Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

After killing a wolf in the woods, Feyre is taken from her home by the High Lord of the Spring Court and made to live in Prythian, home of the faeries, as retribution. As she begins to care for the High Lord Tamlin, she suspects that something is threatening her beloved’s court. Little does she know, the fate of Prythian lies in her hands.

Sarah J. Maas is entertaining, but I’ve never thought of her as the most nuanced writer. As I’ve said before, I enjoyed Throne of Glass but wasn’t crazy about it. A Court of Thorns and Roses, however, was much more up my alley.

Because nothing is perfect and I am critical, I’m going to get the things I didn’t like out of the way. I don’t really understand the whole fae/fairy thing. It reminds me too much of the vampire craze of the 2000’s. And as with vampires, I’ve never really been interested in fairies. Give me a good werewolf or a witch any day of the week. So while Maas may be big into fairies, it’s not a mythology creature I’m into. It seems like the fae just serve to create a powerful, beautiful super-species for the protag to fall in love with because they’re so much better than humans. Which brings us back to Twilight. I couldn’t help but think that this book got a little Twilight-y at times. Normal girl finds a gorgeous, strong, tragic mythological creature and falls in love with him. I’m not saying that Twilight and ACoTaR are the only books to do this. I am saying that after Twilight, I figured we would all be tired of it.

Now onto the things I did like, because this book was blessedly different from Twilight. Firstly, I really liked the relationship between Feyre and Tamlin. They’re both devoted and willing to sacrifice for one another, and they’re actually nice to each other (I’m pained by the fact that healthy, kind relationships are so rare that I’m happy to see them). Unlike in other book romances, Tamlin doesn’t willfully keep her misinformed and he doesn’t manipulate her. Though he knows that she can help save Prythian, he never pressures her into anything she doesn’t want to do.

I can’t help but compare Feyre and Celaena. In comparison to Maas’ previous protagonist, Feyre is more believably flawed. Celaena is too perfect, but Feyre is compassionate, protective, stubborn, and reserved. She is also in charge of her own sexuality, which is especially rare in YA. It was a nice change from the usual blushing and innocence. There’s nothing wrong with virginal YA heroines or with more sexually experienced YA protags, it’s just important to see all ends of the spectrum represented.

A Court of Thorns and Roses follows very much in Throne of Glass’ footsteps, featuring fae and a fierce teenaged heroine. However, this protagonist’s characterization and the strong central relationship puts this book a cut above its predecessor.

Title: A Court of Thorns and Roses
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Publisher: Bloomsbury
My rating: ☆☆☆½ (3.5 stars)
Recommended for: anyone looking for a romance that doesn’t sacrifice the characterization of its heroine.

Review: The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes

Seventeen-year-old Minnow Bly spends 12 years of her life as part of a religious cult in the woods of Montana. Shortly after they remove her hands as punishment for rebelling, the cult falls and Minnow is placed in a juvenile detention center. While adjusting to her new life, Minnow must unlearn the teachings of her religion and decide whether to tell an FBI detective just what happened in the woods.

Months ago, I read We Were Liars and wrote my first review for this blog. I complained that the book didn’t adequately build suspense because after being told throughout the entire narrative that something crazy happened on the island two years ago, I felt the conclusion wasn’t satisfying or shocking enough. I bring up this issue because I think Stephanie Oakes’ The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly did what We Were Liars tried to do. While I knew that something must have happened at the compound, I still found the ending surprising and disturbing.

The first praise I would like to sing is that the writing is amazing. Despite having such undesirable settings (a juvenile detention center and a fishy compound in the woods), the descriptions were great. Additionally, Minnow is a fascinating character and I loved seeing how she adjusted and adapted to both life outside of the cult and life inside the detention center.

Religion is obviously a huge topic within this book. As someone who isn’t religious, I like seeing different ways people approach belief or spirituality, though I can’t always understand or relate. The Kevinian religion and Jude’s father’s Christianity were surprisingly similar despite appearing so different at first glance. While Kevinianism is foreign and fictional, even a religion as commonplace and familiar as Christianity was similarly corrupted and used as a force of human cruelty and ignorance. On the other side of the spectrum, I liked that the kindest and most beneficent examples of religion or belief were practiced by the girls in the detention center, people who society would deem broken.

The twists in this book are shocking and our protagonist’s transition from survivor to heroine is beautifully executed. Oakes serves up the full range of what humans are capable of, from cruelty to apathy to compassion. Using beautiful prose and at times jarring imagery, The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is equal parts disturbing, unresolved, and hopeful.

Title: The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly
Author: Stephanie Oakes
Publisher: Dial/Penguin
My rating: ☆☆☆ (4 stars)
Recommended for: people who like their books dark and twisty.

Review: Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas

After winning the competition and earning a spot as the king’s personal assassin in Throne of Glass, Celaena Sardothien must hide her lack of allegiance in Sarah J. Maas’ Crown of Midnight.

Do you see how short that blurb is? That’s all I’ve got sans spoiling the second half. Despite having read Crown of Midnight less than a month ago, I struggle to describe the plot. At over 400 pages, it isn’t a small book, but I can’t help but think that nothing really happened in it. I can remember enough material to make a book of about 200 pages, so I don’t know where the other 200 come from.

This felt like a filler book, which it very well might be since it is the second in a six-book series. It was all exposition, with just a couple of inciting incidents. While every series has its filler books, the end of Crown of Midnight has me concerned. The end places Celaena far from the conflict between Adarlan and the neighboring nations, which I assume is the overall arc of the series. If Crown of Midnight is setting up the subsequent books, why is she getting further from the main conflict? It makes me feel as though Heir of Fire will also be a filler book.

I have the same reservations when it comes to Celaena’s development that I had in the first book. She still feels like a cliché. Too pretty, too talented, too perfect, with just her wrath as a character flaw. Temper is an overused flaw, so I’m not crazy about her characterization.

I was also bothered by the relationship reset trope.* It happens in books and movies all the time, where two characters get together but it’s too early in the series, so they need some contrived reason to break up just so that they can get together or something later on. Why bother investing so much time in Celaena and Chaol’s relationship (400 pages is a lot of reading time), just to have them break up? The reason for their break up wasn’t even good.

Crown of Midnight is exactly what you would expect the sequel to Throne of Glass to be. While this is still an entertaining series and I will definitely be reading on, I can’t say I am entirely on board.

*Not the official name of the trope. I tried looking it up and these three tropes are the closest I could find to the cliche I’m referring to: Third-Act Misunderstanding, Second-Act Breakup, Anchored Ship.

Title: Crown of Midnight
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Publisher: Bloomsbury
My rating: ☆☆ (3 stars)
Recommended for: those who enjoyed Throne of Glass. (Sorry I couldn’t come up with anything better, but it’s a series. If you liked the first, you probably like the second.)

Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

When soldiers come at dawn to arrest her brother for treason, Laia is forced to go underground in search of help. However, the resistance refuses to save her brother unless she disguises herself as a slave and spies on the Commandant, leader of the Empire’s military academy. Here, she meets the reluctant and skilled soldier Elias. As he competes to become the new Emperor, they find that their goals align.

(I had the hardest time writing the summary for this book, but I finally cranked it out. This was seriously the hardest part of this review to write.)

I’m sure Penguin was pushing tons of money into the marketing for Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes because it was one of those books that all the YA bloggers were talking about. I feel pretty ambivalently about this. While I’m sure I will read the sequel, I’m not all that invested in the political unrest that this was setting up. This is yet another 3-star review, which makes me feel like a very picky reader.

While I liked certain aspects of the book, there wasn’t much I loved. I resented the existence of a love triangle. I cared a little bit about Elias, but couldn’t bring myself to care about Laia, her brother, or the resistance. I couldn’t get a good grasp on the visuals of this world (it’s based on the Roman Empire, but Laia’s clothes sound almost Victorian sometimes). That said, I’ll share the aspects I enjoyed.

The strength of this book was in the competition for the Emperor’s seat. I love any sort of task or a test in a book. Each time a new test was starting, I couldn’t wait to see what strange obstacles would be in Elias’ way. The third task in particular was great because it was really dark and painful. If you didn’t think this society was flawed and cruel, you certainly did after the third test.

One of the most amazingly disturbing aspects of this book was the existence of masks (disclaimer: I didn’t find the majority of the book disturbing, but it was amazing how certain little details didn’t sit well with you). Elite soldiers who constantly wear masks is creepy enough, but the fact that they’re metallic masks that bind to the face makes them even creepier. It’s such an unsettling indicator of loyalty.

While it wasn’t my favorite YA book of this year, An Ember in the Ashes was still entertaining. At almost 450 pages, it’s a bit of a time investment, but worth it if you want to join in on the conversation.

Title: An Ember in the Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Publisher: Razorbill
My rating: ☆☆ (3 stars)
Recommended for: fans of the Hunger Games. Cruel alternate world, a fair amount of death, some light rebellion. They have some things in common.

Review: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh

In this retelling of One Thousand and One Nights, Shahrzad volunteers to marry the caliph, who has been marrying young women every night and having them killed the next morning. As she learns that the caliph and the murders are not what they seem, she finds herself faltering from her quest for revenge.

I was very excited for Renée Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn and it did not disappoint. I love the story of One Thousand and One Nights. It’s an interesting premise for a collection of folk tales, and it’s great to see a female character use her wits and her talent for storytelling to stay alive. The characterizations of the two main characters are both well done, as they gradually reveal their true natures and motivations. The obstacles they face feel very true to their situation and the end left me eager for the next book.

While I became very invested in the story by the end, I found this book a little hard to get into. The writing, especially in the beginning, isn’t great. There is too much mention of the characters’ eye colors (Shahrzad’s eyes are referred to as her “hazel orbs” at one point), which seemed clumsy and amateurish. Both Despina’s characterization and her plot-line were ham-fisted. She was, by far, the least believable and least enjoyable part of this book. The writing gets better as the story goes on, abandoning the awkward descriptions and focusing instead on the story and furthering the plot.

As far as setting up the plot for the next book, The Wrath and the Dawn does this very well. The antagonists are introduced gradually and the conflict comes about very logically. People aren’t just motivated by “evil.” Every character that opposes Shahrzad and the caliph does so because it is a natural reaction to the events that preceded it. This may not seem important to the everyday reader, but I think it shows Ahdieh knows her story and has thought her plot through. It is the mark of careful planning.

This review can never do justice to how gorgeous this book is. Even though I didn’t like the writing in the beginning, I got completely sucked in. The sequel The Rose and the Dagger is expected to be published in 2016. I’m sure you will be just as impatient as I am.

Title: The Wrath and the Dawn
Author: Renée Ahdieh
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
My rating: ☆☆☆ (4 stars)
Recommended for: people interested in non-Western folklore/fairy tales, or if you’re in the mood for a Beauty and the Beast-like love story.

Review: Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta

Melina Marchetta’s debut novel Looking for Alibrandi follows Josephine Alibrandi in her final year of high school. In this story of self-discovery, Josephine learns about friends, family, and love in ways that affect her opinions of others and her sense of self.

This is a classic coming-of-age novel, taking place right on the brink of adulthood and covering topics like family, friendship, and finding your place in the world. So much of the novel’s power comes from the drastic changes in Josephine’s opinions and personality. To preserve the beauty of this novel, I’ll be vague about the plot.

One part that stuck out for me was Josephine voicing what it was like being both Italian and Australian. My parents both immigrated from countries in Latin America, so this really resonated with me. Through Josephine, Marchetta really captured the duality of being a second- or third-generation immigrant. I especially recommend this book to anyone whose parents or grandparents immigrated.

Josephine is a unique heroine. She is a complete teenager, prone to melodrama and picking fights. I especially love how malleable she is. She’s mercurial and she changes so much through the book that she feels like a true young adult, still not fully formed. And while I have no doubt that she’s just as strong as Evanjalin or Taylor, she feels very different from Marchetta’s other heroines. This is a character who has always been loved, and knows she is loved, and is so comfortable in her own skin as a result. By this description, she almost sounds like Emma Woodhouse from Jane Austen’s Emma. I haven’t thought enough about that comparison to judge whether it floats, but Emma and Josephine certainly have something in common. They can be frustrating, but they’re fascinating and I love them.

In addition to Josephine’s own characterization, her relationships to others are strengths of this book, and these two aspects feed into each other throughout the novel. So much of your identity as a teenager can be shaped by what people think of you and what your family is like. As Josephine’s relationships with her father and grandmother change, so does her own identity.

Looking for Alibrandi is a classic Marchetta novel, with the sort of vivid characters and incredible emotional depth that remind you why you love to read. I can’t recommend this book enough.

Title: Looking for Alibrandi
Author: Melina Marchetta
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
My rating: ☆☆☆½ (4.5 stars)
Recommended for: fans of coming-of-age stories and those who like great character development. And, like I said above, anyone who has dealt with the duality of growing up with two cultural influences.

Review: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

In Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass, Celaena Sardothien, a renowned assassin, is pulled from her cell after a year of incarceration and given the opportunity to compete for her release. If she can survive a series of tests and fights against other competitors, she will earn a position as the king’s personal assassin and eventually her freedom.

Everybody talks about this series, so I’ve been meaning to get my hands on it for a while. It wasn’t my favorite read (For amazing fantasy YA, please refer to The Lumatere Chronicles), but I like it enough to forge ahead with the rest of the series.

I wasn’t a fan of Celaena’s characterization. I know that real people have a wide range of interests, but Celaena’s interests seemed almost too wide. She is a trained killer, she is an avid reader, she loves fashion, she loves music and she plays the piano? Maybe this would have bothered me less if we had ever encountered anything she wasn’t good at or didn’t love. The Captain of the Guard and the prince both become taken with her, but she didn’t feel human enough for me to believe and understand why they liked her.

I found I liked her more in the beginning of the book. She really feels like a killer in the first chapter as she plots escape routes and plans how she would take out the other people in the room. This stops after a bit, but I thought it felt the most true to what her character should be like. Once she’s in the castle, she softens in a way that’s not believable. I thought she bounced back too quickly, both mentally and emotionally, after being imprisoned for a year.

Of the parts I liked, the magic element was one of my favorites. It added a bit of mystery to the plot. I like that it’s uncharted territory and that (I assume) the rest of this series will likely deal with more people practicing magic and relearning how to control it, etc. This subplot was good for both setting up the rest of the series and adding a less predictable element to a fairly predictable story.

While I feel ambivalent about this first book, I’ve had this series recommended to me by someone whose book tastes I trust. Judging by what I’ve heard, I have a feeling that the characterization of the main three characters gets better as the series goes on. I’m hoping to enjoy the sequels more when I give the subsequent books a shot.

Title: Throne of Glass
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Publisher: Bloomsbury Books for Young Readers
My rating: ☆☆ (3 stars)
Recommended for: anyone who likes Katniss-like characters. Small and ruthless.

Review: This Is Not a Love Story by Judy Brown

This Is Not a Love Story follows a Hassidic family living in Brooklyn and struggling to raise Nachum, their fourth child who has undiagnosed autism. This is the third child’s memoir, a daughter only a year older than Nachum, and it focuses on her childhood. The narrative ends when Nachum and Judy are about 13.

When recounting stories from their youth, writers of memoirs often insert their adult opinions into the narrative. It was interesting to read a book where the child’s perspective is mostly left alone. Judy’s frustrations with her brother and his condition weren’t glossed over. Adult Judy didn’t come in to say that she should have been more patient or understanding as a kid. She didn’t tell you that things would get better and that it would all work out in the end. Judy puts the reader in the mind of her young self, making you feel all of her frustration and lack of understanding.

My only real complaint about the narrative is that there is too much going on. There’s Judy’s relationship with her brother, her relationship with her faith and people of other religions, and the question of how her parents came to be married. On top of that, there are parts of the book that discuss Judy’s family history. It adds up to an awful lot of characters. The narrative already has to deal with her large immediate family, her extended family in Israel, and her neighbors in Brooklyn. The parts about her ancestry could have been streamlined and cut down.

I would love to recommend this to someone who has more in common with the family in this book. I have no children, no experience with autism, and no religious beliefs. But though I am not the target audience, I can see the strengths of this book. This story would be really powerful for someone who has raised a child with autism or made sense of the differences between religious teachings and what they experience in real life.

Title: This Is Not a Love Story
Author: Judy Brown
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
My rating: ☆☆☆ (3 stars)
Recommended for: anyone who is a parent.
Release date: July 28, 2015

I received this book from Goodreads First Reads.

Review: The Guy Not Taken by Jennifer Weiner

The Guy Not Taken is a collection of short stories by Jennifer Weiner. Most feature a woman as the main character (there was only one exception) and they all focus on romantic and family relationships.

May was a month of boring reads for me, but The Guy Not Taken was the worst of the bunch. It was an altogether forgettable anthology. Any attempt at depth was usually not executed with particular nuance or effectiveness. None of the stories had particularly original or even interesting concepts. They each featured characters or experiences that could easily have been taken from the author’s own life. While it is perfectly normal for writers to pull from their life experiences, this felt more like a complete absence of creativity.

In my opinion, the strongest story of the collection was Buyer’s Market, about a woman who is coerced into selling her New York City apartment. I liked the arc of the story and the theme of finding where you fit in, even if you don’t end up where you expected. But as I said before, the idea could easily have come from Weiner’s own life and even within this one story, the quality was inconsistent. The end felt a lot stronger than the beginning. It’s one of those stories where you can’t help but be frustrated by the main character (in this instance, I couldn’t stand the character’s lack of backbone), but the character comes into her own at the end.

This would be a decent book for a vacation. Despite the fact that I spent three days dragging my feet as I read, it’s an easy read and short stories are good for reading in bursts.

Title: The Guy Not Taken
Author: Jennifer Weiner
Publisher: Atria Books
My rating: ☆☆ (2 stars)
Recommended for: Anyone looking for an easy vacation read.

Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is a retelling of The Illiad, told from the perspective of Achilles’ companion Patroclus. The story starts at their youth and follows the two through their involvement in the Trojan War.

I looked for this book after hearing that it was a powerful read (No one truly likes crying, but I love to feel moved by a story). This is an impressive first novel from Miller, which I hope is the beginning of a long career that will reduce me to tears.

I would like to start by commending the characterization. Patrolcus is a wonderfully complex character, but more impressive is the development of Achilles. One of my roommates admitted before reading this book that she didn’t think she would like Achilles, as she hadn’t liked his character in The Illiad. By the end, she had grown to love him. Miller humanizes him, showing how destiny and divine gifts can combine to make a killer out of a kind man. He is proud, gullible, and trusting. The characterization of Achilles makes him human. Flawed but still deeply good.

Despite one’s superior skill in war and divine lineage, the relationship still feels equitable. One thing in particular I liked about Patroclus and Achilles is their stability. Portrayals of romantic and passionate relationships are frequently also tumultuous and possessive. This always bothers me, as having passion seems to be more important than being loving or healthy. This is not the case in this novel. They are passionate, while also stable, trusting, and loyal. The two are never jealous, never faltering. It’s an example of love in its best light.

Madeline Miller excels in her debut, with prose that is visceral and emotive. A beautiful interpretation of a classic story, this novel is not to be missed.

Title: The Song of Achilles
Author: Madeline Miller
Publisher: Ecco (HarperCollins)
My rating: ☆☆☆ (5 stars)
Recommended for: Anyone who loves mythology and classics. Anyone who likes a good love story. Anyone. Everyone.