Thursday, July 23, 2015


Wow.  Just…wow.

This book left me breathless.  If you know me at all, then you know that I'm a huge middle grade fan. I read a lot of it. And The Lightning Queen by Laura Resau is one of the best. Someone give this book a Newbery.

Seriously. The Lightning Queen is a heartfelt story that will stick with you long after you read the last page. And it will make you cry. It's that good.

The book alternates between the 1950s and present day as Teo tells his grandson, Mateo, the story of his friendship with Esma, the Gypsy Queen of Lightning. Thus, the vast majority of the book takes place in 1950s Oaxaca.

Resau does a phenomenal job of bringing rural Mexico to life. As I read, I felt as though I were standing on the Hill of Dust, the close-knit village in which Teo lives. I smelled the animals. I heard the river. I tasted the atole.

When a caravan of Gypsies spends a few days on the Hill of Dust, Teo meets Esma, a spirited young girl left crippled by polio. Her grandmother, the Mistress of Destiny, makes a prediction that Teo and Esma will be friends for life -- despite the fact that Mixtecos and Rom don't mix. Teo and Esma set out to make their fortune come true, and in doing so, they change the lives of everyone around them.

This book is a lot of fun -- how can you not love Teo's animal companions? -- but it deals with a lot of heavy themes. Prejudice, of course, is the obvious one, but then there's death and grief and depression, all of which Resau handles beautifully. Not everyone gets a happy ending. And it works.

So pick up this book. Read it. Love it.

Now onto the "pairing," if you will. After reading this book, I was craving Mexican food like crazy, so I went to a restaurant called Oaxaca Taqueria in the Upper West Side. It's a total dive, but it's delicious -- and pretty cheap. Their papas y rajas enchiladas are on point.

I'm still hunting for atole. Any suggestions?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

RUIN & RISING - A Perfect Ending

It's rare that I read an entire series.  However, Leigh Bardugo's The Grisha Trilogy grabbed me from the beginning and didn't let go.  Even more unusual is the fact that I can't pick a favorite among the three books:  Shadow & Bone, Siege & Storm, and  Ruin & Rising.  Each is incredible in its own way, which is why I'm going to discuss the entire series as I talk about Ruin & Rising, the brilliant finale.

A quick review.  The series follows Alina Starkov, a young cartographer whose life takes a drastic turn when she discovers that she is the one-and-only Sun Summoner, meaning that she can control light.  Due to this unique ability, she's courted by the Darkling, who--you guessed it--can control darkness.  He's also the leader of the Second Army, the army of Grisha (people with magic powers).  He needs Alina in order to destroy the Fold, a dangerous shadowland that splits the country in two.  We quickly learn that the Darkling may have less-than-admirable plans -- and it's up to Alina to stop them.  Essentially, this conflict carries all three books.

Okay, so let's focus on RUIN & RISING.  I admit this one gets off to a slow start.  Alina & Co. are the prisoners of the Apparat, the crazed priest, and it takes a few chapters for them to break away.  It's then that the story picks up -- specifically when Sturmhond arrives on the scene.  Let's look at that, shall we?

"I saw the prince when I was in Os Alta," said Ekaterina. "He's not bad looking."

"Not bad looking?" said another voice. "He's damnably handsome."

Luchenko scowled. "Since when--"

"Brave in battle, smart as a whip." Now the voice seemed to be coming from above us. Luchenko craned his neck, peering into the trees. "An excellent dancer," said the voice. "Oh, and an even better shot."

"Who--" Luchenko never got to finish. A blast rang out, and a tiny black hole appeared between his eyes.

I gasped. "Imposs--"

"Don't say it," muttered Mal.

Then chaos erupted." 

Of course, the best part about that scene is the shout-out to Sturmhond's catchphrase, "When people say impossible, they usually mean improbable."  As usual, he breathes life and joy into the story, which takes off as Team Avatar goes in search of the final amplifier.

The way Bardugo treats the final amplifier is BRILLIANT.  I won't spoil it, but I'll say that I did not see it coming.  I was unprepared.  And it shows just how much it will cost Alina to defeat the Darkling.

Oooh, the Darkling.  Wonderful, as usual, and definitely one of the best villains I've ever read.  I was rooting for him.  Not to win, but to find redemption.  Throughout the series, he becomes increasingly awful, yet he retains so much of his humanity in his respect for Baghra, his relationship with Alina, and his conviction that he's doing the best thing for his country.

Now I am going to spoil things.  So SPOILER ALERT.

His death was one of the best scenes in the entire series.  It encompasses his bizarre relationship with Alina perfectly:  in their weird way, they do care about each other deeply.  I sobbed all over the place.

"Alina," he breathed.

I knelt beside him. The nichevo'ya had left off their attacks. They circled and clattered above us, unsure of what to do. I thought I glimpsed Nikolai above them, arcing toward that patch of blue.

"Alina," the Darkling repeated, his fingers seeking mine. I was surprised to find fresh tears filling my eyes.

He reached up and brushed his knuckles over the wetness on my cheek. The smallest smile touched his bloodstained lips. "Someone to mourn me." He dropped his hand, as if the weight were too much. "No grave," he gasped, his hand tightening on mine, "for them to desecrate."

"All right," I said. The tears came harder. There will be nothing left.

He shuddered. His eyelids drooped.

"Once more," he said. "Speak my name."

He was ancient, I knew that. But in this moment, was just a boy--brilliant, blessed with too much power, burdened by eternity.


His eyes fluttered shut. "Don't let me be alone," he murmured. And then he was gone. 

Ugh, it's perfect.  SO PERFECT.  And, I mean, super depressing because I was Team Darkling the entire time, but really, it couldn't have ended any other way.

All in all, this is perhaps the best YA series I've encountered in recent years.  Pick it up.  You won't regret it.  And make sure to check out Leigh Bardugo's next book, Six of Crows, coming this Fall!

Find Ruin & Rising on Amazon and Barnes & Noble!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

THE WRATH & THE DAWN by Renee Ahdieh

THE WRATH & THE DAWN was everything I wanted in a YA novel -- until it wasn't.

It's a retelling of The Arabian Nights, an underrepresented collection as far as retellings go.  Shahrzad, our heroine, pulls a Katniss Everdeen in that she volunteers to marry the caliph, Khalid, who murders his wife each dawn.  Shahrzad intends to kill him.  Of course, he's way too hunky and mysterious for that to work out.

This book has so much potential.  Gorgeous setting.  Offbeat fantasy.  Romance and intrigue.  But it just isn't there.  The writing falls flat.  Even though I was imagining Disney's Agrabah, the descriptions don't support that image -- nor do they refute it.  I wanted lush scenery to pull me into the story.

I also wanted complex characters.  Instead, I got cardboard cutouts:  a snarky heroine, even snarkier best friend, a dark and surly hero, and an obsessive knight-in-shining-armor.

The plot gets repetitive.  Shahrzad wants to kill Khalid.  Khalid does something to make her change her mind.  Then she convinces herself that his kindness doesn't matter.  She wants to kill him.  Then he does something and she falters.  Again.  So on and so forth.

And the magic is…weird.  It's barely present in the story, so when it does appear it feels out of place.

Some people love this book.  I didn't.  I wanted so much more (than this provincial life).