Book Review: Ironside (Modern Faerie Tales, #3) by Holly Black

Title: Ironside
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: McElderry Books
Publication date: 2007
Length: 323 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In the realm of Faerie, the time has come for Roiben’s coronation. Uneasy in the midst of the malevolent Unseelie Court, pixie Kaye is sure of only one thing — her love for Roiben. But when Kaye, drunk on faerie wine, declares herself to Roiben, he sends her on a seemingly impossible quest. Now Kaye can’t see or speak to Roiben unless she can find the one thing she knows doesn’t exist: a faerie who can tell a lie.

Miserable and convinced she belongs nowhere, Kaye decides to tell her mother the truth — that she is a changeling left in place of the human daughter stolen long ago. Her mother’s shock and horror sends Kaye back to the world of Faerie to find her human counterpart and return her to Ironside. But once back in the faerie courts, Kaye finds herself a pawn in the games of Silarial, queen of the Seelie Court. Silarial wants Roiben’s throne, and she will use Kaye, and any means necessary, to get it. In this game of wits and weapons, can a pixie outplay a queen?

Holly Black spins a seductive tale at once achingly real and chillingly enchanted, set in a dangerous world where pleasure mingles with pain and nothing is exactly as it appears. 

I’m going to keep this post short, because I just don’t find myself having all that much to say about Ironside. But hey, I posted reviews for the first two books in the trilogy (Tithe and Valiant), so I might as well be complete about it!

In Ironside, we go back to the main character from Tithe — Kaye, the pixie raised as a human, who has fallen in love with Lord Roiben, the ruler of the Unseelie Court. He sets her on what seems to be an impossible quest, and meanwhile, is on the brink of war with the Seelie court, which his outnumbered people seem destined to lose.

Alongside her best friend, the mortal Corny, and their new friend Luis (who was introduced in Valiant), Kaye has to try to solve the riddle of her quest and find a way to prevent the war that’s likely to end with Roiben’s death, while also keeping Corny from the endless disasters that seem to pop up wherever he goes.

As in the other books in the trilogy, Ironside is set in New York, where faeries need magical powders of protection to live amidst all the poisonous iron of the human world. This book is not as bleak and grim as the 2nd book. There’s still danger, but the focus is mostly on events involving the faerie courts, and it doesn’t have quite the same sense of urban grittiness.

I’m not mad that I finished the trilogy, but I didn’t love the overarching story as a whole. Some characters are endearing, but the plot didn’t grab me, and key moments felt kind of brief and lacking in substance.

My edition of the trilogy (a three-in-one volume) includes The Lament of Lutie-Loo, a short story (written in 2019) about Kaye’s sprite companion and the visit she makes to Elfhame. I liked this a lot — it’s light and fun, and I think I particularly liked it for the glimpses of beloved characters from the Folk of the Air trilogy.

I’d been curious about these books, and they were on my list of series I wanted to read this year, so I’m glad to have accomplished what I set out to do. This trilogy as a whole didn’t thrill me, but I do love Holly Black’s writing and imagination, and look forward to reading a few more of her books.

Book Review: Valiant (Modern Faerie Tales, #2) by Holly Black

Title: Valiant
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: McElderry Books
Publication date: 2002
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Return to New York Times bestselling author Holly Black’s enthralling realm of faerie in the second Modern Faerie Tales novel, where danger and magic come hand-in-hand in the dark underground of New York City.

When seventeen-year-old Valerie runs away to New York, she’s trying to escape a life that has utterly betrayed her. Sporting a new identity, she takes up with a gang of squatters who live in the city’s labyrinthine subway system. But there’s something eerily beguiling about Val’s new friends that sets her on edge.

When Val is talked into tracking down the lair of a mysterious creature, she must strike a bargain to make it out with her life intact. Now drawn into a world she never knew existed, Val finds herself torn between her affection for an honorable monster and her fear of what her new friends are becoming.

While Valiant is the 2nd book in Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales trilogy, don’t pick it up expecting to continue where Tithe left off. In Valiant, we meet a completely new cast of characters in a mostly new setting, and it’s only toward the end that there’s some cross-over with the previous book’s characters.

Val is 17 years old when she discovers a major betrayal by the people she trusted the most. Distraught, she takes a train into Manhattan to get away for a few hours — but then can’t bring herself to go back home. She shaves her head and takes to the street, fortunately meeting up with a few other teen runaways who welcome her into their circle. She soon finds herself squatting with them at an abandoned subway platform, where they can be relatively safe, keep warm, and have a regular place to sleep.

Val’s new friends — Lolli, Dave, Luis — have secrets. It turns out that they do odd jobs for the faerie underground in the city, making deliveries of a special potion that helps the Fae stay healthy in a world full of poisonous iron. What Val’s friends have discovered is that when a human uses this potion, especially by injecting it, it gives them all sorts of delicious borrowed power. It’s also highly addictive, and none of them seem able to resist it for long.

Meanwhile, someone is murdering solitary fae, and suspicion falls on Ravus, the bridge toll who creates and distributes the magical potion. Val has grown closer to Ravus, but being in his circle becomes more and more dangerous. There’s adventure and chaos, friendship and betrayal, growing up and going home. There’s a LOT going on this book.

Val & Ravus fan art via https://hollyblack.tumblr.com/

In some ways, Valiant could be seen as a metaphor for the dangers of being a runaway. Remember how people used to talk a lot about how Buffy is really a metaphor for the teen years (high school is hell!)? You could look at Valiant in a similar fashion. There’s a point to be made here: The experiences of Val and her friends are dark and grim and in no way glamorous or magical. The book shows their daily struggle to get enough to eat, find a bathroom to clean up in, sleep where they won’t be robbed or assaulted, and figure out who to trust. Several characters fall quickly into addiction, and the fact that it’s a magical drug doesn’t change the fact that it’s destroying them more and more each day. Through the constant threats and uncertainties, this book makes clear that running away shouldn’t be seen as the answer. Home may be hard, but being on the streets isn’t the “magical” solution either.

At the same time, this is a faerie tale, although a very dark one. It’s bleak and hard, the fae the characters meet are mostly cruel, and the stakes are high — if they survive their lives on the streets, they can still be killed by creatures that want to hurt them just for fun.

This isn’t a pleasant read, but it did keep me interested. I liked Val and Ravus as characters, and I’m interested in seeing how the 3rd book, Ironside, wraps up the plots of Tithe and Valiant. As I mentioned in my review of Tithe, I don’t feel these books are anywhere near the greatness of the Folk of the Air trilogy — but considering that the Modern Faerie Tales books were written about 20 years earlier, it’s nice to be able to compare and see the author’s development of her craft and the worlds she creates.

Onward to #3!

Book Review: Tithe (Modern Faerie Tales, #1) by Holly Black

Title: Tithe
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: McElderry Books
Publication date: 2002
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Welcome to the realm of very scary faeries!

Sixteen-year-old Kaye is a modern nomad. Fierce and independent, she travels from city to city with her mother’s rock band until an ominous attack forces Kaye back to her childhood home. There, amid the industrial, blue-collar New Jersey backdrop, Kaye soon finds herself an unwilling pawn in an ancient power struggle between two rival faerie kingdoms – a struggle that could very well mean her death. 

I have been wanting to read the Modern Faerie Tale trilogy ever since reading the author’s more recent Folk of the Air series, which I love to pieces. Tithe, the first book in the trilogy, was first published in 2002, and is Holly Black’s first novel.

Kaye is a 16-year-old girl who lives wherever her mother happens to land, raising herself while her mother focuses on her band. She stopped going to school a couple of years earlier, rather than continuing to go through the process of starting over every time they pick up move somewhere new for the sake of a new gig.

When they need a sudden escape from a dangerous situation, they move back to Kaye’s hometown in New Jersey to live in her grandmother’s house. Kaye is happy to reconnect with her elementary school bestie, Janet, and also hopes to see her imaginary friends again. But are they really imaginary? In her early years, Kaye would tell anyone who would listen about her magical fairy friends, which no one ever believed, earning herself the reputation of being a weird kid.

Some strange things start to recur, and after a bad night out, Kaye runs into a beautiful, otherworldly man in the forest who’s been injured. As she tries to help him, a bond is forged, and she starts to learn more about her own true nature. It turns out that Kaye is a pixie changeling, placed under heavy glamours to appear human and exchanged for the real baby Kaye, who’s been raised in Faerie in Kaye’s place.

Things escalate quickly, and Kaye finds herself pulled into a power struggle between the different Fae courts. She’d like to trust Roiben, but he’s clearly dangerous as well, and Kaye is still learning about her own magic and abilities, as well as worrying about her mortal friends who have inadvertently gotten mixed up with the world of Faerie.

Kaye is a great character, a little jaded and world-weary, but also in awe of the new world that opens before her. She hates the power games and brutality shown by some of the Fae, but she sees beauty in this world as well. The dynamic between Kaye and Roiben is quite fun. (Side note: Kaye and Roiben make brief appearances in the Folk of the Air trilogy, and once I realized that they were the main characters in Tithe, I knew I needed to read it.)

There are some tragic turns and dramatic encounters, and the pacing of the story is quick and engaging. That said, this book was written almost 20 years ago and is a first novel, and both of those elements show. I can’t fault a book for depicting the time in which it was written, but it’s still jarring, here in 2021, to have teens not glued to their cell phones, see them using pay phones, or mention the noise their modem makes while connecting to the internet.

In terms of this being a first novel, it’s well-written and engaging, but having read the Folk of the Air trilogy, Tithe suffers by comparison. Which may just be a round-about way of saying how amazing the Folk of the Air books are — sophisticated plotting and world-building, powerfully depicted characters, intricate relationships… I could go on and on. Reading Tithe after those books, it’s clear that Tithe is much simpler writing, and at the same time, doesn’t do as good a job of explaining the various power dynamics of the Fae courts (which we basically get to know about via one massive information dump).

Holly Black is an incredibly gifted writer, and it’s interesting to see where she started. The world of Tithe is related to the world of the Folk of the Air, and reading Tithe is a great chance to experience Faerie as the author first depicted it.

I will definitely read the other two books in the series (Valiant and Ironside), and then have an unrelated trilogy (Curse Workers) and an unrelated novel (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown) by Holly Black on my TBR shelf.

I do recommend Tithe, especially for fans of the author’s later books.

For more of my reviews of Holly Black books:
The Darkest Part of the Forest
The Good Neighbors (graphic novel trilogy)
The Cruel Prince
The Wicked King/The Queen of Nothing
How the King of Elfhame Learned To Hate Stories

Top 5 Tuesday: Top 5 Popular Books I Haven’t Read Yet

Once again, I’m joining in with the Top 5 Tuesday meme this week! Top 5 Tuesday is hosted by Bionic Bookworm, who posts the month’s topics at the start of each month. Today’s topic is Top 5 Popular Books I Haven’t Read Yet. And of course, there are WAY more than the five (six) on my list. My TBR list will never be empty! Here are five (six) books that everyone seems to have read — except me.

1) Divergent series by Veronica Roth. Now that I’ve read her newest book (Chosen Ones), I’m wondering if I should finally give these books a try… except (a) I saw the first movie and didn’t care for it much, and (b) I keep hearing how let-down/angry fans were by the 3rd book. So, hard pass? Or not?

2) The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: I’ve had this book on my shelf for ages, and I know people seem to love the trilogy. So this is one I really do mean to get to.

3) Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir: I absolutely want to read this book! I’m not sure why I haven’t yet.

 

4) The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss: I know, I know… I definitely need to read this! But I keep insisting that I’m not going to get involved in yet another unfinished series, and that I won’t start this book until there’s at least a publication date for the 3rd book. Maybe I’m being ridiculous, because everyone tells me I’ll love it!

5) Vicious and A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab: I haven’t actually read any of this author’s books, even though I know people loved them. And based on what I’ve heard, I think I’d love them too.

 

Have you read any of these? Let me know if you think I should READ or SKIP them!

And please share your Top 5 links too!

Shelf Control #206: A Map of Days by Ransom Riggs

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: A Map of Days (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, #4)
Author: Ransom Riggs
Published: 2018
Length: 480 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

The #1 bestselling series returns with a thrilling new story arc set in America!

Vintage photographs reveal the never-before-seen world of peculiar America with a stunning addition—full-color images.

Having defeated the monstrous threat that nearly destroyed the peculiar world, Jacob Portman is back where his story began, in Florida. Except now Miss Peregrine, Emma, and their peculiar friends are with him, and doing their best to blend in. But carefree days of beach visits and normalling lessons are soon interrupted by a discovery—a subterranean bunker that belonged to Jacob’s grandfather, Abe.

Clues to Abe’s double-life as a peculiar operative start to emerge, secrets long hidden in plain sight. And Jacob begins to learn about the dangerous legacy he has inherited—truths that were part of him long before he walked into Miss Peregrine’s time loop.

Now, the stakes are higher than ever as Jacob and his friends are thrust into the untamed landscape of American peculiardom—a world with few ymbrynes, or rules—that none of them understand. New wonders, and dangers, await in this brilliant next chapter for Miss Peregrine’s peculiar children. Their story is again illustrated throughout by haunting vintage photographs, but with a striking addition for this all-new, multi-era American adventure—full color.

How and when I got it:

I bought myself a brand-new copy right when the book was released in 2018.

Why I want to read it:

I really enjoyed the original Peculiar Children trilogy when I finally got around to reading it… but the story had a definite ending, or so I thought at the time, and was surprised to hear that there would be another three books in the series. When #4, A Map of Days, was released, I had to have a copy, but then I never felt particularly in the mood to read it. Book #5 just came out last month, so I suppose I should go ahead and jump back into this world. The odd photos add so much to the story, and I am interested in seeing how the new adventures play out. 

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Faerie two-fer: Wrapping up the Folk of the Air series by Holly Black

I raced my way through this awesome trilogy during the past week and a half, and loved every moment!

I wrote a review for the first book, The Cruel Prince (here)… but by the time I finished book #2, The Wicked King, there was no way I was going to pause for anything but work and sleep until I finished #3 as well.

So, now that I’ve come up for air, I thought I’d share my take on these two terrific books.

Title: The Wicked King
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Length: 336 pages
Published: January 8, 2019
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You must be strong enough to strike and strike and strike again without tiring.

The first lesson is to make yourself strong.

After the jaw-dropping revelation that Oak is the heir to Faerie, Jude must keep her younger brother safe. To do so, she has bound the wicked king, Cardan, to her, and made herself the power behind the throne. Navigating the constantly shifting political alliances of Faerie would be difficult enough if Cardan were easy to control. But he does everything in his power to humiliate and undermine her even as his fascination with her remains undiminished.

When it becomes all too clear that someone close to Jude means to betray her, threatening her own life and the lives of everyone she loves, Jude must uncover the traitor and fight her own complicated feelings for Cardan to maintain control as a mortal in a Faerie world.

The story gets much more complicated in The Wicked King. Jude is no longer the outsider, a powerless mortal girl growing up in Faerie. Here, she now wields great power as the royal seneschal, governing Elfhame through Cardan, who seems to resent and hate her for the situation she’s placed him in.

I enjoyed the book so much, although I’ll admit to feeling a bit frustrated early on by what seemed like a shift away from the more delightful, personal elements of the story in favor of court scheming and politics.

Still, the deeper I went, the more wrapped up I found myself, and I loved the ways that the story and the characters grew and changed throughout. There are some pretty horrifying interludes, and it’s impossible not to recognize how far Jude has come and what inner resolve she brings to every situation… even if she is a bit blind when it comes to understanding her own emotions.

The 2nd book in a trilogy can often feel like a bridge rather than a compelling book on its own. Luckily, that’s not the case here. The Wicked King was a truly engaging, magical read.

Title: The Queen of Nothing
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Length: 300 pages
Published: November 29, 2019
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

He will be destruction of the crown and the ruination of the throne.

Power is much easier to acquire than it is to hold onto. Jude learned this lesson when she released her control over the wicked king, Cardan, in exchange for immeasurable power.

Now as the exiled mortal Queen of Faerie, Jude is powerless and left reeling from Cardan’s betrayal. She bides her time determined to reclaim everything he took from her. Opportunity arrives in the form of her deceptive twin sister, Taryn, whose mortal life is in peril.

Jude must risk venturing back into the treacherous Faerie Court, and confront her lingering feelings for Cardan, if she wishes to save her sister. But Elfhame is not as she left it. War is brewing. As Jude slips deep within enemy lines she becomes ensnared in the conflict’s bloody politics.

And, when a dormant yet powerful curse is unleashed, panic spreads throughout the land, forcing her to choose between her ambition and her humanity…

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author Holly Black, comes the highly anticipated and jaw-dropping finale to The Folk of the Air trilogy. 

Wow! What a way to end with a bang!

The Queen of Nothing is intricately plotted and — even more impressive — lets each character fully demonstrate their own growth and evolution.

There are surprises galore, plenty of dramatic action and heroics, and enough swoony romantic moments to melt the coldest of hearts.

And talk about suspense! There were several moments where I had to remind myself to take deep breaths and calm down. I mean, there was no way things wouldn’t work out in the end… right?

I’m officially in love with the world of The Folk of the Air. I can’t believe it took me this long to getting around to this trilogy! I’m now eager to gobble up ALL of Holly Black’s books, as soon as humanly possible. (Or, you know, after I make a dent in my obscenely huge pile of books already waiting to be read.)

Seriously, I loved this trilogy, need to own copies of all three books once I reluctantly hand them back to the library… and will probably listen to the audiobooks sooner rather than later too.

If you enjoy faerie worlds with well-built magical systems and eerily beautiful and dangerous people and rules that still remain full of human emotion and relationships, absolutely check out these books!

Book Review: The Toll (Arc of a Scythe, #3) by Neal Shusterman

Title: The Toll (Arc of a Scythe, #3)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Length: 625 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

It’s been three years since Rowan and Citra disappeared; since Scythe Goddard came into power; since the Thunderhead closed itself off to everyone but Grayson Tolliver.

In this pulse-pounding conclusion to New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman’s Arc of a Scythe trilogy, constitutions are tested and old friends are brought back from the dead.

 

The Toll wraps up the futuristic story begun in 2016’s Scythe and continued in 2018’s Thunderhead. In these books, author Neal Shusterman presents a post-mortal world, where an all-knowing AI has become sentient and has solved all of the world’s problems, from starvation to disease to crime to poverty. Humankind is essentially immortal.

To preserve the fine balance of resources and needs, the only authority left in the world is the scythedom — people given the authority and responsibility to “glean” a certain percentage of the world’s population in order to make sure that the perfect world can continue to support everyone who’s left. And it works, for the most part… except that it’s still true that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and there are those among the scythedom who revel in their own power and the thrill of the kill, rather than seeing themselves as servants of the greater good.

In The Toll, the world is, basically, going to hell in a handbasket. The reasonable and responsible old-guard scythes have mostly all been eliminated, and the most corrupt and power-hungry scythe of all has taken over, with the goal of nothing less than world domination.

In this scary world, there are still scythes on the fringes, working to evade or undermine this new order, as well as a group hand-picked by the Thunderhead to create a mysterious settlement in an unknown tropical location. Meanwhile, the oddball religious cult known as Tonists have a new prophet, and their popularity and power seems to be on the rise as well.

At 625 pages, The Toll is longer than either of the preceding books, and while I get that there’s a lot to wrap up, it’s also overstuffed and often meandering. What I really loved about Scythe, in addition to the fascinating world created in its pages, are the characters and their moral dilemmas, as well as their personalities and their relationships.

Much of that is sacrificed in The Toll for the sake of plot, plot, and more plot. We spend very little time with the young heroes from the previous two books. Instead, the cast of characters is even broader than before, and we jump around the globe constantly. On the one hand, it’s pretty remarkable how the author keeps so many plot strands in play and connected; on the other hand, this book feels much less personal and much more action-driven.

Also, for a YA trilogy, this final installment spends a lot more time with its adult characters than with its younger, teen/young adult people, which is perhaps an odd choice.

Did I enjoy The Toll? Yes, for the most part. I’m actually quite satisfied with the wrap-up to the trilogy and the clever solutions and outcomes. However… there were lots of moments within the book where the length just made me downright tired. I think a lot could have been trimmed, and I would have preferred a more intimate scale rather than trying to encompass the entire world.

Still, the trilogy as a whole is mesmerizing, presenting a flawed utopia and showing how a society can only be as perfect as its most imperfect members. I loved the concept and the world-building, and have no hesitation about recommending these books.

And now, for those who have already read the books, here are my lingering questions and quibbles.

WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS!

Just a few of the little fiddly bits that continue to bug me after reading the book:

  • The Thunderhead is not able to break the laws that govern its interactions. Who created those laws?
  • Did the founding scythes program the Thunderhead so it would have no contact with the scythedom? Or did the Thunderhead institute the scythedom and then create the separation itself?
  • How did the founding scythes first form and settle upon their purpose? Again, were they created by the Thunderhead?
  • We only know that the Thunderhead can’t break the law because it repeatedly says so. Can the Thunderhead change its own programming? Could someone else change it?
  • How did the founding scythes create the scythe diamonds in the first place? We know that scythe technology is way behind what the Thunderhead can do, and that without the Thunderhead, technology just isn’t particularly reliable.
  • Why wouldn’t people rise up in protest against the scythes and their mass gleanings long before the events in The Toll?

Okay, those are just my initial random thoughts and questions immediately after finishing the book. If you’ve read these and have thoughts on any of these (or anything else related to the story!), please add your comments!

The Monday Check-In ~ 8/19/2019

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life. 

Well, my hand surgery went well, but now I’m in this big, bulky splint for about ten days,,, following which I’ll be in a hard cast for a month. And typing is just as slow and awkward and frustrating as you might guess, so after I finish this post, I probably won’t do much else online for a while.

Ugh, so many typos! This may not be worth the effort, gonna keep things really brief,,, reviews will (probably) follow once I have better use of my fingers.

 

 

 

What did I read during the last week?

 

Fresh Catch:

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:
Now playing via audiobook:

Ongoing reads:

Two ongoing book group read right now:

  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens — our current classic selection, reading and discussing two chapters per week.
  • Virgins by Diana Gabaldon: Our newest group read — a novella set during Jamie Fraser’s teen years.

So many books, so little time…

boy1

A book & a movie: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

It’s the classic tug-of-war: Book or Movie?

In the case of To All the Boys I’ve Love Before, why not enjoy both? That’s what I did this past week!

I watched the Netflix movie last weekend. Here’s the synopsis (via IMDb):

When her secret love letters somehow get mailed to each of her five crushes, Lara Jean finds her quiet high school existence turned upside down.

Okay, that doesn’t really tell us all that much.

The movie is super adorable. 16-year-old Lara Jean, a high school junior, lives at home with her widowed dad and her two sisters — but older sister Margot’s departure for college in Scotland throws the normal family routines out of whack. Lara Jean is missing Margot… and then somehow, her old love letters to five different crushes from her past end up in the boys’ hands, and things get rom-com cute and chaotic.

But what about the book? After watching the movie, I decided I needed to read the book — ya know, just for comparison’s sake. The book, by Jenny Han, is sweet and quirky (kind of like Lara Jean!). Here’s the book synopsis, from Goodreads:

What if all the crushes you ever had found out how you felt about them… all at once?

Sixteen-year-old Lara Jean Song keeps her love letters in a hatbox her mother gave her. They aren’t love letters that anyone else wrote for her; these are ones she’s written. One for every boy she’s ever loved—five in all. When she writes, she pours out her heart and soul and says all the things she would never say in real life, because her letters are for her eyes only. Until the day her secret letters are mailed, and suddenly, Lara Jean’s love life goes from imaginary to out of control.

In both versions, the main boys on Lara Jean’s very confused mind are Josh, the boy next door and Margot’s ex-boyfriend, and Peter Kavinsky, the super popular guy who once kissed Lara Jean back in middle school. Josh is blown away by Lara Jean’s letter confessing feelings for him, and Peter is trying to deal with a break-up from his long-term girlfriend, so Lara Jean and Peter end up as fake boyfriend and girlfriend, just to get everyone off their backs. Yes, the fake relationship plot has been around for a while, but To All the Boys manages to keep it fresh and fun.

The movie version is a great way to enjoy the full story without a whole lot of time invested, and the cast is pretty terrific. I have a definite weakness for John Corbett, who plays the dad (which gives you a good idea of my demographic, btw), but I appreciated the young’uns who make up the teen characters’ part of the cast.

I was a little confused, watching the movie, by the ethnicity of the sisters. According to the book, Lara Jean and her sisters are biracial, with a Korean mom and a white dad. The TV sisters appear to be from different ethnic backgrounds, which I kept thinking the movie might explain (are they adopted? I hadn’t read the book yet when I watched it). To complicate matters further, according to IMDb, the actress playing Lara Jean is of Vietnamese descent, and the actress playing Margot is of Chinese descent. No info on the younger sister (who, based just on looks, doesn’t appear to be Asian), but I thought it was odd casting to pick three girls who look nothing alike and then just ignore their diverse backgrounds. Sorry, I’m not trying to be offensive here, but not being familiar with the story beforehand, I was distracted by how distinctly un-related the sisters looked, and it took me a while to realize that the movie was just going to leave it all unacknowledged. Weird to get hung up on that, I know, but there it is.

The movie advances the plot a bit further than the book — the book leaves the ending on an open note. We know (and Lara Jean finally knows) how she feels, but not what the outcome will be. The movie has a suitably romantic and adorable ending… but since the book is the first in a trilogy, I assume we’ll get there in book #2.

Of course, I’m now a little worried about how there can be two more books’ worth of story left to tell, because the movie ending was pretty perfect and swoony. Now I’m anxious about what comes after that happy ending, and what direction books 2 and 3 might take the characters in.

So, which did I like more — book or movie? Hard to say! I’m glad I watched the movie first (which is definitely unusual for me). It strikes all the right notes, condensing teen worry, flirtation, hard family issues, mean girls, fitting in, first crushes, and the rush of first love, into a (less than) two hour experience that feels fun, fresh, and totally satisfying. If you need a quick mood boost, this is perfect (maybe with a mug of hot cocoa and some delicious cookies to go with). I liked the book a lot, especially the deeper look into the relationships between Margot, Lara Jean, and younger sister Kitty, and I’m glad I read it — but even if I hadn’t, the movie hits all the right beats and feels complete in and of itself.

So yeah, I say do both! Watch the movie, read the book… and as for me, I’m already moving on to book #2, PS I Still Love You… hoping there’s plenty more quirky romance and sisterly shenanigans in store!

Series wrap-up: The Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray

There’s something satisfying about finishing a trilogy, even if it’s not the best thing you’ve ever read.

Such is the case for me with the Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray. I read the first book in the series, A Great and Terrible Beauty, over 10 years ago, and apparently didn’t think very highly of it at the time — my original Goodreads rating was only one star!

Over the years, though, I’ve had multiple people tell me that I should give the books another try. And after finding copies of all three at library sales (all paperbacks $2 or less!), I’ve considered starting the books at several different times. Finally, this year, I decided to give it a whirl, and settled on audiobooks as the way to go.

First, let me just say that the audiobook narrator, Josephine Bailey, is very good. She has to portray a variety of girls of different social statuses, as well as servants, teachers, and various other adults, keeping them all distinct as individuals. There’s never a doubt which character is speaking at which time.

Note: I did ditch the audio format for a printed version for book #3, as I just couldn’t see devoting over 20 hours of listening time to a book I was feeling not entirely excited about.

Okay, the story, bare-bones version: Gemma Doyle is an English girl raised in India during the Victorian era. At age sixteen, she’s yearning for the London society she glamorizes in her mind, and her resentment at being denied this leads to conflict with her loving mother… and then her mother dies suddenly, a victim of a murder with supernatural overtones. Gemma is transplanted back to London, the place of her dreams, but not at all in the circumstances she’d yearned for. Instead, she’s full of pain and regret for her final arguments with her mother, feels lonely and out of place in cold, damp England, and has no one close to her other than her brother Tom and her bereaved father, so grief-stricken that he’s become addicted to laudanum as an escape from his pain.

Gemma is sent off to Spence, a finishing school for young ladies, where she’s initially mocked and scorned by the mean girls clique, but eventually she finds a way in. Soon, she’s part of a group of four, drawn to the stories of magical powers that their teacher shares with the class. They learn of the Order, an ancient league of sorceresses with powers that allow them into the realms, a magical world between worlds. Gemma finds that she has the power to enter the realms and to bring her friends Felicity, Pippa, and Ann with her. The realms are full of magical delights  — but there are also disturbances, as an old enemy wants back in and a secret society called the Rakshana try to control the Order and their use of magic.

Book 1, A Great and Terrible Beauty, focuses on Gemma’s discovery of the Order and the realms, and her fight to defeat Circe, a witch gone bad who wants to gain control of the realms and its powers by using Gemma. The four girls travel together through the land of magic, and along the way, face hard truths about themselves and their pasts. Tragedy ensues, and there appear to be fractures within the group.

In the second book, Rebel Angels, the girls are back at school before heading to London for the Christmas holidays. Intrigue and danger escalate; Gemma has succeeded in battling evil forces previously, but now there are repercussions as the limits on magic in the realms seem to have been lifted. It’s now up to Gemma to find the source of the magic in the realms and bind it so that it can’t be used for evil purposes. Finding the source turns into a quest for the girls, as they repeatedly enter the realms and travel through parts previously unknown, encountering strange creatures and danger at every turn. Meanwhile, back in the real world, they’re also dealing with the ups and downs of London society, including balls, dinner parties, and suitors, and Gemma’s heart is torn between the handsome, respectable young man who courts her and the Indian boy from the Rakshana who seems always ready to protect her. Bonus for boy #2: He’s gorgeous and sets her heart a-flutter.

In book #3, The Sweet Far Thing, Gemma deals with a promise made to share her magic with the peoples of the realms, while also dealing with the perils of making her social debut and having a “season” in London. There’s a lot of travel in and out of the realms, as the magic seeps into the real world in dangerous and unpredictable ways. Gemma doesn’t know who to trust, and her bonds with Felicity and Ann are tested as their desires come into conflict. The book builds to a war between factions within the realms while outside forces maneuver to gain power. And somewhere amidst all the drama, Gemma still finds time to worry about not falling over while curtsying during her presentation at court. What’s a Victorian girl to do?

Now that I’ve read the entire trilogy, do I stick with my one-star rating? Clearly, no — or else I wouldn’t have bothered with books 2 and 3. I didn’t hate the books, and I even thought parts of the story were quite good. I liked many of the characters, and felt the author did a good job of differentiating between the four girls at the center of the story, giving each a clear and distinct personality and letting us understand what makes each of them tick.

But the books are flawed, and the flaws become exaggerated with each successive book.

Part of the problem I have with these books is that the friendship between the girls, so crucial to the story, feels false and even flimsy at times. They’re not particularly nice to each other, and while they claim to love one another, they seem to turn sour and accusatory at the least provocation. There’s an element of trust missing, and resentments keep popping up at regular intervals. I guess I just don’t buy that these young women are truly best friends or that they truly want what’s best for one another. Shades of Mean Girls creep in too often for me to feel happy with the portrayal of female friendship.

In book #2 especially, the plot meanders… and I mean, a lot. The quests are mostly pointless filler. The story (and the book) just doesn’t need to be as long as it is. There are water nymphs and gorgons and people of the forest, and none of them really matter. Ultimately, the story is about Gemma’s access to magic and whether she can control it, and about the struggle between the different factions that want to control the magic and keep the others out. All the travels up and down rivers and through the woods are mainly there for colorful filler.

And book #3 — well, when I tell you that it’s over 800 pages, that should tell you a lot. This book should either have been split in two or — my preference — subjected to some ruthless editing and trimming. It’s overstuffed and not nearly focused enough. My complaints about the portrayal of the girls’ friendship holds true. Even this late in the game, the girls turn on one another, questioning loyalties, making accusations, and expressing a level of mistrust that doesn’t make sense given what they’ve been through together.

Another quibble I have with these books is that — despite the huge number of pages in the entire trilogy — the world-building is weak. How exactly does a person bind or share magic? Where are all these other Order members? Why do things work the way they do in the realms? I always felt like I was missing information, like a jigsaw puzzle with key pieces missing.

Also problematic is Gemma’s habit of ignoring advice (which the other girls are at fault for as well). She’s told not to trust anything or anyone she encounters in the realms — so she immediately trusts the first being she sees because it appears to be someone she knows. She constantly puts her faith in people who turn out to be baddies, and blindly hates those she decides are bad but who may not be. She also swears to be truthful with her friends and then goes behind their backs at a moments notice because she thinks they won’t or can’t understand or they’ll try to stop her (from doing things that are often ill-advised). Not a whole lot of common sense, basically.

I do think that the portrayal of girls’ and women’s lives in Victorian society is very well done. Females are pigeon-holed into prescribed roles early on, and any deviation from the norm is a cause for mockery, disdain, or ostracization.

Felicity takes both my hands in hers. My bones ache from her grip. “Gemma, you see how it is. They’ve planned our entire lives, from what we shall wear to whom we shall marry and where we shall live. It’s one lump of sugar in your tea whether you like it or not and you’d best smile even if you’re dying deep inside. We’re like pretty horses, and just as on horses, they mean to put blinders on us so we can’t look left or right but only straight ahead where they would lead.” Felicity puts her forehead to mine, holds my hands between hers in a prayer. “Please, please, please, Gemma, let’s not die inside before we have to.”

The author repeatedly shows how the clothing of the era reinforces the restrictions society places on girls. One can’t very well run or defend oneself while wearing corsets and petticoats — walking demurely and sitting up straight and staying calm are basically enforced by the clothing required for respectability.

As we walk, the men survey us as if we’re lands that might be won, either by agreement or in battle. The room buzzes with talk of the hunt and Parliament, horses and estates, but their eyes never stray too far from us. There are bargains to be struck, seeds to be planted. And I wonder, if women were not daughters and wives, mothers and young ladies, prospects or spinsters, if we were not seen through the eyes of others, would we exist at all?

Through Gemma’s eyes, we see the damage done by the petty nastiness between the girls at the school and the emphasis on beauty and status. Gemma has (I hope) made a lasting change for the better by the end of the trilogy by pleading with the headmistress to offer her students meaningful studies rather than just posture, elocution, and deportment — and urging her to create an environment where back-biting and meanness isn’t the norm. It may be out of reach still in that era, but at least Gemma has given voice to what a more positive future might look like.

“Why should we girls not have the same privileges as men? Why do we police ourselves so stringently — whittling each other down with cutting remarks or holding ourselves back from greatness with a harness woven of fear and shame and longing? If we do not deem ourselves worthy first, how shall we ever ask for more?

“I have seen what a handful of girls can do, Mrs. Nightwing. They can hold back an army if necessary, so please don’t tell me it isn’t possible. A new century dawns. Surely we could dispense with a few samplers in favor of more books and grander ideas.”

If only the plot were tighter and better defined, I’d be able to be more enthusiastic about these books. There are clearly some important messages and themes built into the series, with powerful thoughts about girl power and friendship and independence and self-determination. Unfortunately, much of this positive is overwhelmed by the wandering and messy plotlines.

Do I recommend the Gemma Doyle trilogy. Um… I mean… yes? Maybe? There are nuggets of good, and the books are never boring. I just wish someone had taken a big paring knife to sections of the books, and then maybe infused a good helping of explanations to the fuzzier bits. As historical fiction goes, the books do a good job of invoking the societal norms, class structures, and expectations of the Victorian era. But, if you need a tightly woven plot to go with the atmospheric elements. you might be better off looking elsewhere.

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Book details:

A Great and Terrible Beauty – 403 pages, published 2003
Rebel Angels – 548 pages, published 2005
The Sweet Far Thing – 819 pages, published 2007

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