Book Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

33958230Title: FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS
Author: Julie C. Dao
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 363
Publisher: Philomel Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

I had almost forgotten that this is supposed to be an East Asia-inspired retelling of Snow White’s Evil Queen. In the beginning there are few allusions to the tale, but as the story progresses the narrative reflects the fairy tale in subtle, clever ways.

Xifeng is beautiful. Growing up in poverty with her abusive aunt Guma, she clings to her beauty, her only power as a woman in a world of men. But according to Guma, Xifeng has a great destiny: she is fated to become Empress of Feng Lu, if she plays her cards right. After some prodding from Wei, Xifeng’s childhood love, she finds the courage to flee Guma and head to the palace, planting herself in court and clawing her way to the top.

Some minor technical complaints first: the story takes a long time to get going. This is partly necessary, as it is the first in what I assume will be a trilogy, and Xifeng needs time to leave her old life behind and rise to become Empress. Still, it was a bit slow, and most of the action takes place in the last third of the book, with reveals and plot advancements occurring in nearly every chapter. It felt a bit unbalanced.

Otherwise, damn, I love my complex unlikable anti-heroine stories! Xifeng is selfish, vain, arrogant, and ruthless. Eventually, she becomes a murderess. In short, she’s not someone you want to have much to do with. But she revels in her power and ambition, she is unapologetic about what she has to do to claw her way to power, and I loved her. She’s such an unusual protagonist; we don’t see too many women like her in YA. Speaking of unusual, this book does away with a lot of YA tropes. It’s quite adult in a lot of ways. Xifeng chooses power over love and ends up with a man much older than her. The violence in this book is bloody and raw; it was spectacularly gory.

Others have mentioned Xifeng’s disdain of all other women, so I have to mention it. This is a very prominent thread running through the book, but it makes sense: Xifeng is deliberately unlikable, deliberately arrogant, and the reader is left with the certainty that Xifeng is unreliable in her determinations of these other women. They are all humanized by the narrative despite Xifeng’s scorn. Even Xifeng’s foremost enemy is humanized in such a way that her cruelty is understood to be her shield; in fact, in this antagonist I saw a reflection of Xifeng.

The worldbuilding ties in directly with Xifeng’s plot (and the Snow White tale), and it was gloriously epic. Xifeng maintains her youth and beauty by eating hearts, a gift granted to her by a dark god who longs to rise again. I won’t say too much because spoilers, but it seems like this series is foretelling the reincarnation of an ancient feuds between gods in the form of a feud between two women, one of them Xifeng. I am so here for this.

In short, this book is gory and creepy and features a delightfully unlikable anti-heroine who chooses power and ruthlessness over love and goodness again and again, while becoming hopelessly mired in a dark god’s vengeance plot. While this first book was dragged down somewhat by the inauspicious beginning, I’m certain the second book will be even better, now that Xifeng has been established and we can do away with all that exposition. A promising beginning to a promising series!

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

6919721Title: THE HISTORY OF WHITE PEOPLE
Author: Nell Irvin Painter
Release Date: 2010
Pages: 396
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5 Tuesday: Favorite Retellings

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by Bionic Bookworm.  When I saw my friend Rachel at pace, amore, libri doing it, it looked like fun, so I decided to do it too, especially given this month’s Top 5 Wednesday topics are…not doing it for me.

Anyway, what I’ve discovered from this is I apparently don’t read a lot of retellings! I’m not sure why, as I quite like them. Let me know in the comments if there are any retellings you are fond of; I’m always on the lookout for Hades/Persephone retellings in particular, but I’m open to all.

 

Dreams of Shreds and Tatters by Amanda Downum
The original: The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers

I hesitate to call this a retelling.  The King in Yellow is a book of creepy short stories that were actually a precursor to Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos; Lovecraft makes references to the stories in his own work.  Downum’s work sort of…borrows that world for her own story rather than retelling any particular Chambers tale.  The important thing, though, is that she manages to capture just how fucking creepy the mythos of Carcos and the King in Yellow are.  It’s atmospheric and hella weird, and a great modern adaptation of this strange mythos.

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge
The original: Beauty and the Beast

I don’t know why I thought this was a Bluebeard retelling.  Though, I suppose, the two are rather similar.  Cruel Beauty’s strength is in its two main protagonists rather than its world-building (which is weak and derivative and confounding); Nyx and Ignifex.  Nyx (Beauty) is bitter and selfish and I love female characters who are unlikeable.  Ignifex is dark and witty and charming and rakish. Their interactions are delightful. The book reads like a fairy tale, so not everything always makes perfect sense, but it’s a treat.

The Kiesha’ra by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
The original: Romeo and Juliet

I only learned this was based on Romeo and Juliet very, very recently.  I would say this is an extremely loose retelling, with only the first two books really having much to do with the Shakespeare play.  This was one of my favorite series as a teen; I read it over ten times (though I suspect it wouldn’t hold up as well if I re-read it now).  It tells the story of Zane and Danica, who come from two opposing shape-shifting species, the serpiente and the avians, who have been at war for as long as anyone can remember. Zane and Danica decide to come together and marry in order to bring peace to their societies and they end up falling in love for real. This is straight-up high fantasy, with fantastic worldbuilding and characters. The third book was also my first experience with a lesbian character, and that was very formative for me as a youngster.

The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
The original: Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Snow White

These series has received a lot of well-received criticism for its portrayal of Asian cultures.  It’s true that its world-building is weak and somewhat nonsensical, but it’s a fun series nonetheless.  It gives me “Found Family” vibes and it’s basically one adventure after the other. It’s also a very interesting twist on the original fairytales; the world of the Lunar Chronicles is a dystopia with cyborgs.  In fact, Cinder, one of the protagonists, is part-cyborg herself, which is a super intriguing twist on the Cinderella story! I have yet to read Winter, the final book in this series, but it’s waiting for me on my Kindle.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The original: The Iliad

I have to mention The Song of Achilles, even though I don’t think I loved it as much as most people did, nor am I familiar with the source material.  Still,  this book deserves mentioning for the beautiful, loving relationship between Achilles and Patroclus and its lovely prose.  I hadn’t expected to enjoy this book when I first picked it up, but I was really pleasantly surprised that it kept me hooked.  It also featured some really entertaining side characters; I really hope Madeline Miller writes about Odysseus at some point, because his snark was hilarious.

 

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: 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.

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

25489134Title: THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE
Author: Katherine Arden
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 322
Publisher: Del Rey Books
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads

On a cold winter night in a northern Russian village, a mother of four dies giving birth to her fifth child: a young girl born with the promise of magic in her veins, a predetermined fate nipping at her heels.

So begins the tale of Vasilia Petrovna, a wild, willful child who grows into a spirited, brave young woman. Arden tells her story slowly, gradually, from birth to adulthood, but the narrative is no less compelling for it. Arden wields words like a painter, crafting a lush atmosphere that makes you feel warm, as though you are reading a book by the fire. That is what I first noticed about this book; it immediately drew me in and made me feel cozy.

Despite the third person semi-omniscient narration, I was able to get a good sense of the characters. I usually despise this type of narration, especially when viewpoints flit between characters in a single chapter as they did here, but Arden does this masterfully. Nowhere did I feel that her writing did not cohere beautifully. The sweeping fairy tale feel evoked by the narration does not take away from the characters, each of whom comes to life in their own way.

Vasya is the strongest character of them all, a girl so strange and willful as to be branded a witch by her village. Born with the ability to see domovoi, her friendship with these strange Russian spirits is a direct contrast to her step-mother’s terror of them. Anna, whom Vasya’s father marries at the behest of his prince, is gifted with the sight as well, but unlike Vasya she fears the domovoi “demons” so much that she is constantly on the precipice of madness. She finds solace only in church, where domovoi cannot enter, and so when an egotistical young priest named Konstantin is sent to Vasya and Anna’s village, Anna latches onto him and his fear-mongering.

Konstantin the priest is a fascinating character; holy and devout but arrogant and vain. He lives for the love of the people and nurtures a desire to be worshiped by them. At the same time he is tormented by his desire for Vasya, whose willful spirit both tempts him and infuriates him. Throughout his years in her life he alternates between love and hatred of her, and he stokes the villagers’ suspicions of her, cementing her as an unholy witch in their minds.

But Vasya is protected by her family, among them her father Pyotr, an honest, hard-working, honorable man who wields an iron fist of justice. Though he loves his daughter he is frustrated by her strangeness, her unwillingness to fit in the world, the way she throws off the shackles of womanhood in medieval Russia. Alongside Vasya as an ally is her older brother Alyosha, whose love for and protectiveness of his sister shone through more than any of his other traits, making him a memorable character in his own right. Even Irina, Anna’s daughter and Vasya’s half-sister, who could have been merely an afterthought, grows in complexity as she breaks away from her mother’s hold and comes to ally with her sister in small but significant ways.

This tale is steeped in Russian folklore, the remote, pastoral setting lending a mythical feel to the story. Like most fairy tales Arden’s tale reads like magical realism. Christian reality integrates seamlessly with Russian folklore, all coming to a head in the climax of the novel, in which Vasya finally confronts the evil that has been haunting her village and maddening Konstantin the priest, making him believe he was listening to the voice of his God.

This is a delightful tale steeped in richness and atmosphere. The evocative moods shift from tense and terrifying to comedic to uplifting, conveying the various tenors the harsh northern setting itself evokes. This is something else I must mention: Arden writes of the seasons with such utter grace, illuminating the icy danger of winter as much as the heavy heat of summer. Her lyrical descriptions are bursting with vivid color, which boosts the novel immensely, as the setting is such a significant part of the narrative.

This has been one of my favorite reads of this year: comforting, thrilling, inspiring, and utterly beautiful.