Book Review: The Library of Fates by Aditi Khorani

Author: Aditi Khorani
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 315
Publisher: Razorbill
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

This is a strange little book. I had wildly different expectations going into it; the blurb makes it seem like more of a political thriller (of sorts) but in actuality it is more like an extended folktale. There have been comparisons with The Star-Touched Queen, and I suppose in theme the two are quite similar, but this book is actually rather fast-paced, more of an adventure/journey story.

It begins with Amrita, princess of Shalingar, waiting on the arrival of Sikander, her father’s old friend turned enemy who she is to be married off to in an attempt to secure an alliance. Things fall apart, however, when Sikander makes it clear he has little interest in peace. Amrita finds herself on the run with an oracle named Thala, on a journey to save her nation from Sikander.

It starts off as your typical adventure fantasy novel, but it veers wildly into folklore territory, which I was not expecting! The novel’s ending, which left me undecided as to whether it was happy or tragic, deals with themes of fate, loss, and sacrifice. I was really surprised by the direction this took, but I loved it too. This is not something often seen in YA fantasy lit, and I was pleasantly surprised at the large, overarching themes discussed here.

Central to the story is something else not frequently seen in YA, which is the friendship and partnership between Amrita and Thala. Though the two girls come together almost by coincidence, they end up relying heavily on each other. Romance features in this book, but only on the periphery; it is tangential to the main plot.

My one complaint is the characterization. Perhaps this is because the book is written as a folktale, but I thought that several of the characters were blank slates. I struggled to connect with Amrita; I just couldn’t get a read on her. With Thala it was a little easier, but I still found the pair somewhat forgettable. Even their bond, which I appreciated, felt superficial.

Other than that I really enjoyed this tale. Standalone fantasy novels are few and far between, so this felt like a quick little treat. I also have to mention the writing, which was lovely; the author does a superb job utilizing sensory writing. Her descriptions of various settings were lush and vivid, bringing this folktale to life.


Book Review: Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

33574211Title: EMMA IN THE NIGHT
Author: Wendy Walker
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 320
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

It’s difficult to find a thriller that doesn’t rest its laurels on the shocking twist at the end. Don’t get me wrong, shocking twists are great, and Emma in the Night certainly came through with that. However, I also found it to be quite an introspective book, detailing the harm inflicted on children by terrible, narcissistic, and incapable parents.

Emma and Cassandra Tanner’s lives are a medley of dysfunction and sexual impropriety, due not only to their narcissistic mother, but their gross stepfather and stepbrother, both of whom are sexually attracted to Emma. It is this dysfunction that seemingly leads a pregnant Emma to run away, with her younger sister Cass in tow. Three years later, Cass, and only Cass, returns, with a story about being held captive on an island with her sister Emma and Emma’s baby daughter. With the help of Dr. Abby Winters, a forensic psychologist with a narcissistic mother of her own, Cass’s story unravels and is put back together, and Emma is found in an unlikely place.

Like any good thriller, Emma in the Night is compelling, forcing you to ask questions and try to figure out what the heck is going on. But it is a sort of character study as well. Emma, the titular character, is a kind of vulnerable seductress, an insecure teenage girl utilizing the only power she thinks she holds. Her relationship with her narcissistic mother becomes is revealed to be more and more horrific by the second. Hunter and Jonathan Martin, the aforementioned stepbrother and stepfather, are both arrogant, privileged, and misogynistic men whose presence in the girls’ lives screws up their family even more. Their biological father, despite genuinely loving his daughters, is weak and cannot fight for them like they deserve. The girls’ mother, Judy, suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, and therefore is not a mother at all to her daughters, more like a rival.

And finally, Cassandra, the narrator, is a very quiet character, a young girl who has been fractured by the trauma in her past, but healed and became stronger because of it. I liked Cass way more than I thought I would. She is clever and manipulative, stoic and calculating, loving and loyal. Her relationship with her older sister Emma is frustrating and heart-breaking; it is at times sweet, at times utterly cruel, but the blame is to be laid at the feet of their mother, who does her best to break the girls apart so that they are not united against her.

Emma in the Night is a tragedy, the sad tale of two young girls’ whose lives are destroyed by their parents. It will keep you guessing until the end, and the final twist is maddening in its simplicity. There are certainly criticisms that can be levied at this book: the plot is somewhat convoluted, the actions of some of the characters at the very end are unbelievable and were moved only by plot, the story is conveyed through a lot of literal telling and very little showing, but ultimately those flaws work in the story’s favor, elevating it to wildly dramatic heights. With its colorful cast of characters, its dramatic twists and turns, and Cassandra’s soliloquy-like narration, and the allusion to the mythical Cassandra at the very beginning, this book nearly reaches Shakespearean levels of tragedy.

Book Review: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

25062038Title: LITTLE & LION
Author: Brandy Colbert
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 336
Publisher: Little, Brown
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

Little & Lion is a sweet but hard-hitting story about a young black, Jewish girl coming to terms with her bisexuality while also struggling to do the right thing regarding her brother’s mental illness.

Suzette is back home from boarding school for the summer, after her parents sent her away in the wake of her brother Lionel’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She wants desperately to integrate herself back into her brother’s life, for things to be the way they were before, but Lionel is struggling to – he’s still adjusting to his mental illness and being on medication. Suzette is also fresh of a messy break-up at boarding school, and the guilt of it plagues her.

While this seems like your run-of-the-mill book on the surface, I thought it was a really powerful and emotional exploration of mental health, sexuality, racism, microagressions, and sibling relationships. But the best thing is that while the book does delve into all of these heavy subjects it never feels heavy-handed, like it’s preaching or trying to teach me something. It never feels artificial. It’s just this group of teens trying to deal with some very real issues while living their lives.

Brandy Colbert’s writing is lovely – too often in contemporary YA authors will rely on the plot itself to carry the book through, but it is clear Colbert has put careful consideration into her writing. Her words fly fast, and the book is engaging, but it’s not simplistic or juvenile. The many characters are all given ample room for self-expression; Suzette in particular feels so very real, a young girl trying her best to do the right thing while fighting off the way the world sees her. I also appreciated that her love interests were so different from each other – Rafaela in particular felt very realistic and actually inspired feelings of dislike in me. Not that she was a bad person, but her personality clashed with my own, which I enjoyed! I love it when characters make me feel something, even if it’s dislike; it means they’re well-fleshed out.

Something else that greatly affected me is the setting. The book takes place in Los Angeles, and perhaps this is this is the romantic in me (I…idolize California in a weird way though I’ve never been), but I thought Colbert did a spectacular job capturing the vibe of living in LA. The weather, the mountainous setting, the strip malls with their neon signs, the lazy summer nights. This book is hella atmospheric, and it made me feel like I was right alongside the characters in LA.

Creating atmosphere like that is difficult to do in general, but it’s especially difficult to capture in a huge, thriving city like LA. The way Colbert framed this story it was almost as though it were taking place in a separate, intimate pocket of reality, and that made me feel like I was a part of the story.

Book Review: And I Darken by Kiersten White

27190613Title: AND I DARKEN
Author: Kiersten White
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 475
Publisher: Delacorte Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads

And I Darken is a clever gender-bent retelling of the tale of Vlad the Impaler. I actually hadn’t realized this when I started the book, so it was a pleasant surprise!

Lada Dragwyla, Daughter of the Dragon, is introduced to us as a fierce, ferocious young girl who grows into an even fiercer teenager. Her character was a joy to behold: she is truly ruthless and pragmatic to a fault. At her core is her intense loyalty to Wallachia, her country of birth, and her desire to one day reign there.

And I Darken starts at the very, very beginning: with Lada’s birth, quickly followed by her younger brother Radu’s birth. After a few chapters of adjusting to the setting and character, the story quickly moves on to the main plot: Lada and Radu are delivered to the Ottoman sultan as hostages by their father to ensure Wallachia’s loyalty. Teeming with fury at her father’s betrayal, Lada, unlike her brother Radu, never comes to see the Ottomon Empire as home, despite her love for Mehmed, the young sultan.

This book is unusual in a lot of ways, the first being the plot itself. The author accurately follows the thread of history, for the most part, bringing to life a largely unknown chapter in the lives of Vlad the Impaler and Radu the Handsome. Another unusual aspect is the various relationships in this book, which are intriguing and complex. Lada and Radu care for one another, but their relationship is fraught: Lada hates Radu’s timidity, and Radu is put off by Lada’s viciousness. At the same time, they are both in love with the same man, Mehmed, though Mehmed seems to only have eyes for Lada.

Something else I thought was wonderful was the portrayal of Islam. Upon coming to the Ottoman Empire, Radu almost immediately falls in love with Islam. Eventually, he converts, and his appreciation of Islam’s beauty was really refreshing to see. He talks often of the peace he finds in prayer and the call of the athan, while at the same time he worries about Lada perceiving him as a traitor because he embraced this aspect of their captors. It’s an intriguing personal struggle.

I absolutely loved Lada, an unapologetic and unlikable protagonist, but I also found Radu a fascinating character whose growth was deftly done. Though Radu starts out as naive and weak, he eventually grows into a skilled politician, able to navigate treacherous court politics in the subtle way Lada lacks. In the midst of it all he retains his loyalty and kindness; he actually reminded me a lot of Sansa Stark. He also struggles with his sexuality (insomuch as it is understood in such a way back then) as he comes to terms with his love for Mehmed.

The book also features some wonderful nuanced discussions of womanhood and what it means to be a woman in a world of men. Lada struggles constantly with the contradiction of who she is and how people want her to be because of her gender. She does not embody traditional femininity in any way and scorns this in many other women. However, this stops short of “I’m-not-like-other-girls” because of the way the narrative interrogates the various ways women carve space for themselves in the world. Lada muses on the ways in which women wield power, whether with a sword or with their femininity. She doesn’t necessarily come to any particular conclusion, but her confusion is sure to ring true with many young women who read this book.

One of the things that may perhaps be considered a weakness is the somewhat plodding pace. Personally, I didn’t have too much of an issue with this because I really enjoyed and connected with the characters, but it is not an exaggeration to say this book moves very slowly. Again, it begins with Lada and Radu being born, and the author does not spare details about their childhood. Pacing was odd as well; I couldn’t really identify any one particular moment of plot climax, but I think that might be because this book is very, very character driven. It is focused mainly on Lada and Radu’s growth and development and how they affect the history of the Ottomans and the reign of Mehmed. And of course the plot is constrained by history, which doesn’t follow traditional plot structure.

In short, I’m very excited to read the sequel!

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!

Book Review: Exceptional America by Mugambi Jouet

Author: Mugambi Jouet
Release Date: April 2017
Pages: 376
Publisher: University of California Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (3.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

In 2011, longtime Republican Mike Lofgren asserted that the modern Republican Party is “becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe.”

In this book, Mugambi Jouet looks at the radicalization of American Conservatism and what it has wrought. In looking at the notion of American exceptionalism, he examines traditional American ideals and tries to get to the core of why Americans are so polarized on nearly every major issue. His thesis boils it down to four major aspects of America, all of which resulted from its peculiar founding: anti-intellectualism, anti-governmentalism, racial resentment, and fervent Christian fundamentalism (a literal belief in the Bible). Jouet asserts that these four Horseman of the Apocalypse (my words, not his) are the cornerstones of modern American conservatism, and they succeed in making America an outlier among its contemporary industrialized Western nations. In a book that is very wide-ranging and broad in scope, Jouet attempts to explain the roots of these four issues.

Jouet makes a convincing case, as he examines various aspects of America’s history that contributed to its modern condition. For example, he argues that anti-intellectualism is rooted in disdain for elites that came from colonists’ suspicion of the European aristocracy. The development of extreme Christian fundamentalism has to do with America’s foundation of religious freedom and the fact that, unlike Europe, America never had a church that was entangled with its political affairs, which meant that religion flourished free from suspicion. This type of fundamentalism has led actual members of Congress, like Senator James Inhofe, to say things ludicrous like “God controls the climate”. Jouet also traces various historical events that contributed to America’s current status. For example, he reminds us that the South had always been staunchly Democratic – until Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which spurred racial animosity. He ties various aspects of his thesis together and demonstrates how they all work in tandem and contribute to one another.

I really enjoyed Jouet’s discussion of American anti-intellectualism, which I don’t think receives enough attention. He states, “Millions of citizens are unable or unwilling to accept simple facts. Naked propaganda has been normalized.” Indeed. Jouet goes on to explore the varying degrees of cognitive dissonance present among the American public that causes its citizens to staunchly deny bald-faced truths in direct opposition to facts. He ties this to the results of the 2016 election and says: “The emergence of fake news should not eclipse the broader disinformation that started well before the 2016 election and that is partly rooted in America’s subculture of anti-intellectualism.” In all the furor over Russia’s interference, this is an important point that is often forgotten.

Jouet of course also spends some time on Americans’ belief in their own exceptionalism, as per the title of the book. It’s well known that Americans believe they are the best country in the world, but Jouet stresses that unlike other nations, Americans are more likely to believe that their greatness is preordained and bestowed upon them by God. This fervent belief in God and religious destiny makes it nearly impossible to effect change in America. How can you argue for changing a constitution (the oldest written constitution in the world, by the way) when most of the population believes it was sent by God? Most Americans truly believe that they alone in the entire world are a voice of goodness and freedom, and rampant anti-intellectualism makes them willfully blind to facts that contradict this. Not to mention that “American exceptionalism” as a concept never meant to convey America’s unique greatness – only that America is a nation that was founded and operated in a unique manner.

Jouet also makes an excellent point about America’s outdated institutions, which greatly influence how the country is run. He argues that things like federalism, Senate filibusters, the separation of powers, and the Electoral College all make it incredibly difficult for America to function by simple majority rule like other Western democracies. But, going back to the point about Christian fundamentalism, it’s nearly impossible to convince people to change these institutions when they truly believe they were created by God. It’s a vicious cycle, and a depressing one, since it doesn’t seem to present any solution to our problems beyond waiting for conservative white folks to die off.

This is the first book I’ve read about American social history that has been published after the 2016 election. It was interesting to see Jouet make connections between America’s roots and Trump’s nativist, populist platform. It was also quite depressing to be reminded of all the crap conservatives threw at Obama during his years as President. I’d forgotten all the wild and bizarre theories they’d leveled at him, like that he was the anti-Christ, or a socialist hell-bent on destroying America. Trump has completely overshadowed all of it, but it’s sobering to see all of it collected here. It reminds me that Trump is not an outlier, but a natural progression of the Republican Party.

This book was somewhat repetitious, constantly repeating similar ideas, but I suppose that succeeded in hammering in its thesis. Jouet also takes great pains to be as objective as possible, but these efforts to forestall potential critics of his argument means his thesis is not as hard-hitting as it could be. I suppose he’s trying to be as palatable as he can, but sometimes I really just want to read a book that is truly blunt in its criticism of America, a nation which is not great and never, ever was (though of course there are admirable aspects to it, just like any other country).

Overall, I’d say this book is an interesting read that succeeds in bringing together and articulating what many people already recognize about America’s problematic past (and present). It’s a book with a ton of great information for those unfamiliar with these issues. If you, like me, are seasoned readers of American political and social history (and current events), you won’t get much new information out of this, but you will get a new way of thinking about that information. It it is very satisfying to see the roots of America’s many issues summed up so neatly. This book has definitely succeeded in helping me organize my thoughts on these issues and articulate them concisely.

Book Review: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

Author: Becky Albertalli
Release Date: April 2017
Pages: 336
Publisher: Balzer & Bray/HarperTeen
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads

This was such a light, charming read! I finished it in two days because I simply could not put it down!

Molly Peskin-Suso is a seventeen-year-old girl who has had twenty-six crushes and no boyfriends. She’s funny, tenacious, artistic – and fat. She’s not looking to lose weight or get a makeover. Molly generally has no issues with her body, but she’s uncomfortable with how other people might react to it. This has made her hesitant when it comes to relationships. Considering the rampant fatphobia in our culture, this is a perfectly reasonable reaction. The Upside of Unrequited chronicles Molly’s adventures as she and her twin sister Cassie both find their first significant others.

There is so much diversity in this book. Cassie is a lesbian. Molly and Cassie’s parents are an interracial gay couple. Cassie’s girlfriend Mina is Korean and pansexual. And on and on. The variety of people encountered in this book is stunning, which renders it realistic and believable. Something the author does that I very much appreciate – and that is rarely seen in books – is describe characters as “white.” Often it is only non-white characters who are described by their ethnicity or skin color, which leads to white characters being the default in the narrative. Albertalli deliberately subverts this, which was refreshing!

I also appreciated the layers and complexity to various characters. This isn’t a Utopia and people aren’t perfect. Molly’s grandmother, despite being vocally supportive of her daughter’s bisexuality, makes off-kilter racist and fatphobic comments. Cassie and Molly can both be selfish and self-centered (which makes sense, given that they’re twins!). Their aunt Nadine, a single lady with four dogs, is homophobic. The characters felt like they could be real people. In that same vein, the dialogue was excellent! The teens sound like teens, and the adults sound like adults. The conversations are never stilted or awkward, even though at times Albertalli will emphasize the pauses and stutters that can occur in real conversations.

The main criticism I’ve seen surrounding this book is its alleged obsession with boys and boyfriends and being in a relationship, and that the main character appears to only find self-worth once she’s in a relationship. While I understand that viewpoint, I can’t agree with it. Molly’s confidence is not dependent upon a relationship. From what I saw, the issue was that she mostly felt lonely and isolated from her friends, who were already embarking on that chapter in their lives. She also wanted to love and be loved – I don’t see anything wrong with a female character wanting that, especially since it doesn’t consume her. She has other issues and concerns besides boyfriends – namely, her relationship with her twin sister Cassie, who she worries is growing distant. Also, even if Molly’s desire to have a boyfriend teeters on the obsessive (it doesn’t, in my opinion), she’s seventeen! Remember what it was like to be seventeen? The tiniest things can seem like life or death. When you’re seemingly the only one in your friend group who hasn’t dated, and you’re dealing with fatphobia that makes you think you’re undesirable, of course this is going to be on your mind!

Speaking of fatphobia. It’s important to note that Molly is fat, and she stays fat, and she gets a boyfriend anyway. Maybe if Molly were your standard thin girl this resolution would be played out, but the thing is, fat girls hardly ever get to see themselves as the love interest. As Molly herself says, fat girls in movies are the joke, not the girlfriend. So for Molly’s storyline to culminate in her falling in love with someone who also loves her and finds her desirable is pretty damn awesome. I don’t think this sends the message that fat girls are only worthy if they find someone to love them – I think it sends the message fat girls can be loved. It may not seem like a big deal, but imagine being a fat teenage girl who has never seen someone who looks like her be loved and desired. It’s affirming. Like Molly’s mother says, nobody needs a significant other, but it’s okay to want one. Of course it is.

Plus, Molly’s freaking awesome. I loved her as a protagonist; she’s creative, artsy, witty, but can also succumb to jealousy and pettiness. In other words, she’s real. She also grows more and more confident over the course of the novel; though she is initially somewhat passive, she begins to assert herself as time goes on. When some douchebag at a party tells her she’s gorgeous “for a big girl” she responds with “fuck you.” It’s an amazing moment.

This is definitely a Young Adult novel in that its characters act like teens and their problems are reminiscent of teen problems, but I say that as a good thing. The relationships in this book are fraught with misunderstandings and miscommunication that might make us adults claw at our hair, but I think for teens this book would be quite relatable! Overall, this was a super fun, cheerful read with an overwhelmingly positive message throughout. Loved it and would highly recommend!

Book Review: The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Release Date: October 2017
Pages: 320
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Damn, I knew I was right to be excited about this book. It wasn’t what I expected at all, but I was utterly enchanted, like, reading-on-the-subway-with-a-stupid-smile-on-my-face enchanted. I actually read half of this book in one day, reading into the night, so enamored I was. Moreno-Garcia has created captivating, vibrant characters in a novel written with grace and elegance.

Immediately upon beginning this book, I felt like I was reading a Jane Austen novel (well…I’ve only ever read a single Jane Austen novel, Pride & Prejudice, but you get the idea). This is fitting, considering the author, on her blog, describes this book as a novel of manners. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, a novel of manners is “work of fiction that re-creates a social world, conveying with finely detailed observation the customs, values, and mores of a highly developed and complex society. The conventions of the society dominate the story, and characters are differentiated by the degree to which they measure up to the uniform standard, or ideal, of behaviour or fall below it.”

To that end, the story is told from the perspectives of three very different characters: Hector, Nina, and Valerie. Hector is a telekinetic “talent” who has clawed his way out of poverty by becoming a stage performer. He is also, despite his aloof exterior, a shy romantic who has spent a decade pining for his first love, Valerie, who left him for a wealthier man. Valerie, the antagonist of the novel, is a bitter, jealous woman, shaped by her upbringing as the daughter of a family that has lost its former glory. Essentially guilted into marriage to a wealthy man who could uplift her family, Valerie is utterly resentful of Nina, who has a world of choices ahead of her. Nina, Valerie’s cousin by marriage, is a budding entomologist who seems to have little regard for the social mores of the world she lives in. She is honest and straightforward, naive and somewhat impulsive, and she is, like Hector, a telekinetic who resents being told her powers are not “ladylike.”

The story begins with Hector and Nina, in what I’m tempted to call a “meet cute.” Soon after, Hector realizes that Nina is related to the woman he is still pining over, and he begins courting Nina as an excuse to see Valerie. However, eventually, in a beautifully written-slow burn romance, Hector begins to fall for Nina instead. With excellent craft and technique, Moreno-Garcia traces significant character development for all three of her main characters. Hector comes to see the error of his ways as he slowly opens up and allows himself to care for someone again. Nina sheds some of her gullibility and youth, yet retains the open-eyed wonder of an ingenue. Valerie grows more bitter and cruel by the chapter, yet the reader is not totally unsympathetic towards her fall from grace as she elucidates her disappointment with the turn her life has taken (she reminds me quite a bit of Cersei Lannister, actually…make of that what you will).

As I said, this novel was not what I expected. I thought I was going to read something heavy on the fantasy, and I was definitely left wanting in that arena. I would have liked more emphasis on world-building; it’s not super clear whether this is meant to be a straight-up second world fantasy or some kind of alternate European country. In that same vein, I wish the existence of powers in this society had been expounded upon more, because for me it was fascinating to see telekinetics existing openly in a society that very closely resembled a mixture of early 20th century England and France. However, I do think that none of that was really the “point” of the novel; it’s a story about love and relationships, with a touch of the fantasy element to add some color. I was reminded, in a way, of the film Another Earth, in which the fantastical (or sci-fi, in that case) elements were really only window-dressing to the overarching story of love, regret, and redemption.

Despite its underdevelopment, the touch of the fantastical definitely added to the story. Nina is made even more of an outsider because of it, having grown up under the epithet of “the Witch of Oldehouse.” It has certainly shaped her character, perhaps even spurring her various acts of rebellion. In Hector I think she meets a kindred soul, a fellow telekinetic who has made something of himself because of his talent and not despite it. It is significant that Hector, I think, is the only person who never admonishes Nina for using her talent in public and being “unladylike.” For all his flaws (and there are many, which is what makes him such a fascinating and likable character!), he respects Nina’s autonomy and he loves her for who she is: an excitable, enthusiastic, and forthright young woman.

Minor characters were similarly endearing. Etienne, Hector’s only friend, somehow manages to read him like a book, commenting wryly on Hector’s various subtle changes of emotion throughout. Nina’s sister, Marlena, is only around in a few scenes, but her love for her sister in those moments is clear and shining. Luc, Etienne’s younger brother and would-be suitor for Nina at one point, is capricious and impetuous, but also childish in his innocence. Gaetan, Valerie’s husband and Nina’s beloved cousin, is seen as weak-willed and pathetic in his wife Valerie’s eyes, but is shown to be a kind, indulgent, and forgiving man. Garcia-Moreno brings all of these characters to life in a narrative style that straddles third-person limited and third-person omniscient.

If it hasn’t been clear amidst all this ebullient praise, I absolutely loved this book. I can see it as the kind of book to be read in schools one day as a classic, and I will definitely be recommending it for my library. More importantly, it has also inspired me as a writer. The vibrant characters, the deftly elegant writing style, the simple yet engaging plot – it has made me want to write my own novel of manners someday, in homage to this lovely book.

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

Book Review: Unspeakable Love by Brian Whitaker

Author: Brian Whitaker
Release Date: 2006 & 2011
Pages: 259
Publisher: University of California Press & Saqi Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads

I’m Egyptian, so whenever I begin any book on the topic of homosexuality in the Middle East, I approach it with some measure of caution. When that book is written by a an American white man, that caution increases tenfold.  Brian Whitaker has been a journalist for The Guardian since 1987 and was its Middle East editor from 2000 to 2007.  A robust background to be sure, but not necessarily one that would automatically negate orientalist views, and so I began reading with some trepidation.  But I was pleasantly surprised!

Whitaker’s entire approach is based in nuance; he consistently and purposely shies away from making any sort of sweeping generalization about anything.  He explores homosexuality in the Middle East as impartially as one could expect, balancing interviews with scholarly and popular publications to convey both a personal narrative and an overarching historical and societal one. Whitaker discusses various topics, from media coverage to Islamic legal analyses.  While he never really delves fully into any one subject he succeeds in providing a broad overview, enough to give a decent primer on the issue.

Focusing mainly on Lebanon and Egypt, Whitaker threads between case studies, historical analyses, religious arguments, and personal interviews.  He cites several landmark books, such as Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle’s Homosexuality in Islam, which delves deeply into Islamic legal arguments against homosexuality and their validity – or lack thereof.  Deftly summarizing Kugle’s work, Whitaker elucidates the shaky foundation for religious laws against homosexuality.  Whitaker also brings up Joseph Massad, author of The Gay International, best known for critiquing the universalizing of gay rights and their exportation to the non-Western world. Whitaker counters Massad’s main argument while acknowledging that Massad’s thesis is not without its merits.

One thing I would have liked to have seen more of is a discussion of lesbianism in the Middle East, but this is not necessarily a fault of the book. Whitaker acknowledges that gay women often tend to to fly below the radar.  He terms this “lesbian invisibility” and goes on to say:

“Lesbian invisibility does have some advantages. In the big cities of Egypt, two women living together as ‘flatmates’ would not arouse much curiosity, Laila said – though that would depend to some extent on their choice of district. Neighbours would first of all want to establish whether they were prostitutes and would probably quiz the bawwab, the doorman who watches all comings and goings in Egyptian blocks of flats. If satisfied on that count, they might then imagine other explanations for the girls’ presence – quarrels with parents, etc.

‘They would think of anything else but lesbianism,’ Laila said. She recalled how much one lesbian couple had been adored by their landlady. ‘I wish all my tenants were like you,’ the landlady told them, suspecting nothing.”  

Overall, this is a great introduction to a thorny topic. Whitaker delivers information objectively and manages to avoid wading into the waters of orientalist or condescending discourse (most of the time, anyway). The book, though, is a surface level examination of a dense, complex issue, and it left me wanting more.

Book Review: The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi

Author: Roshani Chokshi
Release Date: April 26, 2016
Pages: 342
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads

It’s strange going into a book when most of what you’ve heard about it is negative. Mainly, I’d heard that the writing is too purple, the main character is stupid, the romance is terrible, and overall the book is uninteresting.

None of that is true.

First of all, the writing is beautiful. I mean, I will admit, I’m partial to purple prose, but Roshani Chokshi’s writing is like a dream come to life – she laces words and images together with such skill. I literally had to pause and reread so many paragraphs because I was just awed at how she spun words together to create a gorgeous image.

Second, the main character is not stupid, or any of the other negative things I’ve heard. I liked Maya a lot, actually. She’s kind of bitter, kind of cynical, but it makes sense that she is – it makes sense that she doesn’t trust people easily. But I found her a riveting heroine, particularly given that this book is driven by her decisions. Too often protagonists simply react to events, but here, Maya is the one who instigates, and the plot reacts to her. This book is all about Maya finding herself – the main conflict is really within herself, which is what makes this book a slower read than most. Things happen, sure, but plot comes secondary to Maya’s growth and personal realizations. This is, in a way, a coming of age story, done deftly through a clever Hades and Persephone retelling seeped in Indian myth. It’s really about a girl coming into her power, finding her confidence, and becoming who she is meant to be.

As for the romance, it was actually really well done? Normally romances frustrate me, particularly these types of over-the-moon romances, but I thought it worked well here. It made sense, given the plot, but also – it’s not like Maya falls head over heels and stops using her head. She’s attracted to Amar, but is still incredibly suspicious of him (as she should be). It is her distrust of him that spurs the second half of the book, in fact.

Finally, to the criticism that the book is meandering. I will say, I wouldn’t call this book a page-turner. It’s definitely more of a slow-burn, but it also felt kind of like a fairy tale. The gorgeous prose helps to elevate this to a kind of ethereal, not-really-there kind of story where not everything has to make perfect sense, where you’re expected to suspend your disbelief just a bit because this is magic and myth. Sometimes that can seem like the author is taking the easy way out, but it works really, really well here.

Overall, I think this is a really well-written book, and I use that phrase very specifically. I think this isn’t what you usually find in YA, and it’s a lot more cerebral and introspective. In a way, it kind of reminded me of The Bone Witch, but I liked this a lot better, mainly because Maya was a more fully realized character.