Saturday, April 14, 2018

Review: Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) In Song

25434361Grammy Award-winning and Tony-nominated singer, songwriter, and actress Sara Bareilles has a whole lot of titles to stick onto her name already. 

Which means, of course, I was overjoyed when she decided to add "author" to that lineup! 

Ever since her hit single "Love Song" became a chart-topping success back in 2007, Sara Bareilles has made a career out of her folksy voice, genuine lyrics, and penchant for speaking to the heart of her worldwide fanbase, with songs like "Brave," and "King of Anything." Now, she takes to a different kind of writing platform, to share even more of her life in her own words, including views of her unconventional childhood, how to write a song, her battles with anxiety and depression, and what it took to make the world stop, and listen.

Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song is divided into eight chapters, organized around songs she has written that have been both personal to her, and influential to her career. From her origins with "Love Song," all the way to "She Used to Be Mine," the standout hit from her Tony Award- nominated original score for Waitress: The Musical, the stories held within the book cover not just themes of heartbreak, growth, the industry, and family, but detail what kind of work went into the construction of these notable works of art, and her impressive career.

To be clear (if you haven't been able to tell thus far): Sara is one of my favorite musical acts of all time. As one of my favorite contemporary songwriters, it would make sense that her words would speak to me just as completely through the format of a memoir, as they would through her music.

In fact, this book is one of those things where it's almost hard to review this objectively, due to the sheer amount of love and unconditional support I feel for the person who wrote it. I love Sara, I love her songs, and the feeling's not going away any time soon. Her music has long had a foothold in my life, and I've overjoyed at her continued success.

So, I refuse to distance the concepts of reviewing this as an outsider, versus the status of being a fan: this memoir not only made me love her even more as an already-established admirer, but gave new and additional insight into some of the elements of her career that I've been able to observe from the outside, as a fan, from stories behind the writing of songs I already know all the words to, to the creative process for Waitress, to exactly why she left her judging position on my family's one-time favorite show, The Sing-Off (aka, the a capella reality competition that first brought us the gift that is Pentatonix).

(Also,  in case you were a fan of that show, fellow judge Ben Folds wrote the forward!)

For instance, the story behind "Love Song" is a little different than what you've read or heard before, even when it was told by Sara herself. Her efforts to remain authentic in a media-obsessed industry have helped her carve out a sound and fanbase that's all about celebrating being yourself, which is one of the reasons why "Brave" was so personal to her. And when it comes to the song "Gravity," it captures the feeling of heartbreak so perfectly, because it was an artifact of heartbreak, itself.

In fact, Sara spoke so completely through the memoir, that I ended up highlighting excerpts from some of the chapters, because it meant so much for me to read them. Her writing is conversational and straightforward, while still preserving a sense of artistry that is unique to her style as a performer. In fact, the audio book is even narrated by her, so if you're as big a fan as I am, it might be worth it to hear her tell her own story, in her own voice, out loud.

Regardless, this was probably one of the most meaningful memoirs I've read in the last year.

Final Verdict: Direct, authentic, and incredibly personal, Sara Bareilles' voice shines through her memoir just as completely as it does through her music. Whether you're already a fan of her music, or a fan of celebrity memoirs, I think you should take a chance, and take a listen, because I feel like it's impossible to come out of this not rooting for her unique blend of musicianship and heart.

What's your favorite celebrity memoir? Have you read any written by musicians? Let me know, in the comments below!

Monday, April 9, 2018

Bits of Books: Enchantment of Ravens, The Magician King, Lost Boy

If you're going to settle down to the task of reading a great deal of books, you have to accept the reality that some of those books are going to be better than others. Some might be a total dumpster fire. Some might be a slightly smaller kitchen fire that someone started when they got a lighter too close to a potted plant. And even more so, some of those books are going to be... completely mediocre. You know, okay. Maybe even a little more than okay. Maybe even "perfectly fine."

But you can't just give a two word review like "Perfectly Fine." Instead, that's why I have room for mini-reviews of recent reads, in Bits of Books

An Enchantment of Ravens, Margaret Rogerson

An Enchantment of Ravens is the first novel for Margaret Rogerson, and follows a young painter, named Isobel, whose Craft attracts patronage from many of the fair folk. However, while she frequently finds herself in the company of these unique and dangerous subjects, she makes a crucial mistake when depicting one of the most powerful of all: she paints mortal sorrow into the Autumn Prince's eyes. Now she must travel with him to the Autumn Court and await trial for her crimes.... if they manage to get that far.

The story itself didn't exactly distract me, so much as leave me waiting for it to develop further. There were kernels of interest, new and exciting ideas, that appeared every once in a while, and parts of description where Rogerson really shined; however, too much of it was built on YA genre tropes for me to really grab hold of the narrative without thinking, "I've seen this too many times before."

Even worse, some of those belonged in the more annoying hallmarks of YA, such as insta-love, a regular person who is the chosen one for fairly achievable talents or personality traits, and the typical trappings of an immortal and ageless prince falling in love with a literal teenager.

The world-building felt lackluster, like every time the ideas started to develop outwards more fully, it fell short a couple steps before actually making the journey into a new concept. It was so close to so many different things, that could have been really cool or new, but never quite made it all the way there.

I'm not about to blame my dissatisfaction on the genre, either, as I've read some pretty remarkable fairy-based fantasies recently. Still, while it's easier to take stories about comprehensive high fantasy communities and multiple groups inter-working in one universe, the idea that all fairies exist in this one concise radius, know each other, and interact throughout the courts regularly, seemed a little claustrophobic, as well as unlikely.

All in all, definitely not a great read for me. However, the cover is stunning... and I was interested in enough of the minor nuances of the story concepts that I might be tempted to pick up one of the author's future reads. Maybe.

The Magician King (The Magicians #2), Lev Grossman 

The Magician King, by Lev Grossman, is the second installment in the popular The Magicians series. Once again following Quentin, Elliot, Janet, and Quentin's long-ago classmate Julia, the journey starts in Fillory, where Q finds himself wrapped up in an uncertain quest. Seeking a key at the end of the world, his journey takes him back to Earth, to the canals of Venice, and farther beyond the reaches of Fillory than he even accounted for. His magical education at Brakebills can't help him here... but Julia's unbridled street-learned abilities might just be the thing that takes them home.

In terms of second books that really feel like second books, this is very much a continuation, and in a lot of ways, specifically felt like a bridge for Quentin. The story was much more about Julia, who I enjoyed getting to know better, especially because of how much she'd been sidelined in the first novel. In fact, I still wish her story had been amped up even more.

Additionally, if the series does a great job of making settings feel like characters themselves, and if the main characters in the first book included Brakebills and Fillory, then the second book was oriented more towards Earth - specifically, the safe houses - and Outside-Continental-Fillory. Each place the characters traveled to carried its own distinct ambience and sense of construction.

I almost appreciated being on Earth more, because the narrative couldn't get away with deus ex machina conventionality so much. With Fillory, it often feels like things just happen due to "magic" and it's used as a brush-away excuse, but when confined to the limitations of Earth, even magic is forced into some form of confine that gives it a greater shape and depth.

I'm not terribly satisfied with the ending, but I suppose that's one of the great things about reading a series after its finished. I mean, I can just run out to Barnes and Noble this weekend and pick up a new copy. The same, however, cannot be said for those who read it in the time of its publication... in which case, how did you guys stick through it?

Lost Boy, Christina Henry

Lost Boy, by Christina Henry, is a retelling of J. M. Barrie's classic Peter Pan, told from the viewpoint of Captain Hook, long before he became captain. Before he joined the ranks of the Neverland pirates, and before he ever lost his hand. Back when he was Peter's first and favorite friend, and more often than not, the only thing standing between the other lost boys and some of the more unsavory parts of the island. When he thought that he'd never, ever grow up.

In the scope of adult-oriented fractured fairy tales, it's yet another Peter Pan retelling; this time, courtesy of the Captain. Among the various choices for narrator of various forms of this many-times-fractured tale - Wendy, Peter himself, Tiger Lily, Tink - those featuring the viewpoint of James Hook have always struck me as the most interesting... probably because, like him, I don't particularly care for Peter Pan, either.

It's not that I don't like the original narrative, it's that its a great story with just too many elements within it that rub me the wrong way. The good thing about Lost Boy, is that it adapts to this problem, both honing in on some of that difficulty in order to make it a central conflict, or zapping it out of the plot at all.

For instance, the brutality of Neverland - the endless cycles of violence, especially between boys and pirates, being depicted as fun and games - and the status of each Lost Boy as being someone shucked off by society in the real world, both come into direct conflict with the unbothered, unbloodied boyishness of Peter. These tragic status symbols that are widely brushed over in the original works, are made into plot fixtures in this one: Were the Lost Boys ever really that lost, unwanted, or forgotten? Was it really the children who demanded so much bloodsport? 

Other plot elements, like the problematic depictions of "Indian" tribes in Neverland that have plagued pretty much every adaptation of this story ever, are taken out entirely, and replaced with the antagonizing force of the "Many-Eyed," which are basically giant spiders. While these new creatures could just have been made to be an example of one of the Island's many beasts, they were completely central to the plot, and the tribe was not mentioned in the narrative whatsoever.

The book was okay, and more than that, it was exactly the kind of book I would have loved when I was younger, especially in how it runs up against other Peter Pan adaptations I've loved in the past. However, this book just didn't feel like it went that extra mile in making the story something more than itself. And when you try to retell a story as iconic as this one, you want to make sure the narrative soars all the way to that second star.

Have you read any so-so books recently? Do you have any book reccs for me? Let me know, in the comments below!

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Review: The Hazel Wood

I had been on a string of reading really good books, including another recent YA fantasy release that I really enjoyed, and was worried that this much-anticipated novel might just get swept up in the tide. However, not only did it end up making an impact all its own, but it soared above and beyond my expectations. 

Basically, you know when you were a kid, and you were reading, and your mom called you away to do some chore, and you had to wrench your brain away from the book like you were emerging from a century-long nap? 

Without being too extra, this book made me feel like that. 

The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert, follows Alice, a teenage girl raised in constant motion, in order to outrun the misfortune that dogs her every step. When danger seems to catch up with her and her mother once more in New York, she knows she has to stop running, once and for all, and confront the past their small family was trying to avoid. Alice can only chart her own story, by finding what laid at the center of another one, so many years ago, in her grandmother's best-selling book of fairy tales... one she's never been allowed to read. But these tales aren't filled with "happily ever after"s, and as the search for her missing mother grows more dire, Alice isn't quite sure if she's going to find one for herself, either.

This novel is a much-hyped recent release that I was incredibly pleased to find not only lived up to the amount of positive reviews surrounding it, but exceeded it beyond my wildest expectations. It had some big shoes to fill, too: I read it right on the tails of The Cruel Prince, and was uncertain about reading two YA releases involving strong fantasy elements back to back. However, not only were they both different, but they were each made stronger by what made them different.

The Hazel Wood is dark... and I don't just mean that in a YA way, but in a literature-in-general kind of way. It carries a body count... brutality and bloodshed abound, even when packed within the confines of a fantasy-style atmosphere, and packaged with a teen female protagonist. Cruel Prince boasts a different kind of brutality, one colored by the bright and shiny wrappings of high fantasy and faerie courts, but Alice lives in New York, works at a cafe, and hates her high school. The drama comes from watching her real-world outlook cope with the introduction of deadly raven-calling nightmare women, disappearing books and reappearing trouble, and a forest in the middle of New York whose trees know more than they should.

The plot twists were shocking and sudden, and I loved them. Some were nearly gasp-worthy with their bloodshed or horror, while others brought about hope or clarity in such a stunning way that it actually made me smile. This book continued to surprise me at every corner, which is something I didn't think the YA fantasy genre could pull on me any more.

[It actually reminded me a lot - A LOT - of John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things, not only for its focus on traditionalist (ie, Not Disney-fied, very much violent and unrepentant) plots of original fairy tales, but for how deeply woven the intersections of the fantasy world and the real world swirled together. There are so many similarities between the two reads, I feel completely confident in recommending each to fans of the other.]

Not only is the writing a little more on the intense side, but the writing style operates at a higher level of YA, as well: compelling syntax and sentence flow, a high level of diction, and well-constructed and paced metaphorical content, spell this book out as being written by someone who is just plain good at writing! To be honest, I think the gorgeously wrought descriptions are the backbone of the narrative itself: Melissa Albert clearly knows how to make things sound elegant and interesting. The metaphorical descriptions alone deserve some kind of medal, because there were frequent uses of simile that made me reread segments over and over in order to appreciate it more fully, like I used to feel when I read Scott Westerfield's So Yesterday as a kid.

The Goodreads profile for this book marks it as being the first in a series, and I'm not entirely sure how confident I am in that decision. This story would have been absolutely beautiful as a standalone, but due to how deeply I fell in love with Albert's writing style and compelling characters, I trust her to make that decision, and I look forward to reading more of her writing in the future.

Final Verdict: Dark, brutal, and expertly written, The Hazel Wood is a definite recommendation for those who like their fantasy a little more on the twisted side, like John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things or Seanan McGuire's Every Heart a Doorway. Don't be put off by the contemporary setting; the book is at its best when paying homage to the horror born from original folklore tradition. The best fairy tales were always warnings, after all.

What's your favorite YA release of the past year? Do you like books that come with their own fictional source material? Let me know, in the comments below!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

New Haul: Spring Book Outlet Order

I've never been someone who takes great stock in sponsored videos, no matter how much I like the YouTubers doing the promoting. The fact that I actually followed through the link and made it all the way to Book Outlet was a feat in itself... and that I not only found plenty of cool books I've been looking for, enough to satisfy the $35 minimum purchase to qualify for free shipping on my order, was quite another!

I used to think that Book Outlet was something akin to a dream come true - I mean, all of those great titles, for around $6 or under? Come on - to the point where I didn't think I should actually order from it. We've all been burned by Amazon before when it comes to purchasing secondhand or lower-priced, non-retailer books, so I kind of assumed that ordering from an outlet retailer would be more like that.

Thankfully, they proved me wrong in abundance, and I was able to pick up six new titles - plus one gift for a sister! - for around $35. 

While some of them might have a little wear and tear around the jacket, or a surplus Sharpie marking across the top and fore edges, they are almost completely new, to the point where one of my siblings picked one up and, gently stroking its pages apart, whispered, "The spines haven't even been opened yet!" And if their condition and pricing can inspire that much awe in a high schooler, then you know for sure it's legit.

But enough about #deals. Here are the books I decided were worth a last-ditch, pre-vacation book order!

A Conjuring of Light (Shades of Magic #3), V. E. Schwab
I've read the first in the series, and already own the second, but couldn't resist the pull when I saw the third was available in paperback for such a low price. This is one of those series I wish I had bought in hardcover exclusively as they came out, so I'm happy to get even a third of the trilogy in this kind of condition. Schwab's enrapturing intermeshing fantasy worlds of drab Grey London, vibrant Red London, bleak White London, and collapsed Black London, grabbed me immediately, and are one of the reasons I started collecting her work in the first place, so I'm excited to finish the trilogy soon.

Wink Poppy Midnight, April Genevieve Tucholke
I've been on the lookout for Tucholke's works since I raved about a short story collection she edited  late last year (but more on that later... tee hee hee). I had this YA mystery novel in my sights since it first came out, but it never generated enough hype to really guarantee my full attention. However, now that I know what the author is capable of, that deliberately abstract blurb on its inner flap has really caught my eye for Spring!

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin
Who doesn't wish they could quit their day job, and become a writer full time? Or, in my case, who wishes they could have a job at all, and would love for it to be that of an actual writer? In this collection of personal testimonies from writers like Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed, and Nick Hornby, the details of what it means to be a working author in the modern world are laid out in as objective a means as possible, to see how art interacts with commerce in publishing, and its paychecks.

A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, Stacy Schiff
I - like the lucky many related to those with ample disposable income and an incurable penchant for live musical theater - got the chance to see Hamilton in Feburary with my family. While I love the musical itself, my one critique of it, is its exclusion of one of my absolute favorite founding fathers: Benjamin Franklin. True, he was in France for quite a bit of the time, but it's not like we don't know what he was doing there... and that's why we have veteran historian Stacy Schiff on the case.

Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths, Philip Freeman
Surprisingly, out of all of the books I got through this order, this title is the only one I can really see reading soon in my foreseeable future... at least, according to my most recent Top Ten Tuesday! What can I say, sometimes you really just feel like doing a deep-dive back into Greek mythology, and it's the kind of feeling you have to just roll with, because who knows when you're going to experience it again?

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
I've been a big Stardust fan for a while, but I only really developed an obsession with Gaiman after I powered through American Gods two summers ago, then became infatuated with the Starz adaptation of the novel this past Fall. I figured that it was just about time to branch into some of his other works, so what better place to start, than another title with a TV accompaniment? 

Slasher Girls and Monster Boys, edited by April Genevieve Tucholke
Remember that comment I made about a rave review for Tucholke earlier? Yeah, that was for this short story collection, involving new twisted YA horror vignettes inspired by genre classics. At the time of my original excitement, my younger sister sent me a frantic "Get me that book!" text, but alas, as it was a library rental, I didn't quite feel comfortable shipping it off to the UDistrict of Seattle with her. Which is why I jumped at the chance to buy her her own copy, of course! With the fervent hopes that she'll be willing to share again come October, obviously. 

Well, that's my Spring Book Haul, courtesy of Book Outlet! Admittedly, I have bought other reading material since placing this order - like Lev Grossman's The Magician's Land - among other non-reading things, too, like a new stack of embroidery hoops, and a calligraphy nib set and gold ink for my cousin's bridal shower invites, which are sure to occupy my time as well. Still, with this kind of influx of hot new stuff into my shelves, I'm pretty sure I'll be finding plenty of reading time in my schedule soon enough.

What's new in your Spring TBR? See any good bookish sales lately? Which of these new titles should I pack on vacation? Let me know, in the comments below! 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on my Spring TBR

"Top Ten Tuesday" is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by The Artsy Reader Girl!
The cloudy Washington skies are starting to clear up for an afternoon at a time, the flowers that we planted in good faith in the fall are finally pulling through on their promises and brightening up our front yard, and Instagrams from younger collegiate friends still spending their breaks in Cabo mean that Spring has totally arrived!

With that comes daydreams of new gauzy Easter dresses, breaking out old and battered Saltwater sandals, mixing up pitchers full of lemonade, and blessing my skin with moderate amounts of Vitamin D... and, of course, my now-annual Spring sojourn to my favorite place in the whole world, Sunriver, Oregon, tagging along with my younger siblings on their Breaks, too.

Which, of course, means plenty of reading time is opening up in front of me (despite the fact that my writing has never kept me this busy, either). When it comes to selections for my Spring TBR, I'm getting pretty varied... and I wouldn't have it any other way!

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1. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
A classic I've reread many times since my first venture in high school, but haven't touched in the past few years, I first entertained the idea of trying on this powerful work after reading All the Lives I Want, by Alana Massey, last year. In her essay, "Recovering Sylvia," one of the collection's most powerful, she examines Plath as a figure of literary study and pop culture fixation, and it really resonated with me, so I've been dying to give it another go.

2. The Magician's Land (The Magicians #3), Lev Grossman
I finished the first book last February, and the second this past Feburary, and now I'm just excited to take on the third so I can not only round out the series, but give myself full permission to become obsessed with the SyFy adaptation. 

3. Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths, Philip Freeman
I don't know whether it's the deep-dive obsession I did into the Cast Soundtrack for off-Broadway's Hadestown musical last Fall (which tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice), or just the fact that I've been feeling the urge to read up on something really classic lately, but this collection has really been calling to me. I tried to read it last Spring Break as a library impulse pick, but never got around to it... now that it was a part of my most recent Book Outlet haul, I'm more tempted to commit!

4. Bloom: Navigating Life and Style, Estee Lalonde
I've been saving this pastel-hued package from one of my favorite YouTubers for a while now, but was looking for the right moment to read. Her familiar voice and expert sense of style imbues this half-memoir-half-guide to living a life of confidence and authenticity. At least, that's what the reviews say. I, of course, have not read it yet, despite having owned it for over a year (Oops!).

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5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J. K. Rowling
As a part of my ongoing quest to reread all of the Harry Potter novels in 2018, I've got these two lined up fresh for reading this Spring! I mean, yes, technically I'm reading the third right now... but that's because I have to hurry it up, so my brother can read it after me.

6. Ordinary People, Judith Guest
The most recent selection on our Sigma Kappa Sorority National Book Club Reading List! Sure, I have absolutely no idea what this book is about, but at least I can rest easy knowing I'm probably not the only one going in blind. It worked out well with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, didn't it?

7. A Series of Unfortunate Events #5 - 8, Lemony Snicket
Like with the Harry Potter series, I'm rereading these with my brother, and like with the Magicians series, I'm reading them so that I can watch an excellent television show without any guilt. The new season is coming out on Netflix on March 30th, and I am not prepared!

8. The Power, Naomi Alderman
I kid you not: I've got quite a bit of history with my local library, and I'm not a stranger to their rentals system. But what I am a stranger to, is joining a hold line for a book that has seven copies available, and over 17 people in front of me. Yeah, you heard right. Now I've finally got my hands on it, and there's already a line of 13 behind me, so no chances at renewing here.

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9. my WWII-era Nancy Drews, Carolyn Keene
So I listened to the podcast Into the Twilight, and immediately reread the first Twilight novel (and watched the movie, and held a discussion with my family, etc). Now that I've started listening to the funny and conversational Get a Clue, Nancy Drew, I'm not only ready to reread some of my favorites, but I really want to read them in as close to their original state as possible... and there's nothing that screams authenticity like a frontispiece that tells you all about paper rationing.

10. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***, Mark Manson
As it appears, I'm a sucker for self-help books whose titles run completely counterpoint to the way I was raised and presently conduct my life: I just finished The Art of Non-Conforming, by Chris Guillebeau, and really enjoyed it! This one, though, is propped up by my Dad's praise, too, and I'm looking forward to discussing its merits with him. And, you know, not giving a f***.

What's on your Top Ten? Let me know, in the comments below!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review: The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)

I've never been a huge fan of "faerie" books, and in fact, avoided them for the most part as a teen. Now, they have gone through a sort of renaissance in the YA readership - with S J Maas' A Court of Thorns and Roses series serving as a particular point in the journey - and while I'm happy to try out some of the newer and buzzier titles, they're not something I take particular stock in as a genre. 

After a significant amount of disappointment experienced when reading the much-hyped An Enchantment of Ravens, I wasn't feeling particularly interested. However, another book came out at the same time, from an author I trust to write compelling and non-cliched "faerie" tales: Holly Black.

The Cruel Prince - the premiere title in the forthcoming "The Folk of the Air" series, by NYT Best-selling Author Holly Black - follows the story of a young woman named Jude, who, along with her two sisters, was kidnapped and forced into the world of the Fae as a child. Contending daily with a society that resents her humanity and finds her unworthy, she is determined to find her own fate in their midst, no matter the cost. However, when it comes to spying for one of the Court's menacing princes on the eve of  a Coronation, she might give up more than she bargained for... but she could gain more than she ever thought possible.

Here's why I was so confident going in that I was going to like this book: I love Holly Black. I was a fan of her work as a kid, reading the Spiderwick Chronicles in the school library, and was pleasantly surprised in college, when I read The Darkest Part of the Forest, to find that I still loved her voice. When I heard she was coming out with a new novel - especially with one that has a cover as beautiful as The Cruel Prince - I decided to read it, despite my misgivings about the faerie genre on the whole.

Spoiler alert: It was so good. So good. And I'm so excited for the rest of the series.

Every once in a while you check out a book from the library, read it, and then are overcome with a sudden sense of remorse that you hadn't bought it for yourself, instead. That's this book. In fact, I haven't completely ruled out purchasing it yet entirely, because apparently the Barnes and Noble edition has an extra short story in it.

The main characters to the plot were dynamic and interesting, without sacrificing their relatable nature or plausibility. Even negative or harmful actions still had empathetic origins. The faerie characters were not written with the tropes of their mythology strictly for the sake of maintaining it: their tendencies toward brutality and cruelty were explained, and never taken for granted. When killed, their destruction was made more violent and shocking by the fact that they were immortal, and not less.

And it's not like some of the other paranormal-contemporary-romance books found in the YA category that rely on secret civilizations of fantasy creatures, where you could easily swap them out for a different creature and the story would still make sense, like replacing vampires with werewolves with mermaids, etc. The Cruel Prince's plot and characterizations are very much rooted in the idea of the fae, and the knowledge of parts of their folkloric background.

The plotline was one I don't think we've seen taken on quite as successfully in YA: while there's no shortage of orphans in the genre, I can't think of many where the teen actively works to not only remain in the world of their parent's murderer, but acts specifically to seek their approval and status within the civilization. There are layers to the status of Jude and Taryn (her sister) as outsiders, and the various parts they are asked to play in their otherworldly surroundings, and one of the key ones is that they want to stay, by their own individual means.

And of course, they also include some characters from The Darkest Part of the Forest in a brief set of cameos, which I was overjoyed to see.

Final Verdict: It doesn't surprise me at all that as soon as I turned this book back into the library, there were several ready in the hold line to take it. The hype is well-matched with the follow through.

Are there any YA genres that make you wary? Are you a fan of Holly Black? Let me know, in the comments below!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

I originally started reading this book because it had been chosen by my national sorority organization as a book club pick.... for the month of January. 

The idea that Sigma Kappas all over the world would be reading this book at the same time as me made it an alluring choice, which is probably why there were holds placed on it so heavily at my local library, that I wasn't able to pick it up until long after everyone else had finished reading it, on February 1st. Darn it!

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman, starts out with an assertion that is quickly proven to be anything but true. Eleanor Oliphant has been at the same desk job since she was 21, but does not feel the need to interact with her peers or move upwards on the company ladder at all. She abides by a strict schedule, which includes thrifty and solitary lunches, drinking vodka alone on weekends, and dreading the Wednesday night contact from her distant and controlling mother. And Eleanor would be more than content to lead that life for a long time... until an unexpected encounter involving a man from work, and an elderly man collapsing on a crosswalk, shows that life can be just as fine when lived with other people.

Enrapturing and enigmatic, I adored this book, despite not having any sort of anticipation of enjoying it built up beforehand. It's not that I don't like books chosen for me by other people, it's that I don't have exactly high estimations of book club books, especially when they're titles I've never heard of before, and doubly so when the blurb for it gives no hints as to what kind of story lies inside. In my opinion, neither the cover excerpts nor the front cover illustrations itself are all that indicative of the actual plot... the UK version does fare a little better, but I honestly don't believe you know what you're getting into until you read the first few pages. 

To be clear from the start, this rating is a high-ranking four, that is almost a five, because while I truly enjoyed this book and really found it enrapturing not just for its sense of mystery, but also the sense of empathy the narrative was able to elicit, it was just a little hard for me to read sometimes. That's probably why it took me a little over a week to finish reading it, even though every time I sat down to read it, I had a great time!

The book is fantastic at maintaining a sense of privacy and internality, while also building suspense and an aura of mystery around the main character... it's not easy to spend the whole narrative in the head of the lead, while still discovering things about her throughout the whole novel! While I think it's a bit of a stereotype for English majors to enjoy reading things with unreliable narrators, there's this unique sense about Eleanor that she's not trying to deliberately hide or obscure anything, it's that there's so much she's not willing to accept. You can maintain empathy and a sense of introversion with the narration, while also understanding that you are limited by Eleanor's own lack of understanding.

It's that kind of balance between self-effacing objectivity - from the somewhat silly, like how our main character doesn't know what Spongebob Squarepants or a bikini wax is, to greater patterns of not understanding most normal cues of social interaction - and a deep sense of personal incomprehension that perform a delicate balancing act in keeping the narrative going. Eleanor doesn't know much about the world, but she doesn't know much about herself either, despite carrying on with a self-assured confidence that can't help but serve as an ironic point of humor.

In some ways, that's what made the book difficult to read. Reading people make inappropriate comments or behave improperly in social situations is always a turn-off for me... it's one of the reasons why I hated my family's fixation with The Office when I was younger: that kind of humor just isn't funny. It's painful. However, it wasn't just that it was supposed to be funny that Eleanor found herself in these kinds of situations... it was to demonstrate a significant point of discrepancy between Eleanor's ability to operate as a person in the world, against her perceived ability to occupy it.

The novel deals with depression and PTSD in a frank and open way that I think is not only highly commendable, but incredibly well-informed. The depictions of casual alcoholism hit uncomfortably close for someone who also has a strained relationship with drinking. Both brought me to tears more than once, and by the end, got me actively begging out loud for Eleanor to go get some help. It wasn't just because anyone could recognize that she had problems... it was that you really wanted her to get better. You can't help - despite all of her intensely awkward mannerisms - but really love her by the end of the book.

Side note: I was absolutely terrified it was going to turn into a romance - especially due to the book's packaging - and felt absolutely vindicated when it did not. Sorry if that's a spoiler, but if you're someone like me, maybe it will convince you to give this book a chance.

Especially because I almost didn't! Like I mentioned at the start of the review, I think it has a horrendously ugly cover - if you're buying the US edition - and not the most inspiring blurb on the back. That's not the story's fault, though... you really can't get a sense of the book without peeking inside it. (Just like with Eleanor, herself!) Give it a few pages, and then make up your mind. Though I will tell you, I hope you read it.

Final Verdict: An unexpected favorite, with a unique main character and sense of deep emotional connection. If I had to choose two words to describe it, I would say "humorous" and "heroic"... not only is the book quite light-hearted in most places, but its main character is both endearing beyond her foibles, as well as uniquely strong and resilient in her own right.

Have you ever been a part of a book club? What's been a recent unexpected favorite of yours? Let me know, in the comments below!