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An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet

inheritance of ashesVery occasionally, in the midst of all the other books, you come across one that feels like it was written literally and specifically for you. An Inheritance of Ashes is one of those books for me. As such–fair warning–the rest of this post is not even going to be remotely unbiased.

There are several things that An Inheritance of Ashes has going for it. I  loved the richness of the language; it’s a marvelous combination of realistic (and often funny) dialogue, and poetic prose without a misplaced word. The book opens like this: “The barley was in. The stubble of it lay bent-broke in the fields as far as the eye could see, rows of golden soldiers, endlessly falling, from the river to the blacktop road. On a clear evening, with the harvesting done, you could see both river and road from the farmhouse porch: every acre, lined in sunset light, of Roadstead Farm.” It’s lovely to read, and on re-reading it just now, I caught so many echoes that we’ll see later on in the book.

But while language is certainly important, for me as a reader characters will make or break a book. And here they make it. I cared about all of them: Marthe, and Heron, and Asphodel Jones. Even the more minor characters read as rounded and vibrant in their own right. As I think about it, I suspect that this is quite intentional; that we are supposed to see all of these people as real and important.

However, Hallie, our narrator, is central to this story. We have a tight first person narration here; we see everything through her eyes, through her experiences, and personality, and biases. Bobet is quite aware of this and plays with it throughout the book. While I wouldn’t say that Hallie is exactly an unreliable narrator, we are reminded several times that her point of view is not the only one.

Hallie’s voice is clear and strong and wonderful. She is neither perfect nor passive. She reads as very human: flawed, stubborn, contradictory, full of hope and fear and wanting to love. I completely and utterly believed in her.

The other area where An Inheritance of Ashes really shone for me was in the themes. Partly this is personal–the way Hallie and Marthe’s family is described, the way they struggle to deal with that past while not letting it define them, the way they don’t always succeed–all of that rang so familiar and so true that it felt almost eerie. It moved me to tears several times. I kept thinking, “Yes. This is how it is. This is how it feels. This is how I feel.”

But as well as this aspect, I also truly appreciated the way the book shows the importance of relationships, that our strength lies in each other. That it lies in reaching out, beyond all hope (a little bit of Cordelia Vorkosigan there, maybe). And again there’s that moment when Hallie’s perspective is shown to be limited, when the twists of the past are finally unknotted and we see, with her, a different truth. It might not have worked, but here it does, and it reinforces the idea that by reaching towards others, we can find our own strength.

Finally, I’ll mention that I found the worldbuilding and imagery here fantastic, and gorgeous, and scary, in all the right ways. There’s a lot of depth and richness to the images and the way they tie into the worldbuilding. I really felt that sense of history lying behind the story that we don’t see but that informs everything else.

I’m so glad that the Cybils gave me a reason to pick this one up; it’it will absolutely be one of my favorite books for the year, and one I intended to re-read regularly.

Book information: 2015, Clarion Books; YA

Book source: review copy from the publisher provided for the Cybils

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Other reviews: The Midnight Garden, Teen Reads, Kirkus, you?

If you like this book, you may also be interested in:

Chime by Franny Billingsley
Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar
The Imperial Raadch series by Ann Leckie

 

 

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November 2015 round up

Books I’ve already talked about
This Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee
Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson
Sylvester by Georgette Heyer
The Chocolate Thief by Laura Florand
Among Others by Jo Walton
The Wizard Hunters by Martha Wells
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Other books
Private Politics by Emma Barry: I like Emma Barry’s contemporary romances a lot–they’re smart and fun, and even though I don’t love Washington politics, they manage to engage me.

The Wanderers by Kate Ormond: Cybils book. There seems to be a circus theme this year! At any rate, I had kind of an ambiguous reaction to this one–I liked the concept and the writing was perfectly serviceable, but I didn’t find the whole particularly memorable.

Half a Creature From the Sea by David Almond: Cybils book. Almond is a wonderful writer–great at magical descriptions and dreamy, eerie stories. I do wonder who this short story collection is FOR; the stories themselves are mg/YA, but the framing distances the narrator from that age and for me set up an unnecessary barrier between reader and story.

Ash & Bramble by Sarah Prineas: Cybils book, that I was planning to read already. So, I really love Sarah Prineas’s books, and I was looking forward to this one a lot. I did find that I liked it a little less than I was expecting; I’m not sure if it was just me & the mood I was in, but I wanted just a little more depth. It’s an interesting dark fairytale mashup, and I suppose that part of the issue is just that I’m not a huge fan of fairy tale mashups (as opposed to retellings). All in all, I think I need to consider whether there’s an actual issue with the book, or whether it’s just not quite for me.

The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore: Cybils book. It’s another circus story! I actually was reminded quite a bit at the beginning of Gwenda Bond’s Girl on a Wire, but they stories go very different places. I liked the writing, which had a great sense of magical wonder, and the characters; I’m not quite as sold on the plot but overall this one worked pretty well for me.

Slasher Girls & Monster Boys ed by April Genevieve Tucholke: Cybils book. A collection of short horror stories, which draw on a reference of film or book. As is usually the case with short story collections, I REALLY liked some stories and REALLY disliked others. Nova Ren Suma’s “The Birds of Azalea Street” opens the collection and absolutely blew me away; I also found Leigh Bardugo’s “Verse Chorus Verse” genuinely unsettling.

Serpentine by Cindy Pon: Cybils book. I’ve enjoyed Pon’s books in the past, and I liked this one as well. I believe it is the first book in a new series and for me the ending was pretty abrupt, but it’s a nice start.

Other posts
Made and Making: October
Made and Making: November
Apple-cheddar pie
[Witch Week] Slantwise fairy tale retellings
11-24-15
Comfort Reads
Ten favorite quotations

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bookish posts reviews

Cybils review: The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn

shadow behind the starsI read Hahn’s debut, A Creature of Midnight, last year and appreciated a lot about it, while also feeling ultimately slightly detached from the story. So I was interested to see how her second book, The Shadow Behind the Stars, would play out. I thought it was excellent and showed Hahn’s strengths and growth as a writer.

The Shadow Behind the Stars is narrated by Chloe, the youngest of the three sisters known as the Fates. Well. Sort of the youngest; all three were born at the same moment, but they show themselves to others, and to a certain degree see the world, as different ages of women. One of the questions the book teases out is the degree to which the Fates themselves are fated–must Chloe be rash and impulsive? Does Serena find herself drawn to children because she truly loves them, or because it is the slot she fits into? I found the treatment of this aspect really interesting and well done.

I noticed how much of A Creature of Moonlight was focused on women’s stories and friendship, and this is definitely the case in this book as well. The sisters’ relationships to each other and Aglaia form the heart of the book, and even when they venture into the wider world, many of the people they actually interact with are women. It’s not that men are completely absent, but the weight of the story is on female experience and voices, which I found very refreshing!

It’s also a story of change, of choices that both humans and the Fates make. Aglaia, the human girl who arrives at their doorstep, forces them to step outside their mostly-comfortable routine (we get hints that things are not quite as smooth as they immediately seem, and later these hints are explained a bit more). I liked the way her humanness was portrayed–sometimes in books where non-humans interact with humans, it can be hard to tell the difference, but here we see Aglaia’s impulsiveness, passion, and stubbornness through Chloe’s eyes.

And Chloe herself is a great character. She’s not exactly an unreliable narrator, but because the story is told in first person narration through her perspective, I kept remembering that everything is filtered through her. She has authority; she’s much older than she looks, and she is after all one of the Fates. But she also has things that she won’t admit even to herself, and part of her journey in the book is coming to terms with this, letting herself admit that the things which happen hurt.

There are definitely sad things that happen in the course of this story, but I felt like, appropriately for this story, they had weight and meaning. (I may have cried a bit.) (Also Monster, why.) I am struggling to decide exactly how I feel about the ending, which I won’t spoil so I can’t just say what I’m trying to tease out. But I think there is a difference between doing something because it’s what you’ve always done and doing it because you mean to.

All in all, this was one I was impressed by–I didn’t even mention Hahn’s prose, which is lovely!–and also moved by. It’s definitely one for readers who like quieter, character driven stories, especially retellings of myths and folktales.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2015, Simon & Schuster; YA historical fantasy

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Other reviews: The Book Smugglers @ Kirkus; Teen Reads; Eater of Books, you?

I read this book for the Cybils, but this review is my personal opinion.

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bookish posts reviews

Cybils round up: Rowell, Swendson, Brockenbrough

  carry onCarry On by Rainbow Rowell: I’ve been simultaneously intrigued and concerned by Carry On ever since its publication was announced. How on earth was this going to work? Was Rowell going to write as Gemma T. Leslie? Would it just be a weak Harry Potter readalike? As it turns out, it worked for me! For one thing, it’s Simon’s final year, ie the story we don’t get any glimpse of in Fangirl. It’s also doing some interesting things with the Chosen One trope, and with Simon’s relationships and friendships–I particularly liked that we get pov sections from Agatha and Penelope, and that they’re allowed to be their own characters with their own arc. Is the plot predictable? Maybe; I certainly saw some aspects coming from several miles away. But at the same time, I felt that we were meant to see them coming, that this is a book very aware of the traditions and tropes it’s engaging with. To the extent that I have reservations, it’s that I’m not quite sure what the subtext is saying, or trying to say, with the conflict between the established families and the Mage. Nonetheless, I found this both enjoyable and effective.

rebel mechanicsRebel Mechanics by Shanna Swendson: Alternate history, where the British still rule the American colonies in 1888. The main character is Verity Newton, a young governess who finds a job working for one of the families of Magisters who control magic and its use. But the family and Verity herself have secrets. This is one of those books that I found slightly frustrating, because I liked it, but I wanted to love it. It’s a fairly quick and light read, which is really my issue: I felt like it was teetering on the verge of saying something really thoughtful and interesting about colonialism and rebellion and identity, but never quite managed any of those. On the other hand, it’s perhaps not fair to want a book to be something that it’s simply not; certainly if you’re looking for a coherent and fun steampunk adventure, this is a good one!

game of love and deathThe Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough: This is a very good book for a different reader than I am. If you love books that engage with big ideas and have a sense of sweeping, epic scope, this is probably for you. If you like a heightened style of prose, this is a very well-done example. For me, a reader who is very invested in characters and prefers a quieter prose style, it was very difficult to feel connected with the story. Henry and Flora never quite convinced me that they were real people, as opposed to Love and Death’s pawns, and even their ostensible interests (music and flying) felt somewhat tacked on as opposed to organic. It was nice to see an interracial couple in historical fantasy, and the world was generally at least somewhat diverse. But I felt that the ending was too tidy, and I have questions about the arc of one of the characters. Still, as I said, this was fundamentally a book I appreciated while recognizing that it was also one I was probably never going to personally love.

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Cybils roundup: Moskowitz, Elliott, Larbalestier

This year, I’m going to try doing at least a weekly round up of the Cybils books I’ve read, if not a full blog post for one or more of them (last year I was terrible at reviewing, so sorry Charlotte!). Up first: three books I had been interested in reading already. They’re all books that don’t hold back much in terms of the subjects they’re willing to look at.

glitter and bloodA History of Glitter and Blood by Hannah Moskowitz: In the aftermath of a war between the tightropers and the fairies, ostensibly on behalf of the gnomes who life under the city, the only fairies left in Ferrum are Beckan and her friends. They do what they have to to survive. This one is memorable for a couple of reasons: it doesn’t shy away from what happens in wars, even fictional ones, and how that has forced Beckan and her friends to grow up very quickly. At the same time, there are things that they don’t understand, or don’t fully understand at first.

It also has a marvelously inventive & original world and society that still somehow has bits of fairy tale echoes. I found the details of the different places, as well as the interaction between fairies, gnomes, and tightropers, to be both original and convincing. Finally, the voice here is fantastic–I don’t want to give too much away, but this is a time that unreliable narration really worked for me. And there’s a sense of hard won hope that I really bought and appreciated. I’m still thinking about this book, weeks later.

court of fivesCourt of Fives by Kate Elliott: I really liked a lot of things about this one, from the setting to the complexities of the family and politics. There are a few Little Women echoes, but they’re mostly at the beginning and I personally didn’t find the comparison hugely helpful. At any rate, Elliott does a nice job of writing a character who is athletic and good at it, but who’s also smart and thoughtful. This is the first in a series (trilogy?) and I’m curious to see how the story will play out. There’s quite a bit here about the effects of colonialism and empire, which I don’t feel qualified to really comment on, but which seemed thoughtful and complex as far as I can tell. Jessamy is a compelling main character and I found that the politics of the world, and the effects it has on her and her family, worked really well for me. I do think that the book is maybe a little longer than it needs to be, although I appreciated that Elliott really shows how much training is involved in running the Fives.

razorhurstRazorhurst by Justine Larbalestier: Historical fantasy set in Sydney in 1932. This one focuses on two main characters, Dymphna and Kelpie. Much of the city is ruled by rival gangs, and it’s a pretty brutal time. The book opens with the murder of Dymphna’s boyfriend, Jimmy Palmer, and continues as Dymphna and Kelpie try to stay alive and evade the clutches of the gangs. I liked parts of this–Larbalestier has a vivid sense of description and dialogue–but for me the way the book was set up, with short spurts of narration from different characters, kept me from really connecting with either Dymphna or Kelpie. There was also a tragic moment at the end that I didn’t really feel was earned within the narrative, although I think the point is that pointless things happen. Nonetheless, if you’re interested in the time period or place, or if you want a book that really focuses on the friendship between two girls, this might be one to pick up.

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Cybils 2015!

2015 logoI am very pleased to be able to say that I’m a panelist for the Cybils awards once again! This year, I’ll be a first round judge for the YA Speculative Fiction category (sci-fi & fantasy). This means that from October 15-December 30th, you should expect me to be: reading, reviewing, putting books on hold, returning books to the library, bemoaning the lack of space on my bookshelf & floor, etc etc. I’m really excited. 🙂

Plus, my fellow judges are awesome!

Sheila Ruth
Wands and Worlds

Kim Baccelia
Si, Se Puede
Kimberly Francisco
Stacked Books

Allie Jones
In Bed With Books
Cindy Hannikman