
Published: 2009, Firebird
Series: Graceling Realm, #2
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Personal book
Contains spoilers for Graceling.

Not all sons were like their fathers. A son chose the man he would be.

Not all daughters were like their fathers. A daughter monster chose the monster she would be. 

I didn't think it was possible for Kristin Cashore to create a companion novel in the world of Graceling that I'd love just as much as Graceling. I didn't think it was possible for me to love a new female protagonist just as much as I love Katsa. And then I met Fire and became immersed in a story about the political and societal intrigues of her world beyond the mountains.

Close to forty years before we met Katsa, Po, and Bitterblue in the Seven Kingdoms, readers are introduced to the lands of the Dells and Pikkia, across the mountain ranges east of the Seven Kingdoms. The Dells is the home of normal humans and animals as well as those with brightly colored fur and hair, referred to as monsters. As a human monster, Fire has hair the color of fire, unbelievable beauty, and the ability to read and influence peoples' minds. As the daughter of the human monster Cansrel, who controlled the old king Nax and caused so many conflicts within the Dells, Fire isolates herself by spending most of her time in a northern house far away from the public and any hint of politics.

As young king Nash's hold on his kingdom becomes more perilous as two other lords rebel against the crown, Fire and her neighbors find themselves encountering incredibly skilled archers whose minds are mysteriously clouded over. Fire is summoned to court to assist the king and his siblings, children of the king that Fire's father manipulated so well. There she has to decide whether a loyalty to protect and serve her country can trump her reluctance her monster powers, for fear of becoming exactly like her infamous father.

I'll refrain from Graceling comparisons as much as possible here. Fire is simply not another Katsa. In many ways, I found Fire to be even more realistic and relatable. She's spent most of her life feeling guilty for everything her father did to the Dells, and worried that by embracing her own monster powers she'll become just like him. She's a subtler type of heroine, and, though I adore my fighting female protagonists, I find heroines like Fire easier to identify with. Fire can wield a bow, but she's much more at ease playing her fiddle. She must guard herself against fellow humans who fall deep under the power of her beauty, while also guarding her back against all animal monsters, driven to attack human monsters. Truly life has not been easy for Fire, and the challenges only continue when she travels to the capital city. I loved reading about Fire's internal struggles, from the guilt and fear associated with her father to questioning her worth to her struggle to find herself. Fire's past understandably has given her a reluctance to open up to others, but it's an issue that she works with and seeks to amend as the novel progresses.

And of course Cashore has created another wonderful romance in Fire. Realistic, complicated, and oh so rewarding for both the lovers and the readers. At first I was worried that a love triangle was being established, but fortunately that was not the case. The romance actually functions as a smaller example of Fire's personal evolution over the course of the novel. She's first involved with her childhood friend Archer, who represents stability and also her reluctance to branch out and mature and fully embrace who she is. As with her eventual acceptance of herself, the second romance with Brigan is not easy on Fire. But it develops as she starts to accept herself and do things that she wants to do, instead of solely what she thinks others want her to do. While her first lover is still present in later parts of the novel, Fire herself has made it clear that she suffers from no conflicting feelings and there is no love triangle here.

I really enjoyed learning about Leck's history. Although he is the main antagonist in Graceling, I felt like the characterization of him is pretty biased and pretty limited. It makes complete sense within the context of Graceling to have such a distance between his characterization and the story itself. It was, however, a bit exciting and terrifying and sad and even thought-provoking to learn a little more about his childhood and be able to extrapolate some reasons as to why Leck grew up to become the evil king of Monsea. Leck's back story is not a central part of Fire, but it does provide a nice way to connect the two novels.

One thing I've come to appreciate in the two books I've now read by Kristin Cashore is how Cashore is not afraid to let her heroines and heroes suffer. They find themselves in dangerous situation after dangerous situation, and they do not emerge from them all unscathed. I think I've become so accustomed to protagonists in epic fantasies undergoing so many ordeals only to emerge with no physical trauma and perhaps only a bit of psychological damage. That's not the case in Cashore's works. Her leading characters must accept real consequences of their decisions and actions. Although I don't necessarily like seeing favorite characters suffer, it does make their stories that much more realistic to me.

It was really refreshing reading another book that takes place in the same world as Katsa, but that makes only the slightest reference to Graceling. By doing so, Cashore is able to explore another fully-functioning microcosm of this world. Cashore's worldbuilding is superb, and I loved how through the outwardly political conflicts of Fire, Cashore is also able to examine certain cultural and societal issues. I loved the story that Cashore created in Graceling and after seeing it matched (or even surpassed) through Fire, I am so happy to have found a new YA fantasy author to be respected.
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October 9, 2012

Rewind! (Top Ten Fictional Crushes)

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by the bloggers of The Broke and the Bookish. This is a rewind week, meaning that I could pick any past Top Ten Tuesday topic. For this week I chose to reveal my top ten fictional crushes and I convinced Courtney of Courtney Reads A Lot to do the same topic, so check out hers as well! This could turn into a very long, very embarrassing list, so luckily I need to limit myself to ten choices. My ten choices are also characters I was introduced to years ago and thus gave me quite a bit of time to substantially crush on them.

Eugenides (The Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner) — I think the livejournal group that I joined years ago aptly describes my relationship here: Eugenides stole my heart. Literally. I went into The Thief from the perspective of this seemingly crude, immature petty criminal. But as with basically everyone else in his story, I've drastically amended my prior thoughts. He's one of the cleverest, most realistic characters I've ever read about and will always be my main fictional crush. 

Harry Potter (Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling) — How can you read the Harry Potter series and not fall in love with Harry's character? He's not perfect, but he is brave and idealistic and accepts the responsibility he has to save the world. And being able to read about Harry's transformation from an uncertain young boy to a man of strong principles doesn't hurt.

Prince Charmont (Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine) — Like Ella, I found myself really falling for Char through his letters as he spent many months in the Ayothorian court. As his name and traditional Cinderella role implies, he is charming. But Char is so much more than that: he's trusthworthy, caring, quick to laugh, and always seeking whatever is best for those he loves and his future kingdom.

Jesse de Silva (The Mediator series by Meg Cabot) — I haven't read very many of Meg Cabot's book (for shame, I know), but I absolutely loved her Mediator series, mostly because of Jesse. It doesn't matter that Jesse is a ghost. He's protective and caring and sexy and Hispanic. I also can no longer hear the word querida and not think of him.

Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen) — Who doesn't have a crush on Mr. Darcy? I have this thing where I really enjoy peeling back the layers of a character who seems like an utter jerk at first but who actually turns out to harbor more sympathetic tendencies. Mr. Darcy has been raised with certain societal beliefs, but he is willing to abandon those for the woman he loves. And it didn't hurt that in my favorite film version he's played by Colin Firth.

Gabriel (Archangel by Sharon Shinn) — I think that his extremely attractive angel body and the knowledge that he is to be the next archangel have given Gabriel a sense of entitlement. He's arrogant, yet he literally believes that whatever he wants to do is best for everyone. He is also fiercely loyal and protective and has the best male singing voice in all of Samaria. I would love the opportunity to test my will against his. Or just to be in presence at all.

Silk (The Belgariad series by David Eddings) — In a lot of ways, Silk is very similar to Eugenides. He prefers to keep his true identity hidden and provides the best one-liners and sarcasm throughout the series. He definitely has all the best speaking parts and is skilled in espionage. And what can I say? I have such a weakness for guys who use lots of wordplay.

Nealan of Queenscove (Protector of the Small quartet by Tamora Pierce) — Tamora Pierce has created so many lovable male love interests; there are a few men I can name from each of her Tortall series that I really liked. Neal will always be my favorite, however. I love his penchant for the dramatics and his wry sense of humor. And I sympathized with Neal's struggle between becoming a knight to defend people and becoming a healer to save people. Beneath his sometimes apathetic veneer he really cares about others.

Fan-fiction Draco Malfoy (various Harry Potter fan-fictions) — Obviously I need to clarify this here. What J.K. Rowling has written for Draco Malfoy is not enough to justify a fictional crush. Even with the hints of Draco's struggle in The Half-Blood Prince. I did, however, form a big crush on the Draco Malfoy most commonly portrayed in fan fiction — the bad boy who is cocky and insecure but good looking and not entirely evil. A la Cassie Clare's works and others. I know I can't be the only one here.

Artemis Fowl (Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer) — And so my love of misunderstood evil characters continues. Artemis Fowl is all about knowledge and power and I've always been drawn to characters like that. He's a teenage genius. Sometimes caring about the good guy gets to be a bit much, but glimpses Artemis' humanity from plans less than perfectly executed really drew me to him. At least for the first few books I read, back when I was a tween.

Now that I've shared mine, let me know who some of your bigger fictional crushes are/were!
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