Seraphina

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

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In this fantasy novel, dragons can take human form. The protagonist is Seraphina, assistant to the court composer and a half-dragon hybrid. She learns about her dead mother’s identity as a dragon and begins recalling her mother’ memories in overwhelming visions. To control her visions, she creates a mind palace full of “grotesques,” and has to stroll through this garden every once in a while to keep order there. That was the part of the book I liked the least; it seemed silly and overly interior. But I enjoyed the court intrigue, politics, mystery, and romance of the rest of the story. The country of Goredd has been at peace with the dragons for years, but a plot threatens that peace. Seraphina and Lucian Kiggs, royal bastard, are attracted to each other and have a few adventures investigating the death of his uncle the prince, but she can’t be honest with him about her heritage or her feelings. The ending, which I liked much more than I thought I would, necessitates a sequel, but it’s not coming out until next year.

Let’s Take the Long Road Home

Let’s Take the Long Road Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell

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This memoir tells about Caldwell’s friendship with fellow writer Caroline Knapp. They met late in life and formed a friendship of the kind of intensity you usually see with much younger women. The aspect of their friendship that I found most beautiful is the way that though they were very competitive people by nature, they didn’t compete with each other. They specialized in different things, and each recognized that the other was so good at certain things that she could never surpass her friend. Instead, the pressure was off and they could each just enjoy doing those things together. Much of the story was concerned with Knapp’s battle with cancer. There’s a chapter about Caldwell’s alcoholism and recovery, and a lot about her dog. It’s a pretty short, sad book: Caroline dies and so does Caldwell’s dog. I didn’t cry, but a lot of people might. Caldwell describes grief’s ravages thoroughly, examining the many layers of her wound, and eventually arrives at something like faith.

Assassin’s Apprentice

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

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Assassin’s Apprentice is first in the Farseer trilogy. It begins with a boy dropped off at a palace, the bastard son of a prince. He grows up there, cared for by the prince’s stableman, and eventually trains with the king’s assassin and his Skillmaster. The Skill is a mental power that allows those who have it to communicate telepathically over long distances, and even to control others’ actions. Most of the drama of the story comes from the mysteries, plotting, and court intrigue as Fitz’s two uncles jockey for power and influence. Fitz endures abuse by the Skillmaster, manipulations by the assassin and king, and hard personal losses. The climax comes when Fitz accompanies one uncle to arrange a marriage for the other, under orders to murder the bride’s brother. The real villains are the Red-Ship Raiders, a group of pirates pillaging the coast with some truly terrifying methods. They provide ongoing tension, but Fitz barely comes into contact with them in this book. I’m sure they’ll be more central in the later novels. The narrator is Fitz as an old man looking back on his life, telling his story with melodrama and style. It’s an enjoyable book for anyone who likes fantasy

Burn

Burn by Julianna Baggott

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Burn is the last of the post-apocalyptic Pure trilogy, in which the Detonations split people into two groups: the pures, safe in the Dome, and those left outside to suffer the effects of radiation. Partridge is taking his father’s place as leader of the Dome, but he’s being manipulated by his father’s old lieutenants. Pressia, Bradwell, and El Capitan have obtained a weapon to take down the Dome for good. Each of the two couples, Partridge and Lyda, Pressia and Bradwell, have relationship crises they must weather.

One of the most interesting things about this series is the way it examines the concept of privilege. In this novel, Partridge gives a speech about how everyone in the Dome is complicit in the mass murder of the Detonations, sparking a suicide crisis. People can’t take the ‘survivor’s guilt.’ Despite looking healthier, the pures in the Dome are actually less hardy than the fused “wretches,” and if they are exposed to the environment outside, will die in large numbers.

As always, I admired Baggott’s prose, some of the best you can find in YA. I loved how she set up complicated moral questions and showed readers every angle of them using the various point of view characters. I’m still thinking about the ending, because it was kind of open and enigmatic. It seemed like a tragedy, really. I was kind of disappointed that the ending wasn’t happier, but I can see why it had to end the way it did.

A Dance with Dragons

A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin

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This series just blows my mind constantly. Martin is always surprising readers. I feel like every time I finish a chapter I have to put the book down and think for a bit, imagining where the plot might go after these new revelations–and never, not once, have I been correct. And I’m a person who can predict the hell out of a lot of books. I heard once that it takes like 40 miles of ocean for an aircraft carrier to change its course. This length, depth, and breadth of this series make it like an aircraft carrier in size, but it has the turning radius of a sportscar. The entire epic narrative can change with just a few lines, with a single word. And not only are the plot turns here unexpected, they’re shocking in the creativity of their violence. Martin will murder beloved characters in the most senseless, brutal manner possible. He’ll dispatch minor point of view characters just to get them out of the way. He’ll kill a character, and then 80 pages later, bring her back. He’ll come back to a character after 200 pages on the other side of the world, and he’s got a new name. He’ll psych you out by introducing a character who was supposed to be dead throughout the entire series, but isn’t. He’ll connect two plot lines by bringing random characters together in the most unbelievable coincidences, and keep the ones who are searching earnestly for each other apart for thousands of pages.

In this book Daenerys deals with war and rebellion and multiple suitors, Jon Snow handles an immigration/refugee crisis at the Wall, Tyrion travels through the Free Cities, outsmarting slavers and sellswords, while cracking wise and bitter, and snow falls and tension builds in the North between Bolton, Manderly, Stannis, the Free Folk, and the Watch. There are only the shortest, most teasing mentions of Jaime, Brienne, Bran, and Arya, which frustrated me. I think Jon’s story arc was one of my favorites, as he grew into his power and managed the politics of his new position as Lord Commander.

I’m not the biggest fan of the structure of the most recent two books. Martin said that he meant for these most recent two books to be one book, but the narrative got too long and unwieldy, so he split the various plot lines in half, and put some in the last book and the rest in this one. I don’t like losing track of characters for that long, although there are some plotlines I like more than others, of course.  It does make some sense because the stories are spread out so far geographically, but still. The main reason the story got so long seemed to be the addition of new characters. Anyway, I’m amazed at Martin’s ability to juggle so many characters, each with his or her own story arc that rises and falls not just within each novel but across all of them.

The questions I’m left with are maddening: Where is Sansa? What is Varys’s plan? What depraved atrocity will the bastard of Bolton commit next? How will Tyrion make Daenerys his ally? And the conflicts that this novel sets up for the next installment are incredible. There will be two queens on trial for their lives, Targaryns on the battlefield, and, finally, DRAGONS! The wait for the next book will be almost as bad as Ramsay Bolton’s dungeon. Ok, not that bad. I’m not begging Martin to cut off my fingers. I’m just begging him to write faster!

War and Peace

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

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This book is an education in itself, and sadly, I felt I didn’t know enough to truly appreciate it. I had a similar reaction to gigantic classic novels Anna Karenina and Les Miserables. My lack of background knowledge on the Napoleonic wars and Russian society in the early 1800s made it hard for me to follow a lot of the events, but I did my best and looked up a few things when I felt unbearably clueless. Every edition of this book should have maps and diagrams to help readers understand the battles and the movements of the various armies; the descriptions are very meticulous and hard to picture without a visual aid. Tolstoy interweaves history and philosophy lessons with a story about the love affairs of the young people of three noble families, concluding with an extended meditation on the discipline of history and free will. I wondered whether Tolstoy’s presentation of Napoleon and the Russian leaders is considered a fair one nowadays. Again, I was left with the urge to learn more about this exciting period in history.

The female characters were all problematic for me in various ways. It seemed like they were all defined by their possession or lack of the three things that give a woman value as a wife: beauty, virtue, and wealth. Pierre’s first wife Helene is probably the worst; she has beauty and wealth, but no virtue. Natasha has only beauty. I found Natasha annoying for the entire first half of the book, if not the entire book. Her preening and singing were repeatedly described as enchanting, but just seemed obnoxious to me. She becomes more virtuous after repenting a stupid affair and caring for her dying ex-lover. And then after her marriage, she immediately turns into a nagging matron. Sonya has beauty and virtue, but no wealth. Her entire existence seemed to be an apology for her poverty and the fact that her relatives had to take her in. She does nothing but help and support others, and her reward for it is living with the man she loves and his wife. Princess Mary has virtue and wealth, but no beauty. She’s so virtuous and dutiful, she allows her father to abuse her. In the end, she practically has to beg Nicolas to marry her so that she can solve all of his family’s money problems.

The 6 Most Important Decisions You’ll Ever Make

The 6 Most Important Decisions You’ll Ever Make by Sean Covey

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This advice book for teens comes from the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens, and incorporates a lot of the lessons and ideas from that book (and its adult counterpart). The “6 decisions” are issues that confront young adults: school, friends, parents, sex, addictions, and self-worth. There are lots of corny jokes, cartoons, and examples. Like many self-help books, it often pretends that things are easier than they are in real life.

I wish the book were more sex-positive. Readers are flatly advised to save sex for marriage, period. I think I’ll be teaching my son a more nuanced message than that. I did appreciate that there was no overt slut-shaming or double standards in the sex chapter, at least. And I did think it was a good idea to tell teens to date people their own age, and to inform them that statistically, not everyone their age is having sex.

In the chapter on addictions, various drugs are discussed in terms of horror stories and catastrophes. It seemed like the same approach that I remembered from my 5th grade D.A.R.E. class, and, judging from my classmates’ later lives, wasn’t very effective. I don’t think kids can be scared out of doing drugs. The more extreme the horror story, and the more disproportionate the horrible result is to the first small transgression, the less kids believe it’s even true or possible. I’m not sure what would work better to persuade teens to stay away from drugs, but fear doesn’t work. I found it interesting that pornography was discussed at length as an addiction, but eating disorders, self-mutilation, and gambling, which seem much more dangerous to me, were barely mentioned.

I don’t think I’ll be using this book in my classes; I prefer the original 7 Habits book. Its approach seemed more holistic and broadly applicable, and its more vague approach to sex and drugs made it less objectionable and prudish.