Fantasy, Fiction

The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman

Happy Halloween! Since I don’t read a lot of horror, I figured a fantasy series was the next best pick for Halloween.

The Magicians Synopsis

Intellectually precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater escapes the boredom of his daily life by reading and rereading a series of beloved fantasy novels set in an enchanted land called Fillory. Like everybody else, he assumes that magic isn’t real – until he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York.

After stumbling through a Brooklyn alley in winter, Quentin finds himself on the grounds of the idyllic Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy in late summer. There, after passing a gruesomely difficult entrance examination, he begins a thorough and rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery, while also discovering the joys of college: friendship, love, sex, and alcohol. But something is missing. Even though Quentin learns to cast spells and transform into animals, and gains power he never dreamed of, magic doesn’t bring him the happiness and adventure he thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends embark on an aimless, hedonistic life in Manhattan, struggling with the existential crises that plague pampered and idle young sorcerers. Until they make a stunning discovery that propels them on a remarkable journey, one that promises to finally fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than Quentin could have imagined. His childhood dream is a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.

Series Review

Oh Quentin. My bloody brilliant Quentin. I both adore and despise you. This might be less of a review and more of a Quentin Coldwater character analysis…

Never have I had such a love-hate relationship with a primary character in a book. I abandoned The Magicians halfway through the first time I started reading it back when I was a 20-year-old junior in college because I hated Quentin. I couldn’t stand him. He embodied everything that I hated about the stereotypical college boys but at the same time, like my dear, beloved, favorite character Alice (she rivals my Hermione love like no other), I was inexplicably drawn to him. I just didn’t want to read about him.

Fast forward five years and I found myself one day just staring at the cover of The Magician’s Land and, surprising longing for Quentin’s world of Brakebills College of Magic. So, continuing on my quest of “reading” the books already on my shelves by listening to the audiobook, I rented The Magicians from the library as I find it best to return to the beginning and not to trust my loathsome memory to remember all the details (and especially why I found Alice so awesome) required to start in the middle of The Magicians half a decade after my initial foray into reading about Quentin and his motley crew.

Is Q still terribly annoying more than 75% of the time? Yes. Does it matter anymore? No. Because I realized that Quentin is simply the mouthpiece for the larger story and by the time The Magician King rolls around, he is not the only point of view character (yay!). Quentin isn’t even the hero of his own story half the time (which leads to his melancholy and delight for me!) and he really messes up – like royally screws things up and skewers his own happiness by trying to be happy. Crazy, I know, but true. But this happens to nearly every twenty-something – invariably we wind up making something we care about worse by trying to make it better, but trying to fix something that isn’t broken to begin with.

The trilogy covers roughly 13 years of Quentin’s life and over that time he grows from a scrawny, gangly asshole at 17 to a semi-distinguished (albeit fired) professor at 30. But what I really love about The Magicians trilogy is that isn’t not just the Quentin show 24/7, but all the other supporting characters, particularly classmate and eventual love interest Alice, are whole. They are complete, and they are independent, and they are certainly not defined by their relationship to Quentin, hero though he insists on being. And if Quentin pisses them off, so be it. They move on with their lives and things aren’t magically righted or fixed just because he eventually finds it in himself to say sorry (even when it’s 7 years later).

Point being, Quentin can suck, a lot. But, and it’s a big but, you don’t have to care about Quentin to enjoy the story, you just must tolerate him and his role that he plays in the big scheme of things. And eventually, he grows on you. You might have to give him 600 pages and hours and hours of your life, but eventually, you’ll be routing for him (and Alice) too.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

The Magicians Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780452296299 • 402 pages • originally published August 2009, this edition published May 2010 by Plume Books • average Goodreads rating 3.47 • read in June 2015

Lev Grossman’s Website

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Magicians

Biography, Non-Fiction

Kick Kennedy by Barbara Leaming

Review Previously Published, Updated October 30th with Laura’s Review!

Ever since I was introduced to Kick Kennedy as a character in the Montmaray Journals (review to come!), I have been fascinated by her life and her experiences as an American in England during the Second World War. When the ARC for this biography arrived at the bookstore, I got ridiculously excited, so happy was I for a contemporary account of her life.

Synopsis

Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy was the incandescent life force of the fabled Kennedy family, her father’s acknowledge “Favorite of all the children” and her brother Jack’s (JFK!) “psychological twin.” She was the Kennedy of Kennedys, sure of her privilege, magnetically charming, and somehow not quite like anyone else on whatever stage she happened to grace.

The daughter of the American ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, Kick swept into Britain’s aristocracy like a fresh wind on a sweltering summer day. In a decaying world where everything was based on stultifying sameness and similarity, she was gloriously, exhileratingly different. Kick was the girl whom all the boys fell in love with, the girl who remained painfully out of reach for most of them.

To Kick, everything about this life was fun and amusing – until suddenly it was not. For this is also a story of how a girl like Kick, a girl who had everything, a girl who seemed made for happiness, confronted crushing sadness. Willing to pay the price for choosing the love she wanted, she would have to face the consequences of forsaking much that was dear to her.

Review

Laura’s Review

Wow. Kick lived for only 28 years, but what a life. Happy, tragic, disappointing, thrilling, and frustrating could all be used to describe her rather short life. Kick grew up as a member of the famed Kennedy family, but by the end of her life, they had practically disowned her for daring to follow her own heart and not tow the family line.

Kick Kennedy arrived in England when it was on the cusp of war with Germany in 1938. Exposed to the elite set of British aristocrats through her father’s role as the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James, Kick quickly came to love her life in England. It did not take her long to fall in love with William “Billy” Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington. Sounds like a dream, right? The only problem was that Billy was a Protestant and Kick was member of a strict Catholic family, and neither family would consent to their marriage. The years that followed Kick’s 1938 debut in English society brought her both pure happiness and devastating heartbreak.

Reading about Kick’s life made my heart break for her and everything she endured. It seems silly, she was a member of one of the wealthiest and prominent family in America, her father could pull strings and buy her pretty much anything she wanted, and yet when her wants went against the family’s wishes, they cast her out. Kick was 24 years old (the same age as me) when she married Billy Hartington, and the only member of her family to attend was her eldest brother, Joe Kennedy Jr. To come to terms with the fact that your own family was rooting against your happiness seems like something no one should have to endure. And when that happiness was so quickly taken away and that same family offers no sympathy seems unconscionable.

The story of Kick’s life was a fascinating read, and provided as much insight into her forgotten life as it did into the politics of the time. Kick Kennedy was a feminist, and her story should never have been forgotten; so thank goodness Barbara Leaming took the time to write it all down for us.

Sarah’s Review

Oh Kick. Barbara Leaming’s biography is really Kick’s coming of age story and while her last name allowed her to grow up in a family full of wealth and privilege, her story is that of what happens when Kick decides she is no longer content being one of the nine Kennedy children, but wants to be one of one, just Kick, defined on her own terms. One of the things that I’ve discovered that I really love about ARCs is that I get to read a book without my view being, even unwittingly, skewed by the thoughts and opinions of other readers and I can judge the merit of the book on just that: it’s own merit, and I can make my own decisions, without any outside influence, about how I connected with Kick’s life story.

Kick Kennedy was truly an early feminist, though I’m not entirely sure she’d admit it, just like twenty-somethings today. And like modern twenty-somethings, Kick’s life goal was really quite simple: do things that bring happiness into life. The things that brought Kick happiness included debating politics and current events with both her brothers and the young aristocratic men of England, dressing up and enjoying parties, and falling in love. But unfortunately for Kick, she went from bride to widow in under six months (not a spoiler, it’s history), due to the violence of the Second World War. Understandably, her life changed dramatically, as did her attitude towards how she lived it.

While contemporaries of Kick may have seen her as an impulsive and naive young woman, in reality she was just doing what every young woman has tried to do since the beginning of time – figure out who she is as a daughter, sister, friend, wife, and ultimately as an individual.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9781250115935 • 320 pages • first published in April 2016, this edition published April 2017 by Thomas Dunne Books for St. Martin’s Griffin • average Goodreads rating 3.56 out of 5 • read in March 2016

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Kick Kennedy

Contemporary, Fiction, Young Adult

Paper Towns by John Green

When I was student teaching, my sixth grade students raved about John Green. Around that time, The Fault in Our Stars was blowing up and the movie was expected to do well as well. Given how much they raved about him, I figured I might as well read one of his books, especially given how many webisodes of Crash Course I’d been watching. 

Synopsis

Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So, when she cracks open a window and climbs into his life – dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge – he follows. After their all-nighter ends, and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery. But Q soon learns that there are clues – and they’re for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer he gets, the less Q sees the girl he thought he knew.

Review

*I originally wrote the review below in April 2014, and the more I think about this book over the years, the more I dislike it. But these are my thoughts from immediately after reading Paper Towns.*

Paper Towns is a book full of adventure and follows the theme of overcoming personal fears to do something “heroic” and selfless for someone else. I put “heroic” in quotations because the main character, Q (Quentin), has no idea that he is acting heroic, nor does he know that he is, in fact, a hero.

Margo Roth Spiegelman, whose full name is used to capture her complete Margo-ness, has been Q’s next-door neighbor for his entire life. As children, they were best mates until one morning when they discover the body of a man who committed suicide in their subdivision/development’s park. This affects them both on different levels for the next ten years as they go through school. And for much of that decade, Q and Margo barely speak. Until one night in May, when Margo shows up at Q’s window, and cue the synopsis above.

Quentin goes through the process of getting to know Margo without the benefit of having her around and the things he learns after she leaves frighten him a bit. His quest to find her is a hopeful one, though it is not a happy one. The story, first person in Q’s point of view, follows him and his friends, as well as one of Margo’s friends, as they encounter odd and seemingly meaningless clues about Margo’s possible location.

It is an interesting perspective as it is Margo who drives the plot despite only being physically present for a short period of time. Margo is an enigma wrapped in a mystery and Q and company’s attempts to solve that mystery are painstakingly realistic, their fear for Margo’s well being is their constant companion. And [spoiler alert!] when they do find her, things aren’t resolve in a nice neat way which I appreciated greatly.

It’s a relatable tale and many of Quentin’s thoughts on how well we can truly know a person are eerily like thoughts I had myself while going through high school and college and attempting to understand the motives behind others’ actions. Paper Towns is incredibly well written, and I want to read more of John Green’s works – it was hard to pick just one of the many intriguing stories by John Green. Overall, it is an intriguing tale and Quentin has a clear voice throughout.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780142414934 • 305 pages • first published October 2008, this edition published September 2009 by Speak • average Goodreads rating 3.88 out of 5 • read in April 2014

John Green’s Website

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Paper Towns

Graphic Novel, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

Back in 2015, one of my coworkers went to a book conference and brought me back a signed copy of Honor Girl. At first, I didn’t really realized why she picked this particular book for me, until I started reading it. I love it.

Synopsis

Maggie is fifteen and has spent basically every summer of her life at the one-hundred-year old Camp Bellflower for Girls, set deep in the heart of Appalachia. She’s from Atlanta, she’s never kissed a guy, she’s into the Backstreet Boys in a really deep way, and her long summer days are full of a pleasant, peaceful sort of nothing.

Until one confounding moment. After a split second of innocent physical contact during a lice inspection, Maggie falls into gut-twisting love with Erin, an older, wiser, and, most surprising of all (at least to Maggie), female counselor. But Camp Bellflower is an impossible place for a girl to fall in love with another girl, and Maggie’s spontaneous expertise at the camp’s rifle range is the only thing that keeps her heart from exploding. When it seems as if Erin might feel the same way about Maggie, it’s too much for both Maggie and Camp Bellflower to endure, let alone understand.

Review

For the sake of honesty, I confess that I believed some stupid things before I started reading Honor Girl.

I started reading Honor Girl under the assumption that my experience reading it would help me understand what it felt like for some of my friends when they first realized they were lesbians or bisexual. But as I fell deeper and deeper into Maggie’s story, I realized that there is no difference between falling in love as a straight person and falling in love as a gay person. Love is love, regardless of who it is with and Maggie’s love story is beautiful and innocent and so reminiscent of many other first love stories, requited or unrequited, that absolutely anyone who has felt their heart swell to bursting with a crush can relate.

Later, after I had finished Honor Girl and come to this great conclusion, I asked Hadley why it was that she had picked it out for me, and while I don’t remember the answer, I do remember her surprise at the fact that I enjoyed it as much as I did and that I recommend it frequently to teenagers who come into the store looking for a compelling story that they can relate to; one of first love, heartache, and summer camp.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.99 • 9780763687557 • 272 pages • originally published September 2015, this edition published May 2017 by Candlewick Press • average Goodreads rating 3.82 out of 5 • read in January 2016

Maggie Thrash’s Website

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Honor Girl

Non-Fiction, Sociology

Vargic’s Miscellany of Curious Maps by Martin Vargic

I love when books come into the bookstore and just surprise me. I had seen maps from this collection in a Buzzfeed article, but had no idea that they were being compiled into a book. This review is short, solely because words really don’t do the book justice, it really deserves to be flipped through. 

Synopsis

Vargic’s Miscellany of Curious Maps is a wonderfully weird collection of meticulous and striking cartegraphic creations, such as the infamous Map of Stereotypes. Based on a westerner’s stereotypical view of the world, Slovakian artist and cartophile Martin Vargic assigns more than two thousand labels and prejudices to cities, states, countries, continents, oceans and seas on a large-scale, visually stunning world map, which alone took more than four months to create. The conceptual Map of the Internet and the Map of Sports are exquisite and surprising, and infographic maps showing the number of heavy-metal bands per capita, the probability of getting struck by lightning, average penis length, and the number of tractors per 1,000 inhabitants make it hard not to share with the person next to you.

Review

Curious Maps is my new (and probably only) favorite coffee table book that I am excited show to everyone who walks through my door. As a collector of geographic oddities and atlases, I was immediately drawn to Vargic’s unique and intricately drawn maps of literature, sports and pop culture. The maps are beautiful, frame-worthy works of art that I would love to hang in a proper library of my own one day. It is worth paging through and I can’t emphasize enough how wonderful it is!

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $35.00 • 9780062389220 • 128 pages • published December 2015 by Harper Design • average Goodreads rating 4.22 out of 5 • read in January 2016

Martin Vargic’s Website

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Vargic's Miscellany of Curious Maps

 

Fiction, Historical

Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey

I saw this book on one of my frequent trips to Barnes & Noble, and while I do not usually purchase new hardcover books, this one seemed worth it. The story sounded compelling, heartbreaking and full of hope all at the same time. I have been enjoying reading books about people in World War II recently, but this one was unlike anything else I have read thus far. I have enjoyed reading novels set during the war since it tells the story of ordinary people. Too often, history teaches us only about the big picture, but stories like this one teach us about what everyday people experienced – fear, grief, anguish, hope, and love.

Synopsis

Late on a frozen February evening, a young woman is running through the streets of London. Having fled from her abusive boyfriend and with nowhere to go, Jess stumbles onto a forgotten lane where a small, clearly unlived in old house offers her best chance of shelter for the night. The next morning, a mysterious letter arrives and when she can’t help but open it, she finds herself drawn inexorably into the story of two lovers from another time.

In London 1942, Stella meets Dan, a US airman, quite by accident, but there is no denying the impossible, unstoppable love that draws them together. Dan is a B-17 pilot flying his bomber into Europe from a British airbase; his odds of survival at one in five. The odds are stacked against the pair; the one thing they hold onto is the letters they write to each other. Fate is unkind and they are separated by decades and continents. In the present, Jess becomes determined to find out what happened to them. Her hope—inspired by a love so powerful it spans a lifetime—will lead her to find a startling redemption in her own life.

Review

Letters to the Lost is the best book I read in 2015. It took me a little while to really get into the story but as soon as Stella met Dan in 1943, it took off. By that point the story never slowed down and I was completely swept up in the joys and heartbreaks of both Stella and Jess.

Once Jess reads a dying Dan’s final letter to Stella, pleading her to respond if it ever reaches her, and she finds Stella’s old letters in the abandoned house, her fate becomes entwined with that of the war torn couple. As Jess learns more about the American pilot and lonely English housewife, who met in the middle of World War II, she becomes quite determined to help Dan locate Stella so that he can see her one last time before he dies. As Jess starts to work at finding Stella, she makes the acquaintance of Will Holt, a probate researcher trying to find any heirs to whom the abandoned house would be passed. As Jess and Will start working together to find Stella and learn what tore them apart during the war, they begin to fall in love themselves. While Dan and Stella’s story has a heartbreaking conclusion at the end of the Second World War, Jess and Will’s is just beginning and provides hope that they can and will have a happier ending.

I do not know what else to say really, I always seem to have more to say when I have not enjoyed a book, but this novel quickly went to my top 5. I do not want to spoil the end of the story because I believe that this is a novel worth reading and I have been recommending it to all of my family members for them to enjoy. While the story can cause uncontrollable weeping (or perhaps that was just me) it also leads one to believe that hope can exist in the darkest of circumstances and new beginnings are possible at any age.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.99 • 9781250066787 • 384 pages • originally published May 2015, this edition published May 2016 by St. Martin’s Griffin • average Goodreads rating 4.15 out of 5 • read in December 2015

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Letters to the Lost

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

Dark Wild Night by Christina Lauren

This is the third book in a series, but the books can be read out of order. I’ve made it my mission to attempt to cultivate an actual “New Adult” section at the bookstore I work at, and by New Adult, I don’t typically follow the industry standard definition – I look for books that are relevant for people who are new to adulting, whether they be 16 or 60. BUT! I do make a point to see if any books that most would categorize as New Adult are a, any good, and b, worth having the store. Couple that with my love of Sarah J. Maas, who provides the front cover quote, and I thought it would be a match made in book heaven. 

Synopsis

Lola and Oliver like to congratulate themselves on having the good sense not to consummate their drunken Las Vegas wedding. If they’d doubled-down on that mistake, their Just Friends situation might not be half as great as it is now… or so goes the official line.

In reality, Lola’s wanted Oliver since day one – and over time has only fallen harder for his sexy Aussie accent and easygoing ability to take her as she comes. More at home in her studio than in baring herself to people, Lola’s instinctive comfort around Oliver seems nearly too good to be true. So why ruin a good thing?

Even as geek girls fawn over him, Oliver can’t get his mind off what he didn’t do with Lola when he had the chance. He knows what he wants with her now… and it’s far outside the friend zone. When Lola’s graphic novel starts getting national acclaim – and is then fast-tracked for a major motion picture – Oliver steps up to be there for her whenever she needs him. After all, she’s not the kind of girl who likes all that attention, but maybe she’s the kind who’ll eventually like him.

Review

As a rule, I don’t read romance books. But back in September, I was going through Sarah J. Maas withdrawal and was scooping up anything and everything I could get my hands on that she endorsed. And even though we shelve this book in romance at the bookstore, knowing that B&N shelves it in fiction gave me hope that it wouldn’t be too mind-numbing. Plus, I still held out hope that this might finally be a true New Adult book – relevant to actual young adults… well, I’ve ranted on this topic enough to not rehash it here.

Alas, New Adult has once again proved to be a huge disappointment. Dark Wild Night is not the New Adult I want, but the New Adult the world is stuck with. It’s all sex, which is not to say I don’t like a decent scene every now and then in my reading, but 2/3 of the book are simply descriptions of the different types of sex Oliver and Lola wind up having – which is not a spoiler, it’s the whole basis for the plot. While Oliver is at least a three-dimensional character, most of the dialogue and descriptions of things felt forced and unnatural – I don’t know anyone who talks or describes things in the way these two hapless lovers do. Basically, the phrasing sucked, and the believe-ability of the sex is pretty much the only thing these types of books usually have going for them.

Lola is pretty much terrible. I need a protagonist I can relate to, or at least sympathize with, but Lola, well, she’s just a (mind my language) bitch. I am not the kind of woman who particularly likes to refer to other women by any derogatory term, but when it’s the truth, it’s pretty hard to argue with it. Though I do give this book one saving grace, it inspired me to create a curated and cultivated New Adult section at the bookstore and I have made it exactly what I think it should be, and is one of the ways my millennialness has paid off – I believe I’m uniquely qualified to nurture this section because readers like me are its intended audience!

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9781476777948 • 352 pages • published in September 2015 by Gallery Books • average Goodreads rating 4.04 out of 5 • read in January 2016

Christina Lauren’s Website

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Dark Wild Night

Graphic Novel, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis had been on my TBR list for a very long time, probably since I first saw the trailer for the film adaptation (which I still haven’t seen) at an art theater in the town I grew up in. When Emma Watson, one of my personal heroes, decided to make it a selection for her Goodreads’ Book Club, Our Shared Shelf, I decided to make it a pick for my book club, The Modern Readers, as well.

2 - January 2016 - Persepolis

Synopsis

Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming – both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of  girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her county yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up.

Review

Persepolis sheds a great deal of light on a time and place with which most Americans are terribly unfamiliar. Satrapi’s memoir makes the situation more relatable for international audiences through her use of comic strips and content material relating to her childhood and the challenges facing every young girl trying to grow up. Her journey into adulthood is one is equal parts familiar – the desire to listen to music, hang posters in one’s room and have space of their own – and unfamiliar – family members are taken by the revolutionaries, having to live a completely different life with family and in public, and fearing for one’s life on a daily basis.

Overall, the content material was very eye-opening, not just in regards to what life was like in the 1980s in Iran, but also in regards to the role that Iran has played in recent world history both before and after the revolution. We had a very lively discussion at our book club meeting about the difference between a true revolution and a devolution masquerading as a revolution and came to the conclusion that the latter was a more apt description of the situation in Iran described by Satrapi. It is not difficult to understand why both the book and film has become staples of modern world history classes in high school and college alike.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $24.95 • 9780375714832 • 341 pages • published October 2007 by Pantheon Books • average Goodreads rating 4.36 out of 5 • read in January 2016

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Persepolis

 

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray

I first read A Great and Terrible Beauty shortly after it was first released many moons ago… in 2003 when I was a freshman in high school. I loved it from the very beginning – it was one of the first young adult fantasy books that was widely available after the release of Harry Potter. 

Synopsis of A Great and Terrible Beauty

Gemma Doyle isn’t like other girls. Girls with impeccable manners, who speak when spoken to, who remember their station, who dance with grace, and who will lie back and think of England when it’s required of them.

No, sixteen-year-old Gemma is an island unto herself, sent to the Spence Academy in London after tragedy strikes her family in India. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma finds her reception a chilly one. She’s not completely alone, though… she’s been followed by a mysterious young man, sent to warn her to close her mind against the visions.

For it’s at Spence that Gemma’s power to attract the supernatural unfolds; there she becomes entangled with the school’s most powerful girls and discovers her mother’s connection to a shadowy, timeless group called the Order. It’s there that her destiny waits… if only Gemma can believe in it.

Review

A Great and Terrible Beauty

I have loved A Great and Terrible Beauty for over a decade now, which seems crazy and makes me feel so old. But as one of the first young adult fantasy books to hit the market and stick as a popular favorite, I’m so happy that I’ve been recommending this book series to all of my friends for half my life.

Gemma Doyle, protagonist of the trilogy by the same name, set the bar for all young adult, and adult fantasy books, I’ve read since the fateful day back in 2003 that I first picked up Gemma’s story. She’s full of spunk and self-determination and she’s completely normal. I absolutely love to read about characters who doubt themselves in all things and Gemma has plenty to question about herself, her actions, and her motivations. Gemma’s story begins with the death of her mother and Gemma’s introduction into the shadowy world of the mysterious Order and her discovery of the Realms, a magical, but troubled land, that was once the playing ground of not only the Order, but other magical creatures and beings as well.

As Gemma starts to learn about her (and her mother’s) connection to the Order and the Realms, she must also deal with life at a prestigious Victorian finishing school, and the bullies and privileged girls she meets there. It doesn’t take long, however, for Gemma to make some decent friends and she quickly discovers that appearances are oftentimes deceiving and it is worth getting to know people better before passing judgment on them. There are so many incredible lessons to learn from Gemma and her journey and Libba Bray’s story telling is absolutely exquisite. I can’t wait to reread Rebel Angels so I can finally finish the series with The Sweet Far Thing!

Gemma Doyle trilogy

Finally I have finished the Gemma Doyle trilogy! After reading the first book nearly thirteen years ago and seeing all three books starting at me from my bookshelf for the better part of seven years, I figured it was about time I finished Gemma’s story and learned how it all turned out.

A Great and Terrible Beauty, to this day, remains one of my favorite books that I read during high school. Gemma is a strong and formidable heroine and her adventures into the magical realms she discovers prove that she is worthy of being added to the ranks of great female protagonists of literature. Her friends and fellow characters are fully developed and have personalities of their own that are not defined by their relationship with Gemma.

In Rebel Angels, Gemma and her friends are on holiday from Spence Academy, where they met and first entered the realms, to spend the Christmas seasons with their families. It is in Rebel Angels that were learn more about each character and their motivations in life. And like any good middle book, it ends with a battle, twist and cliff-hanger.

Sweet Far Thing, however, drops the ball that has been rolling on beautifully in the first two books. It tops 800 pages when only about 300 were truly necessary to conclude Gemma’s story satisfactorily. The pacing is slow going and I wanted to give up hope of ever finishing it multiple times during the last month and a half that it took me to read it. Sweet Far Thing felt like Libba Bray didn’t want the story to end, but wasn’t sure what the best way was to draw it out without going overboard. But in the end, Gemma’s story comes to a close with a fairly realistic (for a fantasy book) ending and her story feels complete.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars for series

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780385732314 • 403 pages • first published in December 2003, this edition published March 2005 by Delacorte Press • average Goodreads rating 3.79 out of 5 • read between December 2003 and January 2016

Libba Bray’s Website

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Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Review Previously Published, Updated October 16th with Laura’s Review!

Salt to the Sea first came into my hands as an ARC (advanced reader copy) shortly after I was introduced to Ruta Sepetys’ writing when I picked up a copy of Between Shades of Gray at a not-so-little hidden gem of a used book store in center city Philadelphia. When I met Ruta at Winter Institute in 2016, I just knew I would love her books.

Synopsis

Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets. Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies… and war.

As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

Yet not all promises can be kept.

Review

Laura’s Review

Salt to the Sea quickly became one of my favorite books even as I was in the middle of reading it. I was nervous about reading about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, thinking that the subject matter would be too depressing. Even though I knew Salt to the Sea is a work of fiction, I was also aware that nearly all of the events depicted actually happened.

I do not think I could have read this book if it had not been in the structure that it is. The chapters are all very short and the perspective shifts with each one between four very different teenagers, all of whom end up on board the Wilhelm Gustloff. The reason being that the subject matter is so intense (and since I am particularly prone to nightmares) that if it had not switched perspectives every few pages, I think I would have felt overwhelmed trying to comprehend all of the atrocities that happened to just these four people as World War II was drawing to a close. Despite shifting perspectives so frequently, every character was well-developed and I had strong feelings, both positive and negative, about all of them.

The experiences of these four teenagers was different than any other World War II historical fiction novel that I had read, and yet it was also very similar. Three of the four, Joana, Florian, and Emilia are attempting to escape into Nazi Germany, since for them, Nazi Germany was less dangerous that waiting for the Soviets to overtake their lands and ship them to the Gulag camps. The fourth, Alfred was a Nazi officer who had sociopathic tendencies. Ironically, I felt the most sorry for Alfred. He was barely an adult and yet his mind had been corrupted to believe that anyone who was not an Aryan German was inferior, and that it was his duty to enforce the superiority of the Aryan race. He had become highly dangerous, and yet he was essentially still a child. The sections of the book from his perspective were my least favorite because they caused me to feel a mixture of revulsion and pity at the same time. I was much more invested in the fates of Emilia, Florian, and Joana and was desperately hoping that they would survive the torpedoing of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

While trying to escape into Nazi Germany made the experiences different than other characters in the other World War II historical fiction novels I have read, it was also heartbreakingly similar. All they wanted to do was survive, just as the British, French, Americans, and many others. The difference being that their best chance of survival was in Nazi Germany away from the Soviets, whereas the Allies’ best chance was if Nazi Germany was defeated with the assistance of the Soviet Union. Overall, this is one of the best World War II historical fictions books that I have read and would recommend it to anyone at all interested in the genre.

Sarah’s Review

Salt to the Sea is a beautifully written and moving book, written in four alternating points of view, three of whom are refugees fleeing the Soviet advance across East Prussia who are trying to get into Nazi Germany – a new perspective for young adult World War II fiction. The fourth character to offer his take on the situation facing the Germans in January 1945 is a complete and terrifying sociopath and his actions, relayed in his chapters and the others, creates the most friction and anticipation int eh story for those who already know the fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff (go on, I dare you not to Google it if you don’t already know). These alternating points of view are woven together with expert hands and for those who already know and love Ruta’s storytelling, Salt to the Sea does not disappoint.

I flew through Salt to the Sea very quickly and would have read it even quicker if I didn’t have to take breaks to sleep and work (I read straight through meals) and for those two days it was all I could think about. Our three refugees, Emilia, Joana, and Florian, are traveling with a cast of characters including an elderly gentleman affectionately referred to as the Shoe Poet, an endearing little boy who has lost his entire family, a salty older woman who views traveling with the group as nothing more than a necessary step to freedom, and a blind young girl who quickly proves to be the bravest and most intuitive member of the rag tag collective.

Ruta (she told me I could call her that in person!) alternates quickly between her protagonists’ viewpoints which leads to anxious reading, wondering furiously what is going to happen next. And while the final action regarding their escape is known to history, the fate of the individual characters and the challenges they face along the way are unknown and I believe that is the true power of Ruta’s storytelling. One can quickly look up what happens in history, but that event is really just that, an event, but it becomes so much more when conveyed as part of the complex and interesting lives of all of Ruta’s characters.

While for many, this is a five/ten star book, and is, by right, a five/ten star book, I still hold all of WWII fiction up against the harsh judgment of my love for Code Name Verity and The Book Thief and while Salt to the Sea is absolutely wonderful, it still falls just a touch behind my two pillar of great YA WWII fiction.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780142423622 • 448 pages • first published in February 2016, this edition published August 2017 by Penguin books • average Goodreads rating 4.36 out of 5 • read in March 2016

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Salt to the Sea