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#26: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

A NOTE FROM GREG GAINES, AUTHOR OF THIS BOOK

I have no idea how to write this stupid book.

Can I just be honest with you for one second?  This is the literal truth.  When I first started writing this book, I tried to start it with the sentence “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”  I genuinely thought that I could start this book that way.  I just figured, it’s a classic book-starting sentence.  But then I couldn’t even figure out how you were supposed to follow that up.  I started at the computer for an hour and it was all I could do not to have a colossal freak-out.  In desperation I tried messing with the punctuation and italicization like:

It was the best of times?  And it was the worst of times?!!

What the hell does that even mean?  Why would you even think to do that?  You wouldn’t, unless you had a fungus eating your brain, which I guess I probably have.

Me Earl and the Dying GirlThis is how long it took me to realize I was going to have to force myself not to stay up all night and read this book in one go.  I mean, come on.  This voice?  I didn’t even know who Greg was, but I was in.  Honestly, I was probably in at “I have no idea how to write this stupid book.”  So many questions!  Why is he writing it then?  Is he being forced to?  What happened that was so important or awesome or scary or whatever that he decided to sit down in front of a computer and force himself to think of words while at the same time acknowledging that he might have a brain fungus?

And then I got to page 2.

I do actually want to say one other thing before we get started with this horrifyingly inane book.  You may have already figured out that it’s about  girl who had cancer.  So there’s a chance you’re thinking “Awesome!  This is going to be a wise and insightful story about love and death and growing up.  It’s probably going to make me cry literally the entire time.  I am so fired up right now.”  If that is an accurate representation of your thoughts, you should probably try to smush this book into a garbage disposal and then run away.  Because here’s the thing: I learned absolutely nothing from Rachel’s leukemia.  In fact, I probably became stupider about life because of the whole thing.

Again, I don’t know who Greg is, but I’m in.

Turns out Greg is a high school senior who has perfected the art of invisibility.  He realized early on in his educational journey that he had nothing to offer the social structure of school and rather than get the snot knocked out of him on a daily basis, he became a master of blending in and disappearing.  It’s quite brilliant.  He maintains a friendly and neutral relationship with all groups at school.  No one is really sure where he belongs, figures he’s accepted by all, so they pretty much ignore him.  He’ll pop in to laugh at a joke and then fade away.  If no group can fully claim you, then no group can ostracize and destroy you.

He’s got one friend, but they don’t interact with each other at school.  Greg thinks of him more as a co-worker.  They met in kindergarten and bonded over video games.  This then led to an understanding of movies that no one their age understood or even wanted to understand.  When you’re in elementary school, subtitles aren’t interesting.  Greg and Earl realize they can make movies, and they go crazy.  They then quickly realize that when they do make a movie, they must never, ever show it to anyone.  Greg’s parents will ooh and ahh and tell them how proud they are even though it’s clear to everyone that what they just watched was a waste of time for everyone on the planet.  No, the movies are just for Greg and Earl and the making is more important than the watching.

Greg’s life is going just the way he wants, until Rachel gets cancer.  But don’t worry, he doesn’t learn anything from it.

One of the things I really liked about this book was the way Greg tells it.  We know right away that he’s writing this after everything has happened.  We know Rachel dies.  We know that something happens during this that has made him sit down to write the book.  He tells the story in a way that makes sense for him – sometimes it’s linear, sometimes not so much.  He’s a filmmaker, so sometimes we get scripts.

For the entire book we get the confusion that is the high school boy brain.  Even worse, he knows how stupid he is, but he can’t stop himself.  His inner monologue is brilliant.  As he finds himself going off on a tangent of being sexually attracted to pillows he sort of sits back, horrified at what is happening while at the same time being fascinated at the effect of it on Rachel.  Might as well get even more and more disgusting about masterbation if it’s making a dying girl laugh, right?

Clearly what I loved the most about this book is Greg’s voice.  Andrews created a character who is fully developed from the first page.  Yeah, we don’t know who he is or what he’s about, but we know this is a character that could exist off the page.

He continues to tell his story and watching everything unfold, you start to get more and more uncomfortable.  You know Rachel dies.  Greg tells us on page two!  And yet you want it to be different.  You also get to see Greg making amazingly bad decisions and you want to grab him and, if not shake him, at least turn him around and shove him down the hallway so he can think about what he’s going to do before doing it.  There are a lot of cringe inducing moments in these pages.

I also wanted everything to work out for Earl, but I knew it wasn’t going to happen.  Earl got dealt a bad hand.  His homelife sucks and statistically you know he’s not going to have a super great ending.  Still, you want him to have that moment of discovery, but don’t forget… Greg told you that this isn’t a story of love and redemption and learning and growing.

This book made me laugh out loud more than once, which is always awesome.  There were parts that reminded me of my own stupid high school moments, which aren’t awesome, but it is awesome when an author can capture reality.  I liked Greg and I wanted him to come out on top.  Getting to the end of the book, I felt so bad for him and wondered what this one year of school had done to him and if he would be able to recover.  The start of the book isn’t coming from a place of “I am awesome and let me tell you how I got to this amazing life.”  I wasn’t sure where he even was when writing.  Is he in jail?  A psych ward?  In some random hotel room in the middle of no where?  What happened?

I really needed him to be OK.

This is one of my favorite books I’ve read so far this year.  I could have easily read the whole thing in one sitting because of how Andrews wrote it.  I loved the structure and Greg’s voice.  The setup of the chapters is fantastic with lists and reviews, as well as screenplays coming in.  It’s original and it works.

#51: Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart by Joyce Carol Oates

How many times will I use the word “love” in this review?

I was introduced to Joyce Carol Oates in high school by a favorite teacher.  We read some of her short stories and I was in love with how dark and fucked up they were.  Some of my friends have told me that Oates was ruined for them in high school, and this is sad because her writing is amazing.

I’ve read several of her short story collections and novels and love how her mind works and the beauty of her writing.  Even her “lighter” fiction is still dark.  (I just looked up her bibliography.  I think I’ve read 1% of her work.  I knew she had written a lot, but I didn’t know how much!)  I love how her main characters are often older girls and young women who experience and do horrible things.  She is incredibly gifted at capturing how girls this age can completely shut down and let things happen to them.  Or, when they fight back, they fight hard and things are taken care of.

When I heard that she was writing children’s fiction, I imagined that it was going to be about a  sweet little kitten who burns down a forest.  When she got into YA, I was extremely happy because I knew it she would be a favorite, especially for students who liked Laurie Halse Anderson.  These weren’t going to be fluffy books – they were going to be realistic moments of pure fucked-upped-ness.  Big Mouth & Ugly Girl did not disappoint.  Freaky Green Eyes?  Holy shit.  Small Avalanches and Other Stories had some previously published works and I hope a new generation of high school readers loved them as much as I did when I first read them.

And now to step back from this love fest to talk about Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart.

BitterThe book starts in the late 50s in a broken industrial city in upstate New York.  Blacks and whites are clearly separated, even though the children go to school together and in some places the men work together.  There is clearly a black side of town and the kids know that they should not intermingle.  This is especially true for the black boys and white girls.

The book opens with the death of Little Red — a sixteen year old white trash white teen.  His body is found in the river with his skull crushed.  Iris Courtney hesitantly approaches one of the police officers to whisper that she heard he had caused trouble with some bikers in the area.

And then we skip back in time to learn more about Iris.

Iris’ parents are violently in love.  Persia, her mother, is beautiful to the point of pain and loves the attention she gets from men.  At times this attention is what she seems to allow her to even exist.  Iris is used as an accessory is picked up and put aside as needed.  As her parents become more and more abusive to each other and ignore her more and more, she retreats into her own world.  She begins to lose her emotions and finds herself distantly watching things that happen and wonders how she should feel.  She studies everything, trying to learn how people act, respond, cope, and live.

Meanwhile, on the black side of town, Jinx Fairchild is playing basketball beautifully and is beginning to be  scouted by colleges, even though he’s only sixteen.  When he’s on the court, everyone adores him.  Off the court, he’s just another black boy.  Like Iris, he tries to disappear in good behavior.  He doesn’t want to be noticed or to be an excuse or target for any of the whites in town.  He’ll be out of here in a few years and he needs to dominate on the basketball court while hiding everywhere else.

And then Little Red brings Iris and Jinx together.

For the rest of the book, Iris and Jinx live mirrored lives, only it’s a bent and twisted mirror and the reflections don’t quite match.  Iris begins to actually feel emotions, but only when she thinks of Jinx.  She tries to bring their lives together somehow.  She sees that they are forever linked and wants to keep this bond and let it grow and strengthen.  Jinx, on the other hand, is horrified by what happened and hates that the only other person who was there was this younger white girl.  He needs to stay away from her so he can stay away from his own mind.

As they get older, their lives continue to reflect each other.  Iris becomes what she thinks a young white woman should be.  Jinx becomes what he thinks whites want a black man to be, and painfully, what his black community wants him to be.  As Iris takes on the role of successful adult, Jinx finds himself more and more trapped by a world he willingly stepped into.  When Iris escapes she continues to study emotions and practice how she should act and respond.  Persia was all fire and drink and the only way Iris can think to escape this is to have no feelings at all.  Jinx feels too much.  He knows everything has changed and he hates how his life was decided when he was still in high school.

By the end of the book they have both made decisions that will define who they are until they die.  They each do what they think they are supposed to do, not necessarily what they want.  One has to wonder if they even know what they want.  They seem to stop making decisions and simply let things happen.

Their mothers also reflect each other.  Both start out as strong women and as they grow older and doors begin to close, they find themselves trapped by their own expectations of what they should or should not be.  Respect is lost and it breaks them both.

It’s a brilliant book.  Oates’ writing is simply stunning.  Sometimes her words twirl and spin slowly like honey being drizzled into hot tea.  Descriptions and moments spill silkily across the pages.  It is especially breathtaking when she does this during the darkest moments of the book.  Her descriptions of ugliness, pain and fear follow staccato beats, pulsing into your mind.  It’s poetry in prose form and as I read I had to pause from time to time to simply enjoy the rhythm of the book and reread the art of her writing.  I have a feeling I’m going to gloriously devour more of her books over the next few months.

#34: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

This is another book I absolutely raced through and felt breathless when I was done because it is that good.  I have no clue why it’s taken me so long to write this review.

It’s post 9/11 and Homeland Security is the norm.  17 year old Marcus lives in San Francisco and spends his time in the world of computers and figuring out how to outsmart the near constant surveillance of his school and city.  His real life friends and online crew bristle against the pressure being put on them on both sides of the computer, but Marcus has no clue what reality is until he’s temporarily removed from it.

While skipping school to search for the next clue for an intense online game, the Bay Bridge is blown up and Marcus and his friends are taken in for questioning.  It doesn’t matter that he knows his rights; he hasn’t been arrested, and he’s not talking to the police.  Homeland Security has him and all they want him to do is prove that he’s not guilty.  After being tortured and humiliated he finds himself willing to say or do anything they want if it means they will let him go.  At the mercy of their sadistic methods, he signs for his life and is dumped on the sidewalk, “free”.  Too bad one friend is still missing.

Terrified and angry, he can’t tell his parents what happened.  Even if he did, he’s not sure if they’d believe him.  His dad is in full Rah-Rah-America mode, celebrating the surveillance and security measures that are now in place.  Getting pulled over for questioning makes him proud to be an American and do his civic duty, and he’s angry at the thought that Marcus would dare speak out against what’s best for the country, their city, and their home.

As anger grows bigger than fear, Marcus decides to fight back.  No one can speak the truth and no one really knows what the truth is.  Using his knowledge of computers and pulling from his friends, he creates an online network that appears to be safe.  They begin frantically sharing data and stories and trying to jam Homeland’s systems.  Some of it is laughingly easy to disable and Marcus is saddened by the impotence of what was created to make people feel safe.  Was it even put in place to work or do people just want to see cameras on the streets?

Marcus knows he doesn’t have much time.  As he’s pushed closer to having to go public and needing more support, he knows he’s being watched and can be grabbed at any moment.  How much information can he get out before he disappears into a trailer again?

This book was exciting, depressing, hopeful, and wonderful.  On a happy coincidence, I’d recently read Finding George Orwell in Burma [my review is here] and then 1984 [my review is here] and this made an incredible third partner.  Doctorow read 1984 for the first time when he was twelve and in the bibliography he explains how it affected  him.  A lot of what is happening with Homeland Security is foreshadowed by Orwell and it’s terrifying to know that this is reality.  It’s easy to ignore it.  It’s easy to agree with Marcus’ dad and feel that if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about.  Only “those people” get caught, so why is this my problem?

The parts that take place in Marcus’ school are especially suffocating and frustrating.  High school can suck without any help, but what happens when your classmates are rewarded for reporting terrorist-like conversations and your favorite teacher suddenly can’t be found after facilitating a powerful and educational debate on the Bill of Rights?  What do you do when motion detecting sensors are placed in the hallways and classes are recorded to keep kids safe?  How do you fight back when every word you chose can be used against you?  It’s a double lock of having no power as a minor and having no power as a public high school student.  It’s enough to kick the reader into an anxiety attack because all of this can happen and it is happening.  Oh, and on top of all of this?  He’s got his first girlfriend and is dizzy with hormones and bliss.

Although the paranoia can feel overwhelming, this book is hopeful and there are fantastic references at the end.  I hope it encourages readers of all ages (this is tagged as YA) to learn more about how computers are being used, and how they can use computers.

The second book, Homeland, will be published in 2013.  I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes next.

#28: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Oh how I loved this book.  A friend often refers to her checklist of things she likes in books and when she reviews them she talks about what boxes were checked off.

This books checks off so many boxes for me.

  • Reminders of my schoolgirl horse phase
  • Strong female teen character that doesn’t go to pieces because she starts to like a boy AND doesn’t give up when thing get hard OR wait for someone to solve her problems
  • Strong male teen character that quietly and thoughtfully takes in the world around him without giving in to what he “should be doing”
  • Kids forced to take care of each other after parents die (Is that a weird thing to “like”?)
  • Folklore magic
  • Cape Cod-like island life with crazy stormy weather
  • Realistic jerks for bad guys.

In a world of sweeping generalizations, boys go through their firefighter stage and girls go through their horse stage.  Somewhere around the third or fourth grade, I destroyed everything written by Marguerite Henry.  When I found out Chincoteague and Assateague Island were real places and there were actual ponies that you could go and see, my elementary school mind bent.  Pair this with my love of Cape Cod and the ocean and thunderstorms and it was nearly too much for my body to handle.  Ponies?  Sand dunes?  The ocean?  Are you kidding me?  Was this world built for me and me alone?

Flash forward to me at 36 years old picking up The Scorpio Races.  Not only do we have a wild horse race, we have freaking folklore horses.  The men of the island will venture into the sea to capture a deadly capaill uisce and see if they are strong enough to control it.  You can’t tame a capaill uisce but you can hope your horse sense, knowledge of faerie magic and strength is enough to build trust and prevent you from being torn apart and left to bleed to death in the sand.

Every November the capaill uisce are raced.  Sean Kendrick races for the love of his capaill uisce mount, the horse he hopes to some day own.  The same horse that killed Sean’s father in the race when Sean was a boy.  Puck Connolly is racing to try to keep her family together.  Her parents were killed by a capaill uisce years ago, and since then she and her brothers have barely held on to what little they own.  She doesn’t care about magic or tradition, but doesn’t mean to insult the history of the race.  She doesn’t have much time, and winning the race is her only option.  Sean, on the other hand, is expected to win.  Even though he’s an outsider on his own island, everyone knows he’s a master when it comes to the capaill uisce.  His only dream is to own Corr, the beautiful mount who trusts him.  When a stranger comes to the island to watch the races and learn more about the horses, both non-magic mounts and capaill uisce, Sean begins to wonder if he should be asking for more from the island.  Puck, simply by being who she is, continues to challenge him as a rider and a young man.  Everything is changing for both of them and the race is going to decide the next phase of their lives.

My two favorite parts of this book are the folklore of the capaill uisce and Puck.  Folklore is almost always going to be a win for me in any book.  And Puck?  She is a perfect mix of confidence and terror as she deals with things she shouldn’t even have to think about.  She both relies on and is infuriated by her brothers.  She misses her parents, especially her mom, while at the same time using what she learned from them to keep it together.  She doesn’t change when she meets Sean and refuses to be the kind of girl who would back down to impress someone.  She quickly realizes she’s going to have to fight to race since she’s the first female to attempt it, and although she is sometimes reduced to angry tears, she’s not the kind to give up because someone tells her she has to.

The supporting cast was just as wonderful as the two main characters.  The balance between Puck and her brothers was great to read because you can see how the death of their parents affected them individually and how they all compliment each other, even when they’re fighting.  The two villains are disgusting and easy to hate, even if you understand why they want Puck and Sean to fail.  Actually… other than money, I’m not sure what Malvern the elder’s motivation is.  Still, it’s good to hate him, especially when he shows moments of almost being human.

The suspense of the ending was perfect.  Both of them had to win in order to get what they want and need.  I kept wondering how Stiefvater was going to pull it off without making me hate her.  Would Puck win?  Would Sean?  Would they both cross the finish line at the same time?  (I would have hated her for that one.)  Would one throw the race for the other?  Would they both lose?  HOW WERE THINGS GOING TO BE RESOLVED???

I’m happy to report that the ending was wonderfully done.  It was heartbreaking and beautiful and I sniffled through the last few pages.  I was honestly happy for these characters.  It’s definitely a group that’s going to continue to live in my head and I wish they were real so I could check in with them every few years to see how they’re doing.

#16: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson

If you know who The Bloggess is you probably already have this book or are on the library wait list for it.  If you don’t know who she is, I hope I do her justice in this review.

I’m not sure how I discovered Jenny Lawson.  I’m guessing someone posted something on Facebook and I wandered over to her site.  And then I stayed there for hours, laughing until I cried and then going into that thing where you’re laughing so hard that you start to get scared that you’re hurting yourself internally and that makes it even funnier and now you’re just sobbing and you can’t stop.  The only thing that makes this kind of a laugh better is when it happens at work and you have to keep it together because you can’t lose it that hard when you’re at your desk and people don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re pretty sure they aren’t hoping you’re reading a blog when you should be doing work related things.  And now you’re red and tears are pouring down your face and you’re praying that the phone doesn’t ring because there is no way you can get enough air into your lungs to choke out your company approved greeting.  If you’re really, really lucky, an office friend will realize you’re breaking down and send you an email asking you WTF is going on over there and you’ll email back “GO TO http://thebloggess.com/ RIGHT NOW!!!” and then you’ll hear her start to stifle shrieking laughter and you’ll mentally highfive each other over your cubicle walls.

[Side note: I probably came close to losing my job the day I read How a Fish Almost Destroyed My Childhood by Allie Brosh on Hyperbole and a Half.  I miss her and I hope she is healthy and happy.]

But anyway, I discovered The Bloggess and was so smitten that I wrote her a fan message over on FB and friended her there.  I don’t know how popular she was before, but suddenly it seemed like everyone was talking about her.  A whole bunch of lucky ones had known about her for a long time.  She’s been writing for years, although I’m currently not smart enough to figure out when her theblogges.com blog started. 

I read her other work from time to time, but I follow her main Bloggess site the most.  I love it because it’s a wonderful mix of childhood memories, stories of what’s going on in her day-to-day life, crazy imaginations of what’s going on in her day-to-day life, thought dumps, and just regular writing.  It’s intimate and welcoming and often shriek out loud funny.  But not always.  Sometimes it’s painful and dark and honest, and that makes me love her so much more.  She’s open about her chronic pain and depression and selfharm and has become a lifeline for many people.  Literally a lifeline for some who were ready to die but realized through her and her readers that they weren’t alone.  And she stresses that it’s not about her and that it is about her readers.  She writes, but we’ve created the community.  And it’s a beautiful community and welcoming and broken and healing.  I don’t know if people understand how comforting it is when people speak of the dark times, especially when these people seem to be surrounded by light.  It is possible to have a day filled with amazing energy and hope and smiles, and then to wake up the next morning and be too depressed to move.  You think there’s something wrong with you that’s never happened to anyone else and it’s confusing and scary, but if you’re lucky you find a community like The Bloggess’ readers and you hear all these other stories and you start to think that maybe you can believe that depression is a lying bastard.

And then you read a post about how she found another giant mushroom that looked like a boob and you hopefully begin to know that depression is a lying bastard.

So… her book.  I got the audio version and if you have the choice, get the audio version.  She sings the chapter titles.  There’s a bonus chapter.  There are delightful rambling outtakes at the end.  And honestly, when you learn the story of how a child ran into a eviscerated deer and got stuck inside and then threw up in there and then was covered in deer blood and who knows what else and also her own vomit and then her dad just hosed her and the deer off and then later they ate the deer, don’t you want to hear that story told out loud by the person it happened to? 

Like her blog, there are hilarious moments and there are heartbreaking moments.  The chapters with her husband Victor are outstanding.  And yes, Beyoncé the Giant Metal Chicken is in here.  And when Jenny tells the story, it’s even funnier.

Read her blog.  Get this book.  Laugh and cry and be a better person.

#14: Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Kick ass girls and women in fantasy make me so happy.  These young women deal with all of the frustrations of growing up and becoming independent, falling in love, following their heart, and not letting anyone tell them who they can and cannot be.

Some of favorite badass young women are found in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom Series.  Sabriel and Lirael are amazing.  They are forced into situations that they are in no way prepared to deal with, but trusting themselves, they fight and claw and tear through.  (Side note: there is a fourth full Old Kingdom book coming out in 2013.  Excuse me while I do some excited celebratory movements.  …  Aaaaaaaand I’m back.)  I’d like everyone to read anything by Tamora Pierce and hang out with her amazing young women.  These girls are not going to sit by and let things happen to them while they watch.  They have stuff to do and it’s going to get done.

Kristin Cashor has given us three new young women who stand up and work.

Bitterblue is the third book in the Graceling Realm series, following Graceling and Fire.  I strongly recommend that you read them in order, even though Fire is considered a companion book. 

In this world, some are Graced.  Anyone born with two different colored eyes has a great talent to be discovered. It might be rather useless like being able to whistle without growing tired or helpful like being able to bake the most delicious bread or sing the sweetest songs.  But it can also be dangerous.  Some are Graced with killing or mind reading,  or being able to craft untraceable poisons or having unstoppable strength.  The kings of the realms use their power to take any child born Graced and hold them until their Grace is discovered.  If they are useful, they will be kept.  Because of this, kings have grown more and more powerful and more and more dangerous and corrupt.  Gracelings are used as sport to entertain their kings, their Graces used against each other.  Many Gracelings are openly distrusted because they could be hiding something and using it against everyone, Graced or not.  This is a land where conspiracy and secrets and fear is thick.

There are spoilers ahead for those who have not read the first two.  You’ve been warned.

Eight years have passed since the end of Graceling.  Bitterblue is now queen of Monsea, and at 18 she is surrounded by older men who advised her father and who seem to want to help her.  They also hide her from her own people.  The realm is slowly healing from her evil father’s reign, and there are still secrets and whispers and Bitterblue realizes she’s helplessly, and possibly dangerously, uninformed. 

Restless and suspicious, she begins sneaking out of the castle in disguise to spend time with her subjects in the hopes of discovering what is being kept from her.  This leads to more confusion as she finds that people are remembering things differently.  Some are content to forget everything the evil king did and refuse to talk of the past.  Others want reparations for what was taken from them, but even here they seem hesitant to speak.  It quickly becomes obvious that what Bitterblue is being told by her advisors is not what is happening on the streets.  The rich continue to profit from the evil king’s reign and those who would speak truth go missing.

Bitterblue makes new friends and is exhausted by having to lie about who she is, and then having to hide what she is learning from her advisors.  She is not sure who she can trust and what the truth is, but it is clear that something is very, very wrong.  I was confused throughout because a character would seem to lie one minute, speak the truth the next, and then tell a half truth after.  It felt impossible to know what the truth was, and which truth was the one to believe.  Many good people are making decisions that were right for them, but are they right for Bitterblue and are they right for the kingdom?  At what point does healing and rebuilding become harmful if the past is not addressed?  And Bitterblue is caught because she doesn’t know everything that her father did.

I really enjoyed this book because you get to live in Bitterblue’s confused head.  It’s clear that things are being kept from her, but because you only have her perspective, you’re as frustrated as she is.  What are the right questions to ask?  What can she reveal, and who can be trusted?  There were several moments where I was almost in a panic because she was confiding in someone who might turn against her.  I wanted her to have a trusted friend, but it was clear that people who wished her a long healthy life were also lying to her.  And why were they doing it???

And on top of the weight of the crown, she’s eighteen and falling in love for the first time.  But does a queen have a choice?  Her advisors need her to marry royalty and produce heirs, but this is the last thing on her mind.  She wants to heal her lands and make sure her people are safe.  But can a queen even know what’s best for her subjects what she cannot even understand what their lives are like?

This series lives on my Absolute Favorites shelf.  There are comforting faerie tale themes, but it’s not a cookie cutter plot and I was never sure who to trust or what mistakes Bitterblue was making.  Cashore has created an amazing land and filled it with characters who are delightfully real.  There is much heartbreak in these pages, but there is also hope and friendship and loyalty and love.  At times Bitterblue is completely alone, and yet you know there is a chance that, even just for one moment, she will be understood and loved and protected and will know the truth.

Also?  She knows the exact place to slip a knife into anyone who dares to attack her.  How can you not like a young woman who can wear silks while killing?

This is a solid fantasy series and I recommend it to anyone who is looking for fantastic characters, both male and female.  Read the other two first, then settle in to try to figure out what happened during the years when the evil king reigned.

#13: The Book of Flying by Keith Miller

This book was a wonderful surprise.  I have no idea how it got on my To Be Read list, but I am so glad it did and that I randomly picked it in my last library run.

The writing in this book is beautiful.  More than beautiful.  It’s the kind of book where you need to pause and reread so you can hear the words a second time.  There were parts I needed to say out loud because the phrasing was so good.  It became a tactile experience for me – the cadence paired with alliteration and consonance and assonance created a flow and I needed to feel the words in my mouth.  It was gorgeous poetry in prose form and even as I was pulled into the story I still needed to slow down to enjoy and marvel at the writing.

The plot itself is fantastic.  It follows a classic folklore motif and was comfortable without being clichéd.  Pico is a lonely library and poet, sick with love for the girl he cannot have.  He was born without wings, and Sisi is blessed with them.  The two have some time together, but Sisi realizes Pico will never be able to give her what the air and the ocean and the sky does, and she leaves him to his books and poems.

Lovesick, Pico packs a few books and journeys into the land beyond.  He follows the promise of The Book of Flying.  If he reads it, he’ll grow wings.  With his wings, he’ll be able to win Sisi back and have his love and the air and the sky.  He’ll be worthy of her and of all the winged ones.

The folklore journey is wonderfully followed.  As he travels further and further away from the sea, he meets people who are on journeys of their own.  His quest is told through their stories and each section is based on the strangers’ tales without becoming its own separate book.  The overlap is incredibly skillful and Miller takes these stories and weaves them into Pico’s journey.

These new characters and friends have amazing tales of their own.  There is a lot of heartbreak and longing.  Each character is severely broken and they all want Pico to be successful so that their own misery and mistakes will be somehow forgiven.  There is a lot of pain in every page, and yet Pico brings so much hope.  When he falters it’s even more upsetting because he is representing all the others’ failures.  Again, Miller takes these characters and makes their faults build up Pico’s strengths.  They need him to succeed.  They need to know he’s out there on his path and completing his quest.  They need something good and perfect and his love and dedication to Sisi is a gift.  It’s amazing, but it is not neat and tidy.  This is not a sweet bedtime tale for little ones.

As he gets closer and closer to Morning Town and the book that might not even be real, I wondered if Sisi was worthy of this quest.  I wondered if he would decide he was better without her.  I wondered if it would end the way he hoped and they’d live happily ever after.  I wondered if he’d get his wings or not.  I wondered if he’d even return home or if he’d find a new home and a new life.  I absolutely loved every step of his journey, even when he stopped for too long and lost his way. 

And a wonderful bonus!  Keith Miller’s new book is out and I cannot wait to get it in my hands.