It’s Like “The Sixth Sense.” But Good.

Great news! I have the perfect book for this Halloween season and I’m only two weeks late! That might not seem particularly helpful now, but all things being equal, this is the perfect book for any season, especially the wet, cold, and dark days of November through…(sigh) May. Leigh Bardugo is a name I’ve mentioned here before. Her Grishaverse novels are among my favorites, so I was ready to love Ninth House, her debut for adult audiences. Yet even with high expectations, it left me incredibly impressed and desperate for a sequel. 

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Alex Stern can see dead people. While this might seem neat to the gothically inclined, it makes Alex’s life a nightmare. For as long as she can remember, ghosts have lurked around her, decorated with the grisly evidence of their unseemly demises (semi-decapitated heads, gunshot wounds, etc.). Her grim ‘ability’ drives her in a dangerous direction – she is a teenage runaway under the influence of drugs, alcohol, and selfish, manipulative men. And yet, when she wakes in a hospital after a violent and tragic night, a tidy gentleman is waiting by her bedside suggesting that her power might open doors to a fresh start in an unlikely environment – Yale University. 

It turns out that New Haven, Connecticut is a city brimming with potent magic. This supernatural resource is channeled by eight ancient houses at Yale which operate under the guise of secret societies, while playing a huge role in world affairs, from throwing elections, to manipulating securities markets, to boosting pop star’s careers. This magic, however, can be extremely dangerous which is why a ninth house, Lethe, was formed to monitor the use of magic by Yale’s young elites. With her powerful connection to the supernatural, Lethe believes that Alex will make a valuable warden against the abuse of magic.  

Alex is assigned to train under the wing of Darlington, an uptight but brilliant and charismatic senior. Darlington has high standards and is skeptical that Alex has the necessary character or background to thrive in this world. At first, Darlington appears to be correct. Alex struggles to learn the rites and history that Lethe demands of her, while also suffering from the academic pressure of student life at Yale and the weight of managing a secret life as a college freshman. Just as she begins to get a feel for her many different roles at Yale, everything falls apart. Darlington disappears under strange and sinister circumstances and a young woman is murdered on campus, with Alex suspecting involvement by at least one of the houses. Alex is left to deal with magical forces she is only beginning to understand, indifferent bureaucracies, and rich, privileged, students who are empowered by a heady mix of supernatural power, generational wealth, and good old-fashioned toxic masculinity. Oh, also someone definitely wants Alex dead, and is not being shy about it. 

Ninth House is told in a non-linear fashion. I’m an impatient reader, and I am often annoyed by this style of storytelling, but not when a master of the genre like Bardugo is at the helm. Alex is an incredibly fun protagonist to follow – she is both self-aware and self-destructive, incredibly capable, but not unrealistically so, and a narrator of very questionable reliability. Bardugo is not just a deft writer, but also a thoughtful one. She is able to take a thrilling story of magic, power, and corruption and weave in a mediation on the destructive power of trauma without a whiff of heavy-handed moralizing. Books with magic can be a tricky proposition, especially for adult audiences, but Bardugo manages to make the magic in Alex’s world both frighteningly powerful and almost laughably mundane, grounding the supernatural in the onerous burden of everyday reality. Ninth House has already been picked up as a potential streaming series, which is why I looked up from the book and exclaimed to my partner “they have to cast Danny DeVito as Anderson Cooper!” But you’ll have to read the book to understand why.

It’s Time to Get Romantic

Romance. Erotica. What comes to mind when you read these words? Do you think of the “pinkies” in the Large Type collection? Harlequin romances your mom used to read? Fifty Shades of Grey? Romance is all of that and so much more.

I unabashedly admit proclaim being a romance reader and enjoy sharing with you the best of the best every year when I cover the RITAs. The RITAs are selected by the Romance Writers of America every year at their annual conference. The category descriptions have one thing in common: the romance titles they list are emotionally satisfying and optimistic. This is also known as the main reason Carol reads romance in the first place.

This year’s winners were announced at the end of July but I was still trying to snap out of the lovely trance The Boys in the Boat had woven around me. Now I’m a bit back to normal and happy to link you to this year’s winners:

No Good Duke - MacLeanBest First Book Winner
The Sweet Spot by Laura Drake

Contemporary Romance Winner
Crazy Thing Called Love by Molly O’Keefe

Erotic Romance Winner
Claim Me by J. Kenner

Historical Romance Winner
No Good Duke Goes Unpunished by Sarah MacLean

Inspirational Romance Winner
Five Days in Skye by Carla Laureano

Claim Me - KennerParanormal Romance Winner
The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley

Romance Novella Winner
Take Me, Cowboy by Jane Porter

Romantic Suspense Winner
Off the Edge by Carolyn Crane

Short Contemporary Romance Winner
Why Resist a Rebel? by Leah Ashton

You’ll notice I didn’t include a link for every title. That’s because the library is working on purchasing them, but they’re not yet in the catalog. If you’re interested, feel free to talk to a librarian. Let them know it’s now an award winner and that Carol sent ya.

RWA also awards a Librarian of the Year to someone who demonstrates outstanding support of romance authors and the romance genre. This year’s librarian of the year is Sean Gilmartin from The Anythink Library in Thornton, Colorado. Sean did a wonderful write-up of his experience in USA Today that you should totally go read. Like, right now. He’s also a writer, so keep your eyes open for his name on the shelves of the Romance section in the future.

Obsidian - ArmentroutI learned from Carol Ritter, Deputy Executive Director of RWA, that this year there weren’t enough entries in the YA category, so as a result there was no winner. I classify this as a major bummer and hope that next year will be different. Carol also said there aren’t any plans at this time to add an NA category to the RITAs, but I speculate that may change in the future as its popularity continues to rise. What is NA? While many people recognize YA standing for young adult, not everyone has caught on to NA, or new adult. NA is similar to YA in that the characters are of a certain age. But in NA’s case the age group is closer to college-aged. Characters aren’t in high school anymore, but they’re also not exactly established in their careers yet. They’re just starting out on their own, and as they explore their worlds these books get to the core of what it’s like to really fall hard for someone for the first time. The romantic elements tend to be more explicit in NA than in YA, but both usually contain a fair amount of emotional turmoil and fresh-faced discovery.

Frigid - J LynnCan’t decide which to explore first? I will ease you into it by suggesting you read anything and everything written by Jennifer L. Armentrout (YA) aka J. Lynn (NA). Jennifer is one of the most prolific writers of our time, and more importantly, her books are good. I mean, really, really good. You will care and cry and laugh and swoon for her characters. You will identify and connect with someone in your life who has read her and find yourself talking about the little quirks the characters have, and what you hope does or does not happen in the series conclusion. And when you’ve devoured her stories and are waiting for the next to be published, she tweets behind-the-scenes descriptions of what life is really like for a writer. She champions self-published authors, since she started out as one, and will express her joy at a book she’s read and enjoyed during those rare moments of free time. She interacts directly with fans and one of her best collections of photos is with fans at book signings & conferences.

So far, I have devoured all but the ending to The Lux series, which is classified as YA. I’ve been waiting until I have a bit more uninterrupted free time to read the conclusion. It has romance, action and adventure, and a Sci-Fi twist: aliens! Last week The Lux series cracked the NY Times YA Series list at number 4. As a thank you, Jennifer posted a bonus passage for Lux fans who have completed the series that catches up with the characters a few years later. I can’t read it just yet but am excited know it’s there, waiting for me.

My first taste of NA was Frigid, followed immediately by Wait for You. The plot of Frigid is a variation on my favorite theme, friends who become more than just friends. Wait for You centers on a woman who faces her internal demons while working toward a brighter future. At the time I wasn’t aware that either book would be part of a series, so now I can look forward to falling further into obsession love with the characters and settings!

For me, the best part of reading romance is knowing there is a happy ending waiting at the conclusion of the book. It’s something I can count on, something I can look forward to experiencing. We can all use a little bit of happy in our lives, and that’s why I will never tire of reading romance. And, dear reader, I will never tire of telling you why you need to read it as well.