Monthly Archives: December 2014

30) Illusions of Fate

By: Kiersten White

Date Finished: 12.27.14

by Kiersten White

“I saved my own life. You are simply keeping me company on this leg of my escape.”

Jessamin left her home in search of a better education. As a dark-skinned islander, Jessa is hated by her professors and her peers, but she overrides their derision with hard work. A chance encounter a young lord sends Jessa headlong into a dangerous world of politics and magic. She doesn’t have the resources compete on their level, but she has her wit and she’s never been one to resign herself to fate.

Can I just say this was the perfect book to wrap up the year? I read it in a single day because it was just so delectable. When I finished, I very nearly started it over. This is not a common impulse — I understood why my sister read Dangerous twice in a row and would have been happy to do so as well, but the feeling was much stronger with this one. Many of the early scenes will have a very different color on the next read, and I can hardly contain myself until I see just how significant those seemingly benign encounters are.

There is so much to love about the characters. Jessa is at every disadvantage — she’s a young woman, a despised foreigner, nearly impoverished, and cannot perform magic no matter how much she studies it — and yet she insists on holding her own against those far more powerful than her. Despite being fiercely independent, Jessa cares deeply about her friends and will do anything to protect them. She is complex, delightful, and definitely someone you want to root for. The wealthy Finn certainly redeems the corruption within the upper classes with his pure goodness. He has his moments of arrogance (although many of these are good intentions misinterpreted by our dear narrator, Jessa) but he unequivocally uses his power for good and not evil. He’s smart, kind, awkward, and a little bit cheeky. So basically, he complements Jessa perfectly.

And then there’s Eleanor. Truly, she is one of the most enjoyable characters to grace the printed page. She’s a shameless gossip, apparent airhead, and absolute mastermind. I liked her instantly (I briefly worried that she would play just a passing role in the story; White did not disappoint, thankfully) but even I didn’t realize how brilliant she was until late in the book. Every sentence pertaining to Eleanor made me love her more. Now for the bad guy: he is utterly vicious. White doesn’t shy away from putting her lead in mortal peril, and it pays off so well. The stakes are high from the beginning, and while Jessa’s victory is relatively simple, it is hard-earned.

Much of this book is reminiscent of Howl’s Moving Castle  — sometimes in very obvious ways — but White works her own magic using these familiar elements. While this story is distinct in many ways, like Howl’s Moving Castle I can recommend it as representative of my tastes. I can recommend it as nothing short of sheer brilliance. The only thing I don’t suggest is reading this book right before you visit a place heavily populated with ravens. Freaky.

At the end of the day: Really, really, really for me

29) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

By: Mark Haddon

Re-read Finished: 12.18.14

by Mark Haddon

Someone has killed the neighbor’s dog, and Christopher Boone has decided to solve the mystery. He writes down what he learns as a book, but the search for Wellington’s killer leads Christopher to uncover dark secrets within his own family.

The word is never used in the book, but it is clear that Christopher is autistic. As the narrator of the story, Christopher’s worldview is not the least bit extraordinary to him. He understands that others see the world differently than him, but he is his own normal. And that is why the book works so well: it is told with the utmost sincerity.

I first read this for an English class my senior year in college. Many of the other students were thrown off by the unconventional storytelling such as the chapters being numbered with prime numbers and numerous vignettes that seemed like digressions instead of linear plot. I was delighted by these idiosyncrasies (and still am). Ultimately, all the pieces fit together and not a single sentence was out of place. Christopher explains why the chapters follow the sequence of prime numbers rather than numerals, and it’s brilliant. It makes every detail of the book, even the commonplace elements, an extension of Christopher’s character. Once you embrace the quirks of the story, it will take no effort at all to slip into Christopher’s mind, and only after you step back to consider the book as a whole will you see Haddon’s hand.

28) The Hero and the Crown

By: Robin McKinley

Re-read Finished: 12.02.14

by Robin McKinley

She was wry and funny even when she could barely speak,
and loved best 
to find things to be enthusiastic about.

Aerin is the daughter of the king, yet she feels like an outsider in the land she loves. Her isolation is perpetuated by the rumor that her mother was a witchwoman from the land of demons, and Aerin’s own insufficiency in wielding the magic all royals possess. When Aerin discovers a recipe for a fire-repelling salve called kenet, she decides to take her future into her own hands by fighting dragons. This is not an honorable occupation for the daughter of a king — even a daughter of dubious origins — but with demon-induced trouble stirring, Aerin is exactly the hero her country needs.

I’ve mentioned this book several times, and now it finally gets a post of its own. This time through, I read it slowly and analytically, looking for just why I love it so much.

Here is my conclusion: this book is magic.

I can’t quite put it into words, but I do understand why it resonated with me when I first read it in eighth grade. I understand why it keeps drawing me back. I understand some of the ways it has influenced me, as a human and in my writing. And it has been very influential in ways both conscious and unconscious.

My devotion for this book is unwavering, but I struggle to put it into words. I’m reminded of a passage in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (my favorite of the Narnia series) where Lucy is sent to find a particular spell in the book of a feared magician. Among the many interesting things Lucy finds in the book, the most delightful is a story that quickly fades from her memory. Even though Lucy cannot remember the details of the story, she remembers the impression it made. The narrator concludes, “Ever since that day, what Lucy means by a good story is a story that reminds her of the forgotten story in the Magician’s Book.” The Hero and the Crown is what I would read in the Magician’s Book. It is, to me, the quintessential Robin McKinley with its non-traditional heroine, its exquisite language, and its captivating story. Aerin is the gold standard of leading ladies, and I must see something of Aerin in a female character if I am to support her (and I prefer to see something of Tor in the males). Everything I hope to see in a story — be it the most respected literary fiction or a baby’s board book — can be traced back to this book in some form.

27) Dark Places

By: Gillian Flynn

Date Finished: 11.17.14

by Gillian Flynn

Libby Day and her brother, Ben, are the sole survivors of the massacre that killed their family.  Almost instantly, Ben was charged with the murders, convicted, and sent to prison for life.  Libby has been hiding from that night ever since, incapable of making any real connections or commitments, and living off the pity of strangers.  As her money runs out, Libby agrees to track down other suspects for a group that is trying to prove Ben’s innocence — so long as they’re willing to pay.  Along the way, she discovers that there was much more to that night’s horrors than she allowed herself to believe.

Well, the title does not lie.  This book goes to some very dark places indeed.  It is written from three perspectives: Libby, Ben, and their mother, Patty.  Libby’s story is the primary story, taking place in the present and occupying the odd numbered chapters.  Ben and Patty both speak from the day of the murders, their stories alternating on the even numbered chapters.  It is grotesquely fascinating to watch misunderstanding after misunderstanding pile up, ultimately leading to the brutal massacre.  All the while, the reader watches in horror as compounding bad decisions are made, knowing that it’s only going to get worse.

Parts of it are downright gruesome, but I have to admire Flynn’s craft.  Every part of the story falls into place like a Rube Goldberg machine.  A day in the life of Ben and Patty mirrored the trajectory that Libby took to uncover the truth twenty odd years later.  Both arcs were natural and complete, and their interactions complex and seamless.

I wish I could say this is the book form of a Cold Case episode (one of my favorite shows; the concept and structure are similar in many ways) but it’s a little too grotesque.  This was a book club read, so I can’t tell you if I would have finished it or not on my own.  I suspect I might have skipped to the end to see who committed the murders, or maybe read just Libby’s chapters (because she is delightful even in her bitterness).   The craft is excellent, but some things you can’t unread.

At the end of the day: Not for me

26) Afterworlds

By: Scott Westerfeld

Date Finished: 10.7.14

by Scott Westerfeld

Darcy Patel is graduating high school with much more than a diploma — she has just signed the contract for her $300,000 two-book deal.  In lieu of attending college, Darcy decides to move to New York City and try to become a part of the writing scene.  There, she meets her heroes, falls in love, and generally ignores her budget all while editing (oftentimes procrastinating at editing) her novel.  The book she wrote tells the story of Lizzie, a young girl who survives a terrorist attack by crossing into an afterworld.  When Lizzie wakes up, she finds she has the ability to see ghosts in the real world and to cross between the two planes of existence.  For her, the afterworld is a magical place to explore and home to the most marvelous boy she’s ever met, but it also houses a dark man with an insatiable appetite.

Afterworlds — the one written by Scott Westerfeld, not Darcy Patel — tells both stories.  The odd numbered chapters explore Darcy’s journey of moving to New York and going through the publishing process while the even numbered chapters tell Lizzie’s story exactly as Darcy (via Westerfeld) wrote it.  Meta much?  What I have gathered from internet rumblings and my friends is that everyone develops a clear preference for either the Darcy chapters or the Lizzie chapters.  I’m Team Lizzie all the way.  Lizzie’s story would make a wicked cool book on its own, but I would have found a Darcy-only story a bit tedious.

To be fair, there are some great things in Darcy’s storyline.  I enjoyed reading about the publishing process in a narrative sense.  I suspect that reality is heightened in some situations, but I would bet that some of it is muted (weird things happen in the arts).  Westerfeld did a fine job of crafting those publishing-heavy vignettes into the arc of a young girl navigating a new lifestyle, her first romantic relationship, and figuring out how to relate with her family post-high school.  The problem is Darcy herself.  I’m comfortable with heroines who suffer doubts, have weaknesses, and maybe even make bad decisions, but Darcy’s insecurities should have been completely debilitating.  Her success feels like sheer dumb luck without much growth to capture my interest.  But, even though Darcy isn’t on the list of my favorite YA heroines, Westerfeld’s story design is impeccable.

Lizze is more my kind of protagonist.  She’s bold and independent and often dead wrong — everything you want in a YA lead.  This section is a paranormal romance (an acutal Barnes & Noble category for some reason) which means it’s a little sappy at times, but the fascinating paranormal elements more than make up for minor cheesiness.  This story has an interesting variation of ghost-lore, and the afterworlds are truly captivating.  There’s a sense that the book gives just a glimpse of what could exist in the afterworlds and the rest is an infinite blank canvas for the reader.  Like its leading lady, the story is daring, unapologetically exploring some very dark ideas.  And yet, it was refreshing to see a unique YA heroine in Lizzie.

On the whole, I’m glad that both stories were told together.  Alternating between Darcy and Lizzie maintained a nice rhythm, and, even with the space in between plots, I never got lost.  It is a long book, naturally, but it reads quickly and smoothly.

At the end of the day: For me

P.S. The tagline pictured here is 100% cooler than the one on the copy I bought.  The line on my copy is: “Darcy writes the words.  Lizzie lives them.”  LAME.  “You thought your way here,” is far more epic.