Jane, Unlimited: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” -Arthur C. Clarke

—–

“There are many lives in every life.”

Jane’s life has always been ordinary and she has never minded that. When her Aunt Magnolia dies under strange circumstances, Jane is suddenly adrift and alone. She doesn’t know exactly how Aunt Magnolia died. She doesn’t know if she wants to go back to college. All she really knows is that if she is ever invited to Tu Reviens, she has to go. It was the last thing Aunt Magnolia asked her to do.

When Kiran Thrash, an old acquaintance who is as wealthy as she is mercurial, breezes back into Jane’s life with an invitation to the Thrash family gala at none other than Tu Reviens Jane immediately accepts.

The island mansion is not at all what Jane expects. Strange figures lurk in the shadows. Art goes missing and reappears at will. An ex-wife hides in the attic, while a current wife is missing entirely. Then there’s Jasper, the lovable Bassett Hound who has an uncanny attachment both to Jane and to a painting with a lone umbrella.

In a house filled with questions, Jane knows that all she has to do is follow the right person to get answers. But first she has to choose in Jane, Unlimited (2017) by Kristin Cashore.

Jane, Unlimited is Cashore’s latest standalone novel. Inspired by Choose Your Own Adventure stories among other things this novel reads as five interconnected stories spanning genres.

After enjoying but not quite loving Cashore’s Graceling trilogy, I was fully prepared for Jane, Unlimited to be the Cashore book that I would love unequivocally. I’m happy to say this genre-bending delight did not disappoint.

The novel opens with “The Missing Masterpiece” (my favorite story) where Jane tries to find a missing Vermeer and make sense of myriad clues in a mystery reminiscent of The Westing Game. This section also does all of the heavy lifting introducing Jane, her deceased Aunt Magnolia, Kiran Thrash, and her rakish and charismatic twin brother Ravi. This novel also introduces Jane’s umbrella making–a motif that helps tie all of the novel’s pieces together.

In “Lies Without Borders” Jane explores the mystery of the missing painting from a different angle in a sleek spy story that will appeal to fans of Ally Carter. The madcap action and continuously surprisingly and charming characters make this section another favorite.

Cashore turns her eye to horror in “In Which Someone Loses a Soul and Charlotte Finds One.” After finishing this creepy tale you won’t be able to look at your library or your favorite books in quite the same way. When you re-read this book on a structural level (and trust me, you’ll want to) this section is also key for highlighting the structure of the novel.

“Jane, Unlimited” is the section that ties the book together so I won’t tell you too much that could spoil the story. There are zany clothes, mayhem, frogs, and a lot of Ravi which makes this story a delight. Sure to be a favorite for fans of Douglas Adams and Dr. Who.

This novel wraps up in “The Strayhound, the Girl, and the Painting” in which some mysteries are solved and some bigger questions are raised as Jane figures out why, exactly, Jasper the Bassett Hound is so very fond of her. This whimsical segment concludes the story on an optimistic note as Jane (and readers) realize that when one door closes another opens–literally.

Jane, Unlimited is a thoughtfully layered and intricately plotted novel. Depending on how you want to read it this book could contain five separate but overlapping stories, it could be one arc where all these outcomes eventually come to pass. There’s really no wrong way to interpret this story which is part of the charm. Whatever appeals to you about Jane and her adventures I guarantee you will find it in at least one part of this novel.

I first hear about Jane, Unlimited during a job interview at Penguin for a job I didn’t even come close to getting. Back then the book was just some new contemporary novel that Cashore was working on and I didn’t think much of it at the time. When it finally came time to read the book, I found that I could think of little else. Around the time of that interview I found out that one of my aunts had suffered a stroke that would prove fatal–something I didn’t know when I kept calling and calling to tell her about scheduling that job interview and asking her advice on what to wear and to practice questions. I don’t remember the last conversation I had with my aunt but I remember those messages I left her vividly. And I so wish I could have told her how this all came together in such a strange full circle way as Jane’s aunt Magnolia was such a big part of Jane’s story as she tries to figure out which path to choose.

In case it wasn’t already clear: I loved this book. It’s perfect and everything I want. Cashore populates the story with a cast of characters that is thoughtfully inclusive and painfully charming and expertly blends genres and plays them against each other throughout this clever novel.

Jane, Unlimited is a must read for anyone who has ever felt a bit lost, readers who like their books to resemble puzzles, and, of course, for anyone looking for an excellent story. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen,The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art by Mathew Hart, Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft by Simon Houpt, Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, Where Futures End by Parker Peeveyhouse, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, The Square Root of Summer by Harrier Reuter Hapgood, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, Ocean Soul by Brian Skerry, Oceanic Wilderness by Roger Steene, Parallel Universes by Max Tegmark (as seen in Scientific American, May 2003), The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

If you are interested in some of the art that inspired (or features) in this novel:

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2017*

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Bitterblue: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Bitterblue by Kristin CashoreKing Leck has been dead and gone for eight years. His deadly Grace–the preternatural ability that allowed him to influence people and control an entire kingdom–will never hurt anyone in Monsea ever again.

Crowned queen at just ten years old, Bitterblue is still haunted at eighteen by the ghastly legacy Leck left in his kingdom. Monsea is now filled with broken people and more secrets than she can begin to fathom. Trapped by the bureaucracy of running a kingdom, Bitterblue knows little of day-to-day life in Bitterblue City and even less about how to begin to repair an entire country so irreparably damaged by Leck’s reign of lies and horror.

When she begins exploring the secrets and puzzles that abound in Monsea, Bitterblue comes to understand that the key to securing her kingdom’s future is inextricably tied to understanding not just Monsea’s and Leck’s past but also her own in Bitterblue (2012) by Kristin Cashore.

Bitterblue is a companion to Cashore’s earlier novels Graceling and Fire. The story of the seven kingdoms starts in Graceling with Katsa’s story. Fire is a prequel to Graceling with Bitterblue set about eight years after the conclusion of Graceling.

Although this book is not, in many ways, the beginning of the story, Bitterblue can easily be read out of order. While the beginning of the story may be muddled or confusing , the feeling is not inappropriate given the content of Bitterblue. Certain nuances with common places and characters will be perceived differently but as with many strong novels, any of the books in the Graceling trilogy can be the beginning of your reading experience.

I have many complicated feelings about Graceling and Fire. Before starting Bitterblue, I knew it would either become my favorite of Cashore’s Graceling novels or it would be the one I liked the least. I suspected it would be the former when I saw the lovely cover (art by Natalie C. Sousa, designed by Kelly Eismann) and the stunning illustrations marking each section division in the book (illustrated by Ian Schoenherr). Upon finishing the novel, I can state without doubt that Bitterblue is easily my favorite and, in my opinion, the best of Cashore’s Graceling books.

As the title suggests, this story focuses on Bitterblue. Characters readers grew to love in Graceling do appear here with varying levels of importance to the story.* Fire‘s place in the Graceling universe is also better explained as Cashore ties the three books seamlessly together.

Cashore is at the top of her game as she conjures the complicated history and current state of Monsea. Instead of shying away from the damage created by Leck’s brutality, Cashore stares at it directly to create a complex and often painfully real kingdom with flaws, scars, and sometimes a fair bit of beauty and resilience despite Leck’s influence. (As Bitterblue learns more about the specifics of Leck’s cruelty, the novel does get heavy–not overly so and not to ill-effect. The material is often brutal and will stay with readers long after this story is told.)

While moments in both Graceling and Fire often felt anti-climactic or excessive, the entirety of Bitterblue is carefully plotted and purposefully presented. Even at more than 540 pages (hardcover, with a cast of character and additional maps to be found at the end of the story), Bitterblue never veers into the tangential or extraneous. As with the large cast of characters who all matter, every plot device is an important part of the whole here.

Cashore also makes use of a variety of motifs throughout the story including keys and ciphers. The recurring themes of literacy and storytelling also add another dimension to the narrative as characters explore the power of memory and claiming one’s past to move forward.

Both subtler and more nuanced than Cashore’s earlier novels, Bitterblue is as much its own story as the culmination of a chronicle three books in the making.

*Oh my gosh! Giddon is finally as awesome as I always knew he could be in Graceling!

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, White Cat by Holly Black, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Proxy by Alex London, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Soundless by Richelle Mead, The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2012*

Fire: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Fire by Kristin CashoreWar is coming to the Dells, a land already rife with lawlessness and trouble. Fire, the last remaining human monster, knows this better than most.

Part monster, Fire’s beauty is enough to strike a man (and some women) dumb. Sometimes her flame red hair and striking eyes are too much. Sometimes those who behold her are driven to violence in their efforts to possess her while monster animals are just as drawn to her hair and blood. It was easier for Fire’s monster father. Cansrel loved the attention, loved using his beauty and his mind to control people and get whatever he wanted. Cansrel loved being the monster advisor to King Nax and helping the weak man drive the Dells to the brink of ruin.

Fire doesn’t want that kind of depravity and the danger of her powers is frightening. She is content to lead a quiet life in the north away from the intrigue and machinations of King’s City where Nax’s children struggle to hold the kingdom together.

Unfortunately events soon conspire to draw Fire away from her home. Mysterious archers seem to be hunting her. The royal family seems to want her help; something Fire is unwilling to give lest she turn into the monster her father was. But war, and maybe something else, is coming to the Dells and Fire has a role to play whether she likes it or not in Fire (2009) by Kristin Cashore.

Fire is a companion to Cashore’s popular debut novel Graceling and the second book in her Seven Kingdoms Trilogy. It is set about thirty years before Graceling and further east beyond the seven kingdoms that readers of the first book would recognize. The two books could easily stand alone though they do share one very important common character.

Though Cashore returns to familiar territory here, she has created new characters and a new story that stands apart from her earlier novel. Fire lacks some of the flash bang action that made Graceling so gripping but it does have an abundance of political intrigue, character development and romance.

Fire is a complex heroine and, perhaps as its title suggests, Fire is very much a study of her character. Fire often felt fully realized and compelling, but other times it felt too much like Fire was being pushed toward  certain decisions by Cashore which made parts of the story  clumsy and incongruous.

It is at times frustrating because Fire as a character seems to fall into many of the same patterns as Katsa (Graceling‘s heroine) even though the two women are really nothing alike. Self-sacrifice and just plain old sacrifice play big roles in Fire–something else that was bothersome about the story. There is a line between creating conflict or tension in a story and creating needless suffering in a story. Fire crossed that line several times.

Fire is a subtle, charming book that will quickly draw in many readers. Unfortunately, it might push away just as many.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, White Cat by Holly Black, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Proxy by Alex London, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Soundless by Richelle Mead, The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

Graceling: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Graceling by Kristin CashoreGraceling (2008) by Kristin Cashore is, in many ways, the fantasy novel I have been hoping to stumble upon all summer.

In the world of Graceling certain people are graced in their youth with a powerful ability. Some might call these Gracelings lucky, blessed even. But Katsa knows that her own devastating Grace of killing is more burden than blessing. Forced to do the bidding of her uncle, King of the Middluns, Katsa is dispatched to dole out tangible examples of the King’s disfavor.

Katsa lives her life apart from the rest of the court in her uncle’s castle, avoided both because of her fearsome Grace and her startling eyes–one blue and one green–that mark her as a Graceling. Though far from content, Katsa has reconciled herself to this life.

At least until she meets another Graceling, a prince called Po. Skilled in the art of combat, Po is the first worthy opponent Katsa has encountered. The prince might also be the first friend Katsa has made since her Grace first revealed itself.

Together, the two embark on an adventure the likes of which neither can imagine in search of a truth almost too diabolical to believe.

Katsa is a strong and complex character that readers are sure to adore and admire. She is also headstrong, almost to the point of absurdity. Her opinions on marriage and children are central to the plot and indeed to Katsa’s identity. Still, by the end of Graceling I couldn’t help but wonder, if two people love each other and know they want to be together, what is the harm in being married? Katsa says repeatedly that she won’t compromise her freedom by marrying anyone which is a very difficult but admirable position to take. And yet. It seems to me that loving someone at all is a compromise whether you marry them or not.

The plot itself is no less compelling. Though I was sorry to see so little of Giddon (I took an instant liking to him as a character), it was a joy to read about Katsa and Po’s blossoming relationship and to see Katsa come to terms with her Grace and the responsibility that comes with it. Cashore’s villain is stunningly diabolical and cunning–so much so that I have to admit the ending did feel anti-climactic.

Graceling is everything a reader can hope for in a fantasy. Cashore’s writing and her world building are utterly unique–the only disappointment is that I didn’t think of it myself. The book is filled with action, fights, journeys, and even some romance. The setting, like the characters, are straightforward and evocative. Lienid particularly jumped off the page with Cashore’s descriptions.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, White Cat by Holly Black, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Proxy by Alex London, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, Soundless by Richelle Mead, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner