places no one knows

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The Facts
Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff
Basia rates it: 4.5/5

Maggie Stiefvater said she wasn’t sure if this book was “a dream wrapped in razor wire or razor wire wrapped in dream.” The beautiful thing about this book is that it’s both. It is a book about people who feel too much and people who feel too little, how to navigate feelings or unfeeling in a world where we’re constantly fed expectations of our emotional responses to situations.

All of Brenna’s books have a dreamy sort of quality to them, but this one especially. It creates an interesting juxtaposition of dream versus reality–when the thing you’re “dreaming” feels like the more tangible, more real space and your reality is the waking dream. This isn’t a book for everyone (Brenna’s books seldom are), but for those it speaks to, it will practically shout. It’s a story of expectation versus reality, of self-identity, of the difference between the self that you project and the one that you are on the inside. This book is raw and strange, but it is so powerfully honest. There’s something here for everyone to connect to, whether you’re a Marshall, a Waverly, or someone somewhere in between.

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a beautiful blue death

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The Facts

A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch
Connor rates it: 3.5/5

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a lady in possession of a fondness for mystery novels must always be in search of another series.

Or at least, that’s the truth I’ve discovered after fifteen or so years in pursuit of, to turn a phrase, novel mysteries. Agatha Christie became one of my favorite authors after my brilliant book club leader decided the group of seventh grade girls she was leading should read Death on the Nile. (I owe a lot to that book club–my love of Jane Austen and The Lord of the Rings included–but I will always be especially grateful to our leader for deciding we needed to appreciate Hercule Poirot.)

The thing is, a girl in her early teens with a mind bent on reading Agatha Christie can accomplish that quite quickly. There are, after all, several Agatha Christie novels and detectives to enjoy, and obtaining them is not particularly difficult: the title of “best selling novelist” isn’t an honorary one. But there comes a time in every mystery lover’s life when she must turn away from the Queen of Crime and pick up the works of other mystery novelists. This was the point where my mother introduced me to what quickly became my next downfall: historical mysteries.

And that is how, after discovering Ellis Peters, Dorothy Sayers, Victoria Thompson, Elizabeth Peters, Peter Tremayne, and, most recently, Charles Todd–it came to pass that I needed a new mystery series.

Or, you know, nine. Ten, even. But at least two or three, and quite probably more.

I did what I always do in moments of literary trouble: I looked my problem dead in the eye, and I tackled it with all the force of a twenty-four year old bookworm with access to the internet. It wavered. It dissolved. It split at the seams. It tumbled into oblivion. It fell down upon the mountainside in ruins. It faded into nothingness. It trembled. It crashed. In short, it crumbled beneath the combined weight of Goodreads, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and my own curiosity, and I emerged with a list of not one, not two, but twelve mystery series to investigate.

One of the books that emerged from this was A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch. While not the most technically deft mystery I’ve ever read, I nevertheless enjoyed it quite a bit. The book cover described the novel as something of a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Gosford Park, and P. G. Wodehouse. For once, this was a surprisingly accurate description. I would argue that the Sherlockian tidbits were unnecessary and felt a bit forced, but on the whole the novel does have a Wodehouse/Gosford Park vibe to it.

Which is to say: the prose has an airy, refreshing lightness despite the pages’ content, and the mystery seems less important than the characters involved.

The breezy writing is well anchored in Finch’s main character, Charles Lenox. It is Lenox’s cheery outlook (and occasionally his dour moods) that keep the story moving along, and it is Lenox’s relationships that interested me most: that with his best friend, his brother, and his butler. The butler is Lenox’s most dependable compatriot in any investigation, from ferreting out information to providing background knowledge and an extra set of hands. Lenox’s brother has a much quieter brilliance than Lenox himself, but their clear affection for each other and willingness to help with the other’s difficulties or career is admirable. His best friend, though, is a woman he has known since childhood, the widow Lady Jane Grey.

I have often found that novels professing “life long friendships” leave me wondering how on earth the author expected me to believe these characters were lifelong friends–they never understand each other and, in fact, scarcely seem to care for each other at all. Finch is a pleasant exception to my experience, and A Beautiful Blue Death showcases a quiet, mutual affection between Lady Jane and Lenox that is both believable and lovely to read.

These three relationships–butler, brother, friend–keep Finch’s prose from veering too far into the lightheartedness of Wodehouse while also providing enough counterweight to keep Lenox from veering into despair as he works to solve the case. The murder itself proves a curious one, with enough twists to keep me guessing and a resolution that managed to live up to them, and I look forward to reading Charles Lenox’s next case.

summers with sarah

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Every summer, I reread Sarah Dessen. This began the summer after my freshman year of high school, when a friend of mine pressed her copy of The Truth About Forever into my hands and told me, “Read this. Seriously.” So I did.

And I haven’t stopped since.

I went through a phase near the end of high school where I adopted that #2Cool4U attitude most teenagers have about things that they used to like. What had I been thinking, reading YA romance novels? I had to get a grip on myself. So I did my sneering and eye-rolling, and then it was after graduation and the summer before college, and there was Sarah, on my bookshelf, waiting for me. I begged forgiveness for my stupidity, and I haven’t once looked back. I think the only thing I’ve read more than I’ve read The Truth About Forever is Harry Potter. I’m twenty-four now, but I’m a firm believer that YA novels are not just for teens. That might be their targeted demographic, but they can resonate with anyone if you’re reading them the right way. And even though I’ve been reading Sarah–listen to me, calling her Sarah like we get sushi together on Mondays–for ten years, I have never once felt like one of her books didn’t resonate with me. I actually had to set down Along for the Ride the other day because some quick line, a tiny piece of wisdom, hit me so hard that I had to regroup and catch my breath.

I’ve seen and heard people describe her books as formulaic, but when you think about it, most books of a certain genre have pretty similar narrative structures. And for me, it’s never been about the plot. For me, books, and especially Sarah’s, are all about the characters. It’s not that I don’t find plot interesting, but the plot falls flat if you don’t have great characters to carry it along. And that is what I love about Sarah Dessen’s books so much–at the heart of it, they are about people and all of the trials and tribulations that come with just being a person in the world. They touch me so deeply because while situations might be different, emotions are something with which we can always connect. Especially–and most importantly–love.

When you walk into the YA section of your local Barnes and Noble, you’ll probably find that Sarah’s books are shelved under Teen Romance. I get it. Maggie Stiefvater’s books are shelved there, too, even though I would never classify The Raven Cycle as Teen Romance. But boiling Sarah’s books down to just romance makes them sound so muchless than what they are. There is romance, to be sure, but that’s because these books are about love. There are so many kinds of love–romantic, sure, but also familial, friendship (friendial? You get the idea), understanding, love of self. They all come into play in some way, shape, or form.

I reread Sarah Dessen every summer because there is something about her books that speak to me of summer. When I was still in school, it was because that was the in-flux time of my life–I was moving from one school year to the next, a gap between chapters–and it is within this in-flux period that Sarah’s characters find their stories. Now that I’m no longer in school, I’ve just fallen into the habit. But as any twenty-something will tell you, now I feel as if my life is constantly in that in-between period. Out of the teen years but not old enough to be considered a “real” adult by other adults, unsure of where I’m going or what I want to do but having a drive to do something. Being in your twenties is a ten-year stretch of that in-flux feeling, and Dessen books have never resonated with me more than they have these past few years. I read her books to remind myself of important truths (about forever and otherwise) that I need to hear, to find myself when I’m feeling lost, to find a new way it relates to my life and feel blown away by the quiet wisdom of her words, and to fantasize about Wes running with his shirt off. (Everyone has a Dessen guy. Mine is–will always be–Wes.) And because, of all of the truths out there, this is one the truest I’ll ever tell you:

It’s just not summer with Sarah.

sorcery and cecelia, or: the enchanted chocolate pot

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The Facts

Sorcery and Cecelia, or: The Enchanted Chocolate Pot
by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
Basia rates it: 5/5
Connor rates it: 5/5

basia

I normally am very wary when I approach an epistolary novel because I can never quite get into them. They always bother me in that the characters writing to each other act as if they’ve never met before, and they give long and rambling details of backstory purely for the reader’s benefit, which real people writing letters to one another obviously wouldn’t do.

That’s why I loved this novel so much. Not only was it delightful, I felt, for once, like the characters really knew each other. They was no clunky delving into backstory that we didn’t need; everything we did need to know was cleverly revealed, so that I never felt like the novel was suddenly self-aware that it had readers who needed explanations.

Also, “Are you bamming me?” has got to be one of the best phrases I’ve ever read, and I think I’ll be using it in the future.

connor

I first read this novel years ago when I discovered Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles and wanted to try her other books. I devoured it (and the sequels, which are not quite as delightful but still Quite Good).

Sorcery and Cecelia is the account of two outrageously fun cousins, Cecelia and Kate, and their even more outrageous adventures as they accidentally stumble into a world of magic and intrigue.

… Well, somewhat accidentally, anyway. Cecy and Kate are prone to these things (see also: the goat incident). Their letters do an excellent job of expressing their wit, their frustration, and their single-minded determination that they “simply must Do Something,” a phrase I’ve happily adopted for my own purposes since I first read it, and I wholeheartedly recommend this to fans of fantasy and magical realism alike.

the assistants

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The Facts

The Assistants
by Camille Perri
Basia rates it: 4/5

I have to say, The Assistants surprised me. With a jacket flap/back cover description that describes the protagonist, Tina, as a six-year assistant who is “bored, broke, and just a bit over it all,” I was excited. Aren’t we all bored, broke, and just a bit over it all? I know I am. (Then again, my job title has “assistant” in it.) To me, this seemed like The Devil Wears Prada meets a heist movie, both of which are things I love, and it was all over my social media feeds, so I put it on hold at the library to give it a go.

After a technical error in the expenses department leads to Tina being reimbursed for an expense that had already been cancelled, she finds herself with a sizeable check that would, in one fell swoop, finally pay off her student loan debt. She never intends to deposit the check–she just wants to look at it for a while. But while it’s such a huge amount to her, it’s a miniscule amount to Robert, her boss, and Titan Corporation, the company he runs and for which Tina works. So, after three weeks of sitting on it, she deposits the check and pays off her student loans. Simple, right? Not quite. An assistant from the accounting department discovers what she’s done and blackmails Tina into faking expense reports to pay off her student loan debt. The two become involved in an embezzlement scheme the likes of which Tina never wanted part, but it is this scheme that leads to something that is, surprisingly, not only legitimate but the sort of fulfillment for which Tina’s been searching.

I’m unwilling to give spoilers, because that’s rude. (There is a circle of hell for people who purposely spoil things for other people.) But I can say that this book took more than a few turns that I didn’t expect. As a reader, a writer, and an editor, I like to figure out where novels are going. Sometimes they surprise me, and sometimes they don’t–this doesn’t necessarily mean a novel is either good or bad; I’ve liked plenty a book where I could predict the ending. But it’s been quite a while since something surprised me in the way The Assistants did. Just when I thought I’d gotten something figured out, it flipped everything upside-down and I was back at square one. It made the book a wild ride–I was frequently texting Connor that yet another shoe had dropped. “This book is an octopus,” I said, with many exclamation points. “It’s dropped like five shoes already.”

While this book was an enjoyable read, it wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever read. There seemed to be a dissonance between the prologue and the novel. It read as if it were an article written by a different individual, summing up poorly the events that follow and also inventing a few things here and there for added spice. It’s not unusual for a prologue to deliberately mislead the reader, and it’s a narrative tactic that I’ve seen before, but here it didn’t feel deliberate; it felt as if they had been written widely apart from one another, and somewhere in that time the connection between them had been lost. I also genuinely had trouble liking the love interest, even though I can tell he’s supposed to be likeable. There’s something about using the phrase, “You’re not like other girls” (repeatedly, if with variation) that sends up a red flag that won’t quite go away.

I definitely look forward to seeing what Perri has to offer in the future. The Assistants is poignant and hilarious, and while it may sometimes hit a bit too close to home for a recent college graduate like myself, that’s what makes it, ultimately, so relatable.