Book Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

18245Title: WAR AND PEACE
Author: Leo Tolstoy, Anthony Briggs (Translator)
Release Date: 1868
Pages: 1357
Publisher: Penguin Classics
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads

There are two things I want to say upfront before I (try to) get into the meat of an actual review.

First, having completed this book, I must say it is highly unlikely I would have picked it up or enjoyed it in the slightest had I not arrived at it by way of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. It is only with the musical’s vibrant characters in my mind that I was able to maintain my motivation to keep reading. That said, however, I will say that I hardly ever found the “peace” chapters dull or hard to get through. I just couldn’t connect with the characters very well. They were engaging, but I never cared about them as much as I hoped to (except for Helene, and possibly Anatole).

Second, what brings that book down to three stars for me is the insufferable, pedantic detail of the “war” chapters. Apparently Tolstoy is praised for his description of these battles. He does bring a certain realism to the forefront. However, I think that realism could have still been maintained even if huge chunks of these war chapters were pared down. There is just so much detail about random characters and random battalions and flanks and canons and other things I just could not bring myself to care about. And then of course there’s Tolstoy’s own philosophical interjections every now and again which I struggled to read without my eyes glazing over (Part II of the Epilogue…was an ordeal). I’m not going to go into Tolstoy’s philosophical beliefs or his views on history; I think his theories are best left to group discussions than book reviews (suffice it to say, if I understand Tolstoy correctly, I think I heartily disagree with many of his points).

The characters are the meat of this book. Tolstoy writes them well: they are all complex and varied and so different from one another you never had trouble telling them apart (well, the main characters at least!). And they are all so human in all their doubts and flaws. Despite the enormous cast of characters, I would say that there are really 3-5 main characters, in order from most to least importance/screentime: Pierre, Andrei, Nikolay, Natasha, and Marya (to my eternal disappointment, the Kuragins are really only very minor characters).

There are chapters upon chapters dedicated to Pierre and Andrei’s philosophical musings on life, which I found extremely irritating. It read like stream of consciousness at times. Andrei, as I’m told, is considered the Fitzwilliam Darcy of Russian lit, but I personally couldn’t stand him. I found him arrogant, brooding, and self-righteous. I know I’m supposed to have liked Pierre, and I didn’t dislike him, I just found his storyline meandering and dull (his whole thing with the Masonic Society was really weird and pointless). I’m rather ambivalent about Nikolay. I liked Marya a lot; I think she’s a fascinating character who really tries to embody goodness. And Natasha – the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl! Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but I wasn’t at all fond of Natasha’s characterization. She almost always seemed to be described in terms of her affect on other people, particularly men, who were drawn in by her seduction and oddities, and yet her own inner life seemed strangely bereft. Perhaps this is an issue with the translation, but often I found her thought process and dialogue meandering and dramatic to the point of irritation. It was like she was written more as a spectacle, a phenomenon, than a character.

The two characters who intrigued me the most were not featured as much: Anatole and Helene. From the moment they are introduced they are fascinating and contradictory. Anatole is described as kind and generous and yet simultaneously utterly oblivious to the wants and needs of others, or to consequences. Helene enjoys a reputation as a clever high-society woman and yet is thought of as stupid by her husband, whom she seems to despise but tolerates for his ability to raise her status in society. In the musical we get many interactions between Anatole and Helene that show their intense sibling bond; in the novel, however, they barely interact. Rather than being shown we are told about their strong (perhaps incestuous) bond, yet we see very little to convince us of this.

Perhaps that is my issue with the whole book and why I had such trouble connecting. So much of it is told to us. I know it’s probably futile to talk about “show don’t tell” when it comes to an epic like War and Peace. Not just because it’s an epic, but because literary conventions have shifted so much since this novel’s publication that I as a reader am certainly influenced by my own expectations. But alas, my enjoyment of these characters was definitely hindered by my modern day conventions and expectations of literature, and I wanted to see so much more than I was told.

But still much of the novel was engaging and entertaining, though the war chapters did nothing for me whatsoever. The agonizing dullness of the war chapters may have been salvaged by beautiful writing, but the writing is plain and ordinary. Again I hesitate because this is a translation, and perhaps other translations capture a more lyrical tone, but in the case of the Briggs translation I found the writing rather dull and unadorned. It is certainly easy to read, but it also leaves you unaffected. Not once did I pause and admire the beauty of a particularly written sentence or paragraph.

I’m glad to have read this, and I did enjoy many parts, but overall this isn’t a novel that will stick with me or affect me in any way. I wish I felt what so many people do upon reading this novel – which is apparently some kind of grand appreciation for the human condition or something – but I don’t, sadly.


Book Review: The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

Author: Nell Irvin Painter
Release Date: 2010
Pages: 396
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads

This is a difficult book for me to accurately assess, since I am trying to be objective regarding the book’s content while also expressing my disappointed expectations.

Objectively speaking, this book is a powerful scholarly work, a history of whiteness as determined by White Europeans. Painter delves into obscure European anthropological and sociological tomes on racial classification. This is part of why my interest started to wander; Painter spends way too much time on these European scholars and their works. In excruciating detail, she chronicles the lives of these European racists (I use this term more as a shorthand than anything), their relationships with each other, the circles they ran in, and the impact of their work. It results in a very rich historical tome, but not exactly what I was looking for.

To give you an example of what I mean by this laborious detail, Painter spends three chapters on Ralph Waldo Emerson. These chapters certainly touch on the development of racial theory at this time, but the bulk of them is devoted to Emerson’s life, his impact, and the memory of him in American society. To me it read like a rather lengthy tangent that could have been adequately summed up in a single chapter.

One of the major strengths of this book is how well it elucidates just how much of racial “science” was actually pseudoscience – complete bullshit, in other words. Painter pulls direct quotes from these racial “scientists” that indicate that they had no understanding whatsoever of the scientific method, and their science was utterly flawed and nonsensical. Essentially, Painter is building up to an important face: race is not biological, and it never was. Race is, and always has been, a social construct. That is the crux of this book, the point it is trying to make by painstakingly detailing the work of European racial thinkers.

I was disappointed that European racial thinkers take up the majority of this book. I had been hoping to see, as a contrast, scholars from outside of Europe and how they thought of race and “whiteness.” And yet, this is hardly touched upon. There were other significant issues I thought should have been discussed in greater detail. For example, there is no mention at all of the pivotal trial of Bhagat Singh Thind, where an Indian man was declared racially ineligible for US citizenship. There is no mention at all of similar trials that followed, of Syrians and other Middle Easterners, whose classification at the time depended sometimes on their skin color, sometimes on their religion, and sometimes on the political classification of their origins. In other words, it was a complete mess that illustrates the fallacy of racial classification quite well.

Middle Easterners and North Africans are hardly mentioned, which I think is a serious detriment to the argument of the book. As a group, MENA are legally classified as Caucasians, but there is so much confusion regarding this classification that it is essentially worthless. MENA folks occupy a vague racial category that can sparks fierce conversations on the meaning of race and ethnicity, and yet that is never mentioned in this book. Painter spends more time talking about racial divisions among white people (or those that are today considered white, such as Slavs, Irish, Italians) than the racial categories we know today.

Again, I want to say that I am trying to balance what this book actually is versus my personal expectations. Objectively, it is an excellent, impressive work of scholarship that details centuries of European racial thinking. I just found it disappointing in its hyper focus on European thinkers and the details of their lives. I ended up skimming many of these parts, as I had no interest whatsoever where this particular European racist went to school or what he accomplished in his life.

In sum, this is an important, significant work of scholarship that needs to exist, certainly, but I probably should have adjusted my expectations of it sooner.

Book Review: This Savage Song by V.E. Schwab

23299512Title: THIS SAVAGE SONG
Author: V.E. Schwab
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 464
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads

This Savage Song is an urban paranormal dystopia (which I did not realize going in, actually). It takes place in a post-War US that has split into several territories with weird names like Verity and Prosperity. After something called the Phenomenon happened, it seems that violent acts are now begetting monsters, of which there are three types: Corsai, Malchai, and Sunai. Corsai eat you alive, Malchai will drain you of blood, and Sunai…are more like avenging angels, who play a song to suck the life out of you, but only if you yourself have committed a violence that has begotten a monster.

It’s an intriguing premise, but one fraught with unnecessary add-ons. Why do the Sunai need music to bring forth a soul? It just seemed like window dressing to an already interesting concept…then again, this may just be a personal hang-up, as I tend to really dislike music in my stories. The dystopic US world was poorly explained, and I was left unclear as to what exactly the dangerous “Waste” is or whether these monsters exists everywhere in the world or just in the territory of Verity. I hope it’s not the latter, because if so, why doesn’t everybody just leave? Why even stay in a city that, if not beset by monsters, has already been literally split at the seams due to a territory war between two men with different ideas of how to lead it?

The crux of the story focuses the children of the two men fighting for control over the city: Kate Harker and August Flynn. August, however, is not really anyone’s son, but a Sunai created in the wake of a school shooting. Kate is desperate to win her father’s approval, so she returns to V-City and puts her best brutality on display. Her father, Callum, has the monsters of Verity under his control, and in his part of the city citizens pay for protection. How and why Callum has the Corsai and Malchai under his control is unclear…did I miss that in my reading? Also, is Callum the governor of this city? Is there any other government in place? I needed more from the worldbuilding here to truly get a sense of this world.

Speaking of worldbuilding, it was odd how this seemed to be almost a post-racial society. There is one mention of one character being “dark-skinned” but otherwise everyone is white, with standard Anglo-Saxon names. Apparently Verity is meant to be the aftermath of the Midwest, but that still doesn’t explain all this abundant whiteness. It’s rather strange especially given that the text doesn’t only hint at pre-dystopic US, it explicitly tells us about the former United States (which apparently disbanded after the Vietnam War, for reasons that are not explained very well), so I’m not sure why there are so few cultural markers left over.

I guess the story is meant to focus more on Kate and August; I would definitely say this book is more character-driven than plot driven. August wants to be more human, Kate wants to be more monstrous. I guess there’s meant to be poetry in that, but it just struck me as rather cliche. Their characters were fine, I suppose, though they struck me as washed-out versions of Lila and Kell (of Schwab’s other series), and I didn’t enjoy them as much.

This is shaping out to be a really critical review, so I do want to emphasize that I did enjoy this book! It was definitely intriguing enough for me to read through it rather quickly; at no point did I even consider DNFing it. Schwab is definitely a talented writer, and this book is decently constructed. It just left me cold and indifferent.

What do you guys think? Did I miss something here? Does the sequel improve?

Book Review: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

25667918Title: BINTI
Author: Nedi Okorafor
Release Date: 2015
Pages: 96
Publisher: Tor
My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3/5)
Review on Goodreads

I wasn’t as impressed by this book as I should have been. In order to discuss my displeasure with the plot, I will have to talk SPOILERS, so beware (I will try to be as vague as possible , but still).

Coming in at ninety-six pages, Binti has little overarching plot, but rather focuses on a single drawn-out event. Binti, a member of the reclusive Himba tribe, is the first of her people to travel to the prestigious Oomza University. One of the things I loved was the way Binti deals with other people’s prejudices, and the way POC-on-POC racism is portrayed (the Khoush, according to Okorafor, are meant to be Arab).

Soon into the journey to Oomza, the ship is attacked by the Meduse, who murder pretty much everyone on the ship except for Binti; she is saved by a strange object she picked up back home that seems to harm the Meduse. The rest of the book shows us Binti simply trying to survive the Meduse, figure out what they want, and then help them achieve this goal in order to save as many people as possible.

To cut the story short – she succeeds and prevents a bloodbath. However, what I just could not get behind and could not understand is Binti’s seeming lack of internal conflict about her relationship with the Meduse. She seems to have a lot of respect and some affection for them by the end, but these are the same beings who brutally murdered her innocent friends – murders that Binti witnessed. According to them they had a good reason, but it rang hollow to me that Binti would simply accept this. Things were wrapped up so, so neatly – the folks at Oomza apologized for what they did and peace was achieved, but there was no mention of the hundreds of young teenagers who were brutally killed for no reason.

I also wanted a bit more from this world; I had no sense of time or context. To be fair, this is a novella so the author has little page count to work with, and she did the best with what she had, but I was still left feeling quite confused. What exactly is an astrolabe? What is a harmonizer? What is the device Binti has that wards off the Meduse? I had so many questions that were left unanswered by the end.

I appreciate what this novella is and I love the diversity, but it just wasn’t for me. However, I’m definitely willing to check out the sequel at some point, since I hear the series gets better and better.

Book Review: Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

27969081Title: LABYRINTH LOST
Author: Zoraida Cordova
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 324
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (2.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I wanted so badly to love this book, but I couldn’t. From the very beginning I couldn’t get into it, and completing it was a struggle. I literally had to force myself to keep reading. And it sucks, because there is so much to love about this book! Unfortunately, I found it was overwhelmed by the negatives, which mostly encompass two things: the writing and the oddly paced plot.

So, the plot. This may have more to do with my own tastes than anything else. I’m really not a fan of Alice in Wonderland style tales, where heroes journey through a strange land. I suppose some authors could do it justice, but in Labyrinth Lost I was just bored to tears. The plot was formulaic and unoriginal. There were few surprises or twists, and the ones that were there were either predictable or contrived. It was so, so boring.

The writing is my other main issue. I don’t normally comment on writing styles, but here it was just awful. I just could not get past how clunky and juvenile it was. Sentences were all so simplistic and repetitive; I felt like I was banging my head against a wall. It was so jarring and uncomfortable.

I’m disappointed, because this book had the potential to be excellent. There are some incredible things here!

Latina witches in Brooklyn! Already the concept is intriguing and fresh and comes with the promise of rich traditions and lengthy histories. With the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, I was reminded strongly of the Sweep series, one of my favorites. This book was so close to coming alive with magic.

Then there’s the characters. Despite the stilted writing, the characters were all endearing and believable. The author managed to give each and every one of them their own authentic personality; the characters came to life on the page. Even the Devourer, the villain of the story, was intriguing, with a fascinating past.

There’s also a really neat subversion of a common YA trope along with a f/f relationship! You expect Alex to fall in love with the “mysterious brujo boy” but instead she is in love with another woman, which honestly blew me away.

But…all of it ultimately falls short because of the writing and plot. The plot would have worked better had it taken place in our world rather than a secondary fantasy one (never thought I’d hear myself saying that). And the writing…man, I am drawn to the characters and would be interested in seeing them have an adventure in our world, but…is it enough to get me to suffer through this writing again? Probably not.

Book Review: The Graces by Laura Eve

28818369Title: THE GRACES
Author: Laura Eve
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 336
Publisher: Amulet Books
My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3/5)
Review on Goodreads

I really wanted to give this a higher rating, because I truly enjoyed it, but unfortunately it also had a lot of issues. I think it had plenty of potential, but it just couldn’t quite get there. A lot of people are comparing this book to Twilight, but I have to say I don’t agree. The basic plot is this: a new girl who calls herself River moves to a new town after a mysterious incident with her father. She becomes obsessed with Fenrin, Thalia, and Summer Grace, a family everyone else is obsessed with as well. She becomes their close friend and things escalate. On the surface, there are some middling similarities with Twilight, but I honestly wouldn’t have even thought of Twilight at all if I hadn’t seen it mentioned so often in reviews. So while I did like this book, I think it could have been better.

A book like this needs atmosphere. You would think that would come easy. New girl moves to a small, seaside English town, meets mysterious people who may be witches. But none of the atmosphere came through. I could never really picture the town, when it should have been a character in its own right (especially considering the Graces have lived there forever). Then there’s the Graces – the author kept trying to make them seem witchy and New Age, but they just…weren’t. I’m a diehard Sweep fan, you see, and those books were ALL atmosphere. That’s what drew me to this book. I thought I would be getting Sweep again, but it wasn’t as rich and colorful as that series, not at all.

The pacing in this book is way off. It’s not that this book isn’t interesting, it is, but there is very little plot. The entire story hinges on an anticipated twist that comes with finding out what happened to River’s father, but that’s not enough. There were a lot of scenes I thought were kind of extraneous. This book should have been tighter, faster-paced.

The only person of color in this book is demonized, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. Niral, a South Asian girl, is made out to be a homophobic bully. You know, this is Writing Cross Culturally 101. If you’re going to only include a single person of color, they shouldn’t be a villain or a trope. Otherwise, I would say don’t even include them. The rest of this book is white people – which, fine, small English village, blah blah, I’ll buy it – but then why include Niral? What is the point? It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

The major “twist” in this book involves the reveal of a character’s bisexuality. If that is literally all your book hinges on…and to comment on the pacing again, after this twist is revealed, things move at a wickedly fast pace, as opposed to the rest of the book.

There were other things that really bothered me, but they make sense given the progression of the plot. For example, River is self-centered, arrogant, pretentious, seems to hate other girls…take this oft-referenced quote:

“But I was not like those prattling, chattering things with their careful head tosses and thick, cloying lip gloss. Inside, buried down deep where no one could see it, was the core of me, burning endlessly, coal black and coal bright.”

Yeah, it’s gross. It is. Worse, it’s cringey and cliched, a tired trope that I’m really sick of seeing. Given the fact that River is revealed to be a nightmare of a person, I guess it’s intentional, but I wish it had been more subtle, especially as it is said in the very beginning of the book, when readers are still finding their feet.

Another issue is some of the dialogue. God, talk about emo teens. I’m sure this was intentional, to make it seem like River and the Graces were special and different from other teens their age, but it was just unrealistic and jarring. I rolled my eyes a lot when I first started reading this book, so much so that I almost considered giving up on it. It was that cringey.

I really enjoyed the path this book ended up taking, though. I thought it was rather unexpected and it made me understand River a lot better. I still think she’s a terrible person, but now I enjoy her villainy (and she is a villain, this book totally reads like an origin story). However, the end of the book should have come way sooner. I hear this book has a sequel (which I’ll probably read), but I think a single book would have been much better paced and more enjoyable. Since we wouldn’t have had to meander through so much of River being an obsessive weirdo without really understanding why, we probably would have enjoyed her way more.

River is such a fascinating character. She’s so fascinating, all on her own, that this book really did not need the ridiculous subplot of having her be obsessed with Fenrin. The reveal at the end provides a much better reason for her to be obsessed with the Graces, a reason that makes total and perfect sense and makes me actually empathize with River. I mean, yes, her crush on him does play a significant part in bringing about the book’s climax, but I’m certain the author could have written around that and come up with something much better. But anyway, back to River: she is…something else. Not particularly likeable, she is selfish, narcissistic, manipulative, a committed liar, and an unreliable narrator. In other words, just the sort of character I love. And I did like her, especially by the end, but I just think she could have been more, certainly more than her crush on Fenrin.

Another issue I had was with the Graces themselves. The entire town is obsessed with them, but like…why? They’re all so completely ordinary. The only interesting thing about them is that people think they’re witches, but even the Graces aren’t sure of that. They’re not bad characters, they’re just ordinary. River blows them all out of the water, honestly. I’m excited to see what she becomes, and I hope we see just as much of her in the next book.

Book Review: Distant View of a Minaret by Alifa Rifaat

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: Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki

31626660Title: WOMAN NO. 17
Author: Edan Lepucki
Release Date: May 2017
Pages: 320
Publisher: Hogarth Press
My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3/5)
Review on Goodreads

This book was, in one word, underwhelming. The blurb advertises a “sinister, sexy noir” and relationships that take a “disturbing” and “destructive” turn. I saw none of that. The novel does capture some hints of noir in its cynicism and moral ambiguity, but the overall tone is not dark and moody, and there’s no mystery. It is gritty in some of its descriptions of sex, bodily fluids, etc, but almost in a way that seems like it’s trying too hard.

Most of the novel takes place in Hollywood Hills, an affluent California neighborhood where Lady, one of the protagonists, lives with her two sons. Seth is eighteen years old and suffers from selective mutism. Marco, Seth’s father, abandoned Lady when Seth was barely two years old. Now, Lady is separated from her husband, Karl, with whom she has a toddler named Devin. In order to write her memoir of her life with Seth, Lady hires a nanny to watch Devin. The nanny Lady hires – which she does without conducting a background check or following up on references – is Esther “S” Fowler, who decides to become a nanny as part of an elaborate art project wherein she “becomes” her mother by dressing like her and adopting her alcoholism.

I feel like this book had a lot of potential, but it all ultimately fizzled out, resulting in a lot of pretentiousness and inane aphorisms. The entire novel seemed to be building up to something significant, an explosive conclusion, but the conclusion was incredibly anti-climactic and abrupt, to the point where I wondered if this were intentional. I also expected a lot more of the friendship between S and Lady, which really only materialized towards the very end of the book and then fizzled out rather quickly when Lady discovers something about S. The very final chapter skips eight months ahead. I’m normally fond of time jumps, but this one did not really provide me with closure or any sort of new information, so I think it should have either been scrapped or altered.

I also expected to see more of their relationships with the protagonists’ respective mothers, since that seemed to be such a huge part of the plot. The book had some interesting implicit commentary on motherhood, but again, it never really reaches any sort of satisfying conclusion, never really digs deep the way I wanted it to. Lady is unhealthily attached to her son Seth and wants to keep him all to herself; there are some disturbing sexual undertones to this relationship particularly given how Lady talks about Seth’s father, and I honestly thought that was where this was headed, but in the end it yet another detail that was just…there. There was a lot more that could have been said about motherhood and the toll it takes, the necessary sacrifice, the belief that once you are a mother you are no longer a person…the book circled around all that but it never really commits to anything.

Essentially, this novel felt like a whole lot of Chekhov’s Guns strewn about. Very little happens that isn’t just rich, privileged white people being dissatisfied with their lives. It’s that sort of pretentious MFA literary fiction that tries to unveil some sort of universal truth but ultimately just ends up being pompous. It was difficult to relate to either character’s ~ennui when both of them are so well-off and have people in their lives who care very much about them (both men, interestingly the women in this book are not shown in a positive light at all). That said, the book was a quick read, and it definitely wasn’t boring despite the lack of plot, so that speaks to some writing talent (and the writing does have some pretty unique and fresh metaphors)! I’m probably being overly critical because I had such high expectations for a book that is way outside of my preferred genres.

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

Book Review: Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas

30320053Title: LONG MAY SHE REIGN
Author: Rhiannon Thomas
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 422
Publisher: HarperTeen
My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3/5)
Review on Goodreads

I’m having a hard time deciding how I feel about this book. First off, it’s definitely on the “young” side of YA. At times I felt like I was reading a middle grade novel, meaning that the characters, plot, and writing are decidedly juvenile. That’s not necessarily always a bad thing, but combined with this particular plot, it felt very ill-fitting, like children playing dress up.

The story starts off with one hell of a bang, when hundreds of people are poisoned on the king’s birthday, leaving our protagonist, Freya, originally 23rd in line to the throne, as Queen of Epria. I enjoyed Freya’s character very much, as she’s quite unique to YA. She’s a scientist, with her own lab (how have I never seen this before in YA?), and she’s seriously socially awkward. Actually, I’m pretty certain she suffers from social anxiety; the symptoms she described definitely reminded me of myself pre-meds. This was quite refreshing, as I’ve never seen a depiction of mental illness in YA fantasy before. Freya isn’t the only one, either – another character, Madeline, is described as a sufferer of “melancholia,” which I take to be depression.

Madeline is one of several female characters that plays a significant role in this book. Madeline could easily have been the stereotypical Pretty Mean Girl, given that Freya initially has very little regard for her, but instead she is written as a friend to Freya, a kind girl who does charity and wants to do her best for her kingdom. Another character is Naomi, who is introduced from very first chapter as Freya’s best friend, who helps her in her lab experiments and adores her pet cat, Dagny. All three girls become close friends, supporting each other with fashion and politics. With these two characters alone Rhiannon Thomas bucks YA stereotypes of mean girls at court and girls not getting along. Thomas could have left it there, but she threads the rest of her novel with subtle hints of the gender neutral world she has built: women advisors and women guards. Women guards! I haven’t seen women guards since Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’ Kiesha-ra series. It’s a small thing, but it certainly made me like this book way more. Add to this that the characters were super likeable and you have a genuinely enjoyable read.

I don’t agree with other reviewers that the plot dragged on or was boring. One of the best things about this book was its pacing. I honestly could not put it down. It’s basically a murder mystery, as Freya and her friends work on figuring out who poisoned the entire court, and that intrigue keeps you reading to figure out what happened. The reveal is…shocking but believable, though it could have used something more, more fleshing out, more complexity. The juxtaposition of this book’s juvenile narrative against the complicated themes it plays with is quite jarring.

I enjoyed reading this very much, but I still I won’t rate it higher than I am, because despite its upending of several stereotypes, I still felt like I was reading a book I had read a thousand times before. It was utterly lackluster, with nothing especially memorable about it. Perhaps this was because of the juvenile narrative, or the bland, derivative Anglo-Scandinavian inspired fantasy setting (I mean, there was a character named Susan in this fantasy world), but there was just something about it that felt lacking. The idea of someone 23rd in line becoming queen because of mass murder is such a cool trope to explore, but this book did not do it justice. Everything was just so…vanilla.

I would highly recommend this book for schools, however. With the positive portrayal of female characters, the sweet romance subplot, the mental illness rep, and the message that people are not always what they appear to be, I think it would be a great read for middle schoolers or young high schoolers.

Book Review: Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

24763621Title: WINTERSONG
Author: S. Jae-Jones
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 436
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Let me begin by saying: this is a beautiful book. The writing is lush, lyrical, elegant, sensual. This is the sort of book I would give to anyone who made the sweeping generalization that all YA is badly written. The story itself is also beautiful: it is a coming-of-age story, about a girl who grows into herself, who finds her confidence and self-worth, who changes from girl to woman with the passing of the seasons. Wintersong is almost phantasmagorical in its telling; reading it felt like reading a dream, or singing a half-remembered song. Jae-Jones has brilliantly composed an absolutely atmospheric story reminiscent of an ancient fairy tale. This is the sort of book I can imagine being read as a classic one day.

That said, I am so, so relieved to be done with it.

The story begins when Liesl’s sister Kathe is kidnapped by the Goblin King, and she descends into the Underworld to retrieve her. This book is supposed to be inspired by the film Labyrinth, a film I pretty much despised, and so the first half of the book was, for me, the more difficult part to get through. At the book’s midpoint, Liesl becomes the Goblin Queen, giving up her life to save her sister, but also because she wants to be with the Goblin King. More than that, she wants to be wanted, desired, loved. It is a desire so very flawed and human and understandable and one of the reasons I loved Liesl. After this, the second portion of the book is essentially a love story between Liesl and the Goblin King, as well as a story about Liesl’s growth and development. It is beautiful, yes, in writing and in story, but it’s also boring as hell.

Let me be clear: this is an objectively good book. I can’t really find much to critique about it besides the snail-like pace that drags it down. It’s also a very long book – too long, I would say, for a book in which so little happens. Liesl spends most of her time pondering over her fate and crafting her music. For someone who knows next to nothing about music, this grew tedious after the first few times. Not to mention, with how quiet the plot was, I just couldn’t feel any tension at all, which ultimately meant I struggled to finish it.

This book reminded me a lot of The Star-Touched Queen, which I just read, but the main difference is that The Star-Touched Queen’s second half was all high stakes, whereas Wintersong seemed to grow quieter and quieter as the plot went on. There are also too many unanswered questions about the Goblin King’s origins. Perhaps that is the point, as this is a fairy tale retelling and those are never meant to be crystal clear, but it frustrated me nonetheless, particularly with the disappointing plot structure. I kept wanting more, some big reveal, some cliffhanger, some excitement.

The most engaging scenes, and some of the most beautifully written, were the sex scenes (well, and most scenes between Liesl and the Goblin King, but I digress). Though rather demure and clearly toned down for YA, they conveyed much while giving away very little. I had no idea sex could be written so elegantly, but Jae-Jones managed to do it. Something else she has done very well in this novel is characterization. It was not only Liesl who felt real to me, but Kathe and Josef and the Goblin King and even Liesl’s parents and grandmother. I could see each and every one of them as a real person with their own faults and desires.

Overall I will not deny that this is an absolute jewel of a book, a beautiful creation crafted with love and skill. As a writer myself I have learned so much just from reading Jae-Jones’ words. I wish I had enjoyed reading this more, but ultimately the pacing and lack of plot did not work for me.