In Support of Sexy Books

I’ve been thinking about sleaze.  I haven’t really – I just wanted to use the word, because it’s a great word.  SLEAZE. But what I actually want to talk about is sex.

The reason this came to mind?  Among other things, it was the fact that I recently read A COURT OF FROST AND STARLIGHT.  (*Mini review* I’m a Feysand shipper all the way so this was a must-read. I’ve read a few reviews reacting with a certain cynicism to this novella, described as ‘bridging the gap’ between the events of A COURT OF WINGS AND RUIN and the next book, which I hear will focus on Nesta and Cassian.  I can see why some people have been frustrated by it, as it’s definitely a different proposition to the previous three books. It’s more a study of domestic detail – a meander through the daily lives of the inner circle as they prepare for the solstice. But I loved this. Tbh I had occasionally found myself longing for these quieter moments, particularly towards the end of the original trilogy when there was so much action and jeopardy and huge-scale stuff happening.  I really enjoyed this more contemplative study of relationship dynamics and how places and people heal after wars, running alongside the usual cheeky banter and antics. *Mini Review Ends*)

I rate a lot about Maas’ writing (her world building, her dialogue, her characterisation) but another thing I REALLY rate is the way she writes sex.  Sex is so much harder to write than people think and I think she gets it so right (when it’s so easy to get so wrong). What I love is how distinctly female it is – how owned by the female perspective.  For so long women have had sex ‘happen’ to them in books – even when it’s seen through their eyes they are taken; they are preyed on like a predator (or in the case of FIFTY SHADES – whipped by a psycho!  Sexy?! In what world?!). Maas’ heroines are full of a real, visceral passion, a desire that they are willing to indulge and act upon.

Maas has this amazing talent to write gorgeous men who are powerful and strong, but who are also looked at and enjoyed as things of beauty by their female partners, and by the readers. There is something genuinely empowering in reading her love scenes – a sense of equality that is at once exhilarating and inspiring.  I balk at lending these books out in the school library where I work, but only for fear of what the parents of my patrons might say if they read Chapter 55 of A COURT OF MIST AND FURY (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve read these books and, if you haven’t, this chapter is one of the reasons why you must). In terms of what I myself feel is right and wrong for young people to read I am more than happy with these books.  I think sex positivity is important, and these books have that in spades. I am a dedicated member of the movement to eradicate the idea of young women (in their own minds as well as those of men) as sexual prey. I am also a dedicated member of the movement to eradicate the idea of young men (in their own minds as well as those of women) as predators. I have two daughters, and I want them to come to maturity in a world where sexual dynamics are aligned along a principle of equal partnership.

And I think we’re getting there.  Politics is one thing, and it has its part to play, but art (and therefore culture) also has a massive (maybe bigger) part to play in the story of us.  Humanity and its history are just the stories we tell in any case. And so the movies we make and watch, and the books we write and read (especially when we’re young and still forming our ideas) are going to be a crucial part of how we see things in the future.

I’ve never shied away from love scenes.  I love writing them and I’ve been told I’m not too bad at them. On the other hand I’ve also had feedback to suggest that some people think I go too far.  But I’m sticking by what I’ve written and here’s why: I want young people to read my books and feel empowered by the idea of wanting someone and being wanted back.  I want them to feel strong and sexy when they’re admired by someone they admire. I want them to look at the person they desire and see how beautiful they are and allow themselves to think that and feel that and say that and act upon that.  They don’t have to justify these feelings, or moralise them. Everybody makes mistakes so those are OK too. It’s fine to let it get messy – after all, this stuff is, by its very nature. If people think that’s going too far, it’s just something that I’m going to have to live with.  I’m not going to settle for anything less than brutal emotional honesty when contributing in my own small way to the story of us.

I know I can’t write sex like Sarah J Maas (can anyone?), but I’m going to keep writing it all the same.  And I’m going to keep writing it the way I do. It’s a brave new world, sexual politics wise, and I think it’s incredibly exciting.  I find myself constantly questioning things now that I had never even realised were so ingrained in my psyche. For a new generation coming through, free from those old beliefs, I believe that beautiful writing about desire and sex is going to be so important in reinventing the way they see themselves and their encounters.  So I think it’s important that I (as well far more skilled writers than me) keep writing about young people who own their own desire, and aren’t afraid of it, because these are the kind of people I think we’re all hoping to see in the shiny new future that increasingly feels like it’s just around the corner.  

A Cool Spanish Springtime of Talked-About Books

So, it’s a long story, but I ended up sitting in hospital waiting rooms for something like thirty hours at various points during spring.  And obviously there were a few downsides to that, but for a bookworm like me there was an upside too – namely, that I got to make a dent in my ever-replenishing tbr pile.  Here was a snapshot of it taken in April and it seems I have knocked a few off, while just as quickly adding more (and going on a few detours too).  It’s the Forth Bridge of books, but that’s just the way I like it.  *Quick roundup of the books I read during an unusually cool and hospital-heavy Spanish springtime follows!*

TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN

Worth the long wait for a new novel from this guy… I love John Green and I love how personal this one is, dealing as it does with anxiety.  And it’s done well, since the MC’s anxiety is something that’s just a part of her, something that’s made entirely relatable and understandable, yet causes problems for her and within her close relationships in a realistic way; her friends get fed up of it, her mum upset.  She needs to work her own way through it. The other characters have their own problems… nobody is anything other than fully three-dimensional here. I know people criticise the over-sophistication of JG’s teenage dialogue but I find his faithful rendering of modern teens (if not their speech patterns) works for me in the same way that Dawson Creek and the OC once did.  You know what – it’s just occurred to me as I write this that JG’s books occupy a similar place in my heart? In the same way they’re compelling, uplifting, entertaining, with characters and situations that draw you in. The fanfic stuff seemed a little thrown in, but maybe that’s just me. Look, JG’s just awesome and we all know it. Stop pretending.

THE PROBLEM WITH FOREVER

I was into this.  I thought the portrayal of ex-care kids with baggage was sensitive and well done and thoughtful.  It was really intimately focused inside the MC’s life and head and heart. And the love interest floated my boat for sure.  I mean, at times he was SO ‘Brooding YA Hero’ it was crazy. He was even called Rider – which is such an ultimate cliche it makes me wonder if it was done on purpose (it must have been, right?).  But, whatever – he worked for me. He had the sweet sensitive bad boy thing down so great it was like he invented it. And Paige growing up and coming into her own and navigating the world she’s growing up in was well rendered.  Read the heck out of this in one straight sitting.

THE CHALK MAN

I had heard so much about this book that I just had to read it.  I think the comparison to Stephen King was what got me (I was the BIGGEST King fan in my teenage years, like a lot of people I guess) and I can completely see where that comparison came from in that this book is dark and scary and goes deep into the murky underworld that exists beneath the veneer of small town life.  There’s something very filmic about it and I can totally imagine it getting adapted – is that happening yet?  It also has a whole thread that’s set in the eighties in a nicely Stranger Things kind of way. I read this with the book club I’m in, and everybody to a man loved it.  A page turner for sure.

CARAVAL

Oh yes, very cool; so unique.  Maybe I’m crazy but it reminded me a little of where I live (mad Marbella on the Costa del Sol) as I read.  All this decadence and parties and wild, unpredictable stuff around every corner. So vivid and crazy – sights and sounds and colours and SMELLS – so many smells – CARAVAL feels like a feast for the senses.  It seems the MC is even a synesthete – which actually fits in super-well with the whole vibe. Some great characters are created here, a complex sister relationship at its core, and a decent side order of darkness to keep the whole thing close to the edge.  Really curious to read the next installment actually and see how this dark tale continues to unfold.

So onto a hot and sultry summer of more reading… and I’m hopefully shifting venues from hospital waiting rooms to *POOLSIDE BABY*!  More book-related ramblings will be forthcoming, only next time I’ll be browner.

Book Review: State of Sorrow

Well, it’s no secret that Ms Melinda Salisbury is a writer at the height of her considerable powers.  A fact she proves irrefutably yet again, with the fabulous STATE OF SORROW which I literally this minute finished and rushed to begin reviewing because… well… just… oh… my… god.

Where do I start?  Political machinations, absent parents, complex family dynamics, prejudices and expectations and old grudges – this book has more intrigue, Shakespearean drama and twisting, turning tapestry of plot than you can shake a stick at.  With several huge mysteries at its core, surprise after surprise, a dastardly villain, and several truly plucky heroines and heroes the pages turn effortlessly (and deep into the night if you’re not careful).

But what I love most about all of Salisbury’s books is that you are just right in there.  You are full-on inhabiting the skin of her characters, living in their world, smelling the smells and seeing the sights and feeling the feels.  That’s what makes it so intoxicating, like a good draft of starwater (that’s a little in-joke for those who’ve already read) – that it is so ‘other’, so unique, so exotic and original and brand new, and yet so much is familiar.  

“How could anyone with kohl-lined eyes, or bright red lips, be thought of as afraid?”

Makeup and clothes as armour.  Whether you’re inhabiting Sorrow’s world or ours, it’s those moments of eternal little truths in Salisbury’s prose that I really love.  I love the richness of these details, from the subtle-yet-undeniable abilities of clothing choices and eyeliner styles to reflect mood and influence outcomes, to the sumptuously rendered menus of food Sorrow enjoys on her travels.  Extra emotional honesty and depth is lent to the whole by the subplots, like Sorrow’s feelings about her friends and her advisors, her reflections on dynamics between the people she knows and the peoples she navigates through, from the repressed Rhannish to the seductive Rhyllians.  And haven’t we all encountered an ex and been surprised by our feelings about it? That particular, sharp longing/loss/desire/guilt hybrid that feels like nothing else is so sensitively evoked here I actually had to re-read those sections to allow for full absorption.

In short, STATE OF SORROW is a genuine thrill, a masterclass in skilful storytelling, a truly feminist adventure, as well as a provocative meditation on the nature of addiction and its effects, an exploration of truth and deception, and a window into a world I’m keen to spend a lot more time in.  I genuinely can’t wait to see what lies in store for Sorrow Ventaxis, for (to misquote oafishly) sorrow certainly isn’t all she brought me.

A Court of Book Reviews

*SPOILER ALERT*  If you haven’t read at least the first two “A Court of…” books turn back now, as there are some hints at major spoilers and, seriously, just no.

Book boyfriends.  We’ve all had them.  And as a writer of love stories I’ve even created a few of my own.  And I mean obviously I like mine. Obviously I think mine are pretty great.  I wrote them the way I wanted them. And you would think – who could write a book boyfriend more to my taste than me?  Nobody – surely. There’s no way anybody could come along and conjure up a fictional man more enticing to me than one I quite literally designed to order – is there?

Step forward Sarah J Maas.  Now known to me as the creator of the ultimate, all-time number one book boyfriend.  But before we get to that let’s rewind a little. Let’s step back and give this whole thing some context.

There is a whole lot more to say than this about the “A Court of…” series.  I mean, there is, so much. For a start, Feyre. She’s understated. She’s an everyman.  She’s totally kickass and a chosen one and all that good stuff, but she’s also the kind of girl you know you’d like to hang out with.  Sometimes she’s frustrating, but she mostly makes solid decisions and she’s loyal and passionate and impulsive and fierce and she has that certain x-factor of likeability, and I’m here for it.

Then there’s the world.  So this is a world divided between humans and fairies but these are not the little daisy chain, gossamer-winged, bottom-of-the-garden type fairies but the real deal – bigger than humans, pointy-eared, powerful, magical, dangerous, ethereally gorgeous, irresistible in more ways than one.

The fairy world is divided from the human world by a hard border, held in place by magic.  Over this border and into the fairy world the domain is divided into different ‘courts’, all ruled over by a high lord (shades of the patriarchy but, never fear, Feyre is here to challenge all that, and there are definitely plenty of strong females to keep all the bros on their toes).  In the first novel in the series we are largely concerned with the business of the Spring court, and much of the narrative is shaped as homage/tribute to Beauty and the Beast which, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t hugely keen on. What drew me in however, even at this early point, were the riveting glimpses into the rest of Maas’ Prythia. It is utterly compelling, and with each page I found myself longing to find out more about each of the courts – Summer, Winter, Night, Dawn etc – with all their infinite possibilities for fashions and locations and architecture and philosophies and leadership stories and positions within a long and unfolding mythology which builds piece by piece into a rich tapestry that amazes but never overwhelms.  

And then about three quarters of the way through the first book, despite pacey narrative and the fabulous intricate world that Maas is drawing us into, Lord of the Spring Court Tamlin is hitting peak douche and we’re almost in danger of losing faith in the whole enterprise.

And. Then.  We. Meet. Rhysand.

Rhysand.  Rhysand Rhysand Rhysand.  Dangerous, deadly, beautiful, sexy, powerful Lord of the Night Court.  Rhysand insinuates himself into our hearts in the usual way of the bad boy love interest, to the extent that initially I hated myself a little for how much I almost immediately adored him.  But I didn’t have to hate myself for long…because Rhysand turns out to have pretty much the inside-out-upside-down of the typical bad boy trajectory. All we initially know about him is that he’s bad news, and so of course our girl Feyre knows she needs to steer well clear.  Rhysand is quite literally the villain of the piece and not even pretending to be any different. It takes a while for the clues to creep in that there might be more to him, that at least some of his actions might be survival tactics necessitated by his position as consort/sex slave of scary dictator and femme fatale Amarantha.

If book characters can have chemistry Rhysand and Feyre have it.  In spades. Their immediate connection, even while still enemies, is palpable.  This is as much due to their banter and the way they call each out as it is to do with the intense sexual chemistry they’re both in semi-denial about.  Every page they share blazes with it. It pretty much hijacked the story for me for a good portion of the series, and I was 100% on board that train.

So at this point let’s talk about sex.  I mean, these books are laced with some of the most intense, explicit and just plain hot love scenes I’ve ever seen in something that is labeled as YA.  They’re honest to the extent that I can rarely face loaning them out for fear of parental backlash. But you know what, I really wish I had the guts to do it more often, and I’ll tell you why.  The love scenes in these books are truly sex positive. They are joyous, full of female gaze and desire, and all-time-number-one-book-boyfriend Rhysand is a considerate, generous, affirming lover. I really believe that young people should read these books and heed these scenes as an antidote to the torrent of crap they’re exposed to during their wanderings on the internet and, if I wasn’t so concerned about the conservative views of the mainly Spanish-Catholic parents of my library clients, I would die on that hill.

So, to conclude, a brief advisory – do not read these books if you don’t want to spend the next several months working your way through every single thing Sarah J Maas’ has ever written like a thing possessed and LOVING every minute of all of them.  And definitely don’t read them if you don’t want to fall in love with a fictional character. I have actually informed my husband that in an AU where Rhysand comes to life and falls in love with me I would leave him in a heartbeat. He’s OK with it. He gets it.  He’s even buying me the next instalment A COURT OF FROST AND STARLIGHT, for my birthday, which just goes to show – we all know real men can rarely measure up to fictional ones, but they’re not so bad sometimes. And they do the hoovering and load the dishwasher and stuff so, you know, there’s that.

Book Review: The Scarecrow Queen

I’ve been putting off writing this review.  It’s not just that THE SCARECROW QUEEN was the perfect end to the trilogy, or that it was expertly paced and plotted, or that everything I wanted to happen came to pass and more, or that I devoured it in that obsessive, every-spare-moment way I reserve just for the very special books; it’s also that this is goodbye… and, as with all hard goodbyes, I’m not sure I’m not going to be able to say all the things I should.

THE SCARECROW QUEEN picks up almost exactly where the last book left off, but with a twist – we are now seeing the story through the eyes of Twylla once again.  She is adrift in a war-torn kingdom looking for a way to bring together a disparate band of survivors with the aim of wresting back power from the terrible Aurek.  But this book, in a gorgeous piece of narrative symmetry, is also told through the eyes of Errin, meaning we are also seeing events from inside the court of the deadly new king, within which Errin is a helpless hostage, controlled absolutely and completely through the use of a blood-bonded poppet.  Our fearless heroines are separated, but both are set on rebellion.

So, even if I just stick to the highlights of what I love this is going to be a LONG list: the visceral fear I felt on Twylla’s journey, the terrifying and at the same time sexy (is that just me?) power of Aurek, the arresting beauty of the descriptions of places and people, the pace, the smart plotting, Leif’s arc (shoot me if that’s a spoiler), the imagery of the golems and poppets, the perfect precision of the meaning behind the title, the multi-faceted mythology that ripples out from every page, the nuanced relationships between characters, the tender mortality and strength of the heroines, the many moral messages that resonate beyond the borders of Lormere, the unnerving yet exhilarating uncertainty I felt about how this was all going to end.  This book is going to be a tough act to follow, which explains why I have recently found it harder to fall in love with the books I am reading.  I’m still on the rebound.

What a book.  What a trilogy.  I’m not usually a fantasy fan but I’ve a feeling that is all about to change.  If there are others out there as smart and original and utterly arresting as this – count me in.

Book Review: Lament

The intriguing back-jacket premise drew me into reading LAMENT when I was cataloguing it ready for the library shelves a few months ago, and I since then I have been recommending it willy-nilly with the following sales pitch: it’s about fairies – not cutesy, end-of-the-garden, sugar-plum fairies though.  No, no, these are big, scary fairies.  Upon hearing this the client promptly checks the book out, and leaves feeling suitably intrigued.

The world evoked in LAMENT starts out familiar; it’s our world – a world of school and summer jobs and ice cream and stripmalls.  What we and our MC Deirdre are soon to find out is that overlaying all of this (or perhaps running underneath like a secret river) is another, far stranger world – one of fairies, with unspeakable powers and ancient grudges, in which Deirdre is about to be irresistibly embroiled, whether she likes it or not.

Taking inspiration from real Celtic faerie mythology, LAMENT weaves a gossamer web of secrets, danger and dark magic.  Stiefvater’s human characters are likeable and believable, while her fairies are as deadly and ruthless as they are beautiful and charismatic.  The whole adds up to an atmosphere that draws you in and stays with you even when you’re not reading.  The drive of the narrative, the questions that need answering, and the completely unpredictable twists in how it unfurls have you suspicious of everyone and everything in the book’s world, with the doomed love that grows at its core making it easy to imagine that there is plenty of excitement to fuel the sequel.  This is an addictive, original read that gets you tangled up in its ancient, darkly magical web.

Book Review: The Sleeping Prince

Middles of trilogies are funny beasts.  They can so easily miss and end up treading water, while in other cases they are genius – a dark-hearted unfinished symphony which serenades the reader across an ocean of unanswered questions, while also bringing something totally new and unexpected to the overall arc.  The masterfully crafted THE SLEEPING PRINCE definitely falls into the latter category.  

Not picking up directly from its predecessor but rather plunging us into a new and unknown part of Salisbury’s darkly seductive and intoxicating world, we meet Errin, who is living a simple but troubled life as a countryside apothecary following the disappearance of her brother Leif.  When a war tears her world apart, Errin becomes caught up in a series of terrifying events, that bring her closer to the petrifying instigator of the conflict, The Sleeping Prince himself.

As with the first book, I found myself immediately absorbed into this story’s world – the prose is so rich in detail and unusual imagery that reading it is a fully immersive sensory experience.  Despite an initial moment of disorientation and fleeting disappointment at not immediately following on with Twylla’s story, I was soon caught up in the exhilaration of coming at the story from a brand new angle and with a new and distinct narrator.  The moving parts of Salisbury’s mythology, from the alchemists to the golems to the myth/reality of The Sleeping Prince, are so vividly realised; her characters are so textured and well-drawn in all their light and shade.  The love story element lies beneath the narrative like a bassline, or perhaps a beat, handled with subtlety but nonetheless compelling and irresistible.  Is it just me who feels there could be any number of fantastic spin-offs from the characters and world that have been created here?

This perfectly plotted middle installment weaves another layer onto the rich tapestry of this wholly absorbing and chilling epic, priming us perfectly for a finale that will bring together the gilded, deepest crimson, grubby, bloodstained strands and take us who knows where.  A wholehearted five stars, and a serious case of writer’s envy.

Book Review: The Sin Eater’s Daughter

I came to THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER with high expectations – there’s the great reviews, the charismatic author and that simply gorgeous cover of course.  A little part of me wondered if the contents of this book could possibly live up to the frenzy that surrounds it, but – guess what – it did.  

Twylla is a deadly weapon, killing those that betray the crown with a single touch, like an angel of death.  Because of this she is kept locked away at the palace, protected from those who may wish to harm her and from those who may be harmed by her deadly touch.  While her ties to the crown become deeper and more involved, a new guard is the first person unafraid to approach her and she finds herself intoxicated by this closeness, both physical and emotional, the consequences of which can only be extremely dangerous for them both.

From the very first moments of the novel we are plunged into the dark beauty of Salisbury’s utterly complete world, where opulence and savage beauty meet to create a whole new mythology which is utterly spellbinding from the get-go.  Without the need for long explanatory paragraphs or unnecessary backstory, her characters spring to life.  The rules of her world are simple and utterly clear, as well as being richly detailed and complex.  We are welcomed in as somebody already familiar with the way things work here, and indeed somehow that quickly becomes the case.  Truly savage villains, a complex heroine, hints at a mythology and a history that goes far beyond the pages of this novel, sensory detail and description that lift off the page and surround you as you read, THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER is an addictive and spellbinding read.

So, in summary, to misquote Public Enemy:  do believe the hype.  An addictive, darkly beautiful, mesmerising trip into a world that will terrify you, but that you’ll never want to leave.

Book Review: Ariadnis

AriadnisFrom the start of this book, told in dual narrative from the perspectives of the Chosen Ones of two rival cities, we are coming at this unusual future dystopia from two distinct mirror-image angles. After some kind of schism in the philosophies that brought them to this post-apocalyptic point, the two societies have been heading in different directions. The vaguely steampunk city above has its ideas about where society should be heading, while that below is more focused on living in tune with nature.

Playing with the Chosen One tropes, we are presented with the super strength of Aula as set against the mute, unharnessed powers of Joomia. They have very little time remaining until the final test that will seemingly decide the fates of their respective worlds.

These worlds are distinct, unusual, fresh and well drawn. I felt I was entering a fictional future that was not as well trodden as some of them have become. Side characters were well employed and had good flesh on their bones; those designed to be likeable were just that, while dastardly villains didn’t disappoint. I don’t know if it’s just my interpretation, but I was a big fan of the androgynous, multi-racial qualities of most of the young cast. It’s a pretty nifty way of allowing all comers to the book to project themselves into and onto your story without turning into one of those super politically correct authors tripping over themselves to incorporate a rainbow into their narrative at its own expense. I don’t mean to come over cynical there (though I probably do) because I felt this aspect worked well, added to the atmosphere, and was entirely appropriate in the context.

What’s most clever and impressive about this debut however is the symmetry of the dual narrative. As I’ve said before, I’m not a big fan of these unless there is a reason for them, and in this case there certainly is. The way the stories of the two heroines intertwine – coming together, moving apart and ultimately colliding, is a smart piece of plotting and in itself a mirror (see what I did there) of the novel’s own themes.

Nicely done, and a pacey, involving read. Thanks to NetGalley and Hachette for the ARC.