Book Review: Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

girls burn brighterTitle: GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER
Author: Shobha Rao
Release Date: March 6, 2018
Pages: 304
Publisher: Flatiron Books
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads

I’m struggling to decide just how I feel about this book. So, first off, if you’re going in completely clueless like me (why do I not read book summaries properly), massive content warning for rape. This book deals with human trafficking, so you can imagine the content here. This is kind of why I was so unsure of what I thought when I finished it, but that’s no fault of the book itself – I just don’t really like reading books about things like rape and human trafficking. Which isn’t to say that the scenes in this book were overly graphic or exploitative, but there were still some instances where I felt like it was a bit too much, like all this trauma was just being piled on and on with no real purpose (there were definitely some scenes I, and the narrative, could have done without). I expected something totally different of this book, but I don’t like to give a book a low rating just because it didn’t meet my own expectations, especially when the book is objectively well-written.

That’s the second thing I want to talk about: the prose. I thought this was a really beautifully-written, thoughtful book. The narration is kind of omniscient, which I don’t always like, but here it meshed well with the lush, lyrical prose. The prose and some of the narrative choices give this book a kind of mythic quality; indeed, there are so many coincidences occurring it seems one would have to suspend disbelief to be able to enjoy this book.

At its heart, it is a story of friendship between two women, Savitha and Poornima. Though they spend much of the book apart after being separated, Poornima spends literal years structuring her life in ways that will lead her to find Savitha. This is also a book about misogyny’s ugly depths. Most of us know men are demons, but this book elucidates that truth unflinchingly. Is there a single male character in this book who isn’t absolute trash? Perhaps Savitha’s father had redeeming qualities in his youth, but otherwise all the men are pretty horrific, and even some of the women have become warped by internalized misogyny.

But I liked how the misogyny was presented through a distinct cultural lens. Though we all live in a patriarchal world, misogyny takes different forms depending on where it is manifesting. American misogyny is going to look very different from Indian misogyny. For example, dowry is a big issue in this book. Dowry is the payment a bride’s family is expected to provide to the bridegroom and his family upon marriage, seemingly for the upkeep the new bride will require. As you can imagine, the great financial strain this puts on bride’s family’s means that the impoverished will begin resenting their daughters. In one harrowing incident in this book, Poornima’s father recounts a anecdote when he almost let Poornima drown as a child because he sees daughters as expendable and expensive.

My main issue with this book, narratively speaking? That goddamn ending. There’s no payoff. Literally the entire book has been building to a very particular climax and then, right when you’re expecting the payoff, that moment of climax and resolution, the book simply ends abruptly. I literally double-checked the ARC I had to make sure I wasn’t skipping pages or missing an epilogue, because the ending was so abrupt! Perhaps this is just a pet peeve of mine as a reader, but I like closure, which this book desperately needed. Otherwise, with the way it is, it just feels incomplete.

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Book Review: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

children of blood and boneTitle: CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE
Author: Tomi Adeyemi
Release Date: March 6th, 2018
Pages: 448
Publisher: Henry Holt Books for Young Readers
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads

I have some seriously mixed feelings about this book. It’s difficult to read a book that has been as hyped as this one without being affected by your own high expectations, despite trying very hard not to be. I liked parts of it, but overall I found it to be a regurgitation of cliched YA fantasy tropes, pasted onto a fresh setting. The Goodreads summary is pretty accurate: this is basically the classic Hero’s Journey tale of Ye Olde Fantasy, complete with chosen one, sacred artifacts, gods and goddesses, and a magical destination. Which could have been fine, given that the setting is so original – in fact, the West African inspired setting was probably my favorite thing about the book. But despite this, everything else just fell flat for me.

However, just because I personally wasn’t wowed, doesn’t mean this book doesn’t have appeal. To be honest, you’ve got thousands of YA fantasy books out there that regurgitate the same plot over and over onto the same vaguely Anglo-French medieval setting and they do fine, so it’s nice to see something like this that features black and brown characters. It’s kind of like when people say, oh, paranormal/urban fantasy is over and done with, when POC haven’t gotten their chance at it yet. Just because white people have gotten all their shots at something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s been played out. I’m glad this book exists for POC teens to see themselves in the types of fantasies they have been reading about for years.

With that being said, I had a lot of problems with this book. I think the main reason I struggled with it was the writing style. It just felt very young; though the subject matter is mature, at times I felt like I was reading a middle grade book instead of a young adult book. The writing is incredibly melodramatic, littered with phrases like “something inside me broke” and “I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding” and “I should have known you were the monster all along.” More than once I found myself cringing and rolling my eyes at just how Extra the writing was. Furthermore, even the expressed themes are presented in such a simplistic way, and the reader is beaten over the head with every little thing. I would recommend this to teens on the younger side of the spectrum, but I think more mature readers might not enjoy it as much.

Another issue I had with the writing style is that it is written in first person present, which is probably my least favorite tense. It takes a really subtle hand to make first person present work, and this book’s writing is not in the least bit subtle. I also found it confusing at times, since there are three different POVs, all in first person present, and their voices are not all that different, so I often found myself forgetting whose perspective I was supposed to be in.

As for the plot, well, as I said, this is classic Hero’s Journey, played almost completely straight. So, Zelie is chosen by the gods to bring magic back to Orisha, and she goes on a journey that takes her to various places in the country to collect the sacred artifacts she needs to conduct the ritual that will return magic. Alongside her are Princess Amari, who has defected from her father, and Tzain, Zelie’s older brother. They are being pursued by Inan, the Prince and Amari’s elder brother who is determined to stop Zelie’s ritual. The plot is essentially a series of strung-together YA fantasy tropes maximized for commercial appeal, but the result is a narrative that lacks much depth. (One of those tropes is Enemies to Lovers, which features the Inexplicable Heterosexual Romance, in one of the weirdest character flip-flops I’ve ever seen. It was just…very abrupt and unbelievable.)

While the book started off quick and engaging, the plot quickly slowed down. I found that the book was much longer than it needed to be. In fact, there was a huge chunk in the middle where the gang has to compete in these arena games that felt completely tacked on just to be able to say the book included it. I think this particular plot point, along with a lot of other instances, is where the story could really have used a firm editorial hand. A lot of things seemed random, chucked into the book to just to make it seem more exciting, but it was all way too much, especially when combined with the juvenile writing style. Probably about a hundred pages could have been cut from this book to make a better, tighter final product.

At the center of the narrative is the oppression of the maji, which in a lot of instances seems to be written to directly mirror real-world racism. I’m not sure how well that worked given the portrayal of magic users here; that is, their powers are portrayed as world destroying, and it almost seems understandable that those without powers would want to wipe magic out to level the playing field. On the other hand, certain people’s potential for magic is used to exploit them for economic gain even though they have no magic to hurt anyone, and that certainly speaks of baseless, irrational racism. The book certainly tries to have this complicated conversation, but it just falls short, and by the end I wasn’t entirely sure what exactly the book was trying to get across. Perhaps later books will address this, but…the ending makes me suspect that later books are going to circumvent this problem entirely.

I know this has been very negative so far, but there were some things I liked about this book! The worldbuilding is fantastic: all the characters are black or brown, and much attention is paid to the various hues of their skin and the textures of their hair. That was super refreshing to see, especially since POC in other books are often cut from the same cloth, appearance wise, so it was great to see so much diversity while still having a cast made up entirely of POC. The West African setting is fresh and wonderfully detailed, as is this world’s creation myth and the legends of their gods and goddesses. Something else I liked is that there’s two leading ladies here, and by the end they become excellent friends (now this is an Enemies to Friends situation I can actually stand by). There’s still not a lot of positive female friendships in YA, unfortunately, so it was great to see that. Zelie, the main character, is written to be fierce and fiery, and I liked her a lot, though I wish her internal (and external) monologues weren’t so melodramatic.

Generally, I just wanted some more nuance and maturity, with regards to thematic points and writing. Also, and I’ve said this several times before, but I’ve started to really, really hate “journey” stories, and that’s certainly a strong personal preference that affected my enjoyment of this book. However, I can certainly see how this would appeal to people, particularly the younger YA generation. Also, I can definitely see this book’s blockbuster quality, and I’m super excited for the film! I’m not sure if I’ll pick up the second book in this series, however. I might just wait for the movie.

Book Review: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

34275232Title: THE HAZEL WOOD
Author: Melissa Albert
Release Date: January 30th, 2018
Pages: 368
Publisher: Flatiron Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

This is an odd book, so odd it took me some time to decide if I liked it. I think I did, despite its strangeness, and despite the fact that it set itself up as one thing and turned into something else entirely (what I like to think of as Mara Dyer Syndrome).

We begin with the main character, Alice, explaining that she has spent her life on the run with her mother, Ella. What are they running from? It’s not quite clear – they call it “bad luck.” Ella thinks it has something to do with her mother, Althea Proserpine, the author of a strange book of fairy tales called Tales From the Hinterland. Ella doesn’t talk about her mother and Alice has never met her grandmother. Her life is strange, but she doesn’t think too hard about it. When Ella vanishes, seemingly kidnapped by real-life Hinterland characters, Alice has little choice but to team up with classmate Ellery Finch, a Hinterland fan.

The first half of the book, which I actually enjoyed more, is half scavenger hunt, half road trip. It plays itself out like a variety of different genres – psychological thriller, mystery, supernatural horror – yet never quite settles into any one of them. It is only a bit past the halfway mark when this turns into the incredibly weird portal fantasy it was always meant to be, as Alice navigates her way through the Hinterland, which is kind of a creepy Wonderland. There’s a lot of really clever and shocking twists that I enjoyed, and a lot of strange fairy-tale logic that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, which I didn’t love. A lot of the time I felt like my brain was struggling to wrap itself around what exactly was happening, but it almost seemed like the book was trying to tell me the logic of it all isn’t important, because it’s a fairy tale, and it’s magic.

I want to address something I’ve seen in a lot of reviews so far: Alice’s character. Yes, she’s extremely unpleasant. But she isn’t meant to be likable. She is specifically written as horrible because there is a specific reason for how horrible she is, which is revealed towards the end. Plus Alice is aware of her bitterness and her rage, aware of how she can’t control it no matter how hard she tries, aware of how it claws its way up into her throat from her belly like a beast she has no power over. Basically, the narrative foreshadows the fact that her anger isn’t normal and that it makes her horrible. Besides, it makes her a compelling character, even if I didn’t like her (and I really, really, really didn’t like her).

I was much more fascinated by her mother, Ella, and more than once found myself wishing we had gotten to know her better. More is revealed about her towards the end, but I still wanted more. What I appreciated, though, was the bond between her and Alice, and how it essentially formed the crux of the entire narrative. Mother/daughter relationships like this are quite rare to see, and I loved that Ella and Alice’s love for each other was the backbone of this story. The budding romance with Ellery Finch is slight and ends up subverting the YA romance trope in a really intriguing way.

This book is compelling, mesmerizing in a weird way, and vaguely creepy. I finished it in two days because it’s such a quick read (but with lovely, occasionally dreamy prose) and I was pulled in by the mystery. The story keeps you guessing again and again and even when you think you understand what’s going on there’s more to learn. Again, it’s an odd book, and I’m not entirely sure I completely understood it. Like I said, it operates on fairy tale logic, which to me often feels nonsensically metaphorical and slippery, like it’s not meant to make any kind of sense.

Despite this, I enjoyed it very much, mainly because it’s rather unique! I really have never read anything quite like this before, and it was gripping, so it gets a high rating from me.

Book Review: Shimmer and Burn by Mary Taranta

32333246Title: SHIMMER AND BURN
Author: Mary Taranta
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 352
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆ (2/5)
Review on Goodreads

I should have liked this book…in fact, from the very first chapter it felt different than most YA fantasy. Faris, a motherless young woman, already has a love interest. They are both trapped in the country of Brindaigel (which gave me serious Brigadoon vibes) by their king, who claims to be protecting them from a magical plague in the neighboring kingdom. Tragedy strikes fairly quickly for Faris and her beloved, and she ends up being blackmailed into taking a dangerous journey into the plague-ridden kingdom.

Faris is also not the only major female character; in fact, her companion on her dangerous journey, Bryn, features in equal amount. This too is unusual in YA and should have been spectacular, particularly as Bryn and Faris do not get along at all. But Bryn is…a weak attempt at crafting a villain. Everything about her is too bombastic and over the top; I get that she’s ambitious and wants to be queen, but I never really understood why.

I think my dislike of this book comes down to one thing: it’s hella confusing. I don’t know if this was just me, or if I wasn’t paying enough attention, but I frequently found myself having to go back and read paragraphs three or four times just to understand what was happening. The plot was ridiculously convoluted (honestly…I couldn’t even explain it to you if I tried) and the magic system made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. It kept getting harder and harder for me to keep track of characters’ motivations. Not only that, but big reveals are staged poorly and cryptically, so that I was never really sure if we had actually figured out something significant or not. By the end I found I did not care one whit what happened to anyone because I had no idea what was going on or why anyone was doing anything.

The basic idea here is…fine, I guess? It’s your standard “magic corrupts” and “kingdom poisoned by magic” only this magic apparently turns people into zombie-like creatures or…addicts? Or were they the same thing? I’m not sure; to be honest I stopped paying much attention halfway through the book and began to skim huge chunks. Like, it’s not a bad idea, but I’ve seen it around before and its execution here was pretty cut-and-dry. Also, magic is…transferred via skin to skin contact? Or something? And there’s four different types of magicians? But their powers aren’t always distinct? Or something? Again, major confusion, and I’m a seasoned fantasy reader, so I’m used to having to take on complex world and magic systems. This was just messy.

The other thing is that the bulk of Faris’ motivation is that she wants to save her sister Cadence, who is being used as collateral to guarantee her loyalty to Bryn. Unfortunately, we don’t get a chance to see them interacting. The single chapter/scene where they interact shows Cadence being kind of bratty and Faris somewhat annoyed. I mean, in conjunction with some other scenes this would have been fine, but on its own it doesn’t really showcase a beloved bond that Faris would risk her life for. I felt little for either of these characters, even though on paper I should have liked Faris. The only character I was interested in was the king’s executioner, Alistair, but he features for only a couple of chapters.

Overall I really did not connect with this book at all. I found it to be a run-of-the-mill YA fantasy complete with instalove, and I really struggled to get through it, The only things I appreciated were the writing, which was often beautiful if somewhat inscrutable, and that Taranta is not shy about blood and gore, which gave this a more mature feel than it would have otherwise had.

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

Book Review: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

32718027Title: THE CITY OF BRASS
Author: S.A. Chakraborty
Release Date: November 2017
Pages: 528
Publisher: Harper Voyager
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Y’all.  READ THIS BOOK.  I’m gonna be recommending this to literally every single person I know because holy hell.

I don’t even know where to begin; I just finished this last night and I was an incoherent mess. I still am.  It’s been such a long time since I’ve been so hooked by an epic fantasy.  More than hooked, it’s been a while since I’ve felt so comfortable within a fantasy world.  Not that S.A. Chakraborty’s world is all warm and fuzzy (on the contrary), but she builds it up in such a way as to make it seem so sturdy and real that I feel like it has always existed, like if I return to Cairo and peek behind some kind of veil I will find the djinn.

Actually, that’s an appropriate place to start, isn’t it? The personal.  Because this book is deeply important to me on a personal level, as an Egyptian.  Besides building upon the myth of the djinn, stories which I grew up on, part of it takes place in 18th century Cairo, and the protagonist, Nahri, is Egyptian.  It’s hard to articulate just how amazing it was to see Cairo illustrated so beautifully and to hear Nahri speaking Egyptian Arabic.  Though only a single chapter takes place in Cairo, its influence is felt throughout the rest of the book in Nahri.  And in Daevabad, the city of the djinn, the Middle Eastern influence is strong.

But honestly, the main reason this book left me sobbing is because I developed such a deep love for the characters.  Within the first few paragraphs Chakraborty was able to make me fall in love with Nahri, a clever, pragmatic, and snarky con artist thrown into an unfamiliar world.  Nahri is the sort of person to make the best out of what she’s got; she’s level-headed and intelligent and she feels so utterly real. And, perhaps this is more personal, but Nahri’s decisions and thought processes all made so much sense to me; never did I throw up my hands in frustration at her. Like I said, sensible and pragmatic. She certainly balances out the two other main characters, who are much more intense.

There’s Ali, the other POV character, a second son and prince, a devoutly religious young man and trained soldier, with a fiercely formulated opinion on what’s right and wrong.  Ali gets caught up in the plight of the shafit (mixed human and djinn) in Daevabad, giving money and resources to a grassroots organization called the Tanzeem dedicated to helping the shafit (sometimes in increasingly desperate, violent ways).  Since Ali’s father the king is directly in opposition to this, Ali toes the line between loyalty to his family and loyalty to his own sense of right and wrong.  Ali is rigid and taciturn and self-righteous, but it is difficult not to like him because he tries so hard to do the right thing.

And then there’s Dara.  Oh my God, Dara. A seriously flawed person and an incredible character, Dara is arrogant, mercurial, prejudiced, stubborn, and dishonest.  While he’s had to endure some horrific suffering in all the centuries he’s been alive, he’s also caused horrific suffering: he is essentially a war criminal, with a fearsome reputation.  He’s the type of person you should hate on sight.  And yet.  As Nahri grows to care for him, so did I.  His fierce loyalty and protectiveness of her, his intense regret, his devotion to his tribe, his tenderness with Nahri and Nahri alone…all of these things made me fall utterly and completely in love with him even as some of his stupidly thought out decisions made me despise him.

Chakraborty brought these characters to life so well it was painful.  I could feel everything the characters did; their joy, their grief, their frustration, it was all my own, which meant that by the time I finished the book my chest ached and I felt like I myself was the one going through the characters’ adventures.  It takes a seriously talented writer to achieve this.

Then there’s the worldbuilding. Like I said, Chakraborty makes it seem as though Daevabad has been there forever and ever, almost as though she is describing a place that truly exists. Her unique, creative spin on the djinn resulted in a complex world with its own culture and history. There is definitely a learning curve to this book; I referred to the glossary multiple times and it was a while before I knew what everything was. The politics in this book are complex, to the point where I sometimes had trouble understanding where all the various factions stood. This complexity is indicative of how morally grey this world is; no one faction is ever truly in the right. Every side has committed atrocities, every side has dirtied their hands, and it makes for a deliciously engaging and realistic read. There are no heroes or villains here, only people trying to do what they each think is right.

I also have to mention the high quality of prose. I’m so glad I have a physical copy of this book so I can refer back to Chakraborty’s writing. It’s absolutely beautiful; she weaves vivid, colorful descriptions without falling into the trap of purple prose. Her dialogue is quick and engaging and she deftly sprinkles important information throughout without it turning into a history lecture. This is writing you can learn from.

There’s not much else I can say without giving away the excellent plot, so I will simply end by saying: this is an objectively good book. A great book. Even if fantasy isn’t your thing, it’s worth picking this up. Trust me. It left me in tatters. I read nearly all 528 pages of it in a single day, eight straight hours of reading, because I just could not stop. These characters are incredible. I read a lot of fantasy books, but I’m rarely this affected by any single one. Like, this is me gushing; it took everything in my power not to write this entire review in capslock, even though that’s what my thought process looks like at the moment.

The City of Brass comes out November 14th of this year. Thank you  so much to S.A. Chakraborty and HarperCollins’ Library Love Fest for providing me with an ARC of this book!