Book Review: A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

20764879Title: A GATHERING OF SHADOWS
Author: V.E. Schwab
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 512
Publisher: Tor
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I’m going to be a Fangirl of Olde for a moment, if you’ll forgive me:

OH MY GOD OH MY GOOOOOOOD!!!! THE BADASS OPENING CHAPTER!!! THE ELEMENT GAMES!!! HOW FREAKING CHARMING IS ALUCARD??? KELL AND LILA AND THE SEXUAL TENSION AND THEM BOTH WANTING TO SEE EACH OTHER AND RECOGNIZING EACH OTHER FINALLY AND THEN *THAT SCENE* THAT HAD ME SCREAMING INTERNALLY!!!!!!!

/okay, I’m done, I think.

Clearly, I loved this book. Despite the fact that, like the first book, it starts slow and takes a while to get to the main plot (the Element Games start 60% into the book), it works better here. We already know and love all the characters, so even if they’re not really doing much, reading about them doing anything is still going to be enjoyable.

The book opens up with Lila seemingly stranded in the middle of the ocean and about to be picked up by pirates. What you at first think is a desperate situation turns into something so goddamn awesome that sets the tone for all of Lila’s chapters in the remainder of the book. I definitely enjoyed her POV a hell of a lot more than anyone else’s: she’s freaking badass, reckless, and hella confident. There’s something straight-up awesome about a character like Lila, who is special and unique and powerful and knows it and owns it. I love seeming a female character who is just powerful and completely embraces it, rather than shying away from it or denying it. God, I just love her so freaking much. What an incredible character. Truly, what an absolute gift of a character Victoria Schwab has given us.

Lila’s chapters also introduce us to Alucard, a (bisexual?) privateer/pirate captain who I’m sure is going to make most readers swoon. He’s dashing and charming and slick, but he’s also fussy and friendly and loves his cat. Victoria Schwab takes a character that could have been just another trope, and makes him utterly real. His interactions with Lila are delightful; they at first have a will-they-won’t-they dynamic that kept me hooked. After Lila makes her way aboard his ship, Alucard begins to teach her magic, which Lila picks up on quickly (she’s a maverick, that one).  Though the development of their close friendship is subtle, by the end of the book it’s clear as day that these two are birds of a feather.

Throughout the book you can feel Kell and Lila pining for one another, even if neither of them really wants to admit it. Schwab plays with dramatic irony to up the tension of their eventual meeting, and it crescendos into an explosive climax that literally had me screaming on the subway. I love these two. I love them together and apart. I love their dynamic and I love their opposite personalities and I love it when they clash and I love it when they have each others’ backs.

Everything about this book was amazing. I have absolutely nothing to complain about. I know I was somewhat lukewarm about the first book, but this second one absolutely blew it out of the water. It’s tense, exciting, an absolute page-turner, features awesome new characters like Alucard, builds on old characters, develops a plot within a plot rather deftly, and ends on a wicked cliffhanger. Lucky for me, I already have the third book on my Kindle and will begin reading it immediately.

Advertisements

Top 5 Wednesday: Hate to Love Pairings

This Wednesday’s prompt is couples who started out hating each other.  I didn’t realize I had so many contenders until I realized I had to cut this post into two: book couples and TV couples.  TV couples to come soon, hopefully.

 
tumblr_n2ngzh1iiL1qilgsoo2_r1_500Sansa & Petyr (A Song of Ice and Fire NOT the garbage show which takes a completely different and unwarranted direction with these two): Initially I thought this prompt indicated not pairings that went from hating each other to loving each other, but pairings that I love even in the face of blistering shame. Sansa Stark and Petyr Baelish fit that category rather well, because, well, have you ever seen a more messed up dynamic (well, there’s Jaime and Cersei, who happen to be my other favorite pairing from ASOIAF – do you see a trend here?)? Sansa is the daughter of the woman Petyr once loved.  She didn’t love him back in the same way, and ended up marrying someone else.  Petyr never moved on. Now, he has attached himself to Sansa, who happens to be the spitting image of her mother.  Petyr’s interest in Sansa alternates between fatherly love and lovers’ lust, a rather disturbing contradiction.  This bizarre combo is also interspersed with Petyr’s ambition: he claims to want to marry Sansa off in order to help her win back Winterfell, but whether he is doing this for Sansa or to further his own power (or both) is not quite clear, though he is certainly vocal about declaring his love (and lust) to her, and her consent to his sexual advances is dubious at best. Sansa’s feelings for Petyr are equally ambiguous – she admits she cares for him, but also recognizes that there are two sides to him, one kind and friendly, one scheming and ruthless.  She has trouble telling the two apart.  At the same time, he’s the only person she has left in the world, so she can’t help but rely on him. Their relationship is so bizarre, so complex and twisted, so multi-layered, so dark and creepy and inappropriate, that I can’t help but be utterly fascinated by it.

darklingalinaAlina & The Darkling (The Grisha Trilogy): Remember what I said about loving messed up pairings? Alina and the Darkling don’t start out hating each other either, not exactly, but their relationship certainly devolves into a complex interplay of hatred and attraction.  Initially believing that The Darkling is a force for good, Alina allows herself to be swept up into his seduction of her.  He beguiles her with his declarations of their similarities, their burgeoning powers, and how they are going to change the world together. Alina is drawn to his power and his stature, the fact that they are indeed two of a kind, but she quickly realizes The Darkling is bound to be her enemy. Despite this, I don’t think she ever forgets the hold he had on her.

22077289Jannik & Felicita (House of Sand and Secrets): These two are interesting because they didn’t start out hating each other at all.  In the first book, they’re friends well on their way to becoming more, but tragedy tears them apart. In the second book, they are in a marriage of convenience.  Even at this point, neither of them hates the other, but their relationship is fraught with their tenuous social status and Jannik’s precarious position as a hated minority.  Misunderstandings blossom like thorny flowers between the pair, leading each to believe that they are hated by the other, when in fact they are so in love with each other they can barely see straight.

11774295Hanani & Wanahomen (The Shadowed Sun): I always thought I hated romance until I read N.K. Jemisin’s Shadowed Sun.  In this book, she crafts a love story that I didn’t even realize was a love story until nearly the very end.  It starts with Hanani and Wanahomen on opposite sides of the spectrum in status and personality – Hanani is the only female Sharer-Apprentice from Hetawa, and Wanahomen is a prince-in-exile fighting to take back his kingdom.  Hanani is calm, level-headed, compassionate, while Wanahomen is rash, hot-tempered, and ruthless.  Their relationships starts out quite tense, as opposite personalities clash, but as they live together among the Banbarra tribe, both as outsiders, their feelings for one another intensify from intense dislike to intense love.  Jemisin’s talent shines through here; this is such an incredibly subtle and well-crafted romance.

tumblr_opnz18MwPY1toedf8o1_r1_1280Alabaster & Syenite (The Broken Earth Trilogy): Yes, another N.K. Jemisin example.  I swear, this lady is brilliant at everything she does, and if one day she decided to forego fantasy and just write straight-up romance, I would totally be there for it.  Initially, Alabaser and Syenite don’t like one another at all.  They have two competing worldviews, though Syenite’s is born more out of naivete and lack of experience than anything else (Alabaster is significantly older than her). The two are sent on a dual mission, to answer the call of a city that fears a geologic anomaly, and along the way, to get pregnant.  What begins as a fraught relationship burdened by mechanical sex blossoms into a we-only-trust-each-other type of thing.  As Alabaster and Syenite embark on a relationship with another man (yes, all at once) and have a child together, their bond strengthens and deepens.

Honorable Mention: Hades & Persephone

tumblr_mjqs6sFr551qksuq5o1_r3_500

Shout-out to the original hate-to-love pairing, am I right? Though there are many interpretations of the myth, the one I hold near and dear is that Persephone went to Hades of her own free will in order to acquire power, something she never had with her mother.  Though initially she and Hades were not so fond of each other, their feelings deepened into mutual love and respect, with Hades falling head over heels first.

The Blogger Aesthetic Award

blogger-aesthetic-500px2

I was tagged by my friend Rachel at pace, amore, libre for the Blogger Aesthetic Award!  Tag created by Liam at Hey Ashers!.

The Rules:

  • Collect any number of images that you feel represent you as a person—your personality, aspirations, favorite things, anything at all that makes you you.
  • Put your chosen images together into a collage of whatever size and shape you find pleasing.
  • Share your masterpiece with everyone, in all the places.
  • Maybe nominate other bloggers as a way to tell them, “Hey, you, I think you’re awesome, and we should celebrate that awesomeness.”
  • Share these rules (and maybe the below tips, if you’re feeling helpful).
  • Tips:

 

Okay.  Before you scroll down further there is something you should know about me: I am very much all about about The Aesthetic™.  I am dedicated and obsessive when it comes to The Aesthetic™.  I have spent a very long time cultivating My Aesthetic™.

You may now proceed to the gigantic 24-image graphic below.

So, because I clearly have nothing better to do, allow me to explain the various aspects of My Aesthetic™:

First up, cats and books! Then we’ve got houses with bright open spaces and lovely views, giving off kind of a suburban feel.  Then Hamilton, which I have yet to see on Broadway but which has become one of my most beloved interests nonetheless.

Then autumn.  Autumn is the season of my heart, my soul.  I love everything about autumn; the wardrobe of coats, woolly socks, oversized sweaters, and boots, cinnamon-spiced everything, dreary skies, apple pies, curling up with hot chocolate, Halloween, falling leaves, pumpkins, candles, apple cider, apple orchards, pine cones…I’ll stop, but I think you get the point.  Autumn.  I love it.

Moving on to travel, which encompasses many things all at once.  Trains, which I am obsessed with.  It was always my dream to take a trip on the Orient Express, and I legit mourned when they discontinued it.  One of these days, though, I’m going to travel in a fancy train just like the one in that picture, and my view will be spectacular.

Then there’s my Americana Travel Aesthetic, consisting of wide-open roads, empty grocery stores at night, bright neon lights on semi-abandoned buildings, shitty motels, random highway diners, and other various trappings of weird American history and folklore.

From there you’ve got the ocean, cities on the ocean, homes on the ocean, walking along the ocean, road trips to the ocean.  Anything to do with the ocean, really.

And last but not least: my vaguely Arab/North African aesthetic, conveyed, of course, using a desert, a lady leading a camel, traditional North African courtyards, and figs (the fruit of my childhood when I couldn’t find mangoes).

This took me an obscenely long time, which does not surprise me at all.

Book Review: When Dimple Met Rishi

28458598Title: WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI
Author: Sandhya Menon
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 380
Publisher: Simon Pulse
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads

This is one of the cutest books I’ve ever read! From the very first chapter I was captivated, drawn into Dimple’s world, sympathizing with her frustrations. I could not put the book down. It’s such a sweet little romance story, and a really awesome book for teens!

I was so drawn to Dimple, who is such a vibrant, fleshed-out character. She’s serious and studious and determined, fierce and ferocious and independent. Her ultimate goal is to become a web developer, and she most definitely does not want to get married. Despite this, her parents set her up with Rishi, who, unlike Dimple, is more traditional and appreciates the romance of arranged marriages. Both sets of parents agree that their kids will head to Insomnia Con, an app development camp/competition, to get to know each other.

One problem: Dimple has no idea she’s being set up.

This leads to an absolutely hilarious introduction between Dimple and Rishi. He jokingly calls her “future wife” and she throws her iced coffee at him. Soon enough, though, the two become friends, and soon enough, their friendship turns into something more. Dimple and Rishi are super different, but both are realistic characters. The story is told in their alternating POVs, and each character has a clear, distinct voice. Their romance was sweet and fluffy, at times bordering on cheesy, but I still liked it. Both of their parents ended up being so supportive and understanding of their ambitions, which was a nice change of pace from how Indian parents are presented. Also, Menon’s writing is excellent! With her descriptive and evocative sentences, San Francisco becomes a character in its own right; I could picture the hills, the fog, the dips in weather.

I also liked the nuanced perspectives offered on the characters’ cultural expectations, and arranged marriages in particular. I’m not Indian, but I also come from a culture of arranged marriages, which younger me always viewed quite negatively. Now that I’m older, I have a much more layered view of this tradition, and I appreciated that in this book it wasn’t simply dismissed as old world nonsense. Dimple and Rishi do, in fact, get along, just as their parents predicted! The set up begets real love, which often happens in arranged marriages. I liked that Rishi and Dimple each had their own understandings of their culture and their relationship to it; their discussions about their culture really hit home for me.

This book is so utterly happy and adorable and I just loved it so much!

Top 5 Wednesday: Favorite Unlikable Protagonist

I haven’t done Top 5 Wednesday in a while, but this prompt pulled me in.  I love unlikable protagonists (I’m writing one right now)! There’s something so intriguing and compelling about a character who is fundamentally unlikable.  Despite that, I found this list quite difficult to amass! I guess either I’m just not aware of which protagonists people find unlikable or I just don’t notice unlikable protagonists.

Anyway, here we go:

136251Severus Snape (Harry Potter): I had to start out with the apex of unlikable characters, didn’t I? Snape is a horrible person.  Abusive, borderline racist, selfish, bitter, just an all-around terrible person.  I wouldn’t even want to be in the same room with him, let alone be his friend.  And yet Snape is undeniably fascinating: he has spent nearly all of his life regretting and attempting to atone for getting the love of his life killed.  None of his intentions were honorable – he thought he was getting another family killed, and even when he realized it was Lily he didn’t give a damn about her husband and infant son dying.  He just wanted to save her, and whether his feelings for Lily were love or obsession is, I think, irrelevant.  Lily died anyway, and Snape switched sides to atone.  He also – and this is just my personal headcanon here – isolated himself and did everything he could to make other people hate him, because he believed he deserved it.  He kept fighting not necessarily because he believed in the cause, but because he felt he owed it to Lily.  Like I said, fundamentally not a good person, and that’s not even getting into how horrible of a teacher he was (he was Neville’s worst fear for God’s sake!).  But so, so multi-layered, complex, and fascinating.

20821111Adelina Amouteru (The Young Elites): Adelina grew up with her sister and abusive stepfather.  With a parent like that, it is no surprise that Adelina is reserved, wary, and bitter.  However, as her powers begin to manifest and the friends she thought she had abandoned her, Adelina swerves sharply into villain territory.  She sets out to get revenge, abandoning any and all morality in the process.  She wants revenge and she wants power, and she will do anything she can to get it, even as she struggles not to lose her mind.  Being in Adelina’s head is one hell of a  trip; the girl is half insane at this point.  She’s such a compelling, dynamic character.  I’m excited to read the final book in this series!

6296885Isyllt Iskaldur (The Necromancer Chronicles): I don’t know if Isyllt would be considered widely unlikable by everyone, but I find her an unusual female character. She reminds me a bit of a noir detective.  She’s taciturn, pragmatic, and no-nonsense.  After spending her teens in the streets, Isyllt was taken in by the King (sort of) and turned into a kind of spy/necromancer/magician (in other words, she’s super cool).  She’s kind of closed off in a way that female characters usually aren’t, which makes her super intriguing.

 

26228034Nassun (The Obelisk Gate): Essun’s daughter Nassun is not necessarily unlikable, but pitiable.  After experiencing the unimaginable trauma of witnessing her father murder her brother, and then being kidnapped by him as he struggles not to kill her for simply being who she is, Nassun transforms from an ordinary young girl to an unbelievably cold, cynical young woman.  By the end of the book she has veered into such strange, nihilistic territory that being in her head becomes pretty uncomfortable.

 

7762777Petyr Baelish (A Song of Ice and Fire): This is kind of cheating, since I don’t know that I would call Petyr a protagonist, necessarily, but whether we like it or not he is essentially the lynch pin of the entire series.  He set most of the events in the series in motion.  Some thing he did just to create chaos, to see what would happen, in true chaotic neutral form.  Petyr is sneaky and subtle and brilliant (forget TV show Petyr, I’m talking about book Petyr, who is a fundamentally different person).  He’s one hell of a strategist and he’s incredibly ambitious, but like Snape, he is also caught up in a past romance which pushes him from “ambiguously motivated” to “supremely creepy” territory. Despite that, the dynamic Petyr has with Sansa Stark, his lost love’s daughter, is the most fascinating in the entire series.  The pair of a somewhat disturbing dynamic, but I love it all the same, just as I am fascinated with Petyr Baelish.

Book Review: The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

33656191Title: THE BEST KIND OF PEOPLE
Author: Zoe Whittall
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 356
Publisher: Anansi Press Inc.
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆ (2/5)
Review on Goodreads

Books like this are why I generally stay far away from “literary” novels, even award-winning ones like this one. The dialogue is awful, the overall tone is incredibly pretentious, and the novel is shooting for some kind of meaningful human experience type theme but fails spectacularly.

The premise of the novel is an intriguing one: a well-respected white man in a tight-knit wealthy community is accused of rape. The novel deals with the fallout of this accusation along with its effects on the accused George’s wife Joan, his children Sadie and Andrew, and the community. I love stories like this, which is why I was drawn to the novel. While it was a compelling read (in the sense that it was a page-turner), it wasn’t very good.

First and main issue: the dialogue. How is it that I’ve literally read obscure high fantasy works with dialogue more realistic than the one in this book? The dialogue is awful. Unrealistic is too weak a word. It’s stilted and robotic and like nothing any actual human person would ever say. Worse, at times I felt like I was being preached at, like the author was using her characters to have highfalutin intellectual debates on morality and the law. It felt like I was reading the rough draft of someone’s undergraduate thesis. I cannot count the number of times I rolled my eyes at the words coming out of these characters’ mouths. It was wildly banal and unsophisticated, like the author just wanted to cram every timely and controversial issue into the novel. Unfortunately, none of the thorny topics she brings up are ever really discussed properly or given the depth and breadth they deserve. And this is all in the dialogue, which means nearly every time a character spoke I was jarred out of reality. This was seriously a huge problem, and I don’t understand how an editor let slip this horrifically wooden dialogue.

Second issue: the characters. The author kept telling us things about them and their personalities but didn’t really show us anything. For example, we were told multiple times that Joan, the wife of the accused, is a strong, controlling leader, but I don’t think I saw a single example of this in the entire book. I couldn’t get a handle on any of them, which is a problem when you have a novel built on the notion of an accusation shattering a tight-knit community. I saw no evidence of any sort of community here. I mean, for God’s sake, one of the girls bringing forth accusations is the sister of Sadie’s best friend! Where is the confrontation between this girl’s parents and Joan? Where is the outrage? In fact, where are the family’s friends in this supposedly small, tight-knit community?

We’re constantly told things happening but are never shown these things, which means a lot of the payoff you would expect with a plotline like this is gone. Case in point: when Joan finds out about something from her husband’s past that all but proves he is guilty, I kept waiting for the explosive confrontation between her and George, but instead…nothing. The scene where Joan tells him she knows, George is literally unable to speak due to an injury, which leads to the whole thing being wildly anti-climactic.

Another issue I had is regarding Andrew, George’s son, who is gay. Apparently, when Andrew was seventeen he was involved in a sexual relationship with his twenty-something coach. I’m not quite sure what the author was getting at here. I think the intention was to show that Andrew is in fact more damaged by this relationship than he or anyone realizes, but in this particular case a little telling may have helped. Or perhaps it’s meant to be intentionally ambiguous? Whatever the case, the way this relationship is implied to be somehow less morally repugnant because it’s between two gay men rubbed me the wrong way and made me think of how queer relationships are always inherently sexualized. Something else that got under my skin was the frequent discussions of how many teens have highly sexual lives and in fact pursue adults and not the other way around – what didn’t get nearly enough emphasis was that adults are supposed to have impulse control and turn children away. Like, Andrews’s coach talks about how Andrew pursued him and that’s why he gave in, but like…as an adult you’re supposed to be the responsible one in this situation. That’s kind of the whole point, you know, that children aren’t good at making decisions.

One thing the book has going for it is its realistic ending. It is reflective of how actual sexual assault cases normally work out in real life.

I wanted more from this book. There was so much potential, with such a powerful topic, but ultimately it was a let down. This book is truly an example of “great concept, terrible execution.” There is so much missing from what really should have been a hard-hitting novel. Instead it’s bland and lukewarm and left me cold and uninterested.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!

Stage Corner: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

greatcomet

From the moment I walked into the Imperial I knew this would be an unusual experience. The entire theater is subsumed entirely into the show; audience members sit on the stage, lanterns light up the aisles, walls are draped in red velvet, performers dance behind the seats, and twinkling starburst chandeliers dangle from the ceiling.  The intimate staging portends the immersive experience that is The Great Comet of 1812.  Pierogis are tossed at the audience (I caught one, delicious!), as are musical shakers the audience is encouraged to use often.

All I knew going in was that the musical is based on a segment of Tolstoy’s War & Peace, chronicling Natasha Rostova’s affair with Anatole Kuragin.  Natasha’s fiance Andrey is off at war, and in his absence Natasha falls prey to Moscow’s charms and delights.  One of these charms is Anatole, who enlists his sister Helene’s help to seduce Natasha.  Helene is married to the titular Pierre, who is good friends with Andrey and Natasha’s family.  Put like that, it all seems somewhat banal, but these events are taken and transformed into something much grander.

The performance is absolutely wild.  Imagine a cross between a 1930s German cabaret performance and a late 90s underground rave.  The costumes reflect this eclectic fusion of styles and time periods; the dancers simultaneously resembled go-go dancers and characters in a Russian-inspired steampunk novel.  This vaguely phantasmagorical aesthetic is most embodied in the ensemble performances, which are bursting with boundless energy on the part of the performers.  There is so much movement in The Great Comet; it’s all so fun and exciting it makes you want to jump up and join in!

The music is gorgeous, a dizzying blend of traditional Slavic folk music, operatic pop, baroque pop, and electronic.  They come together to produce a performance that is dynamic and exuberant.  The standout performances for me were Lucas Steele’s Anatole and Amber Gray’s Helene.  I’ve only seen Amber Gray perform once before, but her style seems to always include powerful vocals and very intense acting that shocks you with its authenticity.  Steele, with his platinum blonde faux-hawk, delightfully preening demeanor, and croaking tenor stole every scene he was in.

Denee Benton is wonderful in her debut on Broadway, her belting soprano belying her tiny figure and her innocent grins bestowing her with ingenue wholesomeness.  Of course, Josh Groban’s Pierre is as incredible as expected.  He brings to the table not only his much-praised vocal prowess, but a performance that is laced with sorrow and self-loathing.  The role was clearly written for someone with his vocal abilities in mind, and so I look forward to seeing the show a second time with Hamilton’s Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan as Pierre.  Oak, who originated the roles of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, has an incredibly powerful, booming, and versatile voice that is absolutely perfect for the role of Pierre.

Overall I was reminded strongly of the other Rachel Chavkin work I’ve seen: Hadestown.  The similarities are glaring.  Both works are lively and dynamic, both feature a mixture of traditional solos and overwhelmingly ebullient ensemble pieces, both are a blend of styles and time periods, and both have unique staging.  And, not for nothing, but both works also have black woman originating lead roles.  I have no idea if Chavkin has any hand in casting, but that her works seem to have this emphasis on diversity in common certainly bodes well for her future projects.  I’m definitely going to be following Chavkin’s career closely from now on.

It’s difficult to sum up The Great Comet in any meaningful way, and perhaps that’s a good thing.  The show’s strength is in its eclectic style and its wildly enthusiastic and somewhat bizarre ensemble performances.  The atmospheric staging contributes to the intimacy of this immersive theater experience, transporting you from an old New York City theater to nineteenth-century Russia with a steampunk flair.  It’s fun and funny and self-aware and outlandish and exciting, like being invited to an elite private party where everyone is a little bit high on drugs.  It’s one hell of a memorable show, and I can’t wait to experience it again.

Book Review: A Trade Like Any Other by Karin van Nieuwkerk

560791Title: A TRADE LIKE ANY OTHER: FEMALE SINGERS AND DANCERS IN EGYPT
Author: Karin van Nieuwkerk
Release Date: 1995
Pages: 240
Publisher: University of Texas Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads

This book is an excellent, detailed overview on the trade of bellydancing in Egypt. This topic is not as frequently covered as I would hope, but Nieuwkerk makes up for that by bringing together historical, social, and anthropological elements to provide a broad picture of the trade in Egypt.

The first two chapters provide historical overviews on female entertainment in Egypt in the 18th and 19th centuries, which for me was the most fascinating part of the book. The following chapters all rely heavily on one-on-one interviews with living dancers. Nieuwkerk delves into the life stories of these dancers as well as their views on their own profession. She also branches out to interview non-performers on their opinions about the entertainment profession and female entertainers in particular in order to come to a conclusion about the profession’s respectability.

The book’s strength is in its broad yet personal scope. Though Nieuwkerk delves into nearly every angle of the entertainment profession that you can imagine, her work still retains a personal touch due to the multitude of interviews she conducted with dancers. She provides many examples of direct quotes from her interviews which lend the whole book a very authentic feel. Though her examination of bellydancing Nieuwkerk inevitably touches on various facets of Egyptian culture.

Nieuwkerk is incredibly thorough; though I just finished the book, I’m excited to go through all the endnotes of the book to seek out the resources Nieuwkerk consulted. I would highly recommend this volume for a concise yet detailed overview of bellydancing in Egypt.

Book Review: Distant View of a Minaret by Alifa Rifaat

206228Title: DISTANT VIEW OF A MINARET
Author: Alifa Rifaat
Release Date: 1983
Pages: 116
Publisher: Heinemann Educational Books
My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Reviewing short story collections is always difficult, even when it’s a collection by a single author, because content and quality can vary so much between stories. Reviewing this particular collection was even more…not difficult, exactly, but perhaps unusual, because this is a work in translation. As a reader I tend to shy away from translated works because they almost always don’t cross over naturally; the words seem stiff and distant and I have no way of knowing whether this is the fault of the translator or a different style of writing.

The case of this book was a little different, since it has been translated from its original Arabic, a language I am fluent in. The stories are all about Egyptians, and so I came into this book with familiarity and understanding. I wonder, though, if I may have enjoyed this more had I read it in the original Arabic.

Anyway, the stories in this collection are less stories than vignettes, most of them depressing and hopeless. Rifaat writes about miserable women and awful men. While her stories ring true, it became wearying to read one vignette after another about a woman who hates her life. Since these vignettes were so short, it was also difficult to really identify with any of the characters, since there was so little time to get to know them.

My favorite story in the collection was – surprise, surprise – the only story with a speculative element. In “My World of the Unknown” a woman seemingly begins a love affair with a female djinn who is in the guise of a snake. It’s a very strange story without a conclusive ending, but I liked its plot and its potential.

All the other stories were very realistic and down-to-earth. It seems like a book that was written by an Egyptian for other Egyptians, though, as I’m not really sure how accessible these stories are to non-Egyptians (or non-Arabs in general). They are raw and gritty and personal in a very culturally specific way, and I can see the casual Western reader feeling off-put and alienated by their content.

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the stories in this book, but I did enjoy reading it, if only for the familiarity. I always enjoy reading books set in Egypt or about Egypt, but I probably wouldn’t have finished a book like this otherwise.

Book Review: The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

23197837Title: THE BELLES
Author: Dhonielle Clayton
Release Date: February 2018
Pages: 512
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (3.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Dhonielle Clayton has a way of writing that is rich and layered, and my goodness, does she have a way with similes and metaphors! The way she utilizes words results in vivid, colorful imagery that is perfect for the world of The Belles, a society that prizes beauty above all else. In the country of Orleans, everyone is born with gray skin and red eyes – everyone except for The Belles, a group of girls supposedly blessed by the Goddess of Beauty. The Belles are trained in the arcana to utilize their gifts to cosmetically enhance everyone else – a sort of magical plastic surgery. It is a fresh, new concept that Clayton has clearly enjoyed exploring.

Clayton could have sat on her laurels with this concept and made the rest of her world-building derivative, but she did the exact opposite. Orleans is a fantasy world that makes use of a mixture of magic and technology, reminding me of a hybrid of Harry Potter and Legend of Korra. There are magic mirrors that reveal truths when given blood, but there are also flashing words on paper, clever “post balloons” that deliver mail, and of course the arcana itself, a mixture of art, science, and magic.

Our protagonist, Camellia, inadverdently begins to discover the dark underbelly of her world as she becomes mired in the lives of royalty, including the cruel Princess Sophia. As tensions mount and stakes rise, we learn more and more about the origins of The Belles, and things get more disturbing by the page. Greed and cruelty come out to play in this world.

I only had a few issues. First, I would have liked for there to be a clearer explanation of class hierarchies in this book. Getting your appearance altered seems to be very expensive, but never do we see hordes of gray commoners hanging around. Does everyone have enough money to be altered? Is there a huge underclass of people who can’t afford to do so? How does this further affect their status? However, this is a small issue, as in this first installment Camellia is quite sheltered and barely leaves the palace. I am guessing that we will see more of this in the second book.

My second issue was with the portrayal of the fat characters in the novel, of which there are two: Claudine, the Princess’s lady-in-waiting, and Prince Alfred, who assaults Camellia. When we first meet Claudine, she is essentially described as stuffing herself with food, and the way she is introduced seems to want to convey disgust. Pairing fat characters with gluttony is a tired trope that I would really prefer to never see again. Prince Alfred is, I think, the only fat man in the novel, and his fatness seems to contribute to the overall disgust Camellia has of him. When he is revealed to be a womanizer and a rapist, descriptions of his corpulence are abundant, implying that the two are related.

The third is the presentation of the few queer characters in the novel. First there is the Fashion Minister Gustave, who is portrayed as rather flamboyant. While there is nothing wrong with this, we never really get to know Gustave beyond his flamboyancy, thereby reducing him to a one-dimensional stereotypical character. He also has a staff of similarly flamboyant “dandies.” Now, I could be wrong regarding this, but I could have sworn that “dandy” is in some circles a derogatory homophobic term? Let me know if you’ve heard differently, as I’m not totally sure, but I did a sort of double-take when first coming across the word in this context.

The other queer character is Claudine, who is in love with her female servant against Princess Sophia’s wishes. I won’t reveal her fate because I like to keep my reviews spoiler-free, but suffice it to say that what happens to her gives off some ugly connotations about the cost of queerness. This wouldn’t have been an issue had there been other queer characters in the novel who were given equal space, but there weren’t, so Claudine sticks out, as does her fate.

Another not so much issue but question I had was regarding the friendship between Camellia and Amber, who is supposedly her best friend. For best friends, they are more competitive and jealous of each other than anything else. I’m wondering if this is meant to be a commentary on the sort of lives the Belles lead and how they are raised, but it seemed like Camellia’s friendship with the other Belles was much more supportive. So this was somewhat confusing.

My final issue was with Princess Sophia, who is portrayed as cruel and unhinged. So far she seems like a one-dimensional and cartoonishly evil villain. There is one instance in the book that humanizes her, when she seems to be in a panic about her older sister, Charlotte, but it is forgotten rather quickly, and barely acknowledged when it does happen, even though it would have belied various beliefs about Sophia’s character. In any case I certainly hope we see more layers to Sophia in the following book because as of now she’s not very interesting or believable.

These are, however, minor grievances in what was a thoroughly refreshing and entertaining book. Ending with an absolutely wicked cliffhanger, the second installment promises to be exciting and fast-paced as the Belles continue to unearth more seedy secrets about their origins.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!