Friday, July 01, 2016

Bookstore Love, Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson, Death and Relaxation by Devon Monk and The School of Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

Mine, too, Allison Hill, mine, too.

'My Heart Belongs to Bookstores'
"The decades I've spent working, playing, reading, communing within the
four walls of bookstores have shaped me and defined me. And lest you
think this relationship merely platonic, let me tell you, bookstores are
sexy. Readers who shop in bookstores rather than online, read print
rather than digital, talk about how much they love 'the tactile
experience' as they stroke book covers and caress pages, amble the
aisles and inhale the scent of ink and paper. They lose themselves in
bookstores, hold books closely, seek pleasure, connection, and escape in
their pages....

"You may wonder what the secret is to a long-term relationship such as
mine. Like all relationships, it's actually simple: respect the
relationship and actively invest in it. Which in this case means that I
faithfully support brick and mortar bookstores with my time and my
money. As everyone who loves bookstores should, lest we all wake up one
day to find them gone, ourselves alone.... [M]y heart, metaphorically
anyway, will remain with my other great love: My heart belongs to

--Allison Hill, president and CEO of Vroman's Bookstore, Pasadena, Calif.

I heard about Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez via a friend on Goodreads who thought that I might like it, since I enjoy historical novels that focus on women, as well as paranormal romance genre books, and this book was about women in the post civil war era who had special abilities. I am not a huge fan of American war history, as I find the rehash of the gore and horror of battle to be disgusting and tediously dull, but Balm side-stepped most of that by presenting a well-told tale of women's lives written in sterling prose with a fast-paced plot and shining characters who will remain in memory long after the book is finished. Here's the blurb:
The Civil War has ended, and Madge, Sadie, and Hemp have each come to Chicago in search of a new life. Born with magical hands, Madge has the power to discern others’ suffering and ease it, but she cannot heal her own damaged heart. To mend herself and continue to help those in need, she must return to Tennessee to face the women healers who rejected her as a child.
Sadie can commune with the dead, but until she makes peace with her father, she, too, cannot fully engage her gift.
Searching for his missing family, Hemp arrives in this northern city that shimmers with possibility. But redemption cannot be possible until he is reunited with those taken from him.
In the bitter aftermath of a terrible, bloody war, as a divided nation tries to come together once again, Madge, Sadie, and Hemp will be caught up in an unexpected battle for survival in a community desperate to lay the pain of the past to rest.
Madge, the black girl who did NOT grow up in slavery, but has had to deal with the aftermath of slavery and with former slaves like Hemp, was my favorite character, as she so desperately wanted her mother's love and approval, (and that of her two aunties), and yet she manages to forge a new life for herself despite their cruel indifference. She knew herself and her abilities and had seemingly endless compassion for those who were suffering with ailments, whether she could cure them or not. Sadie, a white medium, kind of creeped me out, because she didn't mind giving her body over to the ghosts of dead soldiers or her mother, and she was determined to get along with her horrible father who basically sold her into marriage to a much older man to get himself out of debt. How can you forgive something like that, even of "family"? Hemp was so stupid and unable to control himself sexually that I didn't have much time for his character. Still, I was glad that he was able to finally move beyond his lost love and toward Madge. This author's prose deserves another mention for its mesmeric beauty, and that is one of many reasons I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to anyone who likes historical romance with some magic mixed in.

The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson is the third and final book in the Girl of Fire and Thorn trilogy. Having read and loved the first two books about Queen Elisa, the chubby Latina with an amazing mind and magical godstone buried in her navel, I was anxious to see how it all worked out for this far away land and it's divided people. Here's the blurb:
In the deeply satisfying conclusion to the bestselling Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy, seventeen-year-old sorcerer-queen Elisa travels into the unknown realm of the enemy to win back her true love, save her country, and uncover the final secrets of her destiny.
Elisa is a fugitive in her own country. Her enemies have stolen the man she loves in order to lure her to the gate of darkness. As she and her daring companions take one last quest into unknown enemy territory to save Hector, Elisa will face hardships she's never imagined. And she will discover secrets about herself and her world that could change the course of history. She must rise up as champion—a champion to those who have hated her most. Riveting, surprising, and achingly romantic, Rae Carson has spun a bold and powerful conclusion to her extraordinary trilogy.
 I can see why so many compare this trilogy to Tamora Pierce's works, but I found it more diverse and more romantic than Pierce's novels, (which I love, don't get me wrong) while still telling the essential coming of age/coming into her own tale. The prose is juicy and the plot rich and full of HEA moments. What I loved, though, was that Elisa still had to work hard on moving forward and never giving up in the face of those bent on destroying her. I admired her toughness and her leadership abilities that blossomed as the story wound on. The idea that you already have everything you need inside of you to make you successful in life isn't a new one, but it is a truism that will be as right today as it will be hundreds of years from now. Obviously this book and series deserve an A, and a recommendation to all those who love epic fantasy told from a woman's perspective.

Death and Relaxation by Devon Monk is a brand-spanking new series by the author of the Allie Beckstrom series, the Steampunk Dead Iron series and the House Immortal/Frankenstein reboot series. I've read everything that Oregon-based Monk has written, and I can honestly say she never disappoints. Each series is more delightful and filled with unforgettable characters than the last. D&R is no exception, and I found it to be very similar to Jacqueline Carey's "Agent of Hel" trilogy. In fact, there's also a touch of Diana Tregarde (from Mercedes Lackey's supernatural mystery series) in Delaney Reed, chief of police of the God vacation town of Ordinary, Oregon (adjacent to Boring, Oregon, which actually exists IRL). Here's the blurb:
Monsters, gods, and mayhem...
Police Chief Delaney Reed can handle the Valkyries, werewolves, gill-men and other paranormal creatures who call the small beach town of Ordinary, Oregon their home. It's the vacationing gods who keep her up at night.
With the famous rhubarb festival right around the corner, small-town tensions, tempers, and godly tantrums are at an all-time high. The last thing Delaney needs is her ex-boyfriend reappearing just when she's finally caught the attention of Ryder Bailey, the one man she should never love.
No, scratch that. The actual last thing she needs is a dead body washing ashore, especially since the dead body is a god.
Catching a murderer, wrestling a god power, and re-scheduling the apocalypse? Just another day on the job in Ordinary. Falling in love with her childhood friend while trying to keep the secrets of her town secret? That's gonna take some work. 

"Laney" Reed is amazing. Smart, funny, and able to lead a dual life as sheriff of this bizarre little town full of gods and monsters, and the person who takes powers from the Gods and stores it while they are on vacation. Her co-workers and family, not loving so much. I loved the interactions between Laney and the gods, especially Death, who, it turns out, has a yen for sugary treats, but refuses to admit it.  I also loved the loathsome rhubarb festival tasting, and how Laney gets roped into being a judge by a scheming Hera. I was on the edge of my seat as to whether Laney would make the deadline to transfer Heimdahl's power to a mortal (which is required after a god dies when they're on vacation as mortals in Ordinary) and I was surprised by the outcome of her affair with the handsome deputy. This, as the teenagers say, is the good sh*t, yo! Monk's prose is beautifully clean and crisp, her plot wildly exuberant and her storytelling nearly perfect. I can't figure out why more people haven't heard of her and glommed onto her work.  A solid A, and I'd recommend this new series to anyone who loves urban fantasy.

The School of Good and Evil by Soman Chainani was an impulse buy the last time I happened by The Sequel Used Bookstore in Enumclaw. It looked like another reboot of a fairy tale, or tales, and I assumed it was for a YA audience. It is actually for a younger YA audience, more the preteens and early teenagers than those over 15, but it was still fairly good reading. Here's the blurb:
The New York Times bestselling The School for Good and Evil, the first book in the series, is an epic journey into a dazzling new world, where the only way out of a fairy tale is to live through one. This paperback edition features an Extras section, giving readers a chance to see which school they'd be in and a Q&A with the author, Soman Chainani.
With her glass slippers and devotion to good deeds, Sophie knows she'll earn top marks at the School for Good and join the ranks of past students like Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White. Meanwhile, Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks and wicked black cat, seems a natural fit for the villains in the School for Evil.
The two girls soon find their fortunes reversed—Sophie's dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School for Good, thrust among handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.
But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are?
I could understand why this book is trying to send the message to young girls that it is what you have in your heart and soul that matter, rather than what you look like on the outside. With today's girls becoming insecure and being bullied if they're different at younger and younger ages, we, as a society, are in dire need of more role models and stories that show girls in a more positive light, able to do whatever they seek to do, no matter their size, or sexual preference or color or religion. The girls in this book go to great lengths to rescue each other, and they learn in the end that we're all a blend of good and evil, and that life is not black and white. That said, I felt like the message got pretty heavy handed by about halfway through the book. I also felt the prose was too frivolous and fluffy, and the plot way too predictable. The whole "adults are evil" and "boys can't be trusted" trope also became a bit tedious by the halfway mark. Though the landscape of the book was imaginative, I would still give this book a B, and recommend it to anyone with a preteen girl in the house who likes to read fantasy and loves Frozen and the other Disney "girls" films. I don't think that I will be buying anymore books in this series, though, as it just reads to sugary bubblegum for my tastes.

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