horses, magic and that self-destructive waitress crying in the wine cellar – book reviews for the week

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler is a tense and disturbing girl-in-the-city tale.

Just finished

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy tells the story of John Grady Cole, 16-year-old cowboy and his lovesick obsession with horses and a young Mexican girl

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

I’ve read All the Pretty Horses before, but when it came up as Clair’s pick for the next book club book, I was happy to dive into the world of wistful cowboys again. All the Pretty Horses is probably the plottiest of the McCarthy books that I’ve read, but the prose hardly suffers for the rich story. John Grady Cole is one of the best protagonists around and McCarthy manages to describe his interactions with horses in a way that is pure, sensual and powerful without being weird or creepy. This book is the first in a trilogy – The Border Trilogy – but it easily stands up by itself. If anything, the next two books, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain, enrich and deepen the story, but they are by no means necessary to supplement this one.

A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab follows Kell and Lila as they adventure around different Londons.

A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab

This book was every bit the treat I had been hoping for. Nerdette describes Lila as the “fiercest lady protagonist ever” and it’s a fitting description. Lila manages to be tough and scrappy without having to sacrifice any of her heart or femininity. Lila and Kell save each other over and over again, upending the traditional gender roles that often turn up in fantasy novels. The result is that the two main characters seem incredibly real and relatable, even with powerful magic skills. The world-building in A Darker Shade of Magic is subtle and layered, with the history and layout of the land unfolding at a perfect, gradual pace. It manages to strike a perfect balance between portioning out the information you need to know as you need to know it, without forcing pages and pages of exposition down your throat. I bought the sequel, A Gathering of Shadows, before even finishing this one, and I’m already looking forward to the final installment, A Conjuring of Light, due out in February of 2017.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler is a tense and disturbing girl-in-the-city tale.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

This book was disturbing, painful and oddly satisfying, kind of like pushing on a bruise or squeezing drops of blood out of a papercut. The writing is brutally raw, as the protagonist successfully and consistently deludes herself into making terrible decisions. At no point did I have any hope that Tess, the main character, would get her shit together and come to her senses, but it was still incredibly gripping to watch her struggle. Tess is a recent New York transplant, whose backstory is both vague and essentially irrelevant. She quickly lands a job as a backwaiter in a high-end, well-known restaurant and her achingly self-destructive behavior is interspersed with divine descriptions of food, wine and insider-kitchen info. I settled easily into Danler’s prose and I would pick up her next novel without a second thought.

Currently reading

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Things are starting to pick up a bit at chapter 15 of Red Rising, but I have to admit that I’m a little underwhelmed. At this point, I can’t tell if the subtle (?) misogynistic, homophobic, classist tropes packed into the first 100 pages will be subverted into a beautiful transformation, mirroring the protagonist’s own, or if what you see is what you get. This is the first in a trilogy (Golden Son and Morning Star are books two and three) and I am at least intrigued enough to try to finish out the series. So far, the book follows Darrow on a hero’s quest to transcend his class and avenge his family. He’s plucked from a colony of underground Mars hillbillies and made-over (like Katniss) into something more beautiful and refined. He’s about to be sent to battle school (like Ender) and I’m sure will spend a great deal of the novel wrestling with his conflicting identities, torn between fulfilling his mission and betraying the new friends he makes amongst the enemies he’s spent his life swearing to take down. To be clear, I haven’t actually gotten to that part yet, but the signposts are pretty strong.

On the horizon

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

I know. Just. Bear with me. There’s a not-insignificant part of me that is always curious to read the books everyone is talking about. There is an even larger part of me that found this book in a tiny, free public library and thought “ah, what the hell.”

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