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: 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: 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.

Book Review: When Dimple Met Rishi

28458598Title: WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI
Author: Sandhya Menon
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 380
Publisher: Simon Pulse
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads

This is one of the cutest books I’ve ever read! From the very first chapter I was captivated, drawn into Dimple’s world, sympathizing with her frustrations. I could not put the book down. It’s such a sweet little romance story, and a really awesome book for teens!

I was so drawn to Dimple, who is such a vibrant, fleshed-out character. She’s serious and studious and determined, fierce and ferocious and independent. Her ultimate goal is to become a web developer, and she most definitely does not want to get married. Despite this, her parents set her up with Rishi, who, unlike Dimple, is more traditional and appreciates the romance of arranged marriages. Both sets of parents agree that their kids will head to Insomnia Con, an app development camp/competition, to get to know each other.

One problem: Dimple has no idea she’s being set up.

This leads to an absolutely hilarious introduction between Dimple and Rishi. He jokingly calls her “future wife” and she throws her iced coffee at him. Soon enough, though, the two become friends, and soon enough, their friendship turns into something more. Dimple and Rishi are super different, but both are realistic characters. The story is told in their alternating POVs, and each character has a clear, distinct voice. Their romance was sweet and fluffy, at times bordering on cheesy, but I still liked it. Both of their parents ended up being so supportive and understanding of their ambitions, which was a nice change of pace from how Indian parents are presented. Also, Menon’s writing is excellent! With her descriptive and evocative sentences, San Francisco becomes a character in its own right; I could picture the hills, the fog, the dips in weather.

I also liked the nuanced perspectives offered on the characters’ cultural expectations, and arranged marriages in particular. I’m not Indian, but I also come from a culture of arranged marriages, which younger me always viewed quite negatively. Now that I’m older, I have a much more layered view of this tradition, and I appreciated that in this book it wasn’t simply dismissed as old world nonsense. Dimple and Rishi do, in fact, get along, just as their parents predicted! The set up begets real love, which often happens in arranged marriages. I liked that Rishi and Dimple each had their own understandings of their culture and their relationship to it; their discussions about their culture really hit home for me.

This book is so utterly happy and adorable and I just loved it so much!

Book Review: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

30653853Title: THE UPSIDE OF UNREQUITED
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: Witchtown by Cory Putman Oakes

30971734Title: WITCHTOWN
Author: Cory Putman Oakes
Release Date: July 2017
Pages: 320
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆ (2/5)
Review on Goodreads

This is one of those books that appears to have a spectacular premise, only for the execution to be a huge letdown. It’s also one of those books whose blurbs is misleading – from the description, I thought Macie and her mother would be a well-oiled machine, a team. Instead, the mother is a cartoonish villain with hilariously unbelievable motivations and actions, and her daughter pretty much hates her, though it’s difficult to tell, since Macie is so bland.

Essentially, the premise of the book is this: Macie and her mother Aubra settle into a witch haven called “Witchtown” (oh, the creativity) intending to rob it for all it is worth. Once they dig deep into the town’s finances, they discover the town is broke. And then…basically there’s a lot of drama between Macie and her mother, a lackluster romance, some nonsensical and pointless twists, and very little excitement.

I’m going to break down some of the issues I had with this book one by one.

First, the setting. This is a town of witches! And yet the town is one of the blandest settings I’ve ever read. The author simply did not have the talent to show us how magical such a town could be. And yet, the town is never really described, never fully fleshed out. In Sweep, Cate Tiernan did a much better job crafting the wonder of magic, and her characters weren’t even living in a town of witches!

Second, this novel is blindingly white while usurping a narrative of oppression that belongs to people of color. At the start of this novel, we are told that witches have been persecuted and forced to the fringes of society, an event described in a way that made me seriously side-eye the entire book. The main characters are white, but then, so is literally everyone else! In fact, the only person of color in the entire novel is Macie’s old boyfriend Rafe, whom she describes as “dark and dangerous” and had apparently mistaken for a drug dealer when she first encountered him. We discover that Macie has lost Rafe – the love of her life, apparently – only five days before arriving in Witchtown, and yet she already begins to fall for milquetoast white boy Kellen.

Third, the characterization. All of the characters here were completely bland. I could barely tell anyone apart. The only somewhat interesting character, Aubra, is revealed to be cartoonishly evil, to the point of trying to seriously hurt her own daughter. After this, Macie appears to be perfectly fine, when one would think she would be utterly distraught after losing her mother, the only person she has in the world. Even if the author had wanted to have this relationship be complex and grey rather than supportive, she could have done it in a much more subtle way. The dialogue is really cringey at times, especially when Aubra uses words like “defy” like she’s Mother Gothel and we’ve been transported into a Disney movie.

Fourth, the plot. Or the lack of a coherent one. Initially we are made to think this is going to be a heist novel, but that falls apart. Then, we’re made to think that, because the town is being sabotaged, there’s going to be some kind of mystery to solve. That is also tossed aside. Instead the story jumps from one subplot to another without really laying out a coherent narrative. Also, this is a very boring book. It took me nearly a month to finish it because the first half is so dull. It’s a lot of introductions and expositions that should have been interesting – because hey, witches! – but is instead really boring. Finally, the “twist” was one I could see coming a mile away.

This was a disappointment. I was already predisposed to like this – mother/daughter stuff, witches (witches! I love witches!), strange towns, a heist – so I went in with high expectations, but I’m sad to say I was let down on every single point. The only good thing I can say about this book is that it’s a relatively light, easy read, but overall I would say it’s a waste of time and energy.

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