I was drawn to Anna Dressed in Blood by its cover—which is eerily gorgeous—and by the fact that the entire thing is printed in red ink. That’s right, red. What self-respecting bibliophile could say no to that? Also, the title. Something about that title feeds the imagination.

Cal Lowood kills dead people, an odd talent he inherited from his father, who died while hunting a ghost. Along with his mother (a witch attuned to spells and the supernatural), Cal travels the world, moving from place to place, following ghost stories and strange murders to the doorsteps of ghosts who make a habit of killing the living. One such story leads him to Anna, a 16-year-old girl murdered on her way to a school dance and known to the locals as Anna Dressed in Blood. Anna haunts her childhood home, viciously attacking all who dare to step over the threshold—except, strangely, for Cas—and almost immediately, it becomes obvious that Anna is no ordinary ghost and that this job will not be as easy as all the others.

I liked this one, especially the voice of Cas, which is a humorous combination of sarcasm and disinterest. The story is dark and brutal, especially as it deals with just how it was that Anna died, but it keeps you turning the pages. This sort of paranormal love story isn’t new, but Blake’s approach to it is fresh (I’m not sure if that’s because of the nature of Cas’ powers, or Anna’s story itself, but there it is). One complaint—the ending was a cliff hanger and there is no closure. Not in this book. You’ll have to read book 2, Girl of Nightmares, for that.

Best Line: “Don’t be afraid of the dark, Cas. But don’t let them tell you that everything that’s there in the dark is also there in the light. It isn’t.”

Worst Line: [There was a bad one. It was really cliche, too, but I marked down the wrong page in my notes and can't find it now. Fail.]

Some Other Good Ones:

He just loved legends. He loved a good story, tales about the world that made it seem cooler than it really was.

This city smells like smoke and things that rot in the summer.

That’s the way we like it in Loganland—the darker the better. And if it’s disturbing, too, that’s just a pleasant bonus. Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places is all these things. And although I didn’t love it, I did like it. I liked it a lot.

When Libby Day was seven years old, her mother and two sisters were brutally murdered in their home in what became known as “The Satan Sacrifices of Kinnakee, Kansas.” Libby only survived by climbing out her mother’s bedroom window, even as she heard the terrifying sounds of her mother in the hallway trying to speak with half her head missing, and fleeing out into the freezing early hours of January 2, 1985. Little Libby later testified that Ben Day, her fifteen-year-old brother, was the killer—testimony that put Ben in prison for life. Now in her thirties, Libby is damaged and struggling, still dangling somewhere between childhood and adulthood. She can’t pay the bills and has never held a job; she stays in bed for days at a time, haunted and uncertain, bitter and selfish—a state she would have remained in if Lyle, a member of a secret society obsessed with notorious murders, hadn’t contacted her with evidence suggesting that her brother wasn’t the one who slaughtered her family, that the real killer is still out there. Determined to prove that she had not been mistaken as a child—convinced that Ben had been there, that he had killed them all—Libby sets off on her own investigation, forcing herself to do something she’s avoided for 25 years: make contact with her brother.

This was a great book and a quick read (though not a light one). Flynn’s writing manages to be eloquent and exquisitely disturbing all at once, and I loved the way the narrative switches between 1st person, present day chapters of Libby and 3rd person, day-of-the-murders chapters told from the point of view of various Day family members. These things together create the edge-of-your-seat pacing that keeps you turning the pages, even though you’re horrified by what you might find on the next page. The only thing I didn’t like about this book is the ending. In order to avoid spoilers, I won’t go into details, but I thought the ending was weak and a little anti-climatic. After all the awful, awful things that happen in this book, I was expecting just a little more closure than what I got. Still worth the read, though. And I’ve put Flynn’s other books, Sharp Objects and Gone Girl, on my reading list. I’m sure I’ll get to them someday…

Best Line: I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. [Okay, maybe not the best line. But it's the line that stuck with me. It's also the first sentence of the book.]

Other things I’ve read since my last post:

For years I’ve passed this book in the store, picked it up, read the back, and put it back—not because it didn’t sound interesting, but because I was going through a phase of denying myself books in a failed attempt to control my bookshelves. When I finally broke down and bought it a few weeks ago, I couldn’t wait to start reading it and I am so glad it didn’t disappoint me. And my expectations were high.

David B. Coe’s Rules of Ascension is set mostly in Eibithar, one of many kingdoms in a realm called the Forelands. 900 years before the story opens, the Forelands were invaded by the Qirsi, a pale, white-haired sorcerer race led by Weavers, Qirsi whose powers far exceeded those of the rest of the race. But, despite their magic, the Qirsi were defeated by the unmagical Eandi, their Weaver leaders hunted and killed, and the remaining Qirsi scattered throughout the Forelands where, eventually, they were able to lead normal lives serving as advisors to lords and kings.

The story follows Tavis of Curgh, son of the Duke of Curgh and, according to the ancient Rules of Ascension, the future heir to the throne of Eibithar. Tavis, spoiled and arrogant, believes he’s destined to be king after his father until the day of his Fating—a ceremony in which a Qirsi gleaner provides a glimpse of what an individual’s future holds—when he learns that his life is quickly hurtling toward something far darker. Grinsa jal Arriett, the Qirsi gleaner present at Tavis’s Fating, is immediately disturbed by the future he sees for the boy and, suspecting that someone is manipulating the Rules of Ascension, vows to help Tavis survive his fate. Because no one knows as well as Grinsa that, despite the efforts of the Eandi to eliminate Weavers from Qirsi bloodlines since the War, there are Weavers in the Forelands again and one of them is carefully organizing a rebellion against Eandi rule.

I really loved this book. It starts a little slow, but gains speed until you’re frantically turning pages and find yourself unable to put it down. Even knowing that Tavis was to meet some dark fate, I was so shocked by the event that actually placed him there that I had to re-read the scene to make sure I’d understood it. Coe does an excellent job of crafting the multi-layered tensions between the Qirsi and Eandi, and even between Qirsi with different views of the Eandi. What is truly fantastic about the world Coe has created is the tragic nature of Qirsi magic—using their power literally shortens their life and most Qirsi don’t expect to live much past their thirties. Some of the characters are more fleshed out than others, something that only became apparent when the point of view shifted, but I found myself immediately attached to Grinsa, the mysterious Qirsi gleaner still wounded by an event in his past. And, though Tavis can be a little prig, I found myself liking him too.

This was just the sort of fantasy I’ve been craving for the past few months and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book, Seeds of Betrayal.

I didn’t keep track of worst lines and best lines this time—so sorry—but here’s HBO’s new Game of Thrones trailer for season 2. Enjoy.

So, that book I was reading? Robopocalypse? Yeah, I won’t be reviewing that. Mostly because I finished it ages ago and can’t remember anything beyond  a disappointment in the execution and an extreme relief at finally having space on my nightstand for something else. Something else being The Price of Civilization (interesting, but just okay), The Expats (a fantastic thriller going on sale in May—check it out), Freakonomics (fascinating, fun to read, and deserving of all the attention it gets), The Night Strangers (extremely disappointing), The Raven Prince (this is romance, the raunchy Jane Austen kind—oh yeah), The Tipping Point (interesting but Freakonomics is better), and Rules of Ascension (a fantasy I very much liked and will review in a separate post this weekend).

Until then, please amuse yourself with this article on the Death Star. Or this soul-crushing speculation on the top 10 worst case casting scenarios for (not real!) Hollywood adaptations/remakes of geeky classics like Cowboy Bebop and Back to the Future.

None of those things catch your fancy? Try this.

Today I’m reviewing Prince of Thorns, a remarkable debut fantasy, and Cinder, a young adult sci-fi adventure that re-imagines the Cinderella fairy tale in a fresh and addictive way.

PRINCE OF THORNS: Book 1 of The Broken Empire

Since I finished it first, I’ll start with Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, which tells the story of Jorg Ancrath, the only surviving son and heir to the King of Ancrath, one of many kingdoms in a crumbling empire that has long been consumed by war. Four years before the book opens, Jorg’s mother and younger brother were slaughtered on the roadside by the men of Count Renar, the ruler of a province bordering Ancrath. Jorg was only spared death because he was thrown from the carriage and trapped in a snare of hookbriar thorns, where he watched the violence unfold and from which he received the name Prince of Thorns. Now fourteen, Jorg is living a violent, immoral life on the road as the leader of a band of thugs and thieves. When news reaches him of his stepmother carrying a new heir for Ancrath, Jorg is forced to return to the court of his father to protect his birthright. But much has changed in Ancrath since Jorg left and he soon finds himself back on a path of vengeance he abandoned years before—hunting the man man responsible for the murder of his mother and brother.

Having heard a lot of praise for this debut earlier in the year, I couldn’t stop myself from reading it immediately after returning home with a copy purchased from my neighborhood Barnes & Noble. The cover, an image of the book’s namesake standing surrounded by bodies and mist, caught my imagination the moment I saw it and still hasn’t let go—just as the first page captured my attention and didn’t release it until the last. This is a beautifully written page-turner with a surprising and cleverly created world (study the map carefully as you read). Jorg is a twisted and deeply disturbed young man, but that somehow didn’t stop me from wanting him to succeed—even when he was doing terrible things. The narrative alternates between the present and key moments in Jorg’s past, leaving the reader to piece together the events that led him to where he is today. This is dark fantasy at its most dark, and anyone who likes moral lines blurry will find something here to enjoy. My only complaint is that the ending was a bit anti-climatic and that Jorg (when he was a child) didn’t speak his age.

Favorite Quotes

War is a thing of beauty and those who say otherwise are losing.

I saw what they did to Mother, and how long it took. They broke little William’s head against a milestone. Golden curls and blood. And I’ll admit that William was the first of my brothers, and he did have his hooks in me, with his chubby hands and laughing. Since then I’ve taken on many a brother, and evil ones at that, so I’d not miss one or three. But at the time, it did hurt to see little William broken like that, like a toy. Like something worthless.

Hate will keep you alive where love fails.

I swallowed darkness and darkness swallowed me.

CINDER: Book 1 of The Lunar Chronicles

An arc (advance reader’s copy) of Cinder came to me in the mail at my office and I was instantly intrigued by the cover and concept. So much so that I ignored the other two books I was reading in order to start it on my train ride home that day. Set on a future Earth ravaged by a deadly new plague called letumosis, the book tells the story of Cinder, a teenage cyborg living with her stepmother and two stepsisters in New Beijing. Cyborgs are treated as second class citizens by society, which sees them as living on borrowed time, but Cinder manages to excel as a mechanic (though all the money she earns goes to her stepmother’s bank account). Her renown expertise on androids is what brings Crown Prince Kaito to her shop desperate to retrieve information from a malfunctioning android—information that could ignite a war between the governments of Earth and the moon kingdom of Luna.

All the familiar fairy tale elements are here—the girl scorned and mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters, the prince who charms her even as he falls for her, a ball, and even a glass slipper in the form of a cyborg’s robotic foot. What is so brilliant about Cinder is the way that the fairy tale becomes the story, rather than overwhelming it. Never once did it read as though events were being forced into the mold of Cinderella because Marissa Meyer has made a familiar story all her own. It’s Cinderella with cyborgs, androids, plagues, and Lunar magic. The characters are wonderfully drawn, the world imaginative and believable, the narrative perfectly paced, and the ending (despite my initial worries) left me with that bittersweet combination of fulfillment and wanting more. I just didn’t want this one to end, and I can’t wait to get my hands on book 2.

[Cinder goes on sale January 3rd, 2012]

What to say, what to say…I’m sure having David Tennant prancing around on my television isn’t helping my focus any. Recently got myself addicted to Doctor Who and I can’t seem to stop.

Whoops. Digression.

Okay. The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan caught my interest with two sentences from its jacket copy:

“Some speak in whispers of the return of the Aldrain, a race of widely feared, cruel yet beautiful demons.”  [Ohhhh, my favorite!]

“But with heroes like these, the cure is likely to be worse than the disease.” [Beautiful demons and anti-heroes? Oh, squee!]

I’d also heard some great things about Morgan’s sci-fi Takeshi Kovachs novels. Steel Remains is his first foray into fantasy, but I won’t hold that against the book. Not much, anyway.

The Steel Remains follows Ringil Eskiath—though we do get the view points of Egar, the leader of a nomadic warrior clan called the Majak, and Archeth, a half-Kiriath left behind by the rest of her advanced, immortal race when they fled the world after the war with the Scaled Folk just over a decade before the opening of the book. All three of them met during the war and its aftermath, and as the book progresses their paths are leading them back together. Ringil, cynical, quick to anger, estranged from his family, haunted by a past trauma, and homosexual in a world that punishes such people with a gruesome public execution, is an unwilling hero recruited to track down a cousin who was sold into slavery. His search brings him into the dangerous world of a newly bourgeoning slaving industry, and to the dwenda (aka the Aldrain)—a mysterious race of gorgeous immortals with a plan that could doom the world.

“Could” being the key word, here. By the end of the book I wasn’t so sure whose side to cling to, whose motivations were misinformed, who it was that had been wronged. And that was fantastic, truly it was. I love that kind of ambiguity. I also liked the flexible portrayal of sexuality, which is such a rare thing in fantasy. Morgan handled it with brilliance, though I will say there is a whole lot of graphic male-on-male action. If that sort of thing makes you squeamish, best not read this one. But it was rather hott (two t’s intentional), in my opinion.

Unfortunately, the above is all I really liked about the book. It has some fresh ideas, it’s a page-turner, but there was just something missing. Well, not something, a few things.

Character Development: Besides Ringil and a certain dwenda, the characters are utterly forgettable. I couldn’t even remember the names of Egar and Archeth—I had to look them up. And I finished the book just two weeks ago. If they’d been minor characters, I wouldn’t think much of it. But they aren’t. They each have POV chapters throughout the book, yet I still forgot their names.

Plot: The overarching story involving the Kiriath, the Aldrain, and the ancient past is wonderfully intriguing and suggestive of depth, but the main story of Ringil saving a cousin he barely knows from slavery simply because his mother asked him to feels forced, contrived for the purpose of getting the larger story started, and seems to contradict who Ringil is—a man who angers at injustice, yes, but who is also estranged from his family. I still don’t get why he agreed to do it.

Writing: Where to start? The inner dialogue is often convoluted and hard to follow. There are many useless flashbacks that elaborate on scenes that happened a few chapters earlier. This could work if it was from a new character’s point of view, thereby shedding light on something that was missed before. But what Morgan does is essentially fade out of a scene, return to that same character later, and have that character think about what just happened wherever that scene was and about what was said by whoever it was they were with when the chapter ended. It makes the narrative feel haphazardly wrought and amateurish. And then there is the thing that drove me absolutely bonkers: I do believe if you did a word search of this book, the most frequently used word would be “fuck” (I’m exaggerating here, but you get my point). I’m all for some good cursing, but this is just overdone. It became distracting. It’s in almost every piece of dialogue and inner dialogue—regardless of character, race, age, sex, class, or place of birth—and therefore serves no purpose beyond itself. Fuck, fucker, motherfucker, fucking fuck fuck. No, seriously. It made my eyes roll and destroyed any hope the dialogue had of feeling natural. But that’s just my opinion.

Ending: By the end of the book, I just didn’t care much for Ringil. [SLIGHT SPOILER in white] In fact, the character I did care about died. This may have been intentional; this may be due to my own affinity for the darker side of things. Either way, it doesn’t inspire me to pick up book two, The Cold Commands.

So, do I recommend the book? No, not really. But I wouldn’t say it isn’t worth reading either—because it is. It was a good book while I was reading it, but once I put it down… *shrug* It didn’t stay with me.

Best Line: The sun lay dying amid torn cloud the color of bruises, at the bottom of a sky that never seemed to end.

Worst Line: He was going back to what he used to be, and the worst of it was that he couldn’t make himself regret it at all. In fact, now the whole thing was in motion, he could hardly wait. [A bit heavy handed for me.]

Some Favorites: “Common men make a distinction between gods and demons, but it’s ignorance to talk that way. When the powers do our will, we worship them as gods; when they thwart and frustrate us, we hate and fear them as demons. They are the same creatures, the same twisted unhuman things.”

Thunder rattled at the chained doors of the world.

Brace yourselves, folks. This is a long one.

At work the other day, while I was writing paperback copy, I was distracted by a tweet linking to this Ode to Borders. The ode itself, in the form of a snarky list of things booksellers never told you and displayed by employees at an undisclosed Borders store, was amusingly true. Some of my favorite points?

  • If you don’t know the author, title, or genre, but you do know the color of the cover, we don’t know either. How it was our fault we couldn’t find it we’ll never understand.
  • We never were a daycare. Letting your children run free and destroy our kids section destroyed a piece of our souls.
  • Oprah was not the “final say” on what was awesome. We really didn’t care what was on her show or what her latest book club book was. Really.
  • When you returned your SAT books, we knew you used them. We thought it wasn’t fair—seeing that we are not a library.

Anyone who has ever worked in retail (I don’t care if it was selling books or clothes or electronics) can sympathize with this list. None of it is unreasonable or controversial, and none of it should be that surprising to anybody. Or, so I thought.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of reading the comments, drawn in by a few posts of humorous commiseration and then unable to look away as posts appeared slinging hateful words at these booksellers who, through no fault of their own, were losing their jobs. They were the sort of comments that thoughtless, self-important, and uninformed Americans have an infuriating knack for. And even though it was obvious to me that these people had never worked a day on the front lines of the customer service industry, their words still upset me.

The above list is not a recording of things the booksellers said to customers when frustrated, these are things they vented about to each other in the stock room and, upon closing their doors forever, decided to share. If you think this sort of thing is unique to Borders or booksellers and doesn’t happen at every retail store that has ever existed, then you, my friend, are either incredibly naive or incredibly stupid. If you think that Borders went out of business because its booksellers were rude, or because they didn’t work their asses off, or weren’t passionate about books or music or comics or movies, well, from the pages of one of my favorite books, you know little and less.

Borders closed because of a string of poor business decisions that began a decade ago when it handed its website over to Amazon and rapidly expanded its bricks-and-mortar stores overseas, not because its booksellers had a bad attitude (they didn’t, by the way). Indeed, I think it’s safe to say that near the end some of them should have been granted sainthood. As a shopper, what you wouldn’t know, is that in those final years staff at every store was cut in half. Then trimmed again. And again. By the end of my time at Borders last year, there were some days when there were only 2 people free on the floor—meaning they weren’t at register, scrambling to move things out from the stock room, tied to the Paperchase section, or cleaning human shit off the floors of the bathroom and sometimes even the floor of the store (that this is apparently an occurrence at many locations is appalling). This meant that customers had a hard time finding help, and a long wait getting it, which in turn meant they were (rightfully) impatient or frustrated by the time help did come. Not fair to the customer, but not fair to the bookseller, either, who is likely frazzled, just as frustrated, and has nothing to do with the understaffing at the store. Also, as staff got smaller, recovery (end of the day clean up and re-shelving) took longer, stretching well beyond a shift’s scheduled end almost every night. For the average bookseller, there was no overtime. For many on the merchandising team, all-nighters were not unheard of.

Is this an excuse to treat customers poorly? Absolutely not. Does it justify the above list of snarky revelations? Most certainly.

Working in retail taught me that shoppers can be irrational and inconsiderate, even down right rude and disgusting. But, mostly, working in retail was fun. For every mean, awful customer that was the turd in the cereal bowl of my life, 10 more came along who were fantastically patient or kind or funny or just plain delightful to help. Books are my passion, and helping people discover them was a joy. Recommending them, finding them, hunting down that title-you-couldn’t-quite-remember. It gave me the warm fuzzies. But those handful of turds are the reason I think working a job in retail (or food service) for a year should be a required life experience. I believe that the only reason those turds are such turds is because they’ve never worked those store front lines—it’s hard to treat booksellers, waitresses, or whoever poorly when you’ve been in their shoes.

Empathy, people. Empathy. It’s what separates us from the psychopaths.

So, here is my own Ode to Borders. It’s turning out to be a rambling combination of nostalgia and frustration, but I hope it will at least be articulate and interesting. Besides, as a genuine bibliophile, it’s the least I can do for a fallen friend…and a former employer.

The pin board in the break room at the Columbus Circle Borders displaying customer testimonials in the store's final days

I love Borders. Yes, love. The present tense. I’m not ready to refer to it in the past tense. Even though there are no Borders stores left, I felt odd this past weekend when I signed up for a Barnes & Noble card, and I still haven’t taken my Borders Rewards card out of my wallet. This is silly and futile, I know, but that’s how entrenched this chain is in my psyche and my life.

To begin with, I’m from Michigan, where Borders was born. It was the first bookstore to appear within a 20 minute driving distance of my childhood home—shout out to store 019!—or, at least, it’s the first bookstore I have any memory of going to. In high school I actually aspired to work at that store in Novi, Michigan, not as a career goal but as the kind of summer job I could enjoy (my working life started at a Dairy Queen and moved on to waiting tables, which I hated). After I started college, I applied for a summer job at 019 almost every year until I was finally hired as holiday help in 2006. When I moved to New York three years later, I spent a year working at the Borders in the Time Warner Building at Columbus Circle. Store 592 became my safe place in a strange, vast city, the place where I met my first New Yorker friends, and the place where many of them still worked until a week ago. Even after I started working at Random House, I still found myself in that store because I missed it and the people who worked there.

There is a camaraderie that forms among people working at Borders (and I’m sure at B&N, too). It’s what made working there so much fun, even as we started to feel the beginnings of the company’s collapse and the work got harder, the shifts longer, and the perks smaller. But I don’t think anything I say could be as well-spoken and heartfelt as this post by a friend and former co-worker in which he said:

We each live with our own cast of characters, their closeness to us determined on their level of development (round or flat). It’s not that some people are more interesting than others; it’s that only some are comfortable enough around us to show us who they really are. And it’s when these people step off-stage, their parts finished, that it hurts the most. Whether it’s time or not—and usually, it feels like it’s not—these people have to move on to someone else’s stage to be watched and loved<…>Unlike any other place I’ve ever worked, Borders was full of round characters.

This touched me because it is exactly how I felt when I left Borders for Random House, even though I was leaving it for my dream job and my future. Now, with Borders gone, it seems like that piece of me has vanished, too. When I’m having a tough day at work, or stuck in a lonely funk, I can no longer walk up the street on my lunch break to see all those familiar faces gathered in that familiar place. It’s gone forever, and that breaks my heart.

Gone, also, is another low-key place to go to when you just need to get out. A place to be surrounded by other book lovers. A place to read books and discover them. A place that won’t pressure you to buy a coffee or a mediocre muffin just because you needed somewhere to sit down and kill 20 minutes. Amazon, for all its innovative brilliance, will never, ever be able to do any of these things. The internet is not a place I can go visit when I just want to get out of my apartment but not really go anywhere.

I have a tote bag that I snagged from Word Stock a few years ago. On one side of this tote is the Borders logo. I use it all the time, have carried it to work on numerous occasions, but last week when I got onto the elevator at the end of the day, our editor-in-chief saw the logo and said, “We have got to get you a new bag.” I laughed and shrugged, but said nothing. Because you know what? I don’t want a new bag. I don’t see that Borders logo and think about the liquidation, or the poor business decisions, or the implications of the chain’s collapse on the book industry. I see it and remember the way all the stores somehow had the same distinct book smell, or the fun I had working with such awesome people. I think about that light-headed, unforgettable moment when I first walked into a Borders as a child, wide-eyed and giddy with the possibilities. I think of books and friends. I think of the safe, comforting feeling of a place as familiar to me as home.

So, if you live in New York and you see a girl walking around with a Borders tote bag, chances are it’s me. Chances are I put the Borders side face out on purpose.

Farewell, Borders. Bookworms and manga nerds, movie buffs and comic geeks, writers and authors and agents and editors, we keenly feel your passing. Farewell.

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