Posted by: Sally Ingraham | January 30, 2014

Digging Up Some Long-Awaited Reads

January is, according to Ana and IrisLong-Awaited Reads Month. It is often a month of freezing temps and winter blues and of course those pesky new year resolutions, so it’s the perfect time to knock a few books of the TBR list. For me, I also spent much of the month not drinking alcohol, and while I did enjoy some quality tonic water and the company of friends in smoky Pittsburgh bars a few times, overall I spent my evenings curled up with a book. (Or watching episodes of Downton Abby/Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries/The Wrong Mans/Sherlock/Community…)

Mostly I read the first three parts of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, a book I’ve intended to read for several years and a monster of a book in many ways having nothing to do with it’s length…but more on that in another post. While I was waiting for it to arrive via post, and then after I finished the “required” amount for the month (according to Richard’s reading plan), I inhaled several other “long-awaited reads”.

Similarly to this time last year, I began catching up on new(ish) YA releases, knocking Rebel Heart by Moira Young, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson off my list.

These books bring to mind a lot of the questions and demands I was asking and making of stories and writers last winter. They have strong female leads (so they’re definitely telling tales of women) and they’re about women who fight – bonus! My expectations are still great though, so I have to point out that the second Dustlands book didn’t really improve on the first.

Ugh…this cover…

Not that Rebel Heart (the sequel to Blood Red Road) suffered from second-book-itis, or not exactly. In the scope of the hero’s journey, it is the bit where temptations taunt, questions haunt, and as the title suggests, the heart is torn. Confusions and conflicts galore. The end is no longer clear, especially since the quest of Blood Red Road was accomplished – *spoilers!* – Saba’s brother Lugh was rescued, the Tonton were scattered, the mad king was killed. So now what?

Rebel Heart picks up with Saba and her family crossing the desert in search of a new life, something that is pretty rare in this post-apocalyptic land.  Saba is dealing with an awful case of PTSD – the ghost of a friend, dead by her own hand, trails her. Those same hands (never clean) continue to betray her, as their shaking prevents her from shooting her bow. Her brother, dealing with the traumas of his own kidnapping, doesn’t understand Saba’s weakness, and little Emmi can’t pick up the pieces fast enough. Meanwhile, the desert seems endless.

This is Moira Young writing at her best – using Saba’s brilliant first person narrative to set the stage for a story about dealing with what happens after the epic. This is excellent stuff – I was really digging the book for the first 3rd – but then Saba is abruptly emotionally patched up by a shamanic journey, and Young turns her pen to somewhat ridiculous romantic scribblings. (Lazy writing strikes again!) Saba is in love with Jack, but can she ever really trust him? Things seem utterly broken between herself and Lugh, her twin brother. Tommo, the deaf orphan boy, idolizes her with an increasingly dangerous passion. And then there’s DeMalo, the leader of the reincarnation of the Tonton, and a little bit of a Brian Bois-Guilbert, a la Ivanhoe…(and he’s another ‘super mysterious male character’, to replace the ploy that was Jack in the first book, sheesh…!) While fulfilling her destiny and saving the world, etc., Saba has to decide what her rebel heart really desires (and that pesky heart-stone is not helping her out much these days). By the end I suppose she does make it through the muck and pick a direction, so her hero’s journey is more on track – but I resented being dragged through that muck at times.

It’s not all annoying though – the book is entertaining overall, with some decent side characters and more of Emmi, the little sister, being thoroughly awesome. I am curious to see where Young goes from here, but I am not holding my breath that it will be anywhere truly exceptional. The Dustland books have so much potential, but so far I continue to be disappointed.

Rae Carson, on the other hand, doesn’t disappoint. The Bitter Kingdom concludes her Fire and Thorn trilogy, which has been wickedly good from the start. I never properly reviewed the first two books, and I’ll continue that trend by not doing this one justice either. I don’t even know where to start – my book summary boils down to “Whoop! So good! Just read it/them!”

Elisa (artwork by Simini Blocker)

Carson does so much that is excellent in these books, beginning by creating the riveting Elisa – too chubby, too scared, too dogged by destiny to ever achieve anything useful beyond an early death (the fate of most bearers of the mysterious Godstones), but also too stubborn, too clever, too loving, and too gorgeous to go quietly into any void, destiny or not. In each book she grows tremendously, learning things about herself and other people that are instantly relatable, and she is fist-pumpingly awesome time and again (and just as often for being quietly caring, as for blowing a baddy to smithereens with the magical fire of her Godstone). Her real power lies in her ability to draw people together, to demand (and inspire) cooperation and forgiveness – and we could use more heroes who do that. Fabulous plot aside, (deserts! court intrigue! lots of travel! delicious love stories!) what I adore about these books is how Carson uses her power – the mighty pen! – to create a roll model for young women (and men) whom they can identify readily with – Elisa isn’t stick thin, jaw-droppingly pretty, or instantly able to do wushu as well as Jet Li, and even though she has a God-installed magical jewel in her navel that marks her as a chosen one, The Bitter Kingdom proves for once and all that she is special despite it. 

Aside from Elisa, I enjoyed the world-building, and the chance to pretty thoroughly explore that world as Carson pilots her cast all around it. Well-realized characters populate every corner, and the three individual story arcs are just as satisfying as the overarching plot. Basically, Carson has come pretty darn close to writing a perfect YA Fantasy series. She’s certainly captured most of what I’m looking for in a book!

And then there’s Code Name Verity. This book is soooo good. I CAN’T EVEN. An easy favorite of my reading year. It begins in France, in a cell that was formerly a hotel room, with a young woman who has been tied by her ankles to a chair, and sits facing a pile of mismatched scrap paper. She is a spy, captured by the Nazi gestapo, and her task is to write a full confession which reveals every detail she knows of the British war effort. And confess all she does – the entire tale of how she met Maddie, the lady pilot who became her best friend, and how she came to drop out of Maddie’s plane into France and her own piece of the mess of World War II. The first part of the book is this confession, and the second part is Maddie’s story of what became of them both after her plane crashed in German-occupied France.

The story is complex and rich with historic detail. The characterizations are deft, and the plot rips through you. French resistance! Girls flying planes! Beastly Nazis…! The friendship between Maddie and Queenie is gorgeous, and I was utterly in love with both of them almost immediately. Queenie, unquenchable and always looking her best, even mid-torture, is heartbreaking from her opening lines. Maddie fades a bit in comparison at first, but that bit where she bullies the Frenchman into letting her fix his car…! I am a dork about early planes and the RAF in that era, so I thoroughly enjoyed all the details about Maddie flying round. The galore of literary references – from Kim, to Peter Pan, to the obvious Scheherazade scenario – added delight. And you desperately need all these things to cheer about, because you guys, you are simultaneously terrified. You know all too well that there’s no completely happy ending for stories set during WWII…

It’s amazing to read a brilliant, funny, heart-wrenching story about the friendship between two incredible women – and while it is much more complicated than that, it is also exactly that simple. I must give huge props to Elizabeth Wein, who sounds like a pretty rad lady herself (she’s got a doctorate in folklore and a pilot’s licence). If I hadn’t already returned this book to the library I’m pretty sure I would have abandoned this post ages ago in favor of reading it again immediately.

A sensational team (artwork by RosaleeLuAnn)

I need more than a month to catch up on my long-awaited reads (I don’t dare to hope I’ll catch up before the end of my life…!) but as I careen from one interesting book to another, it’s nice to pause and see what’s been accidentally thrown to the back of the closet. I’m pleased that I dug these ones out – and the indomitable 2666 too.

Until next time!


  1. What a great combo! I hadn’t noted the Rae Carson series, but they sound very good, so I’m adding them to my TBR. Thanks!

    • Glad to pass those along to another reader! Relish them. 🙂

  2. thanks for links to my page. and thanks to your affirmation on ‘Code Name Verity,’ I may have finally convinced N to read it (she is not big on Historical Fic).. that edition has a beautiful cover.

    will check out the Carson series myself. 🙂

    • I wouldn’t mind owning Code Name Verity, but I would definitely need to hunt down this edition – the US cover is awful…!

      I do hope N reads it. 🙂

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