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.

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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: 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: Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

33151805Title: INTO THE WATER
Author: Paula Hawkins
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 386
Publisher: Riverhead Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads

Into the Water is the sort of book that would make an incredible BBC series, in the vein of Broadchurch. It’s set in a tiny and beautiful English town with a river running through it, which would provide us with ample gorgeous scenery. It’s a murder mystery, sort of – the main focus is this river/pond that women have drowned in throughout the years, stretching back to witchhunts in the 1700s. It also doesn’t focus on any one single character, but rather has something like ten different POVs.

I would say that is my one major criticism – there are way too many different POVs here. It works in something like epic fantasy, when you’re spread across different areas, but this is a tiny English town. We didn’t need to be in all those characters heads; several of the POVs (like Mark’s or Josh’s) added little to nothing to the plot. This would have been a much better, tighter book had it only focused on perhaps three characters (in my opinion the characters should have been Jules, Erin, and Lena, the latter two ended up being my favorites). The characters’ development would have been so much more satisfying, because I think the author truly has some great characters in Jules, Lena, and Erin. My other pet peeve regarding the POVs is that they alternated between third and first person. I’m not saying this can never work – N.K. Jemisin and Marie Lu have both done it well – but here it was simply jarring.

My other criticism – which goes hand in hand with the aforementioned – is that I think the author could have delved more into the mystery and symbolism of the drowning pool. I really loved the aesthetic of this novel; the few times the author delved into the meaning and metaphor of the pool and what it means to be in the water I felt like she was on the precipice of something truly profound, but she could never quite get there. I feel like there was so much more she could have explored particularly regarding water’s symbol as a purifier – but I suppose, in the end, this is a thriller, not a philosophical tome.

And thrilling it is! At the beginning of this book, it’s not even clear that there is a mystery to be solved: Jules receives a call that her older sister Nel is dead, but most people think it’s a suicide. It’s only after more and more secrets are dug up (mainly because of the determination of Erin, a newcomer to the small town) that the suicide turns into a murder investigation. The mystery is gripping and the reveals are all interconnected and layered atop one another, with one thread uniting them: the cruelty of men towards women.

Misogyny was explored pretty openly in this book, and while some people might think it was heavy-handed, I actually liked that it was tackled head-on. It felt very realistic to me and it was satisfying to see the book ending with a rather healthy relationship between two women who both need each other for support.

In general, I liked this much better than The Girl in the Train. While the two books share some similarities, I think Into the Water is more realistic, with the kind of reveal that makes perfect sense in a sad, quiet sort of way.

Book Review: Here and Gone by Haylen Beck

32336395Title: HERE AND GONE
Author: Haylen Beck
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 287
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads

This is not normally the type of book I would read, so I went in with little to no expectations, and I was very pleasantly surprised! This is a book about a motherhood, and corruption, and the abuses of men, told in multiple points of view.

The book begins with Audra Kinney on the run with her two young children. For days she has been driving across the country from New York to escape her abusive husband. In Arizona, Audra is stopped by the sheriff seemingly for a minor traffic stop. The sheriff then “finds” a bag of marijuana in Audra’s trunk, arrests her, and then has his deputy pick up her kids. When the sheriff takes Audra to the station and she asks him where her children have been taken, he looks at her flatly and asks, “What children?”

And so Audra’s nightmare begins. She is denounced by the press and cops who assume she killed her children. She finds an ally in Danny Lee, a Chinese American man whose own wife endured Audra’s situation years ago. Together Danny and Audra attempt to save her children. They make a fun team; Audra is tough and resilient, and Danny is a deadpan hard-ass entangled with the Chinese mafia.

Honestly, I can’t believe this book was written by a white man. There are so many women in this book, of varied complexities, some strong, some weak, some corrupt. The book portrays the bonds between women and how they can trust and support one another. Not that all the women here are saints – again this book portrays layered, nuanced characters. And then there’s Danny, who could have easily been a white man but wasn’t, and that meant that the narrative presented certain questions about race that added depth to the story.

The story is tense and gripping and wastes no words; it moves quickly, the entire story taking place within the span of two days, which lends it the urgency of a thriller. But it doesn’t just rely on cheap thrills: Beck’s writing is gorgeous, elaborate and vivid, bringing to live the scorching, desolate Arizona desert and a dying small town. I finished this book in a single day because I was so drawn in by the plot and the writing.

This is not something I would have ordinarily picked up on my own, so thank you to Blogging for Books for providing me with a copy in exchange for a review!

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!

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: 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: We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

28243032Title: WE ARE OKAY
Author: Nina LaCour
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 234
Publisher: Dutton Books
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads

It’s Christmas Break and Marin Delaney is the only person left in her cold, New York dorm. From the very first page you can feel the threads of grief tugging her down, and they weave their way throughout the entirety of this short little book that I could not put down. I did not expect to be this affected by this book, but by the last page I was crying.

Marin is an orphan, raised by her grandfather, with no other family to speak of. When her grandfather dies, she flees her hometown in California for college in New York. As Marin narrates, however, the reader begins to see that it isn’t just her grandfather’s death she is trying to escape from, but the reality of his life and their lives together. There is more, much more, buried in the crevices of Marin’s heavy grief. The truth is revealed slowly, tugged out of Marin with difficulty because she can’t bring herself to face it.

The entire novel takes place over the three days Marin’s best friend Mabel comes to visit her at college. It is obvious that the girls were more than friends, however, and that Marin’s grief has driven a wedge between them. Their interactions are hesitant and fragile as they try to patch themselves back together again.

Though the narrative is interspersed with flashbacks, for me it is the present-day scenes that speak the loudest. LaCour does an incredible job bringing forth emotions using setting alone. Marin and Mabel are all alone on an empty college campus, snowed in, surrounded by freezing cold and snow storms and icy quiet. This barren landscape mirrors Marin’s own emotions. Not only does Marin’s grief leap off the page, so does her loneliness.

I come from a very large family. My father died when I was little, but I have a mom, a brother, grandparents, aunts, tons of cousins, and so much extended family that I can’t even remember all their names. We’re huge and sprawling and we talk to each other all the time and we’re always there for each other though we live on two different continents. I don’t often think about their existence as a balm for my loneliness, but it is; there is a comfort in knowing there are so many people I could reach out to, so many people I am effortlessly connected to.

Marin has no one. She had her grandfather, who tried his best, but it wasn’t enough, for he was too suffused in his own grief to be everything Marin needed. And then he dies, and Marin’s grief and loneliness suffocates her. I would say I can’t imagine how it feels, but I can, because LaCour writes of it so vividly and so powerfully that I felt my chest grow heavier just by reading along. The novel ends with a message of hope, but the majority of it succeeds in filling you up with the heavy, unbearable grief Marin feels.

This isn’t a typical novel that follows typical plot structure. It’s much more introspective. It’s about grief and suffering and loneliness and what they can do to a person. It’s about forgiveness. It’s about found families and forging new connections. Not too much happens in this novel, and I’m not gonna lie, it’s depressing as hell, but I loved it all the same. And as a writer, it’s inspired me to write, which to me always means a book is spectacular in some way or another.